The Illini hoops staff has been busy with recruiting season in full tilt, and four-star small forward Abu Kigab was the latest 2017 target to come to town for an official visit this past weekend.
Kigab started his official visit slate at Oregon the previous weekend, and the Ducks have been thought to be the team to beat entering the home stretch of this recruitment. But Illinois is making their push.
Illini assistant Dustin Ford went out to California last Wednesday to visit Kigab at Prolific Prep, and Kigab arrived in Champaign on Friday to start his 48-hour stint on campus. They wanted to make a big impression, and it appears they got the job done in that respect.
"It was a great experience," Kigab told IlliniInquirer.com. "I had a great time hanging out with the fellas. I really got a vibe from the fans. Overall, it was really good."
"The one thing that stood out the most was the love that everybody gave me. Not just the fans. Everybody I met was showing me love."
Kigab really bonded with a few players on the team.
"Malcolm Hill, Big Mike (Thorne) and Michael Finke. I met the whole team. But I have a good relationship with those three dudes. I hung out with them most of the time," Kigab said. "They're just really good guys. Down to earth, very humble and they really take care of you. They treated me like I was already one of them. I really appreciated that."
The 6-foot-6 wing got to take the floor with the Illini team on Saturday during open gym at Ubben. Kigab went toe-to-toe with the likes of Kipper Nichols, Leron Black and Illinois alum Rayvonte Rice -- introducing him to the physical nature of Big Ten basketball.
"It was pretty good. Definitely different than high school. There were people who were a lot stronger and more athletic than me," Kigab said. "Obviously I need to get in the gym and work on my body so when I get to the college level, I won't have too much trouble with size and all that stuff. Other than that, it went pretty well."
Kigab made some plays off the dribble and he certainly displayed his toughness. But he certainly appreciated the learning piece.
"It was definitely a learning experience because it shows you where you're at right now. I realized I need to get a lot stronger to be able to compete with guys at that level. If you go by a guy and he hand-checks you and you're not strong enough, it's going to hold you back and not let you get to where you want to go on the floor," he said. "It was a learning experience and kind of a wakeup call."
"It's like 'hey, you can't take any days off anymore. Somebody is always going to be working harder than you'. When I was hanging out with Malcolm, he was always telling me that. He's in the gym every day trying to get better. He has the edge and I really like that about him. That's my dude right there. He's like an older brother figure to me. I really appreciate him."
That connection with Hill can play in Illinois' favor, even though he won't be on next year's roster. Hill is a spotlight example of what a successful wing can be in John Groce's system and program. And with him leaving, there is a huge opportunity for someone to step into that role.
Groce and his staff sold that to Kigab over the weekend.
"They have a lot of wing involvement. I really like that. As you can tell with Malcolm, he can go get a rebound and go coast to coast and score. He'll come off the pick 'n roll and shoot," Kigab said. "They're offering me two things: Development and opportunity. If I come to Illinois, I know I'm going to develop. I see it with their guys. Like my man, Kip. He came in bench pressing 185 like five times. Five months later, he's benching 185 21 times."
"Development for sure, and opportunity. With six seniors leaving, there's a big gap you've got to fill. So there's an opportunity right there."
The relationship with the coaching staff has been a sell for Illinois as well. Ford has been close with Kigab for a while.
"I had a great time with the coaching staff. I felt very comfortable around them," Kigab said. "I felt I could be who I am around them. Overall, it was just really, really good with them."
So where does Illinois stand after the weekend?
"They're up there for sure," Kigab said. "They're definitely up there."
As for what's next, Kigab has an official visit scheduled to Cal on Oct. 7. He could visit USC too. But Kigab said he isn't looking too far down the road.
"I haven't looked that far ahead. Just taking it one day at a time and trying to get better. I took that advice from Malcolm. Take it one day at a time and don't look too much into the future. You've got to handle the now," he said. "I'm not really paying attention to what's going on later. I know that will take care of itself."
When that time to make a decision comes, Kigab said it will mostly come down to what feels right.
"To be honest, it's just going to come down to how I feel. All the schools provide great opportunity for me," he said. "So it's probably just going to be me relying on my gut with this decision."