The Facebook relationship status between Illinois and Chicago remains "it's complicated." This could be written about so much: politics, culture and, of course, sports. The third biggest city in the country has a lot of differences with the rest of the state, which shares more similarities with Indiana and Iowa. There certainly is a bit of a disconnect between Illinois basketball and the Chicago Public League. My conversation with Chicago Simeon's Robert Smith made that apparent.
Smith, who has a great reputation and has been very friendly with the Illini, said he doesn't know Brad Underwood and that the new Illini coach must spend time developing relationships in the city (though Underwood already is familiar and friendly with the Mac Irvin Fire and MeanStreets AAU programs)
What is seen as a vast resource has been a headache for most of the Illini's history. They are expected to land the Chicago's top prospects, even though that's been a rarity outside of a great run spearheaded by assistant Jimmy Collins during the 80s. Once Collins was passed over to replace Lou Henson for the head job in favor of Lon Kruger in 1996, the city has been tough to crack for Illinois. Kruger was shut out in retaliation for the Collins' snub. Even the charming Bill Self struggled to pull the city's talent to Champaign, taking Luther Head when few high-majors were pounding on his door.
The past decade has only made things more difficult for Illinois. Bruce Weber made a huge effort in the city but didn't have the charisma to pull some of the best talent. Weber, who relied more on the suburbs and Catholic League, took Stan Simpson in hopes that it would help those CPL efforts -- to no avail. John Groce made a good assistant hire in Paris Parham, a former CPL coach who is loved in the city. Under Groce, Illinois landed top-100 Simeon talents Kendrick Nunn and D.J. Williams and took Jaylon Tate. The Illini missed on five-star talents Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor -- both went to Duke, so are they really misses? -- and Cliff Alexander hat-faked the Illini for Kansas on Signing Day. Not much more the Illini could do with Alexander. Marcus Lovett didn't have the grades for Illinois, and Groce couldn't pass on Milwaukee point guard Te'Jon Lucas just for the chance to land Charlie Moore.
Still, the word out of Chicago is that Groce himself didn't spend enough time in the city building relationships, leaving too much of that on an assistant. The head guy must be seen and heard -- often. Oh, and the losses -- all the losses -- certainly don't help. Top talent wants to play at a place that will win (Illinois has three NCAA Tournaments in 10 seasons) and develop pros (Illinois has two players currently in the NBA: Deron Williams and Meyers Leonard).
Underwood will need to put in a lot of work in to change this dynamic. The right assistant coach will certainly help, but Underwood must shake hands and kiss babies. But he also must stick to his guns on evaluation and be honest with the major players in Chicago. He can't please everyone and must recruit players he wants -- not ones others think he should recruit.
The Chicago-downstate relationship will never be perfect. But more communication, more face-to-face time and more wins would help the new guy in charge.
Da'Monte Williams reaffirmed his commitment -- and reaffirmed himself as the wild card of the 2017 class. The son of Frank Williams won't be able to escape the comparisons to his All-Big Ten, first-round draft pick father. But he has shown some similar flashes of that greatness, though inconsistency and a torn ACL have kept him from even scratching his surface. The big-bodied guard should first focus on his recovery. Then he should focus on becoming a physical, in-your-face defender. That will get him on the court on Underwood's teams, especially with several thinner guards around him (Trent Frazier and Jalen Coleman-Lands). Williams shouldn't try to do too much early on offense. Underwood's push-the-tempo offense should get him plenty of open looks.
The AP ranked Illinois as the 11th best college basketball program of all time. The top-100 ranking was based on 68 years of AP polling. Illinois is No. 2 among Big Ten teams behind Indiana (No. 6 overall) and just ahead of Ohio State (12), Michigan State (13) and Michigan (14). What do we learn from this? Not much. Illinois should be better. It is capable of consistently being a top Big Ten program, with the potential to have elite seasons (1950s, 1980s and early 2000s). But that success obviously is not guaranteed (1970s, early 1990s and 2007-present). A lot of teams are gaining on the Illini in this poll, and longtime mid-major Cincinnati is the spot ahead of the Illini.
Michigan State offered and Kentucky is interested. Sure, the competition has become more fierce for Mark Smith. But you have to win battles over big programs to get some great players. Most of the competition entered this week thinking it has to beat out Illinois. Let's find out if Underwood can close on his first uncommitted target.
Melo Trimble just wants to be a pro. The Maryland point guard likely won't be a first round pick. He received that advice last year when he tested the NBA waters. Despite an All-Big Ten season, he didn't improve his stock much. But he apparently has had enough of the college life. Can't knock him for that. He wants to be a pro and play for pay. But since he is unlikely to go in the first round, he will not receive a guaranteed contract and must prove himself quickly. He lacks the size and athleticism NBA teams want in lead guards. For Maryland, this is a big blow. The Terps still return a lot of talent, and Anthony Cowan could be a great point guard. But Trimble was Maryland's best player the last three seasons. If he had returned, the Terps may have entered as preseason Big Ten favorites.
Tim Miles is in trouble. Junior Ed Morrow's transfer is shocking and crushing. The Chicago Simeon product -- who averaged 9.4 points and 7.5 rebounds last season -- is tough, physical and productive. When he sat out eight games with a foot injury last season, the Huskers won just once. Morrow is a winner -- and realized he's at a program that won't win, despite his best efforts. If I were Miles, I'd be really, really worried that star point guard Glynn Watson Jr. (also from Chicago) will follow Morrow out of Lincoln for the same reason. If he does, Miles' roster will be the worst in the Big Ten. If that happens, Nebraska should consider making the change now. I like Miles. He's energetic and funny. He seems a good fit for Nebraska. But Miles hasn't won more than 20 games in a season and is 17-37 during Big Ten the past three seasons. Despite great facilities and a huge financial investment into the program, Nebrasketball remains one of the toughest jobs in the country.