Much like the latest Illinois Mr. Basketball, Taylor Bruninga originally thought college baseball was in his future.
And like Edwardsville guard Mark Smith, a focus switch to basketball during the summer has opened up unexpected opportunities for the Illini Bluffs senior forward.
"I was a really good baseball pitcher," Bruninga said. "So I really played baseball during the summers and stuff until last year when I started to focus on basketball and AAU and focus on that. It's been fun. I think I've grown. I think I've improved a whole lot since focusing on it. I've gotten a lot stronger finishing around the rim. My handles have improved. Post game, just all around, IQ. I think it's all just improved."
Bruninga currently is in the middle of a month-long official visit tour of some of his top offers. The 6-foot-8 forward, who averaged 33.4 points and 11.5 rebounds as a senior against IHSA Class 1A competition, visited Northern Iowa last week. He visited Illinois State this past weekend.
"I really liked it," Bruninga said. "It's really close to home. It's 40 minutes for me, so that's a really big positive. A few of the schools I'm talking to are talking about possibly redshirting, but I think there with MiKyle (McIntosh) up in the air, I'm going to have a chance to play right away. I think that kind of stands out too."
This week, he will visit IPFW on Tuesday and Wednesday before heading to Loyola (Chicago) on Thursday and Friday.
But Bruninga also may have a bigger opportunity soon. The Illinois staff, led by new head coach Brad Underwood, has reached out to Bruninga's father and Illinois Irish AAU coach Gavin Sullivan. The Illini haven't yet reached out to Bruninga personally, but an unofficial visit is a possibility in the next couple weeks for the Illini to get a closer look at whether Bruninga would fit into their plans.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1771138-illini-pitch-to-mark... "They kind of reached out to my dad and talked about maybe coming down here in the next couple weeks, maybe an unofficial visit, meeting with the players and coaches and scrimmaging a little bit," Bruninga said. "Just kind of getting a feel for it."
From not on many radars to a possible Big Ten opportunity.
"I think that's awesome. Growing up kind of being an Illini fans, that's pretty sweet now with them kind of reaching out,' said Bruninga, who added that his favorite Illini player growing up was Dee Brown.
Illinois hasn't gotten too serious yet. But if they do, Bruninga's recruitment will change.
"I think if they get really involved, they'll be one of my top schools," Bruninga said. "Just them being Big Ten and close to home and the home school."
Will Bruninga wait to make a decision until he gets closure on Illinois' interest?
"I just it kind of depends on how quick they take action," Bruninga said. "If they decide to come in, that'd be great. But if not, I really do like my options I have right now. If they don't get involved, I really like my options still."
Bruninga, who played in the smallest class of Illinois high school basketball, isn't scared of the Big Ten though.
"I think it's a challenge I'd be up to taking," Bruninga said. "I just have to continue to grow and develop my game, get stronger. That'll really help develop my game for the Big Ten."
Bruninga has studied up a bit on Underwood's offense through some clips on the internet. Bruninga -- who shot 41.4 percent from three and 87.2 percent from the free-throw line as a senior -- thinks he could be a fit in his space-and-pace, high-tempo, one-in-four-out offense which uses skilled bigs in the high post and on the perimeter.
"I think just the way they play, I fit in pretty well with their style," Bruninga said.
Bruninga didn't win Mr. Basketball -- he finished fifth -- but his path is similar to Mark Smith. In the next few weeks, Bruninga will find out whether he'll have the opportunity to play at the same level as the Edwardsville guard, who is picking among Michigan State, Kentucky and Illinois, among others.
"It's been awesome," Bruninga said. "It's been crazy, but I've really enjoyed it. I think it's just a lot of excitement and a feeling that all the hard work is paying off. Just knowing that all the hard work I've put in is paying off. It's exciting."