Through the Trifocals

The state of Illinois usually produces some outstanding basketball talent. But does it produce enough to provide the University of Illinois with championship-caliber teams on a yearly basis? Illinisports studies the high school talent for the past 40 years to see if he can arrive at any conclusions to this debatable question. <br><br> Read more in Illinisports latest edition of <i>Through the Trifocals</i> from

There are two schools of thought regarding Illini basketball recruiting. One school says that the state of Illinois produces so many great basketball players that Illinois can win multiple National Championships merely by recruiting the best players each year within the state. The other school doubts the veracity of this claim and insists that in-state recruiting must be supplemented with stars from elsewhere to compete on a national basis.

I have decided to do a completely unscientific, statistically inaccurate study of this subject to look for answers to this recruiting dilemma. I have studied the list of All-Staters provided by the Illinois High School Association website (, in particular the years 1960-2000 since those are freshest in my memory. This study will likely do nothing to change the views of either side in the debate, since both conclusions can be argued based on my findings. But I wish to add some depth to the discussion.

First of all, I will list some of the players from the years 1960-2000 who I believe were good enough to improve Illini teams but who did not play for the Illini. This list will be entirely judgmental on my part and will include those who I wanted us to recruit, those Illinois tried and failed to recruit, and those who later starred in college and/or the pros who were available to be recruited but who were not, for one reason or another, recruited by Illinois. It will not include players who attended Illinois briefly and either transferred away (like Walt Moore and Jerry Sloan) or flunked out (like Bernie Mills, Darius Cunningham, and Kris Berymon). And it will not include players like Doug Collins who did not make All-State but later exploded during college.

1960-1970: George Wilson (Chicago Marshall), Rich Falk (Galva), Bumpy Nixon (Galesburg), Fred Riddle (Collinsville), Jim Pitts (Chicago Marshall), Ken Barnes (Stephen Decatur), Cazzie Russell (Chicago Carver), Herb Williams (Centralia), Joe Allen (Chicago Carver), Roger Bohnenstiel (Collinsville), Walt Tiberi (Chicago Heights Bloom), Dave Golden (Pekin), Rich Bradshaw (Chicago Marshall), Jim Ard (Harvey Thornton), Dan Issel (Batavia), Dale Kelley (Galesburg), Greg Starrick (Marion), Lamarr Thomas (Harvey Thornton), Joe Wiley (Belleville), Dave Robisch (Springfield), Rich Yunkus (Benton), Alan Crews (Duquoin), Jeff Hickman (Lockport Central), LaRue Martin (Chicago DeLaSalle), Lloyd Batts (Harvey Thornton), Jim Brewer (Proviso East), and Clyde Turner (Champaign Central).

1970-1979: Owen Brown (LaGrange Lyons), Quinn Buckner (Dolton Thornridge), C. J. Kupec (Oak Lawn), Rick Suttle (East St. Louis Assumption), Norm Cook (Lincoln), Jim Crews (Normal University), Andy Pancratz (Arlington Heights Hersey), Bo Ellis (Chicago Parker), Ricky Green (Chicago Hirsch), Ernie Kent (Rockford West), Jack Sikma (St. Anne), Dave Corzine (Arlington Heights Hersey), Glen Grunwald (Franklin Park East Leyden), Jerome Whitehead (Waukegan), Jim Wisman (Quincy), Bob Bender (Bloomington), Jay Shidler (Lawrenceville), Ronnie Lester (Chicago Dunbar), Mark Aguirre (Chicago Westinghouse), Kevin Boyle (St. Laurence), Chuck Verderber (Lincoln), Darius Clemens (Chicago Phillips), Teddy Grubbs (Chicago King), Craig Hodges (Rich East), Kevin Stallings (Collinsville), Isiah Thomas (Westchester St. Joseph), Terry Cummings (Chicago Carver), and Darrell Walker (Chicago Corliss).

1980-1989: Russell Cross (Chicago Manley), Glenn Rivers (Proviso East), Walter Downing (New Lenox Providence), Uwe Blab (Effingham), Kevin Gamble (Springfield Lanphier), Jeff Hornacek (LaGrange Lyons), Roger McClendon (Champaign Centennial), Barry Sumpter (Lovejoy), Hersey Hawkins (Chicago Westinghouse), Ed Horton (Springfield Lanphier), Elmer Robinson (LaGrange Lyons), Ben Wilson (Chicago Simeon), Tim Hardaway (Chicago Carver), MIke Ingram (Proviso West), Danny Jones (Rockford Boylan), Melvin McCants (Chicago Mt. Carmel), Tony Freeman (Westchester St. Joseph), Phil Henderson (Crete-Monee), Eric Anderson (Chicago St. Francis De Sales), La Phonso Ellis (East St. Louis Lincoln), David Booth (Peoria Manual), Ron Curry (Bloomington), Acie Earl (Moline), Chris Reynolds (Peoria), and Tracy Webster (Harvey Thornton).

1990-2000: Jamie Brandon (Chicago King), Brandon Cole (Chicago Heights Bloom), Sherrell Ford (Proviso East), Juwan Howard (Chicago Vocational), Tom Kleinschmidt (Chicago Gordon Tech), Cuonzo Martin (East St. Louis Lincoln), Howard Nathan (Peoria Manual), Townsend Orr (Thornridge), Thomas Wyatt (Aurora East), Donnie Boyce (Proviso East), Chris Collins (Glenbrook North), Dan Cross (Carbondale), Michael Finley (Proviso East), Rashard Griffith (Chicago King), Thomas Hamilton (Chicago King), Troy Hudson (Carbondale), Tyron Lee (Springfield), Sean Mason (Rich Central), Tyrone Nesby (Cairo), Antoine Walker (Chicago Mt. Carmel), Gary Bell (Joliet), Ronnie Fields (Chicago Farragut), Michael Hermon (Chicago King), Brandon Hughes (Peoria Manual), J. R. Koch (Morton), Lee Lampley (Rockford Boylan), Mike Robinson (Peoria Richwoods), Brian Cardinal (Tolono Unity), Willie Coleman (Peoria Manual), Kevin Garnett (Chicago Farragut), A. J. Guyton (Peoria), Nzar Mohammed (Chicago Kenwood), Jeff Walker (Springfield Lanphier), Melvin Ely (Harvey Thornton), Corey Maggette (Oak Park Fenwick), Pete Mickeal (Rock Island), Quentin Richardson (Chicago Whitney Young), Bobby Simmons (Chicago Simeon), Mark Vershaw (East Peoria), Lance Williams (Chicago Julian), Joey Range (Galesburg), Michael Wright (Chicago Farragut), Andre Brown (Chicago Leo), Matt Lottich (New Trier), Darius Miles (East St. Louis), Imari Sawyer (Chicago King), Leon Smith (Chicago King), T. J. Cummings (Homewood-Flossmore), Eddy Curry (Thornwood), Dwayne Wade (Oak Lawn Richards).

That is an extremely impressive list, and it is easy to argue that Illinois might have won several National Championships by combining some of these top players with quality coaching. But a host of factors interfered with that possibility, and any discussion of these players requires us to examine some of the reasons these players went elsewhere. Some might call this a list of "excuses", that Illinois should have gotten the job done no matter what it took, but players have their own wants, limitations, biases, etc. that cause them to defy Illini recruiters.

The following are some of the reasons I remember as to why the above players did not attend Illinois.

1. Some of them were either nonqualifiers or were academic risks. The Big 10 has at times in the past had higher standards than other conferences, so that was part of it. Some of the players went to junior colleges out of state and no longer had any ties to the state. Others were "helped" to gain eligibility by other schools in ways Illinois did not wish to copy.
2. During the 1950's through 1970's especially, but continuing in more subtle ways on up to and including the mid to late 1990's, Illinois was accused of a bias against Blacks. Rightly or wrongly, this was especially true within the inner city of Chicago where many outstanding players reside. The undercurrent has always been difficult for Illinois to overcome.
3. Some players simply went to the highest bidder. It cannot be emphasized enough the frequency with which top players are exposed to the temptation to break NCAA rules governing acceptance of illegal inducements or extra benefits for themselves and/or their families. Those from poor backgrounds are especially susceptible to these offers.
4. Some players were influenced to go elsewhere to school because Illinois was either under investigation by the NCAA or on probation by the NCAA.
5. Some players went elsewhere because Illinois did not have a winning program during their decision process.
6. A few players actually felt Illinois was too big a school for them.
7. A few players felt Illinois wasn't big enough or metropolitan enough, preferring big city environments.
8. A few players actually felt Illinois had too many Black players. We didn't miss much from losing these players.
9. Some were enticed by the notion of playing for an "elite" school and had visions of grandeur.
10. Illinois is an extremely diverse state, so there is not a great deal of state loyalty. Southern Illinois feels more like the deep South, Chicago tries to compete with New York for size and complexity and behaves like it is a separate state and not a part of Illinois, and rural populations have little in common with the people living in suburbia. Quad Cities residents live closer to the University of Iowa than Illinois, Rockford and Northern Illinois residents live closer to the University of Wisconsin than Illinois, and the populations on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River from St. Louis may consider themselves as much a part of Missouri as Illinois. This diversity has caused Illinois to lose a number of players.
11. Some players wanted a curriculum not offered at Illinois or not highly rated at Illinois.
12. There have been few quality back-to-the-basket centers produced by the state of Illinois, going back as far as I can remember. And most of these have been major recruiting targets for top schools outside the state. The competition for these rare players has been intense, to say the least. Add the NBA to the mix, and it will continue to be a major problem for Illinois to fill its roster with quality centers. Big players would rather be called power forwards so they will have a better chance of making the pros.
13. Some players spent part or most of their lives in other environs and simply wanted to return to those other areas. Or, they wanted to live in those other areas after college. For example, a couple I remember wanted to be associated with the horse farms of Kentucky.
14. Some players wanted to live where there was water, or mountains, or forests, or something other than flat land and cornfields.
15. Some players came from wealthy or pseudo wealthy homes and were attracted to schools with an air of superiority.
16. A few players were also outstanding students and preferred to pursue a degree from an academic institution more prestigious than Illinois.
17. Some players were irresistably attracted to the charms of certain coaches/recruiters. They fell so deeply for these unique individuals that all other college options seemed superfluous to them.
18. A significant number of players were available in years when Illinois had either too few scholarships to offer or had already obtained commitments from other players at their positions. And the competition already present on the Illini team always has an influence on the decisions of high school seniors.
19. A fair number of players were simply not on Illinois' radar while in high school. Some exploded after high school, some were simply overlooked.
20. Some players were simply incompatible with the Illini coaching staff, players or school at the time.
21. A few players had behavioral or legal problems that precluded their recruitment by Illinois.
22. A few players chose schools that had religious affiliations that appealed to them.
23. A few players got their feelings hurt when Illinois did not show them enough early love or considered them back-up recruits to other players they rated higher at the time.
24. A few players were offended by a lack of Illinois love for their brothers, friends, or teammates who preceded them.
25. Individual reasons for other-school preferences are almost as numerous as players capable of playing Division 1 basketball.

When I give rankings to each year's basketball class in Illinois from 1960-2000, I find a cyclic pattern of excellence alternating with mediocrity. Please remember that my judgments are arbitrary and my own personal opinion, but I tried to be consistent in my judgments. Thus, relative comparisons may still have some value.

What I find is a number of times when two or more years in a row show a below-average level of quality players. The years 1963-64, 1967-68, 1970-1972, 1974-75, 1980-81, 1983-84, 1987, 1989, 1992, and 1995-97 all were, in my opinion, somewhat below average compared with the others. One year every five or more might be tolerable if one wants to stock the UI with all Illinois players. But when you have two or three straight years of mediocrity in Illinois high schools, you have a formula for problems for the Illini. When you add the possibility of an absence of one position, such as center, during these down periods, you end up with recruiting holes that must be filled with out-of-staters.

Some will undoubtedly disagree with my assessment, especially for the 1990's. But remember that the overall quality of talent has continued to improve all over the country, so better talent in Illinois does not necessarily correlate with better records for the Illini should we recruit that top talent from Illinois. And if you look at those 1990's seasons, you will find a number of players who were All-Staters two or more years. They were excellent players, but a number of underclassmen All-Staters means a lack of excellence in the senior class.

When I compare Illini recruiting efforts with level of talent, there are some major discrepancies. The late 1970's were excellent years for Illinois high school basketball. But Illinois had suffered from a major campaign to denigrate Harv Schmidt in the early '70's, a probationary period combined with a reduction in scholarships during the middle years, and a slow period of recovery during the first few years of that "unknown" Lou Henson. So Illinois could not recruit top players even when they were in abundance. The same thing occurred in the early 1990's during and after the contrived Iowa/Deon Thomas monstrosity where Illinois' reputation was damaged severely despite having NCAA charges against them dropped.

My evaluation as to the best years for top recruiting prospects in Illinois were for the years 1961-1962, 1965-66, 1969, 1973, 1976-79, 1982, 1985-86, 1988, 1990, 1998, and 2000. If one looks at the years 1970-1975, one good year could not possibly overcome five poor ones, and this time period correlated with some down years for Illinois that culminated in Harv Schmidt's firing. Even if we had a coach at that time who was on a positive role, he would have had to recruit out of state to compete in the Big 10 and nationally.

The same is true for the years 1980-1984, as only 1982 counteracted much mediocrity. In the 1990's, a number of the top players did not qualify to attend Illinois, did not wish to attend the Illinois Bridge Program, or were rumored to have taken extra benefits to attend other schools. So the number of top players actually available to be recruited by Illinois was much lower than it seems just by looking at names.

In conclusion, I believe that the state of Illinois produces a great deal of excellent basketball talent. But it does not produce them in large quantities every year. It also does not produce a significant number of quality centers, and when it does it is cherry-picked by every major program in the country.

So while the University of Illinois should continue to emphasize the state in its recruiting, it would be foolish, in my opinion, to limit ourselves to Illinois. There are too many down cycles to trust only in-state recruiting, especially if we have national aspirations.

Go Illini!

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