While most Illinois basketball and football fans watch and drive to games every week, they sometimes struggle with the fact that players don't share that some love. Tom Ryan, a middle school athletic director and U of I graduate in Illinois said, "Today's kids have no sense of loyalty to the state university. You don't see kids from other states flocking to other schools the way they do here in Illinois." Just in the past couple years Illinois has lost the state's two best players to the NBA and Kansas, and (from reliable sources) for star recruit Julian Wright, Illinois may have been his third option behind Kansas and Arizona.
Often times when I call a recruit, one of my favorite questions I like to ask is, "Do you see the Illini play on TV or have you attended a game?" Nine times out of ten they say, "No, I don't like to watch college hoops" or "It's hard for me to find time for it." One Illini recruit was really different with his answer. PG Eric Price said, "I watch them every chance I can get. Dee Brown is my favorite player and I can also learn things from him." When I told that to Mr. Ryan he said, "That's the kind of player we need at Illinois."
Many players today don't share that drive to become better and learn the game. Nor do they develop that love for certain teams and take the time to watch what coaches are teaching the college athletes today. Corey Prince my nephew and he has gone to Illinois, Iowa and Indiana for unofficial visits, so I saw first hand how much interest he had in learning more about the game. Corey, like most kids, liked Duke growing up but also had a soft spot for Illinois. He has never watched a full college basketball game in its entirety. Alleman High School basketball coach Larry Schulte said, "If high school players would watch more college basketball they would really understand the game so much better. Kids today don't play defense correctly, shooting is a lost art, and just plain dribbling a basketball is tough for some. So by the time they get to college, if they go, some struggle."
Schulte is a big believer in Weber and likes his style and method of teaching the game to his players. He also feels that his system is a great one for kids to play in, but selling that to players is another thing.
Don't think for a minute that just because the players are there on campus they bleed the orange-and-blue either. Some came to Illinois for other reasons. There's one player in the Illini "family" that I've spoken to that picked Illinois because he drinks that blue and orange Kool-Aid - high school senior Jamar Smith from Peoria, Illinois. Sometimes talking to Smith appears to be like sitting with Bruce Weber himself. You talk about selling your program - the kid grew up liking Illinois; he's your top salesman. This kid is a throwback from the 80's: he watches every game and studies the players. Smith has said to me in an earlier interview that he studies the game so much he watches the opposing teams play so when he comes to Illinois he will know their tendencies and learn how to stop them from scoring.
There's nothing wrong with Illinois, it's just finding the right kid at the right time. Be patient. Weber has built it - now they will come.
Through the Eyes of a Recruit
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