Every expert on basketball in the state of Illinois says the University of Illinois is on a roll securing commitments from outstanding players. But no one is more glowing in his praise than Joe Henricksen of the City/Suburban Hoops Report. He spoke on WDWS radio's Saturday Sportsline last weekend, and his comments are like an early Christmas present for the Illini fandom.
"Illinois has just completely done a 180 in recruiting," Henricksen explains. "They did not capitalize immediately on that run to the National Championship game, all the fan support they got and all the hoopla that went around that team. And we're seeing the result of that right now with Illinois being unable to prevent all the losses last year and probably being a bubble team this year.
"But to go where they are right now is pretty remarkable. One, Coach Weber has changed his philosophy a little bit in really going after younger players. Two, what Jerrance Howard has brought to this program. In such a short time, he has become such a presence on the recruiting scene at both the high school and AAU levels.
"And the third thing is getting Jereme Richmond, getting that marquee guy that other players want to play with. Not only has he stuck to his commitment, but he has gone above and beyond in trying to attract other guys to play with him. To the coaches' credit, they kept him on board during the tough times, and it's paying dividends now."
Henricksen says Abrams is his number one player in a sophomore class that is absolutely loaded. He is the right player at the right time for the Illini.
"Tracy Abrams is a kid that people like to play with. He's a high character kid, he's a kid other players want to be around and play with. For them to get him at this point is huge for Illinois. Not to mention the fact he's a tremendous player. He's my number one ranked player in a class that I think is the best class we've seen in over a decade. So Tracy Abrams is a huge catch for Illinois.
"One of the things that sets Tracy above the rest is some of the character he brings, that and his competitiveness on the floor. There's not that much separation between these top four or five kids in the class of 2011. But I put him up there for all the intangibles he brings. And he is well connected. People love to play with him."
Who are the other top 2011 prospects, and what is their interest level in Illinois?
"There are certain players who they're more likely to secure a commitment from than others. Most notably Mike Shaw from DeLaSalle is one. Mike and Tracy are pretty tight, pretty close. They really enjoy playing together. So much in fact, Tracy went to the higher AAU team late last year to the team Mike Shaw plays with.
"Sam Thompson, another great player out of Whitney Young, played on that AAU team. All three of those guys as well as Wayne Blackshear from Curie. I think Blackshear is a long shot regardless of his connection to Tracy Abrams. He kind of reminds me of a high school version of Nick Anderson.
"I think Wayne Blackshear sees the amount of perimeter players in place right now at Illinois at the 2 and 3 spots on the floor. I'm not saying it's impossible, but I think Mike Shaw is a little more realistic. He and Thompson both like Illinois.
"And then you've got Chasson Randle out at Rock Island, a combo guard who played really well down there at the Assembly Hall last weekend. He's also one of the top 5-6 players in that class."
Illinois has already signed D. J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Tyler Griffey and Joseph Bertrand for next year, they have Jereme Richmond, Crandall Head and Meyers Leonard lined up the year after that, and now Abrams is committed for two years hence. Henricksen says one must look back a quarter of a century to find a comparable haul for the Illini.
"If you look at these players all on paper, watch them in their high school careers and where they're ranked, they're a better group than that Illinois team that went to the National Championship game. Deron Williams was a terrific player, and he got better at Illinois. He was in everybody's top 50. But he wasn't a McDonald's All-American. Dee would be, and Roger Powell was marginal.
"But these guys are so far and away above that group. I'd have to go all the way back into the '80's to Bruce Douglas, Efrem Winters and those days where they brought in this many quality players as far as the rankings and potential and upside and all those factors."
A couple years ago, some people were wondering if Coach Weber could recruit well enough to stay on the job. Now, Illinois is seen as a program ready to explode on the scene. Henricksen describes the scenario well.
"Among high school kids right now, Illinois is a cool place to play. They want to go there and represent their state. That's a huge plus for recruiting younger kids. Jereme Richmond is going to Illinois. Tracy Abrams is going to Illinois. Now these younger kids see that, and it's a huge advantage for Illinois at this point."