Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber was a proud papa as Jereme Richmond, Crandall Head and Meyers Leonard officially joined the Illini family. He has cultivated relationships with these three outstanding prospects over a long period of time, and he can't wait to get them on campus.
"I think it's an exciting day for our program. But it's a little bit unusual because all three of these kids have been committed to us for a long time. Now they're signed. They have a reservation to become part of our program, and now we can talk about them.
"I think there are several different angles that create some excitement. One, they're a very talented group. All are rated very high with excellent potential. They're all very versatile and can play a lot of positions. We consider them the top three seniors in the state of Illinois. Not only being from here, but just as important wanting to be part of our program.
"They've been very loyal as a group. They've helped with recruiting, they've gotten to know our players and our staff. It should be a pretty easy transition for them, especially being around us and knowing what we're about. They've all watched practice, been to games, hung out in the summer, been a part of open gyms. They've been around our program for quite awhile.
"Each one brings a different aspect to our program that I think will be important. It's a good group, a versatile group, a loyal group. Add these guys to our mix of players we have now, and we feel pretty good about the state of our program at this time.
"Potentially, the nicest thing for us is next year we could have six or seven seniors on our team. So it will be half and half. It will either be them or seven young guys.
"If the seniors do what they're supposed to and continue to improve in their leadership and maturity, I think it'll help create a great work ethic and competitive practices and help these guys learn how it's done. This is what we do here, this is how we play, this is the intensity.
"So it'll help us. It will make it easier on me because there won't be any doubt. The players will make them work hard. Crandall loves to play, Jereme loves to play. Meyers is like a baby just hatching out of an egg. He's just happy to be here. They all are excited about being here and being a part of it. I think if the older guys lead and be good mother ducks, we'll be fine.
"Watching them in the summers at the elite camps and talking to NBA people who are around them at these events, they have the ability. Now, do they have the work ethic, do they have the heart, will they stay injury-free? Those things will determine how special they are."
Richmond committed as a high school freshman, setting a precedent for Illinois. It came at a time when some felt the team's fortunes were falling. Weber made the decision to recruit younger players, and it paid off.
"It was at that time when coaches were really starting to recruit kids at an earlier age. My assistants were really pushing me to start offering kids at an earlier age. They had to push me. We had to try something different with recruiting. We took a gamble, and it worked out. Hopefully, it's a good story at the end.
"The nice thing is we've created a good relationship with him, with Crandall and Meyers. Meyers has been up as much as anybody. It seems like every weekend he's here to see football games. He was even here to see the exhibition game the other day. They all were here. I hope it ends up being a good thing.
"The NCAA has addressed it, dealing with young players like that. I've called the coaches association and to people at the NCAA. I said I had no choice. This is our option to get kids at an early age before they have the other surrounding people influencing them.
"Then we can recruit the kids, get them on campus, make them feel good and excited about our program, and then hopefully help nourish them and help them mature and grow as players and as student-athletes through their high school careers.
Richmond and his family were firm in their commitment to the Illini and kept their promise to remain committed through three long years. But there had to be some ups and downs emotionally for Weber while he tried to keep the family firmly in the Illini camp.
"All you could do was do your best. You had limited phone calls, he had to call us. Any time you heard rumors, we tried to get hold of some of the Waukegan people, the coach, the AD, the principal and got to know all those guys. Even the people he was around with AAU.
"I think it (rumors of a change of heart) was more talk, internet than anything. I'm not saying people didn't call him or say something to him. But I think all along he was fine with it, and the family was fine with it. They sent us a picture yesterday, dad's got a sign saying 'Fighting Illini.' Jereme's there, they're all smiling. They've been a very positive and loyal family as far as wanting to come here."
Despite the potential drawbacks of recruiting immature younger players, Weber is willing to do it again.
"A young guy, oh yeah. We're hoping maybe it will happen soon. We'll go through with it. I don't know if we need three or four of them. But if you know a kid is good enough, why not? We would try to do it, yes. I don't know if we'll be that fortunate, but we would love to do it."
How young is too young?
"I like them to go to high school, to be honest. Be through a practice and go to class. I've gone to seventh and eighth grade games, and we've had kids on campus. Since I've got here, the biggest nemesis was to get kids here.
"When we're able to get them here younger, they get much more excited about it. They see the campus, the games, the excitement and all that stuff. They feel good about it. It leaves a great first impression.
"And then now, they start calling you and you keep a relationship with them. I think that's the model we've got to continue to use. We're very fortunate that we have a state that has some pretty good players. If we can keep ahead of schedule with the recruiting, then we have the time to go out and see the younger kids. When you're still recruiting seniors into the second semester, it's tough to go work on the younger guys."
How important was the Richmond commitment in terms of getting positive momentum going for the program?
"It was positive at the time it happened. He's continued to make strides and impress people. He's considered one of the top prospects in the country. So it's been a positive thing. And he helped with Crandall, he helped with Meyers. They're helping with young guys. If he gets here and helps us to a Final Four, it would be pretty good.
"He's proven himself. We've been able to keep him on board with our program. He's helped with the recruiting. They all hang around, they're all on internet, facebook together. They all know each other from the camps. They're talking to each other.
"And Jereme's got a likeable personality. He gets along with everybody. So he's done a good job. Meyers loves to be around the guys. He hangs out. It definitely was a nice step, there's no doubt. But the book's still open. Chapters have to be written before we can really say this was a great thing. But I think it has a chance to be a positive ending.
Having six of the last seven signees reside in the state of Illinois has to help the Illini program also.
"There's no doubt. It's great for our program, for the fans. The state has good basketball, good coaching, some of the top AAU programs in the country. We'd love to keep them here. When you win, the attachment of the fans, the media when you have local players, it even enhances it. When the fans watch them growing up, they get an even better attachment to them."
Leonard joins Mike Tisdale as seven footers on next year's team.
"Not only that, but two good seven footers. You see teams get off the bus and they have all these big guys, but they fall as they come down the stairs. These guys both can catch the ball. Tis is still trying to catch up, but he's still a legit player.
"Meyers has his height, but he probably has a little better agility, running ability, jumping ability than Mike does. Especially at an earlier age. So you feel pretty good about that. And their versatility, their good hands, and they can shoot the ball."
The following is a summary of Weber's comments about each of the three players.
* Jereme Richmond
"I'll start with Jereme Richmond because he's been committed the longest time, one of the earlier commitments around the country. Actually wasn't even in high school the first time he came down to campus. It was that summer just before his ninth grade.
"They really wanted to commit right then. I asked him to at least go to high school for a few days, go to practice and be part of his team. I did go up early when practice started and watched him play. I didn't even get back on the interstate before the dad called me and asked me what I think.
"He's just such a talented kid, it was a pretty easy evaluation to know that he is gonna be a very good player. He's got the length, he's got the size, he's got ball handling skills which is kind of unusual for a forward.
"One of his best things I think is he passes so well. So he can kind of almost play a point forward type of position. He plays five for his high school, but he's played point and can bring the ball up at different times. That gives you an idea how versatile he is.
"And more than anything, he's a winner. In two years since he transferred into Waukegan, he kind of revitalized that program and took them to the state championship. All the AAU programs I've watched him play with in the summers seemed to have success. So he has a knack of knowing how to win.
"I think part of that is just being a great team player. He's not a guy that needs to get 30. He's more of the guy that's looking for the triple double. Getting his 10-12, getting some rebounds, assists, steals, just being active.
He's listed anywhere from 6'-6" to 6'-8." When he stands next to our guys, I'd say he's a legit 6'-7" to 6'-8." He's got a young face and body, so there's a possibility (he could still grow). He has pretty good bloodlines. His dad was a good player, his uncle was a very good player, played with Tex Winter out at Long Beach. They all look alike, and they all have that long, athletic basketball body.
"I don't think he's a five man at our place because he isn't tall enough and doesn't have the bulk, but he can play a lot of different positions. He's gonna get the rebound and he's gonna push it and make a great pass. He's good underneath the hoop, he has a good knack of getting rebounds, has a nose for the ball, has some nice little post moves inside. So he can go inside-outside.
"I'm real excited to have him a part of it. He's been very loyal to us, and that is so positive. When you get an early commitment like this, it was a little bit of an experiment. We've had some juniors and sophomores, but this goes back over three years ago that he committed. It makes it a long-term engagement.
"He had some pressure at different points to maybe waver a little bit, but he didn't. He's stayed loyal, and he's been a really positive influence for us with other recruits. So we're excited to have him in the program.
"He made big progress last year. I think he's really grown, he's really matured as a person. It's been up and down. He knows it, we've talked to him about it. He has to have a great year this year, just take care of business off the court, on the court, in the classroom, as a person. I think that will really help us.
"He's a young kid. He's had a lot of publicity. A lot of people pulling on him. It wasn't easy. I've talked to him a lot about not looking back, looking forward. Whatever happened in the past happened. You've still got a great future ahead of you, take care of your business in the right way. And he knows it, he's a smart kid.
"I talked to Coach (Ron) Ashlaw last night. He said the difference between Jereme two years ago and now is unbelieveable. Being a leader on the court, all those things.
"One of the best experiences for him was having that chance to go to the state tournament last year. He was more excited about AAU basketball than high school basketball. He even talked about going to the state tournament, being a part of the community.
"It was probably a driving force because there was talk of possibly going prep school. He wanted to go back to Waukegan to be part of that. I think that's all helped with his maturity."
* Crandall Head
"Crandall of course is Luther Head's younger brother. He's been around our program since his middle school days. The families from the players of the '03, '04, '05 teams making those deep runs into the NCAA Tournament, the travels being around us, getting to know us. And then Crandall all of a sudden out of nowhere just blossomed as a player.
"I think between freshman year and sophomore year he made big jumps. Similar athletic ability to Luther. He's long, he can jump, he can get to the basket. He's had a little bit of a setback obviously with the surgery with the ACL, and it's gonna be a tough year for him because he loves to play.
"The thing I really loved about Luther and I really enjoy about Crandall is they do want to be in the gym, they want to play. They don't care. They could be playing in a pickup game at the apartment complex, some playground or out at IMPE (ARC), the outdoor courts. At 1:00am guys playing 2 on 2, 3 on 3 in Ubben.
"I hope Crandall can get healthy and maybe a little more hungry because he hasn't had an opportunity to play his senior year. Really work on his game to get better and be ready to help us a year from now.
"Crandall was part of (our Final Four run). He was running around the hotel. We knew he was around. Bo Delaney his father would come to the tournaments, Moody Bible things. The little guys would be shooting.
"Crandall was this little guy running around, and all of a sudden he is this big kid dunking the ball. It was a big jump for me playing Knockout with him between games at Moody Bible to he could dunk on me. We couldn't play Knockout any more. I think his development came pretty quickly."
* Meyers Leonard
"Again, another unique story. I remember a couple years ago, I went down to Robinson for an alumni function. One of my former players at SIU, Stetson Hairston, was an assistant at the junior college there. He said there's this kid that's 6'-4", 6'-5", maybe has a chance. I went down for the function, we have great fans in that community, we had a nice event.
"Halfway through the season, I got some feedback this guy's grown a little bit. Maybe you might want to think about coming. By summer, we got the calls, 'You better get down here.' Coach (Jay) Price went down late that spring, we had him up on campus. He was very pro-Illinois. He probably always wanted to come to Illinois.
"He continued to grow and grow. Now he's a legit 7'-0" tall. A couple years and 6-7 inches. He had a little injury in the fall and had an MRI. The doctors that looked at him said his growth plates are not closed. You look at him, he still looks like a young kid. He is young age-wise too. Once you're seven, I don't know if you even need to grow any further. They're saying that's a possibility.
"He's got a great future in front of him. I'd say a player he reminds us of is James Augustine, mainly because of his mobility. He can run the court, he's got great athletic ability, he's got pretty good hands for a big guy.
"This summer, he had a couple plays that just amazed you. The guy's running the break full speed, somebody throws a pass, he catches it in stride and goes in for a reverse dunk. Just amazing things that most big guys could not do.
"He comes from a program where he doesn't get quite the competition. He works at it hard, he wants to do well. Unassuming, he doesn't know how good he is. If he'll put the time in, work at it and set high goals, he has a chance to be not only a good player here but probably beyond.
"Everyone's a project. Everyone has to advance their game. Is he an NBA player right now? No. Does he have a chance? Yes, just because of his abilities. It's amazing (how far he's come), and I don't think he knows it to be honest.
"And he's an unselfish kid. I've had to sit down with him a couple times and told him, 'You're seven feet tall. When you get the ball in the lane, you might want to turn and score instead of throwing it out to one of those guys out there. Again, I think it's because it's all new to him. Probably in his mind, he still thinks he's a guard.
"Post moves this summer, he'd get it a couple times and just freeze. I said, 'What are you thinking?' He says, 'I'm figuring which of my 14 post moves I've got to use.' How about just get one or two and get good at those? It's great that he has 14 post moves, but at the same time he's got to get good at a couple things, and those things will carry him a long way.
"Meyers is close to graduating at the semester. He's actually taking a couple classes at the junior college. We've asked about possibly getting dual credit, maybe get some college credits.
"Coach Price asked him one day what other school he would maybe go to if not Illinois? He said, 'No other school once Illinois offered.'"