Jereme Richmond signaled the beginning of a positive trend in Illinois recruiting fortunes when he committed to Illini coach Bruce Weber after his first high school game. Suddenly, it was a good thing to go to the University of Illinois again. Richmond's recruitment laid the ground work for consecutive outstanding classes.
Better yet Richmond continued to improve, becoming a McDonald's All-American and a member of the USA 18 and Under team. He will now be an entering freshman this fall at Illinois, along with center Meyers Leonard and guard Crandall Head. They are already talking about championships.
Richmond was still in high school when Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Joseph Bertrand matriculated to the UI last fall. But his commitment greased the wheels for them as well. From humble beginnings, Weber is beginning to recruit as well as he coaches.
But that is no easy task. The state of Illinois may have an abundance of talent most years, but it is also one of the most heavily recruited states in the country. To gain an upper hand, Weber changed strategies to begin evaluating younger kids.
"I think we finally caught up where not only do we have good recruiting classes, but we go look to the future too. We can start looking at 8th graders, 9th graders, and we know the top kids."
Weber and his staff don't just evaluate the stars, they evaluate every potential college player in Illinois.
"I think you take pride in it. I emphasize with the staff we'd better know all the kids. And know them when they're young too. If we can't do a great job in our region and in our state, we're gonna lose a recruiting battle."
The Illini had watched Anthony Davis early in his career also. The blossoming superstar from Chicago Perspectives was a skinny guard at the time. He has grown 7 inches in a little over a year, and his game is now approaching elite status. Some have asked why Weber hadn't offered him a scholarship earlier.
"Now, do kids develop? That's what people don't understand. Kids do develop. How does Butler make it to the Final Four? Those kids weren't highly recruited kids. They developed.
"My teams at SIU, most of our guys hadn't made official visits beside our place. And yet we beat Indiana, and they were runner-up national champs. We beat Texas Tech, you can go on down the line. They developed, they worked at it. They're coachable. Their bodies developed.
"You hope you can have a mix of that. Ideally, if you can get the superstars, there's no doubt they can carry you further. But you've also got to get the guys that want to get better and will work at it."
Weber began recruiting younger players out of necessity. He prefers to wait until they develop more fully before making recruiting decisions. But the competition is too fierce. By their junior and senior years, they have already developed college loyalties.
High school kids play many games during the summer with AAU programs. They travel all over the country and have tremendous exposure. Weber and his staff attend all the events permitted. Some have questioned why Weber sometimes sits by himself during these games. He explains.
"One thing I like to do is, if I go to an event, I want to watch the kids. So many coaches go and just talk and never watch them. And then they take somebody else's opinion. We're putting you on the road to watch and evaluate them. So there's that fine line.
"If you really want a kid and feel good about him, you're sitting right on the court because you're trying to show your face. Be there and smile.
"If you're trying to really get to know kids and evaluate them, you want to have your space where you can do that. The more you get out and see kids and know you really want them, now you just show your face. But you did your work ahead of time."
Weber goes out on the road recruiting more than many coaches to insure accurate evaluations. Of course, he also wants to lay groundwork for future communication with top players. That requires beginning the process at a young age.
"When do we evaluate them? Eighth, ninth and tenth grade. Going to practices, going to high school games, using our seven evaluations to really see the kids. Sometimes though you see them too much. You guys might see him once and he plays great. I've seen him seven times, and he doesn't play very well."
This work is essential. The recruiting window allowed by the NCAA in July is narrow, and there are many athletes to observe. It is difficult to do more than put in an appearance to let kids know your interest. There may be multiple games going on simultaneously in a dozen venues. If you see someone new, it may already be impossible to recruit him.
"It could be too late. It's not that you don't have a chance to recognize them, but you could be too late to recruit them. That's why it's so important to get in with kids young.
"Or, there was a kid in the state a few years ago. I saw him a bunch, and I wish he had played well. But I just didn't think he was that good.
"But this one breakout tournament weekend, and all these coaches were calling his high school coach. The high school coach says he wishes the kid had played well for me.
"It was ironic, I thought. He was a superstar that one weekend, but he never went back to that stardom again. For awhile, we took some flak. 'Why didn't you recruit that kid?' It ended up he was okay but not great."
The overload during the summer is tough on the players. They may be exhausted and play poorly when a coach finally gets to watch them. The same is true of the coaches. They travel coast to coast, catching red-eye flights and moving from game to game with little or no sleep. And then, despite the best of plans, they catch grief for missing a player.
"They cut our time back so much. When you go to a tournament, you've got to be seen by the guys that you want. If another kid plays at the same time, if you're not there some mom will say, 'Coach Weber wasn't there, he must not want my son that much.'
"All you were doing was to evaluate another kid, to have a backup plan. And maybe sometimes plan B becomes better than plan A."
Recruiting is an art, not a science. Those who play by the rules win some and lose some. They hope the combination of quality players and coaching will help them reach basketball immortality.
Weber has caught up after a slow start. He now has three commitments toward what he hopes will be a "Fab Five" type class signing this November. Things are definitely looking up at Illinois.
"Now we're at the point, and I hope we can stay here, we're not gonna get everyone, but we're not having to catch up. So it makes it easier."
In the final segment of this 8 part series, Weber discusses the possibility some coaches and schools have a competitive advantage through skirting NCAA rules. And he shares traits his 2010-2011 team needs to have a championship-type season.