Why can't Illinois recruit in-state?

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Why can't Illinois recruit in-state?

Times have changed, of course, since the 1940s and 1950s when Illinois coach Harry Combes didn't have to leave his home to lure the state's best basketball players to Champaign. And he produced three third-place finishers in four years in the NCAA tournament.

Those, indeed, were the good old days for Illini basketball.

Since then, Illinois has produced only two Final Four teams -- in 1989, when the Illini lost to eventual NCAA champion Michigan in the semifinals, and 2005, when they lost to North Carolina in the championship game.

With the firing of coach Bruce Weber in the wake of a season that went from 15-3 to 17-15 and revealed a dysfunctional and leaderless team, first-year athletic director Mike Thomas is challenged to hire a new coach who will rebuild a program that has been more disappointing than promising over the last 50 years.

Critics argue if Illinois is one of the most productive states for developing elite high school players, why can't the state university attract more of them? Why are so many opting to go elsewhere?

Why couldn't Illinois recruit George Wilson, Cazzie Russell, Dan Issel, Dave Robisch, Ronnie Lester, Quinn Buckner, Mark Aguirre, Isiah Thomas, Glenn "Doc" Rivers, Russell Cross, Julian Wright, Jon Scheyer, Derrick Rose, Evan Turner, Sherron Collins, Ryan Boatright, Wayne Blackshear and Anthony Davis?

And are they even in the mix for the state's current star, Simeon's Jabari Parker, the nation's top-rated prospect?

Weber's biggest recruiting coup, Jereme Richmond, turned out to be a disaster, a walking time bomb, a head case who was a cancer that negatively affected the entire program. The fact that Weber never admitted his mistake while others saw it so clearly only confirmed that he had lost control, that his Illini family had become dysfunctional.

Now the challenge is to rebuild and establish a foundation for an elite program that won't crack every other year or lack of a floor leader or team chemistry or a couple of 5-star difference-makers who remind Illini Nation of former stars such as Dave Downey and Deron Williams.

Whoever athletic director Mike Thomas hires to succeed Weber must put together a staff that can recruit the entire state, from St. Louis to Chicago, especially Chicago. The Illini owned the town when Tony Yates and Jimmy Collins were staking out the gyms and playgrounds in the city. But that no longer is the case.

"Going back over the 40 years of my career, Bruce Weber was the only Illinois coach who stayed in touch with me. Whether I had a player or not, he would stop by. He was the only one who did that," said St. Joseph's Gene Pingatore, the winningest coach in state history.

"He attempted to develop relationships with coaches in the event you had a player who could play at that level, then he could recruit him. In the past, my perception is if they don't get a player, they tend to burn bridges. You can't take it personal if a kid opts not to go to your school in a given year because you might have a kid coming up who might want to go to your school. You won't get everybody."

Pingatore never has been a favorite among Illinois coaches and fans, going back to when Isiah Thomas opted for Indiana. Since then, including Evan Turner's decision to attend Ohio State, they have perceived Pingatore as an anti-Illinois coach who encouraged his players to go elsewhere.

Not so, Pingatore insists. "I don't push kids to Indiana or Iowa but I make sure they are involved. Coaches I have relationships with are always involved with my kids. If I don't hear from a coach or I'm not involved with them, why should I push a kid to their school?" he said.

"From my point of view, Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa are all good schools. Who do you send your kids to? To people, not schools, people you can trust, people that you now will take care of your kids, people that you have confidence with."

Demitri McCamey is the only St. Joseph graduate ever to choose Illinois. Why did Turner, his more celebrated teammate, go to Ohio State? Pingatore admits he has no clue. But he insists he didn't push him to Columbus.

"There is another issue today," Pingatore said. "At one time, I could tell what my kids were doing. Now I have no idea who is talking to my kids today, who is influencing them.

"But I do know that you can't lose Wayne Blackshear or Anthony Davis or the top players if you are coaching at the signature school in the state. Jerrance Howard (Weber's chief recruiter) isn't in the same league with (former Illini recruiters) Tony Yates and Jimmy Collins."

Former King coach Landon Cox, the winningest coach in the state in the late 1980s and early 1990s, sent his three best players to Illinois -- Efrem Winters, Marcus Liberty and Jamie Brandon. Liberty was rated as the No. 1 player in the nation at the time. Brandon enrolled in Illinois' summer bridge program but left to play with Shaquille O'Neal at LSU. He has always said that was the biggest mistake of his life.

"Before I sent Efrem Winters to Illinois, I didn't think they weren't treating kids from the city the same as others," Cox said. "I didn't want that to happen. I always had a thing against big schools plucking kids from the inner city and some kids didn't even had two pair of shoes or a suit to wear. They didn't give them the help they needed to stay in school.

"A lot of people disagreed with me. I thought they should have evened the playing field. It didn't happen. Other coaches saw what was happening. Lou Henson told me that Efrem would be OK. He had a good experience at Illinois. So did Reggie Woodward. I didn't want Reggie to go to Illinois because he would play behind Doug Altenberger. But he wanted to follow Efrem, his best friend, and he graduated."

Liberty left early for the NBA and today regrets that decision, just as Brandon regrets leaving Illinois' bridge program. But neither blames Illinois for their decisions.

"If they had stayed, it would have been a different story," Cox said. "They would have brought more great players to Illinois. They could have been the Isiah Thomas of Illinois, a couple of pied pipers, like Mark Aguirre was at DePaul.

"The best thing that happened at Illinois was Tony Yates and Jimmy Collins. They understood the problems of the city and brought Henson around to the schools. Today, I don't see any chemistry with the coaching staff and education department at Illinois.

"If you send a kid to Illinois who scores 24 on his ACT, he is going to make it at any school. But if he is barely making 17 or 18, he will struggle. They should be sensitive to that with a tutoring program. But they don't see to be on the same page."

Cox admits he doesn't know Jerrance Howard, Illinois' chief recruiter. "But I knew Yates and Collins. You would see them two or three times a week in the schools. Today, you don't have that personal thing with coaches in the city as you did with Yates and Collins," he said.

He argues that Illinois isn't as aggressive in the recruiting process in the city as it once was. "The coaching staff used to have more rapport with coaches in Chicago. We used to talk to Henson all the time. Yates and Collins made sure of that. Other coaches from the Big 10 and Big 12 are here all the time, taking our best talent out of Illinois," Cox said.

Roy Condotti, who coached at Westinghouse and Homewood-Flossmoor and saw H-F star Julian Wright go to Kansas, doesn't blame Weber or Illinois for its failure to land more elite players from the Chicago area.

"Illinois tried to recruit Wright. And I'm sure they tried to recruit others. But you can't recruit everyone," Condotti said. "Julian always had Kansas in the back of his mind. He went on the Internet. He followed teams, watched games. He liked Kansas' style of play. He was attracted by Kansas.
You couldn't sway him.

"Look who Illinois is recruiting against? They have a product to sell, too. You just have to work harder. This isn't 1978 anymore. It is a completely different era now. Kids want to play for the best programs.

"You have to recruit kids who like to play the style you like to coach. I don't think that is happening at Illinois. With the AAU and Internet, kids know other kids through Facebook and AAU and texting. They have more information than kids used to have. And some want to go to school together."

So how does Illinois become an elite program, one of the best in the nation that annually will attract McDonald's All-Americans like North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky and Duke always do?

"You've got to have a great recruiter. Tony Yates could have recruited any kid on earth," Condotti said. "You have to get one kid who will attract the rest of them, like Isiah or Aguirre or Quinn Buckner, players who come along once in a decade, the kind of player who will attract other elite players, charismatic kids that others will go to the gym to see."

Saturday on CSN: Bradley vs. Nevada; Illinois State vs. New Mexico

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Saturday on CSN: Bradley vs. Nevada; Illinois State vs. New Mexico

CSN will have two quality college basketball matchups on Saturday as two Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge games will be featured live.

Bradley (4-3) has Nevada (6-2) in town for a 7 p.m. game Saturday on CSN while Illinois State (3-2) will host New Mexico (5-2) at 7 p.m. Saturday on CSN+.

The Braves have alternated wins and losses all season as they hope to build momentum off of a road win over Eastern Illinois.

Freshman guard Darrell Brown paces Bradley at 15.3 points per game on 48 percent three-point shooting while junior guard JoJo McGlaston is putting up 12.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per contest.

Nevada enters this one winning four of their last five games as senior guard Marcus Marshall is averaging 20.0 points and 3.9 assists per game. Sophomore forward Cameron Oliver has been generating some pro buzz as he's averaging 16.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game while shooting 44 percent from three-point range.

In the second contest, Illinois State is hoping for a key non-conference win against a quality opponent. Senior forward Deontae Hawkins is doing some solid damage as he's averaging 16.0 points and 7.6 rebounds per game while junior forward MiKyle McIntosh is at 14.2 points and 7.2 rebounds a game.

Proviso East product Paris Lee is also having a good year at guard for Illinois State.

New Mexico is led by a former area product as Homewood-Flossmoor graduate Tim Williams is averaging 19.0 points and 6.9 rebounds per game for the Lobos. Junior guard Elijah Brown, the son of former NBA coach Mike Brown, is also playing well for New Mexico as he's putting up 15.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.

Preview: Northern Iowa takes on George Mason tonight on CSN+

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USA TODAY

Preview: Northern Iowa takes on George Mason tonight on CSN+

Northern Iowa looks to snap a two-game losing streak as they host George Mason tonight. You can catch this game live on CSN+ at 7 p.m.

The Panthers (3-2) have lost both games to Xavier as Northern Iowa matched up with the top-25 team for the title in the Tire Pros Invitational in Orlando before losing to them on the road less than a week later.

Northern Iowa does own some solid wins over Oklahoma and Arizona State as they're led by senior Jeremy Morgan, who is averaging 16.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game -- which all lead the team. 

Junior forward Klint Carlson has also been strong for the Panthers as he's put up 12.2 points per game while shooting 44 percent from three-point range.

George Mason (3-2) has won three consecutive games -- with two of those wins coming by four points or less. The Patriots haven't played anyone as good as Northern Iowa yet as they beat Kent State, Bradley and James Madison.