Brett Dawson covered the last McDonald’s All-American to flourish at Illinois.
Bill Self brought in Dee Brown, who had the type of career with the Illini that future players would love to emulate.
The former Illinois men’s basketball beat writer for The News-Gazette is now covering a program that is redefining what it means to bring in top recruiting classes.
Dawson covers Kentucky for CatsIllustrated.com. And he’s covering an unprecedented recruiting class John Calipari will bring to Lexington next season.
Kentucky has a seven-man class that will suit up for the Wildcats during the 2013-14 season. Six of them are McDonald’s All-Americans.
That’s not a typo, but the new reality that is Kentucky basketball.
Dawson has covered the Kentucky program for the past seven seasons, the first five with the Louisville Courier-Journal and the last two with CatsIllustrated.com.
He was there when Tubby Smith and Billy Gillispie coached the Wildcats.
But nothing compares, recruiting-wise, to what Calipari is accomplishing, he said.
“Since Calipari took over, the last four years have been totally different, and totally different than any other Kentucky recruiting period and really kind of different than any other college anywhere in terms of the level of guys,” Dawson said. “This class (of 2013) is unprecedented.”
Since Calipari took control of Kentucky in 2009, he has landed 17 McDonald’s All-Americans. That’s four more than Illinois has had since the game started in 1977.
In the same time span that Calipari has coached Kentucky, Illinois has bagged one — Jereme Richmond, who lasted just one tumultous 2010-11 season in Champaign.
“It doesn’t compare on any level to what Illinois was recruiting when I was there,” said Dawson, who covered the Illini from 2001-06. “It was a higher level of recruit (under Self), but if you look at the time Self was there, they only got one McDonald’s All-American in Dee Brown.”
Dawson points out Illinois did receive a verbal commitment from Charlie Villanueva before the forward chose Connecticut and Eric Gordon (probably a dirty word around East Central Illinois) picked Illinois before flipping to Indiana.
Kentucky has had its share of McDonald’s All-Americans under Smith and Gillispie (Keith Bogans, Joe Crawford, Randolph Morris, Patrick Patterson, Tayshaun Prince and Rajon Rondo) but that equals the number of players in a 12-year span that Calipari is bringing in with one class.
“It’s just a different world in terms of the caliber of guy (Calipari) goes after and the caliber of guy he’s able to sign,” Dawson said. “So much of that is him. I think a Kentucky fan would like to believe they’re coming for the tradition of Kentucky and they want to play at a place where all these great players have played, but really they want to play for him. That’s the bottom line.”
So, the million dollar question is, can John Groce get to the point Calipari has in bringing in high-major prospects on a yearly basis?
“It’s going to be hard to do,” Dawson said. “The reason I say that, and people could say this is defeatist, but it’s never been done at Illinois before. At least at Kentucky, there is some history of it, and Calipari has a history of it that he was getting Derrick Rose to Memphis, which is the caliber of player Memphis hadn’t ever really gotten, especially players not from there. To get high-level national guys from different places, that wasn’t done at Memphis before. It takes the right guy to do it. Maybe Groce is that guy.”
Dawson said he is impressed with Groce’s demeanor.
The fact Illinois is coming off a 23-13 season and an appearance in the third round of the NCAA tournament should help Groce from a recruiting standpoint moving forward.
“Everybody knows Chicago has got to be home base for (Illinois), and that’s a hard home base to penetrate,” Dawson said. “There’s challenges in every aspect of recruiting Chicago, not the least of which is John Calipari wants players from Chicago and Mike Krzyzewski does and Tom Izzo does. Everybody wants players from Chicago.”
The same goes for the state of Indiana. Drive 45 minutes from Champaign-Urbana down Interstate 74 and you’re in Indiana. But Illinois hasn’t produced a player from the Hoosier state since Scott Haffner played the 1984-85 season for Lou Henson’s squad.
Dawson said he can’t understand why Illinois hasn’t been able to lure one or two players from Indiana since.
“It’s a shame for them,” Dawson said. “They had a period where Indiana wasn’t any good and Purdue wasn’t recruiting great players. I guess if you look for one thing for a positive from Illinois is that Thad Matta did get in there and was able to get guys, and that’s the guy John Groce was most recently coaching under. The staff he was on was able to make in-roads in Indiana, and maybe he can do that. The problem now is that Indiana is a power again. There’s just so much competition in Indiana, too. It’s not much different from Chicago. The level of talent is so good there right now.”