Big Cliff comes for a big visit

Talk to four well-respected recruiting analysts and a consensus is nearly reached in the Cliff Alexander sweepstakes.

The Chicago Curie power forward is heading to Kansas.

At least that’s the way it looks for one of the top uncommitted Class of 2014 prospects who will take an official visit at Illinois this weekend.

It is the fourth and final official visit for Alexander, who previously made official visits to Memphis (last weekend), Kansas (Oct. 4) and DePaul (Aug. 24) and who is set to announce his college choice on Nov. 16.

But don’t go putting Alexander on Bill Self’s roster just yet.

“I believe that Illinois is there just by everything I’ve gathered and is neck-and-neck with Kansas,” said Joe Henricksen, the publisher of the City/Suburban Hoops Report. “I still think Memphis is a sleeper.”

Alexander, who is ranked among the top five players in the Class of 2014 by several recruiting services, has attributes Illinois doesn’t currently have from any player on its roster.

“He’s an elite, athletic big man who is a dominating force on the glass and a shot blocker,” Henricksen said. “He’s a true on the block guy who has added versatility to his game that he can step away from the basket, too. He’s a force defensively on the glass. You look at all the things a program might be lacking a little bit, Cliff Alexander kind of checks off all the boxes that they need. He just brings an aura about him in terms of a player, a prospect and a limelight that comes with securing a commitment of this nature.”

Evan Daniels, a national recruiting analyst for Fox Sports, said it is meaningful Alexander is visiting Illinois this weekend.

“It’s huge any time you can get a player of Cliff’s caliber on campus,” Daniels said. “This is a recruit they’ve invested a lot of time into and one who would be an instant contributior.”

Henricksen said Alexander isn’t just giving his in-state school a complimentary visit.

“He’s already been on casual token visits,” Henricksen said. “He decided to pay even more attention to detail, and after multiple trips to Illinois, it’s great to have a guy coming now now where you can do the whole lengthy official visit.”

Expect Illinois coach John Groce to pair freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate with Alexander on his visit.

Alexander has a close relationship with the former Chicago Simeon standouts and likes to pair players with recruits who are similar.

For instance, Michael Finke recently went on his official visit to Illinois and stayed with Malcolm Hill.

Both have laid-back, easy-going personalities away from the basketball court.

“Going in for me, I didn’t really know what I’d be doing different on my official visit,” Finke said. “I got to know the staff a whole lot better by having breakfast, lunch and dinner with all of them. I got to watch their practices and watch a film session of the scrimmage that was pretty intense.”

Expect more of the same treatment for Alexander, with Groce playing up his ability to connect and build relationships, along with emphasizing to Alexander he could become a program-changing player for Illinois.

Daniels said Groce’s recruiting prowess continues to grow.

“He’s relentless,” Daniels said. “He had a recruiting reputuation before he got to Illinois. He’s great at relationships, especially in the Midwest. He’s thoughtful. He really plans things out. It’s not his first rodeo. He knows what he’s doing.”

But, even with all the stops Groce and his staff will pull out this weekend, they don’t have one person available who Alex Kline, publisher of TheRecruitScoop.com, said plays a key role in Alexander’s recruitment: former Illini Jerrance Howard, now an assistant to Self at Kansas.

“I think Kansas is a clear-cut favorite right now,” Kline said. “Illinois has somewhat of a shot, but I just see Cliff going to Kansas where Jerrance is now. I think Kansas was minimally invovled earlier where they said, ‘We’ll recruit the kid and see what happens.’ When they brought Jerrance in, they got him on campus. His relationship with Jerrance being the first college coach to recruit him goes a long way. Just the way (Howard) interacts with the kids, his voice and his personality over the phone, he can really have that effect and impact on kids. Cliff is kind of shy and not willing to talk to reporters or coaches in that manner if he doesn’t know them that well. I think (Howard is) the reason, along with the fact that Kansas produces NBA guys on almost a yearly basis. Kansas is becoming the new Kentucky almost as it seems every year they bring in a few new guys, they produce and then they get them to the NBA.”

Scott Burgess, a scout and recruiting analyst for Chicagohoops.com, said the perception battle that is so vital in recruiting these days is trending upward for Illinois.

A commitment from Alexander only enhances that.

“On the court, it would be a huge deal, and off the court, too,” Burgess said. “Coach Groce has done a huge job landing guys like Leron Blaack and Quentin Snider in proving he can recruit out of state. Cliff is one of those guys that players love being around. With those 2015 guys, they all look up to Cliff. It would leave an impact with those guys that think, ‘Hey, Cliff went there. It might not be a bad option for me.’”

Burgess said Alexander’s improved footwork around the basket is noticeable, along with an improved mid-range game.

“Cliff made tremendous strides over the last couple years,” Burgess said. “He’s definitely transitioned into being a 4. He’s shown some face-up abilities. He might be the best post defender in the country anchoring down lown and blocking shots. He was a little bit raw earlier in his career, but he’s able to have defenders not say, ‘OK, we take this away from him, we’re good.’ He’s able to seal his spot real well down on the block, and in a high-low game, that’s great to have. One thing that’s overlooked is he runs the floor extremely well and has a never-ending motor, kind of like Nnanna Egwu.”

Regardless of if Alexander picks Illinois in three weeks, the stellar recruiting job Groce has done in his 19 months on the job has caught people’s attention.

“Not only does he have the connection with the players and the parents, but to have that persistence where they’re going to recruit you hard and find a way to get you on campus, it’s really impressive, especially for kids who, geographically-speaking, aren’t in the realm of Illinois’ recruiting focus in the past,” Kline said. “I think 2013’s recruiting class enhanced that yes, they can possibly land a few players in the top 100 and some below that. Now this is the real thing of how they can actually land top 30, top 40 kids and possibly top five kids, in state and out of state. He’s showing he can really recruit whoever he wants to.”

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