Underwood working to revive Illini-Chicago pipeline

Underwood working to revive Illini-Chicago pipeline

CHAMPAIGN — Chicago will always be a priority for Illinois recruiting. The city and suburbs regularly produce top basketball talent. Directing that talent south to Champaign, though, has proved difficult lately.

Cliff Alexander's hat trick in November 2013 saw the former Chicago Curie star spurn Illinois for Kansas. Jalen Brunson had the Illini in his top two, but chose Villanova instead in September 2014 while sitting inside Stevenson High School and won a pair of national titles with the Wildcats. Other programs swooped in to grab the likes of Chicago Simeon product Zach Norvell (Gonzaga), Chicago Morgan Park product Charlie Moore (Memphis, then California, then Kansas), Stevenson graduate Justin Smith (Indiana) and Chicago Simeon's Talen Horton-Tucker (Iowa State).

Illinois' current connection with Mac Irvin Fire is an attempt to shift that narrative. The Illini landed Mac Irvin Fire players in back-to-back classes with Da'Monte Williams and Ayo Dosunmu, with the latter giving the Illini a player from the city of Chicago after having zero last season.

Mac Irvin Fire director and coach Mike Irvin started to develop his relationship with Illinois coach Brad Underwood when he was hired away from Oklahoma State in March 2017. The time Underwood has spent in Chicago has stood out to Irvin.

"We love him here in Chicago," Irvin said. "As far as from a recruiting standpoint, you couldn't ask for nothing more than what he's delivered so far.

"Illinois, that's like Chicago's school. It's Chicago's school for the older people that we know. I know Northwestern's thing is they're Chicago's school now, but I'm from the old school. We all know Illinois is our state school. To see him interacting with everybody in Chicago, that's great. That's perfect for the city and for the state. We love his presence here."

Illinois is trying to maintain that presence with future recruiting classes. Three 2019 targets — Kahlil Whitney, Terrence Shannon and Malik Hall — once called the Chicagoland area home. Four 2020 prospects match that criteria in Adam Miller, D.J. Steward, Nimari Burnett and Shon Robinson. So does 2021 recruit Max Christie.

Whitney, Shannon and Miller all currently play for Mac Irvin Fire on the Nike EYBL circuit. Robinson, who moved to Arizona for his sophomore season, played for the Fire last year when he was at Morgan Park.

Whitney is the highest ranked of the bunch. The 6-foot-7 wing, who has played the last two seasons for Roselle Catholic in New Jersey, earned five-star status and vaulted to No. 15 in the 2019 class in the latest 247Sports rankings update.

Irvin compared him to past Flyin' Illini greats Kendall Gill and Nick Anderson.

"He can do so many things," Irvin said. "He fits that Flyin' Illini, old-school player. If you can get a recruit like that, that's definitely going to push your program. He'll eventually be a lottery pick when he decides to go to the pros."

Irvin is just as high on Miller, who is ranked by 247Sports as a five-star recruit and the top 2020 prospect in Illinois. Miller helped Morgan Park win its second straight 3A state championship after transferring from Peoria Manual for his sophomore season.

"With Illinois on both those guys, you can't go wrong," Irvin said of Whitney and Miller. "They're impact guys. They're Final Four guys. You're not talking about making the tournament. You're talking about trying to win it. ... These guys are future NBA players as long as they stay healthy. It's hard to find kids with a good work ethic, and they've got it."

Shannon's in that mix, too. The former Lincoln Park standout reclassified to the 2019 class and will play a post-graduate season at Woodstock Academy in Connecticut. His recruitment blew up this spring, though, playing for the Fire, and he holds offers from Florida State, Louisville, Maryland, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Ole Miss, Loyola Chicago, DePaul, Illinois-Chicago and Austin Peay in addition to the Illini.Shannon also drew a Flyin' Illini comparison from Irvin.

"He's 6-7, and he flies," Irvin said. "He's like Kenny Battle with the left hand. He just fits that mold — tough and good."