Memory Lane: A hoops star pays a visit
EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE
This week: Kendrick Nunn isn't the first big-time star to visit C-U during the fall. When Bill Self was coach, he had blue-chippers in all the time, including a visit by a future NBAer 10 years ago this month.
Date: Sept. 29, 2002
Headline: Illini fans roll out carpet for prep star Villanueva
By BRETT DAWSON
When Illinois rolled out the orange and blue carpet for Eddy Curry two years ago, the Thornwood star and soon-to-be NBA lottery pick was colored unimpressed.
Cool and nonchalant throughout his official visit to Illinois, Curry betrayed little excitement. Fans showed up in the hundreds to chant his name at the Ubben Basketball Complex during morning pickup games, but Curry (who stayed on the sidelines throughout) barely acknowledged their presence.
When all's said and done, Charlie Villanueva might end up where Curry did out of high school: in the NBA draft.
But his visit Saturday to Illinois was markedly different.
Villanueva waved to the packed house on the observation deck when he took to the Ubben court.
And once he got there, he stayed put, taking part in pickup games with current Illini and Illinois commitment Brian Randle, who like Villanueva was taking his official visit to the campus.
"It's flattering," Villanueva said of the 400 or so fans who chanted his name and hung banners from the railing above the court. "I'm just having fun with it. It only happens once. I'm only going to be in high school once. Might as well live it up."
Villanueva gets to live the good life the next three weekends. The 6-foot-9 forward from Brooklyn, N.Y., will take an official visit next weekend to Seton Hall.
On Oct. 11, he'll take in Midnight Madness at Indiana, where the hard-charging Hoosiers are making a late move in the recruiting process.
He'll end his tour with an official visit Oct. 18 to Villanova, and he hopes to commit to a college by the start of November.
Then the waiting game starts for the winner of the Villanueva derby. A consensus top-10 player in the Class of 2003, Villanueva says if he's projected as a top-15 pick in next spring's NBA draft, he'll forgo college altogether.
"If I'm in the lottery, I'm gone," he said. "But that's not my focus. My focus right now is on college."
Those are encouraging words for the Illini, Wildcats, Pirates and Hoosiers.
Mike Davis, who's in hot pursuit of Luol Deng, Villanueva's teammate at Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J., has intensified his recruitment of Villanueva, convincing him to take a Midnight Madness visit.
That will be an impressive show, no doubt, though Illinois certainly made a competitive pitch Saturday.
Ubben was filled to capacity with fans who chanted for Villanueva and Randle. Dee Brown, the most personable of the Illini, made a strong impression as Villanueva's host ("He's doing all the talking," Villanueva said, "but we hit it off."), and Randle joined in trying to sway the big New Yorker's opinion.
"They told me there would probably be people here watching, but I didn't expect it to be like that," Randle said. "It was cool when they started chanting my name. I'm on board, now we've just got to get Charlie on board. I'm trying."
So was half the campus, it seemed.
The Illini Volunteer Recruiters and the Orange Krush were out in force, and they made certain Villanueva felt the student body's love every time he scored in the pickup game or threw down a monster dunk during warmups.
Those outbursts were met with smiles from Villanueva and his brothers, both named Robert, who made the trip.
"Charlie's enjoying himself," said Barry Marks, coordinator of the Illini Volunteer Recruiters. "I don't care how cool you think you are, when you come to a school like this, you have to enjoy this kind of atmosphere."