In the sunshine of Florida, the premier athletes play outdoor sports.
So basketball coach Lon Kruger moved to chilly Illinois, where the most athletic teen-agers dream of becoming the next Michael Jordan.
Trouble is, too many want to be the next Kevin Garnett, whose academic slippage actually speeded his ascension to the National Basketball Association. Similar to last year, six of the state's top 10 senior cagers may be lacking in the classroom, and two of the four qualifiers – Ryan Hogan (Kentucky) and Brian Wardle (Marquette) – pretty much settled on their decisions before Kruger could dig in.
But the junior class provides the opportunity Kruger anticipated when he started buying winter coats again. No, not a center. But everything else.
Maggette, Williams top juniors
Here's how they stack up:
1. Corey Maggette (Muh-GET-ty) of Fenwick is tops on everyone's list. He is rangy (6-6), skilled, poised and an academic qualifier. He is top 10 on national junior lists. Fully recovered from Christmas-time pneumonia and severe bronchitis, he is back on the beam as Fenwick tackles Brother Rice Friday.
"It's too early for him to think about recruiting," Fenwick coach John Quinn said. "He is open. He wants to concentrate on his junior season first."
Maggette's relationship with incoming UI recruit Sergio McClain – and his presence behind the UI bench in the 79-63 defeat of UCLA in Chicago Dec. 21 – indicate the UI is on his mind.
1A. Frankie Williams is "the next Isiah Thomas," according to Quincy coach Loren Wallace.
"I thought he was the difference for Peoria Manual in the state tournament last year. He's smooth, and he has all the moves. If he picks the Illini, they have a keeper."
Williams earned MVP honors in the recent King Cotton tourney in Pine Bluff, Ark. A teammate of McClain and Marcus Griffin, he indicates he'd like to join them at Illinois.
No, it's not a full commitment. But Illinois is clearly miles ahead at this juncture ... and there isn't a better guard, junior or senior, in these parts.
2. The academic report on Baby Shaq, Rod Thompson of Chicago Carver, is good. The Kruger staff is hard after this 6-6 backboard blockbuster.
"Thompson's major thing is rebounding," Wallace said, "but he showed us he has other skills. We led them by 18, and he pulled out to hit from 15 to 17 feet to beat us. We weren't aware of his offensive skills. He and Nick Irvin make up a great 1-2 punch."
3. Quentin Richardson is developing dramatically, the 6-5 junior spearheading a 12-1 Whitney Young club that lost only to Manual 58-54. He can score from inside and outside. He also was an Illini guest this season.
Young's nine-year coach, George Stanton, is supportive of Illini recruiting efforts but says, "Quentin hasn't narrowed anything. He's totally open. He's an outstanding prospect who is getting better all the time."
4. The academic progress of Galesburg's 6-4 Joey Range, Julian's 6-8 Lance Williams and Farragut's 6-8 Michael Wright is being watched closely for improvement. As players, all three are major Division I prospects, Range recently exploding for 55 against Hubbard to lift his average to 28.
"He has natural instincts, a lot like Michael Robinson of Purdue," Wallace said. "But he's been immature and needs to discipline himself. If he gets that under control, he could be great."
But followers in the Galesburg media say Range still needs work on his jumper, noting most of his points come in the lane. He is compared with the UI's Bryant Notree.
The endless quest for a center
With Chris Gandy graduating, the future of big freshman Festus Hawkins uncertain and Manual's Griffin not expected to meet academic requirements, Jerry Gee will look for help as the UI's senior center next season.
Kruger's grand search continues to whirl around 245-pound juco player Steve Eldridge of Tyler, Texas. Eldridge, his family and his coach, Fred Rike, are in weekly telephone contact with UI coaches. He intends to make a late visit here, the date depending on whether Tyler returns, as expected, to Hutchinson, Kan., for the juco playoffs.
Eldridge is not as explosive as Griffin but is unusually skilled for a big man, routinely firing from the three-point arc. Believed to be challenging the Illini for him are Nebraska, Texas Tech and Arizona State.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. His column on recruiting will appear weekly through the basketball season.