McClain, Guyton eager to resume rivalry
CHAMPAIGN – One of the most heated rivalries around resumes this afternoon at a sold-out Assembly Hall.
And we're not talking about Indiana-Illinois.
In one corner, wearing the red warmup pants, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound sophomore out of Peoria Central, the challenger, from Indiana University, No. 25 ... A.J. Guyton.
And in this corner, wearing the orange and blue trunks, a 6-3, 230-pound freshman out of Peoria Manual, the champion, from the University of Illinois, No. 40 ... Sergio McClain.
"Should be a lot of fun," Guyton said. "Hopefully, I can beat him."
That'd be a switch. During their Peoria prep days, McClain was Michigan to Guyton's John Cooper, taking 7 of 8 meetings.
Of course, he had a couple of guys named Marcus Griffin and Frank Williams helping him.
"We always kicked their butt," McClain said.
"Who cares about high school?" Guyton said.
Pardon Guyton is he's a tad sensitive on the subject. He was a two-time News-Gazette All-Stater, but he always felt a little lost in the shadows of McClain, Griffin, Williams and Peoria Richwoods' Mike Robinson.
Peoria, circa 1996, was a mighty tough town to get noticed in.
"By the end of his senior year, I thought A.J. was the best player in Peoria," said his old coach, Chuck Buescher. "But our team was 14-14. Manual was on the verge of winning a third state title. Robinson had been the all-time leading scorer in Peoria. It's hard to get a lot of recognition like that."
After a year's wait, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year got his.
"I was (overshadowed), but I think that's been a very important part of me being successful," Guyton said. "Those other guys had pressure to perform every night. All I had to do was go out and play. Nobody knew who I was."
They learned quickly. The lightly recruited Guyton caught everyone by surprise last year, finishing eighth in the league in scoring and earning national Freshman of the Year honors from Dick Vitale.
Buescher hates to say he told you so.
"What he's done has not surprised me," he said. "The difference between A.J. and those other kids is that he didn't develop quite as early. He wasn't the known factor and he was coming on."
That's what Buescher tried to tell any major college coach who'd pick up the phone midway through Guyton's senior season. The big boys started backing off after a so-so summer, only Missouri inviting him to campus for a fall visit. Michigan State entered the chase shortly thereafter, but that was it.
So around Dec. 1, 1995, Buescher placed four calls – to the basketball offices of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Louisville. He'd sent players to Illinois (Tony Wysinger), Indiana (Chris Reynolds) and Louisville (Beau Zach Smith), and picked Kentucky "because I thought he was good enough."
He got three "no thanks" replies and a "maybe" from Indiana.
"He was 6-foot, 170 pounds, and they weren't sure if he was a point guard because he didn't play point guard for us," Buescher said. "And they weren't sure about his ball handling skills because we had another kid handling it a lot. Of course, I could see that every day in practice, but they didn't.
"But what I tried to tell everyone is, A.J. Guyton knows how to play. You don't teach that. I'm telling you, very few kids today know how to play basketball. Sergio McClain knows how to play. That's his greatest strength. A.J. knows how to play."
If coaches didn't take Buescher's word, all they had to do was ask Guyton's 1996 News-Gazette All-State teammates.
"Anybody that can burn us for 32, with our defense at Manual, can play," McClain said. "He averaged at least 26 against us. But he wasn't highly recruited and I could never understand why."
Join the club.
"His senior year, he had 19 in the first half at Springfield Lanphier on Jeff Walker," Buescher said. "Jeff Walker was being recruited by everybody in America. He had 17 in the first half against Ronnie Fields. Both teams beat us with box-and-ones in the fourth quarter. Now you think he can't play? Who's he supposed to do it against? I mean, Jeff Walker and Ronnie Fields are two of the best, athletic, capable defensive players in the state."
Finally, in late February, Buescher got someone else to agree with him. Indiana coaches watched Guyton in the last regular season game of his high school career, against Manual, and wouldn't leave him alone until he signed two months later.
Illinois never got involved.
And Guyton will never forget it.
"I even sent film to Illinois so they'd recruit me, but they didn't," he said. "Never called me or anything. It worked out for the best. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise."
A year later, he almost got McClain for a teammate.
Adding some spice to today's Big Ten opener – as if Bob Knight's first trip to town isn't enough – is last year's recruiting war over McClain and Griffin, won at the buzzer by Illinois.
McClain couldn't be any more gung-ho.
"Missouri also recruited me awful hard and when they beat us, a couple of players kind of gave me a slap in the face," McClain said. "They're like, 'Told ya you should have come here.' I don't want that to happen (today)."
If the Hoosiers do get Illinois back for last year, McClain wouldn't expect Knight to rub it in.
The two are buddy-buddy, McClain finding it harder to tell Knight no than winning any of those state titles.
He suspects "the General" saw it coming, though. The giveaway? When Knight told McClain to call Hoosier greats Isiah Thomas and Quinn Buckner, and the player passed.
"I still hated to do that," McClain said. "Me and him, I felt like we were kind of close through that recruiting process. When I called and told him, he's like ... (long sigh) ... 'Why?' I said, 'It's my state school. I want to be loyal.' He's like 'Why do you feel like you have to be loyal?' I said, 'For the same reason that Luke Recker came to Indiana and (Ricky) Davis and Dean Oliver went to Iowa. I just feel like this is my spot.'
"He respected that. He said, 'If you ever have any problems, you can still call me.' He was real cool about it."
We talking about the same Bob Knight?
Silver hair, red sweater, nasty temper.
"My dad's the same way," McClain said. "He's not as vocal as Knight. He's a baby Knight. I felt like if I could get through my dad, I could play for him."
Illinois fans are happy he isn't. McClain and classmate Awvee Storey on Tuesday both turned in what Lon Kruger called their best college efforts.
McClain worked a tough 19 minutes at UCLA, handing out a team-high five assists, grabbing four rebounds and playing some sticky defense.
Not Guyton numbers, but he's getting there.
"The more and more he gets to play, the more and more you'll see the real Sergio McClain," teammate Kevin Turner said.
Pride of Peoria
The Peoria area has produced a boatload of current Division I basketball players. Our top 10 (We count Marcus Griffin, too, even though the Illinois recruit is playing in junior college):
F Mike Robinson, Richwoods, Purdue, Early favorite for Big Ten sixth man of the year honors
F Mark Vershaw, East Peoria, Wisconsin, Big guy starting, leading Badgers in assists
C Marcus Griffin, Manual, Lincoln, Visits Parkland on Jan. 24, DACC on Jan. 28
G Willie Coleman, Manual, DePaul, Former UI recruit tops in Conference USA steals dept.
G A.J. Guyton, Central, Indiana, Has led Hoosiers in scoring 7 of 13 times out
F Matt Moran, Pekin, Bradley, Bum foot has kept Northwestern transfer out since opener
F Sergio McClain, Manual, Illinois, Smart cookie may work way into starting lineup soon
G Frank King, Richwoods, St. Mary's (Calif.), Frosh watched Cal, Fresno St. upsets from bench
G Nick Knapp, Peoria Richwoods, NE Illinois, Bad ticker keeping sharpshooter on sidelines
G Jason Jenkins, East Peoria, Valparaiso, Hit key three off bench in win over Pacific