Illini must be a player for state’s junior gems
An incredible, 29-point performance by Jabari Parker — great players respond to primetime situations — overwhelmed everything else that happened at Argo this past week.
On Friday night, Parker, slowed early this season by an injury, climbed a peak unattainable by any other Illinois prep. He led senior-laden Simeon to a 69-51 rout of junior-dominated Whitney Young in a matchup of the state’s top 4A teams.
Mark him down as another big fish that got away from Illinois, the senior star preferring Duke. He had been less than himself earlier this season, but he ruled this night. Future Illini Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate contributed without impressing as Parker simply stole the show.
With participants in this sectional so critical to the UI future, I attended two nights and watched Friday on TV. Here’s my take on the Little State Tournament:
If Curie junior Cliff Alexander has Illini leanings — he visited the Assembly Hall recently with Nunn and Tate — this should be pushed to the limit. He helped Curie to a 10-point midgame lead against Young on Thursday before superior forces took their toll, 62-58.
The showdown between the 6-foot-9 Alexander and Young’s 6-10 Jahlil Okafor was essentially a standoff. Both compare favorably with the premier centers in Chicago history. John Groce would be thrilled with either one, and scuttlebutt has it that Alexander may be more receptive at this point.
The difference in their play was Alexander’s high-level tenacity. He’s more active and aggressive as a rebounder-blocker, while the highly touted Okafor is more intent on passing and seemingly reluctant to fully assert himself.
Alexander, who averaged 24 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks on the season, was held to 14, 8 and 3 as Young’s 6-9 junior Paul White contributed toward double-teams every time the ball went inside. Okafor tallied 13 (as he did Friday) and yet another junior, T.J. Peak, racked 23 as Curie’s zone appeared to overlook him while putting extreme emphasis on Okafor and White.
All eyes on Alexander
Even though the UI recruiting board shows no available 2014 scholarships after Centennial’s Michael Finke grabbed the last one, Groce has offered a high-quality list of juniors. In addition to Alexander, Okafor and White, there are at least a half-dozen more.
Yes, as the coach stated, he can count ... so it’s obvious scholarships will become available if commitments are forthcoming from one of these Chicagoans, Leron Black of Memphis, Jaquan Lyle of Evansville (his six-team list also includes Louisville, Ohio State, Florida and Tennessee) or others.
This is serious business and Groce is hunting big game. The UI basketball future hangs in the balance. The Illini need help to become an upper-division program in the rugged Big Ten. As it presently stands, multiple teams will enter next season with superior talent. If the UI can’t attract them, the Illini will be facing the task of beating them somewhere else. And that’ll be a tall order.
If Alexander chooses Michigan State, that’ll help extend the magical run of Tom Izzo (he attended Argo on Friday). If Lyle picks Indiana, that’ll add to the Hoosiers’ new surge. Wherever Okafor goes, he’ll attract teammates who respect his reputation and unselfishness.
In signing Nunn and Tate, Groce is hoping the magnet factor will bring results. Both were impressive Wednesday as they pulverized DuSable, but were less so Friday. At 6-2, Nunn is a dunking machine with defensive quickness but ... and there is always a but ... he is not a point guard and he must improve on his three-point effectiveness to be a productive Big Ten wing.
A man and his word
There was a time when verbal agreements served as contracts, when a handshake deal meant something. What happened?
I’m reminded of the late Lou Baker from my Monticello days. He was a football star at Illinois State, ran our summer Legion team and took coaching assignments at Bethany, Arcola and Paris. He was the friend who phoned me in 1966 to tell me The News-Gazette had a job opening that I took.
So, yes, I remember Louid. But mostly I remember when he accepted a job in 1962 as backfield coach at Colorado State. He was packed and ready to leave when Pete Elliott called to offer a spot on the Illini staff. It broke his Kentucky heart, but Baker was a man of his word, and he headed for Colorado with considerable regret. He was rewarded a year later when Elliott brought him back, and he remained on the staff under Jim Valek.
A commitment like Baker fulfilled at Colorado State is no longer in vogue. Coaches move these days before they even walk onto the field. When Ron West joined North Carolina recently, it was his third job (New Mexico, Arizona State) since leaving Illinois after the 2011 season. This is common. Ron Zook had Larry Fedora on his staff one day. The next day he didn’t.
There have been multiple situations recently at Illinois in which coaches have agreed to terms and left abruptly ... including the decision by Isaac Chew to accept Marquette’s offer after signing on with Groce.
But when line coach Jim Bridge walked out of a two-year contract in favor of Purdue, my jaw dropped. It was the start of spring practice.
Then, just as I was preparing to criticize such extreme disloyalty, it occurred that Bridge’s replacement (A.J. Ricker) would be doing the same thing to someone else (Middle Tennessee State).
That was, obviously, a step up for Ricker, and clearly more reasonable. But whatever happened to a man and his word?
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.