Jackson: Alexander hits jackpot

Jackson: Alexander hits jackpot

If you follow any college basketball folks on Twitter, chances are last week you read plenty of glowing reports about the exhibition Cliff Alexander was putting on at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas.

Recruiting analysts, reporters and just about anyone in the gym in Sin City couldn’t help but rave about the dominance exhibited by the 6-foot-9, 240-pound power forward.

“It didn’t surprise me that he was the best player down there. Cliff has been playing phenomenal,” said Mike Irvin, director of the Mac Irvin Fire AAU club for which Alexander plays. “He’s the old throwback definition of a power forward. He’s dominating everybody in the game right now.”

Alexander has been blowing folks away with his gym-rattling dunks, but it’s more than his sheer power that has people buzzing about his game.

He’s dominating on the defensive end, and he’s added some variety to his game outside the paint on the offensive end. He put those skills on display this weekend at the Peach Jam in South Carolina in front of Illinois’ John Groce and a number of other coaches from heavyweight programs around the country.

“He’s really stepped it up this summer,” Irvin said. “We let him do some things that he hadn’t really been doing, and that’s why he’s turning heads.

“He’s shooting his jump shot now and he’s knocking down that 17-footer consistently, and he’s putting it on the floor a little bit so he can get around his man. He’s doing some things offensively a lot of people haven’t seen, and that’s what’s bumped him up.”

In terms of his recruitment, every program in the country has been after Alexander the last two years, but last month he narrowed his list to 10, which included Illinois.

Alexander, who will be a senior at Chicago Curie this fall, made an unofficial visit to the Illinois campus last month, and Groce and his staff will be a factor in his recruitment to the end.

“Illinois’ not doing a good job with him; they’re doing a great job recruiting him,” said Irvin, who has had big-time prospects such as Wayne Blackshear, Tim Hardaway Jr., Meyers Leonard and Jabari Parker come through his program in recent years. “With Paris (Parham) on the staff and Coach Groce doing what he does, they’re in line to land a player like a Cliff Alexander.

“He’s a game changer. Any program that lands him is going to be an immediate Final Four contender.”

What Alexander likes about Illinois’ recruiting pitch is the emphasis the coaching staff has placed on developing his skill set.

“They want to let him play his game but also evolve his game, make him a better player,” Irvin said. “Extend his range. Just all around make him better.”

Irvin said it’s hard to say who the favorite is at this point for Alexander, and there is no timetable to make a decision. Any reports suggesting Illinois isn’t a factor, he said, are inaccurate.

“I think Illinois would be a great fit for him,” Irvin said. “It’s the state school, and they have big plans for him offensively and what they want to do with him on the court and academically.

“Going to Illinois would be a great fit for Cliff. It’s the state school. You’ve only got one state school, and I’m sure the state of Illinois would love for him to stay home and play in that Orange and Blue.”

Another high-profile Fire prospect receiving a lot of attention from Illini coaches is 2015 point guard Jalen Brunson.

The 6-2 Brunson joined the Fire this spring after leading Lincolnshire Stevenson to the Class 4A state championship game, where Chicago Simeon won its fourth straight title. The Illini were in on Brunson early, offering the son of former NBA guard Rick Brun-son before most other major programs.

“Everybody has done a great job with Jalen on that staff,” Irvin said. “Illinois is out here, and they’re trying to get it done.

“These players, when you land them now, you’re playing for a Final Four. They understand that and they’re doing a good job recruiting these kids, and hopefully some of them will be playing in Orange and Blue.”

Brunson told Joe Henricksen of City/Suburban Hoops that a major factor in his recruitment will be relationships, an area in which Illinois should excel in courting him.

Brunson would be the sort of lead guard Groce covets to call the shots on the floor. Brunson, whose dad spent last season as an assistant coach with the Charlotte Bobcats, has an advanced understanding of the game for his age.

“The biggest surprise is the pace of his game and how under control he is for a guy who is only going to be a junior,” Irvin said. “There have been games all summer where he doesn’t have a turnover, and that’s unbelievable coming from a point guard. That just lets me know his feel for the game and his understanding of it. He has a high basketball IQ.”

On the court, Dick Foley made significant contributions to the Illinois basketball program, helping lead the Illini to the 1949 Big Ten championship and a third-place national finish as a top reserve for coach Harry Combes.

Off the court, Foley’s impact on the program and the community was much more lasting.

Foley, who died last week at 87, was the project manager for Felmley-Dickerson, the company that built the Assembly Hall, which celebrated its 50th anniversary earlier this year.

“He was what I would have thought of as an ideal scholar-athlete,” UI basketball great Dave Downey said. “He got a degree in engineering, stayed here in the community.”

Foley was on campus and met Downey on the first day Downey was recruited by Illinois, and the two had been friends ever since. Foley employed some UI players, including Downey and Bill Burwell, during the summer at Felmley-Dickerson.

The two became best acquainted, though, during Foley’s tenure as president of the Champaign school board. Foley appointed the committee, of which Downey was a member, to integrate Champaign schools.

“I’ve always been proud to be a part of that,” Downey said. “He was really concerned, and then he continued to contribute to the community in a lot of ways.
“He’s the kind of guy I’m proud to have associated with Illinois athletics. Dick was a great representative of what Illinois basketball and what Illinois athletics has been in the past and hopefully will continue to be.”


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ptevonian wrote on July 15, 2013 at 10:07 am

C'mon down, Cliff!  You'll look great in orange and blue!

And with Groce's skill at coaching and motivating, he just needs one excellent class to get the program really humming and drawing attention.  2014 might be it, but 2015 is more likely.


IlliniMike05 wrote on July 15, 2013 at 11:07 am

As far as I'm concerned- and I'm not one to drink the Kool-Aid- Illinois should be an easy choice for Cliff if he really cares about skill development, relationships, and playing for the state school. If those things are important, great. Sign up. If you're going to be like everyone else and be Just Another Guy at the biggest name-brand school that offers, stop wasting our time. If you want to be an alpha dog and beat those guys, sign up. If you want to be a follower, go to Kansas, Kentucky or Michigan State already. 

(That reminds me of two NBA-related points I'd like to make: first, if I hear one more person talk about Izzo's ability to develop big men, I'm gonna snap. You know what his list of NBA big men consists of? Zach Randolph and Paul Davis. One of them barely lasted a year in the league after being a Top 10 recruit. The other came off the bench for a season at MSU. Yeah, awesome track record.

Second point: the last two power forwards to go No. 1 overall, Anthony Bennett and Blake Griffin, played for Dave Rice and Jeff Capel, respectively. A coach's track record of "developing players for the NBA" is nonsense. College basketball does nothing to get you ready for the league. Playing for John Calipari doesn't make you more likely to succeed in the NBA. It means you were ready to begin with, and that's why he recruited you. He's done a tremendous job of marketing Kentucky as the ultimate NBA finishing school, but let's not confuse that with actually getting you ready to play in the NBA. He's had five guys, going back to Memphis, with superstar ability. John Wall, Demarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans don't look like they're getting there. Assuming Anthony Davis does, that's two for five. Not great. Also not Cal's fault. It's up to the player. College basketball does nothing to make you a better NBA player.)

Illinois is going to be very good in '14-15 without Cliff. Tracy/Ray/Egwu as seniors, the '13 class with a year under them and Cosby/Paul eligible? That's a top 15 team. That's a deep, experienced team, and adding Cliff would make it a national title contender that he'd be the clear star of. 

If being a legend for the state school with a legit chance at winning a title, getting to play all of your minutes at your natural position (with Nnanna and Mav here, Cliff could play exclusively at power forward) and working with a staff that was built with an emphasis on skill development isn't enough for you, stop considering Illinois now and we can all move on.

Cliff comes from the third-largest market in the US, but also the most provincial, protective-of-their-own city in the United States. Ask Stephen Bardo and Kendall Gill about how much leading Illinois to a Final Four can enhance your personal brand's profile and future earning potential after basketball. (And they aren't even Chicagoans.) Wherever Cliff goes, he's going to be a monster and a top five pick. So if Cliff actually cares about the things Irvin says are important, I don't see what he's waiting for. Go ahead and commit to Illinois already, big guy.


Andy wrote on July 15, 2013 at 12:07 pm

I think you are spot on with your comments! Very well said...

Orkee wrote on July 17, 2013 at 1:07 pm

IlliniMike is apparently not one to drink Orange Kool-aid. Your whole post screams Illinois homer! What does Illinois provide to elite level recruits that other schools don't??? Plus, if you use that the notion of "staying at your state school and becoming a legend," don't get too upset if LeRon Black decides to use that same mentality and go to Tennessee. Black could put UT on the map again!

When has Illinois ever been a top tier program? They don't even have a National Championship under their belt. Heck, even Loyola-Chicago has a NC!!!!! If Cliff has a desire to win a National Championship, he will go to a school and play for a coach that has experience winning one. Lots of programs and coaches are running similar offenses that JG is running.

I will guarantee you that if Cliff decides to come to Illinois and does not win a NC, he will not be remembered or revered as much as Illinois fans think. There is a reason why blue blood schools are (most of the time) legit NC contenders year in and year out. Because they get the top tier guys because these guys want to win and play for top notch programs.

Plus, if CA is consumed with being "alpha dog" and "worshipped," how do you think he is going to handle adversity when things don't go his way? I would rather have a guy who is consumed with WINNING. If CA's main drive is winning a National Championship, he will probably not go to Illinois.

IlliniMike05 wrote on July 17, 2013 at 4:07 pm

You've missed the point entirely. Let's break this down bit by bit.

"What does Illinois provide to elite level recruits that other schools don't???"

For ones from the state of Illinois, the opportunity to play at home. If this isn't important, they should tell their handlers to stop saying it.

"Plus, if you use that the notion of "staying at your state school and becoming a legend," don't get too upset if LeRon Black decides to use that same mentality and go to Tennessee. Black could put UT on the map again!"

While I'd obviously be thrilled if he came here, I would certainly applaud Black if he decided to stay close to home at Tennessee or Memphis. You tried to catch me in a bit of hypocrisy I hadn't even had a chance to express, assuming that I only think Illinois kids should consider staying close to home. Read again: "consider." I don't think all kids, whether they're 5-star athletes or not, should stay close to home. For some, leaving is better. Again: if that's the case, ask your handlers to stop saying how much it would mean to stay at home.

"When has Illinois ever been a top tier program?"

When was that the question? If you honestly don't know the answer, most of the 1980's and most of the 2000's. 13 McDonald's All-Americans have chose to play for Illinois before, by the way.

"Heck, even Loyola-Chicago has a NC!!!!!"

Not in any way relevant.

 "If Cliff has a desire to win a National Championship, he will go to a school and play for a coach that has experience winning one."

If it's his one and only consideration, probably. I'm guessing he has many considerations. Which is why I addressed many considerations, mostly the same ones Irvin was listing in Illinois' favor.

"Lots of programs and coaches are running similar offenses that JG is running."

Not in any way relevant, nor did I address it.

"I will guarantee you that if Cliff decides to come to Illinois and does not win a NC, he will not be remembered or revered as much as Illinois fans think."

What does that even mean? How are you guaranteeing something that's in no way quantifiable? But you have a point. Remember how much Illinois fans hate Dee Brown because he didn't win the national title? The Flyin' Illini are really reviled, also. Besides, how would this in any way be a relevant point to what Cliff Alexander would consider in his recruitment. Being a legend in your home state: something a recruit would possibly consider. "Not being as loved as Illini fans might think" if he doesn't win it: nothing any reasonable person considers.

"There is a reason why blue blood schools are (most of the time) legit NC contenders year in and year out."

It isn't because recruits will "not be as revered or remembered as Illinois fans think" if they go to Illinois and don't win it. Seriously, did you not read your post and see a near-complete disconnect from sentence to sentence? You're all over the place and haven't made one relevant point yet.

"Plus, if CA is consumed with being "alpha dog" and "worshipped," how do you think he is going to handle adversity when things don't go his way?"

Probably the same way most elite basketball players do. I don't know, what am I, his shrink?

Look, you clearly missed the point entirely. That's OK, reading comprehension's not for everyone. It wasn't that Alexander should come to Illinois. It was that if all these things that Irvin are saying are so important, and if Illinois is doing such a "great job" of recruiting him, then commit already. Illinois has a '14-'15 team in place that would absolutely be a national title contender if he was here. He's a lottery pick no matter where he goes, and Irvin believes any team he's considering will be a Final Four contender with Big Cliff. And he's probably right. Well, if that's the case, he should either commit to Illinois or end the charade of blowing smoke up our asses that's been repeated with every elite Chicago recruit for years.

"If CA's main drive is winning a National Championship, he will probably not go to Illinois."

Unless he believes he can do so close to home, with several other Chicago players, on a team he can be the clear-cut star of, on a staff that's built for skill development (which is apparently a consideration of his if Irvin is to be believed; not every recruit cares about this, strange as that sounds). Then he might. I don't know if Cliff will come here, or even if he should. That wasn't my point. My point was it's obnoxious for AAU coaches and other various handlers to constantly butter up Illinois fans about how great the team/school/staff is and how great of a fit Illinois would be if you aren't going to end up here. If his recruitment is still wide open, keep it to yourself.

I don't know if you're a fan of another team that's trolling me, or one of the most obnoxious types of Illinois fans there are- the "I'm gonna show everyone how smart I am by listing all the reasons that Illinois isn't as good as other teams!" idiot- but either way, next time you respond to me, organize your thoughts before you post instead of throwing as much sh-t at your computer screen as possible to see what sticks.


geriatricillini wrote on July 15, 2013 at 7:07 pm

First of all Dick Foley was from my hometown. He was an icon and a good guy as well...and one hell of basketball player in hs winning a state title and with the Illini as well. RIP, Dick.

Secondly, I will believe that any kid is coming here only when they sign up. Otherwise, I won't get excited about this kind of thing...we've been burned too many times in the past ya know.

IlliniMike05 wrote on July 16, 2013 at 8:07 am

That's terrific, except no one's getting "burned" because no one's promising or even predicting that Cliff's coming here. (No, random rumor-mongering idiots on message boards don't count.)

geriatricillini wrote on July 25, 2013 at 1:07 pm