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.”