Tate: Attention turns to Big Cliff
With all eyes firmly fixed on 3 p.m. Friday, the concentration of Illini Nation will be diverted tonight when Valparaiso comes calling at the State Farm Center.
It’s good to be distracted from basketball recruiting concerns for at least two hours.
But it must be conceded, Big Cliff has our attention ... and that interest doubled when it became apparent that two Top 5 Chicagoans — Curie’s 6-foot-9 Cliff Alexander and Whitney Young’s 6-11 Jahlil Okafor — will simultaneously announce their college choices Friday afternoon.
Will both attend Kansas? Or neither? What caused Okafor to move up his announcement date to coincide with Alexander’s? Does each know the other’s intentions? And if it’s true Alexander prefers to stay close to home, does that mean Illinois or DePaul?
For the worriers: While Illinois has gained steadily in recent weeks, it doesn’t help that (1) Alexander was seated near Jayhawks assistant Jerrance Howard while watching his girlfriend play on the Kansas women’s team last weekend, (2) the Jayhawks were in Chicago on Tuesday night in a much-ballyhooed showdown with Duke and (3) super-salesman Bill Self is showing off the NBA’s likely No. 1 pick, Andrew Wiggins.
You wouldn’t think two high school seniors could keep such huge secrets. But these young giants have us guessing. And it’s all part of a deafening buzz surrounding John Groce’s program, that buzz evolving more from who’s on the way than the bounty of eligible and ineligible stars he has already brought to campus.
At this precise moment, Groce is the hottest recruiter in the Big Ten.
It’s hard for crystal ball gazers not to ponder next year’s power forward position with Alexander, a five-star with one-and-done aspirations, battling Darius Paul, Leron Black, Michael Finke, Austin Colbert and perhaps Malcolm Hill for the starting berth.
With or without Alexander, that’s the kind of competition that brings out a quality product. That is the direction Illinois is headed, even if it takes awhile to get there.
On the move
Back to the game.
Valpo’s defending Horizon League champions arrive with several distinctions: (1) The team is coached by a third Drew, Homer’s son Bryce, (2) with all five of last year’s starters gone, four senior transfers will be in the starting lineup, and (3) all five freshmen graduated within driving distance, much credit going to former Illini Roger Powell, a third-year staffer.
Four transfers! It’s more than a trend, it’s a way of life in college basketball. Four Crusader regulars played previously at Indiana, Hawaii, South Florida and Alabama.
But they have nothing on the Illini, Groce compiling a squad with five players who previously started for Drake, Illinois State, Western Michigan, Seton Hall and Oregon State (the latter three won’t be eligible until next season).
“It might be the environment, the style of play or seeking a different level ... any number of things. Each case might be different,” Groce said.
For Rayvonte Rice, top scorer at Drake, it was an opportunity to return to his hometown. For Jon Ekey, the UI offered a fresh start after he didn’t appear to fit in as well with first-year Illinois State coach Dan Mullen.
Whatever the reasons, transfers have multiplied into the 400s in recent years. At the end of last season, four UI players departed after two years on campus, and within weeks Groce picked up Ekey, Paul, Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks as veteran replacements.
You might call it a merry-go-round with riders jumping on and off as it swirls around. Said Groce:
“It depends on the character and disposition of the players. Sometimes (given a second chance) they appreciate it more ... they’re more mature and have a different perspective.”
With Valpo presenting a front line of 7-0, 6-10 and 6-8, Groce’s immediate concern is rebounding. In what amounted to another “exhibition” Sunday against Jacksonville State, the Illini permitted an astounding 25 offensive boards in the otherwise impressive 86-62 romp.
“We had some hiccups in transition defense and rebounding, and we were a step slow on loose balls,” he said. “We need our guards to get more involved, to block out and dig out a few.”
With Nnanna Egwu rejecting five, the Illini blocked 11 shots Sunday but many were recovered by Jacksonville State as offensive rebounds, some off the court.
Groce was not bashful about addressing the shortcomings.
“We can’t have any weak links,” he said. “We need everybody. We said everyone (all 11) will get to play, and we demonstrated that in both games. But ultimately each one has to earn his playing time.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.