CHICAGO — For a split second, it appeared as though the nightmare Illini fans woke up to Friday morning when committed point guard Quentin Snider backed out and signed with Louisville was going to have a happy ending.
Seated between his mom and dad in front of hundreds at the Curie High auditorium — cheerleaders, the band, dance team and teammates among them — with the ESPN cameras trained on him, Cliff Alexander picked up the orange Illinois hat.
But quicker than Illinois fans could recite the “I” in the I-L-L, I-N-I chant, the 6-foot-9 consensus Top 5 forward dropped the Illini cap, picked up the one beside it and placed it on his head while saying “the University of Kansas.”
The auditorium erupted in cheers, and minutes after the ESPN cameras were being taken down, Alexander stood on the stage, swarmed by reporters inquiring about his decision. Mom stood near him chanting “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk,” and a few feet away, Curie coach Mike Oliver stood watching, excited for his guy but somewhat disappointed at the same time.
“I was just as shocked as you guys were,” Oliver said. “It’s disappointing that we continue to have the best players in the state go out of the state. It’s a sad moment for the state of Illinois, but it’s the kid’s decision. We’ve got to live with it and wish him the best.”
Oliver and other prominent Chicago Public League coaches, including Simeon’s Robert Smith, have been publicly advocating for the top players from the city and the state to play for one of the state schools, namely Illinois. Minutes before Alexander’s decision, the top-rated player in the country, Jahlil Okafor of Chicago Whitney Young, announced for Duke.
The trend in recent years has seen Jabari Parker (Duke), Anthony Davis (Kentucky) and Derrick Rose (Memphis) all leave the state after prolific prep careers in Chicago.
Oliver said Illinois did absolutely everything it could do in its pursuit of Alexander. He commended coach John Groce and assistant coach Paris Parham for their efforts in Alexander’s recruitment.
“I was impressed with Paris. He’s a Chicago guy, I’m a Chicago guy, a Public League guy, and he did a great job,” Oliver said.
Alexander told reporters he made the decision Thursday. Oliver said that as late as 2 p.m. Friday, about 75 minutes before Alexander was scheduled to announce, the forward was still conflicted.
“I just told him to go with his gut, and he said, ‘Coach, I want to go to Kansas. That’s what’s best for me and my family,’ ” Oliver said.
According to Alexander, Illinois finished second to Kansas in the sweepstakes. The deciding factor, Alexander said, was Kansas coach Bill Self, the one-time Illini boss.
“Coach Self is a great guy. He develops his players and gets them to the (NBA),” Alexander said. “He can get me to where I want to be. He’s a great guy; I like how he coaches. I like how he gets the ball to the bigs.”
Where he wants to be is in the NBA — and soon.
“One and done, then come back to get my degree,” Alexander said of his college stay.
Another former Illini, Kansas assistant Jerrance Howard, was instrumental in Alexander landing with the Jayhawks. Howard recruited Alexander during his time on Bruce Weber’s staff from 2007 to ’12 and had a hand in Alexander receiving a scholarship offer from Illinois.
“He played a big role. Ever since he stepped foot on campus at Kansas, we’ve been talking, built up a great relationship,” Alexander said.
An Illinois recruiting class that was rated among the Top 15 in the country with Snider, Centennial’s Michael Finke and Memphis (Tenn.) forward Leron Black has taken a nosedive into the 40s.
Finke signed his letter of intent Wednesday, and Black signed and delivered his Friday. That means Illinois is at the maximum 13 scholarships for next season. It would have been one over the threshold with Snider and two over had Alexander committed and signed.
Illinois already has a commitment in the 2015 class in Simeon wing D.J. Williams. With Williams in the fold, the Illini will have three scholarships remaining for the 2015 class.
Groce has yet to officially announce the 2014 class of Finke and Black. He spoke early Friday to reporters about Sunday’s game against Bradley. He couldn’t be reached late Friday.