ST. JOSEPH — Nine days before Christmas, Ty Pence stood on the right wing beyond the three-point line near the end of a St. Joseph-Ogden boys’ basketball practice.
With he and his teammates scattered around the various baskets, a few workers helped set up the Spartans’ gymnasium for a girls’ basketball game that would tip about an hour later.
No college coaches around while Pence hoisted three-point attempt after three-point attempt as the apparatus known as The Gun passed the basketballs around to the different Spartans positioned beyond the arc.
No recruiting analysts around to dissect every part of his 6-foot-6, 190-pound frame, send out a tweet about a particular play he’s involved with and then imagine how he might fit on a Division I program.
Those days have happened. And will continue to happen for the SJ-O junior until he reaches a college decision. With offers from Akron, Bradley, Butler, DePaul, Eastern Illinois, Illinois-Chicago, Illinois State, Iowa State, Loyola Chicago, Wake Forest, Western Illinois and the one opposing student sections take note of frequently — Illinois — Pence is a known commodity.
So is his team. The Spartans carry a perfect 9-0 record and The News-Gazette’s No. 1 ranking into Monday’s first-round game at the small-school State Farm Holiday Classic, with second-seeded SJ-O tipping off the 16-team event at 10:30 a.m. against 15th-seeded Tri-Valley at Normal West High School.
A deep holiday tournament run is possible for Pence and his Spartans. Meaning more notoriety, more college coaches calling and texting, more scrutiny.
More of everything for a 17-year-old from a small town of nearly 4,000 residents whose favorite NBA player is LeBron James, favorite NBA team is the Bulls and favorite place to eat at in St. Joseph is Monical’s. He goes against a trend of current high school students in listing Snapchat as his least favorite media, and the one chore inside the Pence household he abhors?
Cleaning out his cat’s litter box.
It’s these moments of normalcy Pence is juggling amid a whirlwind past year. Of his 12 D-I offers, 11 have happened since June. His cell phone includes contacts for college coaches he can watch nightly on an ESPN network. Whenever he does pick a college and sign with one, he’ll become the first SJ-O boys’ basketball player to play at a D-I program in at least 50 years after Rich Connell, a 1972 graduate, and Rick Schmidt, a 1971 graduate, both suited up for Illinois. Connell only played as a freshman at Illinois when freshmen weren’t eligible by NCAA rules and didn’t letter, while Schmidt went on to score 1,105 points with the Illini in three seasons.
So, when SJ-O boys’ basketball coach Kiel Duval noticed the weight of all this about to swallow up Pence earlier this school year, he mentioned it to a few of Pence’s teammates.
“They needed to help him be a high school kid again,” Duval said.
Their solution? Take him to an SJ-O home volleyball match. The Spartans swept Rantoul on Sept. 30, with Pence in the middle of the Maroon Platoon — SJ-O’s student section — dressed in overalls as part of the themed country night.
“It’s really important for him to do that because he’s still just a high school kid,” said Andrew Beyers, an SJ-O senior forward and one of Pence’s closest friends. “He has all these college coaches talking to him, and he’s dealing with all this stress, that it’s nice to just go out, have fun and do what a high school kid does. We try to help him with that.”
Transforming his gameIt’s well-documented how familiar Pence is with the SJ-O boys’ basketball program. His older brother, Jake, was the senior starting point guard on the 2015-16 team that ended up winning a 2016 Class 2A state championship.
That team entered the season with modest expectations, but only was 11-8 in early February before rattling off a historic late-season surge. Ty was there every step of the way, soaking it all in.
“When we first saw Ty, it was when Jake was playing, and he was the chubby kid on the sideline,” Duval said with a laugh. “You could tell he was going to be a big kid. We just didn’t know the type of big he was going to be. When he was younger, he had all the baby fat.”
Now, the floppy-haired younger Pence doesn’t have the baby fat and is leaving his own mark on the SJ-O program. His dad, Todd, is 6 feet, 4 inches, and Ty shot up to 6 feet in middle school, going from 6-0 to 6-4 by the end of his freshman year of high school. He’s added two inches to his frame since, and his size, plus his ball-handling and shooting skills, have only developed over time, too.
“My freshman year was a big change,” Ty said. “Guys were a lot bigger and more physical. I think from now to then, I’ve really worked on my body a lot, along with my game. That’s helped me transform and made me into who I am now.”
And that’s a versatile playmaker. Pence is averaging 25.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists so far this season, getting to the basket when he wants, finding open teammates when double-teams arrive and still displaying a smooth outside jump shot.
“When he came in as a freshman, he was just a three-point shooter,” Duval said. “That’s all he was. Then, he began to play by the rim and play the mid-range game, along with his three-point shot. Now, we’re trying to develop him into a great defender because we know he’s going to have to do that at the next level.”
Along with making winning plays. This is a clear focus of Duval’s message to Ty this season, especially with college coaches — like Brad Underwood of Illinois did on Dec. 14 during SJ-O’s win at Danville — finding their way into high school bleachers this winter.
“Winning plays is what the college coaches look for, and that’s what’s going to give him a shot,” Duval said. “When you get to the level he’s going to play at, you’re going up against a lot of good players. You’re going to have to stand out in other ways than just scoring.”
Future plansStill, behind every move Pence makes, every shot he takes, every college coach he greets, one question lingers. Where’s he going to college?
Pence is used to the inquiries and has developed a go-to answer.
“I’ve still got a whole year left to decide,” he said.
He’s close friends with Tuscola senior standout guard Jalen Quinn, who’s signed with Loyola Chicago. He took an unofficial visit to Illinois in early June, which is where he picked up an offer from the Illini. He’s visited Iowa State and Butler in the past month.
“Right now, I’m taking a break from visits just to focus on the season,” Pence said. “Once the spring starts and right after our season ends, I’ll try to get some visits to some games. In the summer, I’ll take more, as well.”
He plays AAU basketball with the Midwest Prospect Academy, but also is a starting infielder and pitcher on SJ-O’s baseball team in the spring. The left-handed hitting and right-handed throwing Pence sees baseball as a nice outlet for basketball.
“Basketball basically goes all year round, and baseball allows me a little getaway to spend some time with my friends,” Pence said. “Sometimes, all the recruiting does get overwhelming, but just because I really do love basketball, that’s what keeps me going.”
The win against Danville, which also had coaches from staffs at Iowa State, Butler and Michigan State in attendance, along with Underwood, showcased why he’s a D-I prospect. He wasn’t the Spartans’ leading scorer that night — senior forward Evan Ingram had that distinction with 25 points — but he finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds and dished out four assists.
“I just try and feed off Ty,” Ingram said. “If he’s going, we’re going. When he gets double-teamed, he’s a great passer, so he always finds me.”
The past few months have prepared Pence’s teammates for the attention he is drawing this season and will continue to do so.
During workouts in the fall, it was normal to see multiple college coaches pay a visit to SJ-O’s gym.
“Our guys have just been kind of used to it,” Duval said. “Through the open gyms, those guys have been here when it’s just our 14 or 15 guys in the gym, and you’ve got four or five college coaches watching you.”
Opportunities out thereOnce the State Farm Holiday Classic ends for SJ-O on Thursday, the schedule doesn’t ease up for the Spartans.
SJ-O and Tuscola meet at 8 p.m. on Jan. 8 to cap the 14-team Christie Clinic Shootout that SJ-O will host on the second Saturday of the new year. Trips to the Chicago Orr Shootout on Jan. 29 and the Riverton Shootout on Feb. 13, along with challenging nonconference road games against Teutopolis (Jan. 11) and Effingham St. Anthony (Jan. 22) and a rugged Illini Prairie Conference slate, are still ahead.
“We’ve got a lot of good teams at State Farm,” Ingram said. “We get to play some of the top teams in the state this season, and we’re ready. We’re on a nice winning streak, we’re putting up a lot of points and we’ve got a chance to keep it rolling.”
The ultimate destination for Pence and his teammates is a venue he could potentially play college basketball at. State Farm Center is hosting the boys’ basketball state tournament again for the first time since 1995, with 16 teams from all four classes descending upon the iconic venue in Champaign from March 10-12.
If Pence can lead the Spartans there, his legacy will grow.
And the expectations he is already carrying upon his shoulders will grow. Along with the flurry of text messages and calls from college coaches.
“Usually before the game, I just get off my phone and tune all that stuff out,” Pence said. “My teammates and Coach Duval really help me a lot in just keeping my mind on the game and everything we need to focus on.”
Helping him improve on the court and deal with the recruiting component is an aspect Duval has picked up on in the last six months.
“You can see it a little bit in his face and his personality with the way he’s acting when the recruiting part starts to overwhelm him,” Duval said. “We just have to tell him, ‘Dude, just relax. Go out and play, and it’ll be fine.’ The last two weeks, he’s been that guy. He’s been the old Ty. He’s having fun and playing the game the right way.”
And that’s all anyone, from teammates to area basketball fans to college coaches to Pence himself, should want.
Because when Ty Pence is putting on a show, it’s quite the sight to see.
Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at email@example.com.