Dunk-fest sees Illini recruit turn heads


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WESTFIELD, Ind. — Consecutive dunks by Ryan Kalkbrenner brought the Mac Irvin Fire bench to its feet Saturday evening at the Pacers Athletic Center. The family members in attendance got in on the act, too. Ultimately, it all brought a smile to the 7-foot center's face.

The third-quarter dunks weren't exactly game-changing. The Fire was well on its way to a 99-81 victory against UPlay Canada — part of a 4-0 weekend in the second session of Nike EYBL play in the Indianapolis suburbs. It's also a good thing there was a dead-ball situation after the second one because those dunks had Mac Irvin Fire coaches Mike and Nick Irvin on the court.

Kalkbrenner flashing some power finishes around the rim was exactly what the Irvins wanted. They were also adamant they get high-fives in celebration.

"They're trying to get me to dunk it more," Kalkbrenner said. "It's just a mentality for me. If I get in that mindset of 'Dunk everything,' I'll be fine. That's where they're trying to get me at."

Dunks aside, Kalkbrenner is more than holding his own on the EYBL circuit. The Trinity Catholic (Mo.) product averaged 14.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.1 blocks during his junior season, helping the Titans (25-4) reach the quarterfinals of the MSHSAA Class 3A state tournament.

Kalkbrenner might not score as much for Mac Irvin Fire, but he's still played an important role through the first two sessions. The 2020 center earned Defensive Player of the Session after the first weekend in Atlanta at the end of April.

"It's my first time in the EYBL, so it kind of showed that I belonged," Kalkbrenner said. "A lot of people said I wouldn't really be able to hang, but getting that really proved myself. ... I can play at that pace. It's not too fast for me. They're not that much stronger than me. I belong here."

Kalkbrenner, who said he's trying to sweep the Defensive Player of the Session awards this spring, ranks second in the EYBL in blocks (first for players that have played all eight games). He's also eighth in rebounding, currently averaging 8.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.9 blocks for the 7-1 Fire.

"Just be that defensive anchor," Kalkbrenner said was his role for the team. "There's so much offensive firepower that they don't really need me to score. I've just got to do my thing on defense and make sure the other team can't score."

Kalkbrenner landed his first high-major offer — from Illinois — before his breakout performance in Atlanta. Before that, only Rice and Louisiana-Monroe had offered. He's picked up offers from Cincinnati, Creighton, Georgia Tech, Kansas State, Missouri and Stanford since.

"It's been kind of crazy — it's been a lot — but it's been fun, too," Kalkbrenner said about the uptick in his recruitment. "It's a blessing getting this opportunity."

Illinois' offer sticks out, Kalkbrenner said, because it was his first from a high-major program. That he would know people on campus should he pick the Illini is a bonus. Trinity Catholic has become a minor pipeline for the Illinois football program, with Isaiah Williams and Shammond Cooper two of the top three players in the Illini's 2019 class and Reggie Love III committed for 2020.

"They congratulated me and said we'd gladly welcome you to the family, but they're not trying to push me one direction or another yet," Kalkbrenner said. "It's kind of cool that I could potentially go there with a bunch of kids I know. (The Illini) haven't really talked to me a lot about fit. To me, the vibe I get from them is they feel like a family there. I like that."

Trinity Catholic (Mo.) 7-footer Ryan Kalkbrenner is just one big man on Illinois' 2020 recruiting board. A look at five others also playing in the EYBL:

Davion Bradford, 6-10, 240

St. Louis native put up 24 points and seven rebounds in MOKAN Elite's opener Friday in Westfield, Ind., but is mostly in a reserve role behind N'Faly Dante.

Clifford Omoruyi, 6-11, 230

Khalil Whitney's teammate at Roselle Catholic (N.J.) is go to big man for New York Lightning, averaging 10 points and 4.9 rebounds through two sessions.

Jamari Sibley, 6-8, 200

Milwaukee (Wis.) Nicolet forward is part of a loaded frontcourt for Phenom University and is averaging 13.1 points and 3.3 rebounds this spring.

Richie Springs, 6-9, 200

Illinois could extend its run of east coast bigs with Springs, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native currently averaging seven points and 4.9 rebounds for PSA Cardinals.

Jaylin Williams, 6-9, 215

Four-star prospect out of Fort Smith, Ark., is newest post player on Illinois' board and putting up 13 points and 10.9 rebounds per game for Woodz Elite.

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).