CHAMPAIGN — Illinois men's basketball almost had to branch out nationally in trying to build its 2019 recruiting class. E.J. Liddell was the only player from Illinois ranked in the top 100 by both Rivals or 247Sports, and the state champ from Belleville West signed with Ohio State in November.
Recruiting nationally paid off for Brad Underwood and the Illini with a pair of 2019 commitments in five-star center Kofi Cockburn and four-star center Antwan January, who took his official visit last week.
The next two classes, though? Illinois should turn its attention back to the homefront with four-star guards Adam Miller and D.J. Steward at the top of the 2020 class and perhaps as many as a half-dozen high-major prospects in the Class of 2021.
That's part of the reason Illinois' recruiting in Chicago was brought into question in mid-December.
"There's conversations about it, and that's why the story came about because there were conversations and dialogue in gyms across the Chicago area about it," said Joe Henricksen, editor and publisher of City/Suburban Hoops Report, on 'Illini Pella Saturday SportsTalk' on WDWS 1400-AM. "This is the first time now in a while that Illinois has actually had some recruitable kids in the state of Illinois with some depth — the Class of 2021. There's a lot of players in that class that, yes, (Illinois is) going to have to get in on early because that's just the nature of the game. I think that's why some of that emerged and developed as it did, because that little stretch there wasn't a presence."
Illinois certainly has a presence with Morgan Park and the Mac Irvin Fire after landing five-star guard Ayo Dosunmu in the 2018 class. Miller is the next top prospect out of both programs, with the four-star guard ranked No. 33 nationally by both Rivals and 247Sports in the 2020 class.
Miller entered the new year averaging just better than 30 points per game. Morgan Park has kept winning, too, with five more victories in 2019 to push its winning streak to 11 heading into today's game with Corliss.
Miller, Henricksen said, is a true combo guard. Not just a combo guard because he's not quite good enough to be a point guard or good enough to be a true shooting guard.
"I think Adam Miller is a true combo guard with size and shooting ability and court sense that he can play both guard spots effectively," Henricksen said.
This spring could be crucial in Miller's recruitment. Henricksen said Illinois is in a good position with the 6-foot-3 lefty, but he has more than a dozen total offers and that number could increase as he finishes his junior year with the Mustangs and transitions into the spring and summer with Mac Irvin Fire.
"This will be the big stretch for him in April, June and July this year," Henricksen said. "Does he separate himself nationally? He's in that 30 to 40 range. Does he solidify himself as a top-30 or top-25 player in the country where more and more of the upper-echelon, high-major programs get serious about him? Or does he stay where he's at or maybe fade a little? I anticipate he'll stay where he is."
Henricksen said he sees Steward making a leap in the next year. The 6-2, four-star guard out of Whitney Young is currently ranked No. 62 in the 2020 class by 247Sports and No. 63 by Rivals. Steward is into double-digit offers after both Xavier and Texas offered in the last 2 1 / 2 weeks.
"He's very appreciated here in Illinois and been the No. 1 or 2 ranked player his entire career in that class of 2020, but nationally I think he's been undervalued and overlooked a little bit," Henricksen said. "That's really gained steam, and I think that's going to continue in the spring and summer where his recruitment will continue to kind of flourish and rise in the national rankings.
"He's not nearly as highly regarded and ranked as Adam Miller, but I think D.J. Steward is right there with Adam Miller, to be honest with you. I don't see the separation as big as maybe some people nationally do, and I think that might change as they get to see D.J. Steward play more."
On the horizon
City/Suburban Hoops Report's Joe Henricksen identified six Class of 2021 prospects as the best in Illinois. The breakdown:
Isaiah Barnes 6-6, G, Oak Park-River Forest
Cousin of former Illini Brian Cook already holds a half-dozen Division I offers, including Loyola Chicago, UIC and Detroit.
Ahamad Bynum 6-2, G, Simeon
Currently a three-star per Rivals, one of several young standouts for the Wolverines, and he holds offers from DePaul, Northern Illinois and UIC.
Max Christie 6-6, G, Rolling Meadows
Illinois target already has 11 offers — 10 from high-major programs — and is ranked as high as No. 16 nationally in 2021 by 247Sports.
Chris Hodges 6-8, F, Schaumburg
Big man has offers from DePaul, Loyola Chicago and Miami (Ohio) and put up 14 points and seven rebounds in recent wins against Fremd and Prospect.
Bryce Hopkins 6-5, G, Fenwick
Hopkins picked up his first two high-major offers — Illinois and Xavier — after a standout showing at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.
Anthony Sayles Jr. 6-2, G, Niles Notre Dame
Improved three-point shooting (24 percent to 39 percent jump this season) has Sayles, with offers from Southern Illinois and Milwaukee, on more college radars.