By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) When it comes to college basketball recruiting, second place truly is the first loser.
No one hands out banners for your rafters when a prep star names you part of his Final Four. You don’t get a trophy for finishing a step behind in a recruiting race. And the truth is, any publicity gained from coming close with a blue-chip prospect is about as valuable to your program as, well, horseshoes and hand grenades.
The University of Illinois knows all of this all too well.
Throughout the past decade, the Illini have famously been in the final mix with a number of high-profile recruits only to see them make the orange blue by ultimately heading elsewhere.
Back in the day, there was Julian Wright, who went to Kansas. And there was Sherron Collins, who did the same. Future NBA pick Shaun Livingston once wore an Illinois jersey to his high school classes in Peoria on one day, only to announce for Duke the next.
And then, of course, along came Eric Gordon.
For many Illini fans – the reasonable ones, at least – their biggest beef when the Indianapolis star switched his commitment from Illinois to Indiana back in October 2006 wasn’t that Gordon changed his mind. Rather, it was the way the kid handled everything. By jumping ship at the last possible moment, Gordon held the Illini program and head coach Bruce Weber hostage the entire summer, even while he flirted with IU.
Had Gordon instead done the right thing and officially re-opened his recruitment months earlier, I’m certain Illini fans would have still been hurt, upset and angry. But I think they also would have accepted his defection much better, particularly because would have had Weber ample time to find a recruit to replace him.
Alas, the way Gordon played things out did Illinois no such favors. On Wednesday, however, Simeon’s Jabari Parker did.
When the nation’s undisputed No. 1 recruit and SI cover boy released his list of 10 finalists last night, he revealed that the Illini didn’t make the cut while Kentucky, Stanford, Michigan State, Kansas, Florida, Duke, BYU, Georgetown, DePaul and North Carolina all did.
At first, the news felt like a blow to Illini fans, as nobody likes to be left out. Parker, of course, would have been a colossal coup for John Groce, but it was unreasonable to expect Illinois’ new head coach to parachute in and immediately woo the Simeon superstar.
There’s no doubt that it’s disappointing for the Illini that Parker has no interest in playing for the Land of Lincoln’s flagship university. However, look at it this way: Parker surely could have left Illinois on his Top 10 list out of respect for the state. But he didn’t, which is perhaps a much greater sign of respect for the state university.
Because if Parker isn’t truly interested in playing for the Illini – and clearly, he is not – then Groce is far better off knowing that right now rather than waiting to learn it for sure several months from now.
Parker’s news on Wednesday now allows Groce to dedicate his resources and energy toward recruits he has a real chance at signing rather than being forced to chase a guy he had almost not chance with merely because Parker had named Illinois among his “Final 10.”
To be sure, I would have loved to have seen the Illini reel in Jabari Parker. But the last thing Illinois needs right now is to have false hope dangled in front of its face. Been there, done that.
So my advice to Illinois fans is, don’t cry that Parker will be picking another school on some future date. Instead, thank the kid for dishing out a helpful dose of reality today.
A few months from now, nine other schools just might be wishing that they’d been given the same.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.