By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Chicago is No. 1.
Remarkably, for the third year in a row, the Windy City is home to the No. 1 high school basketball player in America, with rising Whitney Young senior Jahlil Okafor following in the large footsteps of prior Public League phenoms Jabari Parker (2013) and Anthony Davis (2012).
The twist this time around, however, is that Chicago is also No. 2.
That’s because on Wednesday, ESPN released its updated list of the top 100 players in the Class of 2014. At the top was the 6-foot-11, 265-pound Okafor, but just behind him in the No. 2 spot was Cliff Alexander, the 6-8, 225-pound power forward from Chicago Curie.
When it comes to the caliber of prep basketball in Illinois, those rankings are great news. But for college basketball in this state, they’re perhaps not so great as many believe the odds are stacked against either Okafor or Alexander – let alone both – committing to a local school.
Namely, Illinois or DePaul.
Currently, Okafor has Illinois listed among his Final 8 college choices, although the Illini are considered a long shot. DePaul did not make the cut. Alexander, meanwhile, has offers from both Illinois and DePaul and hasn’t ruled either out either. He hasn’t formally said he’s seriously considering the schools either, however.
If Okafor and Alexander do ultimately leave the Land of Lincoln to play their college ball, they’ll only continue a trend that in recent years has seen the likes of Sherron Collins (Kansas), Julian Wright (Kansas), Derrick Rose (Memphis) and Wayne Blackshear (Louisville) seek stardom elsewhere – not to mention both Davis (Kentucky) and Parker (Duke).
Things, though, didn’t used to be that way. Once upon a time, the majority of Chicago’s top prep players actually chose to continue their careers in state. And almost all of them chose the Illini or the Blue Demons.
Illinois and DePaul once serenaded beneath the same South and West Side windows, with local superstars such as Marcus Liberty, Lowell Hamilton, Nick Anderson and Deon Thomas choosing the Illini, while other greats such as Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings opted for DePaul.
Now, though, it seems that all of Chicago’s biggest basketball names simply choose elsewhere.
But I’m wondering if that might soon change.
Both the Illini and the Blue Demons are making plans to bring their basketball facilities into the 21st century, which could not only eventually spark a revival of the trend of Chicago stars staying home, but also a rebirth of heated Illinois-DePaul recruiting battles.
In April, Illinois secured a $60 million, 30-year naming rights deal to re-christen Assembly Hall as the State Farm center and help fund a massive $165 million renovation of the 50-year-old arena. Meanwhile, DePaul and the city of Chicago are planning to construct a brand new hoops arena near McCormick Place to the tune of $173 million.
Much has been discussed about how these projects might impact university and civic bottom lines, as well as how they could benefit each school individually. But less has been said about how they could impact their profile among Chicago preps – as well as the long dormant recruiting rivalry between the Illini and the Demons.
Last week, former Illini forward Myke Henry – a Chicago Orr product – announced that he had chosen DePaul as his destination after it was revealed that he was transferring from Illinois. It was the first time in some time that both schools’ names had been closely linked to the same player.
But if everything follows through with the sparkling new arenas for Illinois and DePaul – both scheduled to be completed in 2016 – I suspect that it probably won’t be the last.
With that in mind, perhaps for the Illini and Demons, it’s too bad that Okafor and Alexander aren’t a couple of years younger. Although, at the pace that Chicago is currently churning out prep superstars, they surely won’t be the last ones either.
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.