By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) There may be plenty of fish in the sea, but when it comes to the pool of high school basketball recruits, there simply aren’t many 6-foot-8, 225-pound marlins out swimming around in the waters.
Cliff Alexander, however, would fit that gill, er, bill.
And beginning today, Alexander – the consensus national Top 5 recruit from Chicago Curie – will be on campus in Champaign-Urbana this weekend for an official visit during University of Illinois Homecoming.
The attendance of such a highly touted athlete is a big deal for the Illini of course, and the coaching staff is expected to pull out all the stops. But the arrival of an in-state recruit with Alexander’s pedigree is hardly unprecedented in Champaign.
After all, the program has gone fishing for the big local catch before.
It did it 15 years ago with Corey Maggette (who committed to Duke). It did it 10 years ago with Shaun Livingston (who committed to Duke before choosing the NBA). It did it six years ago with Derrick Rose (who committed to Memphis). And during that same year it did it with Eric Gordon, who former Illini coach Bruce Weber had on the hook only to see him wriggle off it and land with the Hoosiers at the last minute.
Out of all those prime-time recruits over the past several years – including others such as Anthony Davis and Jabari Parker who didn’t even visit – the former coaches at Illinois were unable to reel any of them in.
That’s been a disappointing in-state trend for such a long time, that it’s seemingly become the rule at Illinois. So much so that second-year Illini coach John Groce won’t be thought any less of if he fails to eventually secure a commitment from Alexander.
However, if he does manage to convince Alexander to choose Champaign, the whole nation will be thinking of Groce and what could be a truly transformative commitment for the Illini program.
Yes, Alexander would likely be that big for Illinois.
And, while I’d say Kansas remains the odds-on leader for his services, I wouldn’t count Groce out in this race. As you may recall, back in September, Groce put Illinois back on the national recruiting map when in the span of just two weeks he slipped into the south to receive commitments from Leron Black, a Top 40 power forward out of Memphis, and point guard Quentin Snider of Louisville, who is ranked as high as No. 28 nationally.
By beating out the likes of Tom Crean and Indiana for Black, and Steve Alford and UCLA for Snider, Groce made a statement. By beating out Bill Self and Kansas for Alexander, he would make a name for himself.
The keys to Alexander’s commitment in my eyes are two-fold: 1) Can Groce sell him on spending his (expected) one year in college being the undisputed “man,” rather than likely sharing the spotlight with others in Lawrence, and 2) Can Groce finally sell an elite Illinois recruit on the undeniable advantages and opportunities of staying in the Land of Lincoln and trying to make history here?
With his talents, Alexander can be a star anywhere. But it’s only at Illinois where he can truly be a legend by finally being the in-state superstar who chose to stay home. That legend multiplies exponentially if he can then accomplish big things with the Illini, particularly a championship.
Much like Self before him, I think Groce has the energy, personality and salesmanship skills to pull off big things at U. of I. We’ve seen samples of that with how he immediately went into Chicago and plucked two recruits from Simeon shortly after taking the job and his ability to add two coveted out-of-state players this fall. And if he can pull off the same with Alexander, the budding reputation of Groce won’t just be a fish story for Illini fans to tell.
It will be reality.
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.