By Adam Hoge-
MILWAUKEE (CBS) — In basketball-rich Illinois, there’s not much to be excited about when it comes to the NCAA Tournament.
Despite a wealth of talent in Chicago and beyond, not a single college basketball program from the state of Illinois made the NCAA Tournament this year.
But you didn’t have to travel far Thursday to find some Illinois basketball flavor in the tournament. Just 90 miles to the north, two former Illinois high school products were lighting up Milwaukee’s Bradley Center as the second-seeded Wisconsin Badgers beat the 15th-seeded American Eagles, 75-35.
Meet Frank Kaminsky and Ben Brust.
By now, you’ve probably heard of them. The former was a first-team All-Big Ten selection this year. The latter was an honorable mention.
And neither was recruited by the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Kaminsky, the 7-foot center from Benet Academy in Lisle, Ill., said the only in-state schools that recruited him were Southern Illinois, Bradley and Northwestern “a little bit.”
Brust, the 6-foot-1 shooting guard from Mundelein High School, said he was recruited by Northwestern, but “not really” by Illinois. He originally committed to Iowa but switched to Wisconsin when Todd Lickliter was fired by the Hawkeyes.
But when it comes to the Illini, this isn’t really a recruiting issue.
Kaminsky was offered a scholarship by Wisconsin only after the Badgers failed to land St. Ignatius center Nnanna Egwu, who instead chose Illinois. Current UIC coach and then-Wisconsin assistant Howard Moore was a frequent visitor at Egwu’s high school games. They wanted him bad.
Wisconsin also wanted forward Mike Shaw, who, like Egwu, chose the Illini over the Badgers. He saw little playing time in Champaign before transferring to Bradley.
The point is, the Illini are getting kids over Wisconsin. They just don’t seem to be getting the right kids.
Players like Kaminsky and Brust are just the latest example of Illinois high school products who escape the state and end up on TV during the NCAA Tournament.
Other players like UConn’s Ryan Boatright (East Aurora), Stanford’s Chasson Randle (Rock Island) and Ohio State’s Sam Thompson (Whitney Young) and Lenzelle Smith Jr. (Zion-Benton) are scattered across the field. Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet (Rockford Auburn) already led his team to one Final Four and is looking for a second.
Even Cal Poly had Brian Bennett (Romeoville) drop 10 points Wednesday night and help the Mustangs advance in the First Four.
Notice how Jabari Parker wasn’t even mentioned. Those kinds of defections are understandable.
College basketball programs only have so many scholarships and Illinois programs can’t recruit everyone, but it’s not a good look for the state when you see Illinois products all over your television in March and none of the schools being represented by those players are from Illinois.
It’s understandable for the Illini to pass up players like Brust and Kaminsky, but what about other programs like Northwestern and DePaul?
In Northwestern’s case, the Wildcats did recruit both players but didn’t get them. DePaul didn’t recruit either player and probably didn’t have a chance anyway. Both explanations are problems.
Whatever the strategies and excuses, Illinois high school players are ending up in the NCAA Tournament, but the programs are not. It’s inexplicable for Northwestern — a school located down the street from Chicago — to never make the NCAA Tournament. Mind boggling.
Meanwhile, the players who get out of Illinois are winning.
“I’ve had a chip on my shoulder because nobody recruited me out of high school,” Kaminsky said after Wisconsin’s win over American on Thursday. “There were a lot of people who told me what I could and couldn’t do without knowing. That was frustrating to me, but I think it’s turned out in my favor.”
It sure has. Kaminsky was arguably the Big Ten’s most improved player this season.
“There’s always people who don’t think you’re good enough or this or that,” Brust said after scoring 17 points. “You just got to be confident. Got here for a reason and trying to look forward to seeing what we can do now as a team.”
Brust and Kaminsky believe they can make a run at the Final Four. But even if they don’t, chances are there will be some other former Illinois high school players starring in college basketball’s final weekend.
For Illinois, Northwestern, DePaul and the rest of the state’s Division-I basketball programs, they’ll be watching from home.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.