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SportsMonday: Illinois Is In - And Out - Of The Dance

The status of college basketball in the state of Illinois at this point begs a Princess Bride reference: "Inconceivable!"

That's what Vizzini said when informed that the Dread Pirate Roberts had bested both his swordsman and his giant.

With the NCCA tournament brackets out, we're similarly flummoxed: How can it be that for a second consecutive year, Illinois has failed to qualify a single team for the Dance at the same time that scores of Illinois kids are starring for all sorts of non-Illinois tournament teams?

To wit:

Freshman Jahlil Okafor (Whitney Young) is starring at Duke and still projected to be the No. 1 pick in this year's NBA draft.

Senior Frank the Tank Kaminsky (Benet) has played the starring role in Wisconsin's dream season, including regular season and Big 10 tournament championships and a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. (Deerfield's Duje Dukan comes off the bench for the Badgers and hit a couple huge threes in the conference tournament semifinal.)

Senior Wayne Blackshear (Morgan Park) is in Louisville's starting lineup; his former high school teammate Kyle Davis plays the point for Dayton.

Freshman Tyler Ulis (Bolingbrook) is a significant contributor off the bench to the Kentucky juggernaut, and after about a half-dozen members of this year's Wildcat express go pro, Ulis will have a chance to really shine in coming seasons.

Junior Fred VanVleet (Rockford) is still starring for seventh-seeded Wichita State.

(One who apparently will not be competing in the Dance is Cliff Alexander of Curie. Alexander has run afoul of the NCAA, which is apparently alleging that his mother took improper benefits in exchange for his attending Kansas. The Jayhawks started holding him out of games about two weeks ago and there seems to be an impasse between Alexander and the NCAA at this point.)

Meanwhile, happy days are here again just to our east. Notre Dame leads a contingent of five Indiana teams that will experience March Madness - a particularly impressive showing given that Indiana was shut out last year, just like we were.

What are the lessons for Illinois basketball?

Better in-state recruiting - a tall order - is obvious, but it isn't the end of the story. Take a look at the Fighting Irish roster, for example.

Sure, Notre Dame has a national recruiting base of which 99 percent of college athletic departments can only dream. But the team that just won the ACC postseason championship and probably deserved better than the third seed it received does not feature guys who were superstars coming out of high school.

There is leading scorer Jerian Grant, the nephew of former Bull Horace Grant (and son of Horace's brother Harvey, who spent most of his decent NBA career with the Bullets), who was reasonably heralded coming out of suburban D.C. But the rest of the team's prime contributors were not heavily hyped.

Five are from Indiana (and none from Illinois) but Notre Dame's statistical/team leaders are from a host of locations. In order to be successful, big-time college teams have to recruit reasonably well in their own state but more importantly, have to dig out a future star or two from wherever they can - and that doesn't always mean from the obvious group of elite prospects unavailable to crappy programs. Plucking kids from the next tier who might like to star on a bad team instead of warm the bench for a good team is a good way to jump-start a struggling team. When Illinois made the championship game in 2005, Illinois recruits Dee Brown (Proviso East) and James Augustine (downstate Lincoln) were prominent, but it was Deron Williams from Texas who put them over the top (and went on to star in the NBA). As a freshman, Williams started 30 of 32 games for the Illini.

So as inconceivable as it may seem, enjoy Illinois' contributions to this year's NCAA tournament - and wonder why so many of our players are dancing while none of our teams are.


Jim "Coach" Coffman is our man on Mondays. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Oct 22, 2021