CHAMPAIGN – I once drove to Chicago to watch a highly rated high school basketball player on the same night former Illini coach Lon Kruger and his assistant, Rob Judson, were in the gym.
We sat close to one another and chatted during the game.
Kruger and Judson weren’t the only college coaches in the same building watching the same player during the same heated recruiting push.
It can now fairly be said that the Illini coaches loathed the DePaul staff, at least what they perceived to be their recruiting methods. They were convinced some of tactics being used to lure players should have earned handcuffs from the NCAA police, although whatever was going on mostly remained conjecture communicated in whispers.
Each of the schools was muscling for the same Chicago-area recruits and at the time, DePaul seemed to have gained the upper hand.
It was an interesting period because Illinois and DePaul were each vying for national prestige and an NCAA Tournament edge. Their recruiting battles were the stuff of national interest.
As always happens, coaches change and time passes. And if one were making an honest assessment here in 2017, DePaul is one of the few schools that has fallen further off the national radar than Illinois. “National interest” is a term that hasn’t applied to either school in recent years.
Which is why Saturday’s announcement that Illinois will host DePaul on Nov. 17 as part of the Gavitt Tipoff Games reopens the door to a new chapter of intrigue.
This will be the first time since 1957 that Illinois and DePaul have met on a basketball court. The Gavitt Tipoff Games is a Big Ten vs. Big East made-for-TV battle that began in 2015. Eight matchups are created each season. Illinois lost to Providence in 2015 and hasn’t been in the rotation since.
Illinois and DePaul know the landscape within the state has changed dramatically in the last 15 years.
Northwestern has broken through and made it into the NCAA Tournament last season while Illinois and DePaul watched on TV. Illinois State is making a push. So there’s a real battle to have a say in the new pecking order within the state and Illinois made it clear it will fight for its share of recognition with the hiring of Brad Underwood as its new head coach.
DePaul just finished its second year with Dave Leitao as head coach. He was 9-22 his first season, 9-23 this past season. And this is Leitao’s second stint as head coach, having guided DePaul twice to the NIT and once to the NCAA Tournament during a three-year stint from 2002-2005.
Ticket holders at the State Farm Center should like this matchup. It’s certainly better than the typical non-conference cupcakes they’ve been complaining about for years. And the in-state rivalry factor is easy to get excited about, even if both teams are perceived to be down.
Leitao also recently hired Shane Heirman as an assistant coach. He was head coach at LaLumiere Prep School in Indiana, where he coached Illinois’ Jalen-Coleman Lands and current Illini walkon Drew Cayce. So there’s that angle.
Some of the other matchups in this November series are worth noting.
Purdue will play at Marquette, Butler at Maryland, Creighton at Northwestern, Indiana at Seton Hall and Xavier at Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, Saturday was supposed to be the day that Wright State graduate transfer Mark Alstork made his college announcement. Illinois is in his final four after he eliminated Louisville and Georgetown this week.
But Alstork, a 6-5 guard/wing who averaged 19 points last season, has delayed his decision until Wednesday.
Alstork is a big target for Underwood, who hosted him on campus and made a detailed presentation that outlined what Underwood projects as Alstork’s minutes, shot totals and potential scoring production playing within his high-powered offense.
Underwood has a track record of players seeing their production rise within his offense and as an example he could point to what happened to Jeffrey Carroll in his one season playing for Underwood at Oklahoma State.
Carroll, who is a similar size as Alstork, saw his scoring average jump fro 8.2 in the season before Underwood arrived in Stillwater to 17.5 while starring in Underwood’s system.
There are very few players on the move with a 19-point scoring average. Should he pick Illinois, Underwood would instantly replace the offensive production he loses with the graduation of team MVP Malcolm Hill.
Alstork, who would have just one year of eligibility, wants to play where he can shine while the coach helps make him NBA-ready. Underwood has assured him he can make it happen.
With two schools out of the way, Illinois’ competition is LSU, South Carolina and Pittsburgh.
And if Alstork wants to know what life is like as an Illini, he can ask his Wright State teammate Mike LaTulip, the former Illini walkon who started 26 games last season for coach Scott Nagy, son of former Lou Henson assistant Dick Nagy.
Regardless of what Alstork does, Underwood still needs a big man. Akoy Agau, a 6-9 player whose strength is probably on the defensive end, is considering Illinois as he leaves Georgetown. He should decide soon with SMU viewed as the top contender.