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University of Illinois men's basketball coach Brad Underwood, right, talks with Mark Tupper late last month. 

CHAMPAIGN – Watching Zion Williamson move like a locomotive with wings and seeing R.J. Barnett knife to the basket with graceful ease was a breathtaking sight for college basketball aficionados this week. It’s proof that sometimes heralded freshmen really do live up to the hype.

But for those who keep eyes trained on the recruiting exploits of the University of Illinois basketball program, seeing Duke’s magnificent freshman class was like having a bucket of ice water dumped over the head. It’s a chilling wakeup call that there are special freshmen who consider only the elite programs and there are more common and flawed freshmen everyone else gets a shot it.

Lately, for the Illini, there are no freshmen at all.

Brad Underwood and his staff remain at zero for the 2019 recruiting class, and not for any lack of effort. They’ve worked like maniacs, willing to go to any city, state or foreign country if the player projects as a future success in Underwood’s system.

They have cultivated genuine interest from a variety of prospects but are lately finishing second or third as coveted targets like Khalil Whitmey picks Kentucky, E.J. Liddell picks Ohio State, Canadian Quincy Guerrier picks Syracuse and Oscar Tshiebwe picks West Virginia.

Frustration mounts as one prospect after another seems to slip through the wide net Underwood and his staff have cast. But before anyone gets too upset, take a minute to consider the mountain the Illini coaching staff is trying to scale.

When the best high school seniors are trying to make the important decision of choosing a college, they all have a similar checklist of factors that are important.

Then have questions to ask each head coach, such as:

Is your program routinely competing for conference championships?

Is your program nationally relevant and does it routinely live among the nation’s Top 25?

Is your program in the NCAA Tournament and doing damage once it gets there?

Has your program established a pipeline of players being developed and shipped to the NBA?

In the case of the current Illini program, the answers are no, no, no and no.

This is the difficult conundrum Underwood stepped into when he decided to leave Oklahoma State to come to Champaign. He knew the situation but believed – and still believes – the answer to those questions can change. But until it does, very good players are willing to consider Illinois but are fleeing elsewhere where more of those questions can be answered in the affirmative.

While it’s frustrating to lose out on a genuine talent like Liddell or Tshiebwe, it’s an achievement to have been so close in the first place.

Tshiebwe, in particular, stands out as a miracle piece of recruiting by the Illini staff, given the fact that he plays high school ball in Pennsylvania, has a high school teammate already on the West Virginia roster, was also being wooed by Kentucky and had no powerful ties to the Illini program.

It isn’t enough that these prospects learn on their own that the Illini haven’t won a Big Ten title since 2005, that they haven’t been ranked in the Top 25 or competed in the NCAA Tournament since 2013 and that they haven’t had a player drafted by the NBA since Meyers Leonard in 2012.

But whenever they visit a campus like Ohio State or Syracuse, there are plenty of people more than happy to remind them. That’s not negative recruiting. It’s just questioning a player’s logic for even considering the Illini with a gentle reminder of all the program fails to currently offer.

The minor miracle is that Underwood and his assistants were able to assemble a strong 2018 recruiting class. Given the state of the current program, grabbing players like Ayo Dosunmu, Tevian Jones, Alan Griffin and junior college point guard Andres Feliz took some pretty good lobbying, shrewd talking and recruiting teamwork.

It’s why hope is not lost on the 2019 class, even if it’s still empty at this point.

But it’s also a reminder that Illinois needs to start winning as soon as possible, that some attention-getting outcomes will likely have to happen before players like Liddell and Tshiebwe roll the dice on a program on the rise.

The frustration some fans feel is understandable. Close calls sting, and that’s been the case over and over for too many years.

My stance is to hang in there, believing that Underwood has the mettle to gain traction and start winning, one recruiting victory at a time.

But having watched the freshmen at Duke and Kansas this week, we should all understand what is described as a promising freshman in Champaign is not the same as what flies above the rim for the Blue Devils. They’re playing a different recruiting game, one the Illini won’t be involved with until some key factors change.

Mark Tupper is the retired Executive Sports Editor of the Herald & Review. He can be reached at marktupper@barbeckbb.com

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Sports Columnist

Sports columnist for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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