COLUMN: Illini recruitment foiled

By Lucas Deal

Wow, last week was brutal.

First I get a D on a paper Monday in Philosophy because I’m not “descriptive enough.” Then on Thursday my Cardinals lose Game 1 of the NLCS to the Mets because Carlos Beltran hit a Jeff Weaver fastball to the moon.

And then on Friday, when I’m finally beginning to round myself back into form, ESPN.com informs me that Eric Gordon has changed his mind and will attend Indiana. While the news has not yet been made “official,” the article says Gordon is expected to announce the news at Indiana’s “Hoosier Madness” on Friday.

Come on, stop kicking me. I’m already down.

For those of you who don’t know (yes, all six of you), this is NOT good news. Eric Gordon is the No. 2-ranked high school basketball player in the nation, and he’s been orally committed to Illinois since last November.

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    In changing his mind, Gordon has essentially derailed Illinois’ roster plans for the next several years, and has left Illini nation with a huge feeling of uncertainty and doubt.

    Gordon has also dramatically improved the status of what has been a fading Indiana program, led by new head coach Kelvin Sampson.

    Now, Illinois head coach Bruce Weber has a huge scholarship hole to fill. Not only does he need to find a top-notch shooting guard to fill Gordon’s place, he has to do it in a hurry.

    There’s no doubt that Illinois basketball will take a hit from this. Players like Gordon don’t come around every day – especially in this area – so anytime you miss out on the chance to corral one it hurts.

    But this isn’t the end.

    Just because Gordon isn’t going to don the orange and blue doesn’t mean the team will stop playing. Far from it. Besides, we have to remember, this has happened to us before.

    As we all know, legendary Illini head coach Lou Henson led Illinois to a 31-win season and the 1989 Final Four. Henson’s “Flyin’ Illini” were led by future NBA stars Kendall Gill and Nick Anderson as well as point guard Steve Bardo and explosive wingman Kenny Battle.

    The team was as electric as they were good, and their success moved Illinois from a Top 25 program to the big fish in the recruiting pool. For the first time, blue-chippers didn’t just take a look at Illinois, they wanted to go there.

    And Henson didn’t hesitate. He started fishing.

    First it was Deon Thomas. He was the best player in the state and a top-20 recruit. Thomas’ post presence would force teams to double team him, allowing Henson’s wing players to run free off screens and through the lane.

    But that alone wouldn’t do it. Nope, Thomas would need a sidekick.

    Enter Juwan Howard.

    Another all-stater, Henson knew a Thomas-Howard tandem would be as formidable a duo as any other pair in the Big Ten. Howard was a perfect complement to Thomas’ brute physicality, a long and lean player who could post-up and score or step out and hit a jumper.

    Henson came hard after the Chicago Vocational product Howard, and for awhile, it looked like he might get him. While Howard was being courted by several national powerhouses, Illinois and Big Ten rival Michigan seemed to be his most intriguing choices. Michigan, the team that beat Illinois in the ’89 Final Four, was already stockpiling talent under new coach Steve Fisher, while Henson was attempting to maintain his recruiting pipeline from Chicago.

    Howard liked Illinois a lot, but when Henson offered a scholarship to Thomas before Howard, he seemed offended, bitter even.

    Henson and his assistants continued to recruit Howard, but eventually, Fisher’s advancements proved to be too much. And while Illinois had a great team, the chance for Howard to make Fisher’s already fantastic four into the “Fab Five” was too tempting for him to resist.

    And just like that, he was gone.

    Four years later, Deon Thomas left Illinois as the school’s all-time leading scorer, while Howard left Michigan with two Final Four appearances and bound for a long career in the NBA.

    But Howard’s success wasn’t without controversy. Teammate Chris Webber cost Big Blue the 1993 National Title when he called “the time-out” against North Carolina; and in 2000, it was discovered that Webber, Howard and the rest of the “Fab Five” were paid by booster Ed Martin to attend Michigan. The school was forced to forfeit every game won during the Martin scandal, and most of Howard’s records have been completely removed from Michigan’s records.

    Fisher, meanwhile, was fired and has since been banished to the head coaching job at San Diego State.

    The school and the program haven’t been the same since.

    And yet here we are, years later, and Illinois and Indiana are in the same situation.

    The Hoosiers got the player the Illini wanted, and now the Illini have to go on without him. It’s going to be rough. That elusive national title we Illini fans covet has once again slipped through our grasp.

    But, Sampson’s steal won’t go unpunished. He’s been tinkering with recruiting laws for several years and, sooner or later, somebody’s going to find something. Karma’s got to get him – it always does.

    It got Steve Fisher. It got Michigan. And trust me Illini Nation, as much as it hurts now, it’ll be that much sweeter when it gets Sampson in a couple years.

    He stole from us and he will get punished.