Alexander loss hurts the most


By By: Stephen Bourbon

Editor’s note: This column is written as part of a point-counterpoint. The other column, stating the Quentin Snider loss hurt more, can be read here

The aftermath is everywhere.

Ever since Friday, Illini basketball fans have felt the shockwaves of not one, but two prospective basketball recruits picking other schools. Cliff Alexander, a five-star power forward from Chicago, picked Kansas on national television, while four-star point guard Quentin Snider decommitted from Illinois back to his hometown school of Louisville.

On the holiday dubbed “Cliffmas,” the No. 4 player in the country (according to Rivals) teased his in-state school by picking up the orange hat and prefacing his decision with a “University of…” But just as other top prospects from Chicago have done in recent memory, Alexander decided to spurn the Illini in favor of the Jayhawks.

Alexander would have been the Illini’s first five-star commitment in 11 years, since Dee Brown according to Brown led the 2004-05 Illini team to the National Championship game, along with future NBA players Deron Williams and Luther Head.

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Illinois has signed talented prospects in the interim; Meyers Leonard, Jereme Richmond and D.J. Richardson were all top-40 prospects, but none are of the same caliber as Alexander.

Both on the recruiting trail and on the court, Alexander’s absence is much more concerning than the loss of the point guard Snider — who recommitted to Louisville on Cliffmas morning after being a verbal commit for more than two months.

On the court, Alexander is a beast. He fills the need at the power forward position for next season that would have rounded out an extremely talented Illinois roster. The core of seniors Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Rayvonte Rice for next year paired with a top-5 player in this recruiting class would have made for one of the most talented Illinois teams in recent memory. Next season, the Illini will have a full backcourt with Abrams and Rice to go along with transfers Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks, as well as current freshmen Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn, leaving only a void in the paint with post players.  

With Alexander, the dreams turn from Big Ten contention to national championship contention. That’s how good he is projected to be.

Although people may disagree with the “one-and-done” philosophy, coaches have made it work to their advantage. Every season, Kentucky loads up on top talent only to have them leave for the NBA the next season. But because of the popularity and status of those players, it becomes easier to lure top talent because they see Kentucky as a staging area for the NBA.

That mentality is what Illinois missed out on.

Off the court and on the trail, a commitment from Alexander puts Illinois on the map as a destination for top prospects. Head coach John Groce has shown he’s able to get interest from elite talent, but actually landing a player like Alexander gives him and the program credibility for the future. Not only does the five-star rating of Alexander make him a coveted player for Illinois, but his ties to the Chicago area as well.

Illinois has missed on top-level Chicago prospects such as Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis in the past few seasons and if the Illini want to get back to being a top-tier Big Ten program, they need to be able to keep recruits in-state.

Illinois’ “Our State, Our Team” marketing agenda isn’t about luring kids from Peoria. Or Springfield. Or Bloomington.

It’s about Chicago and the untapped reservoir of talent that Illinois has not had access to for the past 10 years.

The height of Illinois basketball was in 1988-89 with the Flyin’ Illini, a team that made a run to the Final Four. That team had five players from the Chicago area, including McDonald’s All-Americans Marcus Liberty and Lowell Hamilton, as well as Nick Anderson and Kendall Gill.

That is the place Illinois basketball wants to be. And to get there, the place it must control is Chicago.

Stephen is a junior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.