The single biggest recruiting advantage a college program has in the never-ending search for players? Winning.
Success, even at a moderate rate, is the first step, while winning at a very high level can open more doors and close out recruiting races in your favor.
Yes, success sells, especially in recruiting.
For recruiting success stories, look no further than what a couple out-of-state schools –– Dayton and Valparaiso –– have done in recruiting this state.
Dayton has made back-to-back NCAA Tournament runs the past two years with a pair of former Chicago Public League players, Simeon’s Kendall Pollard and Morgan Park’s Kyle Davis, as fixtures. Now Morgan Park alum and former all-stater Josh Cunningham has joined Davis and Pollard at Dayton.
Valpo, meanwhile, has hit the state hard in recruiting. A couple of years ago former Foreman star Lavonte Dority led Valparaiso in scoring. Last season’s 28-win NCAA Tournament team, as well as this year’s team that is expected to repeat in the Horizon League, featured five players on scholarship from Illinois, including leading scorers Alec Peters of Washington (Ill.) and Darien Walker of Simeon. Point guard Keith Carter of Proviso East returns, along with former Marist star Lexus Williams and Andrew great Jubril Adekoya.
Coach Bryce Drew and his staff are active again in the Chicago area, courting the Kenwood tandem of Nick Robinson and Zion Morgan.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a whole lot to sell for our state’s Division I basketball programs in recent years. As a result, there has been another wave of in-state coaching turnover at the college level, with new head coaches at UIC (Steve McClain), Bradley (Brian Wardle), DePaul (Dave Leitao) and SIUE (Jon Harris). But each of these coaches are selling fresh starts and opportunity in Year One.
The good news is the tide does seem to be changing a bit for a few Division I programs across the state in the won-loss department. Thus, a recruiting surge could follow as prospects and their “people” –– coaches, family and friends –– take notice.
Here is a look at five college basketball programs in the state of Illinois –– at various levels and not just at the Division I level –– whose arrows are certainly pointing up as we head into the 2015-2016 season. That should keep in-state recruits intrigued, even if there isn’t a single one of these programs that will play on ESPN’s Big Monday or Super Tuesday or play in a power conference this winter.
➤ Illinois State
The Redbirds have been knocking on the NCAA Tournament door for several years, falling in the Missouri Valley Conference title game in 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2015. Coach Dan Muller, who begins his fourth year at ISU, may have the talent to get over the hump sooner than later.
Last season, Illinois State won 22 games, finished 11-7 in the MVC, knocked off Wichita State late in the year and was selected to play in the NIT, where it beat Wisconsin-Green Bay in the opening round before falling to Old Dominion, 50-49.
With the tragic death of assistant coach Torrey Ward in April and the transfer of returning talented big man Reggie Lynch to Minnesota, Illinois State has dealt with a very difficult offseason. But there is returning talent in place that will make the Redbirds a legit threat in the Missouri Valley Conference.
ISU is led by DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell and former Proviso East star Paris Lee, along with some tantalizing newcomers, including West Aurora product Roland Griffin, who was an underrated recruit, and promising 6-11 freshman David Ndiaye.
A lot can be said for how far Loyola has come here in the past 18 months, with success occurring while the program made the unexpected leap up from the Horizon League to the Missouri Valley Conference just two seasons ago. Plus, the team’s best player, Milton Doyle, missed 11 games last season due to injury.
Nonetheless, a late-season run in the CBI Tournament last March, which included a title game win over Louisiana-Monroe, left the Ramblers with 24 wins on the season. It was the first 20-win season and postseason appearance at Loyola in 30 years.
The bulk of the team returns, led by Doyle, a former city star at Marshall, and up-and-coming sophomore Donte Ingram of Simeon. Coach Porter Moser now hopes to parlay last year’s success into recruiting momentum and make a push into the top half the Missouri Valley Conference this winter.
This staff has done a terrific job of targeting the right prospects and are heavily involved with some good ones in Illinois, including Bogan senior James Jones and the junior tandem of Cameron Krutwig of Jacobs and Evan Gilyard of Simeon.
➤ Eastern Illinois
Maybe the 18-win season doesn’t jump out at many, but coach Jay Spoonhour, who begins his fourth season on the job in Charleston, certainly has the program pointed in the right direction.
This past year, which included a nine-game win streak, was just the second winning season at EIU since 2001. The season also included a postseason trip to the CIT, where it won an opening-round game over Oakland.
Although former Seton Academy star Chris Olivier has left the program as a fifth-year senior graduate, Spoonhour returns the cornerstones of that team, including Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of the Year Cornell Johnston and leading scorer Trae Anderson.
In three years in Charleston, Spoonhour has certainly done a nice job of making Eastern Illinois relevant in the Ohio Valley.
➤ Lewis (Division II)
After back-to-back 20-win seasons, including a 22-9 mark this past year and a Division II NCAA Tournament berth, the arrow continues to point up for coach Scott Trost’s Flyers.
Trost and his staff have dipped out of state for some talented 2015 recruits, but the bulk of the roster remains Illinois products as the Flyers have made a presence recruiting the state.
Lewis will welcome back Great Lakes Valley Conference Freshman of the Year Max Strus. The former Stagg star put up an impressive 13.3 points a game in his first season at Lewis. Strus and St. Charles East product Kyle Nelson, a 6-8 senior, are returning starters.
Transfer Miles Simelton should be a huge addition and potential difference-making one for Lewis this season. The 6-0 junior guard, who starred at Oswego, comes home after two years at Lehigh.
➤ Augustana (Division III)
The Vikings are coming off a 27-5 season, the second most wins in school history, and a Division III Final Four appearance. Augie ultimately lost in the NCAA Division III title game to Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
With the nucleus of that team back, including point guard Hunter Hill, who was the CCIW’s Co-Most Outstanding Player last season, and all-CCIW selection Ben Ryan, Augustana could open the season as the preseason No. 1 team in the country.
Coach Grey Giovanine and his staff have made a living off in-state recruits, noted by the fact that all four players who were selected to some all-CCIW team last year –– Hill (Byron, Ill.), Ryan (Washington, Ill.), Jawan Straughter (Plainfield East) and Tayvian Johnson (East Moline United Twp.) –– are all from Illinois.
Plus, Augustana brought in a stellar recruiting class, led by Division III recruiting steal Pierson Wofford of Springfield Lutheran.
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