When the 2017-2018 season tips off for Nebraska 14 months from now, coach Tim Miles and the Cornhuskers will have four Illinois products on its roster.
You can say Nebraska basketball has found a niche in recruiting the state of Illinois.
Bolingbrook’s Nana Akenten, a 6-5 wing who is among the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top 10 prospects in the Class of 2017, is the latest to join Miles’ program.
Akenten, an athletic wing with solid shooting potential and an ever-improving overall game, committed to the Huskers Thursday afternoon, just days after returning from an official visit to Lincoln.
Akenten will be part of an Illinois contingent at Nebraska that will include Glynn Watson of St. Joseph, Ed Morrow of Simeon and Isaiah Roby of Dixon.
Whether it be a lower profiled, under-recruited prospect (Watson, Morrow and Akenten) or simply identifying and pouncing on one very early (Roby), Nebraska has done a masterful job of recruiting players it’s not wasting time on. That’s been the key.
Miles and his staff, which includes former Northern Illinois, Bradley and Western Illinois head coach Jim Molinari, have made the absolute most out of their recruiting targets in this state. They haven’t muddled around the fringes and stuck just one toe in; Miles and the Huskers have been all in on the Illinois prospects they’ve recruited.
There is familiarity and commitment to the state from Miles, who firmly believed Illinois needed to be targeted the day he arrived as coach at Nebraska. Plus, there is Molinari, who has name recognition throughout the state from recruiting and coaching in Illinois for decades, and assistant Kenya Hunter, who has played a big part in recruiting the state as well.
Nebraska has identified players it needs and that fit, have remained active and aggressive after its initial evaluation and offer, and, which always isn’t the case in the basketball recruiting world, have stayed true to those players throughout the process. That loyalty has been appreciated by the players and their people.
For a player and family in recruiting –– and maybe specifically with Nebraska –– it’s finding the one that loves you the most. Nebraska has shown that time and time again.
Plus, when a prospect has familiarity with one or two Illinois players already on the roster, it doesn’t hurt. Thus, a pipeline is established.
Akenten will join a Nebraska roster next summer with Illinois products who have already made an impact in Lincoln.
Watson, who helped lead St. Joseph to a state championship his senior season, was a steady performer as a freshman this past year, averaging 8.6 points, 2.4 assists and 1.2 steals a game while playing 24 minutes a game at point guard. Watson is clearly the present and future at point guard for Nebraska.
The blue-collar, hard-hosed Morrow, who hails from Simeon, played 14 minutes a game as a freshman and chipped in 4.1 points and 3.3 rebounds a game.
Then there is Roby, a Hoops Report favorite who quickly rose to the No. 2 prospect in the Class of 2016 in Illinois. Roby is as exciting of a talent as there is on the Nebraska roster, due to his sheer upside and potential as a long, rangy, 6-8 skilled point forward type who has advanced ball handling skills for a player his size and a penchant for passing.
Roby, who has already added close to 20 pounds since he arrived in Lincoln this past summer, is a prospect Nebraska would have had a tough time nabbing if it didn’t do its homework and secure an early commitment. And Roby is the exact type of prospect –– and recruiting example –– a program like Nebraska has to rely on in order to flourish in the future.
Roby was a late bloomer physically as a gangly, rail-thin sophomore and junior. His game was also just scratching the surface when Miles extended an offer.
There were some who raised an eyebrow when Nebraska offered so early. Roby, after all, had not even become a true household name in Illinois. He played in the outpost of Dixon and for a club program, Quad City Elite, that wasn’t associated with shoes.
Roby certainly wasn’t on the radar of many high-major programs when he committed to Nebraska in October –– before his junior season had started.
By the time he played out his junior season and put together some impressive performances on the AAU circuit the following spring and summer, Roby was the Hoops Report’s No. 2 prospect in Illinois and had climbed into national rankings.
Imagine if Nebraska had waited to jump all in on Roby the summer before his senior year? Instead it has a player on campus from Illinois who the Hoops Report believes has a chance to be pretty special.
Miles was also the first high-major program to not only offer Akenten but also simply show sincere interest. The likes of UNLV, Colorado State and SMU were involved and in the mix, along with a dozen-plus mid-major programs, but it’s Nebraska and Miles that saw something it liked first and threw the first recruiting punch. And it paid off.
Now Nebraska will get a chance to mold a young player like Akenten into the player it believes he can be in a program that critically emphasizes player development.
Nebraska has some of the best facilities in the country and a growing basketball brand in the state of Nebraska. It has a likable coach who has won –– Miles has taken both Colorado State and the Cornhuskers to the NCAA Tournament –– and the sell of being part of a tradition-building process.
And Illinois prospects are buying in.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopseport