Henricksen: Stretch run for talented bunch of unsigned seniors

SHARE Henricksen: Stretch run for talented bunch of unsigned seniors

Tai Bibbs of West Chicago gets a steal against Glenbard East in the second half. Worsom Robinson/ For Sun-Times

When the 2016-2017 season began college basketball coaching staffs weren’t expected to be all that busy making recruiting trips across the state.

But that changed dramatically as the season unfolded.

First, the market for Edwardsville’s Mark Smith exploded while the interest in the relatively unknown and overlooked Taylor Bruninga of Illini Bluffs skyrocketed.

In addition, a pair of mid-major guards who signed with Drake in the fall –– West Chicago’s Tai Bibbs and Joliet West’s Teyvion Kirk –– were released in December following the resignation of Drake coach Ray Giacoletti. That set off a flurry of mid-major recruiting activity in the following weeks.

Now the the state has a batch of hot, uncommitted prospects who will be coveted between now and the April Signing Day.

Here is the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top half dozen uncommitted players in the senior class and where their recruiting stands with a little over a month left in the season.

1. Mark Smith, 6-4, PG/2G, Edwardsville

Where he ranks in Class of 2017: No. 5

The buzz:What rise for Smith, who ditched baseball and has become an absolute stud. The big-bodied guard has put up huge numbers across the board for one of the best Class 4A teams in the state while his name is now front and center in Mr. Basketball conversation.

Smith was once a Division I baseball recruit but his 100 percent focus on basketball over the past eight months has paid dividends. Smith gets better and better. He’s climbed into the Hoops Report’s top five in the class and continues to climb.

Where he can play: Smith’s rapid ascent, which was highlighted in this December story, is rare. He’s gone from taking visits to Wright State, Northern Illinois and SIUE last fall to having interest from high-majors across the country. But with his size, versatility, stat-sheet stuffing and marked improvement shooting the basketball –– this kid can really shoot it –– the high-major interest is warranted and deserved.

The recruitment: Smith, who received an offer from Indiana Wednesday, will make a second trip to Champaign and visit Illinois again this Saturday. He sports offers from Missouri, Boston College, Kansas State, Northwestern and DePaul while many other high-majors are poking around and increasing their interest.

2. Tai Bibbs, 6-3, 2G, West Chicago

Where he ranks in Class of 2017: No. 11

The buzz: After receiving his release from Drake a month ago, Bibbs instantly became a hot name. The smooth, high-scoring guard is in the midst of a monster senior season, averaging close to 28 points a game. Bibbs has grown, filled out and looks like a different player physically than he did this past summer.

While others have viewed Bibbs as a true point guard, the Hoops Report has valued him more as a player off the ball with his length and overlooked athleticism who can slide over and play the point guard position.

Where he can play: For all the offers and interest Bibbs has received, the City/Suburban Hoops Report actually believes he’s been under-recruited. Bibbs is a no-brainer, must-have mid-major prospect. He’s shown too much improvement and showcases too much upside not to be a prime target of Missouri Valley Conference schools and a must-have for others at that level.

The recruitment: The lengthy list of offers continues to grow. In the past three weeks Bibbs has secured offers from Lafayette, Ball State, IPFW, Toledo, Columbia, New Mexico State, UC-Davis, Fordham, Rice and Dartmouth.

3. Alonzo Verge, 6-2, PG/2G, Thornton

Where he ranks in Class of 2017: No. 12

The buzz: There’s always a buzz surrounding Verge, a dynamic talent and mercurial star. With offensive gifts and big offensive numbers, Verge has been the fuel for a Thornton team that’s now 14-4 on the season.

Where he can play: While Verge may not be the must-have high-major talent he was projected to be two years ago, he’s still a terrific talent that may have to travel down a different road.

The recruitment: This is a slow-playing recruitment as college programs wait and see how the back end of Verge’s academic school year finishes up. In the meantime, junior college programs are lining up for Verge in case he ends up going the JUCO route.

4. Teyvion Kirk, 6-3, PG, Joliet West 

Where he ranks in Class of 2017: No. 15

The buzz: Kirk was released in late December from Drake after signing with the Bulldogs in November.

College coaches are intrigued with the big strides Kirk has made over the past 12 months and like the length and defensive potential this point guard possesses. Plus, he brings outstanding academics and high character to the table.

Where he can play: While there are some questions concerning his perimeter shooting that has put a bit of a cap on his level of recruitment, the chance for a mid-major program to land a player like Kirk and his intangibles this late in the recruiting game would be a boon.

The recruitment: There are a handful of offers and a whole lot of interest. Kirk says Miami-Ohio, Bethune-Cookman, UW-Milwaukee, Southern Illinois and Kent State have all offered with a slew of others inquiring. That list includes Brown, Middle Tennessee State, Boston College, Loyola, St. Bonaventure, Cal-Poly, Missouri State, Boise State, UNLV and Georgia Tech.

5. Taylor Bruninga, 6-8, PF, Illini Bluffs

Where he ranks in Class of 2017: No. 17

The buzz: Although on a different level than Smith, make no mistake about it: Bruninga is a massive breakout star during this 2017-2018 season. His production, albeit playing small school basketball in central Illinois, has been off the charts.

He’s the stretch 4-man college programs covet in today’s game. Bruninga has size, moves well and has outstanding shooting ability with range out to the three-point line. Plus, he’s a player with some untapped upside from both a physical and basketball standpoint.

Where he can play: This past fall the City/Suburban Hoops Report believed Bruninga should have been a prime target for lower-level Division I schools. That’s when they had a shot at him. As Bruninga has continued to grow physically and improve as a player, he’s vaulted into the Hoops Report’s top 20 prospects and has solidified himself as a mid-major prospect.

The recruitment: Boy, it sure took awhile but Bruninga picked up three Division I offers in the past few weeks with Eastern Illinois, Illinois State and Northern Iowa all offering. Creighton was in to see Bruninga this week and the likes of IPFW, Vanderbilt, Indiana State, Loyola and Drake are all involved in some capacity.

6. Lucas Williamson, 6-4, WF, Young

Where he ranks in Class of 2017:  No. 18

The buzz: The senior wing has put together quite a final season for the Dolphins, impacting games in a variety of ways. As a result, Williamson is now among Player of the Year candidates in the Chicago area. He’s become a more consistent offensive threat while continuing to do all the little things that he’s always been appreciated for.

Where he can play: Williamson remains under-appreciated by too many. He’s a mid-major prospect who doesn’t have enough mid-major offers.

The recruitment: When you consider this is an actual POY candidate in the Chicago area who plays for one of the state’s highest profile teams, it’s actually pretty remarkable the lack of attention Williamson has received on many fronts.

Williamson says his recruitment hasn’t changed all that much, which is pretty astonishing. Northern Illinois has been front, center and on his trail the longest and the hardest. He visited Hofstra this past fall but didn’t pull the trigger, while UIC, Indiana State and Miami-Ohio have all had varying degrees of interest.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

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