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Western Illinois swimming in talent as Public Leaguers rush to join Nick Irvin

This sort of recruiting really hasn’t been done before at a school like Western.

Both Tamell Pearson (above, left) and Marcus Watson played under Nick Irvin (right) at Morgan Park.
Both Tamell Pearson (above, left) and Marcus Watson played under Nick Irvin (right) at Morgan Park.
Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

Breaking: Morgan Park point guard Adam Miller is getting out of his letter of intent with Illinois, with rumors circulating that he’s headed to Western Illinois.

OK, kidding.

But it’s nonetheless eye-opening what has transpired in the weeks since former Morgan Park coach Nick Irvin was hired as an assistant coach in Macomb.

A day after it was announced Irvin had joined coach Rob Jeter’s staff, the Leathernecks landed transfer Tamell Pearson from UAB. Pearson played for Irvin at Morgan Park. He averaged just 3.7 points and 3.6 rebounds in 15 minutes with the Blazers in Conference USA. But in the Summit League, which Western Illinois plays in, there aren’t many 6-9 big men who can run, jump, dunk, rebound and block shots like Pearson can.

Western Illinois then secured a commitment from Curie star Ramean Hinton at the end of May. A tough, high-energy wing, Hinton is among the state’s best players, having led the Condors to a 29-2 record last season.

And that wasn’t all. Last weekend, Morgan Park point guard Marcus Watson said he’s also headed to Western. He led the Nike EYBL circuit in assists last summer and was originally signed with Wake Forest in the ACC. But when coach Danny Manning was fired, Watson opened things back up and will now join Irvin, his former high school coach.

This sort of recruiting really hasn’t been done before at a school like Western. The Leathernecks never have landed a top-25 Illinois prospect in the 25-year history of the City/Suburban Hoops Report. Now they have the No. 6-ranked prospect (Hinton) and the No. 7 (Watson). And Pearson was the Hoops Report’s No. 14 prospect in the Class of 2018.

The closest example in terms of local recruiting is mid-major Northern Illinois in the mid-1980s, when West Aurora’s Kenny Battle led a parade of west suburban stars to DeKalb. That famed class included DeKalb all-stater Deron White, Class A all-stater Jim Edmondson, East Aurora’s Rodney Davis and Battle’s West Aurora teammate Randy Norman. (Battle transferred to Illinois after his sophomore year after becoming the fastest player to 1,000 career points in NIU history.)

Irvin, who compiled a 301-70 record and won four state titles over 12 seasons at Morgan Park, says his first month at Western has been a learning experience. He values working with Jeter and the rest of the coaching staff, which includes Chad Boudreau and Kyle Heikkinen.

“Coach Jeter has helped me a lot,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to learn from a veteran coach. He’s helped with the transition, and it’s been good for me.”

But make no mistake: Irvin has been good for Western, too. Pearson, Watson and Hinton are headed to Macomb because of the relationships Irvin built with them and their families.

“Relationships are the key,” said Irvin, whose family has run the Mac Irvin Fire club program for decades. “I’ve known these kids for a long time. I’ve watched them grow as kids. They know me and know it’s just me being me. They know I will advocate for them, help them, be there for them.”

Morgan Park’s Marcus Watson Jr. (22) drives the ball past Young.
Morgan Park’s Marcus Watson Jr. (22) drives the ball past Young.
Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

The downtrodden Leathernecks have gone 63-135 over the last seven years, including a paltry 24-84 in Summit League play. They haven’t had a winning season or won more than 12 games in a season since coach Jim Molinari went 22-9 in 2012-13. And that was their only 20-win season in the last quarter-century.

But the new additions instantly change the talent level and expectations. These are not typical recruits in a conference in which South Dakota State and North Dakota State have been the heavyweights in recent years.

Western will provide an opportunity for these former Public League stars to shine.

“It’s not where you go — it’s what you do when you get there,” Irvin said. “It didn’t matter where Damian Lillard went. It didn’t matter where C.J. McCollum went, or Ja Morant. You can do it anywhere. Why not do it at Western Illinois? The future is bright here.” *