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Illinois starts to renew local connection with Morez Johnson commitment

For the better part of three-plus decades, the Illinois basketball roster was dominated by in-state players.

Illinois head coach Brad Underwood, right, and assistant Tim Anderson yell out to their team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball exhibition game Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Champaign.
Illinois head coach Brad Underwood, right, and assistant Tim Anderson yell out to their team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball exhibition game Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Champaign.
AP Photos

For the better part of three-plus decades the Illinois basketball roster was dominated by in-state players. Those Illinois prep stars led the Fighting Illini to a whole lot of wins and success from the 1980-81 season through the 2012-13 season.

In those 33 seasons there were six Big Ten titles, 25 NCAA Tournament appearances, two trips to the Final Four and an AP national top 25 ranking in 25 of those years. That is some serious college basketball success.

Sure, there were some out-of-state stars sprinkled in –– Derek Harper, Anthony Welch, Robert Archibald, Cory Bradford and Deron Williams to name a few. But there were very few over the 30-plus years. The identity of Fighting Illini basketball was always winning with top Illinois high school players.

That has completely flipped since the arrival of coach Brad Underwood.

Some of that, wisely, was by choice. With so many cable stations televising college basketball all across the country, along with familiarity with programs throughout the country via social media and the Internet and easier ways to evaluate talent, it’s never been more advantageous or straightforward to recruit nationally.

Some was simply forced as Underwood and his staff had to find players elsewhere because there has been an overall lack of high-major talent in Illinois of late.

Underwood has succeeded in finding players wherever he can find them. But again, the majority have been from outside Illinois.

While flipping the script on how to build a roster for Illinois basketball –– and taking his lumps in his first two seasons –– Underwood has Fighting Illini basketball back. And with a roster built to win this season, it’s not a one-hit wonder after Illinois finished last season ranked No. 2 in the country and earned a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed.

Though that stunning loss to Loyola in the Sweet Sixteen was a crusher, Illinois is again poised for a big 2021-22 season behind preseason All-American Kofi Cockburn and the backcourt of heralded sophomore point guard Andre Curbelo and veteran Trent Frazier.

Cockburn, Curbelo and Frazier all played their high school basketball outside of Illinois. So too did holdover Coleman Hawkins, impact transfers Alonso Plummer and Omar Payne and the incoming three-man recruiting class that came from Indiana, Wisconsin and Florida.

If not for the NCAA granting everyone an extra season due to Covid, thus allowing Peoria Manual’s Da’Monte Williams a “super” senior season –– Williams was a John Groce recruit –– Illinois would not have a single Illinois native starting or even making an impact on this year’s team.

I tried to come up with one season where an Illinois team didn’t have an in-state starter but gave up trying. The guess here is there has never been one. In fact, there may not have ever been a single game without an Illinois product in the starting five.

Nonetheless, Underwood is close to having one for the first time. If not this year with Williams, then maybe next season when he departs and, currently, big man project Brandon Lieb of Deerfield would be the lone Illinois prep player on scholarship.

But coming soon is St. Rita’s Morez Johnson, the state’s No. 2 ranked prospect in the Class of 2024. The talented 6-8 sophomore forward gave an early commitment to Illinois on Friday.

Despite Underwood and his staff always casting a wide recruiting net, they aren’t ignoring the talent in the state of Illinois when the player fits. And Johnson, a long, agile, competitive and still blossoming young star with an upbeat personality makes sense.

Illinois needs to maintain a presence in the state. While the recruiting breadbasket has widened under this staff, Illinois remains the one basketball recruiting area the program can be the most locked in on because of relationships, proximity and history.

Plus, you never want that natural connection to be lost by going too long without in-state players on the roster.

“Being home,” Johnson said of why he chose Illinois. “Being home. That is it right there. I’ve always been talking with my dad and knowing I want him to be able to come see me play every game. He can do that at Illinois.”

Johnson said he also saw and appreciated the effort Underwood and assistant Tim Anderson put in. He was impressed with what he saw on his visit and while also watching Illinois the past couple of years.

“Coach Underwood pushes his players to another level,” Johnson said. “That’s what I saw and what I want.”

St. Rita coach Roshawn Russell was with several of his players on an official visit to Illinois this fall. He said immediately after the visit he knew Johnson was getting close to committing. His young star would repeatedly talk about Illinois and letting Russell know that’s where he wanted to go. So he wasn’t too surprised when he did pull the trigger so early.

Through the coaching staff’s fall visits to open gyms, the unofficial visit and other conversations with Underwood, Russell was impressed with how hands-on the head coach was in the short recruiting process of his player.

“They were genuine and showed us who they were,” said Russell of the coaching staff. “They were themselves and made an effort to show that to us. And Morez genuinely wanted to stay home. That was important for him. Morez made me a believer that this is what he wanted to do.”

Having a tie at St. Rita is also particularly necessary for Illinois, considering it’s a program with the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2023, 6-9 James Brown, and a top five prospect in point guard Jaedin Reyna. Plus, freshman Melvin Bell is a star-in-the-making as one of the best young players in the state.

After making a big impression as a freshman at St. Rita, Johnson continued to open eyes with Meanstreets in the spring and summer. He picked up an offer from Underwood and Illinois while playing with St. Rita in June and then added offers from Ohio State, Texas, Florida and Iowa in September.

Johnson has only a dozen varsity games under his belt. But he shows the type of athleticism, coordination, size, upside and the ideal mindset to be a player a high-major program would jump at taking this early in the process.

Johnson’s perimeter skills aren’t there just yet, but they are coming along nicely and show a ton of promise for his age, size and position. As his improved jumper continues to get better and he polishes up his ball-handling over the next three years, Johnson will become a much more versatile offensive weapon.

He already has great touch around the basket, finishing ability and is capable of facing up with his mid-range jumper and developing range out to the three-point line.

But there is no question about his blue-collar approach. He goes to work and makes the extra effort you don’t have to coach. He plays with energy and aggressiveness. Those are traits every coaching staff covets. Johnson is about the right things.

With being locked up to Illinois just as his sophomore season is set to begin, Johnson admits it’s a lot of weight off his shoulders.

“Definitely takes some pressure off not having to worry about college and where I’ll be going,” Johnson said. “I can focus on basketball, the season and continuing to grind.”