By Joe Henricksen
The Class of 2008 remains empty for coach Bruce Weber and Illinois on the recruiting front, but this week’s news
that juniors D.J. Richardson of Peoria Central, Brandon Paul of Warren and Sterling’s Joseph Bertrand have given
their verbal commitments more than makes up for what could be a very quiet early signing period next month. With
as many as three scholarships remaining–as long as Quinton Watkins isn’t on campus and remains in California–
Illinois may actually be in a position of tucking two of those scholarships in their pocket for the future. At least that’s
what the Hoops Report would do.
It’s clear Illinois struck out with the Class of 2008, namely with the foursome of Iman Shumpert, Mike Dunigan,
DeAndre Liggins and Scott Suggs. People can say all they want about Matt Humphrey, but Illinois wasn’t all that
excited about him from the start and I don’t blame them. And Darius Miller was a longshot. The pickings are now
pretty slim with what’s left in the 2008 class. Illinois is involved with Simeon big man Stan Simpson. At this point
Simpson wouldn’t be a bad option, although his academic situation has raised red flags and there are currently five
young big men on the Illini roster.
As mentioned before, Illinois may be in a position to tuck a couple of those scholarships away for the talented
classes ahead. The problem is that the talent in Illinois in the 2009 and 2010 classes are perimeter players. Illinois
has already nabbed three of them in Richardson, Bertrand and Paul, with Whitney Young duo of Marcus Jordan
and Chris Colvin, along with St. Joseph’s Diamond Taylor, possibly now on the outside looking in with the recent
flurry of commitments. Illinois already has a commitment from the top sophomore prospect, Waukegan’s 6-6 Jereme
Ricmond, and are in heavy pursuit of Whitney Young’s 6-3 guard Anthony Johnson. Also in that 2010 mix are St.
Joseph’s DeAndre McCamey and Rich South’s Crandall Head, two players with obvious ties to the Illini program.
The news of Richardson, Bertrand and Paul couldn’t have come at a better time. Yes, it’s still 13 months before the
two of them can sign a letter-of-intent. And no, this isn’t a Derrick Rose or Julian Wright we’re talking about. That’s
not the point here. When you talk about a Rose or Wright or even an Eric Gordon, you are talking about one or two
year players. Superstars? Yes. These are three quality players Illinois had to get and they got them. They are
players, like a Demetri McCamey and a Mike Tisdale, that you can build around for four years.
And from a P.R. standpoint, this is a huge lift for Weber and his staff, including new assistant Jerrance Howard.
The best news is that it’s clear Richardson, Paul and Bertrand are sold on Illinois and truly want to play there. I
would say forget about de-commitments in these cases. Wisely, Illinois recognized the abundant of perimeter talent
in the Class of 2009 and extended offers to the likes of Richardson, Bertrand, Paul, Taylor and Colvin. There really
isn’t a whole lot of separation between the five. All five of these prospects were aware that the offers were out
there and, to jump the gun and make a commitment this early shows these three wanted to beat the others to the
punch and play where their heart is at right now. That alone says a lot about their individual commitments. Illinois put
the carrot out there for the Class of 2009 and said, “Who wants it?”
Now Weber needs to finish with a bang as there is plenty of talent remaining in Illinois in the 2009 and 2010
classes. Paul Bunch, a 6-10 post from Chicago’s North Lawndale, is another emerging and interesting prospect in
the 2010 class. And somewhere in there Illinois will have to go out of state and bring in an athletic big man. Eureka’s
Jordan Prosser, a 6-8 junior, remains out there, but he does not fit the athletic big man mold and is very similar to the
young players already in the program.
The fact is Weber is still in position to weather this recruiting storm that has hovered over him the last couple of
years. It didn’t help that the current in-state seniors, the Class of 2008, was lacking in prime talent. Once you get
past Shumpert, Dunigan and Liggins there is quite a big drop. But getting off on the right foot in 2009 was essential,
and nabbing Bertrand, Richardson and Paul provides that lift. In addition, all three bring styles and games that the
current Illinois team doesn’t have and has been lacking–long, athletic, versatile perimeter players who are able to
create both in the halfcourt and in transition.
The timing could not have been better for Illinois with this in-state trio. It sets a new tone, takes a bit of pressure off
of Weber and his staff–at least for the time being–rejuvenates the Illini Nation and, most importantly, shows that
there are in-state prospects who do want to play for Illinois. Now who will follow?