Recruiting Chicago always a dilemma for Illini

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NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 18: D.J. Cooper #5 of the Ohio Bobcats reacts after a play against the South Florida Bulls during the third round of the 2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 18, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) R:MerlinGetty_Photos141562594.jpg

Losing Shaka Smart is a disappointment.

Losing Shaka Smart because he’s worried about recruiting Chicago? Now that’s a problem.

There are other Shaka Smarts out there, believe it or not. But that Smart’s apprehension about recruiting the Public League purportedly factored into his decision should leave Illinois fans shuddering. Oh, the irony: What has long been considered the biggest lure of the Illinois basketball job is now a liability.

The truth hurts. And it was only a matter of time before the elephant in the room became impossible to ignore. It was an issue 10 years ago, when DePaul’s Pat Kennedy lost his job less than four years after assistant Tracy Dildy re-established DePaul’s foothold in the Public League by signing Quentin Richardson (Young), Bobby Simmons (Simeon), Lance Williams (Julian), Paul McPherson (South Shore) and Imari Sawyer (King).

Richardson, Simmons and McPherson left early for the NBA. Williams stagnated over a four-year career. Sawyer was in academic trouble and left after two seasons. That haul netted Kennedy one NCAA tournament game – an 81-77 overtime loss to Kansas in 2000.

As I surmised in 2002:

If a college basketball coach had signed the top five Public League players from the last 10 years, where would he be today?

Fired, probably.

Think about it: Kevin Garnett, Ronnie Fields, Quentin Richardson, Rashard Griffith and Leon Smith. Among them they accounted for four seasons of college basketball.

An exaggeration? Maybe. But it illustrates an awkward dilemma facing local coaches: they have a virtual moral obligation to recruit the Public League – lest they incur the wrath of fans, the media and worst of all city [high school] coaches and risk getting shut out of a talent pool that could hold the key to the Final Four. But sometimes it’s not worth the trouble.

As former Illinois and UIC assistant Dick Nagy said at the time about recruiting Chicago, ‘‘It’s a double-edged sword. If they don’t work out or flunk out or go pro, that hurts you. But if you want to win big, you have to have kids who are good enough to go pro.”

And times have not changed. In the 10 years since, Chicago has produced its share of hits: an NBA Most Valuable Player (Derrick Rose, Simeon), a national Player of the Year (Anthony Davis, Perspectives/Kentucky), an NCAA champion (Sherron Collins, Crane/Kansas), a Final Four starter (DeAndre Liggins, Washington/Kentucky) conference players of the year (Jeremy Pargo, Robeson/Gonzaga; Jerome Randle, Hales/California) and even a player who’s better than the papers said he was (D.J. Cooper, Seton/Ohio).

But Rose only played one season in college. Davis is likely to do the same. And then there’s the too typical litany of unfulfilled potential: Sean Dockery (Julian/Duke), Jamarcus Ellis (Westinghouse/Indiana), DeAndre Thomas (Westinghouse/Indiana), Patrick Beverley (Marshall/Arkansas), Nate Minnoy (Hales/Purdue), Michael Dunigan (Farragut/Oregon), Darius Smith (Marshall/Connecticut) and seemingly a cast of thousands.

Bruce Weber would still have his job if he recruited the best player from Chicago the last five seasons: Rose, Dunigan, Liggins, Darius Smith, Crandall Head and Anthony Davis. But therein lies the problem: Because Chicago has as much fool’s gold as the real thing, you’d have to bat 1.000 in the city to make it worth the investment. Weber couldn’t do that.

And Shaka Smart wouldn’t, either. A Midwestern native with Chicago connections, he apparently was privy to valuable inside dope on the Illinois job – that it’s not Chicago that makes Illinois a sleeping giant; it’s the coach that makes Illinois a sleeping giant. That makes it a much tougher job than it appears to be.

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