Preps Talk

Chicago Recruiting Focus: Illinois basketball

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Chicago Recruiting Focus: Illinois basketball

Plenty of question marks loom for Illinois basketball as we get closer to the 2015-16 college basketball season. Can the Illini stay healthy enough to return to the NCAA tournament after a two-year drought? Who emerges from the large group of newcomers that includes graduate transfers and highly-touted freshmen?

The on-court aspect head coach John Groce and his program have to deal with is fascinating enough but there are also some questions when it comes to the future of Illinois basketball recruiting.

With the state of Illinois -- and the Midwest in general -- being significantly down from a talent perspective in the class of 2016, Groce and his staff have had to get creative when it comes to recruiting that group of players.

Illinois currently owns a class of 2016 commitment from Wisconsin native and three-star point guard Te'Jon Lucas. Adding the late-blooming Lucas was a nice move by Illinois since point guard options were quickly drying up and Lucas showed some upside after a promising summer on the grassroots circuit. With an ability to run an offense while also creating his own shot, Lucas should fit what Illinois looks for in guards.

What comes after Lucas in that class is where it all starts to get murky.

[ILLINOIS PREVIEW: Hill, Nunn need to keep stepping up for Illini]

In addition to Lucas, Illinois would like to use one or two more scholarships in the class to find a big man or a wing. Australian 6-foot-9 power forward Harry Froling is a target for Illinois and they've even flown across the world to see him in person. Adding an international player like Froling would be a great addition to the roster, but it might be a little while before Froling figures out the next step in a complicated worldwide recruiting process. A source close to Froling told CSN that he's expected to announce his official visits in the next two weeks and Illinois is in the running for one of those visits. Getting Froling on campus for an official will likely be a key for whichever schools lands him.

After Froling, Illinois is essentially starting anew when it comes to class of 2016 prospects. The Illinois coaching staff will search near-and-far for more options who emerge this season. They'll also look at potential transfers and there is also the realistic possibility of rolling a scholarship over for an important class of 2017.

The class of 2016 is a down year in the Midwest, but 2017, particularly in Illinois, looks very promising. And Illinois has been very aggressive recruiting the Land of Lincoln when it comes to the junior class.

With five or six potential scholarships in the class of 2017, Illinois will look to add one player for each position on the floor as they've already started to host a lot of unofficial visitors from the group.

Illinois has been active recruiting in-state targets like Evanston's Nojel Eastern, Stevenson's Justin Smith, Belleville Althoff's Jordan Goodwin, Belleville East's Javon Pickett, Peoria Manuel's DaMonte Williams, Bloomington Central Catholic's Charles Payton and Larkin's Christian Negron. Former East St. Louis big man Jeremiah Tilmon has also been to the Illinois campus and the staff will continue to recruit him heavily after transferring to La Lumiere in October. Former Willowbrook star Alonzo Verge was also being recruited by Illinois while he lived in the area, but it's hard to say if things will change in that one now that Verge has transferred to Arlington Country Day in Jacksonville, Florida.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Illini fans!]

Groce and his staff know that a talented class of 2017 in Illinois is a hugely important and they've been quick to try to get those players to Champaign to check out campus.

The class of 2017 is an important one for the Illini, but the class of 2018 list is also starting to form. Among the main in-state targets include Champaign Central's Tim Finke, the younger brother of Illinois redshirt freshman forward Michael Finke, and Simeon point guard Kezo Brown.

Both Brown and Finke have shown some promising flashes early in their high school careers and Illinois has good recruiting connections to both the Finke family and Brown's high school.

The elephant in the room, of course, is that Illinois needs to make it back to the NCAA tournament and show recruits that the program is trending in the right direction. Top prospects like the players Illinois are recruiting expect to play in the spotlight of the sport.

All of that can take care of itself with some strong on-court results this season, but Illinois has at least put itself in the conversation for a lot of talented Illinois players in the next few classes.

With commitment to Duke, Whitney Young's D.J. Steward becomes Chicago's biggest high school star since Jalen Brunson

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NBC Sports Chicago

With commitment to Duke, Whitney Young's D.J. Steward becomes Chicago's biggest high school star since Jalen Brunson

Whitney Young senior guard DJ Steward ended his whirlwind recruitment on Wednesday as he verbally committed to Duke and head coach Mike Krzyzewski with a video announcement on Twitter.

The 6-foot-3 Steward gives the Blue Devils a major perimeter threat who can score, handle and distribute as he's coming off of a monster summer that saw him push for five-star national status. Steward becomes the second Whitney Young star this decade to commit to the Blue Devils, following in the footsteps of former Dolphins center Jahlil Okafor. While Okafor was a known national prospect as a high school freshman who eventually helped Duke to a national championship in his only season in Durham, Steward had to work hard over the summer before his senior year to earn an offer from the blueblood program.

Duke only showed interest in Steward during his early years but picked things up rapidly after the Nike Peach Jam in early July when they offered Steward a scholarship. Steward's recruitment was effectively sealed last week when Krzyzewski and three Duke assistant coaches -- including lead recruiter and former Glenbrook North star Jon Scheyer -- showed up to Whitney Young's first open gym of the fall. An official visit to Durham last weekend ended Steward's recruitment despite long-standing interest from schools like Illinois, Louisville and Texas -- among many others.

As Duke and Krzyzewski have been engaged in a decade-long battle with Kentucky and head coach John Calipari over five-star prospects and the nation's top college basketball recruiting class, the Chicagoland area hasn't seen much of the nation's top two recruiting programs.

Steward's commitment changes things. His pledge to Duke makes him the Chicagoland area's biggest high school basketball star since Jalen Brunson graduated from Stevenson in 2015. 

Brunson was the state's last McDonald's All-American in 2015 as the state of Illinois has seen an unprecedented drought with top-flight basketball talent the past few years. Other area stars have committed to big programs and been ranked in the national top 100. But the name-brand of Duke Basketball and Coach K resonates with even the most casual of sports fans. 

The commitment to Duke from Steward, along with Whitney Young's status as perhaps the state's best team this season, should lead to a lot of excitement from area basketball fans. The Dolphins will be a hot ticket in their numerous showcase games. It also helps that Steward has been a known varsity performer since his freshman season at Fenwick. In his first season of varsity basketball, Steward became an instant must-see attraction after a perfect 10-for-10 shooting performance in a Class 3A state-title game loss to Morgan Park. Steward is one of the rare players to make a major impact in both the Chicago Catholic League and Chicago Public League during his high school career.

An NBC Sports Chicago All-Area selection during his sophomore season at Fenwick and junior season at Whitney Young (following his transfer), Steward has positioned himself as the favorite to win Mr. Basketball entering his final season. If Steward can complete his high school career with a state title -- which has eluded him to this point -- then he'll have one of the most storied careers in recent IHSA history thanks to his big numbers, winning ways and national reputation.

Coupled with Morgan Park senior guard Adam Miller's monster junior season (and lofty national ranking of his own) and it could be one of the most memorable seasons of basketball in the Chicago Public League in the past decade.

Flying high: Can anyone stop East St. Louis?

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NBC Sports Chicago

Flying high: Can anyone stop East St. Louis?

Depending upon who you believe, the 2019 East St. Louis Flyers are --at minimum-- the state's best team regardless of class size. One could say they are a preps version of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers and the 1985 Chicago Bears, wrapped up into one Illinois superpower. Even the Chicagoland media, some of the harshest critics to win over, have been all gaga over the Flyers. This is especially true after East St. Louis dispatched a highly acclaimed, highly ranked Batavia team 31-17 in the opening week. And it was honestly not as close as the score would indicate. 

So the question remains: How good are the Flyers this season and can they be beaten? 

I've been able to see East St. Louis play in person every season since the early 2000s. I've seen quite a few standout East teams and a multitude of standout hig- level college talent over those many years. The program has won more games in Illinois than any other in state history. But I believe in many ways that this could be their best team…ever. But they remain a long ways away from that lofty goal. 

The overall talent level for the 2019 Flyers is undeniable. 

Offensively, start with three star-ranked junior QB Tyler Macon. Macon, who is starting his second season under center, is a year older, faster, stronger and better this fall. Macon already had an impressive arm and deep ball. But his overall confidence level in the passing game and his ability to tuck it and run has increased considerably. Mix in a highly-ranked group of offensive skill position players including three star-ranked senior WR Lawaun Powell, four star-ranked (and the state’s top-ranked recruit via Rivals.com) senior WR/S Antonio Johnson, three star-ranked junior WR Dominic Lovett, senior three star-ranked junior WR Keontez Lewis and rising senior RB Demonta Witherspoon and you have easily one of the state's best skills group. The East St. Louis offensive line averages nearly 280 pounds. They’re led by three star-ranked Tennessee commit senior OG Javontez Spraggins (6-foot-3, 310 pounds).

On defense, they have a terrific mix of speed, size and athletic tools rarely seen at the prep level. The defensive line is led by senior three star-ranked DE Kevon Billingsley (Missouri) and senior DT Kendrick Scarbrough. The back seven is equally as skilled. Keep an eye on senior LB Darius Walker, senior DB Dylan Appleton along with secondary mates Antonio Johnson and Lawaun Powell.

[MORE: AP Week Three Rankings / East St. Louis #1 in Class 5A]

So what will it take for a team to upset the Flyers? 

Neuqua Valley, under head coach Bill Ellinghaus, was able to trade scores with the Flyers last Friday. They also made some key stops at times, but still couldn’t overcome the Flyers in a 50-48 in overtime loss. The Wildcats offense features a standout senior QB in Mark Gronowski (South Dakota State) along with a strong group of backs and receivers including WR Sean Larkin (SIU), senior Patrick Hoffman and senior WR Garrett Stare. Junior RB Armani Moreno has also given the Wildcats a punishing run threat to its already strong passing attack. But it wasn’t enough.

While Neuqua Valley was able to trade score for score, is there another way of slaying this tremendous 618 monster? 

Chicago’s Mount Carmel High School has been able to eliminate the Flyers over the past two seasons in the 7A playoffs. OK, so we all know last year was last year. And we also know the Flyers are looking at playing in either the 6A or 5A state playoff field this November (East isn't being allowed to volunteer to play "up" in 7A but will play in its actual enrollment classification). Stay with me on this-- Mount Carmel, in both playoff wins, reverted a bit back to its old power running game/ball control attack. They slowed down the pace of the game and kept the Flyers’ speedy playmakers on the sidelines for extended periods of time. The Caravan also took full advantage of various East St. Louis penalties, lack of a strong kicking/punting game and turnovers en route to those wins. The Caravan also have a knack of making team pay for costly turnovers-- something that cost the Flyers at times in both playoff losses. 

Admittedly, the chances of teams pulling off an upset of the Flyers, whether in the regular season or postseason looks more and more remote. Sure, East St. Louis still has its entire Southwestern conference schedule ahead of them. The annual showdown with rival Edwardsville (2-1) is always a big game in the Metro area. That comes on Oct. 4. The Week 9 nonconference showdown at Naperville Central sure looked a lot more promising a few weeks ago before the Redhawks got off to an 0-3 start. But Naperville Central still have a shot at making that Week 9 game mean something. 
 
How about the postseason? Again, never say never, but the overall level of competition between playing in Class 7A versus playing in Class 6A or Class 5A can be considerable. Playing in Class 6A or 5A also means the Flyers will be in a more geographically friendly bracket and won't –potentially-- see very many Chicagoland area powers in those classes until very late in the state playoff or even at the state title game. 

Also: let's not forget that this is still high school football. Kids could get hurt and/or suspended. And the only thing certain in high school football is nothing is certain. So can the East St. Louis Flyers be stopped? Of course. Will they be stopped? It's still too early to tell. But what I can tell you is this remains the best team I've seen so far this season in the Land of Lincoln. That I'm pretty certain about...at least for now.