Illini Madness a ‘party’ for recruits as much as current players
It might not be accurate to call this Illini Madness.
With the annual basketball season tipoff event moved from Assembly Hall to cozy Huff Hall on Friday, Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber stages a late-night event highlighted by a top-25 team and just about every key recruit in the state's loaded 2013 and 2014 classes.
"It's Mega-Madness,'' said Chicago-based recruiting analyst Joe Henricksen. "They've gone the direction of let's make this a party, let's make this an event.''
Doors open at 10 p.m. after Huff is cleared after the Illini volleyball match, and there's no admission charge. The event will begin about 30 minutes later when the 4,000 seats in Huff are likely filled. You might need to line up early.
But the honored guests, besides an Illini team that returned all five starters an added a touted recruiting class, are the handful, or two, of prospects from the state.
Seniors like it as the start of their last go around. Freshmen wear the uniform for the first time. Yet in truth, this might be less about the current Illini and more about the future Illini.
That's the priority for madness events across the country. They've gone from an introduction of the current team to a recruiting event with the entertainment and schedule specifically planned. Illinois hired nationally known club DJ Steve Porter to handle this show. (Hey, folks, he won't be playing any country music.)
Schools battle for commitments to madness because they could be the first step to a verbal commitment for a scholarship offer.
"I don't think it makes or breaks you,'' Weber said. "If you get them there young, it's a lasting impression. Your first impression is a lasting one. It can be important, especially if it's a fun evening and exciting.''
The event is technically as much for the seniors starting their last go around to freshmen making their first appearance in an Illini uniform to the recruits, Weber said.
"We used to have trouble getting kids down to campus,'' Weber said. Evidently, that's no longer the case.
Not including an AAU tournament, Henricksen said, "I can't remember this many high-profile in-state prospects together ever.''
The madness event could be a first trip to any college campus for some prospects.
"(Madness) sets the tone for the whole year,'' Illinois assistant coach and recruiting ace Jerrance Howard said. "I really wanted to build a tradition where the top players in the state, it's almost a guarantee that guys want to be here. We've got a great buzz. People are talking. People want to come. I want it where the cool thing is for the top players in the state want to go every year.''
Illinois will have more than 20 recruits at the event, a juggling act for the coaches between three players who have committed (Chicago Mount Carmel senior point guard Tracy Abrams, Chicago Orr senior shooting guard Mycheal Henry and Chicago St. Ignatius senior center Nnanna Egwu), one undecided player on an official visit (Rock Island senior guard Chasson Randle) and the young prospects.
Heralded sophomores Jabari Parker of Chicago Simeon and Tommy Hamilton of Chicago Whitney Young will be there. Hamilton also attended last year's event. Among the freshmen, Whitney Young's Jahlil Okafor and Paul White, Westchester St. Joe's Paul Turner and Zion-Benton's Malik Yarbrough will make the trip.
The list of youngsters includes Springfield Lanphier freshman guard Larry Austin Jr., Chatham Glenwood freshman guard Peyton Allen and Peoria Richwoods sophomore Preston Wells.
With Illinois landing the state's last two Mr. Basketball winners, freshman Jereme Richmond of Waukegan and sophomore Brandon Paul of Gurnee Warren, and a program back on the rise thanks to strong recruiting, the young players likely follow because they want to play with other good players, Henricksen said.
"There are kids of all ages,'' Weber said. "They're going to come watch practice. Some of them are making their first trip. Some are coming as a group. You're going to have to be organized and make sure they all get attention.
"You don't have to be around them and hover over them all the time. They'll feel excited to be part of it.''
This, by definition, is recruiting madness.
NOTE: The orange and blue scrimmage on Oct. 24 will have an enhanced program that includes a brief dunk and shooting contest and player introductions. Tipoff is 4 p.m. in Assembly Hall.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.