Illinois coach Bruce Weber endured recruiting miss after miss during the first half of his seven-year Illini career.
For one reason or another, Sherron Collins, Derrick Rose, Jon Scheyer, Julian Wright and others declined Weber’s Illinois offer and committed elsewhere. It was a trying time for Weber and his program, but he never lost faith.
Weber could have been stubborn and continued recruiting as he had his entire career. He might have finally broken through with those old ways, but he also could have been headed out of a job. Instead, Weber changed. He readjusted his recruiting strategy and began aiming for the state’s top players at an earlier age.
The Illini’s recruiting success since then has been well-documented. Weber has been the first on many of the state’s top players, and it’s paid off with numerous early commitments. Those early commitments began turning into letters of intent in 2009, and ESPN Recruiting acknowledged Illinois’ strong class by rankings it No. 23 in the country. A year ago, the Illini signed an even better class and ESPN ranked it No. 15.
On Tuesday, ESPN Recruiting unveiled its newest Class of 2011 team rankings, and Illinois took a further step. The Illini moved up five spots to No. 10.
ESPN Recruiting will update its rankings following the spring signing period, but Illini are on the verge of their first top-10 class under Weber.
“I think Illinois has done a good job,” ESPN.com senior basketball recruiting analyst Dave Telep said. “They’ve become pretty systematic with this thing. They’ve offered early, taken commitments and rode those guys out. You have to say it’s been pretty successful for Illinois.”
The Illini broke the top 10 thanks to four of their Class of 2011 recruits landing in the ESPNU 100. Orr forward Mycheal Henry (No. 77), De La Salle forward Mike Shaw (No. 79), St. Ignatius center Nnanna Egwu (No. 84) and Mount Carmel point guard Tracy Abrams (No. 87) were all ranked.
It’s Illinois’ deepest class since 2002 class when top-100 players Dee Brown, Deron Williams, James Augustine and Aaron Spears inked with the Illini.
Egwu, a 6-foot-10 center, made the difference this time around in the team rankings. He was previously on the outside of the ESPNU 100, but he has impressed Telep this high school season after sitting out a majority of the club season with a hip injury.
“The last thing you want to do is make a bad evaluation on a big guy because they have a pretty big impact when the light goes on,” Telep said. “We slipped him back into the top 100, and it bumped their class. He’s played well this season.”
With only one junior on its roster, Illinois’ next big class is likely to come in 2013. The Illini have already offered in-state sophomores Simeon’s Jabari Parker, Whitney Young’s Tommy Hamilton Jr., De La Salle’s Alex Foster and St. Charles East’s Kendall Stephens. Parker is ranked No. 2 in the country by ESPN, and Hamilton is No. 18.
The Illini could also make a splash with a deep in-state 2014 class. They’ve already offered freshmen Whitney Young’s Jahlil Okafor and Paul White, St. Joseph’s Paul Turner and Zion-Benton’s Malik Yarbrough.
“It’s a down year for 2012,” Telep said of the state. “What you’re seeing is a little bit of a cycle. If it’s down in 2012, it’s up in 2013 and it’s up in 2014. It looks like it’s going to hit in 2013 and 2014.”
And if Weber can continue to hit as he has on the recruiting trail, the Illini could very well earn a top-5 recruiting class soon.