Our Ceiling

Jul 24, 2018

As you probably know, I've obsessed over basketball recruiting rankings forever. I have a bunch of old magazines down in the basement with rankings from before the Internet. I eagerly anticipate the newest composite rankings. And I've noticed that we have a ceiling.

We've discussed this before. Any time we're chasing a five star ranked in the teens (or single digits), I mention that he "would be our highest rated recruit since 1992". Because since 1992, our highest-rated recruit is Dee Brown. Dee was #19 in the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, or RSCI. The RSCI started in 1998 and that link right there has data on every recruiting class the last 21 years.

(I should clarify why I say "1992". There weren't consensus rankings indexes back in 1992, but there were the magazines I mentioned above. And in those magazines, one service ranked Richard Keene #12 in the country and another listed him #15. He was also a McDonald's All American, which is the yearly top-24 list, so I think it's safe to say that Keene was ranked higher than Dee. Marcus Griffin came close, and he was in the class just before the RSCI began, but from my recollection, he was mostly rated in the high 20's on the main lists back then like Bob Gibbons' All Star Report and Clark Francis' Hoop Scoop. So I'm sticking with "Dee is the highest rated player of the RSCI era, and you have to go back to 1992 to find a player ranked higher than #19".)

I should probably just give you the full list. Here are all of the RSCI-ranked recruits who have chosen Illinois since 1998:

19 Dee Brown
20 Brian Cook
21 Frank Williams
24 Jereme Richmond
28 Richard McBride
29 Meyers Leonard
32 Ayo Dosunmu
35 DJ Richardson
36 Alex Legion
37 Jalen Coleman-Lands
46 Leron Black
48 Deron Williams
49 Brandon Paul
49 Brian Carlwell
53 Brian Randle
57 Kendrick Nunn
62 Roger Powell
65 Mike Shaw
66 Myke Henry
69 Tracy Abrams
70 Malcolm Hill
71 Demitri McCamey
76 Crandall Head
77 Shaun Pruitt
77 Nick Smith
78 James Augustine
78 Nnanna Egwu
78 DJ Williams
86 Aaron Spears
90 Mark Smith

(I'm so obsessed with these lists that I'm pen pals with Jeff, the guy who puts the RSCI together. And I asked him this year if Tevian Jones was close to making it. He said he just missed - something like #103 in his points system.)

So... see the hard ceiling there? It's fairly telling that we haven't landed anyone in the top-18 for 21 consecutive years, right? We've landed #19, #20, #21, and #24, but haven't been able to crack the top-18. Why not?

I see it as our ceiling. Once a recruit pushes their ranking up into the teens, they're no longer considering a school like Illinois. Even when we had Bill Self and were one of the winningest basketball programs in the country in the early 2000's, #19 was still our ceiling.

Actually, that's not true. Self did break through the ceiling. Charlie Villanueva was ranked higher than #19, and he verballed to Illinois. But then Self left for Kansas, and Charlie V flipped to UConn, and we still couldn't brag about someone ranked in the top-18.

Why bring this up now? Because of the parade of Crystal Ball picks saying that Kahlil Whitney is going to Kentucky. Whitney, a Mac Irvin Fire player who is clearly our #1 target in the 2019 class, has shot up the rankings this spring and summer. He's now, wait for it, #18 in the 247 Composite Rankings (the RSCI for the 2019 class won't be out until September). And he's now supposedly a heavy Kentucky lean.

Which only makes me think that this is a hard ceiling. Once a player reaches the top 20, they're in "pick any school in the country" territory. And that's when they stop thinking about Illinois.

There have been so many examples of top-20 players we've chased in the last 20 years who went elsewhere. We remember Jalen Brunson coming down to Illinois and Villanova. We remember Cliff putting down the Illinois hat and picking up the Kansas hat. Julian Wright visited Illinois and then picked Kansas without visiting. Shaun Livingston wore a Brian Cook jersey to school and then picked Duke the next day. Sherron Collins gave Illinois the dreaded silent verbal and then verbally verballed to Kansas.

We've tried - we've tried and we've tried and we've tried - but we just haven't been able to land anyone ranked higher than Dee. We seem to run up against a hard ceiling every time. And it looks like it might be happening again. Whitney has been playing so well in the AAU circuit that it's likely he rises in the rankings again. One ranker talked about him as a top-10 prospect. He could easily find himself as #12 when the first RSCI comes out in October.

And that means he's out of our league. I don't believe that he is, and I'll still hope against hope until it's announced that he picked Kentucky, but it just feels like being ranked #18 (or higher) pushes someone beyond the point where they would consider Illinois. It's our ceiling, and I don't see how we get through it.

Dear Brad:

Please, somehow, prove me wrong.



ballislife17 on July 25 @ 12:19 AM CDT

I like the idea of this post, but I feel like by this logic, Mississippi State has a higher ceiling than us because they landed a top five player in Malik Newman a few years ago. And I do not agree with that. Also, miznoz with MPJ, or LSU with Ben Simmons...

neale stoner on July 25 @ 08:48 AM CDT

When they hit the top 20, the Kansas and Kentucky checkbooks comeout. Why commit to Kansas without visiting? Because Mom just got a new house. Cliff supposedly committed privately to John Groce. But miraculously Mom suddenly got cash from an agent and Cliff picked the KU hat. Why don’t agents like Illinois? Or could it be that......

BexleyIllini on July 26 @ 03:27 PM CDT

I think there is a lot of truth to this. I was sort of surprised that more coaches didn't go into the gutter with Petino....

SactownIllini on July 25 @ 08:49 AM CDT

I was wondering if you were going to post something about Whitney shooting up the rankings. Great analysis. Once a player gets into true blue blood territory, there's not much incentive to come to Illinois. Sure, we've put some players in the NBA, but Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, and North Carolina put in multiple each year it seems. Easy sell for kids wanting to maximize their chance for the league. We may just have to have our bread and butter be 20-30 range kids until we're proven at getting players consistently to the league. I'd love for that scenario instead of competing for 200-300 range kids.

Hoppy on July 25 @ 09:12 AM CDT

Don’t buy it. Maybe it hasn’t happened in awhile because we haven’t had a coach capable of doing it? But here are the lists of teams on our level (in our heyday) or below that snagged a top 19 recruit:

2018 WKU Vandy Vandy Maryland LSU Nevada

2017 Mizzou Texas Alabama WKU UNLV Miami

2016 Washington NC State FSU Texas

2015 LSU Cal Maryland Cal Mississippi State Marquette UNLV LSU FSU Purdue

2014 Texas UNLV Seton Hall Ohio State UCON Florida

I’ll stop there.

I don’t disagree that there isn’t a ceiling. I disagree that it’s because of our status. Most likely it’s due to us either not wanting to cheat, bad luck, or simply not being able to close the deal.

Hoppy on July 25 @ 09:16 AM CDT

I used like a triple negative in the beginning of that last paragraph. What I meant to say was “I agree that there is a ceiling.”

(Edit function wouldn’t work for some reason)

illiniranger on July 28 @ 09:21 AM CDT

I agree with this. I think we could have a Top 20 player fall in our lap by accident, but to agree with Roberts broader point, we won’t sustainably get those guys because of the stature of our program.

I think something sustainable is something like a Top 40 guy every other year and a few from 51-100.

Illinimac68 on July 25 @ 06:18 PM CDT

I still remember Julian Wright saying he had to do what was best for his family which makes no sense if the scholarships would be identical but makes sense if there were other compensation.

ATOillini on July 25 @ 09:51 PM CDT

I know I'm off topic, but to me the list is simply proof that a Top 100 (or even Top 50) ranking isn't exactly a high probability indicator of college stardom. I wince thinking about some of those names (fyi....I wouldn't include Legion in the list given his transfer or whatever it was status).

NC_OrangeKrush on July 26 @ 05:50 PM CDT

Robert, How can you take the list back to around circa 1977... Then to 1992 ... even if there isn't consensus they would have been there...

These kids should know how great it was the decade and a half before 92, with Jimmy Collins making us great in Chicago... And Lou coaching them up.

NC_OrangeKrush on July 26 @ 05:50 PM CDT

Robert, How can you take the list back to around circa 1977... Then to 1992 ... even if there isn't consensus they would have been there...

These kids should know how great it was the decade and a half before 92, with Jimmy Collins making us great in Chicago... And Lou coaching them up.

Lou-a-villini on July 29 @ 10:51 AM CDT

Technically, a picture of the SFC ceiling would have been better than one of the court.

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