For Illini basketball, reality bites
BY STEVE GREENBERG Staff Reporter November 15, 2013 10:50PM
Curie’s Cliff Alexander teases Illini Nation by picking up an Illinois hat before announcing he’ll attend Kansas. | Stacia Timonere/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 17, 2013 6:11AM
Thanks to Twitter, the video spread like wildfire.
A room packed with young men, probably students at the University of Illinois. They’re gathered around a television Friday afternoon watching Curie super-recruit Cliff Alexander announce his college decision. Alexander picks up an Illinois hat, and the room explodes with joy. But it’s just the most adorable little rope-a-dope! The Illinois hat goes down, the Kansas hat goes up and onto Alexander’s noggin, and the fans in that room go up for grabs with agony and anger.
Quite an inglorious moment for a player whose Twitter handle is @HumbleKid11. As absurd as nationally televised signing-day announcements are to begin with, at least they present the best players with opportunities to be seen as more than simply touchdown-scorers or slam-dunkers. But now we know: Alexander, who turns 19 on Saturday — still young but too old to get away with behaving like a jerk — has little, if any, perspective beyond that of the selfish superstar.
So congrats, Kansas, and here’s hoping the Cliffster never spits on Bill Self and all Jayhawks fans like he did Friday on John Groce and all Illini fans.
But those Illini fans in that video? And the many others who angrily tweeted profane reactions at Alexander? They’re fools, too.
They’re fools for soaring and crashing emotionally based on which school a kid anoints as his official, and hopefully very temporary, detour en route to the NBA. And they’re fools for thinking anything less than psychological torment would befall Illini Nation on national signing day.
It was bad enough when blue-chip point guard Quentin Snider wigged out on Illinois late Friday morning, de-committing to sign with Louisville. Illini fans tried to remain positive on a day they’d dubbed Cliffmas.
They should’ve known better. For crying out loud, Alexander’s decision was well-understood to be coming down to Illinois or Kansas. Memphis and DePaul also were finalists, but this was about the Illini vs. the Jayhawks. And all Illini fans know who wins there. Always.
Kansas beat Illinois for Self. With Self on board and Bruce Weber in Champaign, KU beat the Illini down the stretch for Chicago-area stars Sherron Collins and Julian Wright. Until Alexander’s nationally televised loogie, nothing was worse than when Eric Gordon de-committed from Illinois to sign with Big Ten rival Indiana. But all are just bricks in the cold, hard wall that now stands between Groce and the very highest-ranked recruits.
The Illini almost never get their guy.
Alexander’s decision was about perception. In Kansas, the 6-9, 240-pounder saw a program that revolves around great interior players and makes them lottery picks. In Illinois, he saw a program that — without a tradition of high-level interior play — tends to rely a lot on defense and three-point shooting.
That’s not very sexy, nor is the decrepit State Farm Center, where the Illini play their games. Long-overdue renovations are coming to the former Assembly Hall, but what was that supposed to mean to a hopeful one-and-done player on a campus visit?
No one has a leg to stand on if they’re mad at Alexander for choosing basketball temple Phog Allen Fieldhouse, Self and Lawrence over a 1960s spaceship, Groce and Champaign.
Illini fans forever will resent him for his dirty little hat trick, and that’s fair. But they were the perfect suckers.