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MORRISSEY: Illinois, DePaul can’t catch a break from in-state stars

Curie’s Cliff Alexander fields questions Friday after announcing he will attend Kansas — decisithdrew outrage from Illinois fans tired being

Curie’s Cliff Alexander fields questions Friday after announcing he will attend Kansas — a decision that drew outrage from Illinois fans tired of being snubbed by top Chicago-area talent. | Stacia Timonere/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 18, 2013 6:29AM



I   went to a funeral Friday afternoon. The idea of Cliff Alexander going to either Illinois or DePaul was laid to rest on the Southwest Side. So was the idea of a college basketball revival in this city.

It was a sad affair for anyone who wants elite Chicago players to stay in-state and help build something lasting here.

Oh, it was a happy gathering for Alexander, his family and Curie, where the announcement took place. Can’t blame Alexander for choosing Kansas over Illinois, DePaul, Michigan State and Memphis. Great basketball school. Nice atmosphere. Your one-and-done season will go by in no time, kid, and then you’ll be free to make your millions.

There was quite the buildup at the school Friday. The marching band played. The dance team performed. There was a video tribute, including an Alexander dunk that saw a backboard go to pieces. When it finally came time for the decision, the No. 3-rated recruit in the country picked up the Illinois cap on the table in front of him, put it down and donned the Kansas cap. Lots of adults were furious at the head fake, but come on. Not the classiest move, but he turned 18 on Saturday. Give him a break.

The Illini already had taken a hit Friday morning when guard Quentin Snider signed with Louisville after earlier committing to Illinois. They shouldn’t be angry with the Cardinals — the four-star guard had initially committed to Louisville before changing his mind and promising to love Illinois for the rest of his days, or until he hired an agent.

Of course, none of that stopped Illini fans from ripping both kids on Twitter and message boards. This won’t make them feel better: Alexander said Illinois finished second for his services, which is like finishing second for the last syringe of anti-venom.

I feel bad for Illinois coach John Groce and DePaul coach Oliver Purnell. When Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari loses a stud recruit, he shrugs and signs another McDonald’s All-American. For Groce, there is no shrugging. I’m guessing there’s something that looks a lot like dry heaving. A player of Alexander’s skills can make all the difference in the world to an Illinois. Or he can bring a program to its knees. I believe Illinois was kneeling Friday.

If last week’s Champions Classic at the United Center showed us anything, it’s that superstar freshmen can own programs, no matter how great those programs are. If it weren’t for the NBA’s age-limit rule, Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Kentucky’s Julius Randle would be in the NBA right now, enjoying their lottery-pick contracts. Alexander and Young’s Jahlil Okafor, the No. 1 recruit in the country, would be jumping into the June draft.

So I ask Parker, Okafor and Alexander: Does it really matter where you go for one year of college? All of you would have been a top-five NBA pick regardless of where you went to school, whether it be Kansas, Marquette or Miami of Ohio. Will Okafor be a better player for having spent a year with Krzyzewski? Yes, though the NBA isn’t exactly littered with Duke success stories.

If you watched Parker on Tuesday, you understand that some people are great no matter who’s coaching them.

So why not Illinois? Or DePaul? Or UIC? I’m being completely selfish here. I’d like to see great college basketball again in Chicago. Why wouldn’t a kid want to be the one to bring back big-time hoops to the city? All it takes is one.

DePaul basketball took a huge leap when Quentin Richardson, Lance Williams and Bobby Simmons chose the Blue Demons. Steven Hunter and others followed. It didn’t last as long as it should have, but that doesn’t mean it can’t.

‘‘I decided that I didn’t want to stay home,’’ Alexander said. ‘‘I just wanted to get away. I’ve been living here 17 years. I want to experience something new.’’

I’m beyond trying to figure out why Chicago Public League coaches seem to have it out for Illinois. It’s a disservice to kids who could be going to a good program and a better school. The players or their handlers are smart enough to add Illinois or DePaul to their final lists, so as not to alienate the people at home. Then they choose Kentucky or Memphis, having had no intention of staying in state.

‘‘I love you, Coach Groce,’’ Alexander said. ‘‘I love you. You did a great job.’’

He just doesn’t love you enough, Coach.



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