ESPN Champions Classic in Chicago a Blow to Illinois Basketball?

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ESPN Champions Classic in Chicago a Blow to Illinois Basketball?
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Rewind the clock 30 years to 1983.

The DePaul Blue Demons, under legendary coach Ray Meyer, were 27-3 and the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region of the NCAA tournament. Their second-round opponent, Missouri Valley Conference champion Illinois State, was 23-8.

Illinois' Big Ten team, the University of Illinois Fighting Illini, were 26-5 and champions of the Big Ten under coach Lou Henson.

Illinois was the place to be for basketball. Not just in Champaign, but throughout the entire state. With three teams in March Madness, basketball was booming in Illinois.

Perhaps most exciting was the blossoming of young star Benji Wilson of Chicago's Simeon Career Academy, who was tragically gunned down on the city's south side in November of 1984. Wilson was expected to choose the University of Illinois over DePaul University.

So much has changed since then.

The Illinois State Redbirds have made the tournament only four times since then, and the DePaul Blue Demons have reached the NCAA tournament twice since 1992.

The nation's top recruits no longer flock to Illinois. Jabari Parker, also of Simeon, was regarded by many as the state's top high school basketball player and chose the Duke Blue Devils over BYU, Florida, Michigan State and Stanford.

If all goes well, the Fighting Illini could make a huge splash by landing Curie Metropolitan senior Cliff Alexander, who lists DePaul, Illinois, Kansas, Memphis and Michigan State. Alexander made an official visit to the University of Illinois on October 24.

However, Alexander is rumored to be considering Kansas, largely because his girlfriend is a student at the University of Kansas. His decision is expected on November 16, Alexander's birthday.

Just four days before Alexander makes his announcement, two of Alexander's possible schools will be competing at the United Center, the home of the Chicago Bulls. On November 12, the Kansas Jayhawks will take on Jabari Parker and the Duke Blue Devils, followed by the Kentucky Wildcats versus the Michigan State Spartans in the ESPN Champions Classic.

So why should Illinois teams be concerned with the games, despite only Michigan State representing the Big Ten and ultimately the Fighting Illini?

It's simple...recruiting.

The likely motive behind all four schools playing in Chicago is to expose themselves to Chicago and the Midwest's top recruits like Cliff Alexander. Unfortunately for Illinois basketball, it just may work, especially if the Champions Classic becomes a regular occurrence and the nation's top schools play regularly in Chicago. What recruit wouldn't want to go away to school and still be guaranteed to play at home in front of their friends and family?

Illinois head coach John Groce has already done a good job with recruiting, landing Simeon's Kendrick Nunn as well as other solid out-of-state commits.

College basketball teams throughout Illinois need a Jabari Parker. The days of Duke and Kansas stealing Chicago's finest athletes need to go. Perhaps one of the Illini's best scheduling decisions is their annual game at the United Center, this year against in-state rival UIC.

If all works out, Cliff Alexander will not be convinced by the Champions Classic and will opt to stay in state and attend the University of Illinois.

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