- Scott Powers, Reporter
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Illinois has been waiting for another Marcus Liberty for nearly 30 years.
Liberty was considered the best high school player in the country in the class of 1987 and chose the Illini over Syracuse. Since then, Illinois hasn't been able to secure another top-5 player. It has had a few close calls, including Shannon Brown choosing Michigan State over Illinois, Eric Gordon committing and then de-committing, and Derrick Rose making a late visit, but none of them were to be.
That's where Chicago Curie power forward Cliff Alexander, ESPN's No. 3-ranked senior, and his official visit to Illinois this weekend enter the picture. Not since Rose made a last-minute visit to Illinois in 2006 have the Illini had a top-5 player consider them this late in the recruiting process.
Even when Rose stopped by Champaign before committing to Memphis, not many believed he was sincere about his Illinois interest. That's different with Alexander.
"I think it's bigger than the Rose one because of the validity of it," said Illinois state-wide recruiting analyst Joe Henricksen, who publishes the City/Suburban Hoops Report. "I think this one is more real than the other ones. There's some validity to it. It's a real option for Cliff Alexander to go to Illinois. He's been down there multiple times, plus, he's taken an official visit on top of those.
"He gives Illinois the possibility of securing its biggest recruit in 25 years. It would be the biggest recruit since Marcus Liberty."
That's the reason why the Illinois fan base is buzzing at a different level this week.
Illinois is hosting Michigan State for its homecoming football game this week, but most of the talk around campus and in town has been about Alexander. Jeremy Werner, who is the co-host of the "Tay and J Show" on ESPN Radio 93.5 in Champaign, can attest to that.
"This is the biggest thing this weekend," Werner said of Alexander's visit. "It's bigger than the football game. I have had people asking, 'Why aren't you talking about Cliff Alexander all week?' This recruitment is more than anything before. You have to go back to Marcus Liberty."
Champaign Mayor Don Gerard was even excited and tweeted at Alexander, "Welcome to the 'Paign," on Friday night.
Liberty not only represents the last top-5 player for Illinois, but also one of the few premier players out of the Chicago Public League to end up at Illinois. The Illini have landed a number of top-100 players from the Chicago Public League in recent years, but the elite ones have mostly gone elsewhere.
Former Public League stars Rose, Anthony Davis, Wayne Blackshear, Jabari Parker, Sherron Collins, Sean Dockery, Quentin Richardson, Rashard Griffith and Juwan Howard chose other schools. Former King star Jamie Brandon enrolled at Illinois, but never played there. Jahlil Okafor, the No. 1 recruit in 2014, recently eliminated Illinois from his list. Deon Thomas was the last McDonald's All-American from the Chicago Public League to play for Illinois.
Alexander's high school coach, Mike Oliver, would love to see the trend of the city's best players leaving the state for college to end with Alexander. Oliver is hopeful Alexander will choose Illinois or DePaul.
"I think it's a shame the last 3-4 years we've had so many players in the NCAA tournament from the state of Illinois, but not playing in the state of Illinois," Oliver said. "Personally, if I had to make a decision, it would be between DePaul and Illinois. That would be the best opportunity to showcase himself. If he went to DePaul, he'd get an opportunity to start with five guys from Chicago. If he went to Illinois, he could start with five guys from the state of Illinois.
"We haven’t had that since the 1988-89 Illinois team that went to the Final Four. They had Marcus Liberty, Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle and Kendall Gill. We got to get back that. Let our guys stay in Illinois and make the state proud."
Illinois and DePaul both appear to have a legitimate shot at Alexander. He included both among his final top-5 list, which also includes Kansas, Memphis and Michigan State. He already has made official visits to Arizona, DePaul, Kansas and Memphis. Illinois will be his final official visit. He will announce his decision on ESPN on Nov. 16.
One obstacle Alexander does still need to clear is meeting the NCAA's qualifying requirements. Oliver said Alexander hasn't qualified just yet.
"He's right there," Oliver said. "There's no fear. He's going to qualify."
If Alexander does qualify, Henricksen wasn't positive the proximity would majorly affect Alexander's final decision, but he said he did believe Illinois was in the mix for another reason.
"I don't know if he's bought into staying home," Henricksen said. "What I love about him is he wants to be the man. Even though he loves the recruiting process, he doesn't want to join forces. He may do that with another high-profile team. But in the LeBron [James] era of teaming up with guys, from what I've gathered from Cliff, he truly wants to be the guy and isn't afraid of it.
"That's what's intriguing about Illinois. There's no doubt who Cliff Alexander is if he's coming to Illinois. He's the guy. He is the focal point and the face of the franchise. That might not be the case other places. I think that says something about him."
Illinois has been waiting for another Marcus Liberty for nearly 30 years.Liberty was considered the best high school player in the country in the class of 1987 and chose the Illini over Syracuse.