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Henricksen: Down the stretch in Jalen Brunson sweepstakes

08/27/2014, 6:15am CDT
By Joe Henricksen | @joehoopsreport

The recruitment of the Stevenson superstar is a little different, starting with the five finalists. A unique look at the pros and cons each school and basketball program may offer the ultra-talented point guard.

Sure he’s the No. 1 player in the state with a winning pedigree. And, yes, he's a top 25 talent in the country who will likely be a McDonald’s All-American.

But you know why the Jalen Brunson recruitment is so cool? Because it’s different. He’s a nationally-recognized player from Illinois who won’t have Coach K, Cal, Pitino or Self visiting the Stevenson open gyms this fall. 

Think about that for a moment.

The ballyhooed list of Jahlil Okafor, Cliff Alexander, Jabari Parker, Wayne Blackshear, Anthony Davis, Derrick Rose, Sherron Collins, Julian Wright, Jon Scheyer and Shaun Livingston all signed with one of those four coaches in the past 10 years.

The sharp, basketball-minded Brunson sought out schools that made sense to him on various levels, who he had a connection with, who made an impression on him during the recruiting process and, in return, he stayed true to. 

The race for the state’s top player is heading down the stretch, with five left standing for the Stevenson star: Illinois, Michigan State, Purdue, Temple and Villanova. 

The official visits begin this weekend with a trip to Champaign. Here is a breakdown of the pros and cons –– some little, some big –– for each program as they relate to Brunson as each continues their hot pursuit of arguably the best point guard prospect in the nation in the Class of 2015.

Visiting: Aug. 29-31

■ Point guard is a major position of need for coach John Groce and Illinois. The opportunity to run the show at a Big Ten program is immediate. Brunson would have the ball in his hands for 35 minutes a game the moment he steps on campus, controlling the game in a true ball-screen offense. 

■ Although personnel has prevented Groce from truly showing it thus far in his two seasons at Illinois, this system is fueled by the play of the point guard. Just watch a highlight tape of D.J. Cooper during Groce’s successful runs at Ohio and any point guard’s eyes would light up.

■ The supporting cast continues to be upgraded each year under Groce, with what will be a solid, experienced nucleus –– along with a nice incoming recruiting class –– surrounding Brunson early in his career (Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill will be juniors, Aaron Cosby a senior and Leron Black a sophomore).

■ Opportunity to play in the Big Ten Conference, traditionally one of the top two leagues in the nation each and every year and one that leads the country in attendance –– each and every year. This past season the Big Ten broke its own all-conference men’s basketball attendance record by averaging 13,500-plus fans a game. 

■ Brunson will walk into what is basically a brand spanking new home arena in his early playing days, with the $160-plus million renovation of the State Farm Center underway. 

■ Of all the schools on the final list, Illinois is on top when it comes to overall academics. The University of Illinois was just recently named the No. 11 public university and college in the country by U.S. News and World Report. 

■ Illinois hasn’t won at a really high level in quite some time. Groce did win a NCAA tournament game his first year on the job two seasons ago, but Illinois is now 3-5 in NCAA Tournament play since the magical 2005 team, even missing the tournament four of the past seven seasons. 

■ This isn’t a typical “Illinois kid” who was born and raised in the state with an allegiance or true passion for the big state university. Illinois fans may say “that really hasn’t mattered much over the past decade,” but it’s still a connection you would rather have than not have in recruiting this state.

■ The savior label may not stick or be appealing (or maybe, to a degree, it will?). With the talent surrounding Brunson and, with what hopes to be an outstanding recruiting class joining him, this may not be entirely true. But will there be too big of expectations placed and too much weight placed on the prep star that becomes the signature Groce get?

Visiting: Sept. 19-21

■ Tom Izzo’s name and reputation. While Coach K, Cal, Pitino and Self aren’t on the Brunson list, Izzo’s name is and he’s right there in that group. The veteran coach is the most revered, respected and winningest coach still recruiting Brunson –– and it’s not even close.

■ MSU is a power program and is by far the most successful and highest profile program of the remaining five. The Spartans haven’t missed a NCAA Tournament since 1997 and have reached a remarkable six Final Fours in that time, winning a national championship in 2000.  

■ The Spartans are inching closer to a power-packed recruiting class, with five-star recruit Deyonta Davis already committed and Izzo firmly entrenched in the Caleb Swanigan sweepstakes, the 6-8, 265-pound man child who is among the top 20 players in the country.

■ This is another program that provides the chance to play Big Ten basketball, a league that has led the country in attendance for 32 straight seasons. 

■ It’s the safest choice and pick. Michigan State is always going to be really good as long as Izzo is on that bench, there will always be a strong supporting cast surrounding Brunson, and there will always be a big-time national spotlight on Spartan basketball.

■ Watch Michigan State play and the point guard isn’t –– How should we put this? –– exactly blessed with creative freedom. Maybe that’s easy to identify with a kid and family with such basketball competence. 

■ Although Brunson is going to play immediately wherever he lands, MSU does have talented freshman point guard Lourawls “Tum-Tum” Nairn in the class ahead of Brunson. Sparty legend Mateen Cleaves was recently quoted saying Nairn “reminds me of myself.” How will the lead guard minutes be shared between Tum-Tum, who has already been billed as a leader, and Brunson? Will Brunson play off the ball to accommodate the smallish 5-11 Nairn?

Visiting: Sept. 26-28

■ Of all the high-majors that recruited Brunson, Purdue and coach Matt Painter have been on him the longest. There is a deep respect for Painter. That counts for something in this recruitment and has kept the Boilermakers in it.

■ Opportunity. Similar to what he would have at Illinois, Brunson would step in at Purdue and is immediately “the guy” in the backcourt. Purdue signed a promising point guard prospect in the Class of 2014 and has one committed in 2015, but no disrespect to current Boiler freshman P.J. Thompson or committed Grant Weatherford, they aren’t going to take any minutes away from Brunson. 

■ For Purdue’s sake, hopefully they can squeeze one more year out of junior big man A.J. Hammons before he goes pro to team up with Brunson during his freshman year. That, along with some nice pieces in the Class of 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes, would have the arrow pointing up quickly for the Boilermakers.

■ Again, Big Ten basketball with its history and tradition, fan and university support, exposure and high-level of play is a terrific selling point for Illinois, Michigan State and Purdue.

■ The last visit is typically fine when three are set up. But being the fifth isn’t ideal as many recruits tire of the “official” visits quickly. 

■ The Boilermakers are now three years removed from their last NCAA Tournament berth and coming off a rough 15-17 season. Painter has an outstanding track record as a head coach, but it’s a bit of rebuilding project right now with the Boilermakers. 

Visiting: Sept. 11-13

■ Familiarity and family history, which can always tug at the heart, is a big selling point here. Jalen Brunson’s father, Rick Brunson, was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school who signed with Temple. He put together a terrific four-year career under legendary coach John Chaney and played on some memorable Owl teams. 

■ He may not have the biggest name in the coaching ranks, but Fran Dunphy can coach and has taken an impressive 15 different teams to the NCAA Tournament. Plus, he’s known around the game as a “guard’s coach.”

■ Although it may be pooh-poohed around these parts, Temple has a very real basketball pedigree and is a very respected and well-known basketball name on the East Coast.

■ With the way the roster is currently constructed, this is another program that offers a ton of immediate opportunities. 

■ Upgrade in facilities as the men’s and women’s basketball practice facility was part of a $48 million athletic facility facelift and expansion in 2012. And although it’s still very much an urban school, the area and neighborhood around the campus has completely changed for the better over the years. 

■ What has been rumored and in the works is now official. Former Temple star and 13-year NBA veteran Aaron McKie has joined the Owls basketball staff. The positive here is McKie is close with Rick Brunson from their days playing together on some Temple teams in the early 1990s that still resonates with Philly and Owls fans.

■ While Temple is a basketball school, it’s one that really struggled last season. The Owls are coming off a 9-22 season and were 4-14 in league play. Leading scorer Dalton Pepper has graduated and Anthony Lee, one of its top returning players, transferred to Ohio State this past spring. But Temple did reach the NCAA Tournament the six previous years, averaging an impressive 24 wins a year during that time. 

■ The Owls play in the American Athletic Conference. While the league does have the defending national champs (UConn) and has Cincinnati, Memphis and an improving SMU, it’s still a league that finished 8th in conference RPI rankings last season –– and that was before Louisville left. The Big Ten finished No. 1. From a competition and spotlight perspective, there is no comparison in leagues. 

■ The supporting cast at Temple simply isn’t up to the standards of a few of the other schools on this list. Couple that with playing under your father’s legacy at Temple, and that may be quite a heavy burden for the younger Brunson. 

Visiting: Sept. 4-6

■ Villanova is fresh off an impressive 29-win season and returns the nucleus of that team this year. The program is experiencing some positive mojo and has a definite vibe going forward.

■ Coach Jay Wright is a presence with a winning pedigree and has been a Naismith National Coach of the Year. He’s led Villanova to a Final Four as recently as 2009, eight NCAA Tournament bids in the last nine years and has compiled a 285-149 record since taking over the program in 2001.

■ Familiarity with the area. It’s not like this is a random Illinois kid who is just taking off for the greater Philadelphia area. There are ties to Philly and the East Coast for the Brunsons.

■ This is a guard-infused program with a coach who isn’t afraid to roll out four guards at once and let them play in a fun, just go-out-and-play style. 

■ Track record is there under Wright, both in developing point guards and showcasing them, whether it was the stars in Kyle Lowery (2004-2006) and Scottie Reynolds (2006-2010) or just solid college point guards like Corey Fisher (2007-2011) and Mike Nardi (2003-2007).

■ Villanova plays in a NBA arena. While the Wells Fargo Center isn’t among the NBA’s best arenas, there is still a little bit of an aura for a teenager playing in a NBA facility in a big city. 

■ Although it’s lost some significance, being a part of the “Big 5” in Philadelphia, especially if you’re truly familiar with it, is just cool. This could be placed in the pros list for Temple as well, but playing in the “Big 5” is a memorable experience, though obviously one that won’t likely sway any decision.

■ Ryan Arcidiacono. In the grand scheme of things, this is a big con. When Brunson arrives as a freshman, Arcidiacono will be a senior –– and not any senior. Arcidiacono is a Villanova fan favorite, was once a local hotshot schoolboy and will be a veteran four-year starting point guard. How will Wright and ’Nova spin that one?

■ While the Big East is still a very good conference, it’s far removed from being the big bad Big East of old and all the great selling points that came with being a part of that league. 

■ Maybe it really won’t matter at the end of the day, but is Jalen Brunson going to go 16 miles down the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia to an opposing “Big Five” school of where his dad played?

The other factors …

As is the case with most recruitments, especially those that are so in-tune with so many aspects of basketball as the Brunsons are, there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to those on the outside looking in. 

Of course, much of the decision will come down to –– as both Jalen Brunson and Rick Brunson have stated several times –– the feel the Stevenson star has for each program and head coach. Rick Brunson spoke about that in a story earlier this month, which you can read here.

There are aspects no one knows outside the family, such as which head coach does he have the closest relationship with? Does he want a more urban college environment or a more traditional campus setting? Does location (and what location?) matter? Will five official visits really be needed?

Brunson begins to sort it all out this weekend with the first of five set visits. 

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