Cliff Alexander briefly teased Illinois fans Friday.
The 6-foot-8 forward from Curie High School reached to his right and picked up an orange Illini cap as he said he was going the University of ...
After pausing, he set the hat on the table, placed a gray-and-blue cap on his head and completed his sentence. “Kansas,” the consensus top-five national recruit said.
Later, he explained of the feint that seemed simultaneously to deflate and infuriate Illini fans: “It's something my teammates thought I should do.”
It wasn't the first time Friday a teenager tossed the Illini aside.
Hours earlier, point guard Quentin Snider did an about-face and decommitted from Illinois to sign with his original choice of hometown Louisville, the defending NCAA champion. He had reneged on his oral commitment to the Cardinals in July to pick Illinois.
Alexander could have saved the day. He could have saved a program when it came to DePaul, which was also a finalist along with Memphis.
But he said his final two choices were Illinois and Kansas.
Illinois has been working to reach a level of national prominence since playing for the NCAA championship under former coach Bruce Weber in 2005. Landing Alexander would have helped do that.
He said he agonized over the decision and only made his selection Thursday, keeping it a secret until he could announce to a cable-TV audience and fans assembled in the Curie auditorium.
“They did a great job,” he said of Illinois' recruitment. “I talked to Coach (John) Groce every day. There was no (area that was) lacking.”
Added his mother, Latillia Alexander: “John Groce is great. I know, most definitely, John Groce would care for him on and off the court, but I think (Kansas coach) Bill Self will get him to the next level.”
Indeed, Alexander said he would play for Kansas for only one season before a planned departure to the NBA. He said he probably won't sign a letter of intent until January.
The Snider and Alexander decisions bring back bad memories for Illinois fans.
Eric Gordon decommitted in 2006 to sign with Indiana, enraging Illini fans. The team has a recent history of missing out on top Chicago-area recruits such as Derrick Rose, Jon Scheyer, Sherron Collins and Julian Wright.
The same is true for DePaul, which has seen players leave the state for blue-blood programs. Alexander said the Blue Demons' lack of recent success was an eliminating factor.
Illinois' 2014 class now consists of four-star 6-7 forward Leron Black of Memphis, Tenn., who was committed to Baylor last year, and Champaign native Michael Finke, a 6-9 forward.
Before Snider's decommitment, the consensus was the Illini had the nation's 14th-best recruiting class. Curie coach Mike Oliver said he believes other top-flight players eventually will pick Illinois.
“Their day is coming,” Oliver said of the Illini. “They're right on the path. It's just a matter of time.”
The Illini's future still appears on the upswing with Groce.
He has three transfers waiting on the bench in Darius Paul (former Illini Brandon Paul's brother), point guard Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby.
Freshman Jaylon Tate from Simeon has had a surprisingly solid start as a backup point guard, and Tracy Abrams will be a senior point guard next season.
Before he finished speaking to reporters, Alexander lifted Illinois' hopes once again.
He said he hadn't signed a letter of intent because he wanted to “get a feel” for being committed to Kansas before signing. Asked if that meant he could change his mind, he said, “There might be a chance.”
Asked what would change his mind, he said: “Nothing really. I'm set.”
Tribune reporter Michael Stainbrook contributed.
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