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Illinois lands a commitment from 2015 four-star D.J. Williams

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Illinois landed another commitment from a top player in the city of Chicago on Tuesday morning, as D.J. Williams pledged to John Groce and the Illini.

Williams is the No. 45 player in the Class of 2015, according to Rivals. A 6-foot-7, 200 pound wing forward, Williams is a competent scorer on the wing and athletic enough to be an effective rebounder and transition scorer at the Big Ten level. His game needs polishing, but there’s definitely quite a bit of potential there.

More importantly, Williams is the third player that Groce has landed from Simeon High School in Chicago. Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn, who are both freshmen this season, are Simeon products that are expected to see time for the Illini this year. Simeon is a powerhouse in Chi-town, having produced players like Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker.

If Groce can turn Simeon into a pipeline for Illinois, that immediately makes his program better. For starters, that means he’s going to continually have access to talented hoopers, but it also means that he’s got a foot in the door when it comes to getting players from Chicago. That city houses a ton of talent, and tapping into that market, especially for Illinois, is hugely important.

Illinois guard Tracy Abrams misses final exhibition with mild hamstring strain

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Illinois played its second exhibition game on Sunday afternoon against Northwood (Mich.) and the Fighting Illini struggled in stretches, trailing 48-47 with 13:31 to go before taking control of the contest. The 21-7 run was enough to push Illinois to an 83-67 victory, with Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice scoring a team-high 16 points. In total five Illinois players scored in double figures, with three of the five being underclassmen.

Sophomore guard Mike LaTulip scored 14 points (3-for-5 3PT) and freshmen Jaylon Tate (three assists) and Malcolm Hill (seven rebounds and three assists) accounted for 11 and ten points respectively. Illinois won the contest without the services of junior guard Tracy Abrams, who was sidelined with a mild hamstring strain according to Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune.

As a sophomore Abrams averaged 10.6 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game for the Fighting Illini, and with the loss of Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson the Chicago native will be asked to produce even more for John Groce’s team. And that production isn’t solely about the box score, as the loss of those seniors (including Tyler Griffey) means that more will be required of veterans such as Abrams and redshirt senior Joe Bertrand (ten points in Sunday’s win) in the leadership department as well.

Illinois opens regular season play on Friday night against Alabama State, and they’ll play their first five games at home before visiting UNLV on November 26.

Northwestern forward Mike Turner takes leave of absence from program

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First-year head coach Chris Collins has made quite a splash in his first few months on the job. Recruiting has picked up, with the Wildcats landing verbal commitments from guards Vic Law and Bryant McIntosh and forward Gavin Skelly. With the success on the recruiting trail, the most important question to be answered is whether or not Collins is the man capable of leading the Wildcats to their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance.

Northwestern will be able to begin practicing with an eye towards that goal on September 27, but they’ll do so without the services of 6-8 forward Mike Turner. Turner is taking a leave of absence from the program, but will remain in school during this period.

“Mike will take some time away from the program to focus on aspects of his life other than basketball,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said in the release. “He has our complete support and we will revisit his status within the program once the time is appropriate.”

Turner played just under 16 minutes per game in 2012-13, posting averages of 1.9 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game. One of his best performances came in a 69-59 loss at Ohio State on Valentine’s Day, as he accounted for four points, four rebounds and a game-high eight assists. Turner’s season high for points in a game was seven, with that outing coming in a loss at Purdue in late-February.

Losing Turner doesn’t sap Northwestern’s depth, especially when considering the fact that both Drew Crawford (injury; 13.5 ppg and 4.6 rpg in ten games last season) and JerShon Cobb (suspension; 7.1 ppg in 2011-12) are back in the fold. Crawford, who was a third team All-Big Ten selection as a junior, was sidelined after ten games due to a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

Other players in the running for playing time on the wing include redshirt freshman Sanjay Lumpkin, sophomore Kale Abrahamson (4.9 ppg, 2.0 rpg) and freshman Nate Taphorn.

Project that includes a new arena for DePaul more complicated than anticipated

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Last Wednesday it was reported that plans to build a new arena at Chicago’s McCormick Place, which will be home to the DePaul men’s basketball program as well as other city events, were approved unanimously by the Chicago City Council.

But that isn’t the case, according to the Chicago Tribune, which reported on July 28 that “city and McCormick Place officials will have to pry land from three prominent corporate entities with ties to the university, City Hall and Springfield” in order to begin the project.

And as fate should have it, one of the corporate entities the parties would have to negotiate with is DePaul Athletic Hall of Fame member Victor J. Cacciatore Sr., whose family is majority owner of Lakeside Bank.

To build a facility that will draw DePaul’s basketball games back to the city after a long run in suburban Rosemont, McPier will have to strike a deal with a man whom the university inducted into its Athletic Hall of Fame.

The parcel at 2141 S. Indiana Ave. is owned by Lakeside Bank, and Cacciatore still runs the longtime Chicago financial firm as chairman and CEO. He served on DePaul’s board for decades, starting in 1973, and has been a prominent fundraiser for the university.

His family’s contributions to DePaul exceed $1 million, including what the university called “the largest outright gift in DePaul athletics history” for upgrades to its soccer and softball facility that bears the name “Cacciatore Stadium.”

Why has this project become such a hot-button topic in Chicago political circles? One major reason is what’s been going on with the Chicago public school system. On July 24, Chicago Public Schools announced a new budget for the 2013-14 academic year that includes some $68 million in budget cuts.

As a result 49 schools were expected to be closed, and on Wednesday the Chicago Teachers Union saw its motion to halt the closing of ten schools denied by a Cook County judge. Over the next two days there will be public hearings on the new CPS budget, with a final vote to come on August 24.

Whether it’s the school system or the need to negotiate deals with business owners in the proposed area for the new arena, it looks as if things won’t move at the pace those in favor of building the facility would like them to.

A new arena to show off to recruits and donors will help DePaul on the basketball court, although how much of a boost the programs receive remains to be seen. But how long will the process take? That’s anyone’s guess right now.

City of Chicago, DePaul announce plans for new multipurpose facility

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Three days after it was reported that Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel would announce plans for a new project that would include a new arena for the DePaul basketball program the mayor did just that, unveiling plans with the hope of beginning construction in 2014.

The multipurpose facility (which authorities hope will be completed in time for the 2016-17 season) will seat 10,000 and house both Blue Demon basketball programs, with the school and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority sharing the construction costs.

DePaul’s men’s basketball program has played the majority of its home games at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill. since 1980, and if the project goes through as planned it will bring the Blue Demons back to the Windy City.

While the new development can serve as a catalyst to rejuvenate the neighborhood the question is this: can it also help rejuvenate a basketball program that has struggled for years? That’s the hope amongst those who support the team and the school at large.

“This facility will bring the Blue Demons much closer to the largest segment of our fan base and will add significantly to the momentum that our basketball programs have been building in recent years,” said DePaul president Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M. in the release announcing the project.

In three season under Oliver Purnell the Blue Demons have avoided losing 20 games or more just once, going 12-19 in 2011-12. Since the program’s last NCAA tournament appearance in 2004, DePaul has won at least 20 games in a season just twice: 2004-05 (20-11 under Dave Leitao) and 2006-07 (20-14; Jerry Wainwright).

With the return of Brandon Young and Cleveland Melvin coinciding with a “new beginning” of sorts in the reconfigured Big East, can DePaul begin moving in the right direction in 2013-14?

They’re going to need to, because for all that having a new building can do for a program there’s no better sales pitch than a winning product on the floor. That goes not only for season ticket holders and donors but also for recruits.

On DePaul’s 2012-13 roster just four players were natives of the Chicagoland area, with sophomore wing Jamee Crockett being the most productive of the bunch.

Could this project ultimately help DePaul on the recruiting trail in their own stomping grounds? That remains to be seen, but it won’t hurt to have plans for a new facility to show off.

Raphielle can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

UIC gives head coach Howard Moore three-year contract extension

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After winning a grand total of 15 games in Howard Moore’s first two seasons as head coach UIC made an impressive leap in the right direction, improving their win total from last season by ten games in 2012-13.

On the heels of the Flames’ 18-16 campaign (7-9 Horizon League) the school rewarded Moore with a three-year contract extension, extending his deal through the 2017-18 seasons.

“In a very short period of time, Howard and his staff have led our men’s basketball program back to being a contender in the Horizon League,” said UIC athletic director Jim Schmidt in a statement released by the school. “We’re very proud of the strides that have been made. Our recruiting has significantly improved, his players are performing well in the classroom, and the program now has an identity built on playing great team defense.

“We believe that Howard and his staff have an effective plan to consistently win in our league, and we’re excited about him leading our program into the future.”

UIC’s 2012-13 campaign featured a 9-1 start to the season and wins over eventual NCAA tournament participants Colorado State and Iona.

UIC has to replace three of its top four scorers, including guards Daniel Barnes and Gary Talton and forward Josh Crittle, but Hayden Humes returns for his senior campaign and the Flames add Purdue transfer Kelsey Barlow to the rotation.

The roster turnover will make things difficult entering 2013-14, but Moore remains confident that they Flames can continue to take steps towards being a perennial contender in the Horizon League.

“As a staff, we are very proud of the things we accomplished last season – we had great senior leadership, and our young guys really bought into the vision of our program,” said Moore. “But we’re not satisfied. Our goals are to compete for championships year-in and year-out.

“Everything is about our approach – in recruiting, in practice, in the classroom and in competition. We’re very excited about this offseason, and are looking forward to our continual climb to the top of the Horizon League.”

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.