UNIVERSITY VILLAGE — When Deon Thomas starred for Simeon Career Academy, heading to the University of Illinois was nearly an annual rite of passage for the high school athlete named "Mr. Basketball," the honor bestowed to the state's best player by schools and media every year since 1981.
Thomas, the 1989 Mr. Basketball, capped a run when three of those honored as Mr. Basketball in a four-year span — joining King's Marcus Liberty (1987) and Simeon's Nick Anderson (1986) — enrolled at the state's flagship school in Champaign-Urbana.
But things have changed, and the state's most prominent men's basketball program no longer attracts its most premier players, Thomas said.
Justin Breen says this season could be difficult for the Illini:
Since 2003, only two who have won the Mr. Basketball award — Warren Township's Brandon Paul (2009) and Waukegan's Jereme Richmond (2010) — have played for the Illini.
"I think that can change, but will it? I don't know," Thomas, 43, added. "A lot of those kids are from the city, and you have to build those relationships. [Illinois head coach John Groce] has started that, but it takes time."
Perhaps surprisingly, Thomas, whose last year at U. of I. was 1994, remains the school's all-time career leader in scoring (2,129) and blocked shots (177).
He said while he was a prep star, going to Illinois was a "source of pride for players and their coaches.''
"When I was coming up, you had very few high Division I schools coming into Chicago and doing recruiting," Thomas said. "It was also a source of pride for players and their coaches because they wanted to go to an in-state school."
The thinking was, "'This is my state, this is my school, why would I go to another state where no one knows me?' You're not going to receive the same kind of love that you would from your own people. They have a connection with you. If you go outside the state, you have to totally reinvent yourself. Here in the Midwest, everyone knew who Deon Thomas was."
Thomas said the increased presence of Amateur Athletic Union basketball, which allows players to compete year-round across the country and team with other elite talent, has altered everything.
"With the addition of recruiting with AAU, these kids are traveling everywhere," Thomas said. "They're playing in Florida, California, [Las] Vegas, so the recruiting base is not as narrow, which makes it more difficult for Illinois. AAU coaches now have sometimes more pull than the high school coaches."
Thomas said he's hoping to bring more high-level talent to U. of I.'s sister program, UIC, especially from Chicago Public League players. Since starting his new job, he's visited several Chicago Public League high schools, including Simeon, Morgan Park High, Kenwood Academy and Hyde Park Academy.
"I'll end up hitting all of the CPS schools before the year ends," Thomas said.
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