NORMAL — There were college basketball coaches galore at Normal West High School on Friday afternoon for the start of the Midwest Crossroads Showcase.
That group included two Big Ten head coaches, Fran McCaffery of Iowa and Greg Gard of Wisconsin, along with Loyola-Chicago head coach Drew Valentine, Bradley head coach Brian Wardle and assistants such as Rob Judson of Illinois State, Northwestern’s Brian James and Bloomington native Brandon Dunson of Stanford.
Many of those eyes were fixed on Normal Community’s “Twin Towers” 6-foot-8 rising junior duo of Jaheem Webber and Noah Cleveland as they went against Oak Park-River Forest.
“Just focus on what we’re here to do, win the game and do it the right way,” he said.
“We’re focusing on winning and getting better as a team this summer,” he said. “We’re not really paying attention to all the coaches, but it’s exciting they’re here.”
The showcase is in its second year at West under the direction of Wildcats head coach Ed Hafermann and Mike Sarver. There were 58 teams, up from 42 in 2021, playing four games in three days during an NCAA Live Recruiting period.
Area teams included West, NCHS, University High, Bloomington, Central Catholic, El Paso-Gridley, Heyworth, Lincoln, Pontiac and Prairie Central.
Two teams from Ohio came — Columbus Africentric Early College and Taft — with the rest from Illinois that included Class 3A state champion Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin, Class 3A runner-up Metamora and Moline, which could contend for the Class 4A state title in the 2022-23 season.
Hafermann said at least 60 college coaches signed up to attend. They were given booklets which included rosters and where provided phone numbers, emails and grade-point averages of the players.
A 25-minute presentation was available for players, coaches and parents about the rules of recruiting. College coaches weren’t supposed to talk with the players during the event.
Games consisted of two 18-minute halves with only two timeouts per team. If overtime was needed, it was two minutes instead of the usual four in a high school game. Four courts were used simultaneously, two in the main gym and two in the secondary gym, with games starting every hour.
Hafermann got the idea about hosting a showcase during the early stages of the pandemic while out on a walk and listening to a podcast about Rockford hosting such an event. He inquired about it with the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association and found out they needed a host immediately.
Game times are set in advance. There isn’t a tournament format where a champion is crowned during the final game. Many of the teams actually will be gone before Sunday.
“College coaches like to know when (games) are starting,” said Hafermann. “The whole purpose is for the kids to be seen by college coaches.”
College coaches also were up at Riverside-Brookfield High School in the Chicago suburbs this weekend for a 72-team showcase that featured two venues. Many coaches, such as ISU head coach Ryan Pedon, planned to attend both showcases during the weekend.
NCHS head coach Dave Witzig said trying to get your team ready for the fall is a balancing act in the summer. After beating Oak Park-River Forest, NCHS dropped a 56-54 decision to Chicago Perspectives Leadership Academy which earlier downed Peoria Notre Dame and high-major recruit Cooper Koch.
“They (the players) are trying to showcase in an event like this and you turn around and the Loyola coach is sitting behind us and the ISU guys are here,” said Witzig. “We want them to show what they can do, too, while we’re working on stuff to get ready for November. I thought our guys did a nice job with that.”
The 255-pound Webber, who got increased playing time as last season went on for a 33-2 NCHS squad that lost in the Class 4A sectional final, has some definite goals this summer while playing for the Ironmen and the Illinois Wolves AAU team out of Chicago.
“Seeing the game better, getting my teammates open shots and working on my outside game a little bit,” he said.
Cleveland is no stranger to the recruiting life after watching his brother, Zach, sign about a year ago with Liberty University and his sister, Grace, four years ago with Purdue’s volleyball team.
This summer’s focus for Cleveland is “my perimeter skills to expand my game more. I feel comfortable inside, now is a good time to learn other stuff.”
Cleveland, who also plays for the Illinois Wolves, and Webber illustrated that against Oak Park-River Forest, connecting on a couple high-low passes for easy baskets.
‘Be who you are’
U High head coach Andrew McDowell will have a veteran team with four starters back in the fall in seniors Mason Funk, Ty Minor and Ty Blake and junior Miles Kirin. McDowell said the Pioneers were excited to perform in front of college coaches, but didn’t want them to do anything different.
“The best thing is be who you are and you just kind of hope their habits and things show through because you’re not going to fool a college coach,” said McDowell, as U High beat Rockford Boylan and Galesburg on Friday.
“We tell our guys be who you are, compete, push through and put your best foot forward as far as being a competitor and leaving things on the floor. They (college coaches) want to see guys who are going to step into their programs and make guys better that are already there. I think we have guys who can do that on our team.”
McDowell said he appreciates West hosting the event after previously having to travel to Rockford. The Pioneers earlier played in shootouts at Central Catholic, Lincoln and Millikin University and will go to another showcase next weekend in Edwardsville.
Metamora’s Ethan Kizer, a 6-6 wing, holds scholarship offers from ISU, Bradley, UIC, Toledo, Southeast Missouri State and Eastern Illinois. He is waiting to see if any more offers emerge and wants to make a decision before school begins in August.
Playing for MidPro Academy out of Peoria — which includes Moline stars in forward Owen Freeman (committed to Iowa) and guard Brock Harding (who has an ISU offer) — has left Kizer comfortable under the scrutiny of college coaches.
“We have a ton of talent on our team so we’re used to having coaches there,” said Kizer, who is easily recognized by his long hair. “It doesn’t even bother me. It’s just people in the crowd.”
PHOTOS: Normal Community boys basketball 2021-2022
Contact Jim Benson at (309) 820-3404. Follow him on Twitter: @Pg_Benson