Peoria pipeline: How the city keeps its basketball talent flowing to Illinois basketball
CHAMPAIGN — Jerry Hester didn’t build the pipeline between Peoria and the Illinois men's basketball program, but he got the fuel flowing to Champaign.
When the Manual graduate joined Lou Henson in 1993, it started the Illini on a 20-year stretch with at least one Peoria player on basketball scholarship.
“Any chance I get, I tell folks about how great Peoria basketball is," said Hester, a former Illini radio analyst who now runs the Hester Insurance Group in Chicago.
After Hester, Manual stars Sergio McClain, Marcus Griffin and Frank Williams followed. The pipeline also produced Peoria High grads Jerrance Howard and D.J. Richardson, along with Jamar Smith and Bill Cole of Richwoods and Peoria Notre Dame's Brian Randle.
Peorians have played major roles on Illini rosters for decades, the city now represented in former Manual players Da'Monte Williams and Adam Miller.
Before Hester came to Champaign, Mark Smith and Derek Holcomb of Richwoods proved in the late ‘70s that kids from Peoria could hoop with the best of them. They showed up-and-comers there was a place for them in Champaign. Tony Wysinger of Peoria High and Doug Altenberger of Richwoods followed in the 1980s, each steady contributors.
“The best part of that is it’s not just one (high) school,” Wysinger said. “It was Central (now Peoria High), kids from Manual of course, then even guys that came from Richwoods. It’s all of Peoria.”
A long line of Illini coaches, from Henson to Lon Kruger, certainly Bill Self and Bruce Weber, tapped into the Peoria pipeline with success.
Richardson finished up his Illini career in 2013 — one year after Weber was fired and John Groce took over. After that, the pipeline ran dry.
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Da'Monte Williams stuck 'through the tough'
That changed in 2016, when Manual's Da’Monte Williams committed to Groce and the Illini. But before Williams could arrive, Groce was ousted and replaced with current coach Brad Underwood. As a four-star recruit, Williams was widely expected to choose the Illini, especially after the success of his father, Frank.
Da'Monte stuck around through the coaching change and some of the leanest Illini seasons in history. The Illini had gone to 16 NCAA tournaments from 1993 to 2013 — but none between that run and this season's Illini, who broke through to win the Big Ten tournament and earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Williams doesn’t get the shine of stars Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, and he doesn’t have the massive hype that follows fellow Peorian and freshman guard Adam Miller. But he deserves credit for providing the foundation to Underwood’s turnaround.
“He kept his commitment,” Hester said. “A guy like Ayo, he deserves a ton of credit for being as highly ranked as he was and taking the chance of going it was a chance to go to a school that hasn’t won many games. But you’ve got to tip your hat to a guy like Da’Monte or Trent Frazier, too. Those are program-changers in their own right.”
For Williams, there was a connection with Underwood, a hard-nosed, in-your-face coach who demands the most of his players.
“We both had the same goal in mind," Williams said, "and that was to get Illinois basketball back how it used to be."
Da'Monte Williams was excelling at Manual before tearing his ACL, which required a long rehab process that added a major hurdle to his early development with the Illini. Now, he's proven himself to be a versatile, lockdown defender, an adept passer and carved out a role as an essential “glue guy” with Underwood.
Late last season, before the Illini had what would have been the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance in years canceled because of the pandemic, Williams showcased his reliability as a perimeter shooting threat.
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Williams is unflappable, especially in catch-and-shoot and step-in situations. He leads the Illini in 3-point shooting percentage (56.5%) and hit three straight treys from the right corner in the team’s overtime win against Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament title game on Sunday.
In the final minute of regulation, Williams hit a midrange jumper that put the Illini up, though the Buckeyes managed to equalize. He did so without a hint of hesitation, something that wasn’t the case even as recently as January of 2020.
As a senior, Williams now is reaping the benefits after putting in the work when the Illini were down.
“That was tough,” Williams said. “You stick through the tough, and then it be some light at the end of that.”
Wysinger said that Williams was practically automatic when he’d see him play in open gyms around Peoria. Those who saw him back at Manual would say the same of his knockdown shooting and playmaking abilities.
A longtime coach at Illinois Central College, Wysinger always has welcomed Williams into his open gyms. He did so in 2020, when college athletics were shut down and players needed somewhere to train. He couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t seen Williams taking the same shots with the Illini as he was in his gym.
“I asked him, why didn’t he shoot these shots in the game?” Wysinger said. “He said, like, ‘Coach (Underwood) don’t want me shooting those.’”
That didn’t quite line up with what Wysinger had observed, nor with what Underwood had spoken about publicly, noting during the 2019-20 season that he needed to do a better job of facilitating opportunities for Williams.
“I pulled him to the side and I told him, ‘That’s BS,’” Wysinger recalled. “As a coach, if I’ve got a kid that can make shots, you’re gonna be able to shoot them. Why would I not want you to shoot them if you’re making them?’”
Williams now is the Illini’s most reliable 3-point shooter, and Wysinger enjoys sending messages of encouragement — especially after his clutch shots down the stretch this season.
“Anytime he’s got a big shot in a big game, just like the one against Ohio State, sent him a text after that one,” Wysinger said. “ ‘Son, big shot. Keep making ‘em.’ ”
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With Adam Miller, the Peoria pipeline is here to stay
Altenberger, who played at Illinois from 1983-1987, laid out a simple formula for why the Illini have long relied on Peoria players.
“It was great because (Peoria is) 90 miles away, you tap into it,” Altenberger said. “You get a couple kids from the St. Louis area and a couple kids from Chicago, and you’ve got a basketball team. That was sort of the formula for a long time.”
Though the Illini recruit internationally and all across the country now, there’s still a place for hoopers like Williams and freshman guard Miller, who starred at Morgan Park in Chicago, but grew up in Peoria. He played at Manual as a freshman before heading north.
Altenberger was thrilled to see Miller follow Williams to Champaign, as was another former Richwoods standout, Bill Cole.
Cole grew up bleeding orange and blue. His father, Terry, was a defensive end on the 1983 Big Ten championship-winning Illini football team, and his uncle, Mike O’Brien was a walk-on at Illinois during the Henson era.
Cole preceded Richardson at Illinois by one year, and he followed the program closely after his departure, even through the down years. When Miller committed in 2019, Cole saw it as a watershed moment.
“I think (Miller’s) commitment was maybe the first signal of, ‘Hey, we’re back now,’ in terms of being a national powerhouse,” Cole said. “Once I finally got to watch him at Illinois, it doesn’t take a lot of game time of his to see he’s going to be a star eventually. I think he maybe came into a really tough situation to maybe as he would like just because they’re so good, being a number one or two team in the country.”
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Peoria players just fit with the Illini
Altenberger admires how, like Williams, Miller has altered his game to fit into the team’s needs.
“He’s learned to play a different type of game where he’s not the first guy they’re going to, and the ball doesn’t flow through him, but he has done all the other things that you want,” Altenbeger said. “He is probably one of the best on-ball defenders with Frazier right now.”
Miller came to Illinois as a Mr. Basketball winner, with thousands of Instagram followers and a hype train unlike most recruits that come from Peoria. Though he hasn’t continued to score at a scorching pace, like he did when he dropped 28 points on North Carolina A&T in the season-opener, Miller commands respect from those who watch him play.
“He’s backing it up with his play,” Altenberger said.
Williams is exactly the type of player Underwood needed in order to break through with the Illini, says Altenberger.
“He’s the perfect Brad Underwood player,” Altenberger said. “Brad loves him. He’s a tough kid, and he’s just got all the characteristics of a kid from Peoria. I’ve watched him for four years doing the radio, and I couldn’t be prouder of a young man than him. He’s the real deal.”
Cole hopes Miller and Williams' success filters back to Peoria, where young kids are watching and coaches are recruiting the area for talent.
“Guys like Adam and Da’Monte, they give other guys a chance,” Cole said. “I always have felt like like Peoria was kind of criminally under recruited in terms of like, maybe not your superstar, but some of the guys underneath them.
“It’s just great for the city, great for kids growing up in Peoria. I think that high school basketball even gets a little injection from it.”
Gavin Good is the University of Illinois correspondent for Gannett Illinois. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Twitter.com/itsallG_O_O_D.
The Peoria pipeline
A look at players from Peoria who have suited up for the Illinois men's basketball team since the 1970s.