Looking back at Sergio McClain by Jeff Thomason @jefft24

Sergio McClain Illini Career

6.6 ppg. 4.0 rpg. An assist to turnover ratio of almost 1:1 (308 assists: 296 turnovers).  39% career field goals, 28% from three, 58% from the stripe. When deciding to dip into the history of the program for a topic, these career numbers hardly lead one to picture a player worthy of further research. That is of course before you attach the numbers to the man: Sergio McClain.


The term “March Madness” is almost universally known as the informal name of the annual NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament. We all know it as the annual event where $20 is thrown in the office pool, and someone’s wife or child picks the winning bracket based on favorite colors or names.


If you’re a hard core Illini fan, the term might make you think of the near misses in 1989 and 2005 for a program that can be argued as the most decorated ever to never win the title. What you probably don’t know is the term was first coined in 1939, here in Illinois, to describe the annual tournament that decides the state high school basketball champion.


Indiana gets all of the basketball love, deservingly so due to their long history of success, and undeservingly from the movie Hoosiers. That movie, without the cute and rube-like nickname, could have just as easily been set in any part of this state, at almost any time in history.


In any event, this state can proudly hold its hoop history against any in the country, and it would be easy to argue that Sergio McClain has the most accomplished hoop resume in the history of this state.


Sergio McClain in High School


While at Peoria Manual in the mid 1990’s, Sergio McClain was part of an unprecedented four consecutive state titles, and in 1997 was named Illinois Mr. Basketball. Sergio, along with Manual and eventual Illini teammate Marcus Griffin, went an absurd 16-0 in state tournament games.


While I have credited Richard Keene in a prior post for opening the recruiting floodgates after NCAA sanctions, Sergio took it to the next level. Including McClain, the next four Mr. Basketball recipients who attended college would attend the U of I.*


Sergio McClain*Kevin Garnett and Ronnie Fields, both of Farragut Academy in Chicago, never stepped foot on a college campus. Frank Williams, Brian Cook and Dee Brown followed McClain to Illinois.


While at Illinois, Sergio McClain, along with the personal stats listed above, was part of teams that went 86-46, culminating in an Elite Eight appearance in 2001, Bill Self’s first season at the helm…


While watching Michigan State play Indiana on CBS on Sunday, there was a phrase used about an Indiana player: “There are players you win with, and players you win because of.” What a perfect way to describe the play of Sergio McClain. Sergio McClain was a guy whose teams won because of him, not just with him.


Sure, the numbers aren’t going to blow anyone away, but when you’re in a starting lineup with Frank Williams, Cory Bradford, Brian Cook and Marcus Griffin, there is a serious need for a “glue guy”. The guy who defends the other team’s best perimeter player; the guy who doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be a valuable part of the offense.


At 6’4”, 230 pounds, Sergio McClain was able to play the four in a small lineup, and as the son of a coach and proven winner, had the basketball acumen to initiate the offense with two guards who looked to get theirs first. Built like an NFL player, Sergio McClain was propositioned by Ron Turner to contribute to the football program. This, while it adds to the point I’m trying to make, might just be an indictment on the football program during Turner’s time at Illinois.



After college, Sergio McClain had brief stints in the ABA, and the NBA D-League. He also spent some time as the head coach at Parkland College, following in the coaching footsteps of his father, Wayne. When John Groce was hired, there was some sentiment that Groce needed to hire an “Illinois Guy” for his staff.


I personally don’t have any gripe with what Coach Groce has done to this point, and have no idea what Sergio is currently up to. However, in the event he is available and interested, I’m betting the program couldn’t do much better than to bring Sergio McClain back home.


Voted one of the “100 Legends of the IHSA Boys Basketball Tournament”, Sergio McClain started 81 games at the U of I, and was part of five NCAA Tournament victories. As part of the “Peoria 3”, he was a vital part of the revitalization of the program, and is an Illinois basketball legend in high school and college. I can’t think of any player who has put together as impressive of an eight year resume in the history of Illinois hoops.


If there is any other past Illini player, whether great or just interesting, that you’d like to hear more about, feel free to email me at jeffreyrthomason@gmail.com. Twitter: @jefft24.

The Importance of Richard Keene to Illinois Basketball by Jeff Thomason @jefft24

Welcome to my corner of illininews.com. While there will certainly be the time and place to break down what’s happening on the court, I would like to use this opportunity to tell you a little bit about myself, and why you should care at all what I think about Illini basketball…

While I currently live and work in St. Louis, MO, I grew up and went to high school in Collinsville, IL, living and dying with the Illini basketball program. Like every young man in Collinsville in the 80’s and 90’s, I dreamed of one day wearing the purple and white, and playing for what was briefly during my high school years, the winningest program in America. Alas, yours truly was a bit too short, a bit too slow, and had (has) a broken jumper. That didn’t stop me from becoming the basketball nerd that I am to this day. While I sit and write this, there are several memories that lead directly to the passion I still maintain for the program today:

I’m 34 years old, and while I have faint memories of watching the Illini in the mid eighties, the formative season for most any Illini fan my age was obviously the 1988-89 campaign. On January 16th, 1989, shortly after watching the Flyin’ Illini beat Georgia Tech and briefly take over the #1 spot in the polls, I went to my first game at Assembly Hall.* On this day they beat Michigan for the first time that season. They would sweep the regular season meetings, but I’m sure we all know how that third meeting turned out…

*Since 1989, I have attended at least one game at Assembly Hall almost every year, and am a regular at the Braggin Rights game against those evil Missouri Tigers.

April 1st, 1989 was the date. My mom had bought two tickets at an auction for a St. Louis Blues hockey game that afternoon, which was going to be my first NHL game. After a rugged contest in the Elite Eight victory over Syracuse, which, if memory serves, left Steve Bardo with a bloody jersey, there was absolutely no way my dad Rich and I were going to that hockey game. Instead, we took to the recliners and watched the gut wrenching loss to a Michigan team that was coached by a newly promoted Steve Fisher. As painful as 2005 was, 1989 was truly the one that got away.

After those Flyin’ Illini moved on, the program was hit with probation over the Deon Thomas recruiting scandal. Let’s just say there were no tears shed here when Bruce Pearl lost his job… This led to my next monumental Illini memory, an underrated score for the program that hit very close to my Collinsville home. In the fall of 1991, the McDonald’s All American guard Richard Keene* had narrowed his college choices down to three schools: Duke, Indiana and Illinois. I watched Rich play almost every game in his high school and college careers; he was by any measure my hero growing up. I wore #24 all through grade school, and was the king of the no look pass that rarely found its target. While it seems quaint in the year 2012, in 1991 my dad called down to the Collinsville athletic office on decision day to find out where Rich was going to college. I’ll never forget him, with Collinsville athletic director Frank Pitol on the other end of the phone, saying “he’s going to Illinois!” We were going to get to watch our hometown hero play for the Illini.

*The Peoria guys get a lot of well deserved credit for bringing the program back from probation, but Richard Keene is an underappreciated piece of Illini history. After the recruiting scandal, a guy who started the McDonald’s game in the same backcourt as Jason Kidd spurned the advances of Coach K and Bobby Knight, stayed home, and paved the way for other major recruits to do the same.

Richard Keene #24 former Illini


If you’re taking the time to read this, you have lived through the near greatness of the Peoria Manual guys, the travesty of watching Bill Self walk away, and the absolute thrill of the 2005 title game. I’ll put my X’s and O’s up against any other guy who is past his prime but still loves the game, and will be here for analysis after the games this season. Along with that, we’ll dip into some history of the program on those slow weeks, and most of all, I will do my best to give the perspective of this loyal and lifelong fan. Here’s to what is hopefully a nice final season for a deserving group of seniors, and the start of something special with Coach Groce.

Feel free to email me at jeffreyrthomason@gmail.com. Twitter: @jefft24