In a nondescript back gym at Ridgewood last Saturday in Norridge, college coaches lined the baseline in chairs taking in one of 50 or so games played that day.
East St. Louis, which traveled 300 miles to the area for the second straight weekend during the “live” recruiting period, was facing Bolingbrook. Both teams featured emerging players who over two weeks — first at Riverside-Brookfield and then at Ridgewood — grabbed a lot of attention.
College coaches were in the gym watching the two players who, in the eyes of the City/Suburban Hoops Report, have raised their stock the most in June: Bolingbrook’s Mekhi Cooper and Macaleab Rich of East St. Louis.
Throw in another player who wasn’t even on the radar until this summer, 6-4 guard Antwan Robinson of East St. Louis, and the game was just what an evaluation period in June is supposed to be about.
Cooper has been on a tear for two weeks. Missouri State head coach Dana Ford took one look and offered the 6-0 guard after watching him at Riverside-Brookfield. With an offer from a Missouri Valley Conference school, word spread quickly.
Then he played well at Ridgewood, dazzling everyone in attendance with his performance against East St. Louis. He’s added a handful of low-major and mid-major offers with more surely to follow.
“I feel like I took advantage of the opportunity,” Cooper said of the two live period weekends. “It was time to step up.”
Cooper is still currently undervalued. He outperformed several players with bigger names and reputations over the past two weeks. His overall size and frame will be questions as college programs try to outthink themselves.
He plays with top-end basketball speed with the ball in his hands. That speed on the open floor sneaks up on defenders. Always a poised point guard with a nice feel for the position early in his career, Cooper’s game is now marked by a lethal capacity for scoring.
He does so off the dribble in transition with the ability to burst through an open seam. He does so with a pull-up game and range and a comfort level shooting the basketball, even beyond the three-point line.
“I think the biggest difference is I have improved my game and I’m being a lot more assertive,” Cooper said.
Brost never had a doubt. He knew what was coming and would tell anyone who would listen. But he also has seen the jump Cooper has made, saying his star point guard has “taken a humongous step over the past six months.” Now he loves what he’s seeing.
“Right now he feels and knows he is among the best guards in the state, and that’s showing with his play,” Brost said. “The difference is he’s now doing it over and over and over. He has a chance to be the most complete guard we’ve ever had. We’ll see whether or not that comes to fruition.”
Rich, meanwhile, showed off his talent at Riverside-Brookfield two weeks ago. He was even better at Ridgewood, including a performance against Bolingbrook that had heads turning throughout the gym.
East St. Louis coach Mark Chambers said Rich came into the program as a hot shot freshman who at 6-2 played with his back to the basket. He’s grown close to four inches since and made a concerted effort to improve his skill level.
“He has followed a process,” Chambers said. “We planned it out for him and he’s worked the plan. He has worked his butt off to become this player. People don’t realize how good of a passer he is and that he led us in three-point shooting in two of the last three years.”
It’s impossible to watch Rich, the sculpted, put-together 6-5 forward, and not be transfixed by his power and athleticism, specifically how he combines the two. He explodes off the floor and shakes the entire structure of the basket on dunks. He chases down opponents on drives to the basket and blocks their shots.
Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times
A bull at the rim that defenders bounce off of as he finishes through contact, Rich even shows a workable three-point shot.
Rich is the player who can sometimes leave you in disbelief with his electrifying athletic exploits.
But what he revealed over the past two weeks is that for his size and age, he’s more than a physical and athletic freak of nature. Rich has a burgeoning skill level he continually showcased, using a crossover to break down defenders and whipping cross-court passes.
An up-tempo, open floor, less structured system at the next level will still be a benefit for Rich. But he’s a no-brainer mid-major prospect with double-digit offers who high-major programs — again, ones with the aforementioned style of play — should be diving into.
Missouri and first-year coach Dennis Gates extended an offer to Rich on Tuesday.
“Macaleab’s best basketball is still coming,” Chambers said.