Late last month, new Illinois State coach Ryan Pedon extended a number of offers to Illinois prospects in the Class of 2023. There were nine in total.
The offers were a statement.
Under Pedon, Illinois State will put a heavy emphasis on recruiting the state, something the Redbirds haven’t prioritized in recent years.
“Our state is very important to us,” said Pedon, the former Ohio State assistant who recruited Belleville West star EJ Liddell to Columbus. “Our staff has a background with Illinois and the Midwest. When I put our staff together, we wanted to put ourselves in a position to recruit at a high level, and that starts in our state.”
Redbird assistant coach Walter Offutt targeted Illinois relentlessly while working at Toledo over the last three years.
And veteran assistant Rob Judson knows the state as well or better than anyone. He played and coached at the University of Illinois and was a head coach at Northern Illinois and an assistant at Illinois State and Bradley. Judson is as familiar a name in Illinois high school basketball as you will find after decades in the business.
Pedon also had a firsthand look and experience with Illinois high school basketball during his time as John Groce’s special assistant for two years at Illinois. He said he saw all the pluses the state had to offer.
“Very rich tradition with lots of history and tremendous coaching and talent,” Pedon said. “My time at Illinois showed and taught me that. In the position I was in, I was able to meet and interact with a lot of high school coaches. I just have a great appreciation for the great coaching in this state.”
In addition to offering nine of the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top 20 prospects in the Class of 2023 in Illinois, Pedon already has secured a couple of pieces through the transfer portal: Darius Burford, who starred at Bolingbrook, and local product Colton Sandage from Bloomington.
Burford and Sandage averaged an identical 13.4 points at their previous schools. Burford also averaged 4.1 rebounds and three assists in his sophomore season at Elon, while Sandage played at Western Illinois.
“I think with our early signings, even in a short time here, it would indicate that [focus on Illinois],” Pedon said. “I am just a strong believer that we can get high-level players from our state and surrounding areas. If we are doing our job, we are at a place that is attractive enough to attract those kinds of kids.”
Burford could prove to be quite the coup. He already has racked up 600 career points in two seasons at Elon, where as a freshman he was named to the Colonial Athletic Association’s All-Rookie team. This past season, he was named to the All-CAA third team after leading Elon in points, assists and steals.
Burford’s relationship with Illinois State assistant coach Andrew Dakich played a big part in the jet-quick guard returning home. Dakich was the director of basketball operations at Elon during Burford’s two years there.
But the distance from home was a huge factor, something Pedon surely will use to his advantage in recruiting pitches to prospects. Burford is close with his family and cherishes the times they can see him play. Family, Burford said, and all it has to offer is a crucial part of developing as a college student-athlete.
“Playing Division I basketball is hard,” Burford said. “There are some really difficult, challenging times. I talk to my family every day. Having your support system is important. And being far away makes that difficult.”
Burford is excited that his family will be just a 90-minute drive away. He pointed out that anyone from home who wanted to see him play at Elon had to take a flight and then make a drive. Plus, the money spent for travel expenses added up, which Burford said he always had in the back of his mind.
“Being close to family is a special thing to have,” Burford said. “I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
He’s excited to be playing for a new coach and trying to help reboot a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1998.
“I loved every part of what they had to say and what they showed me on my visit and during the process,” Burford said. “I can’t wait to play there.”
Over the years, particularly with Illinois State’s most successful teams, the program has been led by in-state products. Doug Collins, Roger Powell Sr., Jeff Wilkins, Rick Lamb, Tarise Bryson, Rico Hill, Osiris Eldridge and Paris Lee are just a few of the bigger in-state names who were stars for the Redbirds.
Pedon hopes Burford and Sandage are just the beginning of a local pipeline to Illinois State.
“I think early on we want to send a message that we are serious about recruiting the state” Pedon said. “Our actions should indicate we are pretty serious about recruiting the state. Talk is cheap.”
The actions have been loud, and so far, the results have been swift.