Patience was the game plan for Cornelius

• Former overlooked and underrated OPRF hoopster earns spot on Div. I team.

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By DANIEL HEIM

Good things come to those who wait, or so the saying goes. Anyone looking for proof should talk to 2004 OPRF graduate Christian Cornelius.

Overlooked and underrated during his high school basketball career with the Huskies, Cornelius delayed going to college in favor of a year of basketball at a prep school in New Hampshire, and now he's earned a scholarship to play at Southern Illinois University, a rising power that has been to the NCAA tournament four years in a row.

So how did Cornelius go from a guy who couldn't get a return call from a college coach to a blue-chip recruit?

Partially due to the scouting eye of Bruce Weber, head coach of NCAA tournament runner-up Illinois, who is friends with SIU head coach Chris Lowery.

"Coach Weber was at an open gym practice in New Hampshire in the fall and saw how well I was playing," Cornelius said in a phone interview from his school, Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H. "He called up coach Lowery and told him to watch out for me." Lowery, who was an assistant under Weber at SIU and Illinois before being named the Salukis' head coach in 2004, made a good impression on Cornelius throughout the recruiting process, even in the fall of '04 when Cornelius was close to committing to play at Illinois State. When Cornelius called ISU to say he planned to go there, he was told that the school needed to evaluate him more on his performance at Brewster before offering a scholarship.

"At that point, coach Lowery could have pressured Christian into making a knee-jerk reaction," said Brewster head coach Jason Smith. "He could have said, 'Illinois State doesn't want you but we're here, we want you.' But he knew that Christian needed time and he let Christian take a step back and wait a bit.

"Then as the recruiting process went forward, he said to Christian, 'Look, you're an Illinois kid and we're here, we've been winning and building a good program.'"

It also made a difference that Cornelius was being recruited by Lowery, SIU's head coach, as opposed to other schools that were recruiting through assistants.

"Coach Lowery and his staff, they stuck by me," Cornelius said. "They have such a good program, they could have forgotten about me and moved on when I was thinking about Illinois State, but they stuck with me and waited until February for me to commit."

Even after averaging 21 points and eight rebounds per game for OPRF his senior season, Cornelius attracted interest from just a few Division I schools in high school, and none that even close observers of college basketball would recognize. Heading the list was Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference.

"It's still a mystery to me why Christian didn't get a lot of interest from D-I schools. He was the best player in the conference his senior year," said OPRF head coach Al Allen. "We had game tapes to show coaches, but they didn't listen. You wouldn't believe it, 10 to 20 tapes sent to Div. I coachesâ€"Southern Illinois, Eastern, Westernâ€"and none of them wanted him."

According to Cornelius, part of the reason he wasn't heavily recruited out of high school was that he didn't get much of a chance to showcase his skills in AAU summer ball. Division-I recruits tend to get noticed more during summer play, since the college and high school seasons coincide and college coaches are busy with their own teams in the winter.

"The thing about getting recruited is you need exposure," Cornelius said. "AAU ball is so important because the competition is better and you get a chance to show what you can do."

Cornelius played on a good AAU club, the Illinois Wolves, the summer after his junior year, but he didn't see much playing time on a team stacked with Div. I prospects including Niles West's Sead Odzic (Southern California) and Brother Rice's Bobby Frasor (North Carolina).

So despite his phenomenal senior year, Cornelius' college options were Lipscomb and a walk-on opportunity at Loyola in Chicago. He was close to deciding on Loyola when Smith, the Brewster coach, called him in April.

"At first I wasn't into the whole idea of Brewster," Cornelius said. "It sounded kind of like another year of high school."

But since his college choices weren't overwhelming, Cornelius decided right at the end of his senior year he would head to New England. Then when he started destroying AAU competition with the Wolves after graduation, all of a sudden the phone began ringing.

"Christian and I joked about this. 'Where were all these people two months ago?'" Smith said. "Right after he said he'd go to Brewster all these calls from college coaches started coming because of how well he was doing in AAU with the Wolves."

Cornelius stuck with his commitment to Brewster, and it certainly worked out as the former Huskie will be heading in the fall to a school that has earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament four years in a row and made a Sweet 16 appearance in 2002.

Cornelius comes back to Oak Park on breaks, and he was in attendance when the Huskies lost narrowly to St. Joseph in the playoffs last month. His younger brother, Justin, was on last season's team, and Cornelius said he's still close with a number of his former teammates. As for his legacy at OPRF, Allen says Cornelius is among the top two players he's ever coached.

Now Cornelius has a new challenge in front of himâ€"proving himself at a top-tier basketball program. Considering he's come this far, he may as well go a little further.

"Basically, there are no guarantees in coming to Southern," Cornelius said. "They said I could play between five and 35 minutes per game my freshman year. It all depends on how hard I work."

2004 All-Tournament Selectionâ€"Reebok Big Time Tournament

2003-04 Second Team All-State

2004 Chicago Sun Times All-Area

2003 First Team All-Tournamentâ€"Pontiac Holiday Tournament

2003-04 First Team All-Conferenceâ€"West Suburban (Silver) Conference

2003-04 OPRF High Schoolâ€"Team Captain, averaged 21 pts, 8 rbs and 2 blks

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