No matter what school he's at, five-star 2017 center Jeremiah Tilmon keeps coming back to Champaign.
Tilmon was in attendance on Wednesday night when the Illini took on Notre Dame at the renovated State Farm Center. The 6-foot-10 big man made the trip with fellow La Lumiere teammates Brian Bowen and Tyger Campbell.
Tilmon visited often when he was at East St. Louis, and even being at La Lumiere now, he has visited campus as much as any target on the Illini recruiting board. What keeps bringing him back?
"It feels like home," Tilmon said. "It's always been only two hours away, even though I just transferred to Indiana. Never forget where you came from."
Tilmon got an up-close look at the State Farm Center and all the action. He came away impressed.
"Being that it's the first time in this new stadium, it was a great experience," he said. "Just seeing the fans and the way the whole place came together was cool."
Tilmon said the thing he liked the most about the arena renovations was that there is more color in the building. As for the game, he said the Illini needed more fire coming out of the locker room.
"I liked the game. I didn't like how they started off late in the second half," Tilmon said. "Later on, they started being aggressive. But they should have started off the half like that."
The Illini wished they could have shown Tilmon their offense with Mike Thorne Jr. The big man commanded tons of post touches, and he had a top-five usage rate in the Big Ten before going down. That figured to be an attractive sell.
"I haven't got to see him yet," Tilmon said. "It would have been a great experience getting to see him tonight."
Like Thorne, Tilmon has been playing with a new team this season. He said things have been going well, despite sustaining an early injury.
"I hurt myself in the first game on Halloween," Tilmon said. "I just got back in our last tournament and I had a great weekend."
It came as a surprise to many when Tilmon announced that he would transfer to La Lumiere in October. But it has been a great fit on and off the basketball court.
"It's like a whole different environment. Everything is different and better," Tilmon said. "You're around more positive people. I've got nothing to worry about when it comes to everything. I know they'll be there to help me with school work, basketball and I know I've got a good coaching staff."
Tilmon has developed a strong bond with head coach Shane Heirman, who coached Illini freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands at La Lumiere. Tilmon said Heirman has helped him to feel comfortable from the moment he got on campus.
But another part of Heirman's job is to get the most out of his talented big man. Tilmon has all the physical tools and skill to dominate. He talked about what areas he is focused on for improvement.
"Stay running the floor and being aggressive. And being a dog in the paint," Tilmon said. "I want to open up my game more too with my shooting."
Head coach John Groce and assistant Jamall Walker watched Tilmon all summer with the St. Louis Eagles, and it's a guarantee that they will track La Lumiere closely as well. The Illini staff has worked hard to prioritize Tilmon, and they have developed a strong relationship.
"I've got a real good bond with Jamall and Coach Groce," Tilmon said. "It's real cool. I just know them real well and they feel like family."
The connection is there. The opportunity is there. The proximity to home is there. However, many Illini fans see that Tilmon is a five-star and the No. 17 player in the 2017 class (per the Scout rankings), and automatically think he won't end up in Champaign.
To be fair, Groce has not landed a player of Tilmon's caliber during his tenure. But that doesn't mean it can't change. Tilmon said Illinois is a big part of his recruiting picture and it will always be that way.
"Illinois has been here since Day One, for real - since I started," he said. "I can never leave them out of the picture no matter what happens and how big I go. They're always going to be there for me and I'm always going to be there as well."