CHAIN MAIL: Can Groce cash in on a good hand?

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner and lead basketball reporter Derek Piper trade e-mails on the fallout of Da'Monte Williams' commitment to Illinois.

Jeremy Werner: Mr. Piper, it truly is amazing how quickly and how much a big second half and a top-50 commitment can alter perception and momentum. DaMonte Williams is a big commitment for Illinois. He is a big commitment for John Groce and his staff. But let history not forget that Javon Pickett was first in 2017. Maybe Pickett didn't lead directly to Williams, but Pickett gave Illinois the initial push. Now, the Williams domino has a lot more weight. How real is the momentum from each of these commitments?


Derek Piper: It has that "things just got real" feel after Da'Monte pulled the trigger. His game and national ranking speak for themselves. Not only that, but he has built a strong relationship with Jeremiah Tilmon. The five-star big man already has a great bond with the Illinois coaching staff and he talks to Pickett all the time.

Tilmon has always had great things to say about the Illini and the opportunity to build something special at a place he said "feels like home". He has a great respect for Williams, who has a name that resonates throughout the state. There's a reason these two have been talking over the last few weeks.

The Illini have been in a good spot with Jordan Goodwin as well. He was almost the first commit in this class back in the fall. For now, he still has plans to play on the AAU circuit and see how things stack up. But that plan could change in a hurry if Tilmon wants to make the move. Goodwin talked last summer about possibly putting together a "Fab Five" at Illinois. The chances to legitimately execute that plan became more real on Sunday.

The next step is trying to convince Tilmon to fully buy in. He's been doing his homework, and positive buzz has been coming from the right places. But he still has opportunities at Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan State and others on the table. That makes his situation different than Da'Monte's. Timing is certainly an important factor, but that is in Tilmon's court. The Illini have to prove to him that the time is right so things can really take off. You can bet Groce and his staff are going to attack that chance.

Bottom line: The Illini have been making real strides with Tilmon, and they feel great about that. Williams is a big step in the right direction with what he brings on the court, and what could potentially follow.


Werner: Timing certainly is an important factor in all of this. Think about it, if Illinois didn't have five scholarships available in 2017, this wouldn't be a possibility. If all this non-city talent hadn't come in this class, it wouldn't be a possibility. If Williams' waited to commit, it seemingly wouldn't have the same effect. He could've waited until after the season, but now he gives Groce a boost heading into a hugely important spring, summer and fall on the recruiting trail.

We always thought Williams would be the domino that led to Goodwin. But it now appears Tilmon is that next domino who could also bring in Goodwin. I think most Illini fans just put it out of their mind that Tilmon was a possibility. I don't blame them. History tells them not to hope for five stars.

Since the Recruiting Services Consensus Index started in 1998, Illinois has landed just four top-25 RSCI recruits: Frank Williams (No. 21 in 1998), Brian Cook (No. 20 in 1999) and Dee Brown (No. 19 in 2002) and Jereme Richmond (No. 24 in 2010). None of them rank as high as Tilmon, who ranks No. 10 in Scout's Class of 2017, and as you mentioned, he has huge offers (Indiana, Kansas, Michigan State, North Carolina and UCLA).

A couple quick questions on Tilmon for you, Mr. Recruiting Expert,

1. What makes Tilmon a program-changing recruit on the court?

2. What does Illinois have to do to close the deal and how quickly must they do it?

3. (This is a just-for-fun, meaningless hypothetical) If you could could only have one, what would you rather have: four years of Goodwin or two years of Tilmon?


Piper: 1. Tilmon is a pro-style big and likely a future first-round NBA Draft pick. He's got the body at 6-foot-10, 235 pounds, and he's mobile. Tilmon will run the floor, he can be utilized in the pick 'n roll, he can pop out for a 15-18 foot jumper and his post game has a lot of potential. He can also rebound and block some shots. The Illini haven't had a big man recruit of his caliber in the history of the program. You look around the league this year and see what Diamond Stone is doing. You see what Thomas Bryant and Caleb Swanigan are doing. Those are McDonald's All-American big guys and you can bet Tilmon will be one too. The game changes when you're able to put an elite-level big down low and surround him with weapons around the outside.

2. That is the all-important question. Ultimately, it comes down to hammering home their selling points. Tilmon can be "the guy" in this class and get all the Day One opportunity that he can handle. He's not going to be Cheick Diallo if he goes to Illinois. Diallo was No. 9 overall in the 2015 class but he plays less than eight minutes per game at Kansas. They have to continue to sell that they can win big at Illinois - just like those other places on his offer list. I think the Illini have the ability to sell that with Da'Monte, Jalen Coleman-Lands, D.J. Williams, Javon Pickett, Te'Jon Lucas, Michael Finke and possibly Jordan Goodwin. Illinois also offers the opportunity to team up with players that he's very close with, he can stay close to his mom and he can be part of something special.

That all sounds good, but it has to be good enough that he's willing to take a pass on those other big-time offers. Not only that, but Illinois would like that to happen sooner rather than later. But Tilmon is the only one who can determine when he's ready, because he doesn't have to rush if he doesn't want to. Da'Monte didn't have to rush either, but the Illini sold him on what could be and they told him they could make it happen if he jumps on board now. They'll give the same pitch to Tilmon. I don't want to say that Illinois can't land him later on in the process. But that gives the other programs more time to catch up with their relationships, etc. The momentum has been trending Illinois' way with him over the last few weeks. Taking advantage of that opportunity is crucial.

3. Oh man, that is a really good question. If you said one year for Tilmon, then I would go with Goodwin all the way. He's such a huge piece. I know he doesn't have a top-50 ranking. If he needs a nomination, I'll give it to him. Either way, he's just a winner, a grinder, a leader and playmaker all over the court. That is the kind of guy you want to build your program with, and getting him for four years would be absolutely huge. But Tilmon for two years makes it interesting. Bigs like that don't come around for the Illini...Ever. As good as I think Tilmon could be his freshman year, coming back for a sophomore season would make him scary good. Illinois has much more depth on the wing, although they don't have a Goodwin. But I'd probably have to take Tilmon because of his top-10 impact at a pivotal position on the depth chart.


Werner: Not really a fair question since Illinois doesn't have to pick one or the other, but it's a fun sports radio topic that guages the players' value to Illinois. Either would be huge gets for Illinois, and getting both would change the program.

Along those lines ... on the morning of Nov. 15, 2013, many of us thought John Groce was on the verge of landing a top-three recruiting class in the country. He had commitments from two top-50 out-of-state recruits (Leron Black and Quentin Snider) and Michael Finke and seemed to be in a great spot for McDonald's All-American Cliff Alexander. We all know what happened next. That was an unfortunate and unlucky day for Groce. It changed his program. Imagine Snider on the last two teams. Imagine Alexander happy, at home and getting loads of playing time.

Anyway, I think we all still thought John Groce could be a stud recruiter at Illinois, like his mentor Thad Matta. I thought Illinois still could mirror the Ohio State path to success: land lots of top-100 talents that would give you the floor of a bubble team during bad seasons. Of course, 2015 was a good class but not a great one due to the lack of Jalen Brunson and Jawun Evans (and now can we say Glynn Watson?). The Class of 2016 addressed point guard (Te'Jon Luas) but not the lack of a big.

But the Class of 2017 has the potential to change all of that. It feels Groce still can be Thad Matta Jr. It just may have taken longer than we thought. There a couple evaluations we can question (Watson, Ed Morrow Jr., Tyler Ulis, etc.), but every school misses on some recruits. There are some strategies we can nit-pick (simultaneously pursuing Jalen Brunson and Jawun Evans -- though I didn't complain about it at the time).

But like with injuries, Groce just hasn't seemed to get the needed breaks on the recruiting trail. Brunson and Alexander both REALLY liked Illinois, only for the parents to sway it the other way. JaQuan Lyle's crazy recruitment allowed Groce both to get a commitment from Snider, a program-steadying point guard (Lyle committed to Louisville), and a decommitment from Snider (Lyle decommitted from Louisville -- opening Snider's path back to his dream, home-city school -- and ultimately would up at Ohio State of all places).

So while he still must cash in on 2017, is it possible that Groce is the recruiter we all thought he could be a few years ago but that he just didn't get the bounces to go his way early on?


Piper: That is certainly possible, and the 2017 class is really his opportunity to show that. No question that he had some bad breaks in previous classes. He's never had a problem when it comes to getting Illinois in the final heat with a lot of talented players. At the very least, what does that say? It's that recruits really like John Groce. His personality, his energy, his vision - people are attracted to that. He had a couple high-level point guards (Brunson and Xavier Simpson) sold but their dads thought differently. Those kind of bad breaks hurt.

Now, I'm not saying that he hasn't been without mistakes. You pointed out some faults in evaluation and planning. Those are fair, and you really can't leave them out in talking about the entire picture. But you also can't forget some of the talent he has already gotten. JCL is showing you just how big of a get he was in 2015. Groce can't help but smile in thinking about what he can be after an offseason or two. D.J. Williams can turn into a really nice player. Most people were down on him for his disappointing finish to his high school career, but he has flashed that talent that attracted everyone's attention in the first place. Michael Finke has the potential to develop into an intriguing piece in the future. Leron Black, if he sticks around, can still be what people thought when the Illini landed him.

Groce finally got that point guard in Te'Jon Lucas. He's not a game-changer like Brunson or Evans. But he may look like one compared to what Illinois has had at the position over the last two seasons. That's all Illinois has in the 2016 class, but Kipper Nichols is comparable to adding Xavier Sneed. The Illini didn't get the big they needed, but they'll have another shot in the fifth-year transfer market. It's not going to be a flashy group of additions, but it is a stepping stone to a bigger opportunity.

It's all about this 2017 class now. Groce and his staff have done a good job to lock up the most attainable guys (Pickett & Da'Monte) of their top targets. They have a foundation and so much to sell to those other guys. This class just has a different dynamic than ones in the past. Three of the top four in-state products are from downstate. The "parent factor" is actually in Illinois' favor this time around. We've already seen that with Frank Williams, and Tilmon's mom is pro-Illinois as well. There is a close bond between these guys. It's just different, and it plays to Illinois' advantage.

Groce talks a lot about playing the hand you're dealt. He has a really good hand in this 2017 class. We'll find out how good of a player he is by the next shuffle of the deck.


Werner: OK, Piper, it's way too early for this but, heck, we don't get good news and good buzz all that often, so let's provide our members with a "Dare to Dream" scenario.

Let's go with this hypothetical. Tilmon decides to jump on board in the next month or so.  Goodwin decides not to wait through the summer, as he plans now, and jumps on board soon after. That looks like a top-five class with one spot remaining. Illinois probably would then want to reel in a four man or another point guard. Before we get to who you'd want that to be, I'm thinking ahead to that depth chart in 2017-18, and it's tasty.

C - Jeremiah Tilmon (fr) / Michael Finke (jr)

F - Leron Black (jr?) / Kipper Nichols (so) / 2017 recruit?

F - D.J. Williams (jr) / Jordan Goodwin (fr) / Javon Pickett (fr)

G - Jalen Coleman-Lands (jr) / Aaron Jordan (jr)

G - Te'Jon Lucas (so) / Da'Monte Williams (fr) / 2017 recruit?

Obviously, attrition happens, but ... that's a pretty intriguing "dare to dream."

Anyway, you can comment on that and what's your "dare to dream" 2017 class? And, no, your boy Jordan "Splash" Poole is not decommitting from Michigan. Sorry.


Piper: That is a very dangerous and intriguing roster. A lot of talent and a lot of depth. People wonder about Goodwin's position. I think it's great that he can play the two or the three, because it's going to be (hypothetically) very hard to keep him off the floor. Da'Monte can play the one or the two. The potential combinations in the backcourt would be...Wow. I'd love to see what Da'Monte, JCL and Goodwin could do on the court together. In general, Groce would have a wonderful problem with so many talented guys and only five starting spots.

If you really want to dream, I'd say take the four that we've mentioned and add Derek Culver. Can you imagine putting him (No. 38 in 2017) and Tilmon (No. 10 in 2017) in the same frontcourt? That would be flat out insane. But anyone in combination with Da'Monte, Pickett, Goodwin and Tilmon is a dream scenario for Illinois. If you land Christian Negron or Theo John, I think that would be big for athleticism and immediate rebounding depth at the four. Or just give me your boy, Evan Gilyard, to be a high-energy point guard off the bench.

"Splash" and I could have had some good times in Champaign. But he chose Michigan. For that, Ann Arbor is a ... nice place. Sorry, still hurts. In all seriousness, Poole is still my boy and one of my favorite players to watch.


Werner: Ever since he got to Michigan, Beilein has recruited the skilled players to lead the Wolverines' resurgence. Love watching his teams. Soon, we'll see if Groce can do the same -- even if it's a bit later than he and Illini fans had hoped.

 


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