CHAMPAIGN - Last April, Illinois basketball coach John Groce extended scholarships to a handful of in-state sophomores, all with high-major talent. The hope was that several of the Class of 2017 prospects would see the opportunity to band together as an Illinois version of the “Fab Five” and rejuvenate the consistently declining Illini basketball brand.
It took nearly nine months before a Class of 2017 prospect bought in -- Belleville (Ill.) East wing Javon Pickett, whom Illinois actually offered during the summer, committed in January -- and 10 months before Groce’s hoop dreams started to actually look like a real possibility.
Da'Monte Williams' commitment gives Illinois a top-50 prospect: a player with the athleticism, size, strength and skill set Illinois needs. But the timing and consequences of his commitment may prove to be just as important as his talent.
Williams gives Illinois -- which is mired in an injury-plagued, blowout-filled 13-17 season (5-12 Big Ten) -- actual momentum on the recruiting trail. He likely also gives Groce a saving grace with new Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman.
Groce hasn’t looked so close to a top-five recruiting class since Nov. 15, 2013 -- a day that will live in infamy for the Illini (Cliff Alexander hat-faked the Illini fans and spurned his homestate school for Kansas, while top-50 point guard Quentin Snider de-committed to stay home at Louisville).
The next few months -- with top prospects Jeremiah Tilmon and Jordan Goodwin seemingly favoring the Illini -- provide Groce with an opportunity to finally hit his grand slam and become the Thad Matta-like recruiter many envisioned when he took the job in 2012.
“That is one step closer with this commitment,” said Joe Henricksen, publisher of City/Suburban Hoops Report. “The timing of the (Williams) commitment is perfect. And the timing isn’t equal to the player, but it’s right there with it.”
Williams and Pickett are in, making it easier for their friends to join the party.
“I don’t think one kid or two kids are going to take on this project of revitalizing Illinois basketball by themselves,” Henricksen said. “Illinois and their staff were in the fortunate situation where they had this one class where there’s five scholarships available to bring together, to talk to all of them together and they all by chance happen to know each other.”
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Whitman and Groce have some similarities beyond their follicle challenges (hey, I’m almost right there with ya, guys). Both are middle-aged Indiana natives and former college athletes with high intelligence (Whitman studied the law, while Groce studied math -- which is why he loves advanced metrics so much), a killer competitive streak, a knack for catchy slogans and a desire for consuming as much information as possible before making a decision.
Whitman has a case to part with Groce. During the last season and a half, Groce's teams have lacked the “toughness and togetherness” he preaches. His recruiting misses have left voids at point guard and in the post -- as well as the leadership department. His recruits haven’t defended well, and he hasn’t recruited the players to properly execute his offensive system. And he’s had two players get into serious legal trouble (the dismissed Darius Paul and the suspended Leron Black). Bottom line, his record (75-59 overall, 29-42 Big Ten) just isn’t good enough.
But there also is a case to stay with Groce. He took over a terribly unbalanced roster from his predecessor -- who is still struggling to construct a roster at Kansas State -- and got the most of out of his first two teams. He’s had more misfortune with injuries over the past year than any coach in the country: seven players have missed a combined 89 games this season. Most in the business sympathize with a coach who has lost three starters this season to injury and has only three players not miss a game or significant offseason time due to injury (Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan and D.J. Williams). Groce also has a buyout of more than $1.5 million, which, while relatively small compared to many coaches, is still a big chunk of change for a program that just cut a $2.5 million paycheck to dismissed athletic director Mike Thomas.
The biggest reason to keep Groce, though, is that the fourth-year coach has put four years into recruiting Illinois’ next realistic chance to land a truly program-changing recruiting class -- the 2017 in-state class not only has talent, but it has attainable talent, strengthened by a rare collection of downstate Illinois talent -- and at least today, Groce seems close to landing it.
That likely tips the scales for Whitman, who has a ton on his plate in his first year on the job -- including possible changes in football and women’s basketball. With Groce securing a great foundation to the Class of 2017 and likely decisions coming for the next priority targets in just a few months -- new coaches would have a hard time recruiting those undecided prospects -- Whitman likely will make the more reasoned (less emotional) and easier decision of holding onto Groce for a make-or-break year.
What Groce accomplishes between the end of a terrible 2015-16 season and the start of a make-or-break 2016-17 season likely means just as much -- if not more -- than what his level of success (though he must have success) on the court next season.
How is Illinois trending with Class of 2017 targets? Check out the latest Trending Meter.
Illinois hasn’t landed a top-15 prospect since the advent of the Recruiting Services Consensus Index in 1998. Yet, Illinois -- which, barring a miracle run in the Big Ten Tournament, will miss its third straight NCAA Tournament and six of the last nine NCAA Tournaments -- currently is the presumed favorite for the No. 10 prospect in the Class of 2017: La Lumiere (LaPorte, Ind.) center Jeremiah Tilmon, an East St. Louis native.
Can the Illini really land him?
“The simple answer is yes,” Scout.com national recruiting analyst Brian Snow said. “I think Illinois is the leader for Jeremiah Tilmon. Now, there is a big step from leader to commitment, and that’s the hardest step. But Illinois has done everything they can do until this point, and I think they’ve put themselves in a very enviable position.”
How? Groce and assistant Jamall Walker have recruited Tilmon harder and longer than any staff, dating back to Tilmon’s eighth-grade season.
“They’ve been around since Day One,” Snow said. “They’ve built a good trust and a good relationship and that’s really what it’s all about. The next step is closing the deal and that’s the hardest step. But they’ve built up that trust with Jeremiah and his mother that, ‘this is the place’ for them. Then being a couple hours from his home in East St. Louis definitely is not something that is hurting them in this process.”
Tilmon would ensure Illinois lands one of the Big Ten’s best recruiting classes and would give Belleville Althoff star Jordan Goodwin, the No. 73 prospect in the Class of 2017, further reason to jump on board.
“I certainly think (Illinois’ chances for Goodwin are) better than 50/50,” Snow said. “The only schools you really hear are Illinois and Missouri. ...I think it’s really those two schools, and I think right now Illinois has the edge.”
The famous “Glengarry Glen Ross” quote goes, “Coffee’s for closers.” Well, Groce -- known for downing five cups of coffee a day, usually from Starbucks -- might need to down a few more over the next few months to ensure he closes on his dream class.
Barring a shocker, Whitman will give Groce the opportunity. The Illini coach must make the most of it, because if he misses, he won’t get another.
“I just think it all comes together,” Henricksen said. “There’s a lot of work still to do. I truly think and believe if they’re going to get Jeremiah Tilmon done they have to do it sooner than later because the longer it goes, the more difficult it is. I think the pressure of the big, high-profile, blue-blood school gets to a kid the later it gets, the closer it gets to November.”