CHAMPAIGN - After four years of mostly swings and misses, John Groce finally connected for his home run.
Just after taking the job in the spring of 2012, Groce took a huge hack at Demetrius Jackson, but the South Bend star stayed home, led the Irish to the Elite Eight this spring and now plays for the Celtics.
Chicago's five-star prospects have shut out Groce. Cliff Alexander had told the Illini staff he would come to Champaign, only to hat-fake Illini nation on national television on Signing Day. Alexander would've been a king in Champaign and played a huge role immediately. Instead, he rotted on the bench at Kansas, mistakenly declared for the NBA Draft after an incomplete season and is now looking for a job.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1685385-3-months-of-illini-i... Groce rolled out the red carpet and offered the keys to his program to Lincolnshire (Ill.) Stevenson's Jalen Brunson, whose family wanted a return to Philadelphia and whose pro aspirations led him to point-guard guru Jay Wright. After one season at Villanova, Brunson has a national title and the keys to the Big East's best program.
Ohio native Carlton Bragg prioritized his NBA aspirations over a four-year relationship with Groce's staff. And even though he sat on the bench for most of his freshman season, who can blame Bragg, who will play a huge role for the Jayhawks next season? With all the Big 12 titles and first-round draft picks Self has produced, Kansas is the easy decision. Choosing Illinois has been the difficult one.
Some fans had given up hope on Groce, who arrived at Illinois as the anti-Weber. The guy who recruited Oden, Conley and Cook to Ohio State surely would be the guy to bring top talent back to Champaign. While he's landed good players -- including Malcolm Hill, recently dismissed Kendrick Nunn, Leron Black, Jalen Coleman-Lands and Michael Finke -- his recruiting certainly hasn't lived up to those high expectations.
Some called for him to lower his sights, and try to recruit "like Wisconsin." But Bo Ryan recruited five-star Sam Dekker, four-star Bronson Koennig and went all-in on Diamond Stone (who went to Maryland for his one season) for a reason. If you don't have high-end talent, you don't have much of a chance. And if you're at Illinois and you're not trying to recruit the best, what's the point?
To Groce's credit, he and his staff just kept swinging ... just kept swinging ... just kept swinging, swinging, swinging.
Just when the night looked darkest for Groce -- three straight missed NCAA Tournaments and four player arrests, two dismissals and one suspension in eight months -- he found his ray of light, landing a commitment from five-star prospect Jeremiah Tilmon on Monday.
Groce's approval rating today certainly is higher than it was yesterday.
Pivot point in perception
The Tilmon commitment provides Groce's struggling program with a pivot point. Tilmon joins fellow Illinois natives DaMonte Williams and Javon Pickett in what likely will be Groce's most highly-touted and highly-ranked recruiting class at Illinois, especially if the Illini follow up this splash with a player (Belleville Althoff wing Jordan Goodwin) who will provide the toughness, leadership and drive they have lacked.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1681955-tilmon-commits-illin...Give the assist to new Illini athletics director Josh Whitman, who backed Groce when so many donors and fans would've supported the fifth-year coach's dismissal. But Whitman saw that Illinois' best chance at taking advantage of the state's deep talent in 2017 -- and a possible program-changing class -- was with Groce at the helm. Tilmon's commitment could go a long way in rewarding Whitman's faith.
The commitment's biggest impact likely will be on the perception of the Illini program.
The 2010 recruiting class marked the last time Illinois basketball landed either a five-star prospect (Meyers Leonard) and/or a McDonald's All-American (Jereme Richmond). Tilmon, who sat out this summer as he recovers from shoulder surgery, may have ended both seven-year droughts. The La Lumiere (Ind.) Prep center (via East St. Louis) ranks No.19 in the Scout 100. He is tied with Leonard (the No. 19 recruit in the Class of 2010) as the highest-ranked recruit to commit to Illinois since Scout started ranking players in 2002.
Downstate Illinois always has been kinder to Illinois than Chicago -- the revival under Lon Kruger was catapulted by a rare surge in central Illinois talent -- but Tilmon's commitment could show other top in-state prospects that they can find success and launch pro careers at Illinois.
If Tilmon's commitment leads to more of these prospects, Illinois fans likely will get to the point where they're asking "What seed this year?" instead of "Which tournament this year?"
Tilmon also will make an immediate impact on the court, but those expectations should be reigned in a little bit.
Tilmon is not DeMarcus Cousins. He is not Anthony Davis. He will not immediately dominate college basketball nor the Big Ten, especially considering his shoulder injury has slowed his development. He may not be a one-and-done (which wouldn't be such a bad thing for Illinois).
But Tilmon does give Illinois (which has finished in the bottom half of the Big Ten in rebounding in each of Groce's four seasons) the type of difference-making Big Ten big man it has lacked in the paint for much of its recent history.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1685070-ask-experts-impact-t...The 6-foot-10 post is strong and solidly skilled on offense, with a developing array of post moves and a solid midrange jumper. While he doesn't have elite athleticism and isn't a top-notch shot blocker, Tilmon brings a defensive presence in the paint due to his 7-foot-2 wingspan. Most importantly, Tilmon will give Illinois (which finished last in the Big Ten in rebounding last year) an elite rebounder when he arrives next summer.
At the next level, Tilmon must improve his conditioning and develop a consistent motor. But his combination of size and skill gives him unquestioned NBA potential, something the Illini haven't had in a player since Leonard was selected with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. To compete with Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, Maryland and Wisconsin, you need length and beef up front. Illinois just landed one of the most sought-after beefcakes in the nation's class of 2017.
Most importantly, Tilmon gives Groce's program the bright spot and the momentum to point toward a path of long-term success.
This observer always thought that if Groce didn't work out at Illiois that he would've been the unluckiest coaches in Illini memory.
Sure, Groce made his fair share of mistakes -- most notably investing too many scholarships in flawed transfers -- but most college coaches make their fair share of mistakes. But Groce did a lot right in recruitments that just didn't go his way, due to parent/mentor influence or academics or what have you. Injuries also have cost him any chance to gain momentum on the court the last two seasons. I always thought that if Groce didn't work out at Illinois that he would find success at another program if he received the chance. But I, like many of you, thought his time was expiring at Illinois.
Given their tireless effort, persistence and positivity, Groce and his staff were due for a huge pick-me-up. It must be a great day in the basketball offices today, maybe as good as any day in the previous four years.
Groce and his staff still have a lot to accomplish (land Goodwin, make an NCAA Tournament and continue to win with guys like Tilmon). But four years and a lot of whiffs later, it appears Groce still has a chance to lead a rebirth for Illinois basketball -- even if it's a little later than some of us expected.