CHAIN MAIL: Is the Illini Class of 2017 all about Tilmon and Goodwin?

Illini Inquirer lead basketball reporter Derek Piper and publisher Jeremy Werner trade e-mails on the possibilities for the Illinois basketball Class of 2017.

Jeremy Werner: Things just picked up a notch. The blue bloods are hot after Jeremiah Tilmon, while in-state favorite Jordan Goodwin finally is becoming a national favorite, recently picking up offers from Michigan State, Texas, Texas A&M and Iowa State. 

We knew Tilmon would earn that type of interest. Honestly, until February and March, I thought Tilmon was a bit of a longshot. Five-star big men like him just don't come to Illinois (except maybe Deon Thomas and Johnny "Red" Kerr?). They go to North Carolina, Kansas, Michigan State -- who all want Tilmon. From many accounts from many sources, Illinois appeared close to landing Tilmon last month but that window doesn't seem so open now. Is that on Illinois? Off-court issues and another NCAA Tournament-less season probably didn't help. 

As for Goodwin, other power-five programs finally seem to realize what we knew: Goodwin is a winner. He will win in college with whatever program lands him. I think Goodwin going elsewhere would hurt way more than Tilmon going elsewhere. Goodwin always seemed more gettable. No one's recruited him longer or harder than Illinois, and the competition seemed narrow. But that Michigan State offer, and to a lesser extent the Texas offer, could be a game-changer. Illinois may still be the clubhouse leader, but John Groce has never seemed more vulnerable in the recruitment of a player who could single-handedly bring the culture Groce has struggled to grow at Illinois.

So, Mr. Piper, how much does the length and depth of the Illinois relationship influence these recruitments, if at all?

Derek Piper: Like you said, plenty of sources indicated that there was a window for Illinois to close with Tilmon. And that was when it was already a lock that they'd be missing the NCAA tournament. The two arrests immediately following the Big Ten tournament raised red flags. We all know Josh Whitman called a press conference to try to clean up perception and reaffirm Groce's job status - and that was for recruits as much as anyone else. But they couldn't get through that final threshold with Tilmon and his mom. Closing has been an issue for the Illini in five-star recruitments. Is that blame on them? It's hard to say because Tilmon and his mom are ultimately the ones who control the game. The Illini raced around the board faster than anyone and had a lead. But passing 'Go' and collecting a five-star recruit isn't an easy move, and it really comes down to what they want to do.

Relationships are crucial in recruiting. That's essentially why Illinois got to where they got with Tilmon. That's why they've been at the top with Goodwin throughout his recruitment. But we're hitting a point with both where things are getting tough. Kansas and North Carolina are at the forefront of Tilmon's mind after the visits last week. Goodwin was very intrigued by the Texas offer in particular, but the Michigan State offer is even bigger. Tom Izzo knocked his 2016 recruiting class out of the park. And you can bet that the Spartans will tell Goodwin they see some Denzel Valentine in his game. 

Obviously, Illinois has more to offer than just a relationship. They can keep Goodwin and Tilmon close to their families. They can team up with friends in Javon Pickett and Da'Monte Williams. They can be instant stars on the Illinois campus, and ones that will be faces of the program from the moment they step on the floor. Other big players in these recruitments are most likely going to be offering something different. It's up to Illinois to focus in on what makes them unique versus the others. They've been preaching on loyalty, relationships, proximity to home, instant opportunity and a chance to play together in their recent visits. That's a strong combination, but some of these other programs pack one heck of a punch.

Jeremy Werner: Before we get into the Class of 2017 possibilities, you broke the news that Illinois is showing interest in Charlie Moore. Not that that means Illinois hadn't showed interest from the moment Moore re-opened his recruitment (wink wink?). 

Moore would be a huge add to the Class of 2016 along with Milwaukee point guard Te'Jon Lucas. As I wrote a few weeks ago, two points guards not only can co-exist but can thrive and make each other better. Moore would help turn an Illinois glaring weakness into a strength. And Moore would give Illinois a huge PR boost by adding a top Chicago Public League prospect and the reigning Mr. Basketball.

If Illinois landed him, what impact would he have on the 2017 class? And would he help with guys like Goodwin and Tilmon?

Derek Piper: Moore would be a great get. I love his ability to score at a high level. He's great in transition and off the ball-screen. This was a match that I thought was going to happen the first time through. I think he and Te'Jon can coexist, and it sounds like they believe the same. It'd be a major plus to infuse two of the most talented point guards in the Midwest into your backcourt when you have been starved for Big Ten-level play at that position. You said it about the PR move as well. 

How would the addition of Charlie affect the 2017 class? Well, the Illini wouldn't need to chase another point guard. They've positioned themselves well with Trent Frazier. They've kept their eyes on Evan Gilyard. But they would be set at the position. That would take some pressure off in terms of that area in the depth chart. Of course, you'd have one less scholarship in 2017. But you'd use it on a Mr. Basketball point guard in a heartbeat.

I think Charlie can help with other guys in 2017. His game commands a lot of respect in Chicago and elsewhere. I know Goodwin would like the move quite a bit. They talked a little bit this weekend in Indy. And what's good for Illinois and Goodwin is good for Illinois and Tilmon. Talented players want to play with other talented players, and Charlie is one of those guys.

Jeremy Werner: We've focused so much of our 2017 focus on Goodwin and Tilmon -- for good reason. Both are possible program-changing recruits. Tilmon may not be Greg Oden or DeMarcus Cousins, but he changes the way Illinois plays. A big man of his size changes Illinois' defense at the rim and on the glass. A big man of his skill changes Illinois' offense because he can collapse defenses, open things up for the perimeter players and get easy buckets around the rim. Look what Mike Thorne Jr. did in his limited time last season. Goodwin is not only a great player, but he's a culture changer. He just makes those around him better and brings tenacity and toughness. Bring both of those players in the same class, and I am really bullish on Illinois' future. Even if it takes a few years to get there, I think a program with those 2017 pieces and the current pieces can be a Big Ten contender.

But ... what if they don't land either? Can Illinois still land a great or program-changing class without Tilmon and/or Goodwin?

Da'Monte Williams is a very good, no-doubt top-100 prospect. Is he top-50? He certainly has that ceiling, though Goodwin seems like a more sure thing. Javon Pickett was a solid first get in a big class, though he looks like a complementary piece more than a foundation piece. The in-state duo makes for a solid start. Is there a path to a program-changing class without Tilmon or Goodwin?

Illinois seems to have made a big impression on top-100 point guard Trent Frazier out of Florida. I've let it be known that I think point guard is still a huge need in 2017 (why I'm intrigued by Evan Gilyard). Illinois has recruited Ohio big man Derek Culver, a top-40 prospect, and Minnesota big man Theo John, a top-20 prospect at his position, for a long time. Either would be a big upgrade in the post.  Terrence Lewis looks like a top-100 wing and has the two-way game that translates well to the Big Ten, and maybe beyond. Christian Negron is undersized (6-foot-6) but tough on the glass. Illinois is also widening its net a bit with some late-emerging targets.

But, Derek, say Illinois fails to land Goodwin and Tilmon. Illini fans would be disappointed because their team missed on two downstate, elite prospects. But what if they finished with a class of Williams, Pickett, John, Frazier and Lewis? It wouldn't create the buzz of Tilmon and Goodwin. But that would be a pretty darn good class.

Derek Piper: I agree that would be a pretty good class, and one that fills necessary needs. Williams and Pickett are good starts. Frazier is a point guard who is wired to score. He has a sweet stroke and he can be electric in the open floor. Illinois needs another point guard in the backcourt to go along with Te'Jon Lucas, and Frazier would be a nice one to have. I think landing John would be huge. He is already forming a Big Ten body down in the post. He rebounds and defends at a high level. And he has potential offensively, especially in the pick 'n roll game. He's the type of big man that has given Illinois tons of problems in the past.

Then you have Lewis, who will play his way into the top 100. He has the length and athleticism of a pro-style wing. He can really shoot it and he can get above the rim. His long arms and hops allow him to rebound really well, and he can be a high-caliber defender as well. In my mind, that is a class that would rank top-20 in the country. If Williams becomes who he can be, I think we could look back and say that was a great class.

I don't think it is program-changing, though. You'd still be faced with the problem of being unable to land the best players in your state, even ones that don't come with the whipping winds of Chicago. And to be program-changing, you need some star power. That's in the realm of Tilmon, Culver, Kris Wilkes, Brian Bowen, and now, Goodwin.

Jeremy Werner: I agree. Good class with the potential to be really good, but Illinois was set on getting a great class in 2017. Mistakes in the Class of 2014 and 2015 -- whiffing on most top-50 targets and transfers instead of landing the foundation (Glynn Watson-type) recruits -- and injuries cost Illinois the past two seasons and ultimately may cost the Illini coaches their shot at the program-changing Class of 2017. But it ain't over, which is why we'll continue to monitor Goodwin and Tilmon so closely.

But the recent developments make you wonder, what is John Groce's path to success at Illinois?

I've said for a while that he has a checklist over the next year. The first is landing recruits. That remains to be seen. The next is resolving the off-the-court issues -- still up in the air though the Leron Black and Kendrick Nunn cases seem closer to resolution, though still cloudy, and the Jaylon Tate case remains cloudy as well -- and the players staying out  of trouble. Then, Groce simply has to win. An NCAA Tournament is a must this season.

With a class with Tilmon and/or Goodwin, just making an NCAA Tournament likely would earn him more time and likely an extension.

With a just "good" class (like we discussed above), I wonder if Groce will have to do more.

Derek Piper: All three things on the checklist are musts. Staying out of trouble has to be a given. Groce cannot afford anything else that points to an undisciplined program with a leader who doesn't have control. It also goes without saying that Illinois needs much more than 15 wins next season, and they have to add more to what they've started in 2017.

The exact baseline for progress and retainability will depend on a combination of those last two. It's pretty well assumed that Groce needs to take this team to the NCAA tournament next year. This fan base groaned enough missing for the third straight season. If Groce has Tilmon and Goodwin committed, that could give him more leeway. If he has one or both, and makes it to the dance, then I think an extension will be in order. 

If the class is just "good", and he makes the tournament, then I think he stays as well. Losing Goodwin and Tilmon would be a tough pill to swallow. But if the staff is able to fill needs in this class with four-star talent like Frazier, John and Lewis to go along with Da'Monte and Pickett, I think that is good enough in combination with a dance invitation. But if you're not filling needs and/or meeting postseason expectations, then we've already seen what Whitman is willing to do.


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