The Class of 2017 is a unique and the last opportunity for John Groce and his staff. The in-state class is deep with about 10 power-five prospects. Very few of them are from Chicago. The best are from downstate Illinois, which has been much more kind to Illinois than Chicago. So far,so good for Illinois. The Illini are 3-for-3 on its downstate products: Javon Pickett, DaMonte Williams and Tilmon. They committed in that order, and each has brought increased importance. Pickett the first. Then, Williams the legacy.
Jeremiah Tilmon is the perception-changer. A five-star commitment to Illinois opens eyes. A five-star commitment makes Illinois relevant again (No. 3 recruiting class right now on Scout). A five-star commitment also allows Illinois coaches, players and fans to puff out their chests and have a little swagger about the program again. Illinois just beat North Carolina, Kansas and Michigan State for a top-20 recruit. After all Illinois has been through, it's OK to strut around for a few days in your orange and blue. Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman's rallying cry is "We Will Win." He renewed hope and increased expectations for football with the hire of Lovie Smith. He backed Groce when few did. But now Groce and his staff have renewed hope thanks to the Tilmon coup.
Jordan Goodwin would be the culture-changer. The Belleville Althoff star would give the Illini the leadership, toughness cutthroat winner and alpha dog that it's lacked. Tilmon is more likely to play in the NBA. Goodwin is more likely to be Big Ten Player of the Year. Yes, Tilmon's commitment gives the Illini a great chance at Goodwin. The Belleville Althoff wing wants to win. With Jalen Coleman-Lands, Michael Finke and Leron Black set to be juniors when the Class of 2017 arrives and Tilmon in place with a depth chart full of top-100 talent, Goodwin would have plenty to win with in Champaign. Also, Illinois was the first power-five to offer Goodwin more than a year ago. They were the first to say, "You are a Big Ten player. You are our priority." With its recent struggles, Illinois had to get in early on recruits to have a chance. That relationship mattered for Tilmon. While Northwestern, Michigan State and Texas all are players for Goodwin, that deep relationship also seems to matter for Goodwin.
Cliff Alexander, Jalen Brunson and previous Illini premier targets had pressure to be the "savior" of a struggling Illini program. That's a lot for one 17- to 18-year-old to take on, seemingly by himself. But Illinois sold the Class of 2017 as a joint effort. If all of you band together -- like their favorite NBA stars are doing nowadays -- you can help lead Illinois back to a championship level. It appears to be working. Pickett, the first commit, has recruited. Tilmon, who responded to Williams' commitment with delight, has recruited for a few months to gauge the interest of others, including Goodwin. The sell to be a program-changing class, not a program-changing recruit, seems to be working so far.
I loved Tilmon's reponse to Derek Piper's question of why he wasn't scared to be the recruit to bring buzz back to the Illini: "Being that Illinois is where I'm from, I take pride in loyalty and stuff," Tilmon said. "I ain't trying to be like everyone else and go to another school because of the name of it. I feel like I can put Illinois on the map." The psychology of why Alexander didn't pick Illinois and Tilmon did is fascinating to me. Both seemed to love their relationships with Illinois. But one followed his heart and the other didn't.
My wish list for the final three remaining open scholarships in the Class of 2017: Goodwin, a point guard and a fifth-year transfer forward/center. I want two spots in 2018 for Ayo Dosunmu and Tim Finke. It may be tough to get both, but I would want open spots should they want them.
When my guy Joe Henricksen of City/Suburban Hoops Report joined me on my radio show on Monday, he said something I found interesting. He proposed Illinois not taking a point guard in 2017. On the surface, I disagree. Illinois added Te'Jon Lucas in the Class of 2016, but he's the only point guard on the roster to start 2017-18. Can Da'Monte Williams handle some point as a freshman? He hasn't proven those handles yet. Could Goodwin? I wouldn't doubt that kid to do anything at this point, but that's not his natural position. Plus, while I'm a fan of Lucas, is he a definite 30 minute per game guy as a sophomore? And what if he were injured? Illinois needs another point guard, in my opinion, and they've made Trent Frazier a priority and should take him if he wants to commit. But Joe's proposed strategy is intriguing. Try to land an athletic, rim-protecting big to pair with Tilmon (Victor Uyaelunmo or Mayan Kiir?) and go all in on Dosunmu (a Frank Williams level player) in 2018. Illinois could sell that he would have little competition as the lead guard. That's a bit risky for the 2017-18 season and beyond, but is the chance at Dosunmu worth the risk?
John Groce has received plenty of fair criticism. But the one thing I've admired about him is his perseverance. I once told him in private that I thought he was the basketball version of Job from The Bible. Little has gone his way the last few years, whether with recruits, injuries or off-the-court issues. But he was never beaten down by it. He continued to push forward with positivity. He never let his staff fracture. He never let his team fracture (it has had individual issues but no team schisms). After seeing his predecessor succumb to the pressure near the end, it's encouraging to see Groce persist and give himself a second chance. Not every Illini fan may like Groce, but they do have a fighter leading their basketball program.
One person very close to the basketball program told me Monday: "Fun to win the heavyweight fight." That excitement, relief and joy you fans received on Monday? Multiply that by 10 for the staff.
One prominent high school coach texted me on Monday about Groce's staff: "Nobody works harder and they persevered. This is the start of the resurgence of Illinois basketball. JG is the right guy."