Jeremy Werner: No freakin' way. It happened. It actually happened, Mr. Piper. We've covered the John Groce era through its entirety -- here at IlliniInquirer.com and elsewhere -- and we've been waiting for that big-time prospect to finally buy in to what Groce was selling. Now, it's happened a lot later than we thought. I really thought Illinois was going to land Cliff Alexander. I thought they had a decent shot at Jalen Brunson. They seemingly were in the final two for both those guys, and the final two or three for Demetrius Jackson, Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Quentin Snider (who was an Illini commit for a month), Jawun Evans, Charles Matthews, Marcus LoVett (grades were a problem) and Charlie Moore and others that are probably slipping my mind because there have been so many.
But they finally convinced a big-time prospect to ignore the blue bloods or some other up-and-coming program and buy into the Illini. How did they do it? How did they land Jeremiah Tilmon?
Derek Piper: Landing the big fella -- the five-star big man that changes the game for this program -- is a testament to the tireless effort made by John Groce, Jamall Walker and this staff to give Jeremiah every reason to make his home in Champaign. They got involved in this recruitment before anyone else back when he was in eighth grade. They got his mom on board by establishing trust, selling opportunity to Jeremiah, giving her the chance to keep him close to home, and ultimately, showing that they genuinely have Jeremiah and his family's best interest at heart on and off the basketball court.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1685541-werner-s-whits-tilmo... Jeremiah feels comfortable with Illinois from the coaches to the support staff to the fans to the campus. He told me that he's never had the type of relationship that he has with Coach Walker. He thinks of him as a big brother, who has been there for him before the rest of the country knew Jeremiah Tilmon. He believes in Groce, who won him over with his energy, charisma, detailed plans and the determined look in his eyes when talking with Jeremiah. Illinois has been consistent and persistent with him. Day in and day out, Jeremiah knew that Illinois was going to be there.
As you mentioned, this staff has had plenty of swings at landing the big one. They've had good relationships in the past. They've had opportunity to sell. They've rolled out the red carpet and threw the kitchen sink. Tilmon is not the first one. But he is the first one to put a high value on loyalty. He is the first one too see the opportunity that is filled with both potential and pressure, and decide to seize it instead of run from it. He is the first one to avoid buckling at the knees when the blue bloods came calling.
Groce has used the phrase 'stay the course' plenty of times recently. It's one of many coaching cliches you'll hear. But that exactly what the staff did, and athletic director Josh Whitman gave Groce and his guys that chance. His belief in them is what made this possible. And the belief the staff had in what they were doing and how they were doing it enabled them to overcome past failures and misfortunes, and hit the home-run that has been a long time.
Werner: Now, the target sets squarely on Tilmon's buddy and AAU teammate, Jordan Goodwin. I'm not sure if it's the correct read, but I always thought that Goodwin could come to Illinois with Tilmon going elsewhere, but I found it really hard to believe that Goodwin would go elsewhere if Tilmon committed to Illinois. The Illini, the first power-five to offer Goodwin, were the first to tell Goodwin they thought he was a Big Ten-level player. Like Tilmon, he seems to value that relationship. Illinois has playing time for Goodwin but also a good roster to surround him with. Goodwin has a huge chip on his shoulder and wants to prove his worth on the summer AAU circuit. There are other players involved -- Michigan State, Texas and Northwestern -- but, Mr. Piper, is it time to start playing my favorite Semisonic song?
Piper: I think it is. You might have to loop it in order for Jordan to make the decision when he feels comfortable. But Illinois has made a lot of sense for him, and now it seems almost inevitable. Jeremiah has not been shy in saying "he's coming with me". He would know. Those two are great friends. Part of Jeremiah's decision-making process in choosing Illinois was gauging who would be joining him in that class. Hard to imagine he'd commit to Illinois and be so publicly confident if Goodwin wasn't highly likely to follow.
So when is the right time? J-Good tweeted after 1 a.m. on Monday morning: "Imma make this move". Less than 12 hours later, his boy committed to Illinois. Coincidence? We'll see, but probably not. Goodwin told me personally that Jeremiah's commitment opens up his eyes in terms of his own decision. His plan has been to wait things out, enjoy the process and focus on getting the attention he is due. Staying open allows him to get more offers, more hype, more fanfare, etc.
Jeremiah told me that there is one offer that Jordan has been waiting on. It's not a blue blood. They didn't make the tournament last year. For some reason, that's just a school that he's wanted to have an opportunity to go to. But Jeremiah has told him that there's no need to wait when he's not actually going to go there.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1683958-trending-meter-illin... We've talked quite a bit about Michigan State and Texas with Goodwin. Both have aspects that are attractive to him. He has a lot of respect for both coaches. But simply put, those programs aren't recruiting him like Illinois. They don't offer the opportunity to step on campus with one of his best friends and own the place. Be the center of attention. Be part of a resurgence that can be special. Play for the coaches that he knows and trusts the most.
Jordan called Illinois his leader last summer after a visit. He visited again in the fall, and I've heard from some good sources that he wanted to pull the trigger. But he got advice not to do so. Now, he's getting advice from his five-star buddy to make this happen. As of this past weekend, the plan was for Jordan to play out the rest of the AAU season before making any substantial moves. He had planned on cutting his list this week, but he told me this afternoon that he is rethinking that move.
If he sticks to it, I could see him doing what Jeremiah did. Announce your list of schools. And a few weeks later, commit and tell everyone where you've been thinking about going for quite some time. But Jeremiah and Illinois have their foot on the gas pedal to get this thing done as soon as possible. At the very least, they've got him thinking.
Werner: So let's say Goodwin commits, Illinois would seem to be a lock for a top-8, if not top-5., national class, and would have hit 4-for-4 on the downstate 2017 targets. That's a hell of a class already with a top-20 player, a top-50 player (we all know Goodwin is even if he's ranked slightly below that), another player with top-75 to -100 potential (Da'Monte Williams) and a very skilled wing (Javon Pickett). There would be two scholarships available. Let's look at a projected depth chart for 2017-18.
Possible 2017-18 Illini depth chart
|C||Jeremiah Tilmon, fr||Michael Finke, jr|
|PF||Leron Black, jr||Kipper Nichols, so|
|SF||Jordan Goodwin, fr||D.J. Williams, jr||Javon Pickett, fr|
|SG||Jalen Coleman-Lands, jr||Aaron Jordan, jr||Da'Monte Williams, fr|
|PG||Te'Jon Lucas, so|
We can argue some points. Finke very well could start. Nichols and D.J. Williams could flip positions. Goodwin may not start. Maybe Da'Monte Williams could be the backup point guard. But that roster has two open scholarship spots and two obvious needs: point guard and an athletic, rim-protecting big.
I'm of the mindset that you use one of the scholarships on a prep player and save one for 2018 when Illinois has the chance to land two big in-state prospects (Ayo Dosunmu and Tim Finke). I would make the priority is a point guard (Trent Frazier) because Williams as the backup point worries me more than Finke or Black getting time at the 5.
But I see the attraction of adding an athletic big for the short term, but even more for the long-term. Or, if you land the right guys, I can see them using both. After all, attrition may open up a scholarship spot in 2018 and beyond.
In a vacuum (or a perfect world), Mr. Piper, how would you allocate those scholarship spots (assuming Goodwin is in) and who are your main targets?
Piper: I'm on board with you. Some people have said that you can go without a point guard in this class. There is one heck of an option up north in 2018 with Ayo Dosunmu. But banking on big-time Morgan Park and Mac Irvin Fire point guards have not worked out so well in the past. There's no doubt that Jeremiah changes things in this state, but you have to be smart. The 2017-18 roster needs another point guard, and that answer has seemed to be an obvious one: Trent Frazier.
Trent is a top-100 point guard. A score-first playmaker. A very good shooter from beyond the arc. This staff has and does like him a lot. His AAU season has been interesting, to say the least. He has switched teams multiple times, and when he's played big minutes, it's been against pretty weak competition. That being said, he played against some solid competition at the University of Florida team camp in June, and he averaged 27 points and six assists per game. He is certainly talented.
Not only that, but he has been really high on Illinois for months. They've blown him away with how much love and loyalty they've showed him. Dustin Ford has done a great job. Trent wants to take an official visit to Champaign with his parents in August, and I think you can throw your Semisonic song back on the jukebox for that one. Everything I've heard is that Trent is theirs if they want him.
But as you might expect, things got interesting after Tilmon put on the orange and blue hat on Monday. I wrote that it would send shock waves out, and it did. A high-level big guy is a point guard's best friend. I know that Frazier liked the move. But I also learned that Indianapolis top-50 point guard Paul Scruggs did too. I talked to Scruggs' AAU coach, Mike Peterson, on Monday. He said Jeremiah's commitment changes things.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1685070-ask-the-experts-impa... Peterson told me Paul called him to tell him Jeremiah committed. I think that tells you the attention that it drew from a guy that joins Tilmon as one of the top seven 2017 prospects in the Midwest. If you consider him a point guard, Scruggs is the top point guard in the region in the class -- and the No. 2 guard in the region in 2017. Scruggs had plans to visit Champaign in June, but he had to reschedule. It sounds like he's for sure coming back in August now with his parents. That adds a whole new dynamic to the priority list, and adding Goodwin to the mix would only add more gasoline to the fire.
Outside of the point guard spot, I think you look at athletic bigs. Theo John has been a focus, but I think that possibility is trending down. They've been selling opportunity the whole time, and now there is a five-star center there. I think the staff is thinking more along the line of Mayan Kiir from Victory Rock Prep (Fla.). He just had a huge week at the adidas event and Illinois didn't miss a game. He's long and athletic at 6-foot-9, and he runs like a deer. He is a big-time rebounder, who can also block shots and finish around the basket. The Illini love him, and they're trying to make moves there. Louisville is the obstacle in their way, but they have other priorities in the frontcourt as well.
Obviously, top-40 big man Derek Culver is going to be a guy they take a swing at. But if those swings don't work, I agree with saving the four-year ride for the 2018 class. You can use the opening in 2017-18 for a fifth-year player. On the flip side, you can go after a developmental big like Victor Uyaelunmo. He's essentially an athletic version of Nnanna Egwu, who can really run the floor, finish and protect the rim. Give him two years with Fletch, and watch out. It'd be great to have him to step in after Jeremiah goes pro.
If you do that, you run the risk of not having a spot in 2018. Ayo Dosunmu and Tim Finke are big reasons to keep at least one open. But as you said, Illinois could still have one open up even if they sign six in 2017.
Werner: One big commitment has us thinking big again. This is a lot more fun than the alternative.
Piper: Credit to John Groce and his staff. They earned that moment on Monday. And I'm glad they did. It made our jobs fun, and there is a lot of justified excitement about what's left to come.