CHAMPAIGN -- The Illini basketball program is left with a sick feeling in their stomach after their top recruiting target Jordan Goodwin committed to SLU on Friday afternoon.
John Groce and his staff put in countless hours pursuing Goodwin after extending an offer his way in April 2015. The Illini did not miss one of Goodwin's games during the evaluation periods this spring and summer.
Groce was the only college coach there to give Goodwin a big hug after he won the state title in Peoria back in March.
"I thank God for him, and I appreciate him," Goodwin told IlliniInquirer.com back in the spring.
But that appreciation went out the window in a turn of events over the last few weeks.
The Illini were the leaders in this recruitment for more than 14 months. Goodwin called them his leader after taking a visit to Champaign in June 2015. He returned to campus for a visit in the fall, and he was reportedly ready to commit, but he was advised by his camp to wait.
Illinois seemingly checked all the necessary boxes with Goodwin. As Goodwin said himself, Groce and his staff recognized his talent and believed in him when others didn't. They showed him the love and attention that he so desperately craved. They offered him the opportunity to step in on the wing in the Big Ten after Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Malcolm Hill concludes his career after the upcoming season.
The Illini gave Goodwin the chance to be a centerpiece of a landscape-changing class. He could be a part of an infusion of talent primed to bring his home-state program back to glory.
Illinois increased their sell even more by adding Goodwin's best friend and five-star big man Jeremiah Tilmon. It was evident that big things were in store for the Illini, and Goodwin has always prided himself in being a winner and a competitor at the highest level. Illinois had the best combination of him being a priority, having the opportunity to play right away and being in a position to win on the big stage.
But even after Tilmon's pledge, Goodwin was told by a member of the St. Louis Eagles program (his advisor throughout) to hold off and let the process play out. Nevertheless, he was thought to be a slam dunk. Tilmon was confident enough to say that Goodwin was going to come with him on his commitment day in early July.
All along, Goodwin wanted to enjoy the ride. He wanted to take official visits. SLU became a big factor after hiring Mizzou assistant and former St. Louis Eagles head coach Corey Tate. Goodwin has a good relationship with him, but it was rather obvious that he wasn't going to go to Mizzou had Tate stayed there.
But combining Tate with SLU head coach Travis Ford made things dangerous for Illinois. SLU had a different sell. They offered him the chance to have the spotlight entirely to himself. He could be Ford's next Marcus Smart, as it was sold. Goodwin could take as many shots as he wanted from Day One. He could play whatever position he wanted, including the lead/combo guard -- which may be best for him as a showcase for the NBA.
That, coupled with everything else SLU was able to put on the table, changed the game. Goodwin went into stealth mode after the AAU season. To this day, he hasn't said a word to the Illinois staff in three weeks. Not one. St. Louis Eagles head coach Corey Frazier said Goodwin wasn't talking to anybody, but this commitment shows that could not have been the case on all sides.
SLU ultimately was able to strong-arm Goodwin into committing long before he intended. Having Tate on the staff gave SLU direct connections in opportune places. He was hired to make this thing happen, and well, it happened.
It apparently gave Goodwin a reason to completely shut out the Illini staff, who put in so much time and effort to build a strong relationship. That leaves a sour and lasting taste -- in unison with smack in the face. The ugly side of the recruiting game.
What it means
Ultimately, Illinois was unable to land a player who was thought to have an ability to change the culture of the program. A player who could elevate the ceiling over a four-year career. This commitment means Illinois has to once again cross off an in-state target that sat at the top of their recruiting board.
It means that a high-caliber prospect, who made all the logical sense for Illinois, did not come to fruition when things got...complicated. It means that this was a recruitment where the Illini did all they could, and it didn't play out in their favor.
But looking forward, this does not change the meaning of this 2017 class for Groce. This doesn't change the fact that Tilmon was a home-run addition. It doesn't change the significance of landing an important commitment from Da'Monte Williams. It doesn't change that Javon Pickett was an obtainable and solid get, and he has an ability to develop into a nice piece for the Illini in the future.
This also doesn't change the opportunity that still sits on the horizon. Does this mean that landing a top-10 class in the country is less likely? Yes it does. But the window isn't shut, and even if they don't end up in the top-10 range, this will be a high-impact class if a few more pieces are added.
All eyes immediately shift to four-star point guard Trent Frazier, who will be on campus for an official visit in exactly one week. Frazier is a top-100 point guard who is an ideal fit in Groce's system. He can score the ball at a high level, be very productive in the ball-screen offense and fill a position of need.
Landing Frazier next weekend -- and keeping him from taking an official visit to Georgia the following week -- would be a very big development. You can bet the Illini staff come on with a determined and fiery push to get this thing done.
Outside of that, Illinois will continue to work on obtaining another impact wing in this class. The Illini are hopeful that they will be included in the top five for five-star Indianapolis product Kris Wilkes, who will come out with his list this weekend. All Illinois wants is a chance in that one, and being in the top five and getting an official visit lined up would give them that.
In the meantime, the Illini will up their pursuit of top-100 wing Abu Kigab. The Canadian native has locked in an official visit to Champaign for Sept. 16. Kigab told IlliniInquirer.com that he talks with assistant coach Dustin Ford every day. You'd expect Groce to up his involvement in that sell as well. Illinois has to make sure Kigab does not commit on his visit to Oregon the weekend prior. The Ducks enter the home stretch as the team to beat.
Four-star combo wing Nojel Eastern will continue to be a target of note. Eastern has been taking his time with the process, and he has not cut anything down or scheduled any official visits. The Illini can sell the same opportunity that they were offering Goodwin.
The Illinois staff also knows they want another big man in this class. They are part of a select group in the mix for athletic power forward Mayan Kiir. The Illini have been pushing to increase their position and set up an official visit.