The arrival of five-star Indianapolis wing Kris Wilkes for his official visit will be part of the most exciting September weekend on campus for Illini athletics in recent memory.
Wilkes will be joined by Illini commits Jeremiah Tilmon, Da'Monte Williams and Javon Pickett, who will also be making their official visits this weekend. All four will be present on Saturday night when Illinois football takes on North Carolina in a prime-time clash.
The Illinois staff is hoping the fan base impresses with their orange-cladded turnout and impassioned craze. Another major goal is to get Wilkes acquainted with some of those attractive pieces who are part of Illinois' 2017 class that currently ranks No. 3 in the country.
The Illini need another elite-level splash to stay in that echelon, and Wilkes can be exactly that. According to the Scout.com rankings, Wilkes will be the highest ranked prospect Groce has hosted for an official visit since Cliff Alexander in 2014.
Alexander is one of those high-profile recruiting misses that won't soon be forgotten, but this current class is assembling to be an emphatic answer to doubts and challenges directed at this staff. It's a very good class that has the growth potential to be flat out fantastic.
It could be the signature class of Groce's career that takes the program to where he's aspired. Illinois is the first of five official visit stops for Wilkes, who is No. 18 overall in the 2017 class.
Going Illinois' way
For starters, there really isn't a better weekend for the Illini to bring in Wilkes. Being the first visit can often be viewed as a luxury, although that probably isn't the case here since Wilkes will surely take other trips. But in terms of what Illinois is looking to put on display, this is the weekend you'd pick to impress one of the best players in the country.
The campus atmosphere will be rockin' on Saturday with a big football game on tap. The fan base is expected to answer the call on 'Hail to the Orange Night'. On visits like this, you're looking to find ways to increase the 'wow factor' -- in addition to the one that will come from the pancakes at Original Pancake House on Saturday morning. A good game and a raucous crowd could help that.
Having Wilkes around Tilmon, Williams and Pickett is a good move, especially Tilmon. NBA-level players want to play with other NBA-level players, and having one on the perimeter and one on the interior can make for one heck of a duo. Tilmon's game and reputation commands respect, and Wilkes' father told IlliniInquirer.com that having Tilmon in that class is "big time".
The Illini will also utilize Jalen Coleman-Lands in their sell, and he will be the host for Wilkes. Both are Indianapolis natives, so there is a little bit of familiarity there. In addition, Coleman-Lands is just a lethal outside weapon. That bodes well when it comes to selling Wilkes on having numerous pieces around him to make him successful.
The fit is there for Wilkes at Illinois. He likes the up-and-down pace that Groce wants to play. He likes the opportunity that is available when it comes to replacing Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Malcolm Hill. He also likes the coaching staff, and he told Peegs.com that his relationship with assistant coach Jamall Walker was a big reason why Illinois is in his final five.
Going against Illinois
The Illini have been in the mix with Wilkes for a while, but they haven't invested the kind of time and effort to match Indiana and Xavier. The Hoosiers offered Wilkes a scholarship before his freshman season at North Central High School. They had him on campus for games when he was in middle school, and he's been to Bloomington many times since.
That has given Tom Crean plenty of opportunity to build connections and prioritize him over the long haul. While Illinois made it a point to chase Jordan Goodwin around the AAU circuit this summer, Wilkes was always the guy for Indiana.
Xavier is in that conversation too, as they offered Wilkes the summer after his freshman year. Both programs have had far more recent success. They've been nationally relevant. Meanwhile, Illinois hasn't been that over the last couple seasons.
UCLA is in the thick of it too. Being from Indianapolis, Wilkes is a big fan of Reggie Miller -- a UCLA alum. When he got an offer from them, that struck a chord. Steve Alford has already had an in-home visit with Wilkes and his family as well. Of course, Alford is no stranger to Indiana, where he won Mr. Basketball in 1983 and won an NCAA title with the Hoosiers in 1987.
Sources have indicated that Wilkes enters this official visit slate with Indiana and Xavier out front, and UCLA is probably third. Many have Indiana with the edge right now. Some like UCLA's chances quite a bit. Regardless, that puts Illinois in a tough spot to make up that much ground. There has been some positive movement on their end over the last few weeks.
But can they do enough and is there enough time to go from fourth (or fifth) to first? That's a tall task, and probably not one to put your money on.
Confidence in a commitment
(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the highest) 1 -- Wilkes simply isn't going to pull the trigger this weekend. Can the Illini put together a good enough pitch and presentation to remove the 'long shot' label? Sure, but it's going to be an uphill battle to win this recruitment and it's going to take time to keep pushing. Wilkes is scheduled to go to UCLA (Sept. 22-25), Indiana (Sept. 30-Oct. 2), Xavier (Oct. 28-30) and UCONN (Nov. 3-6) for officials. It's possible that he won't take all of those -- which makes it a positive that Illinois will get theirs in -- but he's not stopping after this weekend. The Illini plan to have an in-home visit before this thing is over. The confidence level may be higher when decision time comes, but it is not that time yet.
One player (Meyers Leonard) has been drafted from the Illini program since Dee Brown and James Augustine went in the 2006 NBA Draft. If Illinois is able to add Wilkes, they will have two sure-fire NBA Draft picks just in the 2017 class.
Wilkes would give Groce a guaranteed top-10 class nationally and the best infusion of talent in the Big Ten. The 6-foot-8 wing is highly athletic with long arms and an ability to make plays all over the court. He can get to the rim off the dribble, knock down jumpers in the mid-range, and his physical attributes enable him to rebound and defend.
As Wilkes continues to develop between now and the start of his freshman season, Illinois could lose the best wing in the Big Ten and replace him with one that's already in that conversation from the beginning. Wilkes needs to extend his shooting range and add more strength. But he is destined to be a high-impact producer, and if he puts it all together in the college game, he can be the best player on the court in any arena on a given night.
Wilkes is the dream scenario for Groce and this program -- one that trumps the loss of Goodwin to SLU without a second thought.
As it stands right now, Illinois is set to be a young but talented team in 2017-18. They will be capable of making some noise, but they may need another year to be high-level contenders. Add Wilkes to the mix and you're talking about one of the most exciting and dangerous teams in the Big Ten.