CHAMPAIGN -- The Illini hoops program had a big opportunity over the weekend with five-star Indianapolis small forward Kris Wilkes in town for his first official visit, and John Groce and his staff did not disappoint.
Illinois threw everything they had at Wilkes, who is ranked No. 18 overall in the 2017 class by Scout.com. Wilkes was joined by Illini commits Jeremiah Tilmon, Da'Monte Williams and Javon Pickett on campus for the weekend.
Wilkes, Williams and Pickett all played in open gym at Ubben on Saturday with the current team. Wilkes and his family got to spend time with the Illini staff, players and alumni, and they also took in the atmosphere at Memorial Stadium with a sellout crowd on Saturday night.
Illinois was the first stop on Wilkes' official visit tour, and they made a big impression.
"The coaches, the coaches’ wives and their families, it seemed like they bent over backwards to make us feel welcome but it wasn’t hard for them. They enjoyed us being there, and we enjoyed ourselves," Wilkes' father, Greg, told IlliniInquirer.com. "I can speak for his mom and Kris, and we all felt like it was a great visit. Coach Groce was very honest about things. He spelled it out to my son on if he decides to pick Illinois, how everything will work and what plan he has. He said he expects great things out of my son, and he wants to make sure he has the opportunity to achieve that. All in all, we all enjoyed it and it was a great informational trip. We learned a lot about the goals that they set for themselves and where my son fits into that. Overall, it was a really good experience all the way around. All we had to do was sit back, take in everything and enjoy the ride."
Wilkes' father said that the honesty and hospitality really stood out when they reflected on the visit on their way back to Indianapolis on Sunday.
"As far as what stood out the most, I’d say it was just the hospitality we received from the coaches, their families and everyone we interacted with at the university," Greg Wilkes said. "We got to meet the head strength trainer (Adam Fletcher) and he said he looked at Kris before he got to the campus, and he told us what he noticed and some things Kris could improve on as he goes to the next level. He also told us what he likes about where Kris is at in his development. But that honesty and frankness is really what stood out."
One of the major highlights of the experience was the opportunity to play in open gym with Illini commits and current players. There was a big crowd of Illinois fans there as well.
"Kris and I talked about that and we both agreed that was a great experience for him to see and participate in," Greg Wilkes said. "They have real good leadership from their guards and everyone is on the same page. I like that they talk to each other on the floor and they’ve got that high energy. I thought that was fantastic."
"My son said ‘hey, this is a high-energy group and a group I can see myself playing in’. He felt like he was having fun. He felt the guys really wanted to play with him. He liked the fact that he could get in there and show what he could do. I know he enjoyed that more than anything."
Showing Wilkes the collection of players that he could join was a big selling point for the Illini. Unfortunately, Tilmon had to sit out with his rehabbing shoulder. Illini sharpshooter and fellow Indianapolis product Jalen Coleman-Lands was also out with a fractured shooting hand.
But it is clear that Illinois has talent to put around one of the most gifted wings in the country.
"Coach went into detail about some of the pieces that would be there when he got there. Of course, some of those played with Kris over the weekend. But big Jeremiah wasn’t playing, and obviously he’d enjoy playing with him as well," Greg Wilkes said. "He likes the fact that they already have bigs established and they already have roles established. They talked about his role, and Kris felt comfortable with that and who would be around him."
According to his father, Wilkes really bonded with the players in Champaign.
"He had a good time. That first night, we were over at Coach Groce’s house and having a good time. And then the players said they wanted to get back to campus and hang out with the guys," Greg Wilkes said. "I think he enjoyed it, especially hanging out with the guys that are committed. He’s actually played with Jeremiah Tilmon. He said all of them seemed like really good guys and he’d enjoy playing with them if he decided to come there."
Another benefit of the open gym for Wilkes was getting a chance to talk with some of the program's noteworthy alumni. Former Illini and current Portland Trail Blazers big man Meyers Leonard was in town. Illinois also had former 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill in the house, and of course, Dee Brown was there too.
They all got to share their piece with Illinois' big-time recruit.
"Dee Brown, he really came to us and said he’s been really excited to have us on campus. He told us why he thought Kris is a high level player, he felt like he could have an immediate impact, especially with the Illini," Greg Wilkes said. "Kendall Gill talked to him quite a bit about being tough, sturdy and durable as far as the next level. You’ve got to put the work in to have some longevity in the league, and that was good because he’s been there."
"(Meyers) said he’s really new to a lot of things and just taking it in. So he just advised my son to take his time on these visits, and really look at what these teams are saying. Where do they see him playing at, who’s going to be playing with him, what his role will be, how will he be developed as a pro. He said (Groce's staff) did a good job of talking to him about a lot of things and he wants to spread that. He said he thinks Kris is smart enough to read through things that aren’t true. He said just stay true to what you’re doing and stay focused. He likes Kris’ overall development and he only sees bigger things for him. I know my son took that to heart – coming from a guy who just signed a huge contract in the NBA."
Saturday's sellout football game was a great atmosphere for the hoops program to utilize. The Wilkes family enjoyed that.
"That was exciting. We were looking forward to seeing what kind of crowd the school would draw. We figured if it’s going to be like that for football, it’s going to be like that for basketball – if not more," Greg Wilkes said. "We enjoyed being there. The atmosphere was great. We got to interact with more people. We got to meet the women’s basketball team and some of the girls from the track and field team. We enjoyed that because they all seem to have that same interknitting between each other, and they all seem to be linked and have the same goals. Once you’re an Illini, you’re all together and there to back each other up."
The Illini would love to see how their future would look all together if Wilkes jumped on board to make this a blockbuster 2017 class. Groce made that a big part of the message before Wilkes and his family left on Sunday, and he also gave some advice that clearly resonated in a positive way.
"They have a real good class assembled and they’re getting better. They want us to take our time and look at what we want in the college experience and what’s important to Kris," Greg Wilkes said. "One of the things that Coach Groce touched on that a lot of other coaches haven’t is to pay attention to what they are doing, where they are trying to go and where they see him at. As far as his development, he has to be able to say this is where I see myself in two years. So you have to have realistic goals for what’s going to happen, and don’t take it for granted that schools are actually like this or like that. You’ve got to go and pay attention to what’s important to you. Take the pros and the cons, and see where you’re most comfortable."
"(Groce) said it might not be Illinois, it may be somewhere else. But he said wherever it is, you make the decision based on your information and what you’ve gathered. Not based on what everyone else has said. I thought that was a great message, and they wanted us to go out and compare to other visits. He said you’ll find good schools with all of them that he’s picked and they’ll all have different things. But look and see what’s best for Kris Wilkes."
The Illini will continue to sell that they believe the best place for Wilkes is in Champaign. Wilkes' father said that Groce and assistant coach Jamall Walker will be in Indianapolis on Wednesday for an open gym to watch him and follow up afterwards.
UCLA will be in town on Monday for a visit at the school. Xavier will conduct an in-home visit this week too. Wilkes and his family will head out to UCLA for the next official visit on Sept. 22. Indiana is slotted for an official visit the weekend to follow.
The home-state program has been viewed by many to be the team to beat heading down the homestretch. Of course, that has put the spotlight on them when it comes to other programs trying to lure Wilkes away.
"He knows Indiana basketball. He’s an Indiana guy. He’s a real Hoosier," Greg Wilkes said. "But my son does understand the importance of looking at other schools and understands there may be programs that are a better fit for him. He wants to explore that, and this process is letting him do that."