Chain Mail: What's the impact of a possible Jeremiah Tilmon defection on John Groce and Illini hoops?

Illini Inquirer's Jeremy Werner and Derek Piper trade e-mails on the possibility of a Jeremiah Tilmon defection and the impact it would have on John Groce and the Illini basketball program

Jeremy Werner: Well, that was an interesting day, Mr. Piper. It's really hard to wrap our heads around it. It's shocking. It's concerning. But Jeremiah Tilmon may not sign with Illinois.

There are so many angles we need to attack here. But the biggest may be that Travis Ford, of all people, has absolutely torpedoed Groce's chances for that program-changing class. If he wasn't the hire at SLU, it seems very likely that Illinois would announce the signing of Jordan Goodwin and Jeremiah Tilmon today. Instead, neither will sign with Illinois during the early signing period.

Illinois will sign some good players: Trent Frazier, Da'Monte Williams and Javon Pickett. But that's not the program-changer AD Josh Whitman had hoped for

There's no way to sugar-coat this. Losing Jeremiah Tilmon at this stage of the game would be absolutely devastating to Groce and the future of Illinois basketball. But how much so?


Derek Piper: Devastating, disastrous, catastrophic -- whatever word you want to use. It's just that in a big way. Losing the Goodwin battle is one thing. He would have been a culture-changer, a four-year producer and just a darn good basketball player. It was all okay, though, because you still had Tilmon. But losing the crown jewel of that class on top of that at this time would be a deflating, and potentially crippling, blow for Groce and this program.

We all know the talent that Tilmon possesses. He fills a major need in the post with a guy who can contribute right away with his size and skill. He is a future NBA big man, and he's one of the best you can find in the country on the high school scene right now. He'll have a good freshman season. And if he stuck around for another year with that experience and a pair of offseasons in the weight room, there's no telling how good he can be.

But even bigger than that, as far as Groce is concerned, is the perception piece. Landing Tilmon's pledge in July was a statement to Illinois fans about what direction this program is headed. It showed that Groce and his staff are capable of landing the big fish -- after chasing so many in previous classes. It proved what Whitman thought to be true, which was that his solidified, public confidence in Groce would lead to major recruiting successes that would springboard Illinois basketball as we know it.

It's no knock on Da'Monte, Trent and Javon. Those are good players. But losing Tilmon would erase all of that. Groce had two checkboxes to fill after a rough (but injury-stricken) year on the court last season and a bad offseason off the court: Land a big-time class and win this season. Having Tilmon and the others doesn't make for an elite class, but it checks the box. Erase Tilmon and you erase the checkmark

That would intensify the pressure on the court this season exponentially. If you don't land the class you needed, do you have to do more than just make the tournament? That's a question Whitman would have to figure out. There's little doubt that he wants Groce to be his guy. Bad breaks happen, and sometimes you can only do so much. Playing ball against SLU is far from easy right now. But there comes a point when, bad breaks or not, you have to find a way to get the job done.

In the 2014 class, Groce had his point guard of the future in Quentin Snider -- who later left Illinois at the alter on Signing Day. Five-star big man Cliff Alexander hat-tricked the Illini in the same class. Bad breaks. Since that point in time, Illinois has missed three straight NCAA tournaments, while Leron Black and Jalen Coleman-Lands are the only consensus top-50 players they've inked.

While there would still be more to play out, failing to close the deal with Tilmon could be a blow that Groce's tenure can't take.


JW: Yet, I feel sympathy for Groce if Tilmon indeed signs elsewhere. I mean, he did nothing wrong in the Snider recruitment. He did nothing wrong in the Tilmon recruitment -- except trust. There are some red flags going up at SLU right now that will draw some eyebrow raises and maybe some NCAA attention.

Still, this is a results business. And results are all fans care about. And many want those results no matter how they get them.

Groce was brought in here partly to get the players that Bruce Weber cannot. He's certainly got in a bunch of battles that Weber could not, but he really hasn't signed a bunch of better players. I mean, Weber did sign Jereme Richmond, Meyers Leonard and several other top-100 prospects. So far, Leron Black and Jalen Coleman-Lands -- top-50 prospects -- are the best Groce has hauled in.

Groce has swung for the fences, which is what most fans want him to do. Heck, I want him to do that. If you're not missing in recruiting, you aren't shooting for good enough players. Illinois will continue to recruit Ayo Dosunmu, Courtney Ramey and other five-star prospects -- and they should.

But I think a lot of people are starting to ask the question: is it worth it?

Sure, you have to recruit those guys if they show interest. But Groce took a commitment from Snider and stepped back on recruitments of other point guards, including Jalen Brunson. Then when Snider flipped back to Louisville, he focused on Brunson and Evans over a very good and gettable point guard in Glynn Watson. Groce struck out. Now, a Tilmon late defection may have cost him an opportunity on Mayan Kiir, Theo John or another quality big man.

This is all easy in hindsight. I repeat, this is all easy to second-guess now. But should Illinois step back on these recruitments and focus more on less dramatic recruitments and players who are better fits? I just think back to most of the players who committed to Groce -- Black, Michael Finke, JCL, Aaron Jordan, D.J. Williams, Pickett, Da'Monte Williams, Trent Frazier -- and they were all pretty quiet, by-the-book recruitments.


DP: That is the question that will be on everyone's mind. And really, there isn't an easy answer. To be a top-level program in the Big Ten, you have to go after some top-level players. If you're just searching for drama-free recruitments, what are you limiting yourself to?

Like you said, in hindsight, having a Theo John or Mayan Kiir is better than not having Tilmon. But Kiir's recruitment has been far from drama free, and he's not even ranked in Scout.com's top 100. Illinois' pitch changes immensely if Tilmon isn't committed in that class, but can you automatically assume Illinois lands Kiir with relative ease? Not necessarily.

Think back to Goodwin for a second. Here's a downstate kid that you get in on earlier that anyone else. He takes a visit over the summer and calls you the leader. Doesn't seem so dramatic at that time. In fact, not at all. Then, he blows up and it becomes tougher. Do you back off at that point? Just because there's a threat? Or a kid wants to go through the process? What message does that send about your program?

So you get past the hurdle of having Michigan State and Texas in the picture with Goodwin. And you have Tilmon committed. It seems easy as pie. But of course, it wasn't. But do you really know that until it happens? And can you really pull yourself out of that one?

I get the rhetoric. Glynn Watson would have been a nice add at a position of dire need, but the Illini shot high and missed. You saw their strategy change in the 2016 class by taking Te'Jon Lucas instead on sticking it out with Charlie Moore. So that's not something that is unbeknownst to Groce and his staff.

In my opinion, you have to find a balance between landing the 'gettables' and chasing some higher-level players. When you have needs, you don't go wildly swinging at the best prospects on the rankings list. But you can take some calculated risks in some other places. You have to take some big swings.


JW: I totally agree. But I know that's a thought process going around with some fans and has for a while.

So if Tilmon defects and Groce doesn't land Mayan Kiir or Jacob Epperson, where does Groce go from here? What is his path to long-term success at Illinois? And how has that bar for "success" changed?

Of course, he must win this season. He has a talented, deep roster that should finish in the top half of the Big Ten and earn a pretty drama-free NCAA Tournament bid. But it feels like Groce needs to do more than just make the tournament now. 

What are those calculations? Only Whitman knows, but I asked him in September how he measures progress and if it's just a "feel."

He mentioned how "recruiting has been fantastic," and that was an obvious reference to Tilmon.

"They've just done a great job of putting together a strong vision for Illinois basketball and selling that vision to prospective student-athletes," Whitman said. "I had the chance to get in the gym (Monday) and watch the first practice. They have an intensity and excitement about them that can be really encouraging for our fans. We're healthy, we're excited, and we're talented. I think there's a lot of upside to this basketball team this year. I think that we're going to come out and play well. I think we're going to be a program that people can be proud of. I have great confidence in Coach Groce and in our basketball program. I think our fans are going to see a really positive step forward this year, one that certainly will just continue to get built on with this year's recruiting class."

Tilmon's commitment put a ray of light on the Illini's program. A five-star finally told Illinois 'yes,' at long last. A decommitment would put that cloud right back over Groce and this program. Groce must bring light back with a fun, successful season and possibly with an early start to the 2018 recruiting class.

An early pledge from Ayo Dosunmu, Courtney Ramey or even Tim Finke would certainly boost his efforts.

But it's felt like every time Groce digs his way out of that 6-foot hole, someone takes his feet out from under him and throwing dirt back on him.


DP: If no Tilmon, Kiir or Epperson, the Illini need an immediate fix in their frontcourt. They were already looking in that direction with Tilmon on board and no Kiir. Maybe that means Michael Finke moves to the five, and you have Leron Black and Kipper Nichols at the four. But even so, you need another five.

Having no big man in the 2017 class would put even more pressure on the Illini to hit on the fifth-year transfer market. There are some names out there that you can find. Northern Illinois redshirt-junior center Marin Maric averaged 11.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game last year. He's 6-foot-11, 250 pounds. La Salle redshirt-junior center Tony Washington averaged 7.7 points and 7.4 rebounds per game last season, and he also had 44 blocks. He's 6-foot-10, 230 pounds.

Of course, Illinois fans are naturally turned off by the thought of making attempted fixes on the transfer wire. And as a recurring theme, they should be. That's not how you build a program. Of course, everyone seems to be looking for something on the market in the spring with the amount of attrition in college basketball. But you want program-building pieces. That's what this class was supposed to be about. One that made you wonder if Groce would have more than a scholarship to use in 2018.

What's a path to long-term success for Illinois? Build and maintain a playing style identity, find prototype fits and develop them, and land some players with the talent to be headliners of your program. The Illini have struggled a little bit with the identity piece. Yeah, they run a lot of ball-screens. But has there been something about them that you know you're getting year in and year out? Not really to this juncture. Groce wants to play fast. They haven't really done that yet, although they want to this year. Are they a good defensive team?

Finding prototype fits and developing them is a big one. You don't run a point-guard oriented system that is highly predicated on them being able to hit a jumper with Jaylon Tate. Illinois got Trent Frazier to fit that. Te'Jon Lucas fits the system. That's good. We've seen some significant development with the big guys. Maverick Morgan's progress has been big for this team, but you lose him after this year. You need another guy. The four seems just fine with tough, strong junkyard dogs in Black and Nichols. And Illinois has always had a flux of wings, and that will continue to be the case.

How about some guys who can be program headliners? You're losing the current one in Malcolm Hill after this season. Jalen Coleman-Lands is an obvious choice after that. He's going to be a big-time player. Black has the potential. Finke can potentially be pretty darn good. Outside of that, Groce needs some guys to step up between his wings and young point guards. What will D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan ultimately boil down to? I like Da'Monte and Trent, and Javon can be a nice player in the long-term.

And you said it when mentioning 2018, you've got to keep recruiting. It never stops. Groce says that "players play players". You've got to go get them.

And before that, you've got to win this year. If the Illini indeed lose Tilmon and no major fix is made in the recruiting class, Groce needs his team to have a big year on the floor this season. I agree with you. He'll probably need his guys to do more than dance. They might have to do some signing -- or make some kind of noise -- once they get there.


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