You didn't think landing a five-star would be so simple, right? With Illinois basketball recruiting the past dozen years, it always seems too complicated. Jeremiah Tilmon's recruitment seemed a bit too normal. He committed in July at La Lumiere Prep -- with a tweet and an exclusive interview with Illini Inquirer's Derek Piper, little of the fan fare of your average five-star recruitment. But then he moved away from the structure and shield of Shane Heirman's program and back to East St. Louis. Then Belleville Althoff star Jordan Goodwin spurned his buddy TIlmon, committing to SLU. Whispers soon emerged that Tilmon may join him. But then the five-star center visited Illinois twice this fall to help recruit others. But Tilmon didn't deliver his signature on the first day of the early signing period last Wednesday -- like the three other Illini Class of 2017 commits. Tilmon dragged his feet, considering SLU and Kansas. He flirted with the idea of ditching his long-time desire to play for the state school, to be the top prospect to finally make Illinois cool again. He toyed with the hypersensitive emotions of a fan base that had been toyed with by too many top talents. He caused sleepless nights for an embattled coaching staff that had recruited him since eighth grade and desperately needed him to sell that their stalled program actually was gaining momentum in their fifth season.
All is forgiven though. Tilmon got cold feet but ultimately signed his national letter of intent with Illinois on Wednesday -- the final day of the early signing period -- before announcing his ultimate decision on Thursday at East St. Louis High School. For Illinois, better late than never.
Groce finally got the break he desperately needed -- and deserved. The Illini staff has made its share of mistakes, including investing too many scholarship years on transfers who made minimal impact. It has its share of recruiting misses, but it also has had an inordinate share of heartbreakers. Cliff Alexander told the Illini staff the morning of his decision that he was heading to Illinois. He then picked up an Illinois hat briefly that afternoon on national television before setting it back down to put a Kansas hat on his head. Ultimately, the bigger heartbreak on that Signing Day (Nov. 15, 2013) occurred when Quentin Snider decommitted from Illinois and signed with his dream school Louisville, which had an open spot after JaQuan Lyle flipped to Oregon (and eventually signed with Ohio State). And of course the Illini finished second for stud point guards Demetrius Jackson, Jalen Brunson, Jawun Evans, Marcus LoVett and Charlie Moore.
Groce can be called many things by fans, but he and his staff should never be called quitters. They kept pounding the rock for top talent. Finally on Thursday -- though later than expected -- the stone split. Illinois needs NBA talent compete for Big Ten Championships and to make long NCAA Tournament runs. Their history and the history of most great teams proves that. Tilmon is the first five-star talent (and likely future pro) to say 'yes' to Groce. After he signed Wednesday, it seems possible that Groce can convince others (in 2018 and beyond) to follow in Tilmon's footsteps -- which means Illinois now has improved chances of finally contending in the Big Ten.
Temper expectations for Tilmon's first season. He is not DeMarcus Cousins. He is not Anthony Davis. He is a five-star talent, but not all five-star talents are created equal. Tilmon is a skilled, big and long with quickly developing post moves and a solid mid-range jumper. He's not an elite athlete but he has nimble feet and is a very good rebounder. He underwent shoulder surgery during the spring, so his development was stalled a few months. Strength coach Adam Fletcher has a lot of work to do with Tilmon's body, but it's a big piece of clay that he'll surely have fun sculpting. Illinois loses Mav Morgan and Mike Thorne Jr. next season, so they likely will experience a downgrade at the five position. But Tilmon could bring a Thorne-like impact. He should be able to score in the low post immediately and provides a presence in the paint on defense. He will make mistakes that might frustrate fans who are expecting greatness immediately. He'll likely struggle to stay out of foul trouble some nights. But Tilmon could provide a similar impact to two top-30 freshmen big men that played in the Big Ten last season: Diamond Stone and Thomas Bryant. If Tilmon stays for two years, he could experience a huge leap and give Illinois one of the best big men in the conference.
It's not all about Tilmon's talent; it's about fit. Tilmon fills a huge need in 2017-18. The Illini seem to have fixed their point guard problem with Te'Jon Lucas and Trent Frazier (though they'll look to add an elite lead guard in 2018). They are deep on the wing with juniors Jalen Coleman-Lands, Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams; sophomore Kipper Nichols; and incoming freshmen Da'Monte Williams and Javon Pickett. They may have the best duo of fours in the conference next season with juniors Michael Finke and Leron Black. The five spot was the big hole. Without Tilmon, Finke and a fifth-year transfer seemed likely to split time at the five. With Tilmon, the Illini can play Finke more at the four, his natural position, and focus on adding a defensive-minded fifth-year transfer who can supplement Tilmon with 15-20 minutes per game. That's a deep roster with a lot of talent and versatility. And take a look, no seniors. If Tilmon stays for the 2018-19 season, Illinois could have its best roster in more than a decade -- and a legit chance at Big Ten title contention.
That's why this one signature changes so much for Illinis: the Illini now seem set up to make some serious headway during the next three seasons. This current season is a failure without an NCAA Tournament bid. The team is too deep and too talented to miss a fourth-straight Big Dance, even if it experiences a serious injury. Fans often ask what if Groce signs Tilmon but misses the NCAA Tournament? I just don't think that should be an issue. If it is, you may have your answer. But if TIlmon had not signed, Groce likely would have had to have a surprisingly good season -- top-six Big Ten finish with a few NCAA Tournament wins -- to sell Illinois AD Josh Whitman that the program indeed is progressing to eventual Big Ten title contention, a standard that Whitman -- who invested most of his early energy and resources into football -- himself has set. It's Groce's fifth year. So far, he hasn't shown that he's better than his predecessor. Of course (and I know most fans don't want to hear this) the guy has had worse luck (in recruiting and with injuries) than any coach I've ever seen. Even with that, it's time to show progress. Tilmon along with Frazier, Williams, Lucas, Coleman-Lands, etc. show recruiting progress. Now, he must continue to show progress on the court. But the pressure is alleviated, at least a bit, on this season. Finish in the top half of the Big Ten and make the NCAA Tournament. The Illini have and should have higher expectations than that.
Celebrate, Illini fans. You've been waiting a long time for a talent like this to end your recruiting misery.
Celebrate, John Groce and staff. As he told Whitman when Tilmon committed in July, it's done -- finally. After years of searching, Groce finally seems to have found his pathway to success at Illinois.