The long and winding recruitment of Jeremiah Tilmon took its sharpest turn on Wednesday. Anyone else exhausted and dizzy? I’m ready to get off this ride.
Tilmon always had one eye looking elsewhere. He’s a talented young man looking for the best fit -- with a lot of different voices in his ear. So I tend not to rail on a teenager making a college decision. But we heard he was supposed to commit to Illinois in March 2016. He didn’t. He surprised everyone with a July commitment. He was supposed to sign on Signing Day. He didn’t -- and delayed it until the final day of the fall signing period. After John Groce was fired, he and his family said they’d stay with Illinois as long as assistant Jamaal Walker stayed. On Thursday, new head coach Brad Underwood officially announced -- though it'd been done for the past few weeks -- Walker as one of his three assistants -- five hours after Tilmon publicly announced he was asking out of his national letter of intent. Recruiting, man. Recruiting.
The Braggin’ Rights rivalry added a lot of juice. Mizzou has to be happy. The Tigers are adding some big star power to a program that may have finished in the bottom half the Missouri Valley the last few years. But don’t count me as one asking if Illinois should’ve hired Mizzou’s new coach. Even if Illinois has fewer recruiting stars, I’ll side with the coach who is 4-for-4 on NCAA Tournaments than the one who is 2-for-9.
Still, this one hurts. Tilmon obviously is very talented. He may not outperform Maverick Morgan's production from last season. He likely will frustrate with ups (rim protector, dunks) and downs (foul trouble, inconsistency) as a freshman, but he would've provided a big presence in the pain on offense and defense. Now, the Illini’s current starting center is Michael FInke.
Underwood must find some reinforcements. Illinois has just 10 scholarship players -- check out the eligibility tab -- slotted for next season, and that doesn’t include any potential transfers out of the program. The Illini look good at point guard (Te’Jon Lucas and Trent Frazier) and the four (Leron Black and Michael Finke). But the Illini have no true posts and not enough firepower on the wings (Jalen Coleman-Lands is an elite shooter, and Kipper Nichols has potential as a two-way player). Underwood will prove himself as a coach in his first season with a roster that will struggle to compete in a deep Big Ten -- but he still has time to add to that roster.
The Illini need to add two post players. I actually like Finke and Black in Underwood’s offensive scheme, especially as high-post options who crash the offensive glass (both are good offensive rebounders). But the Illini must find more length and defense because Finke and Black add little of either. A fifth-year transfer or true freshman center should salivate at the playing-time opportunity.
The Illini also need more firepower on the wing. Mark Smith would be the perfect fit. But Michigan State and Kentucky seem to have the edge for Illinois’ Mr. Basketball. Show potential targets how many shots Illinois must replace with Malcolm Hill's graduation (12.4 attempts per game).
Illinois missed a great opportunity. Three of the best downstate talents in a decade -- all in one class -- look to be heading elsewhere (Jordan Goodwin signed with SLU). Underwood was put in a bad spot because of his predecessor, who was put in a bad spot by his predecessor. Underwood must snap the Illini out of it and win some games, or the next great downstate prospects (2019 Belleville West forward E.J. Liddell, 2019 Normal West post Francis Okoro and 2020 Peoria Manual guard Adam Miller) may play their college ball elsewhere too.
Underwood must stick to his guns. Take a page from John Beilein's book. Recruit the players you want and who fit your system and desired culture -- no matter from where they come.
Illinois fired Groce because a recruiting class wasn’t as important finding the right coach. Now that that recruiting class lost its lofty ranking and prized prospect, that sentiment still remains the same.