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Piper: The final Tilmon take

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper gives his final breakdown of the wild Jeremiah Tilmon saga that led with him signing with Mizzou.

It's over. The two-word phrase that, on one hand, ignites hurt feelings and bad blood about what was and what won't be any longer. Broken promises. Wasted effort. Dreams unfulfilled. On the other hand, it's a relieving end to an irreparable relationship and agreement. Necessary closure. That's what we saw -- officially -- with Illinois and former prized recruit Jeremiah Tilmon on Monday, as it was announced Tilmon has signed with Missouri. No shock. No surprise. Just done.

What was the hold up? Tilmon got his desired release more than a month ago. It took less than a week from that point for Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin and Kansas assistant Jerrance Howard to come in for in-home visits. Kansas had already messed around with Tilmon back in November (and before) when he was having 'cold holds' about putting his name on the dotted line with Illinois. But by the time the Jayhawks came around this time, they already had the Lawson brothers lined up to transfer from Memphis. And not long after that, they had former Illinois Mr. Basketball Charlie Moore on board to fill their last scholarship. North Carolina put in a call but that didn't really go anywhere. Missouri was the spot. They were the force that prompted Tilmon to get his release. It was obvious. All too obvious. The following weeks was a process of airing out some smoke.

The quick flip. Recruiting is a game that can turn on a dime. That's why you call it 'fluid'. And combine that with some out there who will do whatever it takes to wet their whistle. The weekend before Tilmon's release request, Tilmon's father let it be known that this decision was not made. And that was after an in-home visit between Brad Underwood, Jamall Walker, Tilmon and his mom already went down in East St. Louis. Tilmon and his mom told Illinois then that they were still on board. But there was a new sheriff in town in regards to who was running the show. Dad had the juice, and he wanted to be sold. Illinois made an effort, and on Monday, Tilmon retweeted his commitment tweet from July as a sign to the public that he was staying. And on the inside, Illinois was told that their response satisfied the issue and that things were straight. Well, that was until a call came in less than 48 hours later. And a tweet came out right after that. Not very sly. And not really caring enough to try.

The aftermath. As you'd anticipate, there was fury on the Illinois side about the turn of events. They were done. Over it. Wanted nothing to do with the situation. You can only try so hard. You can only sit on someone's second thoughts for so long. And there were plenty of them. It started way back. Before the initial commitment was supposed to happen in the spring of 2016. After it didn't happen. After Tilmon was committed but -- against the advisement of Illinois and his mom -- moved back to East St. Louis to a fleet of influencers. After he didn't sign right away in November. And again. Some steam eventually wore off after Tilmon didn't make a move right away. As burned out as Illinois was, they still needed a big man in the worst way. And something was up. Tilmon had his release but wasn't visiting anywhere. 'Just maybe'.. That became the Illini thinking. 'Not holding our breath, but just maybe...' Communication started back up between Walker and Tilmon's mom. Tilmon went back home to his mom after leaving her house and not talking to her in the days surrounding his release. But even after he came back, there was no talk between Illinois and Tilmon. There was a point when he wouldn't answer calls or texts. After that, Illinois stopped trying. They weren't going to waste time trying to bang down his door. Mom continued to say that she was going to try to repair what was messed up. 'Don't count me out until he signs somewhere else'. Ultimately, he did.

Cuonzo kept his word. This was a recruitment that ended up being loaded with dishonesty. Recruiting -- in more cases than not -- is filled with it. It's on the warning label. This was just to another degree. Take a look back at Tilmon's comments after his commitment. "I take pride in loyalty," Tilmon said. "I have faith in Illinois. That is home for me. So I've decided that's where I'm going to stay." If that's his definition of loyalty... You fill in the rest. Things change. Situations change. There's no question that Champaign was a construction site this past season. Everyone -- including recruits and their families -- saw what was about to be aggressively renovated. The foreman of the project, Josh Whitman, had immense dialogue with certain parties to see what portions he could keep intact while making necessary changes at the foundation. Keeping Tilmon was a key part of that. All along, Tilmon and his family said that if Illinois kept Walker, they would keep their word. Illinois kept theirs, although Tilmon was not the sole reason for retaining Walker. Describing it otherwise is disrespectful of his abilities as a whole. But the Tilmon camp did not keep their word. You know who did? Cuonzo. It wasn't just Illinois fans, media and recruits that noticed the winds of change blowing when the Illini were 13-11 and 3-8 in the Big Ten in early February. Martin was in the group that did, and he didn't exactly keep it a secret that he was more than intrigued by it. There is one narrative versus another on whether Illinois offered Martin a committable contract to take the job. Pure logic and good sources say they did not. But Martin and Whitman definitely talked. In fact, sources have indicated that Martin's camp reached out to Illinois before the season was over. Other back-channel contact was made too. And one thing stood out clear as day: Martin was utterly confident that Tilmon would play for him if he got the Illinois job. There's no doubting Martin as a talent-getter, and he's showing that right now. Illinois went with the more proven coach in Underwood. And while Martin used smart dishonesty in saying he turned down Illinois, his confidence remained that he could get Tilmon at Mizzou. And he was one in this situation that kept his word.

It's okay to hate it. Throw this right in there with Eric Gordon and Cliff Alexander. Illinois got burned. Alexander was different in that he never committed to Illinois. Although, whether the staff heard from him directly that he was set on Illinois is another story. Gordon is different in that he was a bona fide stud. Tilmon has a high ceiling, but his potential outweighs his production at this stage of his career. But again, this one stings. And while hate is a strong word, it's okay to hate this. That's being a fan. It was fair to hate Kelvin Sampson for messing with Gordon -- although, can you blame him? Illini fans can come up with 101 forms of envious spite for Bill Self and Kansas, and Alexander is a big one. And now there's Martin and Mizzou. But hey, that's rivalry. And it's something that's been missing from the Illinois program -- mostly due to a lack of relevance. When there aren't high-stakes games, even against traditional rivals, the boiling points just doesn't get reached. The Braggin' Rights game has been just that. In the past, it's the pre-Christmas battle that is a present by being a heated game in one of the funnest environments of the season. Recently, it's been downright dull. Illinois has been down. And Missouri has managed to be down-er with a roster that doesn't belong being high-major. Now, they will have talent. There is new blood in this rivalry. And it will be boiling. Alexander was the five-star big man that picked up the Illinois hat and put it back down on the table. Tilmon is the one who put it on but wasn't loyal enough to keep it on.

One quick thing to get straight. This wasn't about Tilmon not having the same level of comfort with Underwood as he did with John Groce. With respect to Groce's efforts, Tilmon wasn't 'his' because of him. Some will frame this the wrong way, and that happens when people try to speak on something they don't fully know. DePaul was the favorite as of last week, right? And Tilmon's release wasn't about coaches. It wasn't about teammates. It wasn't about comfort in a school. Groce getting fired was simply his 'player option' back into free agency. And what do NBA players do in those situations 95 times out of 100? They opt out. Why? Leverage.

Crazy how this hand played out. Imagine the wildest hand of Texas Hold 'Em you can envision. That was Illini recruiting in metro-east in the 2017 class. Early on, you have to like your hand given the amount of talent and early in-roads. But from an outsider's perspective, trying to predict the outcomes would make you look foolish at nearly every turn. Javon Pickett was a good player at Malcolm Hill's alma mater. It was figured that you could get him as a solid addition to get the ball rolling. Jordan Goodwin was a criminally-underrated prospect with immense value that could impact a program's talent and culture. He called Illinois his leader very early in the process and the Illini seemed to have really good odds. Maybe a good enough shot that they could get Goodwin early and just give themselves a shot with Tilmon, who was viewed as yet another five-star who Illinois would chase, come close and miss. But if you had his buddy, maybe this is 'the one' that changes that narrative. Pickett commits. And then, you get Tilmon and blow everyone's mind. Now, you're automatically getting Goodwin right? That's what Tilmon thought too. Michigan State and Texas are involved, but Illinois is pushing way harder and they're better positioned. And... Goodwin goes 'ghost' on the Illini after the AAU season and commits to SLU. What??? Fast forward to Groce getting fired. Pickett says he's staying. Tilmon says he will if Walker stays. Underwood is hired and Walker stays. Tilmon gets his release. Pickett surprisingly follows and does the same. Meanwhile, a star emerges in a place that is already loaded with talent. And he's beating everyone down there. It's Mark Smith. He's the state's Mr. Basketball and maybe the best player out of all of them. So while the Illini ultimately lost Tilmon, Goodwin and Pickett, they didn't go all-in and leave the table with nothing. They find a way to hold off Michigan State's best effort to win Smith over. We're talking about a former Missouri baseball commit, and someone that wasn't even on the radar when naming the best players in the state at the start of the year. So Illinois' best commit goes to Missouri, and they trade it for a former Missouri hardball commit who will probably have the most multi-year value of any of them. Wow.

What do you take going forward? The moves have been made. Again, Illinois didn't come out of this grand picture as a loser. But the Tilmon loss stings. And the Illini still sit with four open scholarships and a desperate need for a big guy. Underwood and his staff are very confident in their abilities, though. Even through these transgressions, most wouldn't trade Underwood for Martin knowing the early outcomes. That's the trust in Underwood's proven ability to develop and maximize talent. Those are things that win games. Martin has to show that he can win with what he pulls in, instead of being another LSU or Washington -- spots that have gotten top-level talent but failed to win like it. You could even look to Martin at Cal when his team flopped in the first round despite having two McDonald's All-Americans. That was the known downside to Martin in Illinois' pursuit of a new leader, and you figure it's a reason why they went in another direction. But it was undoubtedly a very good play by Missouri. The takeaway from the Illini side is that while they didn't buy all the way in to Martin and his attributes, they have to find a way to beat them. You have to get players to win games. And Martin is going to be tough near that state border. And you already know Travis Ford will be too. It's hard not to go ahead and take a look ahead to Belleville West sophomore forward EJ Liddell, who lit up Tilmon and Pickett in the metro-east regionals. He has big-time potential, and as with Tilmon, Walker has already put in a lot of early groundwork. Liddell is one that is absolutely crucial for the Illini future. But you have to keep him home. Period. Meanwhile, it may not be a coincidence that Mizzou announced the win on Tilmon on Monday, and they'll bring Liddell in for a visit once the dead period ends with the fresh momentum and buzz. This is a fight you can mark down on your pay-per-view, and it's not going to be a friendly one.


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