CHAMPAIGN – Decades ago, fellow reporters told me of a story about traveling to Chicago one night when Corey Maggette was scheduled to reveal his college choice. Basketball recruiting had already exploded, recruiting sites popped up everywhere and Maggette was the latest star in the Chicago hoops scene.
Maggette’s popularity had sky-rocketed, and he was set to announce his future live on the studio set of a cable TV sports show in Chicago. So my reporter friends left for Chicago (my editor wasn’t interested in letting me go) to get the scoop. The night turned out to be an orange-and-blue goose chase.
Maggette chose Duke over several other schools, including Illinois. It was another moment when the Illini finished in second place for a local kid who happened to be one of the nation’s best. Maggette wasn’t the first one to shun the state school, and he surely wasn’t the last.
For every Dee Brown, there’s a Chris Collins or Julian Wright. A couple years ago, Chicago had two of the best big men in the country, and it appeared the Illini may grab one of them. But Jahlil Okafor switched in his recruitment late and went with Duke, leaving Kansas for Cliff Alexander. The trend lately has been for the Illini hat to be left on the table on announcement day.
So it brings us to Jeremiah Tilmon, the East St Louis five-star center who left Illinois hanging more than once over the last year or so. Tilmon first committed to Illinois while playing at La Lumiere Prep School in Indiana, then left Illini fans trembling when he transfered back to East St. Louis for his senior year. The anxiety proved real when Tilmon didn’t jump to sign during the early signing period before another trip to the St. Louis’ Metro-East by the Illini coaching staff.
Of the four Illini recruits, he was regarded as the least secure commitment when the Illini fired Groce and hired Brad Underwood. The transition would allow Tilmon to test his value on the open market. Evidently, Missouri made contact with Tilmon through Michael Porter Jr., the nation’s No. 1 player who has jumped from Washington to Missouri when his father accepted an assistant coaching position there. The younger Porter worked Tilmon hard, according to a source, and players these days appear to be stronger recruiters than the coaches. Nevertheless, when the nation’s top player gives you a call, a kid will listen to his peers.
Tilmon is expected to end up with the Tigers, cranking up the intensity on a Border War that went silent when both programs took a nose dive. With East St. Louis native Cuonzo Martin expected to recruit Illinois, it makes the annual Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis fun again. But more on that later this spring.
Tilmon left open the possibility of rejoining the Illini, but that seems like just another tease for a program that’s already handled disappointments with Quentin Snider et al.
While Tilmon could be termed collateral damage of a coaching change, he’s just another highly ranked player who is expected to move after the coaching carousel spun during its own March Madness. The Illini recruiting class didn’t save Groce’s job, and it’s just part of the puzzle as Underwood moves forward during a transitional period that’s been slower than expected.
Two of his former assistants stayed at Oklahoma State, and Underwood finally announced the hiring of Jamall Walker and Orlando Antigua, who previously worked under John Calipari at Memphis and Kentucky before his head coaching stint at South Florida was cut short during an NCAA investigation into academic fraud. Antigua is expected to secure high level talent, just like he did for Calipari and Kentucky.
If so, let’s stick with these two initial thoughts:
Illinois needs to build from the ground up with Illinois players who want to be at Illinois, and Underwood must recruit to his system that relies on toughness and defensive intensity.
Typically, when the Illini were a powerhouse team, the rosters were built with home bred players. Lou Henson first locked up the state to build the Flyin’ Illini, and his program was constructed on the power of high school basketball in Chicagoland and Downstate. His rivals bristled at the immense power Illini recruiting had over the state, after Henson resurrected relationships between the program and the state’s high school basketball coaches association. Lon Kruger landed the Peoria trio of Sergio McClain, Frank Williams and Marcus Griffin as the Peoria pipeline pumped talent into Assembly Hall, and Bill Self combined Texas recruiting ties (thanks to Billy Gillispie) with local stars like Brown.
There’s a difference between a blue chipper and a national recruit. The trick is analyzing the player who will be here four years over the top recruits who typically stay one or two. The Illini can’t miss on a local kid who could be a mainstay of a successful Big Ten program. That’s the first goal. Landing the national stars who happen to play for an Illinois high school is the next trick.
Either way, Underwood isn’t expected to stray from his formula. His success at Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State was mirrored after his mentors, Frank Martin of South Carolina and Bob Huggins, the fiery coach at West Virginia. While Underwood’s Oklahoma State team was eighth in scoring last season and fourth in offensive rebounding, his second of three teams at Stephen F. Austin was 57th nationally on offense and 38th on defense.
Underwood will still rely on the type of player who revels in the dirty work of college basketball, like defense and rebounding, while also searching for the player who can fill it up. This recruiting class, while it would have been nice to keep intact, was always a gamble when the coaching change was made. From here, it’s more important Underwood gets his style of player to mesh with the leftovers from the previous regime.
Underwood, like any coach, would like a few prep superstars, but he’s done well with the cornerstone who’s name might not be listed in the top 25.
John Supinie is a columnist for Orangeandbluenews.com. During the day, he’s an Audi Brand Specialist at Green Audi in Springfield. Call or text him at 217-377-1977 if you’re looking for an Audi, Volkswagen, Toyota or preowned car. Ask for the Illini deal.