Today's the day you've been waiting for if you're an Illinois basketball fan — the day the big fish finally commits. John Groce, through all the adversity and well-reasoned calls for his job, has landed Jeremiah Tilmon, Illinois' first five-star recruit since Dee Brown, whose Euroball career has been over for a couple of years now. Brown is now on the bench for Illinois, and hopefully will see Tilmon usher in the next great era of Illinois basketball.
If you're withholding your excitement until you see Tilmon on the floor in an Illini uniform, it'd be hard to blame you. Verbal commitments haven't stopped the basketball gods from tormenting Illinois fans in the past. Eric Gordon was going to continue the legacy Brown and company had built. Quentin Snider was going to be John Groce's long-sought point guard. For goodness sake, look at this story. We don't have to get into the near miss of Jalen Brunson or the hat-faking Cliff Alexander. We're past that point of worrying about hats on heads. Now it's all about seeing Tilmon in that Illinois jersey come gameday.
Breathe, everyone. Tilmon is here, and he makes a great case for other top targets to file in behind him to build the nation's top recruiting class. Illinois is getting the players it needs. This is happening, and for the sake of what's to come, we have to assume that this isn't another trick of fate. This is Illinois basketball now.
The fact is, even with the roster, with the recruiting class, with the scouts' reviews, Illinois has a long way to go. After all, winning the offseason doesn't get you any sort of trophy. For years, Illinois fans have longed to see just that one blue chip recruit, that one, single, five-star domino fall to turn Illinois into a top-10 national program again. And a top-10 program one five-star recruit does not create. It's time to turn the focus to basketball.
23-11, taken out in the first round. 19-14, left off the bubble of the NCAA tournament. 14-17, no postseason offers.
These are the legacies that prized recruits Jaylen Brown, Ben Simmons and Malik Newman leave behind at their respective schools. As Brown and Simmons look to find their fit in the pros, Newman has left for greener pastures in Kansas. This will not be enough to satisfy Illinois fans. Sure, at this point, a tournament appearance would be more than welcome. But that's not the goal, that's not the narrative. The narrative is that Illinois needs one recruit to lead to another, one recruiting class to lead to another, and one run at the NCAA title to lead to another. This is exactly the expectation Illinois fans have for the program. It's on John Groce now to make it happen. This isn't as easy as it's always seemed.
In fact, you find more instances where a middling program brings in a big recruit and can't take advantage, like the instances above. Trying to find the schools that landed the one guy who led them to the next level is difficult. The most prominent example that comes to mind actually featured Groce as its lead recruiter. Ohio State landed Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., and Daequan Cook in 2006, and since then, their program has been a destination for top recruits and world-class athletes. Trey Burke's arrival in Michigan in 2011 took the Wolverines to another level, and they have been contenders for the Big Ten title ever since. Wisconsin went 23 years without a winning season until 1997, when their turnaround began. Comparatively, Illinois has more to work with — a winning tradition, a history of Chicago succeeding with Chicago recruits, and a new director of athletics whose mission statement is simple and appealing to any athlete: We Will Win.
So now that Illinois has its big catch, it needs to complement him with players that will help the team win. Once the 2017 class is secure, the 2018 class becomes even more important, lest Illinois revert to square one after one season of hope. And it is possible the whole thing flops. Think about it — where would Illinois be had Cliff Alexander committed? The guy just wasn't an impact player in college. Illinois didn't have the team in place to go anywhere even with him added to the roster. And with Quentin Snider's freshman season in the rearview, even him staying might not necessarily have pushed Illinois over the top.
College basketball isn't as simple as tallying how many stars the players on your roster gained as recruits. There has to be a system in place to make them succeed, and with John Groce so far, we haven't seen it. Surely this recruitment lands him another year, (so long as Illinois wins more than 12 games this season) but it's on him to make it count.
After years of not having the talent necessary to execute his vision, John Groce is out of excuses. It's on him to turn this program back into a national powerhouse. Tilmon's commitment may spell the end of Illinois' decade-long recruiting nightmare, but it's just the beginning of something much bigger and more important: returning Illinois basketball to glory.