Over the course of a few short months, John Groce has gone from a lame duck coach on the hot seat to the mastermind behind the nation’s third-best recruiting class. Hell, we were even calling for Josh Whitman to make a change after a string of player arrests in March. But here we are on July 25, in the midst of witnessing the beginnings of what may eventually become an incredible change of fortune.
The foundations for this revival were laid years ago, but Groce finally broke through in January when three-star wing Javon Pickett (IL) became the first 2017 prospect to join the Orange and Blue. That was a nice start, but the program’s hopes of a dynamic haul took a giant leap forward in February, when four-star guard DaMonte Williams (IL) provided his own verbal commitment; the legacy recruit’s decision to end the process early allowed the coaching staff to truly start swinging for the fences. And, boy, did that pay off. The Fighting Illini recently landed their biggest recruit of the Groce Era in five-star center Jeremiah Tilmon (IL), beating out ‘Blue Bloods’ like Kansas, North Carolina, and Michigan State in the process.
Groce still has three scholarships at his disposal for the class-of-2017, and several of his top targets remain uncommitted as the calendar turns to August. So what’s next for the Fighting Illini? Let’s first take a look at the team’s needs for the 2017-18 season.
Potential 2017-18 Depth Chart
|Point Guard||Shooting Guard||Small Forward||Power Forward||Center|
|Te'Jon Lucas (SO)||Jalen Coleman-Lands (JR)||D.J. Williams (FR)||Leron Black (R-JR)||Jeremiah Tilmon (FR)|
|DaMonte Williams (FR)||Aaron Jordan (JR)||Kipper Nichols (R-SO)||Michael Finke (R-JR)|
|Javon Pickett (FR)|
Note: This will 100% without a doubt be the rotation. Also, I know nothing.
There are obviously some holes right now, but that’s a really young and talented roster. Six of the ten projected players are/were four-star prospects or better, and every single one of them would be slated to return the following year. However it's worth mentioning that if Illinois does manage to land everyone on their 2017 wish list, I think it's highly likely there'd be at least one outgoing transfer. It's college basketball -- that movement happens every single offseason no matter the circumstances.
But what does that group still need? Definitely another big man, and another true point guard certainly wouldn't hurt because Williams looks to be more of a '2' at this point. Additionally, another hybrid wing player could seal the vacuum of uncertainty created by Malcolm Hill's departure. So here are the names to keep an eye on.
True Point Guard - Trent Frazier (FL)
The Fighting Illini are in the lead for four-star guard Trent Frazier, and it doesn't sound like any other schools are close enough to overtake them. In fact, before this latest research it had been weeks since I had even seen another program mentioned in the same sentence as Frazier. Although, when Scout labeled the 6-foot-2 prospect as one of top standouts of the second evaluation period they did mention Georgia, Clemson, Auburn, and Cincinnati as schools showing late interest.
Playing with Florida Elite, Frazier proved to be one of the most explosive guards in the country. He is absolutely tremendous off of ball screens, and also is a very good outside shooter.
John Groce and his assistants have been constant fixtures on the sidelines of Frazier's AAU games, making it loud and clear that he's their priority at the position. The Florida native would be a superb compliment in the backcourt alongside Te'Jon Lucas and DaMonte Williams.
Frazier has scheduled an official visit to Champaign from August 19-21; it's currently his only planned trip, making it a prime closing opportunity for the Fighting Illini. With the way this recruitment has gone for the past few months, I'd be shocked if he leaves Illinois without giving some sort of verbal commitment to the coaching staff.
Hybrid Wing - Jordan Goodwin (IL)
Goodwin is Illinois' No. 1 remaining target, and the coaching staff has been prioritizing him for months now. This is more speculative than the black and white nature of Trent Frazier's recruitment, but it's hard to deny that the arrow is pointing towards the Fighting Illini.
Although the big programs involved (i.e. Michigan State) are still a bit concerning, they don't appear to be making Goodwin a priority due to their position with other, higher-rated recruits. That bodes well for the Orange and Blue because I believe they've had at least one coach at all of Goodwin's AAU games this Spring/Summer.
But, really, I think Jeremiah Tilmon will be the biggest factor here. The newest Illini began recruiting Goodwin just minutes after committing to the program, and that relationship between the two may have given Illinois the last bit of momentum they needed. John Groce has been pitching this idea of an 'Illinois Super Class' for well over a year, and I highly doubt Goodwin goes elsewhere now that it's on the verge of actually happening.
Developmental Big Man - UNKNOWN
Note: I say 'developmental' because Illinois will have the roster flexibility to go small if/when their three primary big men get in foul trouble. Either Williams or Nichols could see ample time at power forward, especially if the Illini go on to add Jordan Goodwin on the wing. So, as a result, this potential addition would be an early candidate to redshirt the season.
Illinois made the Top 6 for four-star center Theo John (MN). The Illini had been showing a lot of interest, but the situation has changed considerably since the Jeremiah Tilmon decision. With more favorable playing time situations at places like Minnesota and Purdue, I don't see John ultimately considering Illinois when it comes time for a decision to be made.
Four-star center Victor Uyaelunmo (FL) is another, albeit unlikely option to fill this role. Illinois entered the race in early May, joining schools like UConn, Pittsburgh, Florida, and Miami. Uyaelunmo is a true, athletic center that can rebound and run the floor well. His post skill set appears to be quite raw, but the former is exactly what John Groce has been looking for out of the position.
Two more options for Illinois are three-star forward Mayan Kiir (FL) and the newly offered Jacob Epperson (AUS). Kiir in particular would be an ideal fit for the Illini, especially if John Groce does eventually opt for a more development-based prospect. The lanky 6-foot-9 prospect has other offers form Louisville and VCU, with his interest in the Cardinals being described as 'hot' by 247Sports. Epperson, though currently unranked, has recently landed several big offers from schools like Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Marquette.
I expect Illinois to land both Trent Frazier and Jordan Goodwin. From there, Groce will likely do his damnedest to recruit another big man that can develop behind Jeremiah Tilmon and company. If the Illini aren’t able to land another one of their primary/secondary front court targets, that last scholarship may be awarded to a fifth-year transfer. This scenario would also expand the number of 2018 openings to a total of three.
Where would such a group rank nationally? According to 247Sports' class calculator, landing Frazier, Goodwin, and another big man would get Illinois' composite score to around 64.80. That'd likely put the Orange and Blue between No. 10-12 in the country.