Over the last few months, I’ve been immersed in the delightful process of studying for the Bar exam. It’s a journey that involves quite a bit of stress, a lot of reading, and at least a few cups of coffee.
Naturally, with all that time studying, keeping up with the latest happenings on the Big Ten basketball trail can be tricky. The big picture stuff is usually pretty easy to sort out, but the finer details can slip through if you don’t pay close attention.
Well, there was one story that couldn’t be missed and it was Jeremiah Tilmon’s commitment to Illinois at the beginning of July.
From a broad perspective, it’s pretty easy to see why it dominated the headlines too. Anytime a five-star player commits to a program, it’s big news, but this was a groundbreaking development for an Illinois program that, frankly, was due for a break.
And really, that’s what’s had me so intrigued about this commitment from the start. This isn’t another five-star loading the war chest for Calipari or Coach K or even a five-star trying to push a team like Indiana or UCLA back to the top. This was an elite prospect committing to an Illinois program with a coach on the hot seat.
Regardless of your leanings, that’s a pretty remarkable feat.
And it also leaves Illinois in a unique spot.
Again, generally speaking, this is a huge pickup. Tilmon has the potential not only to be a starter and a quality player from day one, but he’s the kind of guy that could get the Illini back to competing for Big Ten titles. Plus, who knows what kind of impact his commitment could have on the recruiting trail long-term.
However, what makes the spot unique is that Groce enters this season on the shortest of leashes. How Josh Whitman evaluates Groce and his performance is up for debate, but when an AD has to give postseason assurances that a coach is coming back, it’s a pretty telling sign on their situation going forward.
Simply put, Groce has to win and he has to do it now.
But with Tilmon’s commitment, there’s some real dissonance that’s going on in the Illinois program. On the one hand, Groce has throughly underwhelmed as the head coach of the program and is looking at a make or break year. However, on the other hand, he just landed a five-star commit and has 2017’s No. 4 class nationally.
Talk about awkward.
To put that situation into non-basketball terms, it’s kind of like watching a movie with a great ending and thinking about turning it off 15 minutes before the movie ends. You might have even been promised that the ending is going to be great, but it’s hard to have enough faith to wait things out.
For Illinois fans, this very well could be one of the most awkward years they’ve ever experienced. I like the pieces Illinois has coming back and I think adding guys like Tracy Abrams and Mike Thorne will help things, but there’s no way a reasonable person thinks Illinois is a lock to make the NCAA Tournament.
And if Illinois doesn’t make the Tournament, fans are going to be left wondering if they should wait it out for what recruiting experts are promising to be a good ending.
Landing Tilmon was a huge pickup, but it also could create one of the most unique situations anywhere in the country for this season.
How things will turn out is unknown, but perhaps no Big Ten team will be more interesting than Illinois this year. And for Illini fans frustrated with the program’s performance as of late, maybe that’s a good sign for the future.