Speaking of Breaks, Tilmon Breaks His Commitment to Illini Program

Well, yesterday was a rough one for the Illini. And the Cubs got rained out (not coincidentally, so did the Cards), so we all got to stew about Jeremiah Tilmon asking out of his NLI all day. But Illinois also signed one of the best recruiters in the country as an assistant coach. Let’s have a brief look at both of these developments (or just the one as it turns out. More on Orlando Antigua another time).

Tilmon, a 4/5-star center from East St. Louis, was the crown jewel in John Groce’s last recruiting class. Looking back, however, that setting in the crown has always been a bit loose. Rumors abounded last February/March that Tilmon was ready to commit to the Illini, but he didn’t. When he finally did sign on in early summer, folks were pretty thrilled, but there was still a sense that his recruitment wasn’t over by a long shot. That sense was proven true when he announced he wouldn’t sign with Illinois on signing day in November. Then, at the last moment, he did sign his National Letter of Intent in a ceremony at school with a hat and all. Speaking of schools, after starting out at East St. Louis, Tilmon played his junior season at Indiana prep school La Lumiere, alma mater of Jalen Coleman-Lands. After one season, in which he showed promising skills development and played on a successful team under coach Shane Hierman, Tilmon transferred back to East St. Louis for his senior season. This raised some flags for folks in the know, who saw La Lumiere as an opportunity for Tilmon to improve his game and get away from potentially negative influence in the city.

Tilmon has never been effusive in sharing his excitement about joining the Illini program. That’s not necessarily a concern – not every student athlete is like four-star commit Trent Frazier who wears his Illini love on his sleeve – but it was something to keep an eye on. When Groce was fired in March, the recruiting class was understandably wary about jumping on board with the new coach before talking with him. Before long, however, Frazier had enthusiastically reaffirmed his commitment via Twitter, and after visits from Brad Underwood and Jamal Walker, Da’Monte Williams and Javon Pickett did the same. Word was that if Walker was retained, Tilmon would stay with the Illini. This led to a lot of angst surrounding Walker’s status with the team and the offers he had from other schools (who were aware of his connection to Tilmon). After Walker was retained and Tilmon met with both Walker and Underwood, it sounded like all was well. Tilmon, however, didn’t publicly declare his intention to stay.

Until Monday, when he retweeted his initial commitment announcement:

By Wednesday, he had requested his release via Instagram:

One possibility: There are two different people behind Tilmon’s Twitter and Instagram accounts.

A more likely possibility: Tilmon is getting a lot of advice from a lot of different people and interests, and he’s listening to folks telling him Illinois isn’t the right place. Recruiting at the top level is, um, complicated. Cuonzo Martin made Tilmon a priority when he landed the Mizzou job and hired Michael Porter, Sr. as an assistant coach, ensuring he also got Michael Porter, Jr. in the package, one of the top recruits in the country. Porter, Jr. has been unabashed about recruiting Tilmon to play with him at Mizzou, which is unsavory, but not illegal. We’ll see where he ends up – it might yet be Illinois – but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the black and yellow next season in St. Louis.

Tilmon’s likely defection is disappointing for sure, but it’s important to keep in mind that it’s his life, and he needs to do what he thinks is best. Illinois still has a great recruiting class, although they now are in dire need of another big man or two. With a new coach, these kinds of things happen and are not unexpected; Underwood is a very different guy from Groce, and if his expectations are anything like Frank Martin’s and Bob Huggins’s, he’s going to push his guys to the limit. He also runs a guard oriented offense (they say, although there’s always a significant role for big men. Maybe the offense just doesn’t run through the post.). It could be this isn’t what Tilmon’s looking for in either style or intensity. It could be that he was never sure about his Illini commitment in the first place and was glad of the excuse to jump ship. It could be there are things going on behind the scenes that are drawing him to explore other options. I think it’s a combination of all three.

This week, Tilmon punked the Illini program a little bit by first affirming his commitment and then immediately turning around and backing out. Some fans have lashed out, and there’s a lot of hurt pride in their reaction. There’s also a lot of “here we go again.” From a practical standpoint, it hurts. Tilmon is a great recruit, and his commitment meant Illinois didn’t seek out other players at his position. The Illini image also took a hit on the national scene and in Chicago. No doubt, the way this has gone down has been disappointing, but kids who don’t want to play here shouldn’t play here. I’m still confident that Illinois basketball is in good hands with Coach Underwood and the staff he’s putting together. I didn’t even get to talking about that staff today. Next time!

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