First it was Shaun Livingston. Eric Gordon verbally committed to the Illini, but signed with rival Indiana, blindsiding the program in 2006, just a year after a magical run to the National Championship. Then Chicagoland native Jon Scheyer chose Duke over Illinois. Recent Celtics second-rounder Demetrius Jackson was down to Illinois and Notre Dame, but committed to the Irish and went on to nearly shock Kentucky in the Elite Eight. 2013 was extremely painful for the Illini faithful. Current Louisville guard Quentin Snider verbally committed to the school in the fall, but like Gordon, chose to sign his national letter of intent with another program. On national television, the number-two player in that class – Cliff Alexander – picked up an Illinois hat live on ESPN, only to fake putting on the orange and blue and opted to put the hat down for a Kansas lid. That gut-punch spawned several viral videos of shocked fans. Jalen Brunson is a national champion at Villanova, and he was down to Illinois and Villanova. He made the right choice, but Illinois losing out on another elite Chicago-area prospect surely stung.
It has been three years since a tournament appearance for Illinois, but a light began to shine at the end of the tunnel. The class of 2017 was one that featured several downstate Illinois talents. The Illini secured commitments from rising Belleville native Javon Pickett and highly-touted four star combo guards DaMonte Williams, son of Frank, Trent Frazier from Florida.
But the biggest fish to catch was Jeremiah Tilmon from East St. Louis. The five-star big is ranked 25th nationally and was ranked by some recruiting sites as a top-15 player nationally before missing time after shoulder surgery. He was chased by the likes of Kansas and Michigan State but ultimately became the first top-ranked Illinois prospect to commit to the Illini since Jereme Richmond in 2010. The school also landed second-best Land of Lincoln prospect Meyers Leonard, fresh off a lucrative four-year extension in Portland.
In July, it all looked great for John Groce’s most important recruiting class of his tenure. Last week was national signing day. Pickett, Williams, and Frazier each signed their national letters of intent, but the 6’10”, 235-pound gem of the class was missing, and he didn’t give a reason for not signing.
Collectively, Illinois fans went “here we go again.”
But Thursday was a changing of the guard perhaps. Illinois – the bridesmaid of college basketball – was for once not left at the alter and have themselves some momentum in the fluid world of college basketball recruiting.