Illini basketball

Saturday Live with Mark Smith & Jeremiah Tilmon

Illinois’ best recruiting period of the last decade came during a time when the Illini’s on-court performance had reached a record-setting nadir.  D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Joseph Bertrand pulled the trigger in a 48-hour span at the start of the dreadful 2007-08 season. Meyers Leonard came aboard at the end.

So it didn’t seem odd to watch Jeremiah Tilmon cracking jokes with Mark Smith while Minnesota pantsed the Illini. These two high school superstars expect to improve their college teams. They don’t doubt that they’ll be successful. Failure is not their concern.

Talking to them about their relationship, I couldn’t keep the names “Bruce Douglas and Efrem Winters” out of my mind.

It’s hard not to think of Mark Smith when thinking about Mark Smith, but Douglas is obviously the better Illini analog. Peoria Richwoods’ Mark Smith was a small forward, not a PG. Bruce was a PG. But he was also big and quick, just like Mark Smith 2.0.

Bruce’s alley-oops to Winters remain at the top of iconic Illini moments, way more efficient than the vaunted “15 pass possession.”

Illinois’ hi-lo could use some work.

Brandon Paul’s Illini recruitment began with Tracy Webster. Mark Smith’s recruitment may end with Tracy Webster. The Thornton grad was All-Big Ten at Wisconsin. He’s an assistant to Cuonzo Martin at Cal, for now. He attended Friday’s game between Tilmon’s ESL and Smith’s Edwardsville squads.

Smith’s burgeoning cachet means he’ll be able to choose his college come April 12. Illinois has two advantages in this recruitment. First, it’s easy driving distance for his parents, who remain very involved in his life and his recruitment. Two, Jeremiah Tilmon is signed to play here next year. Tilmon and Smith have been friends since sixth grade.

Smith will also be considering the academic aspect of his future school. He and parents Anthony & Yvonne were all interested in talking more about that aspect of his recruitment. Anthony said “yes, he’s qualified” when I raised the subject of academics.

But that’s not the question. The question is what Mark wants to study, and whether he aspires to advanced degrees. When Chasson Randle chose Stanford over Illinois, it wasn’t because he wanted to inconvenience his parents, Gwen and Willie, from seeing him play college ball in person. It’s because Chasson already knew he’d want to go to medical school when basketball was over.

Because Chasson graduated at the top of his class at Rock Island High School,  his family thought he could withstand a fiercely competitive academic environment. For those aspiring to a career in medicine, Stanford is better than Illinois. Sorry loyalists, it just is.

We don’t know what Mark wants from an academic standpoint, but we do know he’s thinking about it.

One thing that doesn’t matter re: Mark Smith is “coaches on the hot seat.” John Groce is a miracle removed from being gone. Tom Crean is being e-burned in e-effigy. Bruce Weber is doing enough to keep his job for another year at K-State, but since when did we take Bruce Weber seriously?

The uncertainty doesn’t end with coaches who lose too much. Smith acknowledged on Saturday that Duke got in the mix recently. But who’d be his coach at Duke? K will turn 70 next week, while he recovers from his second major back surgery. Jeff Capel already failed at the P5 level. Maybe Chris Collins is the successor? That means Duke and Northwestern are uncertain as well.

Kansas seems like the best bet for the Smith family. It’s not a horrible drive from Edwardsville, and Bill Self is not likely to be fired. If they have an open spot for him, it’s unlikely he could do worse. As with any & all blue blooded programs, they’ll have other options for his position. Competitive recruits are rarely dissuaded by this eternal truth.

Dave Leitao might be the surest choice Mark Smith has when it comes to basketball, for both PT & continuity purposes. DePaul has been terrible since Leitao departed his first stint. Tracy Webster was unable to revive it as interim coach.

Leitao failed at Virginia, now arguably the best program in the nation. So he’s not a sure bet, either.

Frankly, it’s weird to be Mark Smith the recruit, A year ago, he figured to be a starting pitcher, not a point guard. But if it weren’t for him, there’d be very little optimism available for Illini basketball fans.

Hope springs eternal, and Mark Smith won’t have the opportunity to sign an LOI until Spring, by which time all these coaching situations will be determined.

And now, here’s that Minnesota game in a nutshell:


Illini basketball

The Coleman & #ILLijah weekend

If your head was stuck under a rock for the last few days, you’ll want to know that Jalen Coleman and Elijah Thomas Officially Visited the University of Illinois this weekend.  Jalen came with his family. Elijah was accompanied by his mother, Delores Bennett, and  AAU coach Darius Coleman (no relation).

Official Visitors are off-limits to the media, so I didn’t have a chance to ask Elijah or Jalen about their visits, or even say hello to their families. (The NCAA is a very, very silly organization.)

As usual, the only major public appearance was a football game. In this case, a lousy first quarter of a football game, in a slightly sweltering late summer sun.

By kickoff, the Elijah Thomas Official Visit was more than halfway over. The Jalen Coleman Official Visit was just beginning. Another NCAA rule confines these visits to 48 hours, and Thomas’s visit was Friday-Saturday, while Coleman’s was Saturday-Sunday.

Thus, the Illini coaching staff was forced by circumstance to vary from standard operating procedure. Jamall Walker took over with the Thomas family, while John Groce greeted the Colemans.

They all came together in the grandstands, and Groce sat between the two families. But by that point, the focus was mostly on the Colemans.  Except for Darius Coleman, who was not with the Colemans. Weird.

The families and coaches barely had time to get acquainted before an Act of God drove them apart.

The Lord, it seems, has taken notice of John Groce and his recruiting efforts. This makes sense, because John Groce talks to The Lord every day, and often shares The Lord’s message with recruits.

The Lord works in mysterious ways, and men have failed to correctly interpret His message for about 6,000 years. Some people might interpret yesterday’s two hour lightning delay as an accident of meteorology. But as the skies opened up Saturday, I realized what He was trying to say, I think.

It is this: “Get thee behind me, Edotcash.”

I’m not absolutely sure that this was the message, because The Lord speaks in thunder. It might have simply been “Illinois is a basketball school.”

Either way, the power of The Lord is mighty to behold. On Saturday, The Lord chased an entire football stadium’s spectators indoors. Coleman and Thomas were among them.


Thomas and Coleman were in the student section when The Lord spoke. The visit to the student section has become something of a ritual. On this particular Saturday, it came early.

Toward the end of the first quarter, U of I police officer A.J. Martin informed the staff that a major storm was on the way, and that the stadium would probably be emptied soon. At that point, Mike LaTulip, Aaron Cosby and Aaron Jordan led the Official Visitors out of the grandstand, out of the stadium, and over to the student section — a separate building at the north end of Memorial Stadium.


Jalen Coleman seemed distinctly amused by the visit to the Block-I.

The visit was brief, perhaps even a little rushed. But it allowed the visitors to get a taste of local hero worship. As they climbed into the Block-I, semi-intoxicated engineers and finance majors chanted  “We want Elijah!”

“And Jalen too!”

“Oh yeah, and definitely Jalen too!”

(You may think this chant lacks a certain panache, or euphony. Organized chanting is not the forte of the Block-I, which had a lot more members back when Illini football was relevant.)

Malcolm Hill, Michael Finke and Ahmad Starks were also watching the game from the student section. They too took cover in the Irwin Center. And that reminds me, if you say “Michael Finke is the Bees’ Knees” while ordering your fro-yo, you’ll get a dollar off at TCBY. Dig it.

The adults were separated from their phenom offspring at the moment of The Lord’s intervention. Jamall Walker took charge, coordinating the emergency/contingency planning: The recruits went out for a late lunch.  You might call it “supper.”  If they were British, “tea.”  Whatever.  High school athletes can eat more than you think.

Later, they went to look at dorm rooms, to see how they’d actually be living (large) were they to choose the University of Illinois.

Thomas spent much of the day looking at his pink smartphone. I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that he was bored by his Official Visit. Rather, I would say that he’s a high school senior and it’s 2014.  @edotcash is fully entrenched with social media #ILLijah


And to the extent that he seemed disengaged from the Illini staff as their attention shifted to the Jalen Coleman family, it’s important to note that Elijah has already declared a lifelong fealty toward John Groce, for a national audience.

Then you’ve got Illinois; Coach Groce is the most interesting of them all.

That’s my guy! If I didn’t pick Illinois I would still keep in touch with him. They were the second school to ever offer me a scholarship and we’ve built a relationship over the past few years that’s strong. Coach Groce has a plan for me that he shows me word-for-word; I like that. The Big Ten is a great conference and they’ve got D.J. Williams coming in, and I know that we could make noise. Then you’ve got the fan base; it’s hands down the best fan base I’ve ever seen and I was recruited by Kentucky and Duke, but those Illinois fans are the best I’ve seen.


Jalen Coleman did not stare at his phone all day. He listened intently to the pitch John Groce and staff  (and Allison Groce) laid out.


By Sunday morning, the #ILLijah contingent (@msDDdee, @dcoleman05 and @edotcash himself) was en route back to Texas. But Delores left the Illini nation feeling good about the weekend.