The Illini look ready to haul in a top-flight recruit, someone they envision helping to spark the program. Then, right when everything seems to be going their way, poof — he's gone.
It appears to be happening again.
Following in the long, sorry tradition of Eric Gordon and Cliff Alexander, who embarrassed Illinois by spurning the program, Jeremiah Tilmon took to social media Wednesday to deliver the burn. The top-rated Class of 2017 recruit in the state, Tilmon announced he has asked Illinois to release him from the national letter of intent he signed in November.
"My family and I feel it's only fair that we hear all opportunities and not be stuck in one situation," Tilmon, a 6-foot-10 power forward from East St. Louis, posted on his Instagram account. "We will wait patiently on the release from the NLI. Illinois will always remain an option because of my ongoing relationship with (assistant) Coach (Jamall) Walker, but this is my future and I need to be certain before I come to campus in June."
According to NCAA rules, Tilmon can be released from his letter of intent because he initially pledged to play for coach John Groce, who was fired March 11 and replaced a week later with Brad Underwood.
Wednesday was filled with news for Illinois, a program in flux.
Tilmon made his announcement in the morning. In the afternoon, Akron confirmed reports that it had hired Groce as its head coach.
And in the early evening, Illinois announced it has hired former South Florida coach Orlando Antigua as an assistant coach. The Bulls went 23-55 in Antigua's 2 1/2 seasons, saw 13 players leave the program and are under an NCAA investigation into alleged academic fraud during his watch.
As an assistant at Kentucky, Antigua helped land star recruits such as Anthony Davis from Chicago, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Karl-Anthony Towns. It's clear Illinois is more concerned about hauling in talent such as that than any fallout from the allegations at South Florida.
The mess could follow Antigua to Illinois if the NCAA findings cause the organization to implement a show-cause penalty against him.
"We thoroughly vet every coaching hire we make," an Illinois spokesman said. "Our integrity and reputation as a department are of the utmost importance."
Underwood's first task was to secure the commitments of a class that was ranked first in the Big Ten and among the top 15 nationally before Tilmon dropped out. Retaining Walker — known for his recruiting connections in the St. Louis area — was a wise part of that effort, and a hard-working, well-connected assistant such as Antigua will help, barring any additional scandals.
Now the Illini must turn their attention to hitting a home run by signing coveted recruit Mark Smith from Edwardsville.
Smith, a 6-5 guard who was named Mr. Basketball in Illinois, is suddenly on everyone's radar. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo visited him last week and offered a scholarship. Kentucky is expected to visit Thursday, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
New Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin, who already pried five-star recruit Michael Porter Jr. from Washington after a coaching change, has reached out to Smith. Butler, Ohio State, Indiana and Northwestern also are pursuing him.
Having Tilmon in the incoming class was a helpful part of the Illini's pitch to Smith, who has said he hopes to make a decision around Wednesday, the start of the spring signing period.
Trent Frazier, a four-star point guard from Florida who signed with Illinois in November, tweeted Wednesday that he would remain "loyal" to Illinois. As recently as March 30, three-star Belleville East guard Javon Pickett tweeted an image of himself in an Illini jersey.
Tilmon drew criticism from Illini fans on social media Wednesday — two days after he retweeted his tweet from July announcing his commitment to Illinois.
It's hypocritical, though, to decry Tilmon's loyalty while applauding Underwood's decision to break his contract at Oklahoma State after one year to coach at Illinois. Neither is wrong to look for success outside of where he pledged.
"I'm blessed to announce that I am staying home," Tilmon originally tweeted in July.
It's up to Illinois now to keep others home.