Tate: Metro East blues coming to end?

Tate: Metro East blues coming to end?

Illini men’s basketball excelled for decades on downstate talent, coupled with erratic breakthroughs in heavily recruited Chicago.

But the St. Louis sector has been a tough nut to crack.

The money, hours and emotion spent on East St. Louisans LaPhonso Ellis and Cuonzo Martin still stings. UI efforts with St. Louis greats David Lee, Chris Carrawell, Jahidi White and Bradley Beal were among dozens of recruiting quests that failed. Lou Henson could write a book about it.

Maybe that’s a feeling more than a fact. Actually, the Illini crossed the state line for Robert Archibald and Tyler Griffey.

But the sporadic Metro East successes date to the previous century, beginning with Granite City’s Andy Phillip in the 1940s.

Madison’s Don Freeman averaged an Illini-record 27.8 points in 1966.

And anyone familiar with Illini history knows the contributions by Collinsville’s Bogie Redmon and Dennis Pace, Edwardsville’s Mannie Jackson, Govoner Vaughn and Don Ohl, Belleville’s Steve Lanter and Bryan Leonard and Alton’s Larry Smith.

Following all these, Collinsville’s Richard Keene arrived on campus in 1992, nearly a quarter-century ago.

As noted, those Illini starters from the Metro East were relics of the 20th century. And that’s what makes the current developments so special.

Pieces in place

We start with Malcolm Hill. Recruited by Bruce Weber and confirmed by John Groce, he has had a telling impact.

The senior from Belleville East is highly respected beyond his talent. While Groce has had to deal with special problems, both injury- and conduct-related, Hill has been a beacon.

And above all, this is a story about relationships. New athletic director Josh Whitman gave Groce a vote of confidence despite a disappointing 15-19 season, in great part because relationships built up in the Metro East appear highly promising.

Belleville East’s upcoming senior, Javon Pickett, started the ball rolling, and 6-foot-10 East St. Louis native Jeremiah Tilmon, now playing for La Lumiere in LaPorte, Ind., followed.

Illini Nation’s eyes are now directed toward Jordan Goodwin, a 6-4 blockbuster who is the state’s premier player at Belleville Althoff. He lists seven schools ahead of his planned announcement on his birthday, Oct. 23. He is one of the few members of the 2017 class, once touted as extra special, living up to expectations.

Goodwin is the linchpin who can bring this thing together for Illinois. He is all heart on the court, a fierce defender who shut down the nation’s No. 1 player, Washington-bound Michael Porter, this summer. Goodwin’s scoring, feeding and rebounding numbers speak for themselves. He thrives on pressure.

Goodwin could step directly into Hill’s small forward position a year from now.

Walking the line

The UI connection in St. Louis — the extension of Groce — is assistant Jamall Walker.

This goes back to 1995 when, as a prep star in Wichita, Walker was Kansas Player of the Year. He made 73 starts at point guard for Charlie Spoonhour’s Saint Louis Billikens and sparked an NCAA win against UMass in 1998 before running afoul of Kentucky. He coached a year at Alton High School while completing his education.

“I was a good player, but not at the NBA level,” Walker said. “I made a decision to go into coaching rather than play overseas.”

As he built his coaching resume, Walker returned to the Billikens as an assistant in 2006-07, renewing connections there. He first joined Groce at Ohio in 2008. Walker is to St. Louis what Jimmy Collins was to Chicago during the Henson era.

Everyone associated with basketball in the St. Louis area knows him.

Example: Corey Frazier, coach of the EYBL Eagles team that includes Goodwin, Tilmon and Champaign’s Tim Finke, was Walker’s teammate with the Billikens.

That’s just one of his connections, one of the reasons why he knew to contact the Tilmon family before the young giant entered ninth grade.

Carefully crafted

Tilmon was always coming to Illinois. Both his parents, who live separately, favored the UI, and the young star told the coaches privately long before he announced.

It is no secret that the Illini coaches supported Tilmon’s move from East St. Louis to La Porte prior to his junior year, a favor repaid by La Lumiere coach Shane Heirman backing the decision of star guard Jalen Coleman-Lands to attend Illinois.

Relationships! These things are tied together. They always are. It was no accident that Creighton walk-on Drew Cayce, a La Lumiere product, is replacing Mike LaTulip (transferring to Wright State) on the UI squad. These coaches talk. They help each other.

Findlay Prep in Las Vegas serves to attract players to UNLV. That’s the way business is done. Look up the word “reciprocal.”

Million-dollar question

Will Goodwin join his buddies at Illinois? He’s not easy to read, and he’s giving no hints the way Tilmon did, but it’ll be a shocker if he doesn’t.

First of all, he wants to stay relatively close to home. He dropped Texas and Michigan State in announcing his seven finalists. Alabama is the outlier in the group, except that it might be a fun trip for Goodwin, a tight end with enough football talent to draw attention from Iowa, to spend a Saturday in Tuscaloosa watching the national champions at Crimson Tide expense.

Creighton and Butler seem unlikely members of his remaining list, and Missouri is looking for a new athletic director who’ll take a hard look at coach Kim Anderson after consecutive 3-15 records in the SEC ... that and the fact that attendance is plummeting and five players have left the Tigers program since last season: Namon Wright, Tramaine Isabell, Wes Clark, Martavian Payne and D’Angelo Allen.

All the help
That leaves Saint Louis, Northwestern and Illinois.

“The kids themselves are the best recruiters,” Walker said. “They get together in the summer and over Christmas. They talk together.”

Fact is, they talk via their cellphones all the time. If you don’t have incoming and current players in support, recruiting is virtually impossible. And it helps to have your former players on board as well.

Miles Bridges, 6-7 super-prep from Flint, Mich., was reportedly leaning to Kentucky before Michigan State products Draymond Green, Mo Peterson and Mateen Cleaves reminded him that Flint products play for Tom Izzo. 

Relationships! That’s why Frank Williams joined fellow Peorians Marcus Griffin and Sergio McClain here. That’s why so many Simeon products wore No. 25 here. That’s the way it works.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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Moonpie wrote on July 31, 2016 at 9:07 am

The Ancient Scribe is still wringing his hands and moaning over Ellis and Martin? Good Lord! Get over it, dude. Join the present century.

beekay wrote on August 01, 2016 at 12:08 pm

Sheesh Michael Gray, haven't you moved to Georgia yet?  I mean, we all know you don't like Loren but that article wasn't bad.  Just give us a solid two year break from you to overcome the constant nausea.