Recently Illinois’ head basketball coach John Groce won the recruiting battle for Jeremiah Tilmon a 5 star recruit out of East St. Louis, IL who currently plays at La Lumiere in Indiana. Tilmon who is a 6′ 10″ center is one of the top ranked players in the state and 23rd ranked player overall. Tilmon is the highest ranked recruit to have committed to Illini under Groce’s tenure.
Back in the mid eighties Illinois routinely won the recruiting battles for the state’s best talent. One such talent was Marcus Liberty out of Martin Luther King High School in Chicago who in 1987 was the consensus number 1 player in the country as determined by Sports Illustrated, Parade Magazine and USA Today.
I had the opportunity to talk with Liberty this past week about his time at Illinois as well the current direction of the program. In 1987 Liberty was no ordinary high school talent coming out of the Chicago Public Leagues which is renowned as on of the most competitive leagues in the country. Having won a City Championship with Crane as a sophomore Liberty transferred to King where he helped deliver a State Championship as junior in addition to All State and All American honors during his high school career.
Prior to Tilmon’s signing most of Chicago’s best players including Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker and Jail Okafor made the decision to leave the state when pursuing their college career. Watching the city’s best talent help other state schools win NCCA titles is “heartbreaking” for Liberty because to him making the decision to stay home and play for Illinois, “meant a lot” and apparently it was important to other highly coveted local players at that time.
Liberty was part of University of Illinois’ famous “Flying Illini” as dubbed by ESPN’s basket commentator Dick Vitale who reached a number 1 ranking during the 1988-1989 season and made it all the way to the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament.
Liberty was joined on that squad by noted players Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle, Stephen Bardo, Lowell Hamilton, Kendall Gill, Larry Smith and Ervin Small. Besides their ultra athleticism what stood out about this team was 14 of the 15 players were all recruited from Illinois.
In fact, Liberty believes the model that Illinois’ Coach Lou Henson employed could absolutely work again. Liberty said Illinois could quickly reclaim their stature as a perennial basketball powerhouse by keeping, “5 of the top players home” which would appear to be a tall task for any coach. So how can Coach Groce keep talent in the state? Same way Lou Henson and Chief Recruiter Jimmy Collins did by leveraging relationships. By the time Liberty was making his decision on choosing a school he trusted Illinois and because he knew “we had something special with one common goal and that goal was win.”
One way to have instant credibility and relationships with recruits is through alumni. Duke, Kansas and numerous other basketball power houses have routinely utilzed former players to help sell their program which is curiously something Groce and his staff have historically not done. Liberty is quick to point that U of I is not Duke or UNC. The program has to be sold, but he feels there is a great story to tell.
Liberty pridefully points out, “Do the current recruits know U of I landed the number 1 player country in 1987? Do they know that Nick Anderson was a lottery pick and went on to be the 2nd all time leading scorer on the Orlando Magic? Do they know that Kendall Gill was a top 5 pick in the draft?
Hearing Marcus Liberty talk about the reasons he chose to stay home and what U of I has to offer potential recruits it is not hard imagine Liberty being extremely effective at selling the program. Would Liberty have an interest in selling today’s preps on U of I? “No doubt” Liberty exclaimed! In fact, Liberty let it be known that at this years Peach Jam that draws the top AAU talent in the country that he was available to several college coaches that were in attendance and that he is looking to contribute to a program. However Liberty declared “I love my school. I love Coach Groce so I reached out to them first.”
As Coach Groce continues to build on the momentum of Tilmon’s commitment, bringing Marcus Liberty back in the fold would certainly provide them an effective closer because Liberty has a unique skill set to offer. As Jimmy Collins did before him, Liberty possess a true passion for the game and immediate access into the Chicago Public Leagues that is still producing some of the best basketball talent in the country. While trying to convince current recruits to stay home U of I would be fortuitous to take the same approach with their former great players because Marcus Liberty is ready to put back on the orange and blue.
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