DaMonte Williams commitment the biggest news of Illini basketball season

By Alex Roux, Illini hoops columnist

The biggest Illinois basketball news of the season came during the Illini’s 81-74 win over Minnesota on Sunday night, but it didn’t have anything to do with game itself.

Four-star guard DaMonte Williams from Manual High School in Peoria, Illinois, committed to John Groce and the Illini at halftime of Sunday’s game. He becomes the second member of Illinois’ 2017 recruiting class, and it’s a breakthrough that could have a major impact on both the immediate future and long-term trajectory of the program.

The 6-foot-4 high school junior announced his commitment at halftime on social media, tweeting a picture of him wearing a custom No. 20 Illini silver jersey.

The development was significant for a number of reasons. Most importantly, the Illini are getting a very solid player at the start of the 2017-18 season. Williams is ranked as the No. 39 prospect in the ESPN Top 100 in the 2017 class and is a legitimate combo guard at 6-foot-3, 185 pounds.

Williams was earning interest from Kansas and held an offer from Indiana, but chose to stay close to home to try and resurrect the in-state program. He’s a scoring threat who can get to the rim and penetrate off the dribble, and he’ll join fellow 2017 commit Javon Pickett on the wing in Champaign.

Williams’ commitment carries more meaning than your typical hoops recruit. His father is Frank Williams, a star at Illinois from 1999-2002 and the Big Ten Player of the Year in 2001. It would have been a huge whiff for Groce to miss on an Illini legacy recruit who plays 90 miles up the road in Peoria, but the Illini’s head man got it done.

With Williams in the bag, Groce can now turn his attention to the remaining in-state targets in 2017 as the possibility of a monster recruiting class starts to become more realistic.

Groce also deserves credit for keeping Williams’ interest during an extremely down year of Illini basketball. His commitment will likely cool Groce’s seat as he hopes to keep his job past this season. New Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman firing Groce immediately after officially beginning his tenure on March 21 was doubtful anyway, and now it appears even more unlikely.

And even though Williams won’t set foot on campus until after Groce’s make-or-break year next season, the recruiting momentum Williams’ commitment carries improves Groce’s leverage and could increase his chances of landing his remaining targets in the 2017 class.

Jordan Goodwin out of Belleville and Jeremiah Tilmon from La Lumiere School in Indiana are the two biggest prizes that Illinois hopes to get in that class, and Williams’ word legitimizes Groce’s pursuit of those two regional talents.

Though Groce’s support within the fan base has been on life support, Sunday’s commitment is reason for a glimmer of hope. Pickett is a good player, Williams could be great, and the dream of that long-awaited elite Illini recruiting class under Groce isn’t dead yet.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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