So, How Set Are We?
I'm a big paper guy. I like studying what makes the good teams good, and I like recruiting rankings, and I love percentages, so looking at a team on paper is my thing. The actual team? Meh. Paper is better. Especially basketball paper. As I've said before, it's like the Price Is Right range game. Recruiting sets the range window for wins - coaching pushes the team to the high end or the low end of that range.
I've set up different rules for myself over the years. I have 30/60/90 for football: Great coaching plus bad players means a team will be successful about 30% of the time. NFL talent but so-so coaches means a team will be successful about 60% of the time. Get both, and you have a 90% chance of having a good team. Those aren't hard percentages, of course - they're just part of this formula in my head that weighs talent more than coaching. There's a reason Indiana has only been to one bowl game in 20 years, and it's not a ridiculous string of bad coordinators.
I have several things I look for in basketball, too. Getting top-100 talent is about 70% of everything. Frosh-to-soph is usually the biggest leap in a player's development. No seniors, not much hope in the tourney. These are not groundbreaking statements. I'm just giving an example of the dozens of factors swimming around in my head that allow me to assess the current Illini team. My goal is to apply those factors and hopefully find that we have a 94.3% chance to be an NCAA tournament team.
So with John Groce's early recruiting success - ESPN had the 2013 class #15 nationally and has the 2014 class #5 - how set are we for the future? A top-15 class followed by a top-10 class means we'll be ranked in the top-12 in a few years, right? Are the other factors there (on paper)? Which teams will be the most experienced? Which years are setting up perfectly? Well, let's look at them.
We know this already, so I won't spend much time here. Nine newcomers, of which two have to sit out a year. Only one senior (Joseph Bertrand), although we did add a 5th year transfer in Jon Ekey and might have another one in Ahmad Starks if he gets his waiver. The heart and soul of the 2012/13 team - DJ, Brandon, and Tyler - plus role players like Sam McLaurin and Myke Henry - all gone.
So we're left with Bertrand, Abrams, Egwu, and then everything else new. It's probably our biggest roster turnover since 1998 to 1999 when we lost Heldman, Turner, Gee, Johnson, and Hester. Which is what has me scared. We were adding talent at the time, but that roster turnover was too much to take and we fell off the cliff for a year. For you young kids, we were 13-3 in the Big Ten in 1998, then flipped to 3-13 in 1999, and then back to 11-5 in 2000. A one year cliff that was then salvaged by recruiting. I don't think it will be that sharp this year, but we're falling from 8-10, so...
You know what? We'll have plenty of time to discuss all of this in the coming months. Let's move on to the next few teams on paper.
Staying with the 1998, 1999, 2000 theme, I think this year could be a similar jump. Everyone returns except for Bertrand and the two fifth-years. Freshmen like Nunn and Hill make the Sophomore Leap. We add a few instant impact freshmen like Quentin Snider and Leron Black (our highest rated recruits since Jereme Richmond and Meyers Leonard). We add some experienced depth, possibly as starters, in transfers Aaron Cosby and Darius Paul (I'm such a big Breaking Bad fan that at some point I'm going to combine these two and call one of them Aaron Paul). And we have some senior leadership. On paper, it's all there.
To me, how far that team goes kind of depends on the transfers. And I'm including Rayvonte Rice in that, who is eligible this year. If Rice, Cosby, and Paul are all as-advertised - Rice a glue guy, Cosby a pure shooter, Paul the rare four with passing vision - then 2014/15 is going to be a really solid season. If not - and let's face it, at least one of them is going to fall short of my paper expectations - then that team will have to rely on big leaps from the sophomores (like maybe Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan) or a BTFOY-contender impact from Snider or Black.
Still, when I look at that team, I see us returning to the second weekend of the tournament for the first time since 2005 (GAH). Add Cliff Alexander, and if I squint I can see Indianapolis. Seniors, almost everyone returning, sophomore leaps, impact freshmen - it's all there.
This got a lot more interesting when we added Quentin Snider. The giant gaping hole in that team was a lead guard. Someone who has the ball on a string and can replace Tracy Abrams as the point man. Now, we won't need to play the "Cosby or Nunn can handle the point, right?" game. Snider is the guy.
Of course, we don't know any of the members of the 2015 recruiting class yet, so we don't exactly have all of the paper we need. The ceiling for that team can go much higher with an impact freshman like a Carlton Bragg. Add someone like him (and let's fact it, at some point John Groce is going to add someone like him), and the ceiling goes that much higher. But knowing what we know, I think 2015/16 is definitely a top-25 team.
The core of that team gives us everything we need, I think. Snider (SO), Cosby (the only senior), Hill (JR), Nunn (JR), Black (SO), Paul (JR), Morgan or Colbert (both juniors). Maybe at that point we're getting something from Jaylon Tate (JR) or Michael Finke (SO).
When I put those names through the formula in my head, though, it spits out two concerns: 1) There's enough top-100 talent in the backcourt to know that we'll be solid, but the frontcourt is a bit shaky as we're counting on outside-the-top-100 players like Morgan or Colbert to be ready for Big Ten play. And 2) "the only senior". If Cosby is the only senior on that team, that immediately sets off my "but the following year..." trigger.
Bottom line: I think adding Snider was huge for the 2015/16 season. Add one ready-right-away freshman big man and that team is suddenly a big-time Big Ten contender.
Again, we don't know the recruiting yet. As of right now, we only have one scholarship available for that season, but if history is any guide, we'll have at least one or two open up by then. So we're even further into the unknown without knowing the 2015 and 2016 recruiting classes.
But I still want to talk about 2016/17. Because if this recruiting trajectory continues, that might be the season where we really break through. Everyone returning - check. Senior leadership (if they all stick around, Nunn, Hill, Paul, Colbert, Morgan, and Tate are all seniors) - check. Other upperclassmen filling important roles (Black, Snider, and Finke) - check. Add in a 2015 class making their sophomore leap that year (maybe guys like SG Aaron Jordan or WF DJ Williams?), and you really have everything you need to make a run.
Is it a Final Four run? Way too soon to tell, of course. But we know that the majority of Final Four teams have McDonald's All Americans on the roster, and as of right now, that team won't have any. So I don't think you can dream that big until we start landing top-25 kids. But if those four or five spots that fill out the 2016/17 team include a few Burger Boys (and again, I have full confidence that John Groce is headed there), then that team would truly have everything you need.
On paper, of course.