How to Watch a Young Team
You would think Illini fans would be pretty good at this by now. It seems that there is this constant state of "but wait until next year." I mean, when Brad Underwood was hired, it's all I would talk about. "Sure, his first year will be an adjustment year, but in 2018/19, once we get to Maui, watch out!"
Just look at the roster we were envisioning at the time. If we assume Brad Underwood would have landed Ayo Dosunmu and hung onto the rest of the roster, here's the lineup we expected for Maui in a few weeks:
Trent Frazier (SO)
Ayo Dosunmu (FR)
Jalen Coleman-Lands (SR)
Leron Black (SR)
Michael Finke (SR)
Mark Smith (SO)
Kipper Nichols (JR)
Aaron Jordan (SR)
DJ Williams (SR)
Te'Jon Lucas (JR)
Da'Monte Williams (SO)
A starting lineup with three seniors, a bench with two seniors and two juniors, a few sophomore leaps here and there… that's the kind of roster that can win the Maui Invitational. It reminds you of the last Illini team to win the Maui Invitational – everyone is a senior, the new scheme clicks, Illinois rockets into the polls.
But as we covered earlier, that's not how it played out. Of the five seniors listed there, only one remains (Aaron Jordan). One of the juniors and one of the sophomores left as well, leaving the roster we just discussed. One returning senior plus a fifth-year transfer, one returning junior plus a junior college transfer, two returning sophomores, and then all freshmen. That's… not very much like the 2012/13 team that won Maui.
As a result, the Big Ten Media poll, which picked Illinois 12th in the conference last season (actual finish: tied for 10th) picked Illinois 13th this season, one spot ahead of Rutgers. Why so low? That's easy. Four returning players. When at least one of your starters is going to be a new player (plus your entire bench), things are probably going to be pretty rough for a while.
I mean, there's a dark timeline here. Remember how everyone bailed on last year's Pitt team (including the player they tried to prevent from transferring to North Carolina, Cam Johnson), leaving only three remaining players at Pitt? They did something similar (a fifth-year transfer, a juco, a bunch of freshmen) but it… didn't go well. They went winless in the ACC and Kevin Stallings was fired.
Now, they didn't have a Trent returning (like, not at all). And they didn't have a recruit anywhere close to Ayo Dosunmu (like, not at all). And they only had end-of-the-bench players returning, not a Kipper or a Jordan. Basically, their situation was something like this: everyone besides Jordan, Williams, and Eboigbodin transferred and no ranked recruits signed on. So this timeline won't be nearly that dark.
It might be a struggle, though. Returning players are the key to any second season for any coach (they now know the system and it's time to make a move), and Underwood only has four. And two of them are underclassmen. This is very much like starting over a second time.
And, as you've read in other places in this preview, the roster is, um, a bit backcourt-heavy. As in, four-out, one-in might actually be five-out, zero-in. As in, the guards have been working on their post defense in practice. As in, you might see point guard Ayo Dosunmu guarding Purdue's 7'-3" Matt Haarms at times when players are rotating out.
Now, this can be an advantage on the other end of the court. The offense that Tyler described can be very effective against bigger, more laboring defenses. And the defense Tyler described can really frustrate a frontcourt-heavy team, especially if they don't have a solid point guard. In order to dominate Illinois in the paint, you have to get the ball into the paint.
Still, you can picture what this looks like when things are going poorly, right? Juwan Morgan of Indiana scoring at will in the lane? Michigan State getting pretty much every single rebound the entire game because the freshman Illini frontcourt seems lost? A team with a really solid point guard slicing through our pressure and ending up with 14 assists on seven layups and seven dunks? The most important statistic this year is probably "four upperclassmen, eight underclassmen" (sound familiar, football fans?), and when a team is that young, the rough patches come frequently.
So if the season drags on and is headed for sub-.500, why tune in? I'll give you three reasons.
1. The Trent & Ayo Show
I'm just telling you now, if they're both still in Champaign in three years, that's a top-five backcourt in all of college basketball. I'm being 100 percent completely serious. It has the potential to be mentioned with some of those epic Illini backcourts of the past.
Trent you know. Ayo you don't, but just think of the perfect compliment to Trent in the backcourt. Someone who excels at ballhandling, passing, and defense, right? Someone who can get to the rim when teams focus on Trent? That's what I believe Ayo will be. He's the highest-rated Illini recruit since 2010, he has the chance to be an elite, Big Ten Defensive Player Of The Year-type defender, and he can be the passing engine for Brad Underwood's offense.
And the best (?) news: he probably doesn't have the jumpshot to go pro early. That's not to say he won't develop one, but as of right now, he's an intangibles-first, scoring-second kind of player. If it was the other way around, that might be a two-year player, but flip it and he might be at Illinois for four years.
So my biggest focus this year will be watching the first act of the Trent & Ayo Show. Hopefully the first of three acts. And the third act should bring the house down.
2. Potential for 2019/20
You're used to this, right? Watching this year for next year? That's the most likely fan scenario for the Illini fan this season. You're watching this year for next year.
There are two seniors – one returnee (Aaron Jordan) and one fifth-year transfer (Adonis De La Rosa). So if we're watching for next year, the first step is to think about how this team will replace them. My guess: Jordan's production is filled by a sophomore leap in 2019/20 by Tevian Jones. And De La Rosa is replaced by a frontcourt recruit to be named later. Perhaps it's another fifth-year transfer. Perhaps it's a high school player that signs in the fall or the spring. But those are the two needs (replace Jordan, replace De La Rosa), and I believe one of them is already accomplished.
So we're watching to see what the "four guards and Kipper" lineup looks like, because it will return in full the next season. We're watching to see how Andres Feliz fits in with Trent and Ayo because he, too, returns in 2019/20. We're watching to see how the other guards develop (like Da'Monte Williams and Alan Griffin). We're watching to see if Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Samba Kane can survive their freshman seasons and get to that sophomore leap.
Everything about this season, to me, is about next year. Whatever happens this season, 2019/20 will be better.
Brad Underwood is demanding (have I mentioned that?). He really pushes his players in practice and in games. There was a definite disconnect last season as Underwood struggled to get his inherited roster to run his system.
This second squad seems much more bought-in to the concept. The body language of last year's exhibition loss to Eastern Illinois versus the body language of this year's exhibition win was night and day (I cannot emphasize this enough – night and day). Yes, EIU was a "tougher" opponent, but that remains the most deer-in-headlights Illini game I've ever attended (and I've been attending for 30 years).
So I'm most looking forward to seeing the team's progress on the "toughness" scale. At the core, this is the culture that Brad Underwood is attempting to overhaul. The, "why do we only rally when there's not enough time left?" under Bruce Weber and the, "how is it possible we just gave up another 18-0 run?" under John Groce (remember the final three games of 2015? The Purdue meltdown blowing an 18-point lead and then the Michigan meltdown in the Big Ten Tournament and then the Alabama meltdown in the NIT?) will hopefully turn into the, "I'll say this – his teams always battle" under Brad Underwood.
I think we saw some of that last year, right? As the season wore on, there weren't as many meltdowns. Overmatched, sure, but the toughness grew as the season wound down. Now, hopefully, a continuation of that.
Yes, I'm saying that this season probably won't go very well. I'm saying that Illinois is picked 13th in the conference for a reason. This is most likely a growing season, building towards a leap next year.
Why am I so negative? Have you SEEN the schedule?