8 Wins Or Sweet 16?
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I somewhat invented this statistic. Two years ago, after five years blogging about mediocre teams, I looked up the recent Big Ten history and saw that every team had at least one 8-win football season or Sweet 16 basketball season since 2009... except Illinois. A Twitter follower looked it up this year and saw that 62 of 65 P5 teams had accomplished this. When will we?
Our friends in that basement: Wake Forest and Colorado. Besides those two (and us), every other Power Five school has had at least one of those results since 2009. Some have only one or two of them (Minnesota, for example, just has the 8-5 football seasons in 2013 and 2014; Purdue just has the 2010 Sweet 16), but many have had multiple appearances. Wisconsin (God it's going to hurt to look this up) - Wisconsin had at least eight football wins all seven years and have been to the Sweet 16 five of those seven years.
I realize that this stat is personal to me - I came up with it just to scream "WHEN WILL I GET TO WRITE ABOUT A GOOD TEAM?" - but now that we're seven years deep, it drives me more insane each day. Not that I can't write about a good team; that we're truly one of the worst P5 programs at the moment. (Not that I needed to inform you of that fact.)
So when will we get there? When will we break through this barrier (which I totally made up but dammit we need to)? Could it happen this next school year? Let's take a look:
I already wrote a post talking about the next few years and what to look for in this rebuild. In short, 2016 has great potential, 2017 looks like a gutted rebuild, 2018 starts the road back, 2019 is when it should begin to take off.
But even at "begin to take off", it just takes a long time with football. Look at Ricky Smalling, Lovie's very first recruit (beating Kendall Smith by about 45 minutes). Smalling is a very talented wide receiver who will likely play right away and not redshirt. But that means freshman in the rebuilding year of 2017, sophomore in 2018, and true junior in my proposed "year where it should begin to take off" of 2019.
The vast majority of this 2017 class he's recruiting now? They'll be redshirt sophomores in 2019. Lovie's fourth season and his two-deep will still likely be two-thirds Beckman/Cubit players. It takes forever to turn over a football roster. Just look at the Zook recruits who will start for Lovie this fall (Taylor Barton, Joe Spencer, Rob Bain). It feels like Zook has been gone for a dozen years yet there's his players in the starting lineup.
So if roster overhauls really do take that long, when is Lovie's best chance for eight wins? Honestly, it's probably this season followed by 2019. Freshmen don't win many football games, but seniors do, and right now my depth chart has six seniors starting on offense and eight seniors starting on defense (plus a senior kicker and senior punter). If you don't want to take my word for it, listen to Lovie's answer to the question at the 3:09 mark of this video:
Since I'm a comp guy, I'd say the closest thing to this Illini team I can remember is the 2012 Penn State team. All of that turmoil (way more than we experienced the last year, obviously), an NFL coach takes over (Bill O'Brien), no one is expecting very much, but the team and their 24 seniors (led by senior QB Matt McGloin and senior LB Michael Mauti) went out and won eight games. I could see a scenario where Illinois, after all that turmoil, and their NFL coach taking over, goes out and wins eight games because of their 24 seniors (led by senior QB Wes Lunt and senior LB Hardy Nickerson). When you break down the individual games, yeah, it doesn't look very likely, but there's precedent for a bunch of seniors putting a stamp on a program the first year.
Still, if you watched the spring scrimmage, we have a long, long way to go to get there. Nothing about the spring was crisp (nor should we expect it to be), so if we did find some way to win eight games, it would likely be something like that Penn State team. They lost their first two games (to Ohio U and Virginia) before rebounding to win eight of ten.
So I think I'll land there. Eight wins this football season? Not very likely. But possible, given all the seniors.
Honestly, the roster is there to do it. Even with Kendrick Nunn gone. Just looking at the roster makeup (taking out the results of the last few seasons and looking only at talent + experience), yes, that team absolutely should be able to do that.
6th year senior point guard who was a consensus top-100 player coming out of high school.
Sophomore shooting guard who was a top-35 player and shot 42% from three as a freshman.
Senior wing/guard who will be preseason 1st-team all-conference.
Redshirt sophomore power forward who was a top-50 player coming out of high school.
6th-year senior center who averaged 13 points and 9 rebounds per game before an injury in his 7th game.
Right there, just with that, ignoring the bench, that's a generic Sweet 16 team. If you're flipping through a preseason magazine (heh, I'm old) and you see that, I don't know, Arizona State has four top-100 players in the starting lineup, (two in the top-40) plus a 5th year transfer offered by Kentucky and Kansas, they start three seniors and two sophomore leapers, and they have a conference POY candidate... right there, without knowing the players or the coach, you think that might be a Sweet 16 team.
It's not even that crazy to say that you could potentially see all five of those players making a push for an All-Conference team. Jalen Coleman-Lands second team All Big Ten after scoring 16 a game and hitting 48% of his threes? I could see it. Mike Thorne averaging 14 and 10 and making the third team? Could happen. Heck, with Black and Thorne, could we go from one of the worst rebounding teams in the conference to one of the best? It could happen.
WILL it happen? I mean, you have to say it's doubtful. Even getting three injured starters back, it's quite the leap to go from 5-13 in the conference to the Sweet 16. The talent and experience might be there, but that just means the coaching and the schemes are holding us back. And if it all fails, Josh Whitman will be looking for a new coach in March.
Still, the fact remains that in my blogging timeframe (2009 through today), the 2016/17 roster is probably only behind the 2010-11 team (ranked #13 preseason, lost to Kansas in Round of 32) and the 2012-13 team (won Maui and found themselves as high as 10th nationally, last minute loss to Miami in the Round of 32) in terms of "roster with the ability to reach the Sweet 16". I'll repeat again just so I make sure you're following me: roster. I said similar things before the 2011/12 season. Roster-wise, it's there (and that team proved it, climbing to as high as #19 before coming apart at the seams during Big Ten play). Will it be there coaching-wise? We shall see.
So which program has a better chance of getting us out of the Wake Forest/Colorado/Illinois losers club? Honestly, of any of the next three seasons, it's probably 2016/17 basketball. The following year is a rebuild for both squads, so I don't expect very much in 2017/18. Football will be a long, slow build with only a slight chance of eight wins this season. So yeah, it's basketball this year or we might go ten years without a Sweet 16 or an 8-win football season. While Wisconsin might go 17 for 20.
Please make it happen this year. Please, someone, bring food to this starving fanbase.