On Paper

Sep 25, 2016

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I’m a big paper guy. I’m probably never going to change. If a team looks good on paper, they should be good on the court/field. Paper is big for college football but probably even bigger in college basketball. Land solid recruits, win games. And before this basketball season starts, I want it noted again: we have really good paper.

Look at the preseason top-25 and at least 18 of the teams will be there because of their paper. It’s not the coaching, it’s not the scheme (although both help). Those teams are expected to go far because they’re more talented than their opponents. And we knew they would be talented years ago when the high school player rankings came out. They were talented on paper and now they’re talented on the court.

Which begs the question: how do we look on paper? Where does this 2016/17 Illini team stack up against the rest of the Big Ten? Would you believe… maybe the third best talent?

Here’s my methodology. In an internet debate recently I told someone Illinois probably had the fifth or sixth best talent in the conference. Realizing I didn’t just have to guess at the number – we have composite rankings for every player – I set out to find out where we stacked up on paper.

I chose 247’s Composite Rankings for this exercise. They take the Scout rankings, the Rivals rankings, the ESPN rankings, and their own rankings, combine all four scores, and come up with a “composite” score. Aaron Jordan gets a score of .9273 which was the 117th-best score in the 2015 recruiting class. So if we take all of those rankings for all of the Big Ten teams, who has the best score?

Now, I’m me, and looking up all 182 Big Ten players seemed like an impossible task (or, at least a task where I’d need an intern), so I took a shortcut. 247 gives each class an average player rating. So if I just combine all of those averages, I can get to the number I’m looking for (which is just “where do our four classes stack up with the rest of the Big Ten?”).

This isn’t the world’s best math – I should have weighted all the averages (teams will have a class of four players one year and two players the next year, and averaging those averages isn't weighted properly). And I should have poured over the rosters to find transfers (like Mike Thorne) and dismissals (like Kendrick Nunn). But I don’t think any of that would have changed the order of these rankings very much. Mark Turgeon has still recruited very well at Maryland – when his recruits miss the top-100, they don’t miss by much – while Iowa just hasn’t recruited well since their 2012 class. I could weight those classes and pull out the transfers and I still think they’d rank close to the top and close to the bottom.

So let’s call this Robert math. Averages of average scores that more or less tell the story. Not all three-stars are the same – Michigan is bringing in three-stars that just missed the top-100 while Rutgers is bringing in three stars who weren’t even close to the top-200 - and using these composite averages helps sort that out.

OK, with all of that out of the way, here’s where the averages come out. Average player rating over the last four recruiting classes:

Ohio State 94.3725
Maryland 92.64
Illinois 91.8975
MSU 91.21
Purdue 91.17
Indiana 88.685
Michigan 88.6325
Northwestern 87.1425
Minnesota 87.11
Penn State 86.1925
Wisconsin 84.9175
Nebraska 84.4275
Iowa 82.2925
Rutgers 79.91

The first thing than jumps out: Illinois ahead of Michigan State? Really? I think those two would have switched if the classes were weighted. Michigan State’s scores is held down by their 2013 class (Gavin Schilling, Alvin Ellis) which had an average player rating of 80.82. But then again, that’s kind of the point of this exercise. Michigan State had crazy good classes (average recruit last year: 98.97) and bad classes (2013 – 80.83), while Illinois’ class averages were fairly consistent: 92.34, 92.62, 91.89, 90.74.

Do I think we have the third best talent in the Big Ten? No. This is just paper talent, and paper talent told us Nigel Hayes wasn’t very good, and now he might be the best player in the Big Ten, so real results trump paper. But I do think this tells us about the raw materials available to each coach. I don’t care if Coach K was hired at Rutgers – no coach is going to win in the Big Ten with an average player rating of 79.91. That’s a team that would struggle to finish 7th in the Missouri Valley.

It also points to teams ready to maybe fall off the cliff like Iowa (second to last on the list). After a solid class in 2012 (average score of 89) that more or less carried their last four seasons, they haven’t come close to recruiting at that level. And with that 2012 class now graduated, look out below.

But I did this to talk about Illinois, so let’s talk about Illinois. As I've said many times, I've looked at the first four years of John Groce like this:

2012/13: Great stuff. Took the mis-used talent and built a solid team.
2013/14: Perfectly fine. Cupboard was bare beyond the 2009 class, so start to rebuild.
2014/15: Yuck. Experienced, battle-tested team fell flat on its face.
2015/16: Incomplete. Lose three starters for the season and you’re not going to learn anything.

So it’s fully understandable to see Illinois listed as finishing somewhere between 9th and 12th in the Big Ten. After consistent finishes down at the bottom and a recruiting class of one single player (ranked #141) coming in this fall, why would anyone expect improvement? Well, this list is why.

The starting lineup has four top-100 players (Abrams, JCL, Hill, and Black) plus a transfer at center who chose Illinois over Kentucky and Kansas. I just looked at every Big Ten team’s recruiting class and I’d say only five other teams (Maryland, MSU, Purdue, Indiana, and Ohio State) can match a starting lineup like that (on paper). And bench-wise, I’d say Illinois is clearly ahead of eight or nine (and maybe ten or eleven) other Big Ten teams. We’re looking at raw material here, and really, Illinois is easily top-5 in the conference from any angle you look at this.

Which just further confirms what we’ve been discussing all summer: this is absolutely a no-excuses year. And not just “no excuses to not sneak into the tournament” – no excuses to not contend in the Big Ten and make a push for a good seed in the tournament. I drew my line at “should be favored in first NCAA Tournament game”, but really, you could draw it higher. This exercise showed me that many Big Ten teams haven’t recruited well on the back end – they have four or five good players but then it’s a huge dropoff on their bench. Illinois doesn’t have that – the raw material goes 9-10-11 players deep – and because Illinois doesn’t have that, Illinois needs to start winning basketball games immediately.

The way the schedule sets up, we’ll know a lot by early December. That run of West Virginia plus Temple/Florida State in New York City, followed by NC State, followed by VCU, means we’ll learn a lot early. What I’m hoping we learn: this team is really talented and has taken a huge step forward.


Trevor on September 25, 2016 @ 04:48 PM

So a top 4 finish in the league, second weekend of the tournament, and a BTPOY for Mr. Hill? Got it.

Joe Edge on September 25, 2016 @ 07:52 PM

I like paper too... I use it at least twice a day... lol...

But seriously, you speak about 'raw material' a lot, but fail to mention that our 'raw material' appears somewhat flawed.... on paper. One probable starter (TA) hasn't played competitively in over 2 1/2 years, and has sustained 2 very, very serious injuries, and wasn't all B1G when 100% healthy. Another probable starter (MT - who spurned Kansas and Kentucky) is also coming off of a very serious injury, and yet another (LB - who also suffered a serious injury) has demonstrated that he can probably foul out during the pre-game warmups... A fourth probable starter (JCL) is just now recovering (not at 100%) from a broken hand to his shooting hand. So, as I look at the paper (with much more information on it), it doesn't seem as 'rosy' as some believe. I do agree that by Thanksgiving, or just after that, we'll know a ton more about this team. For now... I'll just wait and see....

Robert on September 26, 2016 @ 10:00 AM

I don't think any of that gives Groce an out. This is now fully his team,and he recruited a team that is currently top-5 in the conference in talent. So now he needs to coach that team to that level.

Joe Edge on September 26, 2016 @ 12:21 PM

'So now he needs to coach that team to that level.'

This...For sure ! !

ATOillini on September 25, 2016 @ 08:53 PM

Since you already mentioned Nigel Hayes, I also looked up Ethan Happ. He was .8991, which is less than the average of the top 5 teams on your list. So.....is it coaching 'em up or the uncanny ability of their staff to pick up under appreciated talent...or both?

Robert on September 26, 2016 @ 09:57 AM

Both, but it's way more B than A in my opinion. Bo Ryan consistently identified overlooked talent for 15 years. Like Happ, a player that had three offers - Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wisconsin-Green Bay, and Wisconsin. Happ isn't going to be that good as a freshman if it's just coaching. Maybe you could say a guy like Kaminsky was developed over years (more coaching than finding a diamond in the rough), but Happ was pretty clearly identifying a nobody who could be a somebody.

Bear8287 on September 25, 2016 @ 09:06 PM

This isn’t the world’s best math –

Hey, when is Alex's next article going to appear? Can't wait to read it.

Bear8287 on September 26, 2016 @ 04:58 PM


Alex tracker:

Month : # of Articles June : 1 July : 3 Aug : 5 Sept : 1

Four days left in the month and is this it?

Robert, you've forgotten more about football and Illini football than I'll likely ever know, and I really enjoy reading your articles on Illini Football and often your human interest stories too, but my subscription runs out after football season and I won't be renewing to read articles like this one.

As a "charter subscriber" who paid above the asking price for the first two years and has offered to pay more for improvements to IlliniBoard, only to be told summer after summer that they're coming and then not see them and to see new promising writers appear but only to last a few months...

When I respond to Alex's posts that my subscription renewal likely hangs on his still writing for IlliniBoard it's not a joke.

[Gee, wouldn't it also be nice to be able to enter tabled data and have an edit capability for main article post comments just like in the forum section?]

Duce20 on September 27, 2016 @ 12:42 PM

Well considering practice for basketball hasn't even started yet I think you're being quite melodramatic.

thumpasaurus on September 26, 2016 @ 11:27 AM

I think we're looking at this season in a similar way. I'm excited because one of two things is going to happen, both of which are exciting.

  1. We have a good Illinois Basketball season and it feels like Illinois Basketball is supposed to feel

  2. We get a new head coach and then we can start getting excited about the future.

Joe Edge on September 26, 2016 @ 12:15 PM

I'm always afraid that we'll fall 'in-between'...

IOW: We'll win just enough games to get to the bubble, and be firmly into the 'losers bracket' (NIT), so JW will give him an extension - apparently JW likes JG ? ? So we'll be 4 consecutive years with no nc2a bid, but we'll still have the coach who couldn't get us there...

Sweetchuck13 on September 27, 2016 @ 08:58 AM

If we're on the bubble and land in the NIT, I don't think there's any way Groce keeps his job. Even if JW likes Groce, he can't defend that record given the expectations of IL Basketball. I think Robert's expectations are completely fair - either we're firmly in the tourney with a solid season, or we're on the bubble and looking for a new coach.

NC_OrangeKrush on September 26, 2016 @ 11:28 AM

Feedback please... 4 years of not executing a great offense or ball movement throughout the Groce era, give me a good feeling why this group, will succeed when they have not previously.... Even with all the ratings...

Here's hoping something changed.... Go Illini!

Robert on September 26, 2016 @ 02:03 PM

Well, the hope is that last year's disaster was the result of the three season-ending injuries and not the coaching/schemes and that everything would have looked like the UAB game had everyone been healthy.

This "group", as you say, has never played together. And certainly not as seniors and sophomores. Again, it's just hope until it happens, but I would say the hope for this season is that everyone getting a year older + getting Abrams, Thorne, and Black back = night and day difference.

And if it doesn't, Josh Whitman knows what to do.

iluvrt on September 26, 2016 @ 11:36 AM

I believe this team is still coached by John Freaking Groce and the same incompetents he brought in at the start of his tenure. I've never seen a coaching scheme of his that made any sense. I don't see why I would expect one this year. I fear the pundits have this team rated correctly.
I look for a really good coaching hire next year....

uofibonehead on September 26, 2016 @ 01:02 PM

Let's face it. JFG is still here because of ONE fact... his next recruiting class actually looks awesome. If those kids sign LOIs and heck maybe he even grabs one more surprise, he's going NOWHERE.

orangeandblue on September 26, 2016 @ 02:31 PM

I'll be pleasantly surprised if this team makes the NCAA tourney. Sure on paper their HS rankings indicate they should be a tourney team but that was six years ago for some of these guys. Ranked today I'd guess we'd be about 9th in the B1G. Illini basketball will not return to what we expect this year. But the 2017 recruiting class has that potential. It would be great for the basketball team to over perform this year as that might generate even more recruiting momentum. Let's not forget where the experts picked our football team to be this year and how many fans thought we were a bowl team. Experts turned out to be pretty right on there and I suspect they won't be far off on the basketball predictions either. The excitement for both programs is in the future still. But that's ok because there have been times recently where we haven't even had much hope for the future. #WeWillWin

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