What It's Supposed To Look Like
So if this all goes as planned - if Brad Underwood is the coach who will return illinois basketball to being Illinois Basketball - what will that look like? What is the path to get back there? I've written a lot about football rebuilds, but what does a basketball rebuild look like?
I've always had this thing I've said - give a football rebuild five full years, but a basketball rebuild can be accomplished in 2.5 years. The main reason - basketball can be rebuilt with just a few recruits, while football takes recruiting dozens of players, getting them on 24-36 month strength programs, etc etc. Basketball systems are often implemented by December of your first year - football is usually one year of confusion, one year of starting to understand, and then a we-get-it-now season. And, at Illinois, attracting basketball recruits should be easy while attracting football recruits is almost impossible.
All of that to say that this post is not going to be a "strap in because it's going to take 4-5 years until we're all the way there" like if it was a football post. The path to basketball redemption can happen quickly. Especially if you, you know, land Mr. Basketball 2017 and follow that up with the likely Mr. Basketball 2018.
Now, things are going to be rough at first. John Groce inherited three very experienced seniors in Brandon Paul, DJ Richardson, and Tyler Griffey. And he went out and found a fourth in Sam McLaurin. Brad Underwood inherited zero seniors, so he went out and added one in Mark Alstork, a transfer from Wright State. But all of the seniors just graduated (Malcolm, Mav, Tracy, Malcolm, Tate, Malcolm), so Underwood is inheriting a wildly inexperienced team. Which is both good and bad.
Good in that what Groce went through (a complete overhaul after his first season) won't be happening again. I think we can clearly say that Brad Underwood's first year will be the worst of his tenure. If it's bad, nowhere to go but up. If it's a really good season? Katy bar the door because Brad Underwood is about to wreck the Big Ten.
With all of that established. let's set some general goals for this third-time's-a-charm rebuild. Weber couldn't sustain things, Groce couldn't rebuilt it, Underwood.....
Well, if the charity exhibition is any indication, it's going to be a rough one. There's no real identity yet. Like, at all.
Which is to be expected, I guess. Malcolm Hill was the identity the last few years, and with him gone (plus JCL, Abrams, Morgan, Tate, DJW, and Thorne), it's a completely different team. It's more or less the two juniors (Finke and Black), the two sophomores (Kipper and Te'Jon), and then everything else is brand new. Yes, we could see some contribution from Aaron Jordan, but the success of this team rests on the newcomers: senior transfer Mark Alstork, Mr. Basketball Mark Smith, and the other freshmen (Trent Frazier, DaMonte Williams, Greg Eboigbodin, and Matic Vesel).
When the unofficial Big Ten media poll came out and Illinois was picked 12th out of 14 teams, I said no way. After the EIU exhibition loss, I said "way". I guess I didn't realize just how far we have to go. The EIU exhibition was so very ragged. A system that completely overhauls everything + no player with more than two years experience in high major basketball + a bunch of freshmen playing their first game ever = disaster.
Add to that the one thing that Brad Underwood has focused in on: the mentality of the roster. He's looking for toughness and leadership and, apparently, finding a bunch of players who all said "Malcolm will do it" the last few seasons. So, it's going to take some time. One senior (a transfer), three juniors (one who hasn't really played much), two sophomores, and five freshmen. Welcome to a complete overhaul.
OK, now things start to round into form. Only one player graduated (Mark Alstork, the fifth-year transfer), so you return the entire team and you replace Alstork with your best recruit in a decade. So next offseason looks 100% completely different than this offseason. Instead of training 11 players in your system, the majority of them underclassmen, now you have 10 players trained in your system (with a full year under their belt) and all you have to do is work in the superstar freshman. Who, more or less, is just plug-and-play at Alstork's position and you just keep rolling.
It's why I'm so excited about the Maui Invitational next year. The field is impossible (Arizona, Duke, Gonzaga, Xavier, Iowa State, San Diego State, Auburn, Illinois), but that's why I dig it. How long has it been since we played a game on a big stage? How long has it been since we had that Illinois Basketball feeling? A first-round matchup with Duke or Arizona and we're bringing a starting lineup of something like Mr Basketball Mark Smith, Mr Basketball Ayo Dosunmu, Kipper (JR) Black (SR) Finke (SR)? Bring it.
No, we won't be "back" yet, but it will feel like we're going to get to play on that stage soon. And if that month is combined with a really good November 2018 Signing Day (hi there, Francis Okoro; oh hey, Kahlil Whitney), then thing will really feel like they're headed back.
This will be interesting because of the lack of bigs. Or, this will be interesting because of the graduation of Leron Black and Michael Finke.
It seems like the backcourt will be perfectly fine. You'll have senior Te'Jon Lucas, junior Mark Smith (if he doesn't go pro, which, after only seeing him once, I think might be a possibility after his sophomore or junior year?), junior DaMonte Williams, junior Trent Frazier, and sophomore Ayo Dosunmu. Plus senior Kipper who is a wing forward but fills some "backcourt" needs. Plus any guards recruited in the 2019 class. It feels like Brad Underwood will have nearly everything he needs to challenge in the Big Ten with that backcourt mix.
But what happens in the frontcourt. As of right now the two starters would be Greg Eboigbodin (who we stole from UIC in the spring signing period) and Matic Vesel (from Slovenia). Can that backcourt win with a completely unknown frontcourt? I suppose it's possible that Eboigbodin or Vesel could surprise and be Big Ten-caliber big men. But that's a stretch for just one of them to get there, let alone both.
Which means that recruiting bigs - both this spring with our two open scholarships and next summer and fall (ESPECIALLY next summer and fall) is wildly important. Okoro is the key, of course. A ready-to-start-as-a-freshman big just down the road in Normal. Possible five-star, likely 2019 Mr. Basketball - all of these problems could be solved by just landing that one guy.
It's hard to see beyond that. Adam Miller is the #1 target for the 2020 class as of today. A five-star sophomore guard who moved from Peoria to Chicago to pair with Dosunmu at Morgan Park. But seven other names will emerge in the next few years (heck, more names will emerge in the 2019 class soon), so it's hard to say "here's what our roster looks like and here's the high school players we'll be chasing.
But, I think the 2.5 year rule holds true. 2017/18 is likely a struggle, much like the football team this year (well, not nearly that bad but the hole wasn't nearly that deep). Just a young team learning the system and enduring losses like EIU. 2018/19 should be a big step forward - everyone back, add a five-star, lots of experience.
And then around January of 2020 we'll have a really good idea of where this thing is going. These young guards will be leading us, so we'll see how far Brad Underwood can take significant raw talent. The frontcourt will be cleared out and need to be reloaded so we'll see if Brad Underwood can identify, recruit, and develop frontcourt talent. We'll have seen a signing day in November 2018 (for the 2019 class) and November 2019 (for the 2020 class), so we'll have a really good idea about the talent coming in for the future.
Bruce Weber started strong and then drove it into the ditch. John Groce got us right to the top of the slope immediately but then we endured a long slow slide right back down to the bottom. Brad Underwood will likely start in the ditch for a while, but his history suggests that his tires have really good traction.
Let's turn the key.