Nov 21, 2018

Perhaps I'm unique in this. Perhaps I'm in the minority by following my teams this way. And perhaps I'm a bit naive in my "be patient and wait to see where this ends up" ways. But it's really the only way I know how to do this. Set expectations for each season and then measure what you see against those expectations.

It's something that often gets misinterpreted, so maybe that's where we get off track ("we" meaning me the Twitter tweeter and you the "STOP WITH THE POSITIVITY, ROBERT" responder). If there's one consistent theme in my Twitter mentions during this miserable decade of Illini athletics, it's that people don't think I'm angry enough. Some take it to the point of saying that if I was angrier, it would put more pressure on the school and then they'd "do something" to fix Illini athletics.

I don't believe that, obviously. I do think the Twitter faction of "say exaggerated positive things about the Illini players and recruits" people is dangerous - building a fantasy land when there aren't serious structural issues - but I don't see any issue with setting expectations and then following those expectations. It probably makes me way more patient than most, but really, it's the only way to do it, at least in my head. Here's what I mean:

I try to set my expectations by removing the fan side. I'll read season previews by other blogs so that there's not an ounce of hope involved. Get an outsider's opinion of the team because they're simply looking at the coach + the roster + the experience. I'm going to say that again because it's important. When setting expectations for a team, I think it's best to remove all of the "it has been SO LONG SINCE WE MADE THE TOURNAMENT" from my brain and get someone else's opinion on my team. Someone who doesn't wake up every day thinking about how it's been SO LONG SINCE WE MADE THE TOURNAMENT.

So here's the Illini preview from the Michigan blog MGoBlog. They picked the Illini 13th in the conference, same as the media poll.

13. Illinois

A storied program has fallen on hard times. After losing Bill Self to Kansas, Bruce Weber was able to sustain his success for a while - and once coached the national runner-up - but eventually fell off. Illinois thought they could do better, but after the disastrous John Groce era (and Weber's modest success at Kansas State), that decision looked much worse in hindsight than it did at the time. Brad Underwood built up Stephen F. Austin into an impressive program for their conference and had a good year in his single season at Oklahoma State, but he has to dig out of a huge hole here.

Last Season
In what was Year Zero for Underwood at Illinois, the Illini finished just a game ahead of Rutgers in the Big Ten standings. After the season, they lost five of the six players who started at least ten games; four of those left the program early.

Key Player
One of the few bright spots last season for Illinois was freshman point guard Trent Frazier, who took control of the offense partway through the season and put together some impressive performances. He's undersized, but can get his own shot, score at all three levels, and operate as the focal point of the offense. Frazier was fairly efficient, considering his inexperience and role as the key perimeter playmaker for Illinois, and he will probably be one of the most underrated and under-appreciated players in the conference, especially if he can become a more ambidextrous player.

Notable Returnees
Small-ball four Kipper Nichols is the next-best player back for Illinois - he was effective in a limited role (he played less than 20 minutes per game) and will be relied on more in his junior season. Aaron Jordan, a three-point specialist, his 44% of his attempts last season.

With the chaos this past offseason, Underwood needed reinforcements. Ayo Dosunmu just missed the cutoff for five star status and was the top prospect out of Chicago; he's an attacking lead guard with size and should fit nicely with Frazier in the backcourt. Tevian Jones is another four star who should soak up minutes on the wing. The only players over 6'7 on the roster will be Adonis De La Rosa, an enormous mid-major grad transfer, and two unheralded freshmen. Altogether, two thirds of the scholarship players on the team will be in their first year with the program - a truly unfathomable number for any coach in his second season.

It was an interesting first season for Underwood. He went with an incredibly aggressive defensive scheme: the Illini's relentless pressure on the perimeter created a lot of turnovers, but they gave up a ton of easy looks at the rim and had an astronomical foul rate. It was a calculated gamble, given Illinois's terrible interior depth; in the end, it was a bad defense. His players crashed the glass despite their lack of size, but didn't play at the breakneck pace that Underwood's Oklahoma State team did.

Illinois will be bad. Their lack of capable big men will be a huge strain on a bad defense. Underwood's basically back at Year Zero, but Dosunmu is incredibly promising, at least.

"A truly unfathomable number for any coach in his second season". That's the part that stuck with me. It's so true. There's no way around it. Eight newcomers, and unless they're the Fab Five, a losing season is a near certainty.

Is part of that Underwood's "fault"? Yes. I think it's clear that not every player left on their own, and I think it's also clear that Underwood's coaching style led others to leave. He would tell you, I'm guessing, that if people run when he turns up the heat, they're not ready to lead this program back to prominence. And that appeared to be what happened as six players left and eight newcomers arrived. If we're looking for points for/against Brad Underwood here, those are probably points "against". Just like Lovie turning over the entire roster, it didn't have to happen this way.

The way I view it though, I give a lot of latitude for coaches to rebuild programs the way they see fit. It's why I was so patient with Tim Beckman and John Groce (when I probably shouldn't have been). Churning through coaches every three years like Kansas football isn't the answer, at least in my view. Consistency is what we need. So I'm willing to give coaches the time to build what they want to build the way they want to build it.

Which is why I tweeted that "stretch goal - 15 wins" thing. I think this is a 12-20 or maybe 13-19 basketball season, but if things break right, I could see 15-16. That's the number Tyler landed on when he wrote that section of the preview. Given the 4 returnees/8 newcomers thing, and the difficult schedule thing, and the "one returning senior, one returning junior" thing, take out all the emotions and that's probably a 13-19 basketball season.

Remember, I do the same thing with football. I've referenced that Matt Hinton formula (from the 2017 preseason) so many times. His formula just looks at recruiting + returning players + their experience + the results of the last five seasons and then spits out "fans should expect X". And the answer for Lovie's second season in 2017 was "it's going to be a horrific team".

Was that Lovie's fault? No. He was only responsible for one of the recruiting classes and one of the seasons. Maybe 85% of the formula was the program he was handed, 15% was what he had done with it so far. That's the vast majority of why I predicted a 3-9 season in 2017 and a 4-8 season in 2018. (It's also a big reason why I'm hoping to predict something like 7-5 next year and 9-3 in 2020, but let's cross that bridge another time.)

For this basketball season, all I can do is set an expectation (the roster makeup says it's going to be one of our worst seasons ever) and then go looking for hope. I think I'm seeing that hope, and I'm tweeting about it, and it's making people angry. But I really don't know any other way to go about it. Look at what the coach inherited, look at how he's trying to rebuild it, set an expectation for the second year of that, measure the results against that expectation.

The complaint is that this "lowers the bar" or that it "accepts mediocrity", but that's not how I view this (and it's not what I'm attempting to communicate). To me, the bar is the bar (see the MGoBlog preview above), and each season it will rise, and each of those years we'll measure Brad Underwood against it. So far, through four games, I'd say we're moderately exceeding my expectations. Three good halves and one bad one in Maui. Hopefully two more good ones tonight.

And roster-wise, I'm fairly encouraged. It's quite possible that we look at four players in this class (Ayo Dosunmu, Tevian Jones, Alan Griffin, and Giorgi Bezhanishvili) as the rock solid foundation for the rebuild. Both Griffin and Giorgi have far exceeded my expectations so far. Sure, that doesn't help much when Iowa State is beating you down, but I usually try to separate the two. I was really worried about this recruiting class and Maui (plus the first two games) has me feeling much better.

So I'd say I feel like a Virginia fan felt in Maui in 2010. Virginia had gone 15-16 the year before in Tony Bennett's first season. They had some roster turnover (Bennett molding the program with the kind of player he wanted) and they went 1-2 at the Maui Invitational. That season they went on to a 16-15 record and I'm sure there were Virginia fans wondering where the whole thing was headed. Third year they went to the NCAA Tournament, the fourth year to the NIT, and from the fifth year on they began a run of high tournament seeds (including last year's #1 seed where they, well, you know...).

Do I have too much long-term in my expectation? Perhaps. As I said above I was too patient with Groce and Beckman. But because of that I've attempted to add more research to my expectations, and the research I've done says that this roster is capable of maybe 13 wins (as gross as that may sound), so that's where I'm placing the bar. Or, perhaps more accurately, that's where I believe the bar was placed.

Right now, before the Xavier game, I'm hopeful that 14 or 15 wins are out there. I can't really see them, but I'm hopeful. That would go a long way towards building this thing back to where it should be. Just like a fifth win would do for the football team on Saturday.

But that's probably not going to happen. At least I'm not expecting it to. Could it please maybe happen?

Yeah, it's probably not going to happen.


uilaw71 on November 21 @ 04:49 PM CST

Tell Laura not to cry, my love for her will never die.

illiniranger on November 21 @ 05:19 PM CST

To me it’s not just the Ws and Ls, it’s how they occur. For example, I thought 4 Ws for the football team was about right with 5 a definite stretch. That’s pretty spot on. I did not, however, anticipate a defense averaging a 35ish point margin of defeat in conference losses. That’s a really, really bad sign for a rebuild and indicates a strong possibility that the rebuild never gets lift off and we are somehow worse in 2021 then we were in 2016 when all the SOs graduate.

In this case I’m with you - I think my personal prediction was 12 wins. So to me, it’s as much about how we get there as it is the final result. 12 Ws but the conference losses mostly look like the Zaga game? We’re fine. 12 Ws but the losses mostly look like the ISU game? We’re in trouble.

Dr. Chim Richalds on November 21 @ 06:50 PM CST

I think to me the place where my personal view (read: not speaking for everyone else) differs from Robert’s is less about present positivity than what I think has been rose-colored glasses when it comes to projecting the future. The tweet referenced above reminds me of dozens of tweets last year about how all our true freshmen football players were far exceeding their rankings. They may yet be better as juniors and seniors, but those impressive freshmen (most of whom are on defense) are currently guiding the 120th ranked defense. There doesn’t seem to be nearly as much talk this year about jow much better those recruits were than their rankings, so I’m curious if that affects your priors when viewing lower-ranked recruits who play decently as freshmen in losses? Based on the tweet assuming Giorgi and Griffin are going to grade out as 4 stars over their careers, that doesn’t seem to be the case. I’m not saying players don’t generally get better from year to year, but projecting it in a guaranteed linear fashion doesn’t seem to match reality. Our defensive line and receiving corps would seem to indicate as much.

The other place where I think the view of this blog skews positive is in which factors play into the projections going forward. It appears to me at least that there are often negative factors that get discussed as isolated incidents in postgame posts, but don’t influence the overall view or evaluation of the coach. For instance, you’ve mentioned some questioning after several games the past two years of the in-game decision-making and player personnel decisions, as well as the impact of the frequent lengthy suspensions. Despite these points, it’s been said several times that you think an 8+ win season in 2020 followed by a cliff is far more likely than never reaching a peak. That view is usually supported by a blanket worldview that playing freshmen and sophomores early will result in wins 2-3 years later, but I haven’t seen an explanation of whether you think our in-game decision-making will improve (perhaps stop punting at the other team’s 40 on 4th and 3 when your defense is being gashed), our player rotations will improve, and we’ll stop having several key players suspended for multiple games, not to mention being kicked off the team / transferring out. Perhaps the view is that we will become so much better as to overcome those deficiencies and still win 8+ games, but I would be curious to hear if that’s the case.

ATOillini on November 21 @ 08:24 PM CST

I'm going out on a limb here. Hoops is so much different from football that maybe they shouldn't even be discussed on the same blog. To the (I hate) MGoBlog summary.....It was absolutely spot on with this:

"Their lack of capable big men will be a huge strain on a bad defense."

This team has some very exciting players that are going to be fun to watch. But what if you could add any one single player from the following list to this team:

1) Ken Norman 2) Deon Thomas 3) Marcus Griffin 4) Lowell Hamilton 5) Brian Cook 6) James Augustine 7) Probably others I am missing

Think you're looking at a team that wins maybe 4-6 more games...starting with Georgetown. Maybe I'm wrong, but our whiffing on all the big men recruiting targets is killing us. Tilmon hasn't exactly been the superstar that we thought he was when he committed, but I still think he would make this team better.

Not saying at all that the above implies top 15 type ranking. But I do think 1 player makes this an NCAA team barring something crazy.

We need bigs in the worst way. Giorgi unbelievable surprise so far, but if he's paired with any of the above.....changes the complexion of everything. Kipper is just undersized. He's at a severe disadvantage vs much of the competition he will face. Not his fault at a all. Just not tall enough.

larue on November 22 @ 10:25 AM CST

For this team to exceed expectations I thought we needed consistency from Nichols and a significant step forward for Williams. Kipper has been a disaster and I don't think that's going to change. He'll have some good games, but more often disappear. So far Williams is the same player as last year, which isn't bad, but isn't enough.

Giorgi's been a surprise, the rest of the newcomers I think are pretty much as expected. Griffin's had a couple of streaks, but was awful last night. Giorgi has offensive skills, no defensive awareness and is not much of a rebounder. He should be a useful 4 year player, which is certainly more than I expected, but we need to recruit better big men than him.

Get one quality big guy and a wing with size who can really play and I think things could come together next year. Another year of development with this group won't do it.

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