I'm pretty sure this is the biggest roster overhaul of my lifetime. I'm almost positive we've never gone into a season with less than six returnees, let alone four. So with four returning players and eight new guys, this exhibition game was our first chance to see the kind of roster Brad Underwood envisions.
Let's start with last year's exhibition game, an ugly 80-67 loss to Eastern Illinois. Yes, Eastern Illinois is Division I and Illinois Wesleyan is Division III. Please note the following before readingon: I'm certainly not making the argument that these were equal teams and last years loss meant that we were bad and this year's exhibition win means we're good. If they played tomorrow, EIU would destroy Illinois Wesleyan. There are no comps to be found here.
But you can still get a read on a team, I think. You can still get a sense of who they are. Last year, after the EIU meltdown, I wrote a post called Body Language and talked about how that loss changed my outlook on the entire season. The team looked... scared to death when EIU made a run. It was some of the worst Illini body language I'd seen and it made me re-evaluate my outlook on the entire season. Here's what I wrote at the time:
Which just paints a picture of the road ahead. When the media poll came out and Illinois was picked 12th in the Big Ten, I bristled. TWELFTH? We're not going to finish 12th. 12th is something like 5-13 in the conference, and there's no way we're going 5-13 in the conference.
Yeah, we're probably finishing 12th. As the lead evaporated and EIU kept pushing and pushing until the lead jumped to double digits, it just felt like we looked around for Malcolm. The looks our our faces: confusion, frustration, and a little bit of fear.
Yes, just an exhibition game. Yes, it was on the road and little brother was fired up about shooting hoops in his driveway this time. But it changed my outlook on the entire season. From "TWELFTH??" to "yep, twelvth".
This year that same media poll picked us 13th out of 14 Big Ten teams. And my reaction has been "yeah that sounds about right". We only have four returning players (FOUR! I still can't get over it), and pretty much every recent example of a high major team returning less than five players has gone poorly.
After last night? 13th feels a little low. (BUT IT WAS JUST AN EXHIBITION AGAINST ILLINOIS WESLEYAN YOU CAN'T LEARN ANYTHING.) I think you can:
- Andres Feliz is certainly better than I thought he was. I saw that Jon Rothstein tweeted out a list of impact jucos in college basketball this season and he put Feliz 5th on the list. I wasn't sure what I was missing there (this is a guy who, as far as I could tell, had one single offer from Illinois), but after last night, I think I saw the reason for the buzz. He was really good. (YES, IT WAS AGAINST ILLINOIS WESLEYAN.)
- Giorgi was a surprise to me. When he verballed, what with his ranking in the 300's and the main online film being him dribbiling around chairs, this appeared to be a player light years away from contributing. While there's no polish there, I think if I ranked the true freshmen on "ability to contribute right away", I'd put him second behind Ayo? For the freshmen I think I'll go Ayo - Giorgi - Griffin - Jones - Kane with Higgs getting an "incomplete" because of the injury. That's not necessarily the order they'll end up in when their careers are over. But Giorgi at least seems "ready", and that's a plus. Because Kane is not.
- 29 turnovers forced. Part of that, obviously, is a Division III team trying to dribble a basketball. But Ayo got his hands on four steals (his arms are so, so long), and the pressure defense generally did what the pressure defense is supposed to do: force a turnover before the ball can even go into the lane for a free layup.
- The leading scorers were a bit three-headed-monster-y. Feliz with 20, Trent with 19, Ayo with 13. Again, I'm comparing this to last year when the Eastern Illinois game had zero identity. There were so many possessions where they just passed it around begging someone else to take the shot. There's a clear structure now.
Does this mean that I think we're going to finish 5th in the Big Ten? Of course not. We're still a team with 4 returnees and six true freshmen. All I'm saying is that last year, after one exhibition game, I was all "yeah, we're significantly worse than I thought". And this year, after one exhibition game, we're better than I thought.
+ I want to expand on that list above. Let's just rank based on readiness factor. The freshmen, in order of "ready to contribute in a Big Ten game":
- Ayo Dosunmu - Duh, you could have guessed this one. Ayo finishing on a few of those fast breaks (and his defense) showed me he's ready. He'd better be.
- Giorgi Bezhanishvili - I think Giorgi is what I was hoping Kane would be (ready to contribute in this scheme as a true freshman) and Kane is what I was worried Giorgi would be (a long way - strength-wise, defense-wise, game-wise - from being able to contribute).
- Alan Griffin - A solid stat line last night. In 10 minutes, he had four points (hit his only three and was 1-2 at the FT line), 4 assists, a steal, a rebound, and a block. All those little sneaky stat line things (assists, steals, blocks).
- Tevian Jones - I really wanted to put him second on this list, but I have to be honest - he's fourth. True freshman in his first game, yes, but I think the three players above fit better into the offense/defense than Jones did. Solid quick release on his shot, though.
- Samba Kane - He's really skinny - shockingly skinny. No way he's 220 lbs even though he's 7' tall skinny. He probably needs 24 months in the gym and the fast food drive-through before he's ready.
TL;DR: Ayo has to be ready (he is), one of Giorgi and Samba has to be ready (it's Giorgi), and right now, I have Griffin in front of Jones (and both will battle to be Aaron Jordan's understudy this season).
+ If I were to guess the top ten leading scorers this season, without really knowing when Adonis De La Rosa will contribute (hopefully sooner rather than later), I think I'll go with this order (leading scorer on down):
Adonis De La Rosa
Before last night, I probably would have had Feliz 6th and Giorgi 11th. But both surprised me.
+ Overall, yes, not much to learn from a Division III opponent. Did Brad Underwood play his son Tyler (a walkon) in front of Tevian Jones and Alan Griffin because he's going to be in the rotation this season or did he play him early because it's an exhibition game and he wanted to get his son some minutes? Is Giorgi really going to be able to handle the paint in the Big Ten? (Probably not.) Feliz allegedly had 22 points in the closed scrimmage against Vanderbilt, and he had 20 last night - is he going to continue to be a scorer like this?
All of that will be known by the time we get home from Maui. For now, though, good start. Much better than last year.