Christmas shopping begins today in our house. For next year. It's the way my wife has always done it. It's brilliant, really. We don't make Christmas lists for our boys - shopping begins now, and then by next December we'll have a pile of gifts in the guest bedroom closet. There's no holiday rush - it's 364 days of accumulating gifts (and then a Christmas Eve flurry of wrapping).
So what better time to make an Illini Christmas list for 2019 than the day after Christmas in 2018? There's two more months of (what's likely to be) really bad basketball, and then, a school year where everything is on the line. I've written about this a lot, but now that we're here, it comes more into focus. Next year has to be The Year. Let's recap.
- When Lovie was hired I was all "6-6 in 2016, then the rebuild starts in 2017 so that's probably 4-8, but then 6-6 again in 2018 followed by contending for the Big Ten in 2019". That... hasn't come anywhere close to happening. The main reason, in my mind, was the decision to barely use any of the inherited players and, instead, running with the Youngest Team Of The Decade in 2017 and Still The Youngest Team In College Football in 2018. Why they felt the need to do that I'm not sure, but the answer to "2-10 and then 4-8?" is, I think, mostly "smallest number of upperclassmen in college football two years running".
- This doesn't mean the coaching has been solid. Nebraska was 4-8 this season with mountains of "they're going to be contending for the Big Ten title soon" evidence. Illinois was 4-8 without any of that. It's a massive concern. 63-0, man. The ceiling feels so low in this room.
- The one benefit of playing this many freshmen and sophomores: Illinois quickly becomes one of the most experienced teams in the country. If becoming one of the most experienced teams in the country doesn't lead to 7-8-9 wins, then what was the point of playing all the freshmen to begin with?
- For basketball, right now it feels like early October 2017 did for football. The first season was bad. The second season has begun and it's somehow worse. Nearly the entire roster turned over, and the result is the same as football: barely competitive. This season is likely to be the worst basketball record since 1975/76.
- Basketball can be rebuilt quicker, though, so you're not going to hear any "but on January 12, 2021..." out of me. Fine, you want to retain only four players after your first season, whatever. It's your program, and if you think it needs to be gutted, gut it. But that means the on-court performance of your 2018 class and the signees in your 2019 recruiting class will determine where this thing goes. 2018 freshmen have been... OK. There are signs from all (when they've played). The 2019 recruiting class... still doesn't exist and it's the day after Christmas. One verbal (he didn't sign) and a swing-and-a-miss on all of the top targets who visited in the fall. Now, not only do the spring signees have to be solid, the fall signees have to be even better.
What does that mean? It means that by the time our closet fills with 2019 Christmas presents and my wife and I are wrapping them next Christmas Eve, we'll know almost all we need to know about Lovie Smith and Brad Underwood. Yes, I'm a "five full years" guy for a post-Not Ideal football rebuild, but if next year looks like this year, it's over. Yes, we'll still return everyone for 2020 and there will be hope that THAT will be the year, but come on. If we're going to Maryland and losing 63-33 again, it's over.
On Christmas Day 2019 we will have viewed a full fourth season of Illini football (including October 12, 2019) and we will have seen the 2020 recruiting class sign. It needs to be a bowl (really, it needs to be 7-5), there needs to be a high-end close to the recruiting class when selling that bowl, and then 2019 needs to be 8-4 or 9-3. Do those first two and we can sit down to breakfast on Christmas fully believing that this thing is headed somewhere.
For basketball, it's similar. Brad Underwood will have had one less year, but basketball, especially at Illinois, can be rebuilt quicker than football. You want to gut the roster? Fine. If you think it has to be done, that's fine. But then play your freshmen your second year, recruit a great class, and run with a team heavy on sophomore leaps and freshman surprises in 2019/20. (So far, many of the freshmen are still on the bench and there's only one recruit in the class.)
So on Christmas Day 2019, we should mostly know all we need to know there as well. The start to the 2019/20 season has to be night-and-day different from what we're seeing now. The 2019 class must finish strong and the 2020 class needs to look great on paper. Also, we need to have halted Missouri's streak at one.
That leads me to my list. In the next 364 days, what's on my list? Lots of stuff:
1. Bowl Game
This is a must. All of those coaches I studied in the football preview (coaches who had rebuilt moribund programs such as Illinois, like Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin and Art Briles at Baylor and Mike Leach at Washington State). Here were the average wins each season. See if you can spot the leap year:
Year 1: 2.8 wins
Year 2: 4.3
Year 3: 4.6
Year 4: 7.4
So that's #1 on my list. I don't want anything else for Christmas. Send me to Detroit - I don't care. Give me a bowl game for Christmas.
2. Three four-star basketball recruits
Is that too much to ask? I don't think so. Between the close of this class and the November signing date for the next class, bring me three impact players. "Four-star" used to mean "top-100", but now that stretches to players ranked 125+, which is a distinction I'm OK with here (because it includes just-missed-the-top-100 guys like Trent Frazier). It's hit or miss in that 100-130 range, but for the purposes of this exercise, that's probably a good line. Add three four-star players to this roster.
3. 2020 football recruiting class needs depth
This was a very small recruiting class for football (I believe there are only four scholarships right now that aren't spoken for and several transfers might take those), so with 11 high school players, they opted for mostly skill positions to (mostly) supplement the team speed next season. And that's OK. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the offensive line is mostly set for the next two seasons (four underclassman starters return, plus Larry Boyd returns from his season-long suspension), and I also think that the 2021 offensive line comes from the players already on campus (the freshmen who redshirted like Myers and Slaughter will factor in heavily here). Which means that the next available spot on the OL, in my mind, is in 2022. The 2020 class needs to address this.
The needs for the defensive line are probably a year earlier than that. Three defensive tackles graduate after next season (Jamal Milan, Tymir Oliver, and Kenyon Jackson), and then three defensive ends graduate after 2020 (Bobby Roundtree, Owen Carney, and Isaiah Gay). DT was addressed in the 2018 class, and DE was addressed in the 2019 class (Moses Okpala, Seth Coleman, and Keith Randolph), so it's less of a "need" I guess, but 2020 needs to add depth across the line at both end and tackle.
We've seen football rebuilds that get somewhere and then go nowhere (Turner, Zook), and really, Lovie is now recruiting for the "assuming it's built, where does it go from there?" stage. We just saw Mike MacIntyre at Colorado build something (10-2 in 2016) and then watch it fall off the cliff (5-7 last year, 5-0 start this season leading to a 0-7 finish and a firing). So the 2020 class, which I'm assuming approaches 20-23 players, needs to be a "sophomore depth at every position that helps prevent a 2021 cliff and keeps the program moving forward 2022 and beyond" class.
4. Night-and-day improvement on the court
If this basketball season ends up at something like 9-23 (honestly, we might not even get to nine wins), then next November needs to immediately look like 18-20 wins are possible. The hypothetical "three four-star recruits" listed above need to impact the program immediately and the returnees need to look like they spent the entire offseason perfecting Underwood's systems.
Really, both seasons need to look the same. Light bulb season for football in year four, light bulb season for basketball in year three. Both coaches will be firmly on a hot seat and will need to produce.
Especially Brad Underwood. One less year, yes, but Illinois basketball is about 31 times easier to rebuild than Illinois football. Not only is the sport easier to rebuild (see what Cuonzo has done at Missouri), the program is easier to rebuild in Champaign. Football? Decades of failure leading to a cloud over the program. Basketball? Tied for 15th all-time in Final Four appearances. 10th all-time in number of weeks in the AP Poll. One should be able to snap their fingers and return Illinois basketball to where it belongs.
(Of course, that's what Tennessee football fans have been saying for more than a decade.)
5. A general feeling of confidence
I mean, seriously, that's all I want for Christmas next year. Could you IMAGINE feeling confident about Illinois sports? (Besides volleyball, tennis, and golf, obviously.)
What if we grab our glass of egg nog next Christmas Eve and sit down to discuss two things with our brother-in-law: the big Braggin' Rights win to move Illinois to 10-2 on the season and the upcoming Pinstripe Bowl matchup with NC State. I mean, can you imagine? "You know, Jake (everyone's brother-in-law is named Jake), this Illinois football team that just went 7-5 returns almost everyone next year. With 29 seniors on the 2020 team, are nine wins possible? Ten?"
And then we do the same with football, sitting down and figuring out nine more Big Ten wins to get to 19 wins for the season and maybe a Tournament berth. And then maybe we're discussing a solid recruiting class and how the future looks bright. I mean, what if Santa brought us that.
You're right. Santa probably isn't real.