Gone III and Gone IV
Before I get to the new basketball arrivals (you just know I'm going to work in "Georgie Porgie pudding and pie" somewhere), we need to talk about the departures. Departures #3 and #4 from the team since the end of the season. I wrote about Mark Smith (Gone I) and Leron Black (Gone II) in their own posts - I'll combine Michael Finke and Te'Jon Lucas in same post. Mostly because I'm tired of writing these.
Let's start with where these four departures leave us. As of today:
Seniors - Aaron Jordan
Juniors - Kipper Nichols
Sophomores - Trent Frazier, Da'Monte Williams, Greg Eboigbodin, Matic Vesel
Incoming Freshmen - Ayo Dosunmu, Alan Griffin, Samba Kane, Georgi Bezhanishivili
In case you missed that, yes, there's one senior and one junior. Two upperclassmen.
You know how I keep writing those football articles that are all "so that's 8 seniors in 2017, 7 seniors in 2018, 11 seniors in 2019, and 32 seniors in 2020"? Well, for basketball, we had one senior in 2017/18, one senior in 2018/19, one senior in 2019/20.....
Yes, we might add some immediately-eligible fifth-year transfers. We had zero seniors entering this season, but we found Mark Alstork last May and he was the one senior this year. Perhaps we'll add two fifth-years and have more than just Aaron Jordan next year. Or perhaps we'll add a juco and then have more than one junior.
But the point remains: 2017, 2018, and 2019 - three very young football teams in a row. And, following those seasons - 2017/18, 2018/19, and 2019/20 basketball, three very young basketball teams in a row. Buckle up.
At this point, I believe this almost has to be intentional. The rebuilds are now too similar to not be planned in this way. These coaches must have been told by their boss that A) the programs they are inheriting are a mess, B) a full-on rebuild is the best way to change the culture of Illini Athletics, and C), they'll get all the time they need.
I'm not saying that players were forced out or encouraged to leave. These things are usually writing on the wall. Tre Watson lost his starting spot to Dele Harding and so he transferred. Te'Jon Lucas lost his starting spot to Trent Frazier (and Ayo is on the way) so he transferred. Sean Adesanya was beat out by the freshman defensive ends - transfer. I've seen it discussed that JCL and DJ Williams took one look at Underwood's practices last spring and transferred.
Whatever it is, on both sides of Kirby Avenue, players are fleeing. New construction has begun. Those photos that were tweeted the other day of the foundations going in for the new football performance center? Yeah, that's about where we're at. "THAT eventually becomes a building?"
I mean, if you look at the fact that Da'Monte Williams and Trent Frazier were both "re-recruited" by Brad Underwood last spring (both announced on Twitter that they had spoken to the new coach and were sticking with their commitment), then there are now only two "John Groce players" left - Aaron Jordan and Kipper Nichols. That's INSANE for a year and a week after the new coach was named.
Remember my Roster Turnover On Steroids post after all of the football departures? With the January departures (Chayce Crouch, Julian Hylton, Jeff George Jr, Henry McGrew), we're now down to 16 Tim Beckman players on the roster. In year three, I'd say Zook (in 2007) and Beckman (in 2014) had between 35 and 40 inherited players on the roster. Lovie has SIXTEEN.
Underwood has TWO IN HIS SECOND SEASON. This is INSANITY.
One more stat: a year ago today we were looking at a 2017/18 basketball season with zero seniors. We'd play 32 games (hopefully more), there would be 160 "starts" (five players starting every game), and then we'd return all 160 of those starts for 2018/19. Then we added a grad-transfer who was likely to start (he did, every game), so we knew we would lose some starts. But did we anticipate that we would lose 125 of the 160 starts? Because we just lost 125 of the 160 starts. "It was a 14-18 team so what's the big deal", right? Well, inexperience is inexperience, and this was probably a 10-22 team without Leron Black, so... I'm scared.
The biggest loss of these two, for me, is Michael Finke. I just don't know who starts in the frontcourt next year. To have him there as the bridge between 2019 and 2020 (to give these freshman projects some time to grow) would have been huge. He did average 10 and 5 this year, and with Leron gone would have certainly added to those numbers next season. But now that he's off to another location, well, Kipper and Eboigbodin I guess? A fifth-year transfer of our own?
Like I said above, I think Te'Jon saw writing on the wall. Trent is the man, there's a five-star guard is coming in, and Da'Monte seemed to be Underwood's favorite freshman at times because of his rebounding and defense. That's the go-to backcourt for Te'Jon's final two years of college, so he was looking at being the fourth-man.
But still, this leaves us wildly thin on depth. We're down to six returning players. I'd be willing to bet that of the 351 Division I basketball programs, maybe 345 of them have more than six returning players? Unless you're Kentucky or Duke (and even they struggle to pull it off with all five-stars), college basketball is about experienced players making plays. And we have so very little experience right now.
Which is why I probably feel better about the football rebuild than the basketball rebuild today? Yes, we'll probably land a couple fifth-year transfers this spring who can fill in nicely for Finke and Black and I'll immediately start writing "you know, Trent & Ayo with these two seniors plus contributions from AJ, Kipper, and Da'Monte..." posts. But right now, looking at a scholarship grid, seeing six returning players plus four freshmen, three of which are unknowns, man, the hill looks steep.
So maybe buckle up AND bring a pillow for a long nap. This might take a while.