Back & Forth - The Roster
With all of these players departing (Smith, Black, Finke, and Lucas), we'll now likely have more new players (7) than returning players (6) next season. So I needed Tyler's help in calming me down - I was headed to a really dark place. I spent all season talking about "almost everyone returns, we swap Alstork for Ayo, and we hit the ground running in Maui", and now it will look nothing like that. We'll likely lose three games in Maui by 15-plus as the players introduce themselves to each other.
So with this now moving towards a Lovie-like "completely start over the second year" rebuild, I needed Tyler's basketball eye. So I emailed him:
Ok, I'm all over the place today. One minute I think that a class of Ayo, Griffin, Jones, Hinson, and Kane fills all of our needs. Just land Jones and Hinson and you have a starting five right there (not suggesting they all start - just that every position is filled).
The next minute I'm in a total panic. It's April on Sunday, we have FOUR open scholarships, and the players who fill those scholarships determine the future of our program. And did I mention that maybe 90% of high major players have already chosen a school?
So help me to calm down. Tell me everything is going to be OK.
I'm not sure I can get you where you need to be. In my defense, though, after the Mark Smith news broke, I did tweet that I was establishing a personal moratorium on Illini hoops takes until I could hold a finalized 2018-19 roster in my hands.
You see I can't panic right now because I don't have anything tangible upon which to cast my angst. Of course, I can't exactly fall back on blind optimism either. The range of potential outcomes - both immediate and long term - is simply too immense. There are competing precedents everywhere.
In the Big Ten alone we saw Ohio State and Nebraska each put together solid seasons after losing around 50% of their scoring and rebounding from the previous season. On the other side of the coin, perennial upper division teams Wisconsin and Indiana suffered greatly this season from their attrition.
The difference in my opinion? Wisconsin and Indiana each lost significant production from good teams, while Ohio State and Nebraska turned over rosters from bad teams.
Conventional wisdom says that you should generally expect a team full of returning players to improve. We assume freshmen will leap and newly minted upperclassmen will grow into leaders. But what if in truth the sum of the parts was just plain lousy? Or mismatched to the desired culture? Or both? Then all you have next year is a roster mix that is still bad - just older.
And yes Underwood has to own every bit of it. It's on him that he couldn't make it work with this group, but what's that cliche - what will be done eventually should be done immediately ? If he looked at his returning roster as of March 1 and saw a ceiling of mediocrity - then why run in place next season? I totally get that view. To me 11 wins is the same as 16. If it's not a team legitimately competing for an NCAA tournament berth then why not gut it and start from scratch using your own ingredients?
Since this is a safe space where I can talk about my fears, I'm worried that we'll be SO inexperienced and SO young that we'll enter Pitt 2017/18 territory. They only had five returning players, added a bunch of freshmen plus two transfers, and went winless in the ACC. I don't think Stallings is a bad coach or that they had awful players - it simply went south because their attrition left them with nothing. As you know, I'm an "experience is everything" guy.
That's the fear side. On the other side, I feel like we can see the pieces. A backcourt of Trent, Ayo, and Da'Monte is good if not great. If Ayo stays three years that can be a win-the-Big-Ten backcourt in 2020 or 2021. And I can get down with AJ and Kipper next year filling in on the wing (and probably a lot at the 4). But I just don't have any idea what we do inside. The freshman bigs won't be ready to defend the paint, so I don't think we'll defend the paint (nor will we score in the paint). Come back, Leron.
So I know you said you won't evaluate until we have a full roster, but howzabout you dream about the types of fifth year players who could make this roster competitive next year?
Ooh - this sounds like a fun exercise - although I wouldn't limit my wish list to only grad transfer candidates. We have several class of 2018 guys still on the market who would likely be immediate contributors - and upgrades at that.
This roster needs the rim protection and athleticism it already lacked, the low post shot maker/rebounder that it lost in Leron, and of course, more shooters. Always more shooters. I also think it could benefit from a true point guard as I view Trent and Ayo as combo guards and DMW as more of a "do a little bit of everything" glue guy. There is shooting and rim protection on the way with Alan Griffn and Samba Kane, although I'm not confident that Kane will be ready to contribute much as a freshman. Ditto with Giorgi the Flying Georgian. I'm more confident on Griffin as shooting is probably the most translatable skill from high school to college. That kid is a shot maker, and as such I'm guessing he's getting minutes next season. Even so, that still leaves several holes to fill. Three rides to play with - but I'm going to give you four potential options because I still think it possible if not probable that one more spot becomes available soon. So let's dream a little...
By all accounts the primary targets here are class of 2018 guard Courtney Ramey and JUCO point guard Andres Feliz. The Ramey recruitment has been well documented and he would certainly an ideal addition as a true lead guard. Underwood also spent time last week at the JUCO National Championships watching Feliz, so he appears to be a possible back-up option to Ramey.
Replace Leron guy:
The name no one knew a month ago but every Illini fan knows by know is Nevada forward Jordan Caroline. Son of Simeon Rice. Grandson of JC Caroline. Prepped for two years in Champaign. Built like the football player his lineage would suggest. He brings just about everything this team could possibly want as a one year Leron replacement. Scoring, rebounding, energy. The perfect fifth year transfer candidate. Problem is - he's probably not going to transfer. His Nevada team that made the Sweet 16 this year promises to be even better next season. The glimmer of hope appears to be that if Nevada coach Eric Musselman left for different job, a door could possibly open. That said, it seems unlikely that the coaching carousel is going to spin in our favor in this instance.
Still - we're dreaming here - right?
Defensive Presence Guy:
Here's an under the radar grad transfer name for you - Trey Porter of Old Dominion. A friend clued me on to him and man does he check a lot of boxes. 6' 10" with very good scoring/rebounding numbers and even better deep metric stats. In perusing the list of available grad transfers (almost 60 total on the list already) his numbers practically jumped off the page.
Run and Jump Guy:
It appears Underwood is going to rely on an incoming freshman to fill this particular need and right now it seems that Tevian Jones represents all the eggs in this particular basket. It's been quiet on this front since Jones finished his official visit to Champaign several weeks ago but optimism surrounding him remains pretty high. Another name to keep an eye on is one you already mentioned - Blake Hinson who recently reclassified from the class of 2019 into 2018.
If you could somehow manage to add a couple of these names to next year's roster - the outlook narrative changes dramatically Here's to dreaming.
I guess from watching a little of Hinson's film I pictured him more as the Replace Leron guy. I know he plays a lot at guard, and some of his AAU film has him playing point guard, but with a frame like that, I picture Leron's exact role last year (except with more threes). Maybe I'm off on that, but I picture him in the role that EJ Liddell would play. Which, yes, it's not the exact Leron role because of the ballhandling ability (Hinson and Liddell), but more "how Underwood would have used Leron if he could put the ball on the floor". Am I crazy.
Otherwise, great list. Man, so much hinges on this. If we land three or four more Giorgi's, I'm scared. If we land several of the guys you listed above (especially Jones and Hinson), then I can hop on board the "we're getting somewhere" trail real quick.
So, another question: Do you think we max out the rides? If we bring in three more freshmen (or perhaps freshmen and a juco), we're left with one ride for the 2019 class (Aaron Jordan's scholarship). I know I know - players are going to leave every year - but I feel like there's no way we'd go into the 2019 with just one ride. Liddell is out there, Okoro is out there, many other names - do you think we bring in at least one fifth year just because we want at least two rides available?
Well Underwood and his staff are certainly recruiting like they plan to fill all the open spots. They are dishing out offers like Oprah. YOU GET AN OFFER! YOU GET AN OFFER! YOU GET AN OFFER!
I'm pretty sure they would take both Jones and Ramey yesterday leaving just one more available ride. And yes, I believe they would prefer to use that spot on a grad transfer so the spots for Liddell and Okoro are held. But I think they really like Khalil Whitney as well, and would like a three man 2019 class. This makes the mythical Boudreaux option a little tricky, but as you also also noted the open ride situation always seems to work itself out.
But again, I think we also have one more departure still to come from the current roster which would create a little more flexibility. So if forced to guess, I think Underwood will sign two more from the class of 2018 (or one and a JUCO) and then either one or two grad transfers depending on circumstance and availability.
Of course we definitely need to do this again once all these spots are filled to see if we can make any sense of the finished 2018-19 roster and decide if I should go to Maui or not.