Mar 07, 2018

I am a roster projector. I've been like this for decades. When a new basketball recruiting class signs, I'll immediately "so then in 2020 when these freshmen are juniors he can be the backup two guard and maybe get minutes at the three...". But it's getting really hard to do that with all this player movement.

Since we do this "large class every other year" thing, let's look at those odd-year classes (because there was only Finke, Black, and Lucas in the even-year classes). The 2013 class saw three players make it all the way through (Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, and Jaylon Tate) but two (Kendrick Nunn and Austin Colbert) did not. The 2015 class only has one guy left (Aaron Jordan) as Jalen Coleman-Lands and DJ Williams transferred while Darius Paul was kicked off the team (a second time) after smashing Ferrari windshields on the Europe trip. And now the 2017 class has already lost its first player: Mark Smith.

To compound that, there might be some filler recruits on the roster right now and I can't exactly put them on future rosters. For example, last summer, desperate for a big man but out of options given that the 2017 recruiting cycle had closed, Brad Underwood looked to Slovenia to find Matic Vesel. Is Vesel a player that fits in the future of this program or a filler recruit who won't last four years? I'm not sure we can answer that.

To make things even worse, there might be more transfers than Mark Smith. This article suggests there might be "as many as four other players transferring". (!!) And if that's the case, man, I won't be able to project a roster for at least 24 more months. At that point we're basically 2008-09 Indiana (or 2017-18 Pittsburgh) - everyone leaves, you're completely starting over, there's maybe seven or eight scholarship players on the roster with the majority being first year players, and something like 6-25 (IU) or 8-24 (Pitt) should be expected.

But let's not talk about that. Let's act like everything is fine and rumors are just rumors. Let's talk about what losing Mark Smith means. I think it's a massive loss.

If you've read my basketball posts before, you know where I'm going: RSCI. I live by it. Get a decent number or RSCI top-100 recruits, you win. Fail to get many RSCI recruits, you lose. 2005: eight RSCI recruits. By 2008, down to two. Also, down to 14 wins.

Next year's team was going to have five: Leron Black, Jalen Coleman-Lands, DJ Williams, Mark Smith, and Ayo Dosunmu. JCL and DJW left. Now Mark Smith is leaving. And we're back to two.

Yes, it's not that simple. DJ Williams staying in Champaign instead of transferring to George Washington probably didn't cost us a bunch of wins. It's not as simple as "every RSCI Top-100 recruit will get you more wins than every 3-star recruit". Trent Frazier (unranked) was better than Mark Smith (ranked).

But accumulating a large number of top-100 players is the single best way to win. We won when we had Bruce Douglas and Efrem Winters and then we won when we had Nick Anderson and Marcus Liberty and then we won when we had Frank Williams and Brian Cook and then we won when we had Deron Williams and Dee Brown. Land highly-ranked players (like Ayo), pair it with good coaching, win.

Which is why losing 2017 Mr. Basketball in Illinois is a big blow. Yes, his numbers dropped dramatically once he hit the Big Ten portion of the schedule and he lost his starting job. Yes, he was supposed to be a shooter but only shot 23% from three. Yes, the main takeaway from his freshman year was "can muscle his way to the hoop against DePaul and Marshall but once the competition increased, that door was closed". I understand all of that. He entered the Wake Forest game averaging 12 points per game and finished the season averaging 6 points per game. I get it.

But he was just a freshman. And he was Mr. Basketball with offers from Kentucky, Duke, and Michigan State. And freshmen almost always get better. And he'll now do that "get better" thing somewhere else.

Look, on the surface, for next year, I guess it's not that big of a hit. If there's a place where we had depth it's at guard. Assuming everyone else stays (I can assume everyone else stays, right?), you lose the Marks (Alstork and Smith), you add Ayo and Alan Griffin (Ayo will play a lot, Griffin maybe just a little), and you keep on keepin' on. The future of the backcourt is Ayo + Trent with Da'Monte as the glue guy. If Lucas can provide assists and defense (and Griffin can provide three point shooting), great. But the future rests on Ayo + Trent.

Still, I thought Smith was going to be that get-to-the-free-throw-line bulldozer we've been missing. And I still think he's going to be that guy - just somewhere else. And that's really depressing.

Which is where I land at the end of this internal back-and-forth. It's depressing. It means next year will be worse. And if we don't find a comparable player in the 2019 class (that 2019 freshman would have to be better than junior-year Mark Smith), it might mean the next three seasons are worse because of this decision. Ten months ago I'm driving to Edwardsville for his commitment ceremony and celebrating with my friend Ben at a bar afterwards (I was so geeked up that I bet Ben we'd make the Tournament this year because of Smith's verbal). And now he's gone and we're 14-18 and I hate everything.

Something good happen. Soon. Please.


AHSIllini32 on March 07 @ 10:40 AM CST

I get the initial reaction to this but I have a really hard time suggesting we're likely to be worse the next three years just because of this. I had high hopes for Mark but let's be honest, this year was much worse than most of assumed it would be. Improvement was likely but how much?

Also, let's not ignore the parental factor here because that played a LARGE role in why Mark transferred and it's not necessarily a bad thing that they're gone...

Robert on March 07 @ 11:31 AM CST

I'm simply talking some form of Wins Above Replacement.

Next year it's sophomore year Mark Smith vs. whoever we add with his (now) open scholarship. I'd say it's a near certainty that sophomore Smith would be better than that (yet unnamed) player.

Or maybe the scholarship stays open for a year so you're comparing junior and senior Mark Smith vs. freshman and sophomore {player who takes his scholarship}. Even if we land a stud, the junior and senior years (with multiple years in the system) from Mark Smith would likely be better than the freshman and sophomore years of {player who takes his scholarship}.

So unless we take that scholarship and go land an instant-impact guy (another Ayo), this was a net loss. And, if he lives up to his potential, perhaps a massive loss.

AHSIllini32 on March 08 @ 06:58 AM CST

Yeah but there’s no way of saying X player is using mark smiths scholarship. There’s no way to measure the differential between mark smiths potential production and whoever comes in to fill that spot.

What if it goes to Courtney Ramey? What if it goes to a transfer who helps us get to the tournament the next two years? What if mark never really figured it out as he progressed through?

There’s always what ifs but saying we’re likely losing production because a freshman isn’t likely to have better numbers that a sophomore smith is a bit of a big leap to me.

HiggsBoson on March 09 @ 08:21 PM CST

I didn't see much that makes me think you're right about this. Unless Underwood is really bad at recruiting. Smith regressed rather than progressed during the season and looked lost much of the time.

alotofpeoplegotoschoolfor7years on March 07 @ 12:49 PM CST

Perhaps I was spoiled when I was in Champaign, but I remember when freshman played and played well. Bradford, Williams, Cook, Brown, etc. And Bradford was arguably better in his first two full years than in his last two. Trent Frazier falls into that category after his performance this year.

By contrast, Mark Smith was exposed when B1G started. We've seen big time college basketball shooters at Illinois in the last 20 years. I don't think that's Mark Smith, even giving him the benefit of the doubt in terms of system and fit.

We'll what what effect, if any, his departure has on future recruiting efforts.

Groundhogday on March 08 @ 06:12 PM CST

Wait. Just a few weeks ago you were shouting down anyone who suggested Mark Smith had a low ceiling. Now that he has transferred, no big loss?

IlliNYC on March 07 @ 11:28 AM CST

I don't understand the severe disappointment. I didn't see a player who was a foundational rebuild piece on the court. Skill, style and athletically there just wasn't much there this year.

I agree that he'll be a solid to good college player in the right system--but he didn't look like he'd ever be the best PG on a team with Trent (and 5* Ayo coming in).

If he--more his family--wasn't willing to either move to a different role or work to earn the starting PG slot...than it's probably best for everyone if they move on. I think liberalizing the transfer rules for players is the right thing to do--though it'll make projecting out starting line-ups more difficult.

I have to say I was surprised to read that his parents stopped coming to games. As a father, I find that just plain weird and had to be hard for Mark. I wish him luck.

illiniranger on March 07 @ 11:50 AM CST

pretty wild that we fired Zook and Weber and got MUCH worse. that's hard to do.

HiggsBoson on March 09 @ 08:22 PM CST

That Mike Thomas is a real humdinger, for sure.

orangem on March 07 @ 11:57 AM CST

Fortunately, I believe your take on this is very mistaken. Here's why:

Let's suppose Smith even exceeded his high expectations, such that by the end of the season he was a weapon and the 2nd-best Frosh in the B1G. We would be even more excited for the future than at the start of the year!

And let's suppose that Frazier had a typical 3-star frosh campaign, saw that he was way behind Smith, Lucas, and Ayo for any point-guard time (and had Williams competing for 2-guard time as well), and made the sensible decision to transfer. No particular affect on the team with Smith, Lucas, Ayo and Williams still around, and we would wish him well.

In this scenario, our end-of-year point-guard situation exceeded our preseason expectations. And since this is exactly what happened except that surprisingly the roles of Smith and Frazier are reversed, the correct thinking is that we are still ahead of (high!) preseason pt guard expectations and you should be even more excited for the Illini future.

ktcesw on March 07 @ 01:33 PM CST

I am in agreement with you on this, Robert. I think the biggest adjustment most high school kids have to make in college is that they can't just shoot the ball anytime as they are used to doing in high school. The fact that we didn't have an upperclass pg on the team to help establish that was huge. There was a pecking order battle that Frazier was going to win because of his defensive quickness while he learned what was acceptable on the offensive side of the ball. On another note, it seemed to be a point of emphasis on the team for the guards to take the ball to the basket unless one had an open 3 pointer. I think that this hurt a number of players (if I am correct) and especially Mark Smith. Sometimes a team simply needs a basket (from anywhere) and a guy driving is not going to always get a call. A pull up 15 or 16 footer by a guard can mean as much as a lay up or 3 pointer. We sometimes simply needed a basket! If he couldn't pull up with that type of shot when there were big guys waiting underneath and he was no longer positive that he should take a shot, it may have had a detrimental impact on his confidence. I think that he can be outstanding down the road and wish him the best wherever he goes.

NYCbb on March 07 @ 02:56 PM CST

Robert, I believe your proximity to Edwardsville is coloring your judgment on this one. Yes, it is sad that a good kid and loyal Illinois product is leaving the program, but we should be elated that Trent Frazier has greatly exceeded our expectations. The future of this program rests on the shoulders of Trent and Ayo, and that's a solid guard tandem -- a much better combo than where we stood before the emergence of Trent and the signing of Ayo. We absolutely should be worried about the rest of the players surrounding Ayo and Trent -- that is what will make or break the next 3 years. Mark Smith, had he stayed, is not the make-or-break addition. In retrospect I think we will end up lamenting the miss of Jordan Goodwin, who displayed a fire, athleticism, and basketball saavy in his first year at SLU that is missing in Smith's game. It is likely not a coincidence that another user with an NYC handle is making a similar observation. There are a lot of diehard NYC fans out here, and we typically have a similar outlook -- Homegrown talent may not hold as much weight for us -- who cares where the talent comes from? We should be grateful for the emergence of Trent and excited about his leadership and passion for Illinois basketball.

BexleyIllini on March 07 @ 02:56 PM CST

I think it's pretty obvious why he's leaving; passed by Frazier + Ayo coming in next year means he wouldn't see much time at the PG position. Nonetheless, I'm really disappointed to see him leave. I wonder if could have played the 2 or 3 position with his 6'5" frame, but perhaps this wasn't what he wanted in which case I guess its better that he transfers.

Joe Edge on March 07 @ 03:54 PM CST

I'm really frustrated right now about the season, but . . . I'm in the camp that thinks this isn't as bad as it looks on-court wise, but yet worse in off-court perception. Is any player a 'must-keep' guy from this 4-14 B1G team, other than Frazier and Black ? ? Not in my eyes... This team was just plain BAD.... Yes it has some potential for the future, but this year was just NOT GOOD.... So from that standpoint I say, sorry to see you go, but I do wish you all the luck in the future where ever you go. Bye-bye.... Send me a big who can protect the rim, and send me a shooter ! Please...

During the JG years, I reminded people that we had NOT recruited a HS point guard or a big for 4 years.... It took a new coach to get a point guard... I'm hoping he can also get us a big.

Hoppy on March 07 @ 04:00 PM CST

Why are you comparing Sophmore or Junior Mark Smith to "recruit yet to be named"? Next year his competition would be coming from Ayo. A freshman Ayo is probably equal to a sophomore Mark Smith if not better.

Also, we COULD (key word) land Tevian Jones. A good shooter/athlete like Jones as a freshman could equal a sophomore Mark Smith. (if TJ continued to shoot well from behind the arc and Smith only improved modestly to 30% or so)

I mean heck, this Alan Griffin guy might just surprise and contribute more as a freshman at the 2 than Mark Smith could.

Basically, I think you oversold Smith's possible contribution based next year. Will he get better? Probably. And will it suck if he does it by next year? Yup. Will it suck even harder if he transfers to a B1G school or a hated rival? DEFINITELY. But let's wait to see if that plays out before we go doom and gloom.

Losing Black would suck though...it'll be tough to replace his production.

ATOillini on March 07 @ 04:56 PM CST

This situation reminds me so much of Aaron Bailey.....a heralded recruit that left so early it merits a Robert "Wait. What?"

I'm not upset at all. Smith seemed lost. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the better Frazier played it seemed the worse others played.....Smith as the #1 example.

He may turn out to be a fine college player (I hope he does), but you simply can't assume he will based on what we saw this year. We need some big men in the worst way. And not grad transfers from lesser conferences.

I admit that after following college hoops for 50+ years I'm started to get just a bit jaded at the whole process. All these transfers including some within the same conference just doesn't seem right. Rumors today of Tubby Smith maybe getting fired at Memphis. If he does $9+ million buyout after 2 lousy years. Turn on ESPN most Saturdays and you see Duke, Kansas and Kentucky in consecutive games which then seems to somewhat repeat itself on Monday. Perpetual adoration and free advertising for those programs. Just has been wearing on me a bit.

But on the other hand that's why Trent Frazier is such a great story. Never wavered when Groce was fired and has always been super positive on Twitter. Love his attitude.

larue on March 07 @ 05:08 PM CST

I said from the start that Da'monte will be better than Smith, and I still think that's true. If so, I don't think this hurts much. Forget offers from Kentucky and MSU, interest from Duke. That's what happens with a decent prospect with no red flags who's available in the spring. They get offers way above their ability.

Groundhogday on March 08 @ 06:20 PM CST

Yep. Mark was a top 100 recruit who received top 25 interest due to his spring recruitment. And his game didn't translate well to major college ball.

Statistically, it is hard to find an example of a guard who played as badly as Mark their freshman year and went on to become a good player. He shot very poorly, had an A/T ratio of 1, fouled like crazy, and had a lower rebounding rate than Frazier! And those stats don't even take into account his atrocious defense.

Mark could have developed into a solid upperclass contributor in the right role, but clearly he didn't want that role. So, probably best for everyone that he is moving on.

Norcal Illini on March 07 @ 06:53 PM CST

The place Smith eventually transfers to will tell us a lot of what his real potential is. If he gets another offer from MSU or Kentucky, then maybe we really missed out. But if he ends up in the Missouri Valley or MAC, it will mean the high end programs saw him and realized he wasn't as good as they thought coming out of HS.

McAdoo on March 07 @ 07:32 PM CST

I hate to include a more general overview of the Athletic Department's situation as part of the discussion, but this has been a thought circling around my had for the last couple weeks now...

Basically since the day Lovie Smith was hired, I have said that he was going to be the head coach at Illinois through the 2020 season (Barring an unforeseen scandal) no matter what. The financial realities of Smith's contract and his public reputation were the main reasons I kept repeating that until late January or so...

However, the unexpected and really unmatched downfall of Illinois Basketball this winter made me start to doubt things a little bit. I have no inside information to base the following statements on... No rumors, no innuendo... Just a belief that the University of Illinois fan base is slowly but surely looking into the abyss of a horribly apathetic future. With that, I now believe Josh Whitman's job is on the line with how the major sports programs perform in 2018-2019.

The administrators above Whitman can see the attendance numbers, the TV & radio ratings and donation numbers. Everything is down. The only saving grace is the huge check BTN cuts for the Athletic Department every year. When the administration sees those numbers and sees the football team at 2-10 and the two basketball teams with 4 combined Big Ten wins, how do they react? Whitman was rah rah when the basketball seasons ended, however we didn't hear anything from anyone above him. Were those Whitman Tweets a kind of hidden message to keep his bosses from doing something "rash" or "brazen" this spring? I don't know. However, I felt the Tweets were strange both in terms of content and timing. Most other Athletic Directors, in my opinion anyway, would not have sent those Tweets. At most they would have issued some basic "Vote of Confidence" type of statement to the press... If anything at all.

What does this all come down to? I hate making predictions, but here's what my gut is telling me. Again, this is based on no inside information or rumors or anything... Just a gut feeling I have had now for a couple weeks.

I think football will be bad again in 2018. Something like 2-10 or 3-9. Lovie Smith will stay as head coach, however he'll fire two or three coaches in order to keep his job along with trying to bring in even more recruiting juice.

Basketball, and specifically the men's team, may very well decide what the Illinois Athletic Department looks like in March 2019. I think the women's basketball team will be horrific again. However, the men's team still has a chance to be good enough to make the NCAA Tournament. For that to happen, Underwood and his staff will basically have to hit an inside straight. They'll need to keep Black, get most of the major recruiting targets they're going after, and try to limit the transfer losses to a manageable level.

If the men's basketball team doesn't make the 2019 NCAA Tournament, my gut feeling leads me to think the administration will fire Whitman next March. Underwood might also be gone at the same time. The process of firing(s) and hiring(s) might actually move fairly quickly if the team is obviously not going to make the Big Dance by the time mid-February rolls around. That scenario would allow the administrators to search for and "hire" an AD before finally letting Whitman go. That AD then could use his/her "back-pocket candidate list" as a jumping off point for potential Underwood replacements if that's the direction he/she wants to go concerning the men's basketball program.

In 2019, the football team sits at 3-7 heading into a bye week. Games at Iowa and at home against Northwestern are all that remains in another lost season. The new Athletic Director, wanting to hire their own "guy" but not wanting to look bad in any way, will gently force Smith out by allowing him to "retire from coaching" at the end of the season. Illinois, playing inspired football for the first time in a month, upsets Iowa 24-17 at Kinnick Stadium before beating Northwestern 31-20 the next week in Champaign. Smith leaves the field, and the coaching profession, with a ride upon the shoulders of a couple defensive linemen in front of 11,000 people at Memorial Stadium.

Bear8287 on March 08 @ 03:08 AM CST

Given the financial implications of all of this, I wonder where your gut says all of the money is going to come from to buy out the current coaches contracts and then exactly what is the administration going to do to bring in "better" people?

Yeah, at this point it's hard to see a team of mostly sophomores tearing up the B1G in football this Fall. Personally, I'd be happy to see the team win 4 games in the 2018 season.

The programs are going through complete rebuilds. You can fire the contractors and try to hire new ones to finish the building. Good luck with that. Like it or not, I don't see the administration having the stomach to do a complete fire the AD and coaches again in less than 5 years.

Sweetchuck13 on March 08 @ 09:18 AM CST

Sorry McAdoo, I agree with Bear here. Not sure why you expected to hear something from "those above Whitman" at the end of the bball season. That would be quite odd. He's here for quite a while, even if fans may start to get disgruntled. He does need to find a way to get people in the seats next year though - they've gotta consider more discounts and special offers in my opinion.

As far as Smith leaving, I'm not quite as upset as Robert, but I do think he could be a key player as a JR or SR. Think of Smith as the third guard with Trent and Ayo - I feel like he'd be a weapon as a spot up shooter and occasional drive to the hole. But one thing I won't miss is his defense - he was awful defensively and had some of the worst off-the-ball awareness ever. Not sure if we keep records for most back-door dunks given up, but it seemed to happen to him a lot.

Definitely a loss, but now it's on Underwood to fill it and fix it sooner rather than later.

Illinimac68 on March 08 @ 08:48 AM CST

It may surprise you to know that people above Whitman has amazingly little interest in football and men's basketball. If Beckman hadn't pushed Simon C around he might still be the football coach - he did make it to a bowl game. For that matter, Thomas might still be the AD and Groce the basketball coach. Whitman is in charge and will be for the foreseeable future as long as there aren't any scandals. If your gut tells you different, consider taking an Alka-Seltzer.

Joe Edge on March 08 @ 01:36 PM CST

This: 'It may surprise you to know that people above Whitman has amazingly little interest in football and men's basketball. '

Truer words were never spoken.... The people above JW are interested in the number of Pulitzer Prizes held by faculty members... By the number of Noble Prize winners on staff, by the total amount of billions of dollars in research grants and awards given to specific departments... Their primary concern is and always will be to maintain their position as a Premier Research Institute, and they are not now, nor ever will have the Athletic Department as their first priority - as so many other universities seem to have.

HiggsBoson on March 09 @ 08:19 PM CST

I've been pondering a similar scenario in which a continued egregious lack of success leads to Whitman and all three coaches departing. Or Illinois reclassifying to whatever division Wash U is in where Whitman was successful. I agree that Lovie will be allowed to retire regardless of whether he wins or not.

MuckFichigan92 on March 07 @ 09:13 PM CST

Tubby Smith’s recent comments on how transferring teaches quitting show we are not alone. Losing two Mr. Basketballs, Smith and JCL, reminds the casual fans how bad things are but is more bad pub. Neither Misterplayed up to his clippings. Much like the recent teams, Smith showed a lot of quit in this move. This restoration requires buy-in and competition so both sides are better off. Agree with the other poster who wrote to watch where Smith lands to gauge the loss.

Illinimac68 on March 08 @ 08:36 AM CST

To keep Mark Smith, Underwood would have had to play him as the starting point guard all season regardless of the effect on the team. Not having done so, he lost Mark Smith. Had he done so, he'd have lost the rest of the team. Players know who's playing well, who's not, and who deserves minutes.

iluvrt on March 08 @ 04:43 PM CST

Goodbye Mark. We hardly knew ye. I believe him when he says he did not fit the BU system.
At least BU has a system unlike other coaches we have had. Lots more fun to watch than dribble 20 seconds pass pass chuck.
Lovie too - I look forward to this year, but believe 2020 is most likely "the year". It's a major improvement just to say this coaching staff is not a national embarrassment.
And Whitman is no Mike Thomas, praise be.

HiggsBoson on March 09 @ 08:12 PM CST

Today there are reports that LeRon Black will forego his senior season to go pro, though at what is uncertain. He's not going to get drafted and even the D-League seems like more of a reach than it would be if he had a big season next year. I guess he might have a shot at playing somewhere overseas, though again, it would likely be with a better team if he stuck around. So, not exactly Deron being a lottery pick. If this is true, then not a lot of loyalty from a guy who should have been booted off the team after the knife incident.

Also, Mike Finke was playing with a knee injury and is having surgery. His dad says that they're waiting to see if Underwood will let him play next year. And nothing to the he'll grad transfer to play with his brother. If MF is run off, you can no longer count me in the pro-Underwood faction.

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