Playing The Odds
I don't follow many Illini people on Twitter. I mostly don't follow those who offer opinions - I don't want their opinions all mixed up with my own in my head because it's impossible to de-tangle. But I've seen some tweets (and retweets) on this recruiting class which make me feel like I'm all alone in my opinion of this basketball recruiting class. Namely, I saw a tweet that said "Rivals ranks this class 13th nationally". Uh, no. No way. Let me explain before you get angry at me.
My #thing with basketball recruiting: odds. I see everything through odds. Are there players ranked in the top-5 nationally who bust? Absolutely. Kelvin Torbert, #2 recruit nationally, at Michigan State. Are there players ranked below #250 who go to the NBA? Yes, every year. Steph Curry was ranked #256 coming out of high school and went to Davidson. Does that mean every player ranked #250 and below has that chance? Sure, but it's a 3% chance. Steph Curry was a 3-in-100 chance that hit. Kelvin Torbert was a 97-in-100 chance that missed.
I had a friend who had an outdoor wedding several years ago on a day with a 90% chance of rain. Knowing that I'm a bit of a weather geek, he checked with me the week leading up to the wedding. I shot him straight - it's almost assuredly going to pour all day. Except it didn't. The storm split around St. Louis - they got hammered to the north and hammered to the south, but the wedding stayed dry. At the reception, I couldn't find the words to explain his luck to him. "You don't understand, man - I told you that 90% chance was true, but it was more like 99%. The next 100 times that type of storm system approaches St. Louis, it's going to pour 99 times. You found the one time it didn't." In his mind, it was as simple as "it was supposed to rain but didn't". For me, it was "nobody understands - this wasn't some '50-60% chance it might rain on and off'. It was going to absolutely pour all day up until it didn't."
I mostly look at everything in the world like that. I find my comps ("when did this happen before?"), I compare them to the current situation ("what might that tell us about what is happening now?"), I come up with a percentage chance of it happening again.
Which is why I'm such a slave to recruiting rankings for basketball. Recruit well and give yourself a 90% chance of being successful. Yes, the occasional Loyola will come along and hit on a 1-in-400 chance to make the Final Four, but I'd prefer to go into every season with the best chance possible. And that comes from recruiting.
(Yes, and coaching. Great systems with great players get great results. But I'm more or less going for those baseball ZiPS projections here, which just looks at the roster, the expected growth curve for each player, and says "with these players, you should win this many games".)
With that established, let's look at this class. And let's look at this class relative to a bar I will set at "this player contributes to an Illinois team that competes for a conference title". The last 10 years we've seen what rosters look like that don't get anywhere close to that (or only have one or two players close to that level, which isn't enough). Given their recruiting ranking and the other teams who offered, what are the odds that each of these players becomes a difference-maker in the Big Ten? For this class, I'd say...
Ayo Dosunmu: 92% chance
Tevian Jones: 47% chance
Samba Kane: 22% chance
Andres Feliz: 19% chance
Alan Griffin: 16% chance
Giorgi Bezhanishvili: 12% chance
Or something like that. Let's start with what I'm not saying:
- I'm not saying "these players suck". I've written several times that Brad Underwood will look for specific traits (like Giorgi and his passing) that he can fit into this offensive scheme. That's all part of the formula. John Beilein just took a D-III player (Robinson), a player headed to D-II until he got his Michigan offer (Abdur-Rahkman) and a player with only one offer (Wagner) and went to the title game. He needed some help from some teams losing before they faced them, but still, title game. It can be done. (It's just not very likely.)
- I'm not saying "we're doomed". If there was no Ayo, I might start down that road, but landing true difference-makers is the key to college basketball. We have one in Trent, we're adding one in Ayo, and there's a chance Jones significantly outplays his ranking (and he's a four-star on most sites). That's a start.
- I'm not saying "there's a 19% chance Andres Feliz ever plays". I'm saying that I want to get back to competing for Big Ten championships, and there's only a 19% chance that Andres Feliz is the type of player who gets us there. He might improve our standing in the Big Ten, and we'll probably be a lot better than we were in 2017/18, but I've drawn the line at "get back to Illinois basketball".
I'd really love to get lucky here. "Lucky" defined as, say, Kevin Turner. A throw-in spring recruit (like these guys) who turned out to be a first-team All Big Ten player as a senior. Yes, again, some of that is coaching and some of that is system and some of that is development. But some of that is also luck - a guy comes in and develops into a high-scoring high-major guard. I'd love to see that from an Alan Griffin.
Unfortunately, I think there's only a 16% chance that happens. Which is why I balk at "13th-best recruiting class nationally". That's only true because there are six players and most classes have 2-4. Yes, a verbal from Ayo - our best recruit this decade - drives the score up high (as it should). But we have to look at this honestly. It's Ayo (a legitimate top-30 guy), plus Jones (a fringe top-100 guy), plus four projects.
Again, I'm not saying that to hate on our recruits. I'm simply trying to be objective as possible. Steve Pikiell of Rutgers went to watch Alan Griffin play twice this winter. He decided not to offer him. We can say what we want about Griffin's senior year breakout and his MVP in the state tournament, but we still have to acknowledge that Rutgers (and several other major conference schools) evaluated him during that senior breakout and decided he wasn't a major conference player.
Did Brad Underwood spot something that all of the other coaches didn't? I hope so. Bo Ryan saw Ethan Happ (with only two low-major offers) and said "that kid is a future first-team All Conference Big Ten performer" (and he was right). Bruce Weber went to see Fred Van Vleet work out in Rockford and decided not to offer... and then he was an All American at Wichita State. Coaches spotting guys ranked too low (or not spotting them) is a big part of that.
But again - it all comes back to odds. When you have a guy like Ethan Happ, there's a 20% chance he's the player we've seen Ethan Happ become. The next four Happs will all fail at their high-major school. It's just how it works. Over time, the higher-ranked, more-pursued players are the ones leading their teams to conference titles and Final Fours.
And I don't think this class gets us there. It's a good foundation - Underwood wasn't going to win with a Te'Jon Lucas so he replaced him with someone he believes is a better fit for these schemes (Andres Feliz) - but these are, in my belief, mostly the bench guys in the future (besides Ayo and Tevian, who I see as future starters). In 2019, Underwood needs to find some more starters.
Some 83-percenters, if you will.