That seems to be the main question. "I get it, this was a gut-job for both programs, and Year Two for football was about playing all the freshmen and Year Two for basketball will be about playing all the freshmen. So when will we win?" Great question.
We have to start by acknowledging that it might not happen. We had a little football hope and a lot of basketball hope when Mike Thomas dismissed Ron Zook and Bruce Weber. And when I drove to Louisville for Quentin Snider's press conference, I was 95% certain that basketball was fixed. But it didn't happen.
I should pause there and talk about that. I remember sitting in the parking lot of a Waffle House in southern Indiana, on my way home from the Snider press conference where he picked Illinois, and the news dropped that Cliff Alexander had set his Official Visit for Illinois. At that moment, I tweeted that we were "back". (Go click on that tweet - I was so very THIS IS HAPPENING. That spring we had gotten a 7-seed and came within a whisker of the Sweet 16, we two top-30 players on board (Leron Black and Quentin Snider) with the #3 player in the class setting his official visit, our return to prominence was a near certainty.)
And then it didn't happen.
So we need to start there. This whole thing might go down in flames. Lovie might not ever find an offense that works in the Big Ten, his defense might be better suited for NFL offenses than the college spread, Brad Underwood might have ridden Thomas Walkup and Jawun Evans to four straight Tournaments but wasn't ready to build a Big Ten winner - it's possible it all crashes down and we look at the Whitman era like we look at the Thomas era. With what we've seen in Champaign recently, I think many fans have a sinking feeling that we're just doomed to fail at this point.
As for me, I think both rebuilds will work. I'm overjoyed that they're gut-jobs. Lovie just finished Year Two and Underwood just completed Year One and we're already down to 13 remaining Tim Beckman players and two (2!) John Groce players. Complete. And total. Gut-job. Change the culture, change the rosters, build sustainable success. As I wrote last year, it's like Lovie is implementing the entire 19 Point Plan.
Do I have concerns? You bet I do. My biggest concern right now, as you know, is basketball recruiting. The top two players in this class (Ayo Dosunmu and Tevian Jones) we can win with - the other four are more or less the players that DePaul brings in every year. Do we have a better coach than DePaul? Yes. Might he have a better eye for diamond-in-the-rough talent? Yes. Is he recruiting specific skills for his very specific schemes? Yes. Will it work? I'm hopeful, but man, I hope the next class doesn't have so many project recruits.
There's also the QB/LB concern on the football field. I feel confident in saying that in a few years (maybe 2019, definitely 2020) we will have capable-of-winning-the-Big-Ten-West running backs, wide receivers, offensive linemen, defensive linemen, and defensive backs. The giant question marks: quarterback and linebacker.
The quarterback fears might be significantly reduced by 2019 recruit Isaiah Williams, but there's no certainty that he stays at quarterback. At his height (5'-10") it's likely that he won't be an NFL quarterback, but he's the type of athlete who almost certainly will end up in the NFL, so the question becomes when he makes that transition from QB to WR/RB/CB. Denard Robinson was a QB all through college (with Rod Smith as his QB coach) and then switched to running back with the Jaguars. Other high school quarterbacks immediately made the switch upon entering college (which is what Alabama/Ohio State/etc were asking Williams to do when they offered him).
So there are options at QB. One of these three freshmen (Taylor/Rivers/Robertson) might be the guy, although none of them had other Power Five offers, so statistically, it's unlikely. Cam Thomas showed a significant skillset (both running the ball and making certain throws) in his four games last year, so if he can improve his accuracy he could certainly be the guy. There are options at quarterback... just not certainties (like we see, in my opinion, at defensive line, in the secondary, etc.). And linebacker is the same - options, just not certainties. I just need two more certainties - especially at quarterback - and then I can start my "we're going to win the Big Ten West in 2020" campaign. And give me a basketball dream class of Okoro-Whitney-Liddell in 2019 and I'm picking an "October 12, 2019" date for basketball and adding it to my Twitter bio.
Where I'm going with all of this: I think both teams are close - football closer than basketball in this regard - to declaring a "when". I've seen #wewillwin turned into #wewill?when? enough to know that the fans are searching for a when. I am too. It's probably why I'm so critical of the player rankings in this basketball recruiting class. I want to declare a "when", and Trent + Ayo gets me so far down that road - so close to declaring a "we're back" date. We just need some certainties in the frontcourt... and we don't have any certainties in the frontcourt. Get me those, and I can get you a pretty firm "when".
Now, that "when" doesn't declare that everything is fixed. Say we win in 2020 with junior Trent and sophomore Ayo and some five-star freshman big man. We're back! And then Ayo and that freshman declare for the draft and we're back to holes all over the roster. It's obviously a great problem to have ("oh no! We had two players drafted after fifteen years with only one draftee!"), but I'm saying that "back" doesn't necessarily mean "back". We need to build a team that will win... and then we need to sustain it.
Perhaps the best way to look at this is to select a date when we might be ranked again. The last time we were ranked in football was October of 2011. We had started 6-0, climbed to #16 in the polls, and then lost to Ohio State (fell to #23) and then Purdue (fell out of the rankings). Haven't been back since. For basketball, I believe December of 2014 was the last time we were ranked. We had won the Las Vegas Invitational, beating Baylor in the final, and we debuted in the polls at #24. We then lost to Miami in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and haven't returned to the polls since.
Which means that with Finke and Black leaving, we don't have a single player on either team who has ever played a game as a ranked team. One more time, with feeling: the last time we played a basketball game as a ranked team was 1,235 days ago and the last time we played a football game as a ranked team was 2,376 days ago. So when might we accomplish that? When will we play another game as a ranked team?
My guess is that it happens the same year: 2020. Before last (football) season I believe I proposed 3-5-7-9: three wins in 2017, five wins in 2018, seven wins in 2019, nine wins in 2020. Three became two last season (and with all of the players departing, five probably becomes four), but that's the general guideline. And if so, a 7-5 season in 2019, while probably cause for champagne to be popped, doesn't get a team ranked. So I'd say our next chance for getting ranked is the 2020 season.
For basketball, hopefully, it's the spring before that fall. Next year, the 2018/19 season, I don't see any way we come anywhere close to the polls. My current goal is to just get to .500 - follow up this 14-18 with maybe a 16-16 season. (In all honestly, right now, without a frontcourt, I'm expecting 12-20, but let's save that for another post). The goal would then be a leap in 2019/20. Junior Trent, sophomore Ayo, and (hopefully) a few freshmen big men who are ready to contribute early. Add that to all the other pieces (my guy Da'Monte providing the glue) and I do think that's a team that could make a run. If Ayo turns out to be as good as we think he is, and Trent continues on the path he started last fall, that's a really good backcourt. Hope for sophomore leaps from the other freshmen (maybe it's Tevian Jones, maybe it's Samba Kane), and the spring of 2020 we could find ourselves flirting with the polls.
At least that's the plan. If we don't nail down a frontcourt with the 2019 recruiting class, you probably have to push that off by a year. But I'm going to remain optimistic here. Fill the rest of the holes with 2019 recruits and then make the push in 2019/20.
After that? Hopefully sustained success. You don't gut both programs in hopes to maybe have a few good teams in the future. You gut the programs and start over so you can build a solid foundation and then win year after year. The ultimate plan: the 2020's Belong To The Illini. "Belong" as in "consistently competing for Big Ten Titles in basketball (and Big Ten West titles in football), starting in the spring and fall of 2020".
I think we will. And that's when.