Since we're only 20 months from the 2020's, I think it's safe to say that we'll look back at the 2010's like my dad looked at the 1970's - nothing happened for the Illini for an entire decade. In the 2010's we've been to three bowls and won two NCAA Tournament games (UNLV in 2011, Colorado in 2013). It will be - it has to be - the worst decade of our lives.
What's the main reason it's been so bad? Most will say "bad coaches", and that's true. Some will say recruiting, and that's mostly true - our recruiting classes haven't been ranked very high. But for me I stick with the word "talent". If you have a good eye, you don't have to recruit top-10 classes to have "talent". Bo Ryan could spot talent. Jerry Kill could spot talent. They didn't bring in the 4-star or 5-stars, but they did bring in "talent".
We haven't. We just haven't. And this is evidenced by the NFL and NBA drafts this decade. Well, the first part of this decade, as the Ron Zook 2008 and 2009 classes worked their way through the system, there was lots of NFL talent. But that faded (and Illini players in the NBA Draft disappeared completely), which is the main reason we are where we are.
A quick look at the numbers. There were only two Illini players in the NBA this past season with Deron Williams not playing (retired?). Meyers Leonard put up 3.4 points per game with the Trailblazers, and Brandon Paul put up 2.3 ppg with the Spurs. If we're just going by the draft, we have one player drafted the last 12 drafts (Leonard). One player drafted the last 12 drafts.
Let's pause there for a bit. We're not going to have a player drafted in the 2019 NBA Draft (we only have one senior and I don't think we have any one-and-dones), and we likely won't have anyone drafted in 2020. So we're going to go 14 years with one NBA draft pick. Let's compare that with our draft history. If we look at players drafted in the first or second rounds (a guy like Perry Range was a 7th-round draft pick in the NBA, but there's only two rounds now, so let's just look at first and second rounders).
1981-1985 - Three draft picks (Eddie Johnson, Derek Harper, George Montgomery)
1986-1990 - Six draft picks (Ken Norman, Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle, Kendall Gill, Stephen Bardo, Marcus Liberty)
1991-1995 - One draft pick (Deon Thomas)
1996-2000 - Zero draft picks
2001-2005 - Five draft picks (Frank Williams, Robert Archibald, Brian Cook, Deron Williams, Luther Head)
2006-2010 - Two draft picks (Dee Brown, James Augustine)
2011-2015 - One draft pick (Meyers Leonard)
2016-2020 - Zero draft picks
Perhaps the simplest way to put that, if we acknowledge that we're not going to have anyone drafted this year or next:
From 1981 to 2006 (26 seasons): 17 draft picks
From 2007 to 2019 (13 seasons): 1 draft pick
We can catch up, right? 26 seasons with 17 draft picks, now we're halfway to 26 and only have one, so we just need... 16 draft picks in the following 13 seasons to even it out. No problem!
The football numbers are a little better, but they show that the 2009 cliff is real. So very real. We went from recruiting 3-4 NFL players per class to... nothing. The 2009 season happened (what should have been 9-3 was 3-9), and seven players decommitted, and Zook never recovered in that class (or the next two), and the talent valley began.
In the first part of this decade, thanks to the 2007, 2008, and 2009 recruiting classes, we had 16 players drafted (yes, really - four per season). But starting with the 2014 NFL draft (which means "starting with the 2010 recruiting class"), the numbers have taken a nose dive. Four per season from 2010 to 2013... and then four total the last five NFL drafts (Ward, Karras, and Fejedelem in the 2016 draft and Smoot in the 2017 draft). I should just simplify that: 16 in the first four drafts this decade, four in the five drafts since.
And again, if you look at the current rosters, I don't really see many draft picks in the next two classes. I'd say that for the 2019 draft, Nick Allegretti, Del'Shawn Phillips, and (a hopefully healthy) Mikey Dudek would be the three players with a shot at getting drafted. And then in the 2020 draft, perhaps Jamal Milan and Tymir Oliver? Both would have to improve significantly to get there, but I could see it. If Vegas was putting odds on Illini players getting picked the next two drafts, I'm guessing they'd set the over-under at 1.5. So I think it's safe to say "16 NFL draft picks the first four years of this decade, and then six total in the seven years after that". (After that, I feel pretty good. I honestly think you could see five NFL draft picks from the 2017 class. But there's a long way to go between here and there.)
The obvious point: we're in a massive talent valley. The last time we saw something like this for basketball was the late 60's and 70's. The last time we saw something like this for football was, well, never. Going all the way back to 1940, we've never had a five-year span with only four players drafted until now. The closest we came was 1997 through 2001 when we "only" had seven players drafted in five years. Even if you only look at seven rounds (years ago there were 20 rounds), you still can't find a five year span this grim. One more time, just so I'm sure you got it: since the inception of the NFL draft, we've never had a drought like this. Never a valley this deep.
Will it change soon? I do think so. In fact, I think the first player Lovie landed in the 2017 class (Ricky Smalling) and the first player Brad Underwood landed in the 2018 class (Ayo Dosunmu) will both get drafted eventually. Like Mike White throwing deep on his very first play, I do think both coaches made a big statement with their first recruit of their first full recruiting class. Lovie also found (what I think are NFL) diamonds in the rough (Palcho, Roundtree), so here's hoping Underwood did the same thing with a guy like Tevian Jones. It would be great to be able to write "and then that talent drought ended immediately for both coaches" in a few years.
But there's a long way between here and there. At training camp in 2014 I spotted guys who I thought would be eventual draft picks (Dudek, Turner), but injuries have gotten in the way. At the beginning of the 2014-15 basketball season I thought we were looking at two NBA players in Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn, but that never materialzed either. So, really, until it happens, it hasn't happened.
I'll still remain hopeful, though. Because I have to. This valley is so, so dark.