(Not) What It's Supposed To Look Like
I wrote a post last November, right before the season started, as part of the basketball preview, listing "What It's Supposed To Look Like". As in, once Underwood gets this thing rolling, here's what each of the next four seasons should look like. I wrote that six months ago tomorrow, so maybe now is a good time to check back in.
I'll just go piece by piece through that post and you can see just how much things can change over six months. I write this right after the loss to EIU in the exhibition/preseason game, which had adjusted my expectations significantly. Here were my expectations for this season:
Well, if the charity exhibition is any indication, it's going to be a rough one. There's no real identity yet. Like, at all.
Which is to be expected, I guess. Malcolm Hill was the identity the last few years, and with him gone (plus JCL, Abrams, Morgan, Tate, DJW, and Thorne), it's a completely different team. It's more or less the two juniors (Finke and Black), the two sophomores (Kipper and Te'Jon), and then everything else is brand new. Yes, we could see some contribution from Aaron Jordan, but the success of this team rests on the newcomers: senior transfer Mark Alstork, Mr. Basketball Mark Smith, and the other freshmen (Trent Frazier, DaMonte Williams, Greg Eboigbodin, and Matic Vesel).
When the unofficial Big Ten media poll came out and Illinois was picked 12th out of 14 teams, I said no way. After the EIU exhibition loss, I said "way". I guess I didn't realize just how far we have to go. The EIU exhibition was so very ragged. A system that completely overhauls everything + no player with more than two years experience in high major basketball + a bunch of freshmen playing their first game ever = disaster.
Add to that the one thing that Brad Underwood has focused in on: the mentality of the roster. He's looking for toughness and leadership and, apparently, finding a bunch of players who all said "Malcolm will do it" the last few seasons. So, it's going to take some time. One senior (a transfer), three juniors (one who hasn't really played much), two sophomores, and five freshmen. Welcome to a complete overhaul.
I still feel comfortable with that. Picked to finish 12th, finished tied for 11th, only four Big Ten wins, came close to a few more but three overtime conference losses, Jordan provided more than we thought, Alstork provided less than we thought, Frazier was what we thought Smith would be, the end.
So there's not really all that much to discuss here. The first season was "supposed" to look ragged and oh boy did it look ragged. That's OK though - it was time for a complete overhaul.
The second season? Here's how I laid out the second season back in November.
OK, now things start to round into form. Only one player graduated (Mark Alstork, the fifth-year transfer), so you return the entire team and you replace Alstork with your best recruit in a decade. So next offseason looks 100% completely different than this offseason. Instead of training 11 players in your system, the majority of them underclassmen, now you have 10 players trained in your system (with a full year under their belt) and all you have to do is work in the superstar freshman. Who, more or less, is just plug-and-play at Alstork's position and you just keep rolling.
It's why I'm so excited about the Maui Invitational next year. The field is impossible (Arizona, Duke, Gonzaga, Xavier, Iowa State, San Diego State, Auburn, Illinois), but that's why I dig it. How long has it been since we played a game on a big stage? How long has it been since we had that Illinois Basketball feeling? A first-round matchup with Duke or Arizona and we're bringing a starting lineup of something like Mr Basketball Mark Smith, Mr Basketball Ayo Dosunmu, Kipper (JR) Black (SR) Finke (SR)? Bring it.
No, we won't be "back" yet, but it will feel like we're going to get to play on that stage soon. And if that month is combined with a really good November 2018 Signing Day (hi there, Francis Okoro; oh hey, Kahlil Whitney), then thing will really feel like they're headed back.
Uh, yikes. Swing-and-a-miss. Like, look silly on a changeup that I thought was a 97 mph fastball, try to slow down my swing, and make a complete fool of myself swing-and-a-miss. This couldn't have gone any more opposite than what I expected.
"10 players trained in your system with a full year under their belt"? Try five (five!). When the team tries to scrimmage at Ubben these days, it's the five remaining scholarship players, three walkons (Drew Cayce, Tyler Underwood, and Samson Oladimeji), and then they have to ask two managers to play. Five returning players (one senior, one junior, three sophomores) probably makes for the least-experienced team in college basketball? As in, if you line up all 351 Division I programs by experience, we likely rank 351st? Like, we might pull off the youngest P5 college football team of the decade and the youngest P5 college basketball team of the decade in back-to-back years?
OK, that's not true. Kentucky has teams with seven freshmen all the time. And Pitt only had four returning players just last year (don't go look at their record). I searched and searched and couldn't find a college football team this decade as young as the 2017 Illini. I probably wouldn't need to search very far to find college basketball teams younger than our 1 SR, 2 JR (one juco transfer), 3 SO, 5 FR lineup next season. It's young, but it's probably not epically young like the football depth chart.
Still, this will be the least-experienced Illini team of my lifetime. 1998/99 comes close, but it was a tiny bit older. Here was that roster:
SR: Arias Davis
JR: Cleotis Brown, Victor Chukwudebe
SO: Sergio McClain, Rich Beyers, Joe Cross, Fess Hawkins, Carvell Ammons
rs-FR: Cory Bradford
FR: Robert Archibald, Lucas Johnson, Damir Krupalija
(Frankie was there too, but he had to sit out the season for Prop 48.)
That's really, really similar to next year's roster. A few more sophomores, but that's about it. One senior who was there to shoot, a juco joining one other junior - the main difference is that there were eight returning players (vs. five) and the superstar freshman guard in 1998/99 (Frankie) wasn't eligible.
So what was "I can't wait for 2018 Maui" six months ago is now "I'm kind of dreading 2018 Maui" now. We'll just be so young and so inexperienced. I do think I like the 2018/19 starters more than the 1998/99 starters, but the frontcourt potential on the '99 team (Arch, Lucas, Damir) was probably higher than this team (Kane, Giorgi, Eboigbodin). Overall I think the team expectations are similar, and 1998/99 only won three Big Ten games, so... let's just move on.
This will be interesting because of the lack of bigs. Or, this will be interesting because of the graduation of Leron Black and Michael Finke.
It seems like the backcourt will be perfectly fine. You'll have senior Te'Jon Lucas, junior Mark Smith (if he doesn't go pro, which, after only seeing him once, I think might be a possibility after his sophomore or junior year?), junior DaMonte Williams, junior Trent Frazier, and sophomore Ayo Dosunmu. Plus senior Kipper who is a wing forward but fills some "backcourt" needs. Plus any guards recruited in the 2019 class. It feels like Brad Underwood will have nearly everything he needs to challenge in the Big Ten with that backcourt mix.
But what happens in the frontcourt. As of right now the two starters would be Greg Eboigbodin (who we stole from UIC in the spring signing period) and Matic Vesel (from Slovenia). Can that backcourt win with a completely unknown frontcourt? I suppose it's possible that Eboigbodin or Vesel could surprise and be Big Ten-caliber big men. But that's a stretch for just one of them to get there, let alone both.
Which means that recruiting bigs - both this spring with our two open scholarships and next summer and fall (ESPECIALLY next summer and fall) is wildly important. Okoro is the key, of course. A ready-to-start-as-a-freshman big just down the road in Normal. Possible five-star, likely 2019 Mr. Basketball - all of these problems could be solved by just landing that one guy.
Man, I was really building up the Okoro thing, wasn't I? With him possibly reclassifying to the 2018 class, it looms even larger now.
Anyway, lots of un-hatched eggs being counted there. Te'Jon Lucas (nope, transferred), Mark Smith (nope, transferred) - there I was talking about all this backcourt depth and then two of the five transfer. And there I was talking about how difficult it would be to replace Black and Finke (but at least we had a year to plan ahead) and now they both are already gone. What a difference six months makes. (Also, Robert, don't trust your one evaluation of Mark Smith where he was bulldozing his way into the lane against Eastern Illinois.)
So what was once "man, that backcourt has everything - even upperclassmen depth guys off the bench" is now a question mark. If Alan Griffin is a high-major player (his offer list wouldn't suggest it but his postseason awards would), then we've replaced guys who couldn't shoot with guys who can. Still, six months later, we're in a much more confusing place.
Say Okoro does reclassify to 2018 but picks Oregon or Purdue. Then what do we do? The backcourt is rounding into form in 2019/20 but what does the frontcourt look like? Are there any other instant impact guys out there (like I believe Okoro can be)? Are we just relying on big leaps from Greg Eboigbodin and Samba Kane?
2019/20 looked fairly clear six months ago. Now the crystal ball is cloudy.
It's hard to see beyond that. Adam Miller is the #1 target for the 2020 class as of today. A five-star sophomore guard who moved from Peoria to Chicago to pair with Dosunmu at Morgan Park. But seven other names will emerge in the next few years (heck, more names will emerge in the 2019 class soon), so it's hard to say "here's what our roster looks like and here's the high school players we'll be chasing.
But, I think the 2.5 year rule holds true. 2017/18 is likely a struggle, much like the football team this year (well, not nearly that bad but the hole wasn't nearly that deep). Just a young team learning the system and enduring losses like EIU. 2018/19 should be a big step forward - everyone back, add a five-star, lots of experience.
And then around January of 2020 we'll have a really good idea of where this thing is going. These young guards will be leading us, so we'll see how far Brad Underwood can take significant raw talent. The frontcourt will be cleared out and need to be reloaded so we'll see if Brad Underwood can identify, recruit, and develop frontcourt talent. We'll have seen a signing day in November 2018 (for the 2019 class) and November 2019 (for the 2020 class), so we'll have a really good idea about the talent coming in for the future.
Bruce Weber started strong and then drove it into the ditch. John Groce got us right to the top of the slope immediately but then we endured a long slow slide right back down to the bottom. Brad Underwood will likely start in the ditch for a while, but his history suggests that his tires have really good traction.
I still think most of that holds true - it all just seems delayed by a year (or perhaps longer?). Underwood completely cleaned house and after his first season he's down to two inherited players (Aaron Jordan and Kipper Nichols). What was supposed to be ten players who know his system is now five, and what was supposed to be three seniors and two juniors is now just Jordan and Nichols. The whole thing seems delayed by the complete and total second season overhaul.
But I still believe that "around January of 2020 we'll have a really good idea of where this thing is going". Next year will likely be similar to this past season (perhaps a little worse, perhaps a little better), but the class that signs this November and then the class that signs next November will tell us pretty much everything. Trent and Ayo is a fantastic backcourt to build around - since we're talking about 1998/99, this is where I invoke Frankie & Cory - so now we just need to find a Brian Cook. And a Marcus Griffin. And hope that Kane-Giorgi-Eboi can be Arch-Lucas-Damir. No problem, right?
Is this "what it's supposed to look like"? No. I laid out a three year plan - bad season in 2018, big jump in 2019, depends-on-the-frontcourt-recruiting-because-the-backcourt-players-are-there in 2020. Now it's bad season in 2018, perhaps worse in 2019 with only five returning players, and then hopefully a step in the right direction in 2020. But probably no Tournament until 2021 at the earliest, which is such a hard pill to swallow given our drought stretching back to 2013.
If it works, I'm good with it. If the 2020's are like the 1980's, we'll look back and say the same thing: Whitman arrived, hired two coaches who gutted (and I mean GUTTED) both programs, and did the long slow rebuild so that both programs were on firm foundations and set up for a decade-plus of success. If it doesn't work......
It has to work.