I think I write this post every year. The month of May - my "I barely have enough words left to type half a post" month - is complete and I begin again. I like to think of it as the first day of my fiscal year. The books are closed on the 2017/18 school year/blog year and it's time to turn the page to 2018/19.
I always write the fewest posts in May. This year, 10. Last year, 12. I need it to refresh my brain. People always ask my how I'm able to crank out the 25,000-word preview of the football team in late August. My answer: I take a month or two "off" in the spring and it recharges my whole system.
This year, with the basketball season ending in February, it felt like three months "off". Probably the three worst months in my 9+ years of blogging about the Illini. Last year was as emotionally exhausting as any of those nine years. So many trips to Champaign to see a football team that won zero conference games and a basketball team that won four. One long year of realizing that we were currently the single worst athletic program in all of the Power Five Conferences. Yeah, Kansas Football is worse, and yes, Rutgers Basketball last made the NCAA Tournament in 1991, but when you put our current football and basketball product together, no one is worse.
Which makes it so hard to write. How many different ways can you write "we're the worst and our fanbase is at an all-time low"? When a basketball players turns down your scholarship offer to walk on at your (my) most-hated rival, what do you do with that? Do you understand how many times I'm going to hear about that from Mizzou friends? Do you realize that we only have five returning scholarship players and so our Braggin' Rights streak is about to end, the last weapon I possess in this daily St. Louis fandom battle? Do you know how alone I'll feel when that weapon is taken away?
These are dark times. I don't have to tell you that. To make things worse, Vegas (at least one betting site) has set our over/under for football wins at 3.5. And when the preseason Big Ten media poll comes out for basketball, with only five players returning and then a bunch of freshmen, it's a near lock that we'll be picked 13th or 14th. Maybe Rutgers basketball saves us or something, but there's a chance we finish dead last in the conference in football and dead last in basketball. Both new coaches have followed the same path - blow everything up, discard the inherited players as soon as possible, and start over with the freshmen - and that will likely put us dead last in both sports. Dark, dark times.
Yet this I call to mind and have hope.
We're about halfway through both gut-jobs. Further than halfway for football. There's the darkness of "Weber and Zook were going nowhere and then Groce and Beckman didn't take us back up - they took us further down". But the darkness of "the new coaches have blown everything up and started over" is, well, less dark. Instead of blind hope in the current coach getting fired and then the future, unknown coach leading us back, there's at least hope that the current rebuilds will work. Confidence may be low, but at least we have a clear path: blow everything up and start over.
And I'd say the football rebuild is about 60% complete and the basketball rebuild is 40% complete. Let's go sport by sport:
- For football, after the Purdue loss in 2016 (doink) and the benching of all the seniors to move freshmen into the starting lineup, I wrote that there would be 25 games where we'd learn absolutely nothing. The team on the field would be too young to learn anything at all. We're playing the freshman team against the opponent's varsity and there's just no chance. Well, we've completed 19 of those 25 games. We've watched the freshmen (way more freshmen than I ever expected), and as camp opens this fall Lovie will have 14 Beckman players, 14 Cubit players, 52 Lovie players, plus walkons. In nine months, when the 2019 class signs and he has 70+ players who are Lovie players, the restructuring of the roster will be 90% complete. This fall we (hopefully) start to see the program he envisions. In 2019 and 2020, we (hopefully) see a lot of wins.
- For basketball, 14 months in, somehow, we are down to two remaining John Groce players: senior Aaron Jordan and junior Kipper Nichols. Brad Underwood has those two, three of his freshmen from last season (now sophomores) - Trent Frazier, Da'Monte Williams, and Greg Eboigbodin - and then this class of newcomers. Two inherited players the second season is an INSANE amount of turnover, but that's the chosen path. The way I'm looking at it, this class is two wildly necessary players (Ayo Dosunmu and Tevian Jones, two player types we didn't have last season) and then four "replacements". Te'Jon goes out the door, we replace with a juco point guard (Feliz). Mark Smith goes out the door, we replace with Alan Griffin. Black and Finke leave a year early, we replace with Kane and Bezhanishvili. The idea: build the foundation you want as soon as possible. Yes, it's hard to win with so many freshmen and so few upperclassmen. But the idea is to install the culture immediately and then build from there.
Because this whole thing is about culture change. I'm not saying it will work, but I'm saying that this is the methodology. New AD identifies a losing culture so he encourages both of his hires to gut the programs as soon as possible and install a different culture. It leads to things like locker room rifts - any player will tell you that rift existed in the football locker room last season (how could it not when the coach starts 16 of his freshmen?) - but as those work their way out of the system you (hopefully) have an instant culture change. Think Wisconsin in the early 90's. No NCAA Tournament since 1947 (yes, 1947) and three bowls in 30 years. The AD hires two new coaches, Alvarez rebuilt the football program after four years, Jackson, then Bennett, then Ryan rebuilt the basketball program, and now they're them and we're us. They completely changed the culture of Wisconsin athletics and have enjoyed decades of success since.
That's the plan. And that's why I'm fairly excited as the calendar turns to June. Yes, it's going to be another rough year most likely, but I feel like it will be more fun? We'll get to see Calvin Avery blow up a running play or Ayo Dosunmu toss a lob to Tevian Jones and we'll start to get this clear picture of what it will be. These players are going to be anchors for a long time (college athletics-wise), and by the time Bennett Williams is a senior you're going to say things like "has he been here six years?". We're seeing the beginning and I feel like I can picture the end.
So I feel good now that it's June. I've officially closed the door on 2017/18. Football bottomed out the second year, so this year should be onward and upward. Basketball might bottom out this winter, but at least we'll start to see what the systems look like with the types of players Underwood wants. We really have no choice but to sit and wait at this point, so I'm excited to look for snapshots of the future.
Are we the worst right now? You bet. Is it really hard to get in the car and drive to Champaign? Absolutely. But it won't be hard for me to get back in the swing of things blog-wise. The 90 Illini starts Sunday. There's a few offseason "series" posts I have planned. We're one year closer to getting out of this mess, and I'm excited to write about it.
I mean, what else am I going to do?