Jun 01, 2018

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?


Southernillini on June 01 @ 09:15 AM CDT

The football rebuild is going mostly to plan, I feel.

The basketball gut job and total rebuild...that feels more accidental. I can't see Underwood chasing off Black and Finke. There's no purpose to it. I think he's a fantastic coach. I do. And getting Ayo was HUGE, but he's followed it with recruits that John Groce didn't even bother with. Color me worried.

AHSIllini32 on June 01 @ 11:18 AM CDT

Groce wouldn't have bothered with a former top 100 class of '19 with louisville hot on his tail after a reclass? Groce wouldn't have bothered with the reigning player of the year in New York state with Providence, Syracuse, and Xavier after him?

Actually, you're right, Groce wouldn't have because his staff wouldn't have had those doors open to them. Instead, Groce would've settled for some middling in-state project or a 5th year player who doesn't fit his system and caused locker room problems.

Underwood didn't chase off either Black or Finke, you're right about that. Black left for pro ball and, while the staff would've welcomed Finke back, they didn't exactly beg him to stay after he decided to transfer.

Note: this is not me saying everything is great and we're all good and all that.

orangejulius on June 01 @ 03:10 PM CDT

In truth, you don't know if Underwood's backup recruits will work out any better than Groce's. Whether the players are transfers, JC players, or freshmen, what matters most is the talent. Sure, roster construction matters too, but you need talent first. Coaches have built successful ballclubs using any possible combination of the above. I hope we will luck out and Underwood's players will be better, and as fans we certainly want to believe our coach knows something others do not. But rankings suggest that 4 of 6 of these new players are long shots to be difference makers at the Big Ten level.

ahamm445 on June 03 @ 10:32 AM CDT

I think 4 out of the 6 are gonna at the very least solid contributors. Feliz was the number one juco pg in the country, pair tht with his actual film and anybody who knows basketball can tell the kids got moxy. Griffin is a “hidden gem” according to most recruiting analysts. I bet we make the tournament this year.

Groundhogday on June 04 @ 10:02 PM CDT

Mark Smith was POY in Illinois, and sure looked to have moxie on film. Completely flamed out against quality college competition. Being the No 1 Juco PG isn't really worth that much these days. Best guess is that Feliz will be a solid role player at PG with 20 mpg, and if we are lucky as good as Lucas but perhaps with a better attitude.

Griffin is a heck of a shooter. Remains to be seen how the rest of his game comes along.

Here is the really discouraging part: Feliz and Griffin could both surprise on the plus side, and we still aren't a tourney team with a front court consisting of Ebo, Kane, Giorgi and Nichols.

Illinimac68 on June 01 @ 09:54 AM CDT

I'm not concerned at all about "recruits that John Groce didn't even bother with." He spent his recruiting time swinging and missing on talent that went to bluebloods and then taking whoever else came along. His system required a good point guard and his whole time here his best recruit at that position was a guy who now plays for U-W Milwaukee. Admittedly Trent turned out to be a surprise in Underwood's system -- we'll never know what Groce would have done with him. Our 2018 RPI is somewhere in the 130s and we have a top 20 recruiting class. That's punching above your weight.

orangejulius on June 01 @ 01:47 PM CDT

Top 20 due to numbers. Not quality.

ahamm445 on June 03 @ 10:46 AM CDT

Nah it’s quality, you should watch some film on the new guys. They all play at a higher level than just about every Groce recruit. I mean come on, groces best player was Malcolm Hill.... Not exactly athletic or talented I’d say. (Slow, couldn’t shoot the 3, would drift out of games). Not many illini fans like to hear it but the groce era went where Malcolm took us.....nowhere. Lol our new guy Tevian Jones would dunk on Malcolm hill, ayo would use his 6’8 length and overal game savy to steal the ball from him, griffin would bust a three all in his grill, Feliz would use Dominican roots to ever so smoothly salsa right around him. Bottom line 4 of the 6 new guys all have skill sets ready to help a team win, if you can’t see that, the depression from the last 5 years is getting to you, understandably so I’d say, But don’t be hatin on the new guys just because of that tho. Watch some film.

illiniranger on June 01 @ 11:52 AM CDT

i think we still have one more year of "bottoming out" to go. i think the 3.5 is about right for football. Think we pick up one, maybe two conference wins. Basketball will probably be the worst team in my living memory, including the 1998-99 team.

but to your larger point, i think we are on the way up in 19-20. just a matter of how far and how fast and if we end up far enough, fast enough.

HiggsBoson on June 01 @ 03:15 PM CDT

Robert, you remind me of the joke about the advertising guy who never consummated his marriage because he spent all night talking about how great it was going to be.

Neither coach has yet shown the ability to win at Illinois. That will have to change fast if they are to recruit well enough to be any good on your schedule. That winning needs to start with significant progress THIS year. Another poor year from either team and recruiting will suffer.

Both coaches also have a lot of players who leave every year. That also could accelerate if the losing continues. If this happens, I can see Lovie retiring at or before the end of his contract without sniffing a bowl, and Underwood blowing up the roster every year until he is shown the door. So we'd better hope your predictions for the upcoming season are wildly pessimistic if the future is to be bright.

grantskoch on June 01 @ 05:53 PM CDT

Keep up the great work Robert! Your writing helps keep us going through the offseason too!!

ATOillini on June 02 @ 03:46 PM CDT

Wow....I've always considered myself realistic, so I'm wondering why I almost feel like a pollyanna entering this fray.

Let's look at the following statement from Ranger (who I very much respect): "Basketball will probably be the worst team in my living memory, including the 1998-99 team."

I just don't see it that way unless I'm way underestimating the loss of Black (which I might be). Who else did we lose that matters? Alstork....bust. Finke....a few bright moments at best. Lucas....a few decent assists. Smith....not sure at all as to his potential as a sophomore, but clearly underwhelming last year.

If Da'Monte/Kipper/Jordan/Ebo improve in the 2nd year in this system and we get any real contributions from the freshman, I'm thinking better than last year.

As to football, I'm less certain, but remind myself about our total lack of offensive weapons last year due to injury. Not expecting miracles, but am hopeful for improvement.

larue on June 02 @ 06:43 PM CDT

I think our perimeter could be pretty decent, but our inside game is scary. Kipper, who should be a 3, will likely be playing the 4 with nobody behind him. Not sure Ebo and Kane can give us 40 minutes at the 5, and if they do it may be with minimal production, and awful defense.

illiniranger on June 03 @ 06:44 AM CDT

We bring back a total of 5 players. We will play 27 High major games this year. I think only 12 of those are at home. We will probably be the Vegas underdog in like 22 of those games against High major opponents. 20 losses in basketball is a distinct possibility.

ahamm445 on June 03 @ 10:50 AM CDT


LosAngellini on June 04 @ 02:31 AM CDT

I agree with I-Ranger. We will have no ability to score in the post or defend the post. Rebounding will be horrendous. So we will live and die by the three. God help us when Kipper gets in foul trouble. Ebo isn’t a B10 quality big and is a fouling machine. Even if Samba surprises, he’s a feshemen and even super talented freshmen bigs stink. It’s going to be ugly. Real real ugly.

Concerned that JCL, Finke, Black, Tillmon, Smith, TJL, and all the missed recruits (even meh ones) are signals that Underwood can’t form healthy relationships with many players. A lot of kids aren’t buying what he’s selling.

illiniranger on June 04 @ 08:18 AM CDT

i think Samba and Ebo's development will look similar to Mav Morgan. He'll be downright terrible for his FR and SO year and then be really solid his JR and SR year. Just the way it works for big guys.

i'm still somewhata bullish on Brad, especially if he can land a strong 2019 recruiting class. but yeah, this year's team is going to be cover your eyes bad.

ahamm445 on June 04 @ 10:46 AM CDT

Aside from the scoring Leron did in the post, i don’t see how we can get any worse at protecting the rim or rebounding than last year. Leron was alright at rebounding but still undersized and Finke was.... Finke. I think that the athleticism that jones and ayo both bring will make us a better overall rebounding team. If we go feliz frazier ayo kipper and Jones or Jordan I think we might have one of the better small ball lineups around. Time will tell. As far as underwood as a recruiter, I think the guys that chose to leave realized they weren’t a fit in Underwood’s system. Underwood knows what he wants from his guards (shoot dribble pass) tjl couldn’t shoot, jcl couldn’t dribble or pass, Smith couldn’t do any of the three. It’s as simple as that and the players could tell that underwood is going to find guys that can and will. Black went pro because of the oppurtunity and Finke shouldn’t have been on a big 10 roster period. More kids are buying what underwood is selling than groce ever got, and if you’re hear the guy talk basketball, you can tell he knows the game.just give him time. He’ll start getting his guys and we’ll start winning more, starting this year. You’ll see.

thumpasaurus on June 04 @ 10:43 AM CDT

I've now conditioned myself to expect the dumbest possible thing to happen with Illinois, especially after The Dagger To The Heart, although the Purdoink probably sealed it because I really expected to win that game.

So my predictions/outlook have largely involved me constructing realistic scenarios, and then picking the dumbest one. This helped me nail the basketball win/loss prediction to wall for conference play, though I overestimated football by one win.

That being said, even applying this is hard to see how we can be substantially worse in either sport next year. There really isn't much room for our offense in football to regress. It truly is unthinkable that we'll ever put out another team that gains so little yardage while turning it over so often. I cannot talk myself into the offense being worse.

The defense...well...given how often Lovie pulled Tre Watson last year (sure was a lot of Marchese against Rutgers, eh?) I don't know that it's going to regress. Unlike the offense, the defense isn't plumbing the depths of how poorly it's even possible to perform in football, but there's really nothing to suggest a substantial drop-off, barring injuries to our top 6 linebackers.

Same in basketball...I've never seen a P5 team get dunked on so many times. Our rim protection cannot possibly be worse than it was last year. If MSU only dunks on us 20 times it would probably be an improvement. It's certainly possible that the ability to score points goes away with Black, but it really is difficult to imagine the team being substantially worse than last year given the number of things that simply weren't possible on defense.

One conference win in football. Five in basketball. Just stop the bleeding. That's all I ask. We can worry about building towards competing for the title later, but for now we need to stop the bleeding.

thumpasaurus on June 04 @ 10:46 AM CDT

Also, I feel you on the front of "what else can I say?"

Part of my whole schtick at Off Tackle Empire is supposed to be that we talk outrageous smack, especially passive-aggressive Minnesota nice smack talk.

What am I even supposed to say? How can I even take part? We got dismantled by Rutgers. Purdue is our daddy FOREVER now that we went 0-2 at home against Darrell Hazell. We're looking up at INDIANA. Usually when we're absolutely the worst, we have some company in the cellar. It's lonely down here this year.

NC_OrangeKrush on June 04 @ 12:04 PM CDT

"When a basketball players turns down your scholarship offer to walk on at your (my) most-hated rival, what do you do with that?"

You realize your coach has a brash style and wants mentally tough warriors to execute the plan.... that it is NOT for many, but that you will be left with a tough team who will battle and will eventually have talent to match.

ahamm445 on June 04 @ 02:31 PM CDT

“mentally tough warriors”~ A true highlight to my day~ This guy gets what underwood is about.

HiggsBoson on June 07 @ 10:32 PM CDT

Only four returning players now that Ebo has announced that he's transferring.

Which puts the odds that Brad Underwood ever starts a season with a veteran team - and - that someone will announce a transfer in the middle of a game - both into the single digits.

ktal on June 13 @ 12:53 PM CDT

I feel like our OC was a liability in-game, planning and play calling a few times last year. So I wouldn't be surprised if we get another win or two just from having new OC Rod Smith.

Our offensive line will be better and more experienced, which means the running game should improve and the QB should be under less pressure. So the offense cannot be worse. It just CANNOT be. And that will help an already improving defense be better and stay fresher.

So if last year's talented freshman continue to bloom this year, and if the OC isn't a liability and if we get ANY early-impact true freshmen, I can see a path to 6 wins this season.

Basketball? I have no earthly idea.

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