Recruiting is tricky. There are rankings, and rankings get us 80% of the way there, but we need more markers. Something that says "this player is highly likely to contribute in a big way". To me, USA Basketball is one of those markers. Which is why Ayo Dosunmu making the U18 team (33 Class of 2018 and 2019 recruits were invited to tryouts, 12 were chosen) is such a big deal. Honestly, it's our best recruiting news this decade.
This marker delivered some great news back in 2002: that Deron Williams was better than his ranking indicated. It drives me nuts to say this, but some of you are too young to remember that Deron wasn't expected to be a superstar recruit. He was a top-50 recruit (ranked #48 in the RSCI), but he wasn't anywhere close to a McDonald's All American or anything. In fact, he was second fiddle on his high school team to Bracey Wright (Indiana).
Being ranked #48 isn't a lock for stardom. Brian Carlwell was ranked #49 in the RSCI, and he never panned out. The players ranked around #20 all seemed to work out for us (Dee Brown, Brian Cook, Frank Williams), but once you get into the 30's and 40's of the rankings there are hits (Deron, BP3) and there are misses (Carlwell, Alex Legion). So when he signed, Deron was the "other" guard in the class with Dee. When he signed in November of 2011, nobody expected an eventual Second Team All American, and the suggestion of #3 pick in the NBA Draft would have been insane. Dee was the guy, Deron was the other guy.
But then, in the summer of 2002, as they were getting ready to enroll at Illinois for the fall, Dee AND Deron made the USA Basketball roster for the U18 team. It was the same as it is now - a bunch of guys ranked in the top-25 of the junior and senior classes. But Deron's invitation to camp (and eventual selection to the team of 12) was a big marker for us. 50th best player in the class? Not really. More like "hey guys, I'm pretty sure these two guards we landed are both top-15 players in the 2002 class".
And they were. In 2005, Dee was a First Team All American and Deron was a Second Team All American (and in 2006, Dee was a Second Team All American). If you re-ranked the 2002 recruiting class, both of them would have been in the top-10. And we first learned that they were probably under-ranked when they made the USA Basketball roster that summer.
Related news story: Ayo Dosunmu made the USA Basketball roster this summer. Here's the full list of players (and their current Composite ranking):
Cole Anthony (#4 in 2019 class)
Armando Bacot (#22 in 2019 class)
Ayo Dosunmu (#30 in 2018 class)
Quentin Grimes (#8 in 2018 class)
Kamaka Hepa (#54 in 2018 class)
Matthew Hurt (#5 in 2019 class)
Trayce Jackson-Davis (#20 in 2019 class)
Josiah James (#14 in 2019 class)
Tyrese Maxey (#13 in 2019 class)
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (#21 in 2019 class)
Mark Watts Jr. (#51 in 2019 class)
Coby White (#22 in 2018 class)
What does this tell us? That Mark Watts, Kamaka Hepa, and Ayo Dosunmu are probably ranked a little too low. Here are some of the guards that Ayo beat out:
Bryan Antoine, currently the #7 player in the 2019 class
Jalen Lecque, currently the #11 player in the 2019 class
Kevin Porter, the #25 player in the 2018 class
(Other players of note to be cut: Quad Cities point guard DJ Carton, currently ranked #27 in the 2019 class, and Simeon wing Talen Horton-Turcker.)
I'm calling this our best recruiting news this decade. I view it as confirmation that we landed our best player of the decade. Yes, there's always some politics involved when it comes to these teams (did Bill Self keep Cole Anthony on the team because he's one of the 12 best players at the tryouts or did he keep him because he wants him to pick Kansas next year?), but at the end of the day, the coaches picked for these national team events must win. HAVE to win. It's USA Basketball. They're not going to risk going to the FIBA Americas U18 Championship next week and losing because they played politics with the roster. USA Basketball is expected to win every one of these events.
Perhaps the best news? Ayo was (reportedly) selected for his defense. It's been quite some time since we had a guard with the potential to maybe be the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year some day. As we saw last season, this scheme will rely on pressure from the guards to make everything go, so we need Ayo to be an elite defender. This moves the needle closer to "confirmed: Ayo is an elite defender".
So much so that I ran the numbers on Bruce Douglas' untouchable steals record yesterday. It's one of those Illini stats that will never be broken. The distance between first and second place tells you everything you need to know:
1. Bruce Douglas - 324
2. Dee Brown - 231
3. Kendall Gill - 218
4. Frank Williams - 212
5. Sergio McClain - 210
21 steals between 5th place and 2nd place... 93 between 2nd place and 1st place.
But if Ayo stays all four years (note: if Ayo gets his outside shot in order, he won't stay all four years), I really do think he'll have a shot at that record. Sounds insane, and I never thought I'd say it, but if Trent is on pace to maybe finish 2nd on that list (this defense will produce tons of steals for the guards), then I could see Ayo and his 6'-8" wingspan making a push for that record.
Anyway, I'm off track here. My point: Ayo making the USA Basketball roster is very, very good news. It's a great marker for what kind of player we're getting. Yes, there are other issues with the roster and yes, we only have five returning players and yes, we have no idea who starts in the frontcourt and yes, we play 27 Power Five opponents in what might be our most difficult schedule in decades and yes, we'll likely have a losing season next year and fail to even reach our 2018 win total of 14.
But most of that is the result of gutting the roster and starting over. We've chosen to extend the timeframe of the rebuild. And when you do start the rebuilding, you need to build around some stars. We have Trent, and now we've added Ayo.
And I think Ayo might be even better than we thought.