Then There Were Four

Jun 08, 2018

We have to be last now. Of the 351 Division I basketball programs, I'm almost certain that if you made a list of returning players, Illinois finishes 351st out of 351. I mean, maybe there was major upheaval at Quinnipiac and seven players transferred while three graduated so they're down to three returning players. But I'll only allow for one spot like that. Maybe - maybe - we're only 350th out of 351.

So if 2017 Illini football was the most inexperienced team in Division I, 87 starts from true freshman and whatnot (previous team high: 34), then 2018 Illini basketball has to be the same. The 2017 football team was 130th out of 130 in experience, and the 2018/19 basketball team will be (most likely) 351st out of 351. I mean, even Kentucky is returning eight players.

Let's start there. It's always tricky with these things because we don't know that we know. And because we don't know, we take angles. Look at Lovie in 2017. Here's the two extreme angles:

  1. The players hate Lovie. Those 15 transfers after the season? Rats from a sinking ship. Asked to leave? No, none of the players were asked to leave. They saw an opportunity to get out and they took it. Even if it meant going down to FCS football.
  2. Lovie went through the roster with scissors and trimmed all the unwanted players. 15 transfers? It would have been 30 if recruiting rules allowed you to bring in a class of 40. Out with the players who were never going to play, in with his own recruits. As soon as humanly possible.

The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. Some players left on their own (often because they looked at the depth chart and saw a true freshman in front of them). Some players got the "if you stay, it's unlikely you will play - just shooting you straight" talk that happens at every FBS school across the country. Some players saw the rift in the locker room between the Beckman/Cubit guys and the Lovie guys and wanted out. There are disciplinary dismissals, academic casualties - it's a mix of everything.

But the main theme, I think, is roster overhaul. Lovie hand-selected a few of his inherited players and then the other 70% of the depth chart is filled with his guys (as soon as he can get them ready to play).

Brad Underwood? Brad Underwood hand-selected a few of his inherited players and then the other 70% of the roster is filled with his guys (as soon as he can get them ready to play). Two inherited players remain (Kipper and Jordan), two inherited recruits remain (Trent and Da'Monte), and then it's this first full recruiting class. Four returnees + these six new players = the rotation of 10 guys next season. Honestly, everyone is going to play. Even the freshmen who will be nowhere near ready. (Remind you of a certain football season?)

Which makes me wonder aloud at the thing I've been wondering out loud for months: does Josh Whitman perhaps... encourage this? Is this part of his vision for rebuilding Illini athletics? I have to think that it is. I have to think that he surveyed his two major programs, saw that the culture was a mess (for both), and greenlit both coaches to gutting the thing as quickly as possible. This would not be a band-aid rebuild. Football had just attempted to rebuild with jucos under Tim Beckman and failed. Basketball had attempted to right the sinking Weber ship and, although they got it steadied the first year, it kept sinking (and I spent so much time below deck working on the bilge pump). So I have to think the message was "we're going to start over and we're going to take a loss the first nine quarters. But the complete overhaul will pay dividends for decades after it's built".

As a guy who always begged for Illini football to be rebuilt like this, I love it on that side. On the basketball side, man, I'm struggling with this. The day Underwood was hired, I spent so much time working on future rosters and how a coach could win with those guys. Underwood needs shooters? Hey look - JCL. Underwood wants lanky wings with long arms? Ohai, DJ Williams. As recently as December I was talking about Maui 2018 and how a lineup of Ayo-Trent-Smith-Black-Finke could really make some noise in November. Now? It's Ayo, Trent, and then... honestly I have no idea.

I attempted to put together our 200 minutes on Twitter yesterday. Here's what I came up with:

Trent 30
Kipper 28
Ayo 25
Jordan 24
Kane 22
DaMonte 20
Jones 18
Feliz 13
Giorgi 12
Griffin 8

If you're good at math, you'll see that I have 28 minutes for Kipper at the four, 22 minutes for freshman center Samba Kane (remember, he's a 2019 recruit who reclassified to 2018 - there's no way he's ready for 22 minutes) and 12 minutes for Giorgi Bezhanishvili (was a likely redshirt candidate but will have to play). So that's 62 frontcourt minutes (which will, honestly, require minutes from Kipper at center), so there's 18 more minutes in the frontcourt which will need to come from Tevian Jones or Aaron Jordan. With those Kane and Giorgi numbers way too high, I think we'll spend... 40% of the time with four guards on the court? Many times with four guards plus Kipper?

Now, that's somewhat familiar territory for Underwood. At Oklahoma State he had one center who got 20 minutes per game, a backup center who got 8 minutes per game, zero power forwards, and then 6'-'7" wings and below. Given those minutes played, he spent at least 12 minutes every game with a 6'-6" or 6'-7" wing at "center" (hi Kipper) and then four guards. So yes, there's likely a plan here. If he can somehow get 28 minutes from Kane and Giorgi combined he'll have the same "height rotation" he had at Oklahoma State.

Still... four returnees. Pitt had two returnees plus a transfer becoming eligible last year and then 10 newcomers. At that point it didn't matter how talented any of them were - when you have that few returnees (see: Indiana in Crean's first season. Or Kim Anderson after he took over at Missouri and all of Frank Haith's players departed), it's going to be very rough sailing. Kevin Stallings took the fall (and he was the reason for all the departures, so he should) but a winless conference season wasn't a surprise for PItt last year. Look at their roster this time last year and you could have predicted 0-18 even if Bo Ryan was their coach.

We have a much better class than Pitt. Trent is way better than any of their returnees (honestly, so are Kipper and Da'Monte), and Ayo is so far beyond their best recruit. So we're not going to be Pitt. There's hope for the future. But still... four returnees. It will likely be a long rebuild. Even if we land a really great 2019 class, they're still true freshmen who need a year to adjust. It's increasingly likely that our next push for a Tournament bid is... I don't even want to say it...... 2021.

So I'm still adjusting to it. My dreams of "new coach + Smith & Frazier & JCL in the backcourt + Black and Finke in the frontcourt = an exciting Maui Invitational in 2018" are long gone. Ayo is awesome, and he & Trent are the foundation for our Return, but now it's gonna take a while. The path now, I think, is rough year in 2019, improvement in 2020 (NIT?), Tournament in 2021.

Unless, you know, all of the players leave next year, too.


BexleyIllini on June 08 @ 02:26 PM CDT

The glaring difference (at least in my mind) between football and basketball is that guys recruited by Underwood have already left whereas Lovie's guys seem to be loyal. I really hope there's a plan.

thumpasaurus on June 08 @ 02:43 PM CDT

So it sounds like you're looking for football to be the team that breaks Illinois' longest-in-P5-athletics postseason drought for revenue sports?

It's a dark place we're in when we can say "Help me, Illinois football, you're my only hope!"

Dr. Chim Richalds on June 08 @ 04:33 PM CDT

Understanding that perhaps Whitman encourages this in general (although we don't know that for sure, especially in basketball), this post seems surprisingly confident that's the case here. Perhaps the point is just to frame a potential narrative that gives as much benefit of the doubt as possible, but it seems unlikely that Underwood would in any way push out his only returning 5 after one year (and a player Underwood selected), or even communicate to him that opportunities for playing time would be limited going forward. And imagine the minutes distribution above if god forbid someone gets injured, is suspended, etc. On top of that, to do it in June with two scholarships already open would be even stranger.

And even if this is intentional is that a comforting explanation? What parents of future recruits are excited about joining a program whose coach supposedly pushed out 5 players after year one, including three freshmen that he signed himself?

HiggsBoson on June 08 @ 06:41 PM CDT

If Whitman is encouraging this, then he also needs to go when his coaches are fired. Newsflash: really good coaches adapt and find ways to win while filling the roster with "their" players. Note that this is not the case at Illinois.

There are some signs of hope for Lovie IF they can win 5, preferably 6 games this year and thus show enough progress to get those shiny verbals to sign and show up on campus. If we go 2-10 again and lose those recruits, it's essentially over for Lovie and he will announce his retirement prior to the end of his contract.

Underwood is another story. He gets a good player occasionally, but can't build a team if the roster turns over every flippin' year. How many years will we accept his excuse that we're really young and nobody knows his system? Also note that Ebo is one of "his" guys at that. At this point I'd wager that Underwood is not like;y to make it 5 years here if this continues. Bobby Knight was an a'hole, but players and fans tolerated him because he won. He wouldn't have lasted long with a losing record every year.

Women's basketball has also had turnover problems. Fahey can coach, but it isn't at all clear that she can recruit at this level.

If all three coaches are still here in 5 years and still losing, then Whitman should join them on the unemployment line.

Bear8287 on June 09 @ 11:48 AM CDT

Looks like the Illini are going to be playing a lot of "small ball".

At Oklahoma State he had one center who got 20 minutes per game, a backup center who got 8 minutes per game, zero power forwards, and then 6'-'7" wings and below. Given those minutes played, he spent at least 12 minutes every game with a 6'-6" or 6'-7" wing at "center" (hi Kipper) and then four guards.

This should point to what we are likely to see this coming season. This team is going to live and die by the 3. If they can make outside shots and spread the defense, it will open up the inside for hard cuts towards the basket. They're going to need to be able to finish and get to the foul line.

I'm expecting to see a lot of lineups that look like (1, 2, 3, 3, 4) and yes that's Kipper at the "4". I think that his minutes will largely be determined by how well he's able to stay out of foul trouble. A lot is going to be expected of him this season.

I expect the core of the team to be:

  • Frazier (1)
  • Dosunmu (1, 2)
  • Nichols (3, 4)
  • Jordan (3)
  • Williams (2, 3)
  • Jones (3)
  • Griffin (3)

The four returnees plus the top 3 recruits. Defense will play a large part in how many minutes the 1, 2, 3 slots get.

Feliz (1, 2) will help with the back court rotation. So who's going to help out Kipper? Well there's only two guys left and that's Kane and Bezhanishvili...

As someone else mentioned the key post defense is going to be outside pressure on the guards to keep them from being able to make those inside passes. It's going to be fast break and run on offense and force the opposing bigs to run. Keep motion in the offense and force the opposing bigs to keep moving and pull them away from the rim or give up open 3's (and if those 3's aren't dropping it may be a long night) and then run some more.

You might be saying that the Freshmen bigs will have to play. Hmmm... they're likely going to get minutes (see Kipper staying out of foul trouble and a lot being asked of him) but if they slow down the tempo, they may actually be a net negative to how the Illini will likely need to combat inside post play.

Scoring efficiency is going to need to improve over last season. This team is going to give up some points inside and depend on good outside shooting on the other end to make up for it. I expect that Underwood will still stress taking good shots early in the shot clock. When they're "on", this team will put up some points. (Hey, at least we won't see any 38-33 home court loss debacles.)

I expect a team that's going to fight and battle until the end and play like a team. I think it will be a continued improvement in terms of play and building an identity. The modern college game is way more dependent on great guard play than it is on the 5 and really great 5's don't stay in college very long (and if a 7-footer can bring the ball up the court, is he really a 5?).

I don't know what the final won/loss record will look like, but I'll bet that this will be a team that fans will find very easy to back and cheer.

Go Illini!

ahamm445 on June 10 @ 12:26 PM CDT

Well said

OrangeBlazer on June 10 @ 06:40 PM CDT

This should point to what we are likely to see this coming season. This team is going to live and die by the 3. If they can make outside shots and spread the defense, it will open up the inside for hard cuts towards the basket. They're going to need to be able to finish and get to the foul line.

If this team is going to live and die by the 3, then it's not going to be pretty. Of that 7-man rotation you list (and I agree that will be the primary rotation) there are virtually no proven consistent three point shooters. Aaron Jordan started out hot last year, but faded as competition improved (46% on the year, but only 33% in conference play). Frazier, we have seen, can get hot, but is very streaky (34% on the year). Of the freshmen, there is very good reason to be excited about Griffin's outside shot, but Ayo is not known as a shooter--some reports that his shot has improved, but that has yet to be proven at the P5 level. We certainly shouldn't expect to rely on Jones from 3. Monte has nowhere to go about up from his 22.5%. Interestingly enough, Kipper may be the most consistent threat from 3 out of that entire group, but was only 32% form 3 in conference play.

alotofpeoplegotoschoolfor7years on June 11 @ 03:36 PM CDT

"Hey, at least we won't see any 38-33 home court loss debacles." This loss was 9 years ago, and I still have not fully recovered from it.

Groundhogday on June 12 @ 05:43 PM CDT

My hot take:

Barring late additions, Nichols, Jones and Jordan are primarily front court guys, at least defensively where they will be guarding 4s and 5s. I'd guess that Jordan plays starter minutes at the beginning of the season, but loses tick to Jones and perhaps Griffin as the season progresses.

That leaves Frazier, Ayo, Feliz, Williams and Griffin to hold down the 1,2,3 perimeter slots.

Kane plays 15 mpg, and would play more if he wasn't fouling out. Giorgi doesn't play in competitive games, crowd cheers for him off the bench in blowouts.

So mpg (realizing there is a ton of guesswork with so little returning production): 30 - Frazier 30 - Nichols 25 - Ayo 25 - Williams 20 - Feliz 20 - Jones 20 - Jordan 15 - Kane 10 - Griffin 05 - Giorgi

Guys who are Trent 30 Kipper 28 Ayo 25 Jordan 24 Kane 22 DaMonte 20 Jones 18 Feliz 13 Giorgi 12 Griffin 8

HailToTheOrange on June 09 @ 02:29 PM CDT

It's always tricky with these things because we don't know that we know. And because we don't know, we take angles.

Next season was always going to be written off. I'm sorry to those who have more faith but that's always how it's been. It's even more so now but I think I'm much more interested in addressing the elephant in the room then speculating or figuring out what strategy we're going to employ to get by what will ultimately be a losing season anyway. The big question here is what kind of culture is Brad Underwood building at Illinois? I realize that no one will ask this of him and he probably wouldn't answer anyway but this is what will affect Illinois basketball the most during his tenure. If he's a (losing) drill sergeant and no one wants to play for him because of that...? I'll never forget after winning our first Big Ten game last season against IU and the first thing he does after the buzzer sounds is run up to alstork and tear him a new one. Really? That's the first thing you do? And in that context? I'm all for teachable moments but that is simply Unacceptable. If that's a reflection of what we can expect then I think we'll be looking at yet another coaching change and rebuild in 2 years. I hope I'm wrong though. I hope he realizes he needs to downshift with the red face coaching etc

McAdoo on June 09 @ 10:12 PM CDT

I'm trying to avoid the urge to go into Hot Take land..............

I cannot recall a major-conference school ever going through this kind of rebuild in both football and men's basketball at the same time with this level of short-term roster turnover. It's usually just one sport or the other... And the short-term roster turnover, which has not happened that often, has always previously come with one of two factors... 1. The program in question has a scandal or 2. The AD made a horrific coaching hire. Think SMU Football post-Death Penalty or Kevin Stallings getting hired at Pitt.

I just hope this complete teardown plan works in at least one of the sports. Hopefully both, but at least one. Because if it doesn't.......... Well..... It could take decades for Illinois Athletics to truly recover.

iluvrt on June 10 @ 10:31 AM CDT

Good to see the fan base ready to throw out another coach after one season. Good grief, why would any decent coach want to come here if Lovie and Underwood are dumped this year? New coaches don't stop the dumpster fire. $$ do not seem to buy success for UI. I think we have to be in this for the long haul. Since it's a rebuild, let it be rebuilt.

OrangeBlazer on June 10 @ 01:54 PM CDT

My concern when comparing the two rebuilds is that Love has largely cut bait with the inherited roster, but seems to be sticking with his guys. The talent he's brought in may or may not get the job done, but he seems willing to develop it, and we'll know in 2-3 years if he and the staff have identified the right players and can put them in a position to win.

After one year, Underwood has not only cut bait with the inherited players, but much of his first recruiting class as well. Maybe this year was an aberration, and there is a reasonable explanation for every single player that left. I worry, however, that we'll go through this all again next year if Underwood doesn't think that players like Georgi and Kane are the right fit either.

At some point, Underwood has to be willing to take the roster he has and start developing it. You can't just reboot every year and expect to build anything. For better or worse, Lovie is building with his guys. It's only been one year, but, 12 months in, it's not clear what Underwood's plan is.

AHSIllini32 on June 11 @ 11:28 AM CDT

Underwood didn't "cut bait" with his first class (which by the way he had all of three months to recruit and sign). Smith left for the reasons we've all discussed. Vesel was a flier who didn't work out but on short notice and with scholarships open he's a guy they took. Ebo is perhaps the only one you could put on Underwood but even still some of the things being discussed about why he left lead me to believe the lion's share of the blame isn't on BU.

There's virtually no chance we see the same type of turnover the rest of his tenure here. If he's going to fail I'd rather have him do it by ripping the band aid off and going with a roster of mainly his guys almost immediately which is what he's doing. There's zero indication that Underwood plans to reboot every year if guys aren't successful as freshman unless you consider his one year at Illinois as representative of his plans each year moving forward. Could it be? Maybe, but it's a bit knee-jerky to suggest that's how he'll do it after 12 months.

If you don't know what Underwood's plan is that's sort of on you because it's been discussed multiple times by various people. Positionless basketball, tough perimeter defense, multiple ball handlers, get out and score quickly, etc.

OrangeBlazer on June 11 @ 02:16 PM CDT

I'm well aware of his tactical plan and basketball philosophy.

But with a grand total of four returning players for next year, combined with more than double the number of transfers, no, his plan for building a competent roster is not clear.

He had a full year to recruit this class, and there is still no long-term solution in the front court.

AHSIllini32 on June 11 @ 05:20 PM CDT

A lot of people would point to Kane as one very viable long-term solution.

OrangeBlazer on June 15 @ 12:03 PM CDT

Or maybe not.

orangejulius on June 10 @ 07:30 PM CDT

Let's select the explanation that makes the fewest assumptions. What has gone down in public view? A troubling coaching demeanor unlike any other successful coach in Illinois modern history, consistent losing to inferior programs in recruiting, a disastrous first season, and players leaving in droves. None of this is part of some master plan. There are some serious flaws in the leadership of this program.

Bear8287 on June 10 @ 09:40 PM CDT

... so the guy who wanted to give Groce a sixth year is ready to dump the new coach after one?

orangejulius on June 14 @ 12:07 PM CDT

Barring some kind of miracle last minute addition in the front court, with the amount of losing you're about to experience, you're going to be on your knees begging for John Groce to come back.

illiniranger on June 12 @ 05:33 PM CDT

I don’t know where this ends up with Brad, but we probably lose 20 games or more this year. And I can’t think of too many bball rebuilds that got up off the mat after losing 18 and 20 games the first two years.

Groundhogday on June 12 @ 05:34 PM CDT

At Oklahoma State, Underwood had Solomon (6-11 traditional center, Jr) and Hammonds (6-8 long, athletic PF, Sr), plus three long, strong, athletic wings (Carroll, Dillard, McGriff). That frontcourt was MUCH stronger than what we will have this season with two very raw developmental bigs, and Nichols, Jones and Jordan as our bigger wings likely to play the 4. Nichols is strong, but not so long. Jones is long and athletic but rail thin, Jordan is an athletically limited mid-major role guy playing up a grade.

HiggsBoson on June 15 @ 07:25 PM CDT

And now Kane can't register for summer due to transcripts or something. I doubt that he ever enrolls at Illinois at this point. This is becoming comical in a pathetic sort of way.

orangejulius on June 16 @ 12:32 AM CDT

The hiring of Underwood could not possibly have gone worse thus far, could it? Maybe he pulls a rabbit out of a hat and 3 5th year senior forwards arrive on campus in the fall ready to contribute. But if this is the roster going into the season, even if we have Kane, we are in for a really putrid season in W-L. Like the stench of a New York subway station on a 100 degree afternoon.

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