Then There Were Four
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:
- 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.
- 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:
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.