I'm already starting to feel the pressure of next season. For both basketball and football. This basketball season is already over (I mean, it was "over" after Notre Dame but at 5-14, it's OVER over), which means my thoughts are starting to turn to the 2019/2020 school year. Which I've been talking about for a long time.
I wrote about it in both the football preview and the basketball preview - one more year of this and then The Year is here. Fourth year for the football rebuild, third year for the basketball rebuild - the year where everything has to happen. Now that it's almost here.. I feel sick to my stomach. If neither of these rebuilds actually work....
Let's just start with what I've been writing about. Starting with the football preview from August and my discussion on "October 12, 2019":
I don't give them the exact date. I just say things like "I think next year is the breakout year." For those who don't Twitter, when Lovie was hired I put that date in my Twitter bio. It's the date of the Michigan game in Champaign in 2019. We had a new coach and a new outlook but I knew the roster was a mess and would take some years to revamp. So I picked a date midway through the 2019 season (which would be Lovie's fourth) where we would make our return. We'd exorcise the demons of the 2000 Michigan game (Turner's fourth season, a game in which our AD caught a touchdown pass) and announce our return with a win over Michigan.
It was kind of gimmicky at first - just a fun thing to say when we're losing at Michigan by 30 in the first half in 2016 - but as the date draws nearer, it seems more and more apt. When college football programs turn around, they usually turn around suddenly. Sometimes there's no mediocre. It's bad and then it's bad and then suddenly it's good. 2-9 in 2005, 2-10 in 2006, Rose Bowl in 2007. 0-11 in 1997, 3-8 in 1998, 7-4 in 1999.
Even the jump from 2009 (3-9) to 2010 (7-6 after the Texas Bowl win) was sudden. We all went into the 2010 season with very low expectations (3-9, Juice graduated, Benn went off to the NFL), and then we played a top-25 Missouri team tough all the way into the fourth quarter in the 2010 opener and knew things had turned around quickly. The fumbling, bumbling team of 2009 was gone and things were instantly better. (Unfortunately, it also works in reverse. 1995 we're still a decent football team; 1996 the bottom fell out. Same with 2002 into 2003.)
So with all of this history, are we due for a leap like that this season? Should I have answered all those question at the dinner party last week with, "yep, the corner has been turned?"
In short, no. I don't think this is going to be that season. If I squint I can see it, but I'm just not convinced that we're there yet. I still think it's one more year. I still think it's October 12, 2019.
October 12, 2019 is now 260 days away. And I couldn't be more nervous. Because if this doesn't work...
Let's just link what I said in the basketball preview and then talk about both:
There are two seniors - one returnee (Aaron Jordan) and one fifth-year transfer (Adonis De La Rosa). So if we're watching for next year, the first step is to think about how this team will replace them. My guess: Jordan's production is filled by a sophomore leap in 2019/20 by Tevian Jones. And De La Rosa is replaced by a frontcourt recruit to be named later. Perhaps it's another fifth-year transfer. Perhaps it's a high school player that signs in the fall or the spring. But those are the two needs (replace Jordan, replace De La Rosa), and I believe one of them is already accomplished.
So we're watching to see what the "four guards and Kipper" lineup looks like, because it will return in full the next season. We're watching to see how Andres Feliz fits in with Trent and Ayo because he, too, returns in 2019/20. We're watching to see how the other guards develop (like Da'Monte Williams and Alan Griffin). We're watching to see if Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Samba Kane can survive their freshman seasons and get to that sophomore leap.
Everything about this season, to me, is about next year. Whatever happens this season, 2019/20 will be better.
There are 13 games left in this basketball season (12 regular season games and then I'm anticipating a one-game trip to the Big Ten Tournament). Then we get to the real stuff. The seasons that likely the determine the future for both of Josh Whitman's coaching hires.
Lovie Smith didn't get a first recruiting class, so he couldn't play "his" guys until the second season. And play "his" guys he did, with more freshman starts than (from my research) any college football team this decade. Many of those players have 20+ starts now, which means that next year needs to be the year where everything starts to click (as in bowl game-click) and then 2020 needs to be even better.
Brad Underwood did get a first recruiting class, but they all left after his first season. "Leaving" was the theme across the board. After his first two months, Jalen Coleman Lands and DJ Williams left. After his first season, his first three recruits (Mark Smith, Greg Eboigbodin, and Matic Vesel) all left. His starting frontcourt (Leron Black and Michael Finke) left. The point guard he inherited (Te'Jon Lucas) left. That's the main reason this season has been a disaster (and the reason that next year has to be The Year).
Does that make you nervous? It makes me nervous. Both rebuilds HAVE to work. We're all getting too old for this. Since John Mackovic left for Texas, we've asked Lou Tepper, Ron Turner, Ron Zook, Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit to fix the football program and none of them were able to sustain anything. Since Bill Self left for Kansas, we asked Bruce Weber and John Groce to keep Illinois basketball as a top-15 program nationally and now we haven't been ranked since December 1, 2014.
This made me look up the last time football was ranked. I know when it was - the 6-0 start in 2011 - but I don't know the exact date. It was... the poll on October 16, 2011. Which means that the durations are:
Illinois Football hasn't been ranked for 2,658 days.
Illinois Basketball hasn't been ranked for 1,516 days.
These rebuilds HAVE TO WORK. If not, those durations are guaranteed to push beyond 3,000 days/2,000 days. We can't start over again.
See what I mean about "nervous"? See how much is hinging on the 2019/20 school year? Here's my experience on the football side:
I put together that list of impact players for next year. Of the 20 highest-ranked recruits on the Illini roster, 11 weren't on the field last year (the number was 13 of 20, but then Jeff Thomas and Larry Boyd were removed from the list). Those are big losses, but it's still a significant influx of talent. And with 18 starters returning and a depth chart that will be more upperclassmen than underclassmen for the first time in three years, we should see a significant step forward on the football field. A typical college football rebuild which gets an injection of talent (both transfers and freshmen) + a jump in experience SHOULD be significantly better.
So I tweet these things, and I see it getting shared around Twitter (even by some players), and I immediately get wildly nervous. Just because it "should" happen doesn't mean it "will" happen. I'm of the Lou Holtz line of thinking - as soon as a team believes they're going to be good, the season is lost. It's the coaching staff's job to get them to remain humble and hungry. This massive rebuild is only going to turn around if everyone is on the same page. And "the numbers say a turnaround is at hand" doesn't help that in any way. It's still going to take a Herculean effort.
Same with basketball. It's not hard to see a big turnaround next season. Trent and Ayo figure out how to play off each other. Kofi and Giorgi become a very solid frontcourt that can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the conference. And we find a wing to complement both the frontcourt and the backcourt. I'm a "just give me top-100 players" guy, and the lineup I tossed out in the Kofi Cockburn thread still looks leap-worthy:
Trent (should have been top-100)
Jones (#103, so just missed)
Giorgi (should have been top-100)
To me, that's a sophomore leap from Jones away from the NCAA Tournament (on paper). Next year SHOULD be significantly better.
But if it's not? Man, don't make me answer that question. If next year is something like 15-17, it probably means that Josh Whitman goes looking for a new basketball coach. And then a bunch of those players leave. And then I write articles like "no question that 2020/21 and 2021/22 will be basement-of-the-Big-Ten seasons, but in 2023, if New Coach X can just land three more recruits....".
I'll turn 51 in 2023. I can't wait that long. This has to work. Next year has to be the year. For both sports. There's no other way to... I cannot... it just...
Next year HAS TO BE the year.