Could It Be That Simple?
A thought occurred to me on Saturday as I watched the freshmen lead the Illini over #13 Maryland. It's similar to the thought I had during the MInnesota football game last fall. Was it just... is it as simple as the rosters? This whole rebuilding thing - this whole "the Illini are fighting with Oregon State and Rutgers for the title of 'worst combied Big Two sports in the country'" - is it as simple as "didn't have the players, but will have the players soon".
I should probably start with the dangers of this thinking. I saw this same line of thinking applied to Bruce Weber and then applied to John Groce. I applied it to John Groce. It's the default of the blind-hope fan - "it's all the former coach's fault because he didn't recruit any good players so now the new coach will just recruit good players and win". Under the bus goes Myke Henry and Mike Shaw and Devin Langford and Ibby Djimde - Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate, Austin Colbert, and Maverick Morgan are the answer. It's always the next recruit who will be great. Go backup quarterback.
So this is a very dangerous post. For any blogger, there are flashing warning lights all around the topic. Any post like this will be construed as "toss Groce's guys under the bus - Underwood's guys are the future". Same with Beckman and Lovie. I have to tear off three "stay away from this topic" labels just to thumb through the data.
But there's a "that being said.." here. THAT BEING SAID, is it.. true? Could it really be that simple?
I was thinking about this all day yesterday. And I was picturing a scenario where both football and basketball turn around next year. Then, at the end of that 2019/20 school year, we lose Ayo Dosunmu to the NBA draft Bobby Roundtree to the NFL draft, our first early entrants since Meyers Leonard declared in March of 2012 and Akeem Spence declared in December of 2012.
It doesn't just have to be early entrants. If you want to trace the talent deficit in Champaign, just look at the draft picks. Starting with basketball:
1990 through 2006 (17 drafts) - 11 Illini players drafted in the NBA Draft
2007 through 2018 (12 drafts) - 1 Illini player drafted in the NBA Draft
Or let's just go through the last 10 NFL Drafts:
2009: Vontae Davis (1st round), Xavier Fulton (5th), Will Davis (6th)
2010: Arrelious Benn (2), Jon Asamoah (3), Michael Hoomanawanui (5), Josh Brent (7s)
2011: Corey Liuget (1), Mikel Leshoure (2), Martez Wilson (3), Nate Bussey (7)
2012: Whitney Mercilus (1), AJ Jenkins (1), Jeff Allen (2), Tavon Wilson (2)
2013: Hugh Thornton (3), Akeem Spence (4), Terry Hawthorne (5), Michael Buchanan (7)
2016: Jihad Ward (2), Ted Karras (6), Clayton Fejedelem (7)
2017: Dawuane Smoot (3)
I think Nick Allegretti will be drafted in this upcoming draft (perhaps somewhat related factoid - Nick Allegretti was the only Illini recruit between 2010 and 2016 to play in either the Under Armour All American Game or the US Army All American Game after high school), but he is likely the only one. So that will mean five NFL picks in five years (after 19 the previous five years). And just looking at Lovie, it would mean he inherited two NFL players - Smoot for one year and Allegretti for three).
And really, "recruit potential pros" isn't my full point here. The whole idea is "talent". When you recruit talent, you win; when you don't recruit talent, you lose. That "talent" doesn't necessarily need to be all four-star recruits (see Giorgi), that "talent" doesn't necessarily need to be drafted (see Juice Williams). You simply need to find talented players.
And we simply haven't had that talent. Look at the postseason All Big Ten teams, look at draft lists, look at Big Ten statistics - we've had a talent drought in both programs. I think that's undeniable, especially when we look a the draft statistics above.
Which leads to my thought all day yesterday: is that turning around? I'm in no way ready to say that it is - Kendrick Nunn looked great as a freshman too, and that didn't take us anywhere - but I'm here to ponder it. I look at it this way:
Say our dreams come true and next year is a LEAP for both football and basketball (it's an actual leap year, too, so look for a LEAP YEAR article from me on February 29, 2020). Say everything starts to turn around for both programs. Bowl for football, tournament for basketball.
And say that the reason for both turnarounds can be sourced to the first recruiting class (plus maybe some transfers?) for each coach. Huge sophomore years from Ayo Dosunmu, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, and Tevian Jones plus some freshman dominance from Kofi Cockburn lead the Illini from a 10-win season to a 20-win season and the Tournament. Then the whole thing is as simple as "for 5+ years, we didn't have the players, but now that we have the players, we're winning", right?
Say the football team makes a bowl behind Lovie's first recruiting class making junior leaps (Ricky Smalling, Nate Hobbs, Alex Palczewski, Bobby Roundtree, Mike Epstein, Vederian Lowe, Owen Carney, etc.), some instant impact freshmen (Isaiah Williams, Marquez Beason, and Shammond Cooper), plus the transfers making noise (Milo Eifler, AD Miller, Richie Petitbon, maybe even Luke Ford). Then that whole thing will be as simple as "Beckman and Cubit never found players, Lovie did", right?
Every new coach wants to drag out the "former coach left me nothin'" excuse. It's the easiest excuse out there. "Better give me seven years because the other guy left me a JV team". Well - not every new coach. Jeff Brohm went bowling in his first two years at Purdue, so he didn't need any excuses. The need for any excuse at all is a flashing warning light. As a commenter here (Hoppy) has pointed out many times, John Groce had similar roster turnover (basically had to start over with his own guys) in 2013/14 and he went 19-14. What does it say that Underwood is likely going to win less than 10 games?
But yet I still can't escape my thought yesterday. After watching Ayo, Giorgi, and then Tevian absolutely carry us these past four games (2 wins, 2 losses), I can't escape the thought that the cupboard was bare, and that Underwood is fixing that (even the guys who aren't getting many minutes like Alan Griffin and Samba Kane have shown promise, Griffin early (Maui) and Samba late (this last month).
I mean, I certainly don't know that this is what's happening. I'm sure we could find a post from 2014 where I talk about the future based on the freshman play of Malcolm, Kendrick, and Mav. Again, all fans (and fan bloggers) do this. Old coach's guys? THEY SUCK. New coach's guys? THEY'LL ALL BE DRAFTED. 94% of all "just give it time" arguments - including my own John Groce "just give it time" arguments - are based in that.
And there's a little "blame the recession on the former/current President" going on here. If your guy is in office, it was the previous guy whose policies led to this recession. If your guy isn't in office, it's the current guy who is screwing everything up. It's another reason for all the warning stickers on this argument.
Also, I should note that this was Brad Underwood's second recruiting class. His first one, well, all three of them left after one season playing for him. If the same thing happens this offseason, then none of this matters. Continuity is everything, and if he can't build any continuity, this isn't going anywhere.
What I am saying: the way this is setting up - both coaches, in their second season, cleaned out the roster and played the newcomers - could have the same (very simple) argument made in a few years: "They inherited nothing, so they played the kids, took their lumps, and won once they had their rosters in place. We finally had a Big Ten roster for the first time in nearly a decade, so we finally won." It really might be that simple.
It also might be as simple as "neither guy can coach in the Big Ten and we should have known that when Lovie lost to Purdue in 2016 and when Underwood lost to New Mexico State in 2017". Lovie: his systems don't work in the college game. Underwood: his systems don't work when other teams have great guards. It could really be that simple.
Or it might just be that once the rosters are fully turned over (and experienced), we will win.