Could It Be That Simple?

Jan 28, 2019

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)
2014: none
2015: none
2016: Jihad Ward (2), Ted Karras (6), Clayton Fejedelem (7)
2017: Dawuane Smoot (3)
2018: none

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.


Hoppy on January 28 @ 02:34 PM CST

I don’t think it’s THAT simple...but the argument that you need to recruit talent to compete is not an new one.

There are plenty of examples of coaches who recruit lights out and can’t seem to do much with it. Then Miznoz hires them.

Putting together a winning team (on the tactical level) and a winning program (on the strategic level) are two elaborate pie charts with all sorts of factors making up the different pie wedges.

I bet the Jimmys and Joes is 50%+ of that pie. I’d be very interested to see how other successful programs fill out the rest of that pie and if there are consistencies among them.

illiniranger on January 29 @ 09:50 PM CST

It’s Just That Simple if you want to be about .500 overall and sub .500 in conference play.

Coaches need to have their teams prepared, put players at the right position and develop them, and be able to exploit matchup opportunities and minimize threats. Better talent can mask deficiencies in those areas, but it can’t fully account for them.

What % of a team’s success is “coaching”? Impossible to say, but it’s obviously very important. If you want to grade a coach, I say look at those three things: preparedness, player development, adjustments addressing the team’s strengths and weaknesses.

Bear8287 on January 28 @ 02:37 PM CST

and when Underwood lost to New Mexico State in 2017.

Just don't get it. What is with you and New Mexico State?

You are talking about 28-6 New Mexico State right? Automatic qualifiers to the NCAA tournament from the WAC. New Mexico State who hadn't been to the tourney before 2018 since 2017 New Mexico State. Right? A game played away from SFC.

Hoppy on January 28 @ 03:27 PM CST

Yeah, I’d say the FAU loss a month ago would have been the “Brad Underwood can’t do it” moment.

illiniranger on January 29 @ 09:56 PM CST

It’s futile trying to determine much of anything from single game outcomes. Teams are almost exactly like the pricing of a share of stock. The short term is a random walk, but the underlying fundamentals will determine long term performance.

Hoppy on January 29 @ 11:17 PM CST

Then the FAU game (and just after) would have been a helluva time to buy.

uofi08 on January 28 @ 04:41 PM CST

I keep wanting to believe, but I just can't get past the on the field/court results. There's so little to build off of. Put it this way, is 1 year of experience going to turn the worst defense in P5 into a legitimate B1G team? Is 1 year experience and a 4 star center going turn a single digit win team into a 20+ win tournament team? Those aren't just normal progressions. Those are like record-setting leaps. I want like hell to see it happen, I just can't believe it's possible until I see it.

Also, I think there's 1 issue with each team that does not get brought up enough with regards to next year. We know we'll have a new QB in football. If it's not Khalil Tate, there's going to be major growing pains. That can significantly hamper a team that basically needs a bowl game to save their coach. And on the basketball side, I think theres a better than 50% chance Ayo goes pro after this year. That means next year we're gonna need to replace Ayo's production AND increase our talent and production elsewhere enough to gain more than 10 wins. Those are beyond just normal "leaps." Again I hope like hell it happens, but man am I worried.

IBFan on January 28 @ 05:09 PM CST

Hopefully the added depth and experience carry us to two more wins. If, if Beason is a lockdown corner at the Big level and if Milo and Cooper can upgrade the lbs, I think/hope the d is better. BB, schedule was just so brutal with 8 new players and some being freshman. If it was the standard schedule who knows how it effects playing time, fatigue, confidence...sooo many variables. Really like the pieces we have and the ones coming in. In both sports, in this conference, we needed horses and had lambs. I love our teams, players, coaches but the the talent hasn't been there.

Boneyard Surfer on January 28 @ 05:47 PM CST

College BB and FB are zero sum games. There will be the same number of wins and losses each year.

Alabama and tOSU will get their recruits in FB, as will Duke and Kentucky in BB. The middle of the pack scrambles over everyone who is left. And the middle guys trade wins and losses every year.

How many programs have been successful in transforming themselves like Wisconsin did? From oblivion to being consistently good and occasionally great?

iluvrt on January 28 @ 10:24 PM CST

Next year - bowl game and possible NIT. Assuming there is no huge roster turn over. I'm all in sorta

DB50 on January 29 @ 09:32 AM CST

“Apples & oranges” Robert, comparing Beckman & Groce to Smith & Underwood plus the players they recruited doesn’t fly. Let’s take the coaches first. Stacking up their resumes versus their predecessor and it’s no contest. Our two current coaches have proved in the past that with their type of players, they can be successful. Will they be? Only time will tell but I feel more confident about them than their predecessors. As far as player comparison, with all due respect to previous players, I believe the current players in both sports have a higher ceiling. Lastly, as we all know, potential is interesting, but performance is everything!

Robert on January 29 @ 03:12 PM CST

I feel like I didn't do a very good job of making my point in this post. Perhaps my post should have just said this:

Is it possible that in five years, if both programs are rebuilt, we will look back on 2010 to 2020 like two Rams fans discussing the late 2000's, early 2010's?

"We tried to win with Sam Bradford and Kenny Britt and we tried to build a defense around Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Fred Robbins and we went 3-13 every year. And now we have Todd Gurley and Jared Goff and built a defense around Aaron Donald and are in the Super Bowl."

Perhaps that's a bad example because it's also the new coach who turned things around immediately. I'm just saying that Saturday's game made me think about how the freshmen are clearly the best players on the court. Which made me think about 2017 football training camp and "holy crap the freshmen are clearly better at nearly every position". Which made me realize that this whole deep valley might have been even more "uh, we didn't have any good players at all" than I originally thought.

thumpasaurus on January 29 @ 10:47 AM CST

Feels like football is closer to being competitive, but there's more room for growth in basketball. The problem with football is that our competition in the B1G West started actually getting it together a few years ago...Wisconsin is backsliding, but Purdue hired a great coach, Nebraska hired a great coach, Minnesota hired a guy who has recruited very well and assembled a quality roster, albeit one with holes, and Northwestern has perfected the art of being terrible in September and great after that.

On the other hand, in basketball, Northwestern fans are getting concerned about the long term viability of Chris Collins, Fran remains Fran, Gard remains Gard (Wisconsin is slipping there too, especially when Happ leaves), Lil Ricky inspires little confidence, Archie Miller is struggling even with some NBA players, Turgeon could take the Warriors and lose to Pepperdine, Chambers is going through the motions and Pikiell has to coach Rutgers.

The wins have to come from somewhere, and both sports will require some major questions to have answers that are wildly in our favor.

Groundhogday on January 30 @ 02:47 PM CST

Groce's first class with Morgan, Hill, Nunn, Tate and Colbert was solid. He struggled to build on that class. Subsequent classes were thin, full of transfers and didn't necessarily fill critical roster needs.

Underwood's first real class (had little time to put together that first spring class) was also solid. I'd say Ayo in that class gives an immediate impact star that Groce didn't have, and Giorgi was a better find than Colbert, Morgan or Tate. Now, can Underwood build on that first class and assemble a competitive roster? Kofi is a nice piece but we'll probably have another four slots to fill this spring. That is somewhat worrying.

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