What It Will (Hopefully) Look Like

Feb 12, 2019

I've written this post about football several times. The old "if everything goes to plan, here's what next year will look like, and then here's what the year after that will look like". Perhaps it's time to do that for basketball. Because this whole "won four of five" thing has me thinking about the future.

I think a gaze into the crystal ball is simpler for football. Rebuilds from ground zero generally look the same, I think. The successful ones, I mean. I devoted a large chunk of the last two football previews to this topic. I studied other programs that rebuilt from similar craters to the Not Ideal crater we were in and the consistent jump was the fourth year. It's best seen when looking at the win totals for the programs I studied (Alvarez at Wisconsin, Leach at Washington State, Cutcliffe at Duke, Kill at Minnesota, etc.). Here are those average win totals:

Year 1: 2.8 wins
Year 2: 4.3
Year 3: 4.6
Year 4: 7.4

Year four is when you see it. (And also when you don't.) That's the main reason I picked October 12, 2019 in the first place. That's generally right around the time it will happen. So any "what it should look like" post on football will land on "suddenly, during the fourth season, everything looks significantly better". (You know, if it's rebuilt that way. Purdue added transfers, played the upperclassmen, and started 6-6, 6-6 on their rebuild which led to a top-25 recruiting class.)

For basketball it's not that easy. Basketball can be rebuilt much quicker than football. Especially at Illinois. There is history to recruit to, and the starting point for Illinois basketball is about 50 rungs higher on the ladder than Illinois football. I mean, we were in the national championship game only 14 years ago. You didn't see me picking some random March date in 2021 and saying "that's when Illinois basketball will return to the national stage". It should happen quicker than that.

And about three weeks ago, I was pretty sure it wasn't going to happen any quicker than that. Due mostly to the full-blown roster turnover and the eight newcomers mostly not knowing what they were doing out there, we began the season 4-12. We were staring down 7-24, and the distance between 7-24 and the NCAA Tournament is, well, probably March of 2021.

But then a funny thing happened. We won five of eight. We beat #13 Maryland and #9 Michigan State as part of this current 4-1 run. We're somehow 9th in the Big Ten right now, staring at the 8/9 game in the Big Ten Tournament. We can say crazy things like "beat Penn State twice plus Northwestern and Indiana and could we maybe find ourselves 7th in the Big Ten?" It's a stunning turnaround. Especially in the currently-the-toughest-conference-by-most-every-metric Big Ten.

So where do we go from here? Perhaps a better way to put that - where should we go from here. What are the benchmarks between here and, oh, say, a return to the Final Four? OK, maybe not the Final Four, but we haven't won double-digit Big Ten games since going 10-8 in 2009/10 (which wasn't even an NCAA Tournament year). What's our path back to consistent double-digit-Big-Ten-wins seasons?

The first step is finishing up the 2019 recruiting class. The biggest need (bigs) has been addressed with Kofi Cockburn and Antwan January. But there's still a need for a wing, so that's task number one: find an athletic wing. If I can be greedy, hopefully a lights-out shooter on the wing.

Do that, and here's your roster for next season, broken into four categories:

Scoring Guards: Trent Frazier (JR), Ayo Dosunmu (SO), Andres Feliz (SR)
Wing Guards: Da'Monte Williams (JR), Alan Griffin (SO), {Recruit To Be Named Later} (FR)
Wing Forwards: Kipper Nichols (SR), Tevian Jones (SO)
Bigs: Giorgi Bezhanishvili (SO), Samba Kane (SO), Anthony Higgs (rs-FR), Kofi Cockburn (FR), Antwan January (FR)

A quick note: to do this, I have to assume that everyone returns. Yes, there's a chance Anthony Higgs' injury prevents a return to basketball and his redshirt year was his only year. Yes, there's always the chance of a transfer, like Kipper looking to fifth-year transfer somewhere or whatever. But for now, I'm just operating on the level of "here are the players for next year".

That's a team that can make the Tournament. If the growth we've seen from November to February continues, that's a team that can win one or two Tournament games. If we're operating in the realm of "should", I think we can now say that the 2019/20 basketball team should make the Tournament.

The key will then be to capitalize on the current momentum. Get to eight or nine Big Ten wins and then sell that all summer. This is a very important recruiting class, with (another) very important Chicago guard from Morgan Park (Adam Miller), so we need to have some "Illinois is really headed somewhere" hanging over the program this summer.

Because I don't think Ayo is here for four years. I don't think he's gone after one, but I do think he's gone after two or three. There's two more years of Trent after this one, but we will need a guard infusion in the 2020 class. Adam Miller would be perfect. In that "scoring guards" category above, it's Trent-Ayo-Andres next year, and then, if Ayo were to leave, it would be Trent-{Adam Miller?}-{another guard?} for 2021.

So now we see the path. What will it (hopefully) look like?

1. Finish strong. Something like an 8-7 finish in the Big Ten after an 0-5 start would be enough.
2. Use that strong finish to recruit this summer and sign a solid class in November, hopefully headlined by Adam Miller, hopefully including at least one other scorer.
3. Get to the Tournament next year. Get to double-digit wins in the Big Ten. Because if year three is a big step forward then it starts to be self-sustaining.

Let's assume two things: Ayo leaves, but we land Miller as his replacement. Then, after the 2019/20 NCAA Tournament, the categories above look like this going for the 2020/21 season:

Scoring Guards: Trent Frazier (SR), Adam Miller (FR), {additional 2020 Scoring Guard recruit} (FR)
Wing Guards: Da'Monte Williams (SR), Alan Griffin (JR), {2019 Wing Guard recruit} (SO)
Wing Forwards: Tevian Jones (JR), {2020 Wing Forward recruit} (FR)
Bigs: Giorgi Bezhanishvili (JR), Samba Kane (JR), Anthony Higgs (rs-SO), Kofi Cockburn (SO), Antwan January (SO)

Yes, players leave all the time, so there will likely be some transfers here or there. But just looking at that list above, you can see how this is supposed to go, right? We're a young team right now, led by freshmen and sophomores. In two years, when those guys are juniors and seniors, all that's really necessary is a replacement for Ayo (and again, his HS teammate Adam Miller would be perfect). That's all that's really necessary necessary to keep this thing moving up.

Yes, we need wings, and we need shooters, and we need Kofi to play to his ranking, and we need Giorgi here for a long time, and a dozen other things. I'm not saying "it's fixed - everyone can relax now". I'm talking about what it will hopefully look like. And the steps seem easy. I'll condense everything above into a few short sentences.

Finish strong.
Land a wing.
Keep roster intact.
Land Miller.
2020 NCAA Tournament.
Replace any NBA departures in summer of 2020.
Get back to Tournament Trent's senior year.


Win elusive national title at some point in the future.


orangejulius on February 12 @ 06:50 PM CST

I wonder why people assume Giorgi will play 3-4 years at Illinois. He's already 20. If he continues to improve and put up these kind of numbers, not sure he's going to be on the NBA radar, but after 2 years it seems he could easily land a top contract somewhere in Europe.

Speak Your Mind

Please login or register to post comments on the IlliniBoard.