Get Old, Stay Old
I always have to adjust to the fact that I'm so jealous of Purdue fans for the programs they get to follow. I grew up seeing them as "beneath us" (in both sports), so adjusting to admiring their lofty status (as compared to us) is difficult. As much as I hate to say it, in the press conference last night, Matt Painter described how I see college athletics better than maybe any coach I've heard. This statement does not mean "Brad Underwood doesn't get it" - I think he'll get there - but Painter seems to absolutely get it.
In talking about Illinois in the postgame press conference - noting that the final score didn't indicate how much of a dogfight this game was for them - Painter talked about what Underwood would need to rebuild the Illinois program. I couldn't agree more with these words:
"You've got to be able to get old and stay old. That experience really, really helps guys. I think they've obviously made a huge step. This was a dogfight. You can look at the final score, but this was a dogfight. That's the way it is when you play his teams."
Referencing recruiting, he continued.
"If you have a step back or you're just starting (your program) or whatever, it's because you get a good class, and then maybe you don't get quite the class that you want, and then you get another good class, so there's a gap in there. And so I never look at how good a class is in terms of how it gets ranked. I think it's one of the dumbest things ever. And you guys always pay attention to Illinois and beat that drum and 'gotta get a kid from this area, gotta be ranked here' - that stuff doesn't lead to wins. That stuff doesn't lead to production. That doesn't lead to championships. Getting your guys, two or three classes in a row, and them sticking together, caring for each other and playing hard, that's what wins. And I think they're on the right path."
There's a lot to break down here. I'll start with the first part: Get old, stay old.
How is Purdue going to win the Big Ten this year after losing four senior starters from last year? How on earth can a team start 6-5 and then (most likely) go 17-3 in this Big Ten? Well, get old, stay old. And how do you stay old after losing four senior starters? You have guys like Ryan Cline and Grady Eifert who are fully bought-in to your program and are willing to wait around for four years to make a difference.
Grady Eifert's minutes: 2.5 as a freshman, 2.9 as a sophomore, 8.3 as a junior, 24.9 as a senior.
Ryan Cline's scoring: 3.9 ppg as a freshman, 5.4 ppg as a sophomore, 4.0 ppg as a junior, 12.3 ppg as a senior.
Yes, you have to have a Carsen Edwards. That's indisputable. You're not going to win the Big Ten without recruiting a Carsen Edwards (who was a great find - not even a top-100 recruit). But the key to this whole thing, more than recruiting rankings, more than coaching acumen, is "get old, stay old". Get players who fit into your program and keep them around. Purdue lost four starters and remained "old", led by two seniors, two juniors, two sophomores, and one freshman. Their top recruit, point guard Eric Hunter Jr? Barely plays. Doesn't have to yet.
Now let's apply that to the second part of Painter's quote - the part where he's talking specifically about Brad Underwood. What's he saying? He's saying that once the Illini "get old", they'll be there. Once Brad Underwood is able to find guys for his system, stack classes, and keep guys around, we'll be a hellish opponent to face. Seems very "well, duh", but let's break it down further.
What's the main reason this season started 5-14? To me, it was the departures. Specifically, the departures of Mark Smith, Greg Eboigbodin, and Matic Vesel. That's a bit unfair, but lets go down another level and break that down.
Brad Underwood gets the Illinois job. He inherits a recruiting class of Trent Frazier, Da'Monte Williams, and Jeremiah Tilmon. With the coach he committed to having been fired, Tilmon immediately flips to Missouri. Underwood doesn't have much time as 90% of all recruits have already signed somewhere, but he fills the open scholarships with Mark Smith, Greg Eboigbodin, and Matic Vesel.
If those players are still here - and yes, I know that saying Vesel was a high-major player is a major stretch - but if those players were still here, this season starts better. Senior-year Jalen Coleman-Lands and senior-year DJ Williams probably out-perform freshmen like Alan Griffin and Tevian Jones. It wouldn't be as healthy for the program in the long run, and Griffin and Jones appear to be much better fits for this system than JCL and DJW, but I'm just looking for the math here. If "get old, stay old" is the key, we get an F in "get old" and an INC for "stay old".
Which is why this whole thing pivots on keeping this 2018 class together. Every player that Underwood added in 2017 already left. If that happens again, or if even half of the players look elsewhere, we're sunk. We have to get old.
And then we have to stay old. That was the key to the entire Lou Henson run. Once it was built (and it took a long time, to be fair - NIT the fifth season, NCAA Tournament the sixth), it lived off of being old. There was always a junior or senior you could point to and say it was "their" team.
In fact, the breakout season for Illini basketball (1983/84 Elite Eight team) had a great example of a Ryan Cline or a Grady Eifert. 1982 was a bit of a breakthrough - fifth season for Henson, and finally the postseason (the NIT) with a team led by three seniors: Craig Tucker, James Griffin, and Perry Range. They graduate and is the program going to fall back? No. Now it's junior Derek Harper's team. He has an outstanding season in 1983 and leads the team to it's first NCAA Tournament bid since 1963. But then he's off to the NBA early. Is it over? Nope. Quinn Richardson took a redshirt during that 1983 season and returned as a fifth-year senior in 1984. He and Big George Montgomery combined with the super sophs (Bruce Douglas and Efrem Winters) to lead Illinois to the Elite Eight.
And honestly? That line continued for the next 25 years (with a brief hiatus for Bruce Pearl to do his damage), all the way through Warren Carter. WarCat had very similar numbers to Ryan Cline's numbers above. 1.2 ppg as a freshman, 2.2 as a sophomore, 4.8 as a junior, and then 13.7 as a senior, leading that 2007 team (which had lost Dee and Augie the previous year) to the NCAA Tournament. Each year, for nearly 25 years, the roster was set up to stay old.
And then that disappeared. I'm not here to document Bruce Weber's recruiting struggles again, but just note that it stopped with WarCat, and WarCat was at the end of the line of Bill Self recruits. For whatever reason, we stopped with "get old, stay old". Weber lost it, Groce couldn't rebuild it, now it's Underwood's turn.
To be honest, the early returns haven't been great. He added three recruits his first two months (albeit the "I'll take anyone still available" variety) and all three were gone after his first year. The guys who would have been seniors on this team (JCL, DJW) were gone after his first month of practices. Michael Finke went off to Grand Canyon to play with his brother. Leron Black left after his redshirt junior season. This could have been an "old" team, but player departures killed that.
And if there are more player departures this offseason, we'll be sunk again. The key to this whole thing - just listen to Matt Painter - is to stack classes. Get Griffin and Jones to their senior seasons. Add a wing with Kofi and January and keep them around. Have a solution when Ayo decides to turn pro.
Just keep stacking. Get us some experienced juniors and seniors. Get us to another 1983.
And then go on another 25 year run.