So I'm in this strange spot where my basketball team is 7-15 and I feel... encouraged? Does that mean I let last season (and Nov/Dec of this season) lower the bar so much that three Big Ten wins suddenly feels like the Sweet 16? As always, I need to go back and check myself against my expectations.
Which is a post I wrote on November 21st - Expectations. You don't have to go back and read it - I'll link a bunch of the text here. To give you some context, November 21 was the day of the Xavier game, the 7th-place game in Maui. So for the season so far, we had beaten Evansville, lost to Georgetown (Trent missed the game with a concussion), lost to Gonzaga (Trent had a three in the air with 12 seconds left that would have given us the lead), and lost to Iowa State (THT Revenge Tour 2018).
I started that post by linking a preview from MGoBlog (a Michigan blog). I always try to do this before our seasons - see what other blogs think of us. Here's part of what I linked from MGoBlog:
With the chaos this past offseason, Underwood needed reinforcements. Ayo Dosunmu just missed the cutoff for five star status and was the top prospect out of Chicago; he's an attacking lead guard with size and should fit nicely with Frazier in the backcourt. Tevian Jones is another four star who should soak up minutes on the wing. The only players over 6'7 on the roster will be Adonis De La Rosa, an enormous mid-major grad transfer, and two unheralded freshmen. Altogether, two thirds of the scholarship players on the team will be in their first year with the program - a truly unfathomable number for any coach in his second season.
It was an interesting first season for Underwood. He went with an incredibly aggressive defensive scheme: the Illini's relentless pressure on the perimeter created a lot of turnovers, but they gave up a ton of easy looks at the rim and had an astronomical foul rate. It was a calculated gamble, given Illinois's terrible interior depth; in the end, it was a bad defense. His players crashed the glass despite their lack of size, but didn't play at the breakneck pace that Underwood's Oklahoma State team did.
Illinois will be bad. Their lack of capable big men will be a huge strain on a bad defense. Underwood's basically back at Year Zero, but Dosunmu is incredibly promising, at least.
And I followed that up with my own thoughts about the "why" here - why did we enter year two with eight newcomers?
"A truly unfathomable number for any coach in his second season". That's the part that stuck with me. It's so true. There's no way around it. Eight newcomers, and unless they're the Fab Five, a losing season is a near certainty.
Is part of that Underwood's "fault"? Yes. I think it's clear that not every player left on their own, and I think it's also clear that Underwood's coaching style led others to leave. He would tell you, I'm guessing, that if people run when he turns up the heat, they're not ready to lead this program back to prominence. And that appeared to be what happened as six players left and eight newcomers arrived. If we're looking for points for/against Brad Underwood here, those are probably points "against". Just like Lovie turning over the entire roster, it didn't have to happen this way.
OK, we've established where I was. One more cut-and-paste to establish what I felt were fair expectations for the season. Keeping in mind that "it didn't have to be this way", what's a fair expectation for a coach in that situation his second season? Here's what I wrote:
Which is why I tweeted that "stretch goal - 15 wins" thing. I think this is a 12-20 or maybe 13-19 basketball season, but if things break right, I could see 15-16. That's the number Tyler landed on when he wrote that section of the preview. Given the 4 returnees/8 newcomers thing, and the difficult schedule thing, and the "one returning senior, one returning junior" thing, take out all the emotions and that's probably a 13-19 basketball season.
OK, so a 5-4 finish to get to 12-20 or a 6-3 finish to get to 13-19. Are those possible?
Actually, we should probably back up and talk schedule. We knew the schedule would be tough (the Maui field, road game in the B1G/ACC, Georgetown/UNLV/Missouri, plus an improved Big Ten), but I don't think anyone anticipated that we'd have the 2nd most difficult schedule in the country (per KenPom) on February 4th. To wit: the 2016/17 Illini were 20-15 and KenPom #66. This year we're 7-15 and KenPom #75. Schedule matters.
Switch our non-conference schedule with, say, Pitt and we'd fairly easily be 12-10 (3-8) right now. There'd be a lot less angst at 12-10 vs. 7-15. Nine non-conference home wins over Troy, Central Arkansas, Northern Alabama, St. Louis, Duquesne, Niagra, Maryland Eastern Shore, New Orleans and Colgate wouldn't mean much of anything at all, but 12-10 is a lot easier on the eyes than 7-15. (Worth nothing: KenPom sorts that out by ranking 12-10 Pitt #73 and 7-15 Illinois #75, so there's some justice when teams schedule nobody and then promote themselves as "vastly improved", but now I'm too far in the weeds here.) The point - I said 12-20 or 13-19. Had I known just how hard the schedule would be I would have probably set 11-21 as the baseline expectation.
But I didn't. So let's settle at 12-20. We've established that it's his own doing, and we've established that turning over most of the entire roster in a year when we have the 2nd-most difficult schedule in the nation is insanity, so now let's talk about the possibility of meeting those (very low) expectations. Can we win five more games?
Since we've been using KenPom, here's the schedule + the KenPom rank of the remaining teams on the schedule:
Michigan State #4
@Ohio State #32
Penn State #71
@Penn State #71
So, uh, yeah, only one team ranked below us (Rutgers). But we did just beat #27 (Nebraska) and #54 (Minnesota) in Champaign, and we also beat #20 (Maryland) in New York City. Given that five of the games are at home and four on the road, let's rank them by best chance to win. Easiest to hardest, in my opinion:
Yes, Michigan State is better than Wisconsin and Purdue. But winning at Wisconsin or Purdue vs. surprising Michigan State in Champaign? I'm going with the latter.
I think that sets up fairly well. The line is directly over Indiana. Somehow win one of the bottom four games and you're OK to lose one of the four games at the top. Win the top four and lose the bottom four? Then the "met expectations or nah?" moment for the season rests on the Indiana game in Champaign (and, secondarily, winning a true road game at Penn State).
A 5-4 finish gets you to 12 wins (which would be more like 18 wins if you had Pitt's schedule), and that could be a launching pad for next season. Conversely, a 2-7 finish puts you at 9-22 and it's a very long road from there to the NCAA Tournament in 2020. Which, I think, is the true expectation here.
14-18 first season? Fine. You weren't left with much after the Malcolm Hill class graduated. 11-20 your second season? That's fairly awful, but I can accept that as .500-ish if you had played an average schedule.
Year three? It's all your team, there's no roster turnover, the schedule will almost certainly be easier, and you'll have five potential sophomore leaps. It's time to take a massive step forward.