Leap Year

Mar 17, 2019

As you probably know, I'm a comp guy. For some reason I think it's important to say that Isaiah Williams reminds me of 1999 St. Louis Rams wide receiver Az Hakim. And the best comp for our basketball program is.. our football program? I'll try to explain.

For starters, if we're talking about rebuilds, I believe that basketball can be rebuilt much quicker than football. Mostly because of my belief that basketball is all about the Sophomore Leap and football is about the (hopefully redshirt) Junior Leap. Basketball players are (for the most part) going to look lost for a year and then blossom as sophomores. Football players are (for the most part) all going to look lost for two, sometimes three years and then blossom in their third season (redshirt sophomore or true junior season). Yes, some basketball players are ready to contribute as freshmen (Trent Frazier). Some don't really even see the court until their junior season (Aaron Jordan). But if we're talking averages, in my observation, it's third year for football players, second year for basketball players.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. Next year, Lovie Smith's first true recruiting class will all be juniors. Next year, Brad Underwood's first true recruiting class will all be sophomores. Next year, as I've written about half a dozen times, is the year.

What do I mean by the year? I don't know yet. It could be one of many things.

  • The Year Everything Fell In Place - a bowl game, an NCAA Tournament run, two contact extensions, and the launch of a new decade where we're not a laughingstock.
  • The Year Everything Falls Apart - another losing football season, another losing basketball season, and two fairly major decisions for the Athletic Director.
  • The Year We're Not Sure What The AD Should Do - this is the scariest option. A 5-7 football season that was inches from a bowl and returns everyone for 2020; a 19-12 basketball season that lands as the first team out of the Tournament but huge hopes that everyone returns and next year is The Leap.

That needs to be emphasized here. I believe two things: that next year is a year we need to see massive improvement from both teams AND that the year after that should be "better" for both programs. Which is why an almost-there year next year (from either team) brings about a scenario none of us want. 11-21 for Underwood and it's over. 23-8 and we're on our way. 18-14?

Really, we don't need to worry about that. Josh Whitman gets paid to make that decision, no matter how tough it is. As a fan, for now, I'm focused on "Year Four for football, Year Three for basketball, time to leap". Honestly, I want the same season from both programs.

What kind of season is that? See if you can tell if I'm discussing football or basketball.

  1. No more getting housed. No more getting completely blown out by The University of Freakin' Iowa. Yes, there were youth excuses up until now, but those excuses are gone. Time to not get embarrassed.
  2. Compete in the Big Ten. Please, no "we looked great in the non-conference but it fell apart once the Big Ten schedule arrived". The whole point of a tear-down rebuild was to build a solid foundation instead of trying to max-out a so-so program. So it's time to look competitive.
  3. The non-conference schedule will be much easier. We'll be favored in nearly every non-conference game. Time to hit the ground running.
  4. While the team will still be mostly juniors and sophomores for one more year, it's time for player leadership. This coming year should be good, the following year great, all led by these upperclassmen.
  5. While it was fun last year to completely destroy Minnesota at home, could we maybe do the same to the University of Freakin' Iowa please?

This is the whole point of rebuilding like this. Many basketball coaches will have a rough year their first year but then make significant progress the second year. We didn't. We tore everything down to the studs the second year. The last six Illinois football coaches all made a bowl their third season. Lovie didn't. He tore everything down to the studs his second year and still wasn't there his third year.

Remember the list I put together for the football preview the last two years? I looked at coaches who took over moribund football programs (Leach when he took over Washington State, Kill when he took over Minnesota, Cutcliffe when he took over Duke, Alvarez when he took over Wisconsin, plus three others). Here were the average win totals for those coaches in the first four years. Look for the leap year.

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

If I did a similar list for basketball, I'm sure it would be similar. I mean, just look at Virginia right now as the example of how this should work.

Tony Bennett arrives at Virginia and goes 15-16 (5-11), KenPom #76. He then guts the thing. Eight players depart and he brings in seven freshmen. The next season is a little better record-wise at 16-15 (7-9) but with a much easier schedule his KenPom fell to #103. I can tell you that Virginia fans, the day after the season in 2011, with Bennett finishing #103 (his offense was #159 nationally), felt exactly like we do: "we knew it was going to be bad, but did it have to be this bad?"

This is not to say that Underwood will be Bennett 2.0. Just that rebuilds like this, when they work, sometimes look like what Bennett did. His third year, 22-10 (9-7) and a tourney berth (KenPom #33). His fourth year, a slight step back at 23-12 (11-7) and the NIT (KenPom #41). And then, from year five on, blast-off (KenPom #4 his fifth year).

I don't really need to say much more, do I? There's our examples. Those football coaches went (more or less), 2 wins, 3 wins, 4 wins, 7 wins. That basketball coach went KenPom #76, then KenPom #103, and then a massive leap to KenPom #33. Year four for football, year three for basketball, time to leap.

The end.


Altgeld88 on March 17 @ 07:21 PM CDT

I respectfully disagree. Year four for basketball and BU. Next year should be better but year four is when traction is achieved, if it is achieved. You need to look at the personnel, IMO. We were tremendously undersized at nearly every position, and largely inexperienced. We had no center. Bless ADLR, he scrapped, but the poor guy was really on 1-1/2 legs. And yet they all kept fighting to the end. Didn't pack it in and didn't sit on the bench sullen at the end of the Iowa game. They were in tears. They want this. Just need to add bodies of comparable size to competitors and wait for maturation of current talent.

I'd be curious about how many P-5 coaches inherited a team that in year 2 was as small and young as ours. Maryland is very young, but they have Fernando in the post. And when ADLR schooled him in January we took them down by 11. On the road. In what was really a home game for Maryland (I was there; almost no Illini fans were in the crowd.)

I say chill in Year 3. I hope we're in the tournament conversation all year, and upper half of conference. If not, however, the sky hasn't fallen.

Finally, a big thank you to ADLR, AJ, Dre, and Trent. Without them this year would have been a complete disaster. ADLR at the margin helped us compete with his bulk in the post. AJ was instrumental in our key wins, and scrapped relentlessly. Dre was relentless, too, and a revelation at times. And Trent didn't get the props he should have. I'm looking forward to seeing most all of the guys back next year with January and Kofi. And maybe a surprise or two in the off-season.

shenaniganns on March 25 @ 09:23 PM CDT

I'll agree with this sentiment if recruiting keeps pace with the conference. But I think realistically, adding actual centers, an extra year for everyone, and an easier non-con should mean the NIT at least.

Illinimac68 on March 18 @ 10:34 AM CDT

For basketball I'd like to see the NCAA tournament but bare minimum NIT just for the extra experience. Oh and beat Mizzou. For football, I'd like to see a bowl but 5-7 seems realistic as long as the 7 don't include any curb stompings.

Groundhogday on March 18 @ 02:01 PM CDT

In general, a top 50 Kenpom makes the tournament. Underwood finished with a 103 rating in Year 1, then gutted to the studs and finished with an 83 ranking in Year 2. It is reasonable to think that with almost everyone back and a couple of key additions we can improve to a top 50 kenpom ranking.

Bear8287 on March 19 @ 12:34 AM CDT

In general, a top 50 Kenpom makes the tournament.

Tell that to Clemson or Texas. :-D (or Indiana for that matter. By the way, how did tOSU get in ahead of IU?)

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 01:32 PM CDT

They need to fine tune the NCAA metrics. Looks like they put more weight on overall record.

LosAngellini on March 18 @ 09:29 PM CDT

Constantly looking through basketball through the football lens is tiresome. I get it that you care and follow football much more than basketball. That's fine. I love your football exuberance.

But basketball deserves its own independent attention and analysis. It should not be in the shadow of football all the time. There is a lot to ponder after a year of ups and downs in basketball - tons of off season intrigue, notable culture improvements, future lineups, maybe a big strategy shift is necessary. But your big take away is that basketball is at a similar inflection point as football? The comparison is lame and reductive.

Bear8287 on March 19 @ 12:46 AM CDT

Yes, you can read the first sentence and you don't need to read the by-line.

When I finally settled on the realization that I first started reading IlliniBoard because Robert was covering a football team that few others cared about, to get his analytical fan's perspective and then looked at basketball coverage from guys like Tyler and others in the past as a bonus, I was much happier.

At times to see Robert write an article like Eight Games Where We'll Learn Something (which was spot on) and then see the team go 0-8 over those eight games only to then say, gee we didn't learn anything can be mind boggling. Just roll with it.

The football coverage is well worth the subscription price and Tyler's basketball coverage has been a nice bonus. Still wish they would fix the broken links on anything that falls off the first page, but it's not the end of the world.

Happier now? :-D

IlliniOllie on March 21 @ 08:00 AM CDT

The comparison doesn’t bother me. The two revenue sports are tied together not just because they share the same team name and (mostly) fan base, but they’re both on a similar rebuilding timeline from points of complete hopelessness, and that common fan base is dying for success in either sport. This next season should be the year where we get a pretty good idea of what Lovie or Brad is attempting to build is actually going to turn into anything. Or not.

To me, they’re also intertwined because success in one can help weather the failure of another. Sure, we were 1-11 in football in 2003 and 4-8 in 2004, but “just wait til basketball season starts!” If we can just get one of these programs really going again - I’m more hopeful for basketball than football, although I have my BB concerns - I’ll be more patient with the other. Give me something - anything - to cheer for. Please.

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