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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The non-conference schedule will be much easier. We'll be favored in nearly every non-conference game. Time to hit the ground running.
- 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.
- 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.