It's time for the annual "basketball is easy just find a few great players why is it so hard for us when it's really this easy?" post! I know you've been checking your calendar and wondering if the same, boring post was going to be written again this year, so rest easy. It's finally time to talk about how incredibly simple a basketball rebuild can be.
Let's just start with women's basketball. The women's basketball program at Illinois, as you may know, struggles. The last winning season was 2012/13. The last NCAA appearance was 2002/03. This past season (10-22) was the first time with double-digit wins since 2014/15. It's... been a struggle.
I know absolutely nothing about women's basketball. But I do know how to fix Illinois basketball. It's so easy. Here's the whole list:
- Land Brea Beal from Rock Island and Anaya Peoples from Danville Schlarman.
- Win a bunch of basketball games.
That's it. Seriously, that's it. I mean, obviously, they're not coming here. Beal is going to South Carolina so she can play in multiple Final Fours. Peoples is doing the same, only at Notre Dame. There's no reason on earth for them to come to Illinois. Why come here just to win nine games when they can compete for National Championships?
So this is not some kind of "they should have stayed loyal to Illinois" article or anything like that. This is how it works. I get it. I just have these moments from time to time where I realize just how easy it is. Like, there is a 97% cure for our disease. We just can't get access to the medicine. Even though it's in our own state.
That's what I mean by "simple". Yes, there are multiple ways to rebuild a college basketball program. Our current attempt on the women's side is to hire a wildly successful Division III coach, give her Division I resources, have her implement her systems, find the players who fit those systems, and win. It's possible. It's happened before and will happen again. When I write this post, people usually think that I believe the team with the most five-stars will win every time. Like, you add up all of the recruiting rankings, and the team with the highest score will win the championship. That's not how it works and that's not what I'm saying. It gets you much closer to your goal, and then a bunch of other things have to go correctly for you to win it all.
What I am saying: if Beal and Peoples had chosen Illinois, I know I'd be able to write in 20+ wins (maybe not next year, but certainly the following few) for the first time since 1999. It would be just that simple. Add the #13 player (Beal, a wing) and the #21 player (Peoples, a point guard) and you'd push Illinois women's basketball back onto the map immediately. It doesn't seem like it should be that easy, but it really is.
Again, this is a "easier said than done" thing. You don't just land five-star recruits. They want to win, and they will go to places that win consistently. I'm not going the "Fahey didn't land these two so she must be fired immediately" route either. I'm just saying... I can't ever get over how simple it is. And how hard it is to do that simple thing.
Which is why it breaks my heart every year to see the Illinois Mr. Basketball rankings come out with the winner heading out of state. This year, it's EJ Liddell heading to Ohio State. Two-time state champion, two-time Mr. Basketball, choosing to play for a third-year coach who is attempting to rebuild a program. Except that third-year coach is Chris Holtmann, who came to Illinois, put together a better sales pitch than Brad Underwood, and stole Mr. Basketball away.
If you just went by that Mr. Basketball list, you could fix the last 12 years of Illini basketball. Seriously. I don't care what you think about Weber's coaching or Groce's coaching or Underwood's coaching. I don't even need to look at the list to see if these players would have fit in their schemes. Go back over the last 12 years and replace some of our players with names off that list and you completely change everything. Even if they're one-and-done:
- Add Derrick Rose to the 2008 team and it goes from 16 wins to 20+ wins and another NCAA Tournament appearance.
- Put Jalen Brunson on the 2016, 2017, and 2018 teams and we're in the Tournament at least two of the three years.
- A one-and-done from Jabari Parker easily puts 2014 over the hump (we just needed that Tracy floater to fall as it was).
- A one-and-done from Jahlil Okafor easily puts the 2015 team solidly in the Tournament.
Please don't get lost here. The fact that these Mr. Basketballs were often one-and-done doesn't mean my point is "we need to start to really pursue the one-and-done route - we're just missing one star". Landing a four-year player like Jon Scheyer would be much better for our program health. Even a Mr. Basketball who was considered somewhat of a "bust" in college (like Chasson Randle in 2011) would have been wildly helpful.
See, this is how it used to work. We'd keep a bunch of Mr. Basketballs home and then we'd win. Just look at all of our Elite-Eight-or-better teams. 1984? Led by 1982 Mr. Basketball Bruce Douglas. 1989? 1986 Mr. Basketball Nick Anderson and 1987 Mr. Basketball Marcus Liberty. 2001? A three year run of Sergio McClain, Frank Williams, and Brian Cook from 1997 to 1999. 2005? Dee Brown (2002).
To me, it can really be boiled down to this. Toss out the schemes, toss out how good of a "coach" we have, toss out "were we able to develop the low post skills of our big men?" and everything else. Those things will move a team up or down a few seed lines. The whole "are we good at basketball or not?" thing just comes down to landing Bruce, Nick, Frank, and Dee again.
That's why seeing the EJ Liddell Mr. Basketball stories bothered me so much yesterday. It could be that simple! It could be 2027, and we're looking back at the Mr. Basketball list, and we'd see EJ Liddell in 2018 and 2019 and then Adam Miller in 2020, and we'd say "landing Liddell and Miller led to that 2022 Elite Eight". I mean, look at tonight's Sweet 16. Nearly every team is there simply because they landed their EJ's. Heck, even 12-seed Oregon. Coaching will decide who goes from the Sweet 16 to the Final Four - the playing field is level at this point - but recruiting decides the first weekend. And it's so incredibly disappointing that the Illinois Mr. Basketball is going to Ohio State.
Yes, we landed Kofi. He's ranked higher than EJ. I get it. I think (hope) you understand what I'm saying. After Dee, we lost the state. We stopped adding McDonald's All Americans, period. And Illinois basketball hasn't been Illinois basketball since.
I should note that I do think we're further down this path than we were under John Groce. Adding Mark Smith (if only for one year, and even with the flame-out), followed by Ayo Dosunmu, followed by Kofi Cockburn, shows that we're focused on a headliner in every class. This whole thing screeched to a halt when Bruce Weber added several headliner-less classes in a row (and then John Groce won all those silver medals). If we want people to come to our music festival, we have to have some known names for the 48-pt font at the top.
So while I would have loved to say "Ayo followed by EJ", I'm OK with "Ayo followed by Kofi". When you then find some gems like Giorgi (your Kendall Gill or your Luther Head - an unranked player who turns out to be a headliner), then you're really starting to change some things. We missed on EJ, but now it's another year and the focus is on the third-place finisher in Mr. Basketball: junior Adam Miller. Add him next year and you're really rolling with headliners.
To me, it's just that easy. Land those players and you're 80% of the way there. And EJ was right down here in the orange-and-blue Metro East, leading his team to back-to-back state titles over Chicago schools - and it's downstate recruiting where we've dominated over the decades - and yet we let him get away.
It has to stop happening.