With Ayo returning, the 2019/20 basketball season seems to be clearly in focus. We go through these rebuilds so often of late (both football and basketball) that we seem perpetually stuck in "well this is his second season and he's overhauled the entire roster" mode. But now, next season, with Ayo returning, everything seems clear. It's time.
I'll start with just some general musings on both programs since it's been a theme around here. I've been pointing to 2019/20 for a long time - the year where it should all start to click. You know the date I've picked for football (October 12, 2019 - I picked it in March of 2016), and while I originally thought that 2018/19 would be a leap year for basketball (see all of my "Maui next year!" screaming after Ayo signed), The Great Purge after the 2017/18 season changed that timeline. No, this would not be "Ayo, Trent, Mark Smith, Finke, and Leron" having a breakout moment at the Maui Invitational. Six players left (more importantly, nearly 70% of the minutes left), and we started over.
So it's not an exact match. While I still believe the fanbase should expect a large step forward for both football and basketball next season (or else), when I apply my "next year or the following?" text (I'm so tired of applying that test), I do think 2020 football will be a step forward while 2020/21 basketball might be a step backwards (if Ayo declares for the draft). That's not to say that football will be a "but just wait for next year" season - if a step forward doesn't happen this year, it's probably never going to happen - I'm just saying that looking at the rosters for the year after this upcoming school year, I think football gets better and basketball gets worse.
Not substantially worse, mind you. I've used this Virginia comp all season (and I hate it now, since they won the title, because what was a "here's what a rebuild sometimes looks like when you clear off 60% of the roster after the first season and start over with freshmen" is now "here's how to rebuild and win a title"). The Virginia comp was simply this. Bad the first year (KenPom #76). Then Tony Bennett cleaned out the roster (six players departed) and they brought in seven freshmen for his second season. So his second year was worse than his first year - #103 KenPom, neither season anywhere near the NIT. Third season they brought everyone back and got significantly better (from #103 KenPom to #33 and a 10-seed in the NCAA Tournament). I think we'd all take that in a heartbeat. Bennett's fourth season they lost a few players and took a slight step back (from #33 KenPom to #41, from the NCAA Tournament to the NIT), and then from the fifth season on, with all those second-season freshmen becoming seniors, they've been the program we've known (top-10 KenPom nearly every year).
That's what I mean by "slightly worse in season four". For football, it needs to be a massive step forward this year and then yet another step forward next season (before a likely step-back year in 2021). For basketball, I could see a massive step forward next winter and then a slight step back the following year if Ayo declares for the draft a year from right now.
Man, that was a long sidebar at the intro. I set out the write about Ayo returning, and I just spent half the post talking about how Ayo leaving in 2020 might mean we take a step backwards. We can worry about that later. For now, let's focus on what Ayo returning means for 2019/20.
I think it means we should see the Virginia comp. Season two for Bennett, seven newcomers, bad basketball, #103 KenPom. Season two for Underwood, eight newcomers, bad basketball, #84 KenPom. Season three for Bennett, everyone returns, greatly-improved basketball, #33 KenPom, 10-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Season three for Underwood, everyone returns............
If you're new to the site I should probably pause to mention the way I view college athletics. I'm not really a "coaching" guy as much as I am a "recruit and develop" guy. Yes, coaching is important to push a team over the top, and Tony Bennett has proven he can do that while Brad Underwood has not, but to build a team, to me, the most important pieces are: 1. Recruit talent, 2. Keep that talent around, and then 3. Coach 'em up/have a great scheme. Recruit several top-50 kids, keep them around for multiple years, and I don't care what scheme you're running, you're probably going to win.
If you don't win with that, then you point at the coaching. It's really hard not to win like that. Which is why I think it's going to be really hard not to win with:
Ayo Dosunmu, very likely a 2020 NBA Draft pick, in his sophomore season
Trent Frazier, very likely to finish top-5 in All Time Leading Scorers At Illinois, in his junior season
Giorgi Bezhanishvili, clearly one of the six best freshmen in the Big Ten last season, entering his sophomore year
Kofi Cockburn, a very large man filling a very large hole in the paint, a top-40 recruit entering his freshman year
Add to that these other pieces - a juco point guard in his senior season, a 3/4 forward entering his senior season, a defense-first guard who started 18 games last season, plus three freshmen in last year's rotation simply becoming sophomores (or, perhaps a much simpler way to say that: 86% of the scoring returns including last season's Big Three), and you should absolutely expect a leap like Virginia's year three.
And there are NERDstats that expect such a leap. Bart Torvik's T-Rank projects Illinois to be the 28th-best team next season (read: we'd likely be ranked at some point next season, followed by maybe an eight seed). It is especially high on the offensive potential, projecting Illinois to have the #6 offense in the county. (It also expects the defense to be 70th, so get ready to win a lot of games 94-92.)
Why would such a leap be expected? Well, Ayo returning is a huge part of it. I don't think it's crazy to point to Underwood's Oklahoma State team for the comp here. Sophomore season for Jawun Evans before he declared for the draft, and with the ideal guard running his offense, OSU had the #1 offense in the country. If Underwood was walking into Champaign with this roster (instead of what he inherited in 2017), then yes, I'd likely expect the Tournament. A year three with this being his roster? I expect something special.
That's a lot of words to say "with Ayo returning, Illinois needs to dance, and the potential is clearly there to be firmly in the dance come March". There are hurdles. The biggest hurdle is probably the strength of the Big Ten. Real quick, since I have T-Rank open, here are the projections for the entire Big Ten:
Michigan State (4)
Penn State (15)
Ohio State (20)
So, uh, yeah.... 28th nationally sounds great until you see we're projected as the ninth-best Big Ten team. But that's not really where I'm going with this post. I'm off track again.
Let's just state it very clearly: With Ayo returning, we should expect to dance for the first time since 2013. The seed might be boosted but our strength of schedule or it might be handicapped by our very strong conference schedule, but that's for the committee to sort out. With Ayo returning for (what is likely) his last season in Champaign, and with Trent as a junior and Giorgi as a sophomore and Kofi coming in, the expectation is to dance.