Pick My Post - GOLF
I kind of wanted to answer this question on Tuesday night. But I knew if I wrote "Illini golf - dominating dominance" on Tuesday and then they went out and shot +14 on Wednesday, my post would be blamed for the collapse. So I waited until now to write it.
And I'll be honest - I'm pretty excited to write it. It's fun to write about winning. We should do that more often. It's why I stretched my normal one-off Pick My Post into three posts.
This one was "picked" by three people. These three suggestions:
Deep dive on Illini Golf.
Let's dwell on the most dominant B1G program in any sport. What can we do to get the Krush to the National Championships after we qualify for the 12th straight time tomorrow?
-- Patrick Owens (@powens33) May 15, 2019
Are Adrien and feagles the next Meyer and hardy? For the rest of this year and next year?
-- Matt (@celeste43_) May 15, 2019
As well as...
Will there ever be a year in which Illinois can overcome the West coast stranglehold on golf and win the National Championship? That seems to be the only question Mike Small has to answer really
-- Kyle Huisinga (@KHuisinga85) May 15, 2019
First off, is Illini golf the most dominant program in the conference right now? If it's not, it's close. The only other program that comes to mind is Ohio State men's tennis - 14 consecutive regular season Big Ten titles and 9 of the last 11 Big Ten Tournament titles (with the other two going to... Illinois). Golf doesn't have a regular season title (it can't, really), so all we can compare that to is our golf team which has won 10 of the last 11 Big Ten Tournament titles. I'm pretty good at math, so I believe 10 of 11 is better than 9 of 11. I'm declaring Illini golf slightly better.
Except that this season was the one where all of that was at risk. I can already tell I'm going to get long-winded with this post, so maybe go grab a snack and come back. I'll wait.
There are two ways I track golf recruiting (yes, I track golf recruiting). One is the World Amateur Golf Rankings, the other is the Golfweek High School Rankings. WAGR mostly for international players (although the US-American players are listed as well), Golfweek for high school players. These are rankings, so they don't tell us everything, but they are more reliable than basketball or football recruiting rankings. Those rankings are opinions based on offers and film - these are just "'which golfers beat which golfers when they faced off head-to-head". Not perfect, but better.
(This is not where I'm headed with this post, but if you want to know how well Mike Small is recruiting, you can go to the WAGR and see that signee Jerry Ji is #118 in the world. That's an incredible ranking for someone not in college yet. If you sort the list by age, he's the #27 player age 19 or younger. And cross referencing that list with players headed to college golf - many players on that WAGR list are international players who won't play college golf - Ji is more or less a top-10 recruit. You can also find 2020 commit Piercen Hunt on the Golfweek list - sort by 2020 class and he's the #26 player in the 2020 class.)
I mostly use the WAGR (remember my "WAGR sounds like a betting app" joke? That was a great joke.) to see how the current team stacks up against the competition. Yes, I'm finally getting back to "this was the season where all of that was at risk". If you've just casually folllowed Illini golf the last 10 years, you know that we've consistently competed at the highest level. Made the match play finals in 2013, losing to a Justin Thomas-led Alabama. Lost to Oregon in the 2016 semifinals on a Charlie Danielson putt that horseshoed around the cup and back toward him. All in all, made the match play (final eight at the NCAA's) five years in a row from 2013 to 2017, with four of those five years making the semifinals. Think Illinois Basketball in the Final Four four out of five years.
Last year was the first year the Illini missed out on the match play since 2012, finishing 11th during the stroke play portion of the NCAA's (top eight make match play). The two seniors (Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy) tried to carry the team (Meyer tied for 4th, Hardy 32nd), but the three sophomores behind them all finished 60th or above and Illinois missed out on the match play by seven strokes.
Which is what I wrote about going into this season. Hardy and Meyer gone. No seniors because the player who would have been a senior (Edoardo Lipparelli) left to turn professional two years ago. And three juniors who, while ranked highly in the Golfweek rankings coming in, hadn't stepped up to that level yet. After nearly a decade of teams with a very clear "next", now we had reached 2006/07 basketball. "Wait, which guys are going to lead the team next year?"
And that's fine. Every Duke basketball has their 1995; every Ohio State football their 2011. Illinois golf fell out of the top-25 for the first time since... let's see... 2009?
Which is why my goal was "just keep the Big Ten title streak alive and the NCAA Championships streak alive". Next year looks better (especially with Ji coming in), and so this would hopefully be the low point of the next half-dozen years. THIS is why these last three weeks (won the Big Ten, not only qualified for the NCAA's but won the regional) were so huge. This is not your typical Illini golf roster, so we were in danger of both of those things not happening, and then they went and happened anyway.
Which brings me to Matt's PMP suggestion above - are Feagles and Adrien Dumont de Chassart (ADDC) ready to step into the Hardy and Meyer shoes? (And remember, Hardy and Meyer stepped into Danielson and Detry's shoes who stepped into Campbell and Pieters' shoes who stepped into Guthrie and Langley's shoes - that's why we've been so good for so long.) The answer to that question this weekend was a resounding "yes". Feagles won the regional, ADDC finished third.
I think I need to pause to point out how this regional win was a huge surge. Six weeks ago, the Illini competed in the Augusta Invitational where they finished 30 shots behind tournament winner (and #3 in the country) Wake Forest. Arkansas, Notre Dame, and Augusta - teams that failed to make the NCAA's this past weekend - finished 13, 7, and 3 shots in front of Illinois, respectively. Feagles and ADDC tied for 24th, 17 shots behind Wake Forest's Cameron Young.
This weekend? Illinois beat Wake Forest by 10 shots. Cameron Young played well, finishing 10th, but ADDC beat him by four shots and Feagles beat him by 10 shots. Yes, it's golf, and Rory McIlroy is +6 at the PGA right now as I type this, so scores will wildly vary from tournament to tournament. But the plan this year was for Feagles to be the alpha dog (highest-ranked of the three juniors) and ADDC to be the superstar freshman (highest ranked Illini international recruit in a long time). It took a while, but that's what has finally materialized.
Which, let's be honest, probably isn't going to be enough next weekend. The Golfstat rankings were updated yesterday (they're "relative" rankings, which means they take all the tournaments, see which golfers beat which golfers, and come up with a ranking), and Feagles moved from #44 to #28 while ADDC (just a freshman, so it takes a while to climb the rankings) moved from #161 to #109. Feagles is the #9 junior in the rankings, ADDC is the #12 freshman. That bodes well for next year and beyond. That's more what a typical Illini golf roster looks like.
But yeah as the #24 team (the Illini dropped a spot in the rankings despite winning the regional - don't get mad, it's just numbers), it will be very difficult for the gents to make the top-8 next weekend. Or even the top-15 (half the teams are cut after the third round). Using those same Golfstat numbers, just pick any top-10 team and look at the player rankings. Vanderbilt has three guys ranked higher than Feagles. Oklahoma State has #1 AND #2 on the list. We'll get back to having that, and we'll be back in the top-10, but this year just wasn't that. That's fine - our goals have been met.
As for Kyle's question - can we win a title? - yes, I still believe it will happen. We've knocked on the door too many times (five straight Match Play appearances) for it to not eventually happen. I honestly believe that if Danielson's putt in the semifinals had fallen on 18 in 2016, we would have won the title the next day.
And i should note - it's not really a "west coast stranglehold" on NCAA golf as much at it is a "southern schools stranglehold". Since moving to match play in 2009, the only west coast team to win was Oregon in 2016 (on their home course). Otherwise it's just "southern" schools winning the title - Texas, Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, etc.
Can I picture it happening with some of the players on this roster? Well, I can try.
The biggest boost the Illini received this last month (when I went from "are we going to lost at the Big Tens and then miss out on the NCAA's" to "WE BACK") has been from sophomore Varun Chopra and freshman Tommy Kuhl. This season easily had the most roster changes of any Mike Small team (one week, Chopra and sophomore Brendan O'Reilly were in the lineup - the next week, Kuhl and fellow freshman Noah Gillard), and with O'Reilly struggling and junior Bryan Baumgarten dealing with a bad back, Chopra and Kuhl stepped up and steadied everything. Chopra had the best Illini score two tournaments in a row. Kuhl's T20 finish at the NCAA regional was a fantastic finish for a true freshman.
So given that we had a freshman finish 3rd at this regional and another freshman finish 20th (with a sophomore, Chopra, finishing 27th), let's look at the future.
Probably back into the top-10. Maybe just outside of that - 10th through 15th or something. With the potential for a big leap if you can get something big out of the other two seniors (Gio Tadiotto and Bryan Baumgarten). Feagles and ADDC should both be top-25 players in college golf, and that's what you need to make a push for the match play.
So if we lock those two into their spots, it's quite the battle for the other three spots. The other two seniors have loads of experience, both of them starting several times as freshmen. Kuhl and Chopra pushed their way into the lineup this year so it's hard to see them giving up those spots over the next 2-3 years. Ji comes in as the highest rated freshman (on the WAGR list) in a long time. But then there's the guys on the bench right now (junior-to-be Brendan O'Reilly, himself a top-25 recruit, plus sophomores-to-be Luke Armbrust and Noah Gillard).
Best guess by this time next year? The top 8 in order:
1. Feagles (SR)
2. ADDC (SO)
3. Ji (FR)
4. Chopra (JR)
5. Kuhl (SO)
6. Baumgarten (SR)
7. Tadiotto (SR)
8. O'Reilly (JR)
Again, depth is now a strength. We've seen sophomores and juniors emerge before for a Mike Small program, so what if Brendan O'Reilly has the best summer of his life and grabs a spot in the rotation next fall? What if someone like Noah Gillard surprises as a sophomore like Varun Chopra surprised this year? It's the problem we haven't had on the basketball court the last decade. When you're certain of the starting lineup, you don't have enough depth. Golf now has depth.
(And yes, I know that "depth" sometimes means "transfers". Instead of battling with seven guys, transfer somewhere else and battle with two. But until that happens, this is our depth.)
Feagles, Baumgarten, and Tadiotto will have graduated. As long as there's no players turning pro, Mike Small is probably looking at this as his top 8 to choose from:
1. ADDC (JR)
2. Ji (SO)
3. Chopra (SR)
4. Kuhl (JR)
5. O'Reilly (SR)
6. Piercen Hunt (FR)
7. Noah Gillard (JR)
8. Luke Armbrust (JR)
That's quite an intriguing team. ADDC has the potential to be a college golf superstar by then (I mean, he won the Big Ten as a true freshman). Ji is higher ranked than ADDC was coming over from Europe. Hunt might be good enough to play immediately. So you're just looking for career progression from the other guys (Chopra, Kuhl, maybe O'Reilly) for that to be an outstanding team. And I'm not even mentioning Gillard (who was ranked higher than Kuhl coming in) and Armbrust (who pushed his way into the lineup last fall as a true freshman by beating upperclassmen in practice). This must be how an Ohio State football fan feels all the time.
I think that's the best way to say "the future is bright". The current junior class didn't live up to their rankings coming in (although Feagles is starting to). That, combined with Lipparelli leaving early, made this the "it was always going to be the worst year of the last 10" season. But two years from now, it's really hard to fill out the lineup because Mike Small is going to have so many (highly ranked) options.
Which means we might get back to shoe filling. "Feagles and ADDC led the team back to match play in 2020, and then Ji filled Feagles shoes while Kuhl filled out a pair of shoes of his own, and then......."