The day before the Maryland game - which I'm hoping represents the low point for Illinois basketball for the rest of my life - I wrote about Next Year. At 5-14, the 2018/19 season was OVER over, and my thoughts turned to how the next school year (2019/20) would mean everything for both Brad Underwood and Lovie Smith. Lovie's fourth year, Underwood's third year, both had "reasons" that their first few seasons were so bad, but those reasons were soon to expire and it was time to see results.
I've followed up on that this summer with posts about football - how it's time to see a click because the roster construction is complete. But I haven't really followed up on the basketball side. (And since I'm linking old posts here, this was the post the day before the Maryland game back in January.) Let's follow up on that now.
To me, there are two main things we need to see next season. A big step forward (like, an NCAA Tournament step forward) and Plan A recruiting. Let's cover the second one first.
Here is the list of the players we landed:
And then we added Bernard Kouma (we learned his name the day he committed to Illinois because he never visited here) and Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk (we learned his name the day he committed to Illinois because he never visited here). Both of these recruits might be Giorgi-like finds, shocking us with their immediate impact. But it's probably more likely that they're CJ Jackson or Ibby Djimde-like finds, unknowns because no high major programs were recruiting them.
My point: when you go 1-for-11 on official visits and then add two unknown, unranked players of the Matic Vesel variety, you probably need better recruiting results. Yes, Underwood might just have an amazing eye and everyone he spots becomes a Giorgi, but even with that, every team needs Ayos and Kofis. 90% of all successful NCAA Tournament teams are built with Ayos and Kofis (plus great pieces around them).
The good news: at least on July 1, the 2020 class seems set up to be just that for Underwood. If you go to the Crystal Ball page for Illinois, there are two players who are currently 100% for Illinois: #73 Ryan Kalkbrenner and #28 Adam Miller. Add those two and the class already gets a passing grade. As of today there are likely four scholarships to give out (one open right now, plus Feliz and Kipper are seniors, plus Ayo likely declares for the draft). If we add a transfer this summer (like Donnie Tillman, who just visited), then that number goes down to three. Point being: if it's three, and it's Miller + Kalkbrenner + a rack of basketballs, that's a successful class.
Which is what I'm wanting to see in this season of results. Ayo + Giorgi emerging + Feliz emerging (plus Giffin and Jones showing potential) gives the 2018 class a solid B+. I'm a bit fearful of the 2019 class with only Kofi being ranked (plus all of the recruiting misses listed above). 2020 needs to be at least three solid (hopefully ranked) recruits. Because chances are much higher that Kouma and Bosmans-Verdonk turn out to be Vesel and Eboigbodin than Bezhanishvili and Feliz. Say that five times fast.
The whole thing feels like a roller coaster (the three recruits added in the spring of 2017 all transferred after one season, then a surprisingly solid class led by Ayo + Giorgi + Feliz, and now a class that might be more like 2017 than 2018). Which means I'm hoping that the 2020 class is another high point. We need recruiting results.
We also need on-the-court results. And this is where the football parallels are the strongest. 2017/18 I said "fine, it's a new system and a new coach so we don't expect much". 2018/19 I said "fine, we overhauled the entire roster and only return four players - it's going to be an adventure". Now, in 2019/20, I think we're all saying "time for results".
This isn't groundbreaking. It's all anyone is talking about. But it's been nearly six months since I wrote that "Next Year" post that I linked above, and those six months have only brought more and more confirmation: this fall and this winter, for Illinois football and Illinois basketball, it is absolutely time for some results. Football chose to add six transfers from big-time programs in hopes of boosting the talent level. Basketball, more or less, chose to bring everyone back, add one instant impact recruit (Kofi), and attempt to turn 12-21 into 21-12.
I guess that's not exactly correct. If Brad Underwood had his druthers, TJ Holyfield would be in Champaign as the missing piece to next year's Tournament run. But Holyfield chose to play for Texas Tech instead of his former SFA coach, so now it's "take last year's team, bring nearly all of them back, and get them to click".
I mean, it started to click. The day after I wrote that original post it started to click. We beat #13 Maryland and followed that up with wins over Nebraska, #9 Michigan State, and even a road win at Ohio State. But then the end of the season was an abject disaster (there were two wins in the final eight games, both over last-place Northwestern, one a complete homering in Champaign where we only scored once from the field in the final 10 minutes but won it with a gazillion free throws, and one in overtime in the Big Ten Tournament). So with that sour taste in our mouths, we turn to 2019/20. What do we see?
- 86% of the scoring returns
- Five freshmen become sophomores (sophomore leap!), including a potential conference Player of the Year.
- Top-50 freshman big man fills (and I mean FILLS) a hole in the middle.
- Team returns three of the top-20 players in the conference.
A friend gave me the "come on, really?" when I said that last one recently, but I truly believe that Trent, Ayo, and Giorgi will all be top-20 players in the Big Ten in 2019/20. Of the fifteen players on the first, second, a third-team All Conference list (as selected by the media), five players return (Cassius Winston, Lamar Stevens, Anthony Cowan, Zavier Simpson, and Jordan Bohannon). If you add in the 18 players on the Honorable Mention team, eight more return (Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier, Luka Garza, Jon Teske, Kaleb Wesson, Matt Haarms, Geo Baker, and D'Mitrik Trice). That more or less means that of the 33 best players in the conference last year, 20 either graduated or left early for the NBA.
And if both Trent and Ayo are in that group of 13 that are returning (and I believe they certainly are), it's not crazy to state the Giorgi would be in the list of the next seven players, right? Guys like Jalen Smith from Maryland and Joe Wieskamp from Iowa would certainly be on the "next" list, but so would Giorgi.
I mean, let's just list the returning players in the Big Ten by scoring (conference games only to weed out the bumslayers):
1. Lamar Stevens, Penn State (20.0 ppg)
2. Cassius Winston, Michigan State (19.6 ppg)
3. Anthony Cowan, Maryland (15.6 ppg)
4. Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois (14.8 ppg)
5. Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Illinois (13.5 ppg)
6. Kaleb Wesson, Ohio State (13.1 ppg)
7. Luka Garza, Iowa (12.8 ppg)
8. Jordan Bohannon, Iowa (12.6 ppg)
9. Trent Frazier, Illinois (12.2 ppg)
10. Jon Teske, Michigan (11.5 ppg)
With Bohannon having hip surgery last month leaving his season in doubt (I believe that's mostly just Iowa fans panicking out loud, but I guess it's possible he misses some or all of the season), then there's a chance we return three of the top eight scorers in the conference. You now understand why the expectations are through the roof, right?
That's why Andy Katz has Illinois 20th in his post NBA Draft poll. That's why Bart Torvik's T-Rank projections now put Illinois 14th in the country (yes, that's in the country, not the conference). Illinois returns everything in a conference that lost a ton, and that cranks expectations through the roof.
Is it crazy to expect 14th? Or 20th? Probably. Let's just start with "get into the Tournament again", which means "finish in the top 45 or so". 14th in the country would mean we're a 4-seed, and even when I drink my Kool-Aid and put on my orange and blue glasses, I can't see a 4-seed. A 10-seed would be perfectly fine.
But it IS great to be past the "no chance" stage. It's similar to what I've been saying for football. We don't really know how it's going to go, but we're finally going to find out.
Time for results.