Keeping A Promise
You have currently viewed 1 story this month.
IlliniBoard now offers two free stories per month, for more please subscribe.
Had a reader (Greg) reach out a few weeks ago to say that he had a Hoosier friend pulling the old "Illinois? Top-10 next season? Yeah right." Greg's friend was using "it takes a lot more than just one great player" as his reasoning - and that's very true - but Greg asked me to put together a post that might show that 2021 Illinois basketball will be a little more than just one great player. Don't mind if I do.
I feel a little bad here - I told him I'd write the post for him on August 2nd and it's now August 13th. A few things happened on the football side between then and now, so I was a bit distracted, but I wanted to keep my promise. Here's why we're more than just one great player.
(Also, I believe I'm required to read this disclaimer out loud. "Robert from IlliniBoard.com hereby acknowledges that there's a chance that the 2021 basketball season will not happen. We just saw the cancellation of football and we might also see the cancellation of basketball. I will be writing this post as if there will be a season but yes, I am fully acknowledging here that it might not happen. Again, acknowledged.")
Let's start with the polls so that Greg's friend understands that it's not just Illini fans who think Illinois will be a top-10 team. CBS has Illinois 6th. Yahoo has Illinois 9th. ESPN puts Illinois 7th. The Athletic has Illinois 9th. Jeff Goodman put together his list at Stadium and he has Illinois 8th. And, since I know that Indiana fans really like to hate on KSR (Kentucky Sports Radio), KSR has Illinois 5th (ahead of Kentucky, if you'd believe it).
Why a consensus top-10 team? I can't answer for all the poll-makers, but I can tell you what typically makes for a great college basketball team. It's generally a combination of:
- Talent - Great teams - teams challenging for a Final Four - will almost always have one or two future NBA players. But since we just mentioned Kentucky, there have been Kentucky teams with eight future NBA players but they didn't go very far in the NCAA Tournament because they didn't have
- Experience - This is kind of a no-brainer. Pick any college program - we'll go with Oklahoma here - and you'll see it: when they have experienced teams they win and then the next year after those experienced players leave they drop back to the pack before building more experience and winning again. Of course, experience only goes so far. You can have five starters returning but you might still be in trouble if you don't have any
- Depth - Not only do you need depth for "your starters can't play 40 minutes every game", but deep teams can also overcome injuries and foul trouble and off-nights and "had a game Thursday night and then play again Saturday afternoon". I'm not saying anything groundbreaking here. Depth is key.
You need coaching too, obviously. But the reason Illinois went from unranked to 7th on the ESPN list when Ayo and Kofi announced their return had very little to do with Brad Underwood. The thing that jumped Illinois from maybe the 48th-best team next year to the 7th-best team next year: two very talented basketball players returning.
OK, I'm taking too long on this. Greg's friend thinks Illinois is just getting hyped because of Ayo. Here's why it's much more than that.
Ayo was a 1st-Team All Big Ten player last year. He returns to try to take Big Ten Player of the Year away from Luka Garza. And it likely won't stop there. I'm guessing he'll be on several preseason All American lists. The ceiling? One of the five best players in college basketball next season.
Kofi was Big Ten Freshman of the Year, beating out Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis. That's probably a good way to frame it for Indiana fans. As excited as they are for Jackson-Davis' sophomore season? Illini fans have higher expectations for our second-best player. One more time so we don't miss it. IU fans are really excited about TJD coming back. The coaches and media both said that Kofi was better than TJD last year. So Illinois fans are excited about a better player coming back, and he's not even our best player.
This is where I'll also mention Miller and Curbelo. Indiana fans are really excited about Khristian Lander reclassifying to the class of 2020 and enrolling at Indiana. And they should be - they got their own Ayo. On 247's composite rankings, he's #27. They also landed another 4-star, #96 Jordan Geronimo. They are quite excited for this pairing.
Again, Illinois did better. Adam Miller is #33 in those composite rankings and Andre Curbelo is #44. Both are fine recruiting classes, but 33/44 is better than 27/96. So take the IU fan's excitement about two freshman who might make an immediate impact and help them realize that Illinois is bringing in two freshmen who will likely make more of an impact. And I'm not just saying that as some "oh yeah? well our freshmen are better". It's what the player rankings say.
I guess I shouldn't be doing this as an Illinois/Indiana comparison. The question at hand is Illinois' legitimacy as a Final Four contender this year. Nobody is suggesting that Indiana is a possible Final Four team. What makes the Illini a consensus top-10 team? We shall move on to experience.
We'll start with the simple one. Illinois played 31 games last season. That's 155 individual starts (five starters per game for 31 games). This season, 138 of those 155 starts return. So 89% of the starts return from a team that finished the season 21st in the polls. I think I could really just stop here with the whole argument. "Team that finished 21st last year has 89% of starts returning - that's a top 10 team."
And it must also be noted that this isn't just "a bunch of freshmen return for their sophomore seasons". Trent Frazier has started 76 games in his career. Giorgi Bezhanishvili has started 57 games. Da'Monte Williams has started 43 games. I think that's a component that no Indiana fan really realizes here. Yes, Ayo and Kofi return. But so do two seniors and a junior who have combined to start 176 games. It's a team that will be talented ~and~ wildly experienced.
Or just look at in terms of points. Scoring from those five players: 3,404 points. That's a lot.
Here, I thought of a good way to put it. Bart Torvik's site has a column for expected scoring for each player. Using those numbers (Ayo averaging 16.4 ppg, Kofi averaging 15.2 ppg, etc), at the end of the season, here's where four of the Illini players will rank on the all-time Illini scoring list:
Trent Frazier (SR): 11th
Ayo Dosunmu (JR): 12th
Giorgi Bezhanishvili (JR): 49th
Kofi Cockburn (SO): 51st
Another way to look at that which shows that these players have played a lot of college basketball: if I project those numbers forward as if all of them would be here for all four years (Trent will, Giorgi will, Ayo and Kofi likely won't), here's where they'd likely finish their four-year careers on the all-time scoring list at Illinois:
I'm way down the rabbit hole now but I think you get my point. Because these players played so much as freshmen and sophomores, Illinois has a very experienced team.
With the graduation of Andres Feliz (started 15 games, 6th-man for 16 games) and Kipper Nichols (8th-man) and the transfer of Alan Griffin (7th-man), there are bench concerns. Which means there are depth concerns. If Greg's Hoosier friend wanted a place to attack Illinois, it would be here. "Sure, two likely first-team All Big Ten players plus three other players who have started a combined 176 games, but is there a bench?" Fair.
The information he's not going to like: there probably is a bench. It's not an experienced bench, but...
- Adam Miller, freshman, the first top-30 RSCI player to choose Illinois since Meyers Leonard in 2010.
- Andre Curbelo, freshman, #45 in the RSCI and likely instant-impact guard.
- Jacob Grandison, transfer from Holy Cross who sat out last season after averaging 14 ppg.
- Austin Hutcherson, transfer from Wesleyan, who caused Jon Rothstein to gush today:
Hard not to wonder following Duncan Robinson's success with the Miami Heat if Illinois unearthed a gem in Weselyan (Division III) transfer Austin Hutcherson.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) August 13, 2020
6-6 wing is already regularly referred to as the Illini's best athlete.
Another storyline in Champaign.
If Miller and Curbelo were being asked to step in and provide immediate scoring then I might be a bit concerned. But with all of this experience returning, neither will have to play more than 18 minutes or so. If they're good enough to play more than that, great. But the fact that they go in the "depth" category is a prefect situation for top-50 freshmen.
Grandison and Hutcherson are obviously the wildcards. Yes, Hutcherson had offers from Notre Dame and Creighton so it's not like we're the only program who thought he could make the leap from D-III to D-I. But that's still a major leap. And while it's nice that Grandison comes in as a 14 ppg scorer, who knows what he can provide in the Big Ten.
Again, though, they're being asked to be the depth. Which is much better than "with all these departures, they're going to have to start and play 28 mpg". No, they're not going to match their 20 ppg and 14 ppg at lower levels. But they likely can give you 12-15 solid minutes.
Is depth a concern? Yes. Am I happy that there's two top-50 freshmen and two experienced transfers grabbing those spots? Yes.
This has gotten a bit long. Maybe I should close with a TL;DR for Greg's friend.
TL;DR: The reason Illinois' preseason ranking averages right around 7th in the country is the mix of talent, experience, and depth. The talented, off-to-the-NBA-soon guys are there, but so are the defensive glue guys like Da'Monte Williams and the "isn't this his sixth season in Champaign?" guys like Trent Frazier and the freshman phenom guys like Adam Miller. All of the pieces you look for - superstar guard, dominant big man, glue guy, energy guy, four-year-fan-favorite - they're all there.
Now let's have a season.