Back & Forth - Ayo and Kofi Return
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I hurriedly sent an email to Tyler. I put "Emergency Back & Forth" in the title. Both Ayo and Kofi are returning for the 2021 season, and that means we might have a really, REALLY good season, and that means we needed to talk about it. So Tyler and I exchanged several emails over the last 48 hours and now you get to read them. Starting with my initial email to Tyler:
I suddenly have a lot of basketball thoughts. In August!
Let's start the details and then get to "just how good can we be?". First detail: rotation.
If there's a main rotation of nine guys by the middle of the season, I think those nine guys will be:
The question will then be starters/bench. I don't think Underwood will go back to Giorgi at the four (will he?), so then who starts at the four? Hutcherson? Grandison? Slide Da'Monte to the "4" and just run with four guards while starting Miller?
Top of my head I'd go with this:
Starters: Dosunmu, Frazier, Miller, Williams, Cockburn
Bench in order of minutes: Giorgi, Hutcherson, Curbelo, Grandison, BBV, Hamlin, Hawkins, Lieb
So yeah - that was as a productive 17 hours wasn't it? After an hour of celebratory tweeting and GIFing this afternoon, like you my mind immediately started churning on the rotation. We'll start with the givens:
Ayo, Trent, and Kofi. They averaged 34, 31, and 28 minutes per game respectively last season. Without question, those are starter locks - and probably with similar minutes.
I also think you can also lock in DMW as starter number four. Last season's team evolved into its ball screen-iest best with four perimeter guys working around a single post. After it became apparent that Giorgi just couldn't be shoehorned into the 4-spot, he settled in nicely as Kofi's primary backup. I think that role continues for him.
DMW clearly has Brad Underwood's trust - as evidenced by his 27 mpg over the crucial final six games of last season. He may not bring offense - although his 47% (8/17) shooting from three over those same six games should not be overlooked - but he brings everything else Underwood wants - defense, rebounding, toughness. He's going to start and he'll again be counted on for heavy minutes.
So, then, the only question is who fills that last "perimeter" starting spot. Andre Curbelo, Adam Miller, Jacob Grandison, or Austin Hutcherson?
Summer workout reports have been glowing on all four, and really I wouldn't be surprised with any of those guys claiming that last starting spot. Grandison could be used as a traditional "4", Hutcherson brings shooting and athleticism, Miller brings swagger, offense, and a Big Ten ready frame, but - and obviously this is just a projection - to me it comes down to which guy best fills the uncomfortably large gap left by Andres Feliz? I think that guy is Andre Curbelo.
I think Miller would be perfect in the Alan Griffin role of instant offense off the bench, and Grandison and Hutcherson will also be important rotation guys, but Curbelo figures to bring the same steady hand and do-everything-ism we all came to appreciate from Feliz. My only question on him is durability, but he's likely going to have an extended period of strengthening and conditioning before the season kicks off. If it tips off. Please let it tip off.
My "freshmen will always be freshmen" thing kicks in way too often. Any suggestion of Curbelo being Feliz next season gets this knee-jerk "yeah but freshmen always need a year" from my brain. And this is after trying to talk people down with "yes, Kofi is a giant, but he was #43 in the RSCI so should probably expect something like Leron Black's freshman year" last fall.
Leron Black freshman stats: 5 ppg, 3 rpg
Kofi Cockburn freshman stats: 13 ppg, 9 rpg
So I really do need to retrain my brain. With all of the praise that Curbelo got during his HS season (and all of the rare leaps he took in the final rankings), yes, he might just be a superstar freshman. We could see some Dee/Deron frosh stuff from Miller and Curbelo if everything falls right.
After reading your response, though, I get stuck on another guy: Austin Hutcherson. Two reasons:
1. We were desperate for shooting last season. 294th out of 350 Division I teams.
2. I saw Hutcherson at Ubben once and he just looks like that guy who drains outside jumpers.
(#2 is so weak - "because he looks like a shooter" - but I gotta be me.)
A guy who could maybe guard the four and also hit threes would be the perfect piece to add to last year's team. What we wanted Tevian Jones to be, more or less. We won't have Griffin's shooting (ugh), so maybe Hutcherson can be that guy. He gets comped to Duncan Robinson all the time (lit up Division III, transferred to the Big Ten), and man, a Duncan Robinson would just be perfect. The big thing we have to avoid: those 2-for-14-from-three shooting nights where we lose to freaking Missouri.
So I think I've just talked myself into Hutcherson for that spot you mentioned. I can always summon hope.
OK, so let's get specific and talk minutes. I'll say something like this:
extra big (BBV? Hamlin? Hawkins?) 5
One more thing on the two freshmen. If not for Ayo's decision to return, one of Curbelo or Miller were going to be BTFOY. With Ayo back, though, it's going to be tough for either of them to get the minutes needed to shine bright enough for that honor.
Ok - minutes. While this roster seems to be an embarrassment of riches, the strong likelihood is that we're only only going to see nine guys in the regular rotation. Historically that's what Underwood has run with and I don't see that changing. So I agree with you that Dosunmu, Frazier, Cockburn, DMW, Curbelo, Giorgi, Miller, Grandison, and Hutcherson are those nine. BBV or Coleman Hawkins could surprise and challenge for minutes - but that would more likely be at the expense of one of the nine (Grandison?) as opposed to being part of the regular rotation. Jermaine Hamlin and Brandon Lieb are, I think, unlikely to see much in the way of high leverage floor time.
I only peeked once at your email to avoid bias, so I'm not looking at your numbers again before I go SOC for mine...
(I know that doesn't equal 200, but this is how I see the minutes shaking out for that 9 man rotation)
From 1-7 at least, that's as good a rotation as we've seen in a long time. Good thing too because the Big Ten is going to be crazy good. Ayo and Kofi back. Luka Garza back. Aaron Henry back. Wisconsin with all five starters back. Rutgers with 80% of their production back. The league is going to be absolutely loaded - but we just may be the best of the bunch.
I was looking at Bart Torvik's site just now. I see that Michigan State dropped down to 14 in his preseason rankings so I think he has applied all of the NBA draft updates (MSU drops because Tillman stayed in the draft). If readers aren't familiar, his are just numbers, not rankings, and his numbers always lean heavily towards teams with players returning. Which is why his numbers have West Virginia at the top and Wisconsin 6th. Wisconsin is basically our 1998 team - five senior starters and then a bunch of complete unknowns. So I could see similar results - share a Big Ten title and then lose in the 2nd round.
Here's where his numbers come out for the (loaded) Big Ten:
Ohio State (13)
Michigan State (14)
Penn State (23)
Iowa (30 - offense 1st overall, defense 115th)
Obviously, when the polls come out, these won't be the rankings. I don't think Torvik would even rank the teams like that. This is just a formula. Iowa will (and should) be ranked, Penn State probably can't hang on to the top-25, Maryland lost a lot but probably won't be the 88th-best team in the country. Again, just a formula trying to predict who will leap and who will fall.
Still very interesting, though. Very deep - maybe deeper than last year - and some team (like maybe Minnesota or Purdue) is suddenly going to find themselves 4-16 and wondering what just happened.
Looking over who has what coming back, I'd say it's a four team race: Illinois, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Iowa. I'm not sold on Michigan being there just yet, I don't think Penn State will hang in there, can't see Indiana, and really don't see it for Ohio State. Maybe I need to spend a moment on Ohio State here.
Ohio State scoring last year:
Kaleb Wesson - 14.0 ppg (declared for draft)
Duane Washington - 11.5 ppg
DJ Carton - 10.4 ppg (transferred to Marquette)
Andre Wesson - 9.2 ppg (graduated)
CJ Walker - 8.7 ppg
Kyle Young - 7.5 ppg
Luther Muhammad - 7.0 ppg (transferred to Arizona State)
EJ Liddell - 6.7 ppg
Alonzo Gaffney - 1.8 ppg (transferred to juco)
I get that Ohio State had a bunch of hype with their 2019 recruiting class - three top-50 players in Carton, Liddell, and Gaffney. But going into their second season only one of those three remains. Five of their top nine players from last year are gone and they'll be relying on four transfers (from Harvard, Bucknell, Utah State, and California) to step in and take over. Man, that's a tough thing to assemble in a conference that will be this difficult. Washington-Walker-Young-Liddell are a solid core, so they'll be good, but still, I can't see them contending for a conference title.
OK, I'm way off track. The reason I brought up Torvik in the first place was that I went to look at his PORPAGATU stat. I like NERDstat player rankings now (what happened to me?), and he developed that stat as kind of a Wins Above Replacement for college basketball. I think I can get this right. PORPAGATU stands for Points Over Replacement Per Adjusted Game At That Usage. Want me to explain how it works? I can't. Nor could I explain fWAR. I just like ranked things.
The only two teams (out of 350) who have two players in the top-30 of his projected PORPAGATU standings for the 2021 season: Illinois and Creighton. He's running this stat for every player from all 350 teams, so the top-5 includes players from North Texas, Nevada, and UTSA, but we're one of two with 2 top players: Illinois (Kofi 23, Ayo 27) and Creighton (Ballock 14, Zegarowski 28).
Finally at my point: that really drives home why the expectations for next season just shot through the roof with the return of these two players. Why CBS now has Illinois #6 in their preseason poll. Illinois has the senior leaders (Trent and Da'Monte) and the freshman phenoms (Miller and Curbelo) covered. But to win and win big, you have to have stars. And we have two of them returning.
A couple of things on Torvik - because I think I can actually hear Illinois fans screaming right now about him "ranking" us behind OSU and an MSU team without Xavier Tillman. One - his calculations are somewhat bearish for us defensively - he actually has regressing on defense compared to last season. In addition, I believe his formula factors in historical coaching data which might further explain the MSU/OSU love and also why his model is gun shy about Illinois on defense. Funny thing is that his 2019-20 pre-season projections had Illinois at...#15. (We finished the year at #29 by the by).
The Big Ten definitely looks to be a race between the four teams you already mentioned - but the one sleeper team I could see challenging those four is Rutgers. They bring back just about everyone (you know how much stock I put in continuity) and they added their own Kofi in freshman Cliff Omoruyi. They weren't great offensively last season, but they were a top 10 defense last year and figure to be at least as good on that end this year. Plus the RAC has developed into one of the better home courts in the Big Ten.
But yes, we lead the league in star power. Garza will probably be the BTPOY again, but Ayo and Kofi are as good a 1-2 punch as you'll find on any roster. So what are the potential pitfalls? Complacency for one. It might seem odd to use that word about a program that hasn't played an NCAA Tournament game in over seven years, but the sports history graveyard is littered with teams who got lost in their own press clippings. This one doesn't worry me much to be honest. The Illini have strong leadership both on the floor and from the bench, and the disappointment of not getting to finish last season is still a fresh wound. This group is also just one year removed from one of the worst seasons in program history, so they know what it's like to lose - and that taste lingers.
More worrisome to me is the shooting. Quick - tell me our best returning three point shooter (by percentage) from last season. I promise you didn't say Giorgi Bezhanishvili. But yeah, if you discount the Lindenwood game, he is the only returning Illini player (with more than 15 attempts) who finished last season north of 30% from the arc. I had to triple check that - but it's the icy truth. If we want to live up to these lofty expectations the outside shooting must improve, and I think it likely does.
I'll put this out there right now - Illinois is the best team in the Big Ten.
I don't really have a response. I just want to end with those words you just wrote.
OK, well, I do have one response.