End Of The Season Mailbag III
You have currently viewed 1 story this month.
IlliniBoard now offers two free stories per month, for more please subscribe.
The last two days I started to feel a little better (well, not "better", but "not as awful"), but today, with the Sweet 16 starting, I hate everything again. I'll try my best to not let these answers reflect my mood, but some of the bitterness will probably work its way through. I mean, I just went and muted 10 national college basketball writers that I follow simply because I cannot handle their "Sweet 16 day!!" giddiness.
This is probably 3 of 3 as far as mailbag posts go. Lots of great questions but I think this is all my heart can handle.
If you could sit in a room with Brad underwood and have him answer any 3 questions (and be 100% honest and open) about the program (current players, recruiting, certain situations, his philosophy, etc.), what are you asking?— taz (@illinitaz) March 25, 2021
Great question. My questions:
1. What was it really like to change your philosophies before the 2019/20 season? You go such a long time believing in one thing and then someone else convinces you to change. That's very rare, so how hard was it to let go of the things you always believed in?
2. What is it about going 9-5 in your first 14 games? In 2020, started 9-5, lost nearly every tough game, after the Missouri and Michigan State losses it felt like the whole thing was going nowhere and then 12-5 the rest of the way. And in 2021, same thing, 9-5, "what's wrong with Illinois?", and then a 14-1 finish leading up to the NCAA Tournament. Are early struggles.. preferred?
3. Was Loyola the toughest loss of your career? Had to be, right? I'm sure the loss to Michigan was tough (in the 7/10 game while at Oklahoma State), and you've always talked about the Notre Dame tip-in that prevented your 14-seed SFA team from reaching the Sweet 16. This one tops that for toughest loss, right?
It's kind of funny - as I'm typing these out I'm realizing that I was on 50 Underwood press conference Zooms this year. Uh, I could have asked him any of these.
The Twitter user deleted this next question. That's what caused this post to crash. It was a question about why the narrative around the Illinois loss didn't allow for any leeway due to the Big Ten gauntlet (vs. Loyola's easy MVC schedule) plus the Illini's lack of Tournament experience (vs. Loyola's Final Four experience). Answer is below.
The lesson here: this is a mailbag post. If you ask a question, yes, I might use that question in the mailbag post. If you don't want people to see your question, don't ask that question as a direct response to a request for mailbag questions.
Mostly because of how we lost, I think. Never led, down 9-2 and the game was essentially over. If this was a close game throughout and Loyola hits a shot with seconds left to win, the narrative is probably "it's March! anything can happen!". When you get thumped by 13 and never lead against a mid-major, no Big Ten gauntlet matters, no lack of tourney experience matters, not even "Loyola really should have been a 5-seed" would matter. When you're #2 in the polls and you get thumped in the second round, your narrative bed is made.
See? I can answer mailbag questions in only one paragraph.
Next year will be year 5 for Underwood. If we have another early tournament exit, when does post-season performance become an issue (fair or unfair)? His job should obviously be safe, but post-season failures can stick to a coach.— Blockhead (@Blockhead_08) March 25, 2021
Having some issues with that "but" there. "His job should obviously be safe..." full stop. The end. There's no "but" after that.
I think we need to revisit this chart. KenPom history for the Illini since 2002:
That's one of the safest jobs in America, FULLLLLLL stop. Take over a program averaging 84th in KenPom the previous three years. You gut it, keep only four players, and go 102, 84, 30, 5. It's the rebuild of our dreams.
Now, that said, yes - say we get a 4-seed next year and lose to a 13 in the first round. Then yes, absolutely, Underwood is going to have to face a "can he win in the Tourney?" narrative. Those two upsets at SFA won't mean anything at that point. But until it happens a second time, it's one bad loss. A horrible loss - and, for me, our worst Tournament loss ever, eclipsing 1987 simply because this team was a favorite to win the national title - but still just one loss. That doesn't make it an "issue".
What's the long-term (next 5 to 10 years) outlook for the program as a whole, and where does that rank among the 14 Big Ten teams?— Quentin Wetzel (@qwetz29) March 25, 2021
Long-term outlook, for me, seems to be very sunny. No humidity, very little wind - just sunny and 81 for a while.
Why? Because of all the stuff I've written about this season with the changes to college basketball, the struggles of the Blue Bloods, and the culture I've observed. The Michigan win without Ayo screamed one thing: the culture is rebuilt. Even the Big Ten Tournament was like that. Kofi in foul trouble? Giorgi steps up. The last month had examples of that over and over and over.
I remember when I first noticed the culture stuff this season: the Grandison double-double in the first matchup with Iowa. It was this "wow, this feels a lot like 1983 to 1990 and 2000 to 2006" feeling. There was seemingly always someone stepping up into the void. Rosters changed but the basketball didn't.
With the way Underwood has built this - the eight-man rotation this year consisted of two inherited guards he developed, an unknown big man he found while recruiting someone else, a transfer from Holy Cross, and four top-50 recruits, with three of the eight being international players - it feels like he's poised to continue a run of Tournament berths. The world of "find a bunch of great players at the Peach Jam and sign them in November" is somewhat gone (especially because of transfers), and the Gonzaga model seems to be the model of the 2020's, and I feel like we're well primed to follow it.
The thing Underwood talks about so much that we seem to ignore every time: his pursuit of players from winning teams and programs. I think he really likes chasing players from the private, basketball-centric high schools (like Coleman Hawkins at Prolific Prep and Andre Curbelo at Long Island Lutheran) because they come from this culture of traveling to national tournaments (and winning). Trent and Da'Monte were both inherited recruits. Trent played at Wellington HS in Florida, Da'Monte at Peoria Manual. But of the other seven main guys in the rotation - the ones Underwood brought in - here's the high school/prep school programs they come from:
Adam Miller and Ayo Dosumnu - won several state titles at Morgan Park
Coleman Hawkins - played with three top-100 players at Prolific Prep
Andre Curbelo - Had four high major players on his high school team at Long Island Lutheran (went to Ohio State, Cal, St. John's, and Illinois).
Giorgi Bezhanishvili - Didn't have much in the way of stats in high school because 4 of the 5 guys on his high school team all went Division I.
Jacob Grandison - Four of the five starters from his prep school (Exeter Academy) went Division I.
Kofi Cockburn - I don't think I need to go through the history of high school players from Oak Hill Academy going on to college. Probably hundreds at this point?
Underwood has referenced this each time he talks about Luke Goode. His high school team was undefeated in Indiana this year and ranked #1. Because Indiana's playoffs are weird, they played the #2 team in the state in the second round. Goode's team lost, and that #2 team (Carmel) is now in the title game next week. Still, Underwood is all "yet another guy on another winning team coming to Illinois to play basketball" (not an actual quote). He really believes in this stuff.
(Ramses Melendez - goes to yet another basketball-only "high school").
Anyway, my point here is that I think Underwood is primed to keep this going. Not because he's cracked some code of "recruits kids from deep high school programs and they'll win in college", but because he's gone all in on "late" recruiting the last four years. Spring recruiting is the future, especially since college basketball has essentially adopted free agency, and that's how Underwood rebuilt all of this. If he can keep that mix (gotta land more stars behind Curbelo and Miller), I feel great about where we stand.
So to finally answer your question, I feel pretty good about being a top-5 program in the Big Ten this decade. Feels like Wisconsin keeps fading, so I'm dropping them out of the top-5. (Greg Gard fun fact: did you know he's never had a single-digit loss team at Wisconsin? Bo Ryan lost 8 games and then 4 games in his final two seasons. Gard has 62 losses in his five full seasons, an average of 12.4 per season, and the season split between Gard and Ryan they lost 13. This Wisconsin team graduated six seniors and will be rebuilding from scratch next year, so I don't see it improving any time soon.)
I should just randomly group the programs as I see them. And I'll do each group in alphabetical order. Top-5, middle-5, bottom-4 for the 2020's:
I could be convinced I should swap Maryland and Purdue. I think I'd have Purdue 5th and Maryland 6th overall. Fran is 103-101 in the Big Ten after 10 years at Iowa so I think he has proven it won't happen. Indiana could make a good hire and jump to the top-5 but as someone said the other day on Twitter their coaching search has big Tennessee Football coaching search energy. Wisconsin I already covered, and I can't see Rutgers breaking through so yeah, I think I feel pretty good about us being top-5.
Let's make a push for the top spot.
Looking at Greg Gard last week, I said to myself, “that dude straight up looks like a character from Criminal Minds.” Please power rank the 14 B1G ‘20-21 head BB coaches on their likelihood to be a serial killer, based on vibes only.— Charlie Penicook (@jcpenicook) March 25, 2021
See I watch a lot of true crime documentaries so I think I'm uniquely qualified to chime in here. And yes, there's something about Gard that feels very "subject of one of these documentaries". I'm probably a little uncomfortable suggesting "serial killer" and having my name attached to it, so let's go with "most likely to appear on Unsolved Mysteries as a suspect in a crime that's never been solved". I don't know some of the new coaches (Minnesota, Penn State, plus Indiana doesn't have a head coach right now) but here's my top-5.
1. Fran. The rare true crime suspect whose neighbors would say "yeah, I totally think he could have done it".
2. Gard. The vibes I get here, to be honest, are more "county comptroller who was skimming from the books for decades".
3. Izzo. Anyone who plays the "who, me?" card this well gets an 8-episode documentary instead of the 4-episode doc.
4. Collins. Absolutely the guy who would confess to a crime he didn't commit because he just wanted to leave the interrogation room.
5. Pikiell. "He was the nicest man on earth. He'd do anything for anyone in the neighborhood. We are FLOORED that he was capable of this" vibes.
Painter and Underwood are way too open-book in press conferences to ever be on a crime documentary, Turgeon is somewhat the same, and I can't see Howard, Holtmann, or Hoiberg as the subject of something like this (although maybe Howard, Holtmann, and Hoiberg can be the law firm representing Fran), so yeah, I feel good about that top-5 list.
But I feel better about the top-5 list from the previous question. Because I have a good feeling that we're on it.
See, I feel better already. WAIT, Loyola lost to Oregon State?
I feel bad again.