Illini Golf - 2022 And Beyond
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I'm eating dinner with my wife last night out on the back deck and I'm telling her about Illini golf making the match play (because deep down I know she wants to hear about it). We had been cleaning the garage all day, which is just another way to say "we moved here 15 months ago and still had boxes from the move stacked in the garage so we took our anniversary weekend and worked on the yard and the garage." We put the last item from a box into a plastic container at around 6:15 pm and then our DoorDash delivery arrived.
So we're sitting there eating dinner and I tell her about match play and she says (like she always does) "why don't you go?". And I'm all "because it's in Phoenix". And she's like "there aren't flights to Phoenix?" to which I pause and think about it and finally land on "yeah but it's 6:30 so it's too late to do anything about it". She presses further (she knows she has to work through at least three "it wouldn't work" responses before I finally start to think about it) and I look up flights. Hmmmm..., a 9:15 from Midway to Phoenix on Southwest and it's only $292 one way which isn't bad for a day-of ticket. I start to do the math: 10 minutes to scramble around and pack so I'd leave at 6:40. Two hour drive (pretty much on the nose) so I'd get there at 8:40. That would leave 35 minutes to park and get through security. No chance, I tell her.
"What if I dropped you at the front door?".
OK, so she just won't give up. I do more math. I'm getting to security at 8:50 for a 9:15 and that means the flight would already be boarding so I'd definitely be stuck in a middle seat for Southwest and that's a 3.5 hour flight. I hesitated over the flight I had in my "cart", but eventually decided not to purchase. The main reason? We'd be up against #1 Oklahoma in the quarterfinals. Oklahoma would be the heavy favorite, and if we lost, I'd have scrambled (and she'd have driven a four-hour round trip) for absolutely nothing.
I did look at morning flights. 6:00 am flights from both O'Hare and Midway to Phoenix, both getting in at 7:45 Phoenix time. First match tees off at 7:10, so by the time I rented a car and drove to Grayhawk (assuming no morning rush hour), I could maybe be at the course by the time the Tadiotto pairing was on the 7th hole? Worth it if we won, not worth it at all if we lost. And then there'd be the thing of finding a flight back to Illinois (which would also be around $300 at a minimum). Final answer: not going to go.
Which, now, after losing to Oklahoma, I'm kind of glad. I thought about booking tickets a few weeks ago but decided against it (I spent a fair bit on travel last winter). Almost decided to toss that out the window last night and scramble around to get to Scottsdale, but ultimately, I stayed home and watched on TV (well, kind of - they actually have to show Illini golf shots for me to say I "watched" it). 8th-best team coming into the week, finished 5th, got paired with the #1 team who had finished 4th, lost. Very, very successful season.
One thing about the loss today. A Slack user asked me to explain the thought process behind the pairings against Oklahoma today. I'll do my best to guess at what Mike Small was thinking.
Oklahoma had benched their #1 guy (Garrett Reband) after he finished 80th out of 80 in the individual competition, so they basically had a "top three" and an "other two". Oklahoma's coach (Ryan Hybl) sees their 6th year guy (Quade Cummins) as the heart and soul of their team, I think, so he was going to be saved for later. The main question then was how he was going to use his other big two (and how Mike Small might pair his guys).
Oklahoma has the higher seed so they put the first name on the board. They lead off with their hired gun, Jonathan Brightwell. Brightwell played four years at UNC-Greensboro and as a senior was ranked the 13th-best player in college golf. He then got a "bonus year" after Covid canceled last season, so he decided to play that bonus year at Oklahoma. Hybl puts him up there first and forces Small to make a move right out of the gate. Small chooses Giovanni Tadiotto. I like the move. Don't go big dog against big dog right out of the gate because Illinois runs out of big dogs before Oklahoma does. Do that and Hybl can really set up the pairings how he wants. So Small goes with his Super Senior who has been at nationals before.
Small then gets to go first for the next pairing and he puts up ADdC, our "#2". Hybl chooses to waste his #5 guy here. Again, similar reasons to why Small would go Gio against Brightwell. There's a balance to these things. So after two pairings, you have to think Illinois wins the second match and while Oklahoma has an advantage in the first match, Gio is the wildcard.
Hybl picks first in the third round and he goes with one of his big three. When you have the first pick and you have a Big Three, they're often going to be put out there 1-3-5 or 1-3-4 because that forces the other coach into a pick your poison situation. So Hybl goes with McAllister and now Small has a choice. If we consider Feagles the 1, Ji the 3, and Kuhl the 5, does he go Kuhl here and then hold Feagles and Ji for the final two matches? That usually doesn't work very well because the first-pick coach (in this situation) is essentially choosing both the 4th and 5th pairing (the final pairing is just "who is left"). So if Small goes Kuhl there, then he's put Gio and Kuhl against two of their big three. Can't do that. Oklahoma puts out their three-man and he puts out his three-man. Good choice, I think.
Now there's essentially one choice left. Small picks the fourth guy, which means the fifth guy is there by default and Hybl can just pair whoever he wants to pair against either player. If he wants Cummins against Feagles, he'll put him there whether Small puts Feagles 4th or 5th. Small, doing the right thing, I think, wants Feagles as the anchor (in case it comes down to the final match) and he goes with Kuhl fourth. Now this whole thing hinges on Hybl. Does he want his #4 guy against our #4 guy or does he want to send one of his big three against Kuhl and then "sacrifice" Lorenz against our #1. He chooses to put one of his big three against Kuhl.
It's worth noting that in 2013 a similar pairing thing happened against Cal. Small put Thomas Pieters last and then Cal's coach had a choice. Put Max Homa against our #4 guy or pair a lower-ranked guy there and put his #1 against our #1. He chose to put Homa against Pieters, and it came down to that final match, and both teams had their best guy out there, and Pieters won in extras.
So the risk here for Oklahoma was putting their 4 and 5 guys against our 1 and 2. That means that all three of their Big Three would have to win. One slip-up and it's over. They didn't slip up (in the quarterfinals or the semifinals), and now that Big Three will attempt to go 9-0 and win a national title tomorrow.
Man, this is going to be one long golf post. I have two other points to make and THEN we can talk about next season. Let's get to my next thing: golf is similar to basketball.
Golf is similar to basketball. With a small roster, it's easy to say "these guys leave, these guys come back, these guys arrive as freshmen, here's what to expect." In fact, NCAA golf is a lot like NCAA basketball. A quick list:
- 351 Division I basketball teams, 284 Division I golf teams. So it's nothing like football with FBS and FCS or anything like that. Just hundreds of schools with a Division I golf program.
- The selection show is very much like basketball. Win your conference and you're in. Then there's a bunch of at-large bids. All in all, 81 teams get in. And Missouri, despite being 56th in the RPI (well, Golfstat) gets snubbed. Yes, nearly exactly like basketball.
- For golf, it's six regionals with five teams each advancing to nationals. So think of the Round of 32 for basketball like you think of the 30 teams that make "nationals" in golf.
- Basketball has the Sweet 16. Golf has the 15 teams that advance to the final round of stroke play on Memorial Day.
- Basketball has the Elite Eight. Golf has eight teams selected to go on to match play.
You get the idea from there. There's a "starting five", recruit one superstar and you'll do wonders for any program, Missouri plays a weak schedule misses out on a bid because of it - golf is basketball.
So in that framework, let's think about what the last 13 years from Mike Small would be like if he were Brad Underwood. Imagine this for Illinois Basketball:
- Top-30 thirteen consecutive years. So not only is Underwood getting in the Tournament, he's getting to at least the Round of 32 thirteen straight years.
- Advance to the Sweet 16 in 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2021 (no Tournament in 2020).
- Advance to the Elite Eight in 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2021.
- Final Four in 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2017.
- Title game appearance in 2013.
That's a lifetime contract for a basketball coach. Seven of the last 11 Elite Eights? Are you kidding me? We are so lucky that Mike Small grew up in Danville.
OK, so what's next? Michael Feagles was the anchor for this team, but Michael Feagles is off to play professionally. What now? MY COLUMN:
There are three seniors graduating: Feagles, Tadiotto, and Brendan O'Reilly. There were two other departures in the last year: Varun Chopra transferred to Northwestern and Noah Gillard transferred to Indiana. So that means that right now, the returning roster for 2022/23 looks like this:
Adrien Dumont de Chassart (SR)
Luke Armbrust (SR)
Tommy Kuhl (SR)
Jerry Ji (JR)
Nico Lang (SO)
Piercen Hunt (SO)
I should note here (and you'll hear me say this for every sport for the next three years). Those "years in school" listed there could adjust every which way because of the Covid rule. For golf, it meant that last spring didn't count, and that's why Feagles and Tadiotto returned for 2021. It also means that ADdC wasn't "technically" a junior this year. He played in 2019 (freshman year), then he played in the Covid-shortened 2020 season (his sophomore year), then he played this year (technically, since last year didn't happen, his second sophomore year). He's listed as a junior on the roster, and in golf you're usually going to play four years and then go chase the professional ranks, so I think ADdC has one more year. But technically, he could be around for two. In the same way that Andre Curbelo is technically a freshman again next year and could technically play four more seasons. Technically.
The starting lineup seems fairly set, I think. Armbrust has never been in the starting five, so I'm not sure that's going to happen during his senior year. Which means the rotation should be ADdC, Kuhl, Ji, Lang, and Hunt (fun fact - there's more syllables in Adrien's last name than there is in Kuhl-Ji-Lang-Hunt). But there will also be two freshmen joining next fall. Let's talk about those guys.
High school golf rankings are surprisingly accurate. Well, I don't know if "accurate" is the right word, but high school golf rankings are easy. It's not like basketball where someone sits courtside for a July AAU matchup and then decides "that guy is the 4th-best player in his class and this other guy is the 83rd-best player." For golf, it's just "take a bunch of junior tournaments, see who beat who, and then rank them accordingly."
And there are rankings like that for both international recruits and recruits from the lower-48 plus Hawaii (there's no golfers in Alaska). Let's look at the two recruits through those rankings.
The first recruit is from Ireland - Dylan Keating. The way to look up European players is to go to this ranking. It's a bit difficult to use because it goes by age, not "class". A player can be ranked there, and then they turn 18 years old, and suddenly they move over to the U21 rankings. Think of it this way: say Ayo was ranked 32 as a U18 player, and then he turns 18 before he arrives on campus, and you go to look up his ranking, and he's no longer listed. Instead, he's ranked with all of the amateur players under 21. So you'd say things like "Ayo was #32 before he turned 18 and dropped to 77th" (or whatever). Much easier to go by "class of 2021" (but the Euro rankings don't do that).
BUT, we do know that Keating was the #24 U18 player before he turned 18. ADdC and Jerry Ji were ranked higher than that on most European rankings (including the currently-squirrelly-because-of-Covid World Amateur Golf Rankings), but Keating being #24 on that list is a good sign that Mike Small has found another European player who can come to Illinois and contribute.
The other recruit is from Georgia - Jackson Buchanan. There are two lists to check for golfers from the USofA: Golfweek and the AJGA. And those two lists are often difficult to sort. Often all classes are listed together, so you have to remove all of the 2022 and 2023 players to see where a guy "ranks". And sometimes there's not enough information on a golfer (like no graduation year listed), so the player is hard to search for. The data is there, and they have his results from so many different junior tournaments, but they don't know if he's a 2021 recruit or a 2023 recruit.
That's the case with Buchanan and the Golfweek rankings. First he's hard to find, but then you see that they only have his results and don't know that he's a 2021 recruit. If you sort the list for all players and then just count up the 2021 guys, there are 22 2021 recruits in front of him. So let's call him #23 (although there are several year-less players in front of him who might be 2021 recruits).
Now go do the same with the AJGA list. Go down the list and count all of the 2021 recruits and there are 28 guys listed in front of Buchanan. 23 on one list, 29 on the other list, let's RSCI that and say that Buchanan is the 26th-best high school golfer in the 2021 class.
Will either crack the lineup next season? I'd love to see it (it would mean they're really good), but I'd say it's doubtful. Piercen Hunt was a top-15 recruit last year, and he couldn't crack the lineup, and they'd be trying to take a spot from him (while he has a year of experience on them). That means that the freshmen would need to try to beat out Nico Lang, and he transferred here from West Virginia after a really solid freshman year (stroke average: 71.81 as a freshman at WVU), so I doubt they beat out a third-year college golfer.
So if it's ADdC, Kuhl, Ji, Lang, and Hunt, how good can that team be? Really solid, I think. The current Golfstat rankings have ADdC as the 15th-best NCAA golfer (and he won his match 8&6 today), so with several seniors graduating ahead of him, he should be a top-10 golfer next year. Jerry Ji is probably primed for a jump as well. His freshman year was cut short, so this was his first year playing at the Big Ten Championship and the NCAA's. Now that he has that experience under his belt, I'm guessing he jumps from the #52 player on Golfstat to maybe top-30.
That means it's up to Kuhl, Lang, and Hunt to make big strides. Right now there's a Big Two, I'd love to see Tommy Kuhl make that a Big Three as a senior, and then maybe Lang and Hunt can provide something as well. Hunt was making a big push for one of the five spots here at the end of his freshman year, so it seems like he'll be ready.
Is it a Match Play team? Can't say yet. Really need to see where Lang and Hunt land at the start of next season. If they start finishing with something like the 2nd and 3rd best Illini scores at a fall tournament, it's a very good sign. Put me down for "top-20 team" right now, and then if Hunt and Lang surprise, I'll move that much higher.
Wait - Mike Small is the coach. Yes, they'll be in the NCAA Match Play again.