I was worried going into the 2009-10 season. The season before was encouraging (well, up until the first round loss) with seniors Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham leading us to the NCAA Tournament. But those senior guards were being replaced with freshman guards (Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson) in 2010, and you just never know with freshman guards.
But when the season started, we looked dominant. 30 point win, 20 point win, 45 point win. Why was I worried? This team is WAY better than we thought.
2009 Las Vegas Invitational
Utah 60, Illinois 58
Bradley 72, Illinois 68
Right. That's why I was worried.
It was then that I promised myself I wouldn't get excited about blowout wins against low-majors in November. Brandon Paul scored 22 and 20 in those first two games, DJ Richardson was the leading scorer in the third game, and I convinced myself that I didn't need to worry about our young backcourt. And then we lost to two bad teams in Vegas and I realized there's not much you can learn playing Presbyterian in November. You might be good, you might be bad - you just don't know.
But here I am, hours after watching my team put up 50 points in the first 14:30 of a game, thinking that these three "preseason" games are telling us that we're a lot better than we originally thought. I know that's foolish but... did you watch these three games? Did you see Terrence Shannon tonight? Have you watched these freshmen?
I mean, we do learn things from the NERDstats, right? TCU opened the season 16th in KenPom. They then played so poorly in their first two wins that they dropped to 37 despite being 2-0. And then tonight they lost to Northwestern State and fell to 58th.
We started out 33rd. And now we've climbed to 26th after these three wins. There are other teams on KenPom (like Creighton) who beat three nobodies and fell in the rankings. We've jumped seven spots because our NERDstats are quite impressive.
I mean, let's not even look at NERDstats. Let's just look at our statistics so far and discuss our concerns going into this season vs. what we see on the stat sheet. Here's our current stats after three games:
I'll just make a quick list of our concerns so far and then what I see on the stat sheet:
- Who replaces Kofi? That has to be the biggest surprise by far. Yes, it's against poor competition, but Dain Dainja is averaging 17.3 ppg and 9.7 rpg through three games. Off the bench. And it says right there that he's 24 of 29 from the floor. I don't think there's been a bigger "wow, didn't expect that" than Dainja with 17.3/9.7.
- Can any of the freshmen provide offense? This is Biggest Surprise #2 for me: Jayden Epps. No, I don't expect him to continue averaging 12.0 points per game, but I also didn't expect him to be the third-leading scorer through three games. No one expected Dain Dainja to be averaging more than Coleman Hawkins at this point and no one expected Jayden Epps to be averaging more than RJ Melendez. And I'm guessing that no one, absolutely no one, expected Jayden Epps to be second on the team in minutes after three games.
- Will one of the transfers be the immediate alpha dog? Yes. Terrence Shannon Jr., so far, looks like he'll find a spot on one of the three All American teams. Leads the team in scoring, second on the team in rebounding, leads the team in assists.
- Are all four freshmen ready? Because all four freshmen will be in the rotation. All four freshmen appear to be ready. With Luke Goode out and Brandon Lieb only getting spot minutes, this appears to be a full nine-man rotation. There are nine players averaging between 16 and 25 minutes per game. And the freshmen are averaging 15.7, 22.7, 23.7, and 24 minutes per game. None of them appear tentative at all (not like, say, Brandon Lieb who is still feeling his way around out there), so I think we can say that all four are ready.
Yes, it's easy to say that a freshman is "ready" when they're playing EIU or Monmouth. We'll see if they're ready when we play UCLA. But I've watched lots of freshmen play nobody opponents in November before. I mean, we just watched three freshmen play nobody opponents last year at this time. And none of those three (Goode, Melendez, and Podziemski) looked nearly as "ready" last November as these four appear to be this November.
So I'm really struggling to hold to my "remember 2010 - we don't know anything yet" stance. This team looks a lot better than I thought it would. Maybe the opponents are just that poor, but I really like the makeup of this team. Get RJ going and get Coleman going and I'm really excited about this season.
Now? Off to Vegas, just like 2010. And this time we don't play weak opponents like Utah or Bradley. We play #8 UCLA on Friday night and then either #5 Baylor or #16 Virginia on Sunday. If you wanted to know if this team is for real or not, you're about to find out.
(I think we're for real.)