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For football, once the season is over, I always immediately take a look at the depth chart for the following season. For basketball, it's usually a look at the returnees + the freshmen. But that's all been made nearly impossible by the transfer portal. You know this, I think, but let's talk about it anyway.
Maybe the best way to do this is to just describe the way I view all of it. The adjustments I've made to my methodology over the last few years. I used to live for "OK we subtract these guys and add these guys" but now there's too much addition and subtraction. It's like the Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally thing. I can't remember if I have to wait for addition until after all of the subtraction is complete.
Let's start by talking Morez Johnson. My Twitter feed is alive today with Morez Johnson Jr. highlights from this past weekend. He's still only a sophomore, so he won't be here until the fall of 2024, but it's still fun to watch highlights of an Illini commit dominating on the spring circuit.
But I don't think about it like I used to. It used to be "plug this guy in with that roster that season and then try to guess if he might leave early." Now, let's be honest, there's a 29% chance Morez Johnson Jr. completes his career at Illinois. He might...
- Blow up so huge that he goes to Overtime Elite to make money before the NBA.
- Get a better offer and sign somewhere else.
- Leave his high school and end up at a private HS aligned with a different college program leading to an eventual flip.
- End up at Illinois but only play one season, entering the portal as soon as the season is over.
- End up at Illinois, play one or two seasons, and declare for the draft.
- End up at Illinois for two seasons but he wants more playing time so he portals somewhere else for his junior year.
Or a dozen other scenarios.
Tracy Abrams committed to Illinois in December of 2008 as a high school sophomore. At the time, it was very easy for me to say "OK, so Abrams arrives in the fall of 2011 which means he'll be a guard on the 11/12, 12/13, 13/14, and 14/15 teams." (And yes, we did not know at the time that he'd have two season-ending injuries and end up playing six years.) But it was very easy back then to build out a future rotation and see which recruits fit in where.
I don't do that anymore. You can't do that anymore. When Tracy Abrams was a sophomore in high school and he committed to Illinois there was an 83% chance he'd complete his career at the University of Illinois. Morez Johnson Jr. is a sophomore in high school and I'm saying there's a 29% chance he'll complete his career at Illinois. That's not a "damn portal ruined college sports" take, that's not a "Johnson might waver on his verbal" take - I'm saying that nothing is the same anymore in high school (private, basketball-only high schools now seem to recruit at least half of the top-100) and nothing is the same anymore in college (mid-majors are the feeder system, players can portal wherever and whenever, etc). As a result, you can't really predict what kind of team you're going to have next season until maybe June or July.
That has, unfortunately, given rise to all kinds of team-promotion accounts on social media predicting great things for your team. With the waters this murky, just take some of the current players + some names in the portal + some high school recruits currently deciding and tell the fanbase OH MY GOD YOU GUYS WE ARE GOING TO BE SO GOOD. By the time the dust settles on the eventual roster, no one will hold you to what you said in early April. There are built-in excuses all over the place as to why OH MY GOD YOU GUYS did not happen.
I'm not kidding here - if you ever wanted Twitter clout, just go start an Illini account this afternoon. Predict only great things, watch the likes and followers pile up, and then boggle at the fact that no one ever holds you to your projections of amazing Illini rosters in the future. Eight years ago, yes, those accounts eventually reached a Boy Cried Wolf moment where they were shamed off Twitter. But now, at your 50th "wolf!" cry, you'll still get the same number of people pressing the like button. Maybe more.
So that's the environment I'm in as I write this. College sports day traders have arrived, and I'm the old investment guy babbling on about managing risk and diversification. You can find much sexier projections of what this team will be, but this one will bring you the best return in the long run.
To me, there are three main things to look at for next season.
1. Kofi's decision decides everything.
This goes without saying. When a player is in Kofi's spot (probably doesn't have an NBA game but is dominant in college to the tune of 2nd-team All American last year and 1st-team All American this year), the decision is more "is it time to get my career started in Europe?" than anything. Call it the Leron Black decision. He could have returned for one more year. He decided to just move on and give international basketball a shot. (And no, I'm not comparing Kofi to Leron. Just saying that this decision facing Kofi is more complicated than just "would he be drafted because if not he'll return".)
If Kofi does return, just like this season, add 25 spots to our eventual ranking. It could be that without Kofi we're the 47th-best team and with him we're 22nd. Or maybe we're the 63rd-best team and with him we're 38th. Or perhaps we go crazy in the portal and build a team that's 31st without him and 6th with him.
I don't need to describe this anymore. You already know all of this. We won't really know what kind of team we'll have in 2022/23 until we know what Kofi is going to do.
2. We need immediate guard play.
This is my biggest concern. Three players used their bonus year this season (Trent Frazier, Da'Monte Williams, and Alfonso Plummer). All three are definitely gone, as is Andre Curbelo who has entered the transfer portal. Throw out everything else and just focus on those four leaving. Here's the minutes per game going out the door:
Trent Frazier - 34.7
Alfonso Plummer - 30.2
Da'Monte Williams - 28.8
Andre Curbelo - 19.3
That's 113 of our 200 minutes definitely gone. All four are guards/wings (although yes, Da'Monte was more of a 6'-3" forward). We have a massive, massive, MASSIVE guard/wing crater to fill. We are in need of immediate guard play.
What do I mean by "immediate"? These can't be minutes like what this recent freshman class produced (Goode 8.9, Melendez 8.5, Podziemski 4.3). We are going to need 113 minutes, so these newcomers will need to be READY ready. The minutes are not all going to come from Goode, Melendez, and Podz playing more (if all three are here - sorry, had to).
So I think we need something from each of these three categories to fill out our guard and wing spots:
- One of the current freshmen to make a larger than normal leap all the way to "starts every game and plays at least 28 minutes per game" next season.
- A guard from the portal with at least 2 years of experience who will play 30+ minutes every game next season.
- One of three current signees (Epps, Harris, and Rodgers) or perhaps an additional signee to be ready for Ayo-like freshman minutes (31.3 mpg in 2018/19).
Have to hit on all three if we're going to have that 31st-best team without Kofi, 6th-best with him" team we're all dreaming about. It's quite the parlay. Odds are long but... what if?
3. There are several wildcards.
I intentionally didn't mention Jacob Grandison above because he still has a Covid year he could use. We don't know if he wants to (or if the staff wants him to), but it's there. There's 25 minutes per game that either leaves or returns.
And yes, Austin Hutcherson is also a wildcard. Which reminds me of a bold take I keep forgetting to drop: we don't beat Kansas State in November (the game where Trent hurt his knee) without Hutcherson's 20 minutes in that game. Hutcherson still has a year of eligibility. He could actually petition the NCAA for another year. Maybe he just graduates and moves on, snakebit by the back injury in 2021 and the sports hernia in 2022. But maybe he returns as the wildest wildcard in Illini history?
Dain Dainja is the third wildcard. Say Kofi does return and Dain Dainja becomes in 2023 what we were hoping Omar Payne would have been in 2022? That's certainly a wildcard that would change the picture here.
My point for point #3: Everyone is talking about Kofi's will-he-or-won't-he decision. Many are discussing the guard minutes. One of these wildcards (like Grandison returning to be the team's fifth-year senior leader) could be the most important development of all. Well, not more important than Kofi returning. But you know what I mean.
When will we know about all of these potential lineups? With the NBA Draft declaration date being June 1 again (it was later the last two years due to Covid), I don't think we'll have to wait until July like last year. That's a huge domino for everyone (some player at Kentucky might announce he's returning causing his backup to enter the portal or whatever), so with those decisions needing to be made in May, I feel like the summer moves of the last two years will be late-May, early-June moves this year.
So I'd say that mid-June is a good target for "now we can start projecting what this team will actually be." We'll be 95% of the way towards knowing who is returning and 95% of the way towards knowing who might be joining. Then I might be able to do what I used to do right after the season ended - project next year's minutes and scoring.
And it's THEN that I'll be able to join all of you in your "and then when RJ Melendez has a Johnny Davis-like sophomore leap and is an All American, WE BOOK OUR TICKETS FOR HOUSTON" dreamland.