Up To Speed - January 9, 2023
I've probably said this before, but whenever the calendar crosses into a new year, it's not that year which makes me feel old, it's the next one. I've adapted to the fact that it's now 2023. But the fact that next year is 2024 still blows my mind.
It happens every single year. This time next year I'll have adapted to the fact that 2024 is here. But the fact that 2025 will then only be one year away? ~makes explosion sound while moving hands away from the top of my head~
I'm way behind on everything (I mean, I haven't even written my Ten Names You'll Learn In 2023 article yet and we're nine days into 2023), so let's get me up to speed.
As I explained in my last article, my own little personal Illini bubble (where I don't read about nor listen to anything Illini related besides the thoughts in my own head) has apparently paid off huge in the past few weeks. According to the group texts I'm part of, everyone is sucked into transfer rumors and player/coach feuds and I'm over here oblivious to everything. I only see references to things, not the actual things.
Because of that, my fan experience this season is probably quite different from your fan experience this season (which is also something I explained in my last article). So if this point doesn't land with you, it's probably because I'm off in "ignorance is bliss" land. If I was more informed, I'd probably feel differently.
That point: I feel like this season is a "good problems" season so far. All of our "bad problems" are still fresh in my mind, so I'll take these problems any day.
What bad problems? Oh, you know, fall of 2007 through spring of 2019. The feeling of helplessness knowing a .500 finish in the Big Ten was our best possible outcome. Years and years and years without even sniffing the top-25. Three (three!) NCAA Tournament appearances - 2009, 2011, and 2013 - between the 2007-08 season and the 2018-19 season. Hoping and praying year after year that we would some day be relevant again.
So when I look at this season so far - again, I'm aware of maybe 5 total press conference quotes this entire year as I no longer attend those so it pretty much has to go viral to make my radar screen - I'm pretty happy with our problems. They seem to be the good kind of problems. They're problems which have led to us being the 9th team listed in "others receiving votes" in the latest AP poll, so the 34th-best college basketball team. "Problems" have led to us falling "all the way" to 34th.
Someone texted me the other day that we had fallen to 40th in KenPom (now back up to 32nd after the Wisconsin win). And all I could think is how I would have killed for 40th a few years ago. I mean, here's our final KenPom ranking from 2014 through 2019:
I watched every single game those seasons. Covered more than half of them, driving up and back from St. Louis. Six full seasons and our average KenPom ranking was 82. There are only 36 at-large bids.
This year there have been issues. They were most evident (to me) in the Missouri loss when a shellshocked team was looking around the court for a leader and everyone was pointing at someone else. There have been injuries (Goode's foot) and now a leave of absence for a freshman who started 12 of the 15 games. My worry coming into the season (go back and read the first 1,500 words I wrote in the season preview) was that transplanted experience (though the portal - the three players in the photo above) wouldn't work the same as long-term roster development. And I think that's mostly what we've seen.
But those are good problems. Those are problems that have us 32nd in KenPom, not 82nd. We have tent pole wins over NET #7 UCLA and NET #10 Texas which cannot carry us to the Tournament by themselves but will boost whatever Big Ten resume we put together.
We have one "bad" loss in the committee's eyes (and that's a Q2 loss at home to NET #63 Penn State) and then four Quad 1 losses (#17 Virginia neutral, #32 Missouri neutral, #39 Maryland away, and #47 Northwestern away). 2-4 in Quad 1 isn't the best in early January, but it's something the 2014 through 2019 Illini would have killed for. Wins over two top-10 teams in the non-con to boost the resume all season? What a dream.
So I'm fully in a "these are good problems" headspace. Go 0-2 this week and things change a bit, but I still feel OK about where we currently stand. The NET has Northwestern 47th and Wisconsin 56th, so that makes a lot more sense than "how can we lose at Northwestern and then beat #14 at home?". We pieced a team together with three players from the transfer portal, the transfers and returnees haven't gelled yet, and we have a few bad losses (but a few great wins).
Time to put it together in January and then go on a February roll.
WBB Ranked 24th
I really need to write about what Shauna Green has pulled off here. Here's probably the best way to frame it:
As I tweeted when the rankings came out this morning, this isn't some climb from, like, the 54th-best WBB team to being ranked 24th. This is a climb from being somewhere in the 200's to ranked 24th. Since I was using NET rankings above for the men, I'll just use the women's NET rankings from the last three years:
Today: 29th in NET
216th last year, 29th this year. It's really hard to put that into context. Just because of strength of schedule, it's hard for the really bad teams in power conferences to fall all the way into the 200's at the end of the year. I'll use last year's men's rankings to make my point.
Georgia was the worst power conference team in the NET rankings last year. They went 6-26 on the season (!!!) and fell to 226th in the final NET rankings. Tom Crean was so very obviously fired.
Georgia then hired Mike White away from Florida. In his first year he's improved things - they're currently #119 in the NET rankings and they do have one Q2 win - but it's nothing like what Shauna Green has done. 226th in the NET to 119th is what you'd expect from a first-year coach doing a good job. 216th to 29th? Nearly impossible.
You've probably head about the Georgetown losing streak, right? How they just broke DePaul's record 24-game Big East losing streak and have now lost 25 Big East games in a row? That's where this Illini women's program sat one year ago today. Nancy Fahey won 7 Big Ten games - total - in five years. 1.4 conference wins per year. 7-77 across five seasons.
And now that same team is ranked on January 9th of the next season. Do you think Georgetown will be ranked at this time next year? I don't.
Unless they hire Shauna Green.
All of these "I'm Back" football announcements make me think one thing. I already told you what that thing was. It's in the subhead right there. Fine, I'll say it again. Thanks, Covid Year.
If you haven't seen them, players are announcing their return to the Illini next year with tweets like this:
I can’t wait for another season with this amazing team, coaches, and most of all you guys our awesome supporters! ILL! pic.twitter.com/S5naGtc7rz— Isaiah Adams (@1saiahA) January 7, 2023
So many of these "I'm Back" announcements are very important to the strength of the 2023 Illini. There's a gap at certain positions (like the offensive line) where the younger guys all need at least one more year of development before they're ready. And nearly all of these "I'm back" announcements were made possible by Covid-19.
The 2020 season didn't "count" for anyone. It didn't count towards your five (you get five years to play four seasons) and it didn't count towards your four. It's like the year never happened, and because of that, someone like Isaiah Adams entered this past season as a 2-to-play-2 guy, not a 1-to-play-1 guy.
We've seen four "I'm Back" tweets this past week (with hopefully more to come), and those four are all Covid announcements. Linebacker Tarique Barnes announced his return, and three offensive linemen (Isaiah Adams, Julian Pearl, and Jordyn Slaughter) all announced their return. And all four would be gone if it wasn't for the Covid bonus year.
So if we just look at the offensive line, not only would Alex Palczewski and Alex Pihlstrom have graduated after 2021 and missed this past season, Adams, Pearl, and Slaughter would have all graduated after this season. We'd be looking at Zy Crisler plus a bunch of newcomers next season.
Now? Well, considering that incoming transfer Avery Jones has one bonus (Covid) year to use and he's choosing to use it at Illinois instead of East Carolina, if the line is Pearl-Slaughter-Jones-Crisler-Adams next fall, four of those five guys are there simply because of the Covid bonus year.
Now let's hopefully tell the same story on the defensive line.