Spring 2023 Mailbag I

Apr 6, 2023

I didn't really intend for this to be a mailbag. I intended for this to be a Pick My Post. But I liked so many of the suggestions from my Pick My Post tweet that I decided to pivot and write some mailbag posts. I've written a lot of football stuff lately, so let's start with some basketball questions:

I'm glad I'm answering this in a mailbag post. When writing a mailbag post, my brain has this "gotta get to the other questions" governor installed. If this was just a one-off, I'd probably wander all over the place talking about this subject.

Is it a problem? I'm not sure how we could look at the 2023 season and say that it's not a problem. I think there's a direct line between "we pieced this team together from the transfer portal" and "this team wasn't as cohesive as the last three." So I'm sure that's the concern of every Illini fan.

But no matter how the roster is constructed, there still has to be buy-in. I'd say the biggest problem in 2023 was an observed lack of buy-in. Missouri got buy-in from the transfer portal guys and immediately improved (a lot) from 2022 to 2023. So I think you can still build a team with buy-in even though you're building through the portal.

I want to go a step beyond all of that, though, and talk about what buy-in looks like with Brad Underwood. And to do that I'll use... the Navy Seals.

I saw some clip the other day (probably on YouTube Shorts) of some Seal Training instructor who was talking about who would make it through and who wouldn't. Seal training is notoriously "weed 'em out" difficult. The whole point is to get people to quit. I just Googled, and it looks like about 30% of Seals make it through the training and about 70% quit because they just can't hack it.

The instructor was talking about how they couldn't really tell who was going to make it and who wasn't. The state champion wrestler with ridiculous test scores would fail and the scruffy, undersized farm boy from Arkansas would breeze through training (to everyone's surprise). He even mentioned how one kid, who they all thought would quit the first day, made it through simply because his ex-girlfriend told him he'd never be able to do it and all he cared about in life was proving that she was wrong about him. They could try to predict it, or they could just accept that no one really knew until they were put through the ringer.

I believe Trent and Da'Monte were Navy Seals. The 2017-18 season (Underwood's first) was one big Seal training and only four players made it through (Aaron Jordan, Kipper Nichols, Trent, and Da'Monte). Everyone thought Mark Smith or maybe Te'Jon Lucas would make it through but somehow it was Kipper Nichols who was still standing at the end. And the instructor (Underwood) chose to build his squadron around Trent and Da'Monte for the next four years.

The turnover on the roster that's happening right now? I see the turnover on the roster like I see Navy Seal training. Some guys leave because of circumstances beyond their control (a sick family member, or an opportunity closer to home, or whatever). Some guys leave because they don't like the crucible. Some guys you expect to leave end up staying. Some guys you expect to stay end up leaving.

The issue, both for Brad Underwood and the Navy, is to find the right recruits. To identify the guys with the mentality they're looking for. The Navy can get there with 70% of the recruits quitting, and I think Brad Underwood can as well. With the transfer portal, there are basically unlimited recruits ready to try out once a spot opens up.

Honestly, because I view it this way, I don't begrudge Skyy Clark for leaving or Matthew Mayer when it just didn't work out. It's not an "if you can't cut it, you're just not a mentally tough individual" situation. There are people with 20 times the mental toughness that I have who immediately fail out of Seal training. Many just aren't cut out for it, and that's not really an insult. They're trying to find guys with a very specific thing. And once they're put through the ringer, they either have it or they don't.

And in Champaign, Underwood is looking for that again. He found it in Andres Feliz, and he found it in Alfonso Plummer, and for whatever reason, he didn't find it in Adam Miller or RJ Melendez. Again - not an insult, they just weren't part of the 30%. Time to find more of those 30% guys.

This is the reality now, and rosters will likely be rebuilt every spring, and yes, this is a coach who would probably enjoy hearing his program compared to Navy Seal training. I think he does have an "it's not for everyone" view towards his program. He didn't find what he thought he found in Skyy Clark or Matt Mayer. So now he has about a month to find it for the 2024 season.

And then the 2025 season. And then the 2026 season...

I'm assuming the basis for this question is win it all (like UConn) or come up short (like San Diego State). And I will never, ever waver from believing that we'll win a national title in my lifetime. So UConn, baby.

And it's worth noting here that Dan Hurley did that through the transfer portal. He got Tristen Newton from East Carolina, Hassan Diarra from Texas A&M, Joey Calcaterra from San Diego, and Nahiem Alleyne from Virginia Tech (every time I see it I think his name is Nahiem Alioneye). Hurley combined that with recruiting an elite big man and a couple elite guards/wings and presto, national title. He hit on two of the four recruits in their 2020 class (Sanogo and Jackson), two of the five recruits in the 2021 class (Hawkins and Karaban), added four players from the portal, and won it all.

So yeah, put me down for "UConn" as my answer to this question. We will we UConn over the next 20 years. And hey, UConn has four titles in the last 20 years, so good news, everyone, we're gonna win FOUR.

(I just want to win one.)

I've had this discussion before. It's a great tailgate discussion, or maybe a car discussion with your buddies on a road trip to a road game. And I don't think Luther's three dropping would have changed our trajectory all that much. The recruiting issues which sank the program had already begun, and I'm not sure finishing 1st instead of finishing 2nd would have fixed that.

I mean, when Bruce Weber's was out recruiting in the summer of 2004, we had just finished a Sweet 16 season with almost everyone returning and almost every magazine and website having us top-5 for 2005. And then not only were we top-5 that winter, we were #1 for the majority of the season. And all of that buzz landed us... three 3-stars.

Now, one of those three-stars was my favorite Illini player of the last 20 years (Chester Frazier). But when you are out there selling "we're preseason top-5" and you land CJ Jackson, Jamar Smith, and Chester Frazier, something went wrong. And then when you lose in the national title game but are still #6 the next season and your class is Brian Carlwell and Richard Semrau, something is massively amiss.

I could go on. Robbie Hummel (the son of Illinois alums) said he would have come to Illinois in a second but Weber didn't offer (2007 class). Evan Turner named Illinois his leader and then Ohio State swooped in and got a verbal. Jon Scheyer played for Bruce Weber's brother in high school yet he picked Duke. Sherron Collins... Julian Wright... do I need to go on?

Illinois basketball sank to where Illinois basketball sank by 2012 because Weber didn't turn the 2004-2005 success into top-100 recruits. Do we think that a win over North Carolina mean that Collins and Hummel end up in Champaign? I just can't see that happening. Weber's recruiting problems began with the 2004 class and really weren't repaired until he landed Mr. Basketball in 2009 (Brandon Paul). The tumble in 2007 (and then again in 2008) was already set in motion before tipoff of the national championship game. Do we think that winning that would have quickly corrected the recruiting issues and, starting with the 2006 class, we'd start to pull out of the dive? I don't.

So that's my answer. We'd have our title, and Dee/Deron/Luther/Roger/Augie would be even more legendary, but the program would have still taken a nosedive. We recruited like a Horizon League team for three consecutive classes and by the 2007-08 season, we simply had a Horizon League team.


ktcesw on April 6, 2023 @ 03:56 AM

Loved your first answer! Thanks!!

uilaw71 on April 6, 2023 @ 06:56 AM

Do we think Thad Matta would have been as big a bust on the recruiting trail? Thanks again RG . . .

AGig21 on April 6, 2023 @ 09:51 AM

What other coach out there with BU's style has had great success? Izzo? Maybe Samson? even Izzo doesn't go off like BU does on the sidelines. Hurley and Butcher seemed pretty close to polar opposites to BU. I believe he needs to find players who fit his style, just like any other coach. But maybe BU needs to have a look at his style/approach and tweak it a bit. I guess like the opposing seal instructor who doesn't just say my way or the highway and then not only gets a full seal team but a damn good one.

NC_OrangeKrush on April 6, 2023 @ 01:09 PM

Another example of the teams put together with key players from the transfer portal.. and stayed together throughout the season..


on July 3, 2023 @ 03:59 PM


on July 3, 2023 @ 03:59 PM

on July 3, 2023 @ 03:59 PM


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