Spring 2023 Mailbag III
We're playing comment roulette the last week or so. I have no idea when comments will work and when comments won't. It's one of the reasons we'll be changing the look of the site soon, but until that's done, I'll just be hitting the publish button and then waiting to see if the comment section is working.
This will be number three of four mailbag posts. The first one was basketball, the next two are football, and then I'll get to a few transfer portal/NIL questions. What was originally a Pick My Post request has turned into four mailbag posts. Because you people have much better article ideas than I do.
It's April 2026. The Illini football team has just outperformed the Illini basketball team for the 4th year in a row. How good was the football team? (How many wins and bowl/playoff games in 2023, 2024, and 2025 seasons).— Bergatta 🦈 (@IndyIllini) April 4, 2023
My very first thought here: did Illini football really outperform Illini basketball this year? Expectations-wise, sure. We all "expect" Illini football to go 4-8 and Illini basketball to challenge for the Big Ten title. But the records we're comparing here are 8-5 (5-4) and 20-13 (11-9). At Penn State, if those were the two records, fans would say that the basketball team far out-performed the football team.
I'm starting that way to make the same point again. 20-13 (11-9) and a nine-seed was perfectly acceptable in my book. No, it didn't match the last three seasons, but of the THIRTEEN SEASONS before that (2007 through 2019), our 2023 season was only topped by 2009 and 2013 (and was equaled by 2011). No, that's not the standard we all hold for Illini basketball, but I just want to note that a 9-seed after three straight years in the top-25 is fine.
And, really, 8-5 (5-4) and 20-13 (11-9) are basically the exact same seasons. Winning percentages:
Football: .615 (.555 in the Big Ten)
Basketball: .606 (.550 in the Big Ten)
NERDstat-wise, yes, football had a better season. If we use SP+ plus KenPom, football was 21st, basketball 35th. So I'll continue answering the question with the acknowledgment that yes, football had a better season than basketball. But I just wanted to note - the seasons were very similar.
To really answer this question, I have to set a baseline of what I expect from the basketball program the next three seasons. That used to be fairly simple - how many RSCI top-100 players do you have on the roster, and what year are they in school? - but now it's basically impossible. We won't know what kind of team we have until we add 3-4 players from the transfer portal.
And that's likely going to be the same thing every year. We won't know what the 2025 basketball team will look like until the portal stops glowing in May of 2024. So I'll have to go with how well I think Brad Underwood will perform during Portal Kombat (not my term - someone used it on Twitter last week but I can't remember who).
Given that we seem to have NIL straightened out, I think we'll be quite successful in the portal. So put me down for three basketball seasons with 18 wins (right on the bubble), 21 wins (seven-seed), and 24 wins (three-seed). I'm not saying those will be in order, but the average there is 21 wins and maybe something right around a seven-seed. The equivalent to that in football would be something like an 8-4 regular season plus a bowl win (9-4 instead of 8-5), so, uh, yeah - if Illinois football has out-performed Illinois basketball for four straight seasons, then I'll be wandering the streets completely drunk without a drop of alcohol in my system.
I'll say it this way. I expect Illinois basketball, the next three seasons, to have the equivalent (football-wise) of a 7-5 season, an 8-4 season, and a 9-3 season. Which would mean that if what you're saying is true (four straight years where football was better than basketball), we'd go something like 8-4, 9-3, and 10-2. I mean, I'm an excitable Illini football fan, but even I can't dream that big. 10-2 in the Big Ten after 2024 means we're probably making the 12-team playoff, so... yeah, I can't even picture it.
Sorry. But it would be harmful to my health to even daydream about it.
You have to trade any of the current B1G schools (including USC and UCLA) for any other P5 school. Who's out and who's in, and why?— Zach Worman (@ZachWorman) April 4, 2023
It's funny. I collected these as "football" and "basketball" questions and now that I'm reading this I'm realizing that I put this one in the "football" bin when it isn't either one. I guess my brain sees "USC and UCLA" and only thinks football. (Of course, if you say "Kansas" around me I think football, not basketball, since we play them next season.)
I could go so many ways with this question. I really, really want to say Northwestern is out, but that's just because I can't stand little bro. Everyone always says "get rid of Rutgers", but I'm one of seven people who think that Rutgers is a good Big Ten fit (and if the name was "University of New Jersey" I think more people would agree with me). Maryland is the worst "fit", I think (10 years in and they still feel like an ACC team), and if I was going purely by "let's restructure the country to make the conferences make sense again", I'd send Nebraska back to join the Colorados of the world in some kind of Great Plains conference.
But the reality here is the future of the Big Ten. It's now a national conference where football is king. I'm one who believes that in 10 years, there will be some level of separation between the Big Ten and SEC and the other conferences, with perhaps a "division" of college football breaking off where Big Ten and SEC players are paid. There'd be an A (B1G/SEC), B (everyone else currently in Division I continuing to operate without paying players), and C (FCS).
So thinking along those lines, I think this one is wildly clear. You get rid of Northwestern. I could see a future league of private, braniac schools all competing with each other (let's call it the PB Conference) centered around Duke, Vandy, Northwestern, and Stanford. Add Rice and Georgetown and you have a nice core of schools who already want to treat swimming and football the same. That's much more of a cultural fit for Northwestern than the Big Ten (or what the Big Ten is about to become).
And the addition to the Big Ten is obvious as well: Notre Dame. They're in the original footprint, they have a national fanbase, and they even have a fair bit of basketball tradition. If they weren't so arrogant they'd have joined the Big Ten long ago, and as much as I'd love to say "your loss" and watch them remain independent and fade into obscurity, nationally, they'd be the best replacement for Northwestern. You'd bring the USC-Notre Dame rivalry in house and you'd have a football conference that could stand toe-to-toe with the SEC.
Oh, and you'd have a pretty great basketball conference, too.
How good would Steve Hull have been if he'd always been a wide receiver?— Dean Parr (@3AboveParr) April 4, 2023
First I want to note that Hull started out at receiver. All of 2009 he was a WR (he redshirted) and then most all of camp in 2010 he was at WR. It was late in camp that there were a few injuries and he switched to safety (and Justin Green switched to cornerback). I remember pointing out his chemistry with Nathan Scheelhaase at camp in 2009 (when the third string would come on, Nate would always seem to find Hull), and then we finally saw that come to fruition in 2013 when both were redshirt seniors.
As to "how good would he have been", I guess my first thought is offensive scheme. Scheelhaase struggled mightily in the Chris Beatty/Billy Gonzales offense in 2012, and I'm not sure Hull being at WR instead of DB would have made much of a difference. That passing offense was a mess.
So we're really looking at 2010 and 2011 and what we would have gotten from STEVEHULL if he had been at WR. Obviously, given his almost 1,000-yard season in 2013 (I don't even need to look it up - he finished with 993 yards receiving), he would have been a boost at receiver for the 2010 and 2011 teams. But even as I type that, I want to take it back because of my "older players are better" thing.
There will be some senior this fall who comes out of nowhere. I mean, just look at Devon Withersppon. You might think that you were singing his praises in 2021, but you weren't. He was good, and he was trustworthy, but not a single one of us had him as a potential top-10 pick. Spoon in 2022 was Whitney Mercilus in 2011. Labor Day weekend, he was "I know that name - he's a starter on the football team." By Christmas, he was "best Illini player in at least 10 years."
And it all came together in one season. You then went back and looked at previous seasons - Spoon's deflection to Sydney Brown his freshman year which is now on all of his highlight films, his tackle in the Wisconsin game - and you start to merge all of the seasons together. But really, he was "solid starter" all the way up until this past September when he became "college superstar."
So look at the roster right now. There's a senior who will have a Spoon-like breakout (and yes, Spoon was a senior - he was only listed as a junior because he had a bonus Covid year he could have used). The best example is maybe Tarique Barnes. You know of Barnes as a solid starter who is returning for one more year. But this time next year, we could be talking about Barnes in the same way we talked about Spoon.
I'm not predicting that. I don't expect that from Barnes (and that's the point). I'm just saying that if he had a Spoon-like senior season, we'd look at his career differently. We'd all start talking about the Wisconsin game in 2020 when we "realized Barnes was special" and such. But really, it would have taken 2020 through 2022 for Barnes to learn everything he needed to learn in order for 2023 to be so special. The same as Spoon needed to go through 2019 through 2021 and Kerby Joseph needed to go through 2018 through 2020.
My point: I guess I don't attribute Steve Hull's breakout senior season as "man, we should have had him at receiver all along." I just look at it like I look at every college football player. It's how I look at someone like... Calvin Avery. Take your lumps, learn your lessons, take your lumps... boom, massive senior season. Owen Carney - take your lumps, learn your lessons, take your lumps, boom, massive senior season.
So if Steve Hull had been at receiver in 2010 and 2011, I just feel like there would have been more "take your lumps" going on. It was more that he needed to get to age 22 than he needed to get reps at WR. Get old, stay old is how Big Ten games are won.
(Except for 2013 when we had that "get old" offense which could have won eight games for us but the defense was atrocious and we went 4-8.)