Back To It
Haven't typed up an airplane post in a while. I'm currently on a plane flying back from the mountains. My wife is asleep on my shoulder, which means I'm trying to only use my finger muscles to type. I think she can feel it when I type a "p" or a colon (or the enter button), so I'm going to try to limit my use of such letters within this ost.
Today marks my yearly "writing vacation complete" moment. Each year, I barely write anything in May so that my brain can reset. This year, it was more or less Easter until now (something like seven weeks). I need this time to recharge my Illini batteries. Between work, blog, and family, my life gets really hectic between August and March, so getting some time "away" is always helpful. See also: sitting on a mountain far away from any cell signal.
That's where I was yesterday while the golf quarterfinals were going on. Which, honestly, is a good thing. Each year I follow Illini Golf more and more (hoping for that elusive national title), and each year I get more and more obsessive refreshing the scores online. Being able to just turn on my phone to see if we won or lost was a relaxing way to go about it.
Fairly amazing what they pulled off, by the way. Last year the team was led by two seniors (Charlie Danielson and Thomas Detry), with a third senior (Alex Burge) in a battle all year for the fifth spot (Burge was in the fifth spot in the fall when the team won the first East Lake Cup, but by the spring freshman Edoardo Lipparelli had passed him). Those three graduated, so this team was two juniors (Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy), one sophomore (Lipparelli), and then a battle between three freshmen: Gio Tadiotto, Bryan Baumgarten, and Michael Feagles. In the fall it was Feagles and Baumgarten; by the spring it was Feagles and Tadiotto.
So when any college team is two juniors, one sophomore, and three freshmen, it's going to be a rebuild. Volleyball, football, tennis - any team will struggle. To reach the national semifinals during that "rebuild"… it's just incredible.
Edoardo Lipparelli will be turning pro after this season - his native Italy is wanting him to do everything in his power to possibly be good enough to make the 2022 Ryder Cup team (when the Ryder Cup will be held in Italy). It's a longshot (the Ryder Cup is the top 12 American players vs. the top 12 Europeans), but that's what he's headed off to do.
But that doesn't mean the golf team won't be preseason #1 next year. Meyer and Hardy are both top-20 amateurs in the world, and next year I think both will be considered among the top 10 players in college golf. Lipparelli leaves, but that just means Baumgarten slides back into the lineup (for a time in the fall it looked like he was the best of the three freshmen). Oh, and Mike Small adds a superstar recruit in Brendan O'Reilly who might just arrive on campus and slide into the #3 spot, leaving the three now-sophomores to battle over the other two spots.
It's what we want in the Big Two sports, right? This is the model. This is the goal. Program stability, a great coach who has his players ready for any situation, and a final four appearance in a rebuilding year. Yes, we'll never reach that in either of the Big Two sports (can you imagine if Brad Underwood made the Elite Eight six of seven years?), but all we've ever wanted is consistency. Just get the football program to the level of, say, Iowa, and get the basketball program to the level of… Illinois Basketball.
That's where my brain goes as I approach the run-up to the 2017/18 school year. I'll start my The 90 Illini countdown in a few days (ranking the players on the roster from 90 to 1), and as you will see, I won't get to names you expect to contribute until we reach the 40's. When you add the incoming freshmen to the redshirt freshmen, there will be 40 freshmen on the sideline this fall. FORTY. 4-0. Forty freshmen. 81 or 82 scholarship players, FORTY freshmen.
So football seems like at least a year away from being consistent in any way. Basketball, well, on the basketball court everyone will get to play. Maybe even some of the walkons. There are nine scholarship players for next year - one fifth-year senior transfer (Mark Alstork), three juniors (Finke, Black, and Jordan), two sophomores (Nichols and Lucas), and three freshmen (Smith, Frazier, and Williams). DaMonte Williams had ACL surgery in January, so he probably won't be ready for the first game, which means it's a rotation of all eight scholarship players and then maybe some walkons if there's foul trouble.
Which means next year might look a whole lot like this year. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised with the exact same results: a 3-9 football season, an 18-win basketball season (falling on the wrong side of the bubble), and then another Matchplay/Top-8 golf season (hopefully finishing higher than this year's Final Four).
2017/18 feels like it will be the year before the year. 2018 has the right schedule for Lovie to have a breakout season, and with everyone coming back and (hopefully) an impact recruiting class, 2018/19 should be the year that Brad Underwood moves the basketball program forward. For this year, though, one more trip to Rebuild City. (Except for golf of course - golf will win a national title.)
That's how it sets up for us. My May vacation is over and it's time to start breaking it all down. Just as soon as this plane lands.