Basketball Is Easy
As a football guy, it always blows my mind how easy basketball can be. Not the sport - the recruiting side.
To fix the football program, especially when the previous coach had recruited 15+ jucos leaving no underclassman depth, it takes a Herculean effort on the recruiting/development side. Find the guys who fit your system, train them in your system, take your lumps by playing them early in hopes that as they reach their upperclassman years, you're beginning to see signs of a program that's coming around.
It doesn't have to be like that, of course. You can recruit more jucos (and fifth-year transfers) and play the upperclassmen you inherited, hoping that they sustain the program until your recruits are ready to contribute. It's a delicate balance, but it can be done. The point, though - football rebuilding takes a full roster effort. Basketball rebuilding could be complete by Thursday.
How? Recruiting. Just land top-100 players and survive their freshman years. That's pretty much it.
OK, that's not "pretty much it". Run a good system, know how to coach your system, find specific athletes for that system. Pat Kennedy at DePaul is the cautionary tale - you can't just recruit top-100 players and then PRESTO Sweet 16.
But in terms of repairing roster holes, in general, for football it takes a lot of work over years and years and for basketball it can be accomplished by basically landing three really good players in one class.
Take our current recruiting situation, for example. I think I said this in a post last week, but just land those three players and we're in the Sweet 16 in 2020/21. I think it's really that simple. You have a backcourt (Trent and Ayo), so if you land a top-80 player on the wing (Terrence Shannon Jr.), a top-50 player at power forward (EJ Liddell), and a top-30 player at center (Oscar Tshiebwe), and if you get them through their freshman years, you go to the Sweet 16 (or beyond) when Trent is a senior, Ayo a junior, and Terrence, EJ, and Oscar are sophomores (see? I'm already giving them the first-name treatment). Land those three recruits and we're all the way back. It's seriously that easy.
But it's so incredibly hard. All of the recruiting advantages we had in 2005 are gone. I believe we're now 9th on the list of NCAA Tournament droughts among high major teams.
~record scratches off~
Yes, we are. You read that correctly. Of the 75 high major teams (Big East, ACC, SEC, B1G, Big 12, Pac 12), 67 have been to the NCAA Tournament since we last appeared in 2013. Yes, Illinois Basketball. Makers of 21 of 25 tournaments from 1983 to 2007 (with two of those misses being sanctions-related). 9th in NCAA Tournament droughts. Illinois Basketball.
(That's a number I looked up over the summer. I need to make sure that's the exact number. Give me a half hour.)
The list (last NCAA appearance):
1. Rutgers - 1991
2. DePaul - 2004
3. Washington State - 2008
T4. Mississippi State - 2009
T4. Boston College - 2009
6. Georgia Tech - 2010
T7. Washington - 2011
T7. Penn State - 2011
9. Illinois - 2013
T10. Stanford - 2014
T10. Nebraska - 2014
~sighs deeply, regroups~
So yes, basketball is incredibly hard. Bruce Weber turned a title game appearance into the lowest-ranked Illinois class in a decade and the decline began right there. He was eventually fired, John Groce started off with a bang, and then we sank even lower than Weber. We've had exactly one NBA Draft pick since Deron left (Meyers Leonard) after double digit draft picks the 20 years prior. We're not landing the talented players so we're not winning basketball games. To me, it's really just that simple.
(Required disclaimer paragraph: Yes, it's not ALL top-100 players. There have been players outside the Top-100 go the NBA (Kendall Gill) and there have been top 25 players who busted (Jereme Richmond). It's not ALL about top-100 players. But the percentages hold, for the most part. Generally, add a top-35 player and there's a great chance you landed someone who challenges for a spot on the All Big Ten team. Land someone ranked 35-100, there's less of a chance. Land someone ranked 100+, there's even less of a chance. So the best thing to do is to land top-100 players - that gives you the highest percentage chance.)
And hey, look at that. Three top-100 players just visited Champaign last weekend. The new RSCI came out this week, which factors in more rankings than the 247 Composite rankings, and it looks like we had #30, #42, and #79 in town. Just add those three and it's fixed. Seriously - fixed.
But if Shannon goes to Georgetown and Liddell goes to Ohio State and Tshiebwe goes to West Virginia (and we don't land anyone else at that talent level), we'll likely continue to be broken. We'll add more 30% chancers in the spring instead of these 80% chancers and then we'd need the odds to break in our favor if we want to get back to where we all want to go.
And yes, the odds can break in your favor. Especially if a staff is really good at spotting talent. System schools like Gonzaga and Wichita State do just fine without top-100 players. But those are the outliers. All in all, I want to play the odds, and Illinois Basketball has had one basic rule for 35 years:
When Illinois is landing Mr. Basketball and a few McDonald's All Americans here and there, Illinois gets a top-5 seed in the NCAA Tournament nearly every year. When Illinois doesn't land players at that talent level, it's a fight for the bubble or the NIT (or worse).
So we can talk about defensive schemes and we can talk about 3 point percentages and we can talk about building a tougher culture. But really, in my book, all that's needed is three top-100 players to play with Trent and Ayo.
Should be pretty easy, right?