The Bar

Mar 8, 2023

I think I'm on the other side of the whirlwind of the last few weeks. My wife and I have been back in St. Louis each of the last three weekends, and she's going back this weekend for something else (I'll join her if we lose or stay in Chicago if we keep winning), but after that, hopefully, we won't do the 57/70 thing for a bit.

Well, I shouldn't say that. I'll be on 57/70 tomorrow. This whirlwind led to us having a rental car from St. Louis which is due back tomorrow. So here's my path to Chicago and the Big Ten Tournament: drive to St. Louis tomorrow, return the rental car, have my son drive me to the train station, and take the train from St. Louis to Chicago. Then, after we lose (hopefully Sunday), train back to Champaign. (And then book a train, plane, or automobile for Sacramento or Albany or Orlando or wherever we end up.)

So allow me to correct my statement above. The whirlwind of these trips to St. Louis for the two funerals is behind us now. A huge thank-you to Tyler for covering the Northwestern game and the Purdue game while I was in STL. I think I can get back into a regular writing schedule now. And I'm going to need to because the BTT is this weekend and then the NCAA Tournament the next. Tournament szn.

And as we sit here between the end of the regular season and the start of tournament season, my thoughts turn to The Bar. Did we clear The Bar this year? Did we fall short?

It's an impossible topic to write about. There's just so much nuance here. I know I could get completely lost in this, so I'll just start with the thing I tweeted yesterday. Here's that tweet + one of the responses I received:

That's just one of the responses, but let's use that as our jumping-off point. If that were The Bar which Brad Underwood needed to clear (in a 16-year period, eight Sweet 16's, four Final Fours, and two "championship runs"), let's find all of the teams in the last 16 years that would qualify. Here's the list:

North Carolina

(Villanova was the other team that came close, but they didn't achieve eight Sweet 16's.)

I'm starting there because setting the high jump bar at 15 feet and then yelling at everyone who fails to set a world record is such an easy thing to do for fans. Demand excellence and complain when you fall short. I've seen two Illini Final Fours in my 50 years on earth, but this tweet has set The Bar at four Final Fours the next 16 years. Clear that or else we've failed.

And here's the thing: some of you are reacting to that last paragraph with "what's wrong with setting the bar really high?" You view the world as "if you want your sales team to move 250 units next month, tell them the goal is 400." Many believe their fan duty is to keep constant pressure on the administration. Pound the table and demand excellence.

I... am not that person. I'm Mr. Fair Shake. I gave Lovie Smith the fairest shake in the history of fair shakes and he still couldn't clear the bar even though I set it below his kneecaps. I assess the situation, look at the health of the program a coach is inheriting, and set The Bar accordingly.

And for Brad Underwood, in Year Six, after losing Ayo and then Kofi, I'm good with 20-11 (11-9). He knew that Ayo and Kofi would be good, but I don't think he knew that he'd recruited the first two 1st Team AP All Americans in program history. And after you lose the first two 1st Team All Americans in program history, yes, you're going to take a step back.

Should he have recruited more depth behind them? Sure. Did he lose a lot of the players who were supposed to be the core this year (Adam Miller, Andre Curbelo)? Yes. Would this team look a lot different had he made a few different recruiting decisions? Absolutely.

Let's pause there and just work through one scenario. The WCC named co-players of the year this year. Those two players: Brandin Podziemski and Drew Timme. Both players would be in orange & blue right now if...

  • Underwood would have convinced Podziemski to stay after last season.
  • Underwood would have brought Stephen Gentry with him from Oklahoma State to Illinois. Gentry went from OSU to Gonzaga where he recruited Timme to Spokane. He then joined Underwood in Champaign after two years at Gonzaga but Timme was already a Bulldog by then. (And then Gentry went back to Gonzaga after two years in Champaign.)

(For more on how Gentry -- who discovered Timme while at Oklahoma State and convinced Underwood to extend him his first scholarship offer -- was the reason Timme picked Gonzaga, go read this article from today.)

So when I'm saying "I'm happy with the 2023 season", I'm not saying it couldn't have been better. Don't even consider Timme and Podz - if we just had 2021 Andre Curbelo and 2021 Adam Miller, we would have been a lot better. There's always room for improvement. We lost the Ryan Kalkbrenner recruiting battle with Creighton (Kalkbrenner won his second Big East Defensive Player of the Year award today). We lost the Colin Castleton recruiting battle with Michigan (Castleton was named 1st team All SEC today at Florida). There were opportunities to improve recruiting.

(As an aside, Underwood's ability to chase the right players in recruiting is fairly insane. I need to mention the fall-of-2017 official visit list again. Kofi Cockburn, Oscar Tshiebwe, Terrrence Shannon Jr, Drew Timme, Quincy Gurrier, and EJ Liddell. INSANE.)

But the point of this article is a fair bar for Brad Underwood in 2023. And I believe a fourth-consecutive NCAA Tournament team easily clears that bar. He had to build from nothing, and after missing the NCAA Tournament his first two seasons, he's had the best Big Ten program the last four years. The one thing missing is NCAA Tournament success, but... we'll talk about that in a bit.

Another response on Twitter suggested that "1980 through 2005" should be the bar. Setting aside the fact that we had a whole bunch of 20-11 in there, I do think the bar for Underwood in year six is lower than the bar for Weber in year six. It's the reason Bruce Weber is the only coach I've demanded be fired.

From 2000 to 2003 we lost two home games. Bruce Weber inherited a program on top of the world. And then he went 41-49 in the Big Ten his final five seasons (and people didn't want him fired!). The bar for a coach like that is extremely high. Once you're one of the top-10 programs in college basketball, you must do everything you can to maintain that level. Weber failed to do that.

Brad Underwood inherited a program at its lowest point since the 1970's. John Groce's rebuild had gone nowhere (his first season was his best season), and by the time Underwood arrived in town, as I said in that tweet, I had reduced myself to begging for a single play-in game. I had lowered the bar and just wanted to see the signs of a legitimate rebuild.

(I'm going somewhere with this - I promise. Actually, maybe now is the time to jump right to it.)

  • Bruce Weber going 10-8 in the Big Ten in 2010? One thousand percent unacceptable.
  • Brad Underwood going 11-9 in the Big Ten in 2023? Absolutely acceptable.

Weber had inherited a program on top of the world. But once he had to recruit his own players, things fell apart quickly. By 2008, we were a 16-19 basketball team. When you do that, you must immediately rebuild it or you need to go. There's just too much at stake. You're a top-10 college basketball program and you cannot cannot cannot cannot lose that standing.

Underwood inherited a program nowhere near the top of the world. But once he was able to recruit his own players, things took off quickly. By 2021, we were a 1-seed again. When you do that, you immediately earn hall passes for 11-9 seasons. I mean, I'd hand out a hall pass for an 8-12 season at this point. If 11-9 is the low point for the 2020's, we're in great shape.

Matt Painter got a hall pass for a 16-15 season in 2020. 2019 was great, there were some recruiting misses, so 2020 was a mess. But he had built a program and they slowly regained form. Same thing with the team Purdue lost to in the 2019 Elite Eight (Virginia). They dipped, and now they're back. Almost everyone dips (besides Kansas, I guess).

My point with that tweet is the distance between those late night drives begging for a play-in game and what we've seen the last four years (55-25 in the Big Ten). 11-9 as a low point in a four-year span is fantastic. 10-8 in 2010 was about the best Weber could do with a team of his own recruits and so he needed to go.

Are there NCAA Tournament concerns? Absolutely. It's the next hurdle Brad Underwood needs to clear. KenPom might suggest really bad draws the last two years, but that doesn't really matter when you haven't gotten to the second weekend a single time. Second weekend is now the dragon to slay.

The Bar? He's cleared it. We have a basketball program again.

And I'm pretty excited about tournament szn.


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