It will take a while to come to terms with Mark Smith’s departure after just one season with the Illini basketball program.
While preaching patience to those disappointed in his first-year performance, never did it occur that the call for patience should have been directed at him. While wishing him all the best, there will always exist the belief that with patience this could have had a happier ending.
And it will never feel entirely right that Michael Finke is moving on, simply because he’s everything you want in that nebulous term “student-athlete.” He’s a homegrown kid whose father was an Illini athlete, an honors student who stayed four years and earned his degree, a guy who worked his tail off and tried to be everything that was asked of him.
If he failed anyone in that regard, well… We can’t ask more of an athlete than to give his best and Michael Finke did that.
He has every right in the world to seek another landing spot for his final year of college competition, but his career began with a dream of flourishing in a glorious way at Illinois and will have a different ending. Mixed with the understanding that it works this way sometimes is a certain amount of regret.
But amid the fast-moving revolving door of players going and players arriving just six weeks into this critical off-season, this much is undeniable: After missing out on the NCAA Tournament for five straight seasons, and after finishing 14-18 this past season, one cannot dispute that it’s time to shuffle the only deck coach Brad Underwood has to play with – the roster.
There was a head coaching change 13 months ago because someone believed strongly enough that a different direction was needed. And there’s a dramatic personnel change now because that new coach believes a different brand of player is needed, too.
This is the modern day reality we live in. Transferring to another school has become college basketball’s version of free agency. More than 800 players transferred last season, and there’s no evidence that the migration is slowing down.
Any time there is a coaching change the transfer rate is likely to pick up. Players recruited by one coach are not necessarily what the next coach is looking for. The comfort they had when committing to the first coach may not feel the same with the new coach.
Beyond that, Division I programs are allowed 13 scholarships in basketball, and no coach uses 13 players. Ten would be pushing it. So unless a player is redshirting or injured, players considered to be Nos. 11, 12 and 13 inevitably face limited playing time. That’s one more reason to move on.
On Wednesday of this week, Underwood added five more new players to go with the one he signed in the fall. That’s nearly half the roster that will be newcomers next season with the possibility that a seventh could join the mix.
As he stated on Wednesday, his master plan calls for a taller and longer team. The “taller” part is essential around the basket, where opponents feasted at the rim last season against the too-small Illini.
The “longer” part is essential for Underwood’s pressing defense to work properly. Being more disruptive by deflecting passes with a longer reach will create more turnovers.
Illinois clearly needs better shooters. Finding open shots is one thing but making them is another. Remember, Underwood has statistical evidence encouraging players to hunt for three kinds of shots – open 3-pointers, layups and dunks.
Perhaps most of all, he wants a better passing team, one that moves the ball quickly, decisively and with precision. That didn’t happen last season.
We can speculate the long-term impact of a roster overhaul, but the judgment comes when we see how they perform, especially once Big Ten play begins.
But that shouldn’t stop us from imagining lineups and player combinations that Underwood will experiment with early before settling on something come January.
For instance, I would look forward to seeing a lineup with three guards, a smaller forward and the newest gadget in the toybox, a center that makes opponents think twice about feasting at the rim. I’m intrigued to see Trent Frazier, Ayo Dosunmu and Andres Feliz along with Kipper Jones and 7-footer Samba Kane.
I’m interested in how Underwood weaves in 6-7 Tevian Jones and sharpshooter Alan Griffin. And while considering the newcomers, it’s easy to forget Da’Monte Williams and the team’s only senior, Aaron Jordan. That would be a mistake. Jordan’s experience has real value, and Williams looked healthy and explosive in last Saturday’s workout.
Underwood believes Jones can be special defensively. If so, he’s a future star and a future pro.
I’m curious to see how quickly forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili can blend in and what improvements are evident from second-year players Gregory Eboigbodin and Matic Vesel.
And we still don’t know about a seventh newcomer. Bryce Golden, the 6-9 high school senior, has the Illini in his final four. He’s visiting Syracuse this weekend, and coach Jim Boheim will push for a commitment while he’s on campus.
While it’s tempting to fill out the roster with a fifth-year grad transfer who would be eligible for one season and could help in 2018-19, Underwood is more inclined to add another freshman.
For one thing, he believes in his staff’s ability to coax improvement from season to season. For another, he’s trying to build something lasting.
“To be very honest, I don’t want just good teams,” he said this week. “I want a great program. You build a great program from laying the foundation, from the skills to the character.
“Yes, we have to have talent. But I want to lay a foundation this program can sustain for years, not just be an up-and-down roller coaster because we’re taking fifth-year guys.
“Would we take one? Yeah. But at this point, we’re in a great place to really build this.”
Roster churn is a part of the fabric of college basketball these days. But Underwood would like to have a measure of stability, where the occasional defection is from one of those players ranked 11th, 12th or 13th on his depth chart.