The days after November 15 consisted of consolations like, "it's not that bad," or, "we don't really need those guys anyway." Quentin Snider had ditched Illinois at the 11th hour, Cliff Alexander had made a fool of us, and those are the types of things you say when you don't know how else to react. A lie such as, "it's not that bad," can keep you from punching the wall.
Truthfully, November 15 was that bad--the worst single offseason day I can ever remember in my time following Illinois basketball. It hurt. There's been bad days, sure, but none so singularly painful as that one. It started in the morning. Our most recent commit, Snider, was rumored to be decommitting and heading to Louisville instead. Only a few weeks prior, the Snider commitment had sparked genuine excitement and a stream of Illinois outcry, all celebratory. Groce had then oversigned his 2014 class, looking to oversign it more for the right guy (Cliff), but when the excitement is that high, the logistics of numbers and player slots tend to not matter so much. I figured it would work itself out, which of course it did.
Cliff scheduled an official visit to Illinois the day Quentin Snider made his commitment, a day that turned out to be a complete farce. The Snider decommitment rumor became fact. Cliff Alexander chose Kansas. Everything fell apart on November 15 and on November 16, the sad fan would tell you Illinois was left with only a less-than-stellar 2013-14 roster and three transfers that couldn't play.
The truth--not the earlier lie--would say something different, however. The truth held good news. It said we were left with two fantastic recruits, who chose Illinois, then stuck to that choice.
If you choose Illinois, love Illinois, play hard for Illinois and, eventually, win for Illinois, then you become Illinois family. Illinois will give you the hero's treatment. Illinois will talk about you at bars and pubs and celebrate your name even after your time at the Hall is done. Leron Black could be one of these guys.
It's not an overdramatic expectation. He's a special talent. Black is 6-foot-7, 215 lbs power forward, ranked No. 43 in the country by ESPN and this year's Mr. Basketball in his state of Tennessee. Rivals and Scout rank Black around 40th as well, but watching him play, it's hard to believe there are 40 better high school seniors in the country right now. He'll be Illinois' first true inside player since Meyers Leonard, and before him, Shaun Pruitt. He'll be better than both.
Finke is a homegrown boy, who, while unranked and for the most part untouted, had himself an exceptional senior season at Champaign Centennial. The 6-foot-10 forward averaged nearly 20 points and nine rebounds per game.
Finke shouldn't make the immediate impact that Black will, but his place will in the rotation will work itself out in time. Black's place seems clearer if for no other reason than that his future place is one that isn't currently being filled. He'll be a true necessity.
To best envision next year's team, first think of this year's. Tracy Abrams, Rayvonte Rice, Nnanna Egwu-they'll all still be here, all still starting, and all still doing the same things, although at a presumably higher, senior level. Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan and Jaylon Tate will also be back, also improved.
Those seven give Illinois their fundamental ingredients and essentially the talented but flawed team we've seen this year. Now fill in the holes with the new players and their new talents. A pretty picture takes shape. Leron Black is the power forward we don't have. Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall transfer) is the 3-point shooter we don't have. Ahmad Starks and Darius Paul (Oregon State and Western Michigan transfers, respectively) provide the depth we don't have. Suddenly, Illinois will have a lot. They'll have a good team.
Most importantly, they'll have guys that want to play for the University of Illinois, which includes the transfers. Thomas Bruch touched on this in his piece on Jon Ekey and his game-winning 3-pointer over Iowa, and he's exactly right. If you love Illinois and win with Illinois, Illinois loves you back.
With Black, Finke and the transfers, next year could be a team to love.