This won't be all sunshine and rainbows.
Rebuilding rosters in your own image takes patience and time. It took the Chicago Cubs four years of miserable baseball before they became World Series winners. The same goes for the Houston Astros and the Philadelphia 76ers.
The same thing needs to happen for the Fighting Illini men's basketball program.
It won't make people happy to hear that. It also won't take four or five years for Illinois to make the NCAA tournament. It will be a shorter gap to bridge. This next season, however, could get ugly before it gets better.
Losing your top scorer is tough enough. Leron Black's production and team leadership this season cannot be overstated. You're also losing the tenacity of defenders Te'Jon Lucas and Mark Alstork, and the potential emergence of Mark Smith; the steady eddiness of Michael Finke. Those are all Big Ten caliber contributors who, if they had stayed, could have made this a bit easier.
It's not about it being easy, though. It's about building for the long term, and as much as the players leaving could have helped Illinois in the short term, we need to start seeing the forest for the trees.
My prediction for next year starts with the roster and it's current construction. Trent Frazier is the lead dog. He needs to continue his ascendency into superstardom. Players such as Da'Monte Williams, Greg Eboigbodin and Kipper Nichols need to take the next step in their progressions and improve their games in certain aspects, i.e. Kipper's consistency, Spicy G's offensive production, etc. Let Underwood and his staff fully implement their system and this rebuild starts a lot faster.
Recruiting is of the utmost importance right now. Illinois has done a pretty decent job of filling those gaps, and they're in on several more potential game changers. Ayo Dosunmu alone could put us back on the tournament map for 2019. Having him and Trent Frazier as running mates is scary to think about for opposing defenses. Samba Kane and Giorgi Bezhanishvili with Spicy G add the low-post element Illinois lacked the past few seasons. Alan Griffin looks like a sharpshooting diamond in the rough.
This is what we hired Brad Underwood to do, to mold this roster into a perennial contender.
That will take some patience from the fan base.
The schedule next year is even tougher (the Illini play in the Maui Invitational next year. Look up that list of teams...) and with so much youth, it's not looking particularly optimistic.
I actually predict that Illinois will be lucky to get 18 wins this upcoming season, which likely isn’t enough for a tournament berth. That might not be what people want to hear, but if Underwood continues rebuilding his roster his way, the future will be bright indeed.
We’ll share our prediction for the 2019-20 season on Wednesday and the 2020-21 season on Friday as we close out our recap coverage of the Illinois Basketball season.