PMP 2023: Best Basketball Bench

PMP 2023: Best Basketball Bench

After this one I only have two more PMP articles to write and then my Pick My Post articles from this 2023 fundraiser will be complete. Both of those will require some deep research. For one I'll need to go deep into the archive to do some research and one is an "assignment" I'll need to fulfill during this upcoming football season.

This one, though, is fairly simple. The question submitted:

What is your all time "starting" 5 comprised of IL bball players who weren't actually starters?

Thanks for your donation to the scholarship fund, HNLINI. My thoughts:

First, it's difficult to draw a line at "weren't actually starters." Most every Illini basketball name you know started at least a few games. I included Sean Harrington in the photo right there, and while he spent the majority of his career coming off the bench, he did start 21 of his 132 games (spread across his final three seasons). If he started around 16% of his games, does that make him a "starter"? I don't believe it does, but some might.

Fact is, most Illini basketball players who stick it out for four years eventually become "starters". Warren Carter started exactly one game his first three seasons. And then started all 34 games his senior year. That would make him ineligible for this list, right? He was primarily a come-off-the-bench guy during his four years, but for one full season he was absolutely a starter.

So I think I'll draw the line at 25%. If a player started a full season plus a few games (like Carter), that will push him over the 25% mark. But if a player started less than 25% of their games, then they were a "bench guy." That severely limits the list (all one-year starters are eliminated), but I feel like that's the best way to do this. And since I already mentioned him, let's begin with…

Sean Harrington (2000~2003)

I'll just start with this.

3-pt shooting percentage for the 2023 Illini: 30.8%
Career 3-pt shooting percentage for Sean Harrington: 42.8%

His senior year, Harrington hit 45% of his threes. Just think of what kind of difference a shooter like that would have made for last year's team. Someone who would fire away and 9 out of every 20 shots would drop. Brad Underwood would have given up half his salary for a shooter like that last year (or, basically, since Luke Goode hit 42% of his threes in the 10 games where he did play, Underwood would have given up half his salary to have Goode healthy all season).

If I'm ever a college head coach, I'm reserving one scholarship for a sharpshooter every year. One guy on my bench who I can turn to when I need threes to drop. I know that basketball doesn't work that way, and I'm proving why I'll never be a college head coach, but I would make the Sharpshooter Scholarship a real thing.

Give me a Sean Harrington every year.

Ervin Small (1988~1990)

My first thought here was "I'd include Ervin Small but he probably started too many games in 1990 to qualify." I figured he had a Warren Carter-like senior season (starting every game) and that would disqualify him. But he only started 20 games that season, which meant that he only started 22.7% of his games, which means he qualifies.

Ervin Small, if you're a younger fan who doesn't know the Flyin' Illini, was basically the 8th man on the Flyin' Illini. That team was a heavy rotation of six guys - Stephen Bardo, Kendall Gill, Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle, and Lowell Hamilton plus Marcus Liberty as the 6th man who played starter minutes - and then there were two guards (Larry Smith and PJ Bowman) and one forward (Small) off the bench. And by the time the tournament came along, Bowman had fallen out of the rotation and it was an eight man team: the main six guys plus Smith as the backup guard and Small as the backup forward.

Backup forwards are usually known for "use all five of your fouls 'cause you're headed back to the bench soon", and Small fit that description at times (in the Sweet 16 matchup with Louisville, Small used 4 of his 5 fouls in only 13 minutes). But that's probably not the best description of his game.

I'll say it like this. That team is remembered as a bunch of guys who were all the same height - the starting point guard was 6'-6" and the starting center was 6'-7" - and Ervin Small was yet another 6'-7" guy. But while Lowell Hamilton was 210 lbs and Kendall Gill was 195 lbs, and Ervin Small was 225 lbs. He was… the strongman in the paint. The muscle off the bench.

We could have used a guy like him last year as well.

Damir Krupalija (1999~2002)

I considered three bench guys from the 2001 era for this list: Harrington, Krupalija, and Lucas Johnson. That was easily the best Illini bench of my lifetime. Frank-Cory-Sergio-Cook-Marcus held down the starting lineup, but that bench of Harrington, Lucas, Damir, and Arch was so much fun. Arch would ultimately start 61 games, so he couldn't be on this list, but Harrington, Krupalija, and Johnson would all qualify. The reason I chose Damir over Lucas for this list: the only reason Lucas qualifies under my "25% rule" is because of the knee injury that kept him out until February of his senior season. Had he been healthy that season, I think he would have started the full season.

Of course, I could probably say somewhat the same thing about Damir. If they were both healthy, I think Johnson would have started and Damir would have come off the bench, but Krupalija missed significant time with injures in 2002 as well. He missed a month around Christmas, then came back for a few games, and then missed all of February. If I keep writing about this I'm going to get mad about the lost potential of the 2002 season so I'm just going to move on.

Damir was a great "burst" guy. You younger fans, think… Giorgi maybe? As a freshman, Damir had 16 rebounds in a game at Indiana and it came so completely out of nowhere. All of the sudden, this freshman (who had several games where he didn't even play) bursts out of nowhere with 16 rebounds.

He was the perfect bench guy, really. We lose an awful game in overtime at Penn State in 2001 (the reason we tied with Michigan State that year and didn't win the Big Ten outright) and then the very next game Damir wakes up a sleepy team with 15 points and 12 rebounds against Northwestern. I don't know if there's such a thing as "brings big rebounding energy off the bench", but that was Damir.

Actually, I do know that. Da'Monte had it. Ty Rodgers is going to have it. Damir Krupalija: Big Rebounding Energy.

Scott Meents (1983~1986)

I feel like a guy like Meents wouldn't last four seasons in the transfer portal era. He averaged 4.8 ppg for his entire Illini career. It just seems like that guy will now transfer after his sophomore year in search of more shots/points. He'd go to Western Illinois and average 13 ppg (or whatever).

But Meents simply spent four years being the backup big off the bench. Backup Bench Big. Never more than 18 minutes per game, never more than 5.5 points per game, 124 games but only 28 starts. I'll just pick a random part of a month and give you his stats from that time. Let's go with mid-January in 1985. Here's three games in early-to-mid January:

at Iowa: 17 minutes, 0-3 from the field, no points, 1 rebound, 5 fouls
Michigan: 12 minutes, 0-2 from the field, 2 points, 1 rebound, 0 fouls
at Wisconsin: 18 minutes, 3-4 from the field, 6 points, 1 rebound, 3 fouls

A few games later, 12 points and 9 rebounds against Ohio State. A few games after that, 7 points and 1 rebound at Michigan State. I think that accurately describes our Backup Bench Big. Get in there, give the team solid minutes, block a shot here or there, use your fouls, and then head right back to the bench.

Love it. Bring it back.

Andres Feliz (2019~2020)

I'm cheating on this one. Feliz started 29.6% of his games, and 29.6 is greater than 25. But I'm going to point to a technicality here.

Feliz was the ultimate bench guy. He might be my favorite Illini 6th man of all time. And the only reason he passed the 25% threshold was the end of the 2020 season. When Ayo went down with the knee injury against Michigan State, Feliz was moved into the starting lineup the next game at Rutgers (while Ayo sat out the game). When Ayo returned for the following game at Penn State, Brad Underwood had liked what he had seen from Feliz in the starting lineup so he moved Giorgi Bezhanishvili to the bench and put Feliz in the starting lineup for the rest of the season.

That meant that Giorgi started the first 24 games that season and Feliz started the final seven. Minutes stayed basically the same for the rest of the year. It's not like Feliz moved into the starting lineup and took a bunch of Giorgi's minutes. The only change was starting Feliz and bringing Giorgi off the bench. Might have even been superstition.

So I'm gonna count Andres Feliz as a player who "wasn't actually a starter." And he's getting the ball in this lineup. A backcourt of Feliz and Harrington and then Small and Krupalija as the forwards and Meents the center. Put them up against an all-time starting lineup with guys like Deron and Frankie and Nick Anderson and they would… well, they'd get destroyed.

But they'd be fun to watch.