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I’m a big paper guy. I’m probably never going to change. If a team looks good on paper, they should be good on the court/field. Paper is big for college football but probably even bigger in college basketball. Land solid recruits, win games. And before this basketball season starts, I want it noted again: we have really good paper.
Look at the preseason top-25 and at least 18 of the teams will be there because of their paper. It’s not the coaching, it’s not the scheme (although both help). Those teams are expected to go far because they’re more talented than their opponents. And we knew they would be talented years ago when the high school player rankings came out. They were talented on paper and now they’re talented on the court.
Which begs the question: how do we look on paper? Where does this 2016/17 Illini team stack up against the rest of the Big Ten? Would you believe… maybe the third best talent?
Here’s my methodology. In an internet debate recently I told someone Illinois probably had the fifth or sixth best talent in the conference. Realizing I didn’t just have to guess at the number – we have composite rankings for every player – I set out to find out where we stacked up on paper.
I chose 247’s Composite Rankings for this exercise. They take the Scout rankings, the Rivals rankings, the ESPN rankings, and their own rankings, combine all four scores, and come up with a “composite” score. Aaron Jordan gets a score of .9273 which was the 117th-best score in the 2015 recruiting class. So if we take all of those rankings for all of the Big Ten teams, who has the best score?
Now, I’m me, and looking up all 182 Big Ten players seemed like an impossible task (or, at least a task where I’d need an intern), so I took a shortcut. 247 gives each class an average player rating. So if I just combine all of those averages, I can get to the number I’m looking for (which is just “where do our four classes stack up with the rest of the Big Ten?”).
This isn’t the world’s best math – I should have weighted all the averages (teams will have a class of four players one year and two players the next year, and averaging those averages isn't weighted properly). And I should have poured over the rosters to find transfers (like Mike Thorne) and dismissals (like Kendrick Nunn). But I don’t think any of that would have changed the order of these rankings very much. Mark Turgeon has still recruited very well at Maryland – when his recruits miss the top-100, they don’t miss by much – while Iowa just hasn’t recruited well since their 2012 class. I could weight those classes and pull out the transfers and I still think they’d rank close to the top and close to the bottom.
So let’s call this Robert math. Averages of average scores that more or less tell the story. Not all three-stars are the same – Michigan is bringing in three-stars that just missed the top-100 while Rutgers is bringing in three stars who weren’t even close to the top-200 - and using these composite averages helps sort that out.
OK, with all of that out of the way, here’s where the averages come out. Average player rating over the last four recruiting classes:
Ohio State 94.3725
Penn State 86.1925
The first thing than jumps out: Illinois ahead of Michigan State? Really? I think those two would have switched if the classes were weighted. Michigan State’s scores is held down by their 2013 class (Gavin Schilling, Alvin Ellis) which had an average player rating of 80.82. But then again, that’s kind of the point of this exercise. Michigan State had crazy good classes (average recruit last year: 98.97) and bad classes (2013 – 80.83), while Illinois’ class averages were fairly consistent: 92.34, 92.62, 91.89, 90.74.
Do I think we have the third best talent in the Big Ten? No. This is just paper talent, and paper talent told us Nigel Hayes wasn’t very good, and now he might be the best player in the Big Ten, so real results trump paper. But I do think this tells us about the raw materials available to each coach. I don’t care if Coach K was hired at Rutgers – no coach is going to win in the Big Ten with an average player rating of 79.91. That’s a team that would struggle to finish 7th in the Missouri Valley.
It also points to teams ready to maybe fall off the cliff like Iowa (second to last on the list). After a solid class in 2012 (average score of 89) that more or less carried their last four seasons, they haven’t come close to recruiting at that level. And with that 2012 class now graduated, look out below.
But I did this to talk about Illinois, so let’s talk about Illinois. As I've said many times, I've looked at the first four years of John Groce like this:
2012/13: Great stuff. Took the mis-used talent and built a solid team.
2013/14: Perfectly fine. Cupboard was bare beyond the 2009 class, so start to rebuild.
2014/15: Yuck. Experienced, battle-tested team fell flat on its face.
2015/16: Incomplete. Lose three starters for the season and you’re not going to learn anything.
So it’s fully understandable to see Illinois listed as finishing somewhere between 9th and 12th in the Big Ten. After consistent finishes down at the bottom and a recruiting class of one single player (ranked #141) coming in this fall, why would anyone expect improvement? Well, this list is why.
The starting lineup has four top-100 players (Abrams, JCL, Hill, and Black) plus a transfer at center who chose Illinois over Kentucky and Kansas. I just looked at every Big Ten team’s recruiting class and I’d say only five other teams (Maryland, MSU, Purdue, Indiana, and Ohio State) can match a starting lineup like that (on paper). And bench-wise, I’d say Illinois is clearly ahead of eight or nine (and maybe ten or eleven) other Big Ten teams. We’re looking at raw material here, and really, Illinois is easily top-5 in the conference from any angle you look at this.
Which just further confirms what we’ve been discussing all summer: this is absolutely a no-excuses year. And not just “no excuses to not sneak into the tournament” – no excuses to not contend in the Big Ten and make a push for a good seed in the tournament. I drew my line at “should be favored in first NCAA Tournament game”, but really, you could draw it higher. This exercise showed me that many Big Ten teams haven’t recruited well on the back end – they have four or five good players but then it’s a huge dropoff on their bench. Illinois doesn’t have that – the raw material goes 9-10-11 players deep – and because Illinois doesn’t have that, Illinois needs to start winning basketball games immediately.
The way the schedule sets up, we’ll know a lot by early December. That run of West Virginia plus Temple/Florida State in New York City, followed by NC State, followed by VCU, means we’ll learn a lot early. What I’m hoping we learn: this team is really talented and has taken a huge step forward.