Four In One Out
OK, so that's not really even a thing. It's a fun title, but I'm not going to suggest that the 2022-23 version of Illini basketball will be one guard and four forwards. However, after sleeping on it, all I can see is the inverse of last year's team. So that's what I want to talk about.
Four minutes into the first game, I tweeted about how it felt like Opposite Day:
First game realizations:— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) November 8, 2022
Last year: "It's always going to be four guards + Kofi."
This year: "It's always going to be four forwards + Skyy."
It's not just Skyy, in the same way it wasn't just Kofi, but it really did feel like the mirror image of last season. Remember those times when it would be Kofi + Trent, Plummer, Belo, and Da'Monte and we'd all talk about how this was "four out, one in" to the extreme? Well, last night felt like "four in, one out" to the extreme at times.
Here's the starting lineup and how they're listed on the official roster:
Skyy Clark - 6'-3" - G
OK, there's your "one out". When he came off the court, fellow freshman Jayden Epps (6'-2" came on). But then here's the rest of the starters:
Terrence Shannon Jr. - 6'-6" - G
RJ Melendez - 6'-7" - G
Matthew Mayer - 6'-9" - G/F
Coleman Hawkins - 6'-10" - F
First player off the bench? Ty Rodgers, 6'-6". Player who would be the first player off the bench if he wasn't injured? Luke Goode, 6'-7". Next guy off the bench? Dain Dainja, 6'-9".
I mean, I knew the whole "wow, did this team get a lot longer" thing. But I don't think I really understood until the game started. This felt like four forwards and a point guard. One year after we'd sometimes go 6'-1", 6'-2", 6'-1", 6'-3", and a monster in the middle.
It wasn't like that the entire game (just like last year when we'd rotate Grandison or Goode or Melendez into the game and get a lot taller). Jayden Epps is 6'-2", Sencire Harris is 6'-4", and both look like guards on the court. When we went to that "the four freshmen plus Dainja" lineup, it looked a lot like last year with three guards plus Ty Rodgers (6'-6") and Dainja (6'-9").
But the main lineup - the main lineup looked like four forwards and a guard. Terrence Shannon is the starting "2-guard", but his frame (and length) scream "forward". And then everyone else is basically a forward playing guard (like RJ Melendez). Matthew Mayer is a 6'-9" "guard."
(Yes, I realize that Well Technically Guy will be along any minute to talk about how height doesn't matter in regards to position on the court. I have my answers prepared for Well Technically Guy. I think the rest of you understand what I'm saying.)
That's how I'm approaching this season now. 2021? A fairly prototypical lineup. 2022? Four out, one in. 2023? Four in, one out.
2024? Let's go for six in, zero out.
+ I love me a freshman debut. Especially a four freshman debut. We spend so much time talking about recruits before they verbal, then after they verbal, then after they sign, then during the "oh my God you should see these freshmen at practice" phase. So a freshman debut is one big "FINALLY."
- I spent the entire month of June tweeting about (and writing about) Ty Rodgers so you don't need my thoughts here. I upped him to 4.75 Tom Cruises because I believe he should have been a top-20 recruit. He will impact so many games so many ways over the next four years. (And the fact that he was 1-6 at the free throw line is a feature, not a bug. If he had a shooting stroke he'd be gone after one season, not here for four.)
- The one Practice Thing I heard this offseason was about Sencire Harris' athleticism. And it was on display last night. I got a text from Carmen saying that the comp for Sencire Harris is Kendrick Nunn, not Trent Frazier, and I think that's 100% spot-on. If Harris was wearing #25 instead of #1, you'd see it. He's going to get pushed around a bit in Big Ten play, but once he gets some bulk......
- The thing I liked about Jayden Epps was the chip on his shoulder. There was one EIU player who was talking a lot (in a game they were losing by 30) and I felt like I could sense that it bothered Epps more than any other player on the court. If I was a college basketball coach and I was out recruiting, I'd offer someone based on that quality alone. LOVE a guy who gets bothered by stuff like that.
- I feel like we learned the least about Skyy last night? He's the primary ball handler but this one assist/five turnover performance can't be the norm. I've never watched Skyy play basketball before (besides videos), so this comment won't make any sense, but he seemed rusty? I guess that does make sense given that he's only played 4-5 competitive games the last 18 months.
Just the first game, so there's a lot to learn about these freshmen. But what we saw from Epps and Harris made me quite excited.
+ I think the most interesting thing for me last night was the minutes played. Top three players on the floor by minutes played:
Terrence Shannon Jr: 26
Coleman Hawkins: 25
Jayden Epps: 24
I was thinking Epps might be 8th or 9th in terms of minutes played, not third. Perhaps that's just a function of the Illini pushing the lead out to 35 and the freshmen playing a lot. But still, I didn't expect Epps to be the freshman who played the most minutes. I would have bet a lot of money on it being Ty Rodgers or Skyy Clark.
+ I tweeted before the game that I was barely ready for basketball. And that's true. The 7-1 football start, followed by a loss, had my brain even more ILLINI FOOTBALL than it normally is. And now there's an Illini basketball game while we still have four, maybe five football games left to play? Too soon, too soon.
I mean, I have my ticket stubs from the 1993 season under the glass on the desk here, and the first game of that season was DECEMBER 1ST. Now the college basketball season starts on November 7th? Just seems way too soon.
But I will say this: the game kind of straightened my head around for the month of November. I was discussing with friends this week how down I've been since Saturday. That's usually met with "your team is 7-2 and you're DEPRESSED??", but it ain't about that. Winning six in a row felt like I was flying. Losing a game where we were favored by 17 felt like I crashed. I had seven weeks of my brain saying "OMG OMG OMG OMG" and then it suddenly stopped. That's a rough wall to run into.
This game reminded me that November could be really fun. #21 Illini football and #23 Illini basketball playing at the same time. Me gathering with Illini fans in Ann Arbor next Friday night to watch Illini Basketball from Vegas. And then Tyler, in Vegas, gathering with Illini fans on Saturday to watch Illinois-Michigan. A possible "Illinois at Maryland Friday night, then Illinois-Ohio State in Indy on Saturday, then Illinois-Texas in New York City on Tuesday" stretch in December. This could be epic.
Which means I need to get my focus back on football.