So many people affiliated with Illinois athletics deserve coal this Christmas.
For creating a culture of medical misconduct, Tim Beckman deserves the biggest batch of fossilized carbon. His actions were more resposible for the current mess within the Illinois football program and instability in the athletic department.
For initially hiring and sticking with Beckman, Mike Thomas deserves a batch of coal, as well. But his $2.5 million buyout will make this a bit merrier of a Christmas for the dismissed Illini athletic director.
For dragging their feet on firing Thomas and a search firm and for agreeing to a two-year contract with its interim football coach -- possibly dooming Illini football's recruiting for two years -- the university leadership deserves an even bigger stocking of coal. The problem is that we don't know whose stocking should get more: university president Timothy Killeen (he is in charge, after all), interim chancellor Barbara Wilson (is the interim really making the decisions?) or the always vocal board of trustees? Well, maybe we'll hold off on their coal for now. All will be forgiven if they hire a great athletic director and empower him/her to enact real change.
And someone please catch that injury bug, so we can lock him up in an adamantium prison.
But a bad year doesn't prevent Santa Jeremy from spreading holiday cheer. Here are the gifts I'm handing out to the Illini this holiday season.
For John Groce, a year of complete roster health. Because, come on, no matter what you think of Groce as a coach, you have to agree that the guy hasn't received many health breaks. Injuries don't excuse every issue, but if this team had Mike Thorne Jr., Leron Black and Tracy Abrams fully healthy the entire season, it's safe to say that this team probably would have double-digit wins right now and likely would project as an NCAA Tournament team.
For Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn, consistency. The two Illini juniors are great talents -- currently ranking first and tied for second, respectively, in the Big Ten in scoring average -- but this Illinois team needs them to be consistently great. If they combine to score fewer than 36 points in any given game, Illinois won't have much of a chance.
For Michael Finke, 10 more pounds of muscle. Finke is one of the most efficient offensive players in college basketball. He's a negative on defense. He won't always be. He's playing a bit out of position at the 5 due to injuries and still doesn't have the leg or upper-body strength to compete with true big guys. With 10 more pounds of muscle on his frame in the offseason, his post offense and defense will only grow -- making him more and more like former Wisconsin big man Jon Leuer.
For Jalen Coleman-Lands, a Matrix-style lesson on defense. You know when Morpheus injects Neo with kung-fu and all these other skills in seconds? It'd be great if John Groce could inject Coleman-Lands with an understanding of defensive principles (help defense, hedging, switches, closing out, etc.) in a few seconds. Coleman-Lands barely practiced before the season and has looked lost on that end a lot to start his freshman season. He is solid on the ball and has active hands, but he gets lost in the intricacies of guarding movement. Once that clicks, Coleman-Lands can stick on the court for longer stretches, making the Illini offense consistently more dangerous.
For the Illini basketball staff, commitments from two downstate commitments before March. The staff must show progress. That will be difficult to show on the court due to the injuries. Yet, this staff has brought in some nice talent. Hill and Nunn are All-Big Ten candidates. Thorne and Black looked like Big Ten big men. Finke and Coleman-Lands are All-Freshmen Team candidates. Like Finke, Aaron Jordan looks like a Wisconsin-type player and a future starter. Groce finally added a point guard as well, Te'Jon Lucas, who looks better than his ranking. But the Class of 2017 is Groce's best chance to elevate the program. The state is loaded with Division-I talent, and none of the top prospects are from the Chicago Public League. Several of the best talents are from downstate, which hasn't produced much talent since the early 2000s. Illinois will never "lock up" Chicago. It's too big of a drinking pool for too many programs. But it should win most recruiting battles south of I-80. Illinois probably has the upperhand for Belleville Althoff's Jordan Goodwin, Peoria Manual's Da'Monte Williams and Belleville East's Javon Pickett. They all have visited Illinois, and the Illini were one of the first to offer for each prospect. But the Illini must close the deal. The on-court struggles don't help. But winning some of these battles before the end of the season would help Groce's case to the next athletic director -- and help their case for other prospects, including five-star post Jeremiah Tilmon.
For Bill Cubit, a few immediate impact freshmen defenders. Yes, the Illinois offense had a worse season than the defense. But the Illini offense gains Mikey Dudek, Justin Hardee and Dre Brown, while the defense loses Jihad Ward, Mason Monheim, Clayton Fejedelem, Eaton Spence and V'Angelo Bentley -- and there aren't many proven players or top athletes coming up behind them. The Illini will need some young players to make immediate impacts. The Illini hope that JUCO cornerback Ahmari Hayes and safety Patrick Nelson, who redshirted due to a torn ACL last season, can be a few of those guys. But the Illini could use a speedy, play-making linebacker or a physical, lanky cornerback to help. I'd like to gift them Delaware linebacker Colby Reeder, one of my favorite remaining Illini targets.
For Wes Lunt, half the drops. Lunt must improve, especially his pocket presence and leadership. He didn't live up to the hype, but more importantly his own standards. Still, the Illini receivers dropped about 60 passes this season. Just cut those in half (still a high number of drops) and Lunt's season -- and more importantly, the Illini's season -- may have been a bit different.
For Mikey Dudek, confidence. Taking the entire year off following a torn ACL in April was the smart decision by him, his family and Illinois. He now has an entire offseason to build strength and, more importantly, re-gain confidence in his surgically repaired knee. No player is more important to the Illinois offense next season.
For new offensive line coach A.J. Ricker, big offseasons from Nick Allegretti and Gabe Megginson. The Illini lose both their starting guards, Chris Boles and Ted Karras. Boles was serviceable but should be replaceable. Karras, a four-year starter, is much tougher to replace. The Illini return solid but unspectacular center Joe Spencer in the middle but need the young guys to step up on the interior. Allegretti, a rising sophomore, isn't as far along as the Illini had hoped. It seems more mental than physical. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Gabe Megginson sure looks the part. Struggles are expected at first, but another offseason of strength gains could make him a favorite for a starting spot. Junior guard Zach Heath will push both, but the Illini need this group to step up to get the run game going.
For Dawuane Smoot, 3/4 of a Whitney Mercilus season. Illinois may never see as dominant of a defensive season as Whitney Mercilus had in 2011 (22.5 tackles for loss, 16.0 sacks). Smoot (15.0 TFL, 8.0 sacks last season) has the talent to get 3/4 of a Mercilus. Given the questions in the secondary, the Illinois defense might need it. Also, Smoot will be on NFL radars so that type of season could catapult him up draft boards.
For men's track coach Mike Turk, more publicity. Did you know Turk led the Illini team to its first top-10 finish at the NCAA Outdoor Championships since 1988, won the Big Ten Outdoor Championships and finished second at the Big Ten Indoor Championships? Turk is doing special things with an Illini track program that has struggled in the Big Ten for decades.
For Illini baseball coach Dan Hartleb, a multi-million dollar donation to start a stadium renovation. Hartleb was rewarded for a record-setting 2015 season (50-10-1, first hosted NCAA regional and super regional in program history) with a five-year contract extension and a huge raise ($155,000 annually previously to $290,000 annually now). Hartleb has won the Big Ten twice in the past five seasons and made the NCAA Tournament three of the past five years. The next step to making Illinois a Midwest power is give Illinois Field a much-needed facelift. Hartleb wants a complete renovation that will cost about $15 million. The plan -- he already has renderings -- include taking out the dugouts, stands, press box and concession stands in order to build a new complex that would include stadium seating with chair-backs and an elevated press box with three suites on each end that would allow fans to have a sight line to the game even when they go to use the amenities, like the concession stand. He said he'd also like to add an indoor hitting area attached to the clubhouse in left field. To create more a student-friendly atmosphere, Hartleb envisions adding bleachers in left field for a student section to "create kind of a Wrigleyville out there" that would allow students to tailgate and watch the game, separate from family-friendly areas. He just needs the resources.
For Illini golf coach Mike Small, another chance at NCAA Championship Match Play. Like the Angels in the Outfield, Santa Jeremy doesn't help during championship play. But if Small's program advances to the eight-team championship match play for a fourth straight year, I get the feeling they'll finally come away with a national title. This might be Small's deepest roster. Seniors Tom Detry and Charlie Danielson have played in three NCAA match play tournaments already, making big shots in runner-up and Final Four finishes. Sophomores Nick Hardy and Dylan Meyer are the two most talented recruits Small has recruited to Illinois and can win a tournament any weekend. The key will be the fifth golfer, senior Alex Burge or freshman Eduardo Lipparelli. Small no longer is satisfied with being the North's best program. A championship would certify Illinois as possibly the nation's best program.
For Illinois fans, an athletic director with clout and a vision. Because even two months is too long to go without a plan or vision. The next athletic director must be given power to enact a culture change. Hopefully, the administration finds the person who can once again give Illini fans hope.