Fact or Fiction: 2016-17 will be a rebuilding year for Illini golf.
Faction? No, that's not acceptable? Then I'll side on fiction.
Illinois' chances at a national championship, match play and even winning a Big Ten championship (the Illini have won seven of the last eight conference titles) decline next season. But this program is a powerhouse now. The 2016-17 roster may be one of Mike Small's most talented, but it also is one of the more unproven rosters of the last few years.
Illinois loses one of the most decorated duos in Illinois athletics history. Yes, not just Illinois golf history but Illinois athletics history. Wisconsin native Charlie Danielson was a four-time All-American and the 2016 Big Ten Golfer of the Year and finished this past season as the No. 5-ranked golfer in the country. Belgian Thomas Detry was 2015 Big Ten Golfer of the Year and finished the season as the No. 15-ranked golfer in the country. The duo made it to match play (final eight) in all four seasons and advanced to the match-play semifinals three of four seasons, including a runner-up finish in 2013.
Of course, guys with that talent won't be easy to replace. But the success of Danielson and Detry and all the other Illini golfers before them has allowed Small to bring in more talent than ever.
Sophomores Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy were top-20 recruits in the Class of 2014 and have backed it up so far at Illinois. Meyer -- who ranks No. 46 nationally -- was a First-Team All-Big Ten selection this season and defeated national champion Aaron Wise in the Illini's semifinal loss to Oregon. Hardy -- ranked No. 74 in the country -- had a great freshman season (All-Big Ten First Team, Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors) and made small strides as a sophomore. With more progress, Hardy has the talent to be the Illini's ace. Both could be top-30 golfers next season.
The Illini add two more top-20 recruits as well. California kid and late riser Bryan Baumgarten, ranked No. 18 by GolfWeek in the Class of 2016, decided to migrate across the country to go to his parents' alma mater. Michael Feagles, ranked No. 20 by Golfweek in the Class of 2016, is the top-ranked player from Arizona. He chose the Illini to learn how to deal with more hostile elements. Also incoming are Georgia native Ryoto Furuya, the No. 50-ranked player in the Class of 2016, and Giovanni Tadiotto, the third Belgian to come to Small's program following Detry and 2013 individual NCAA champion Thomas Pieters.
While all are talents, it's still an unknown of how they will respond mentally to the next level. But given their new coach's history with not-so-highly-touted recruits, I'm bullish on their chances.
The wild card next season could be rising sophomore Eduardo Lipparelli. The freshman stole the No. 5 job from senior Alex Burge last season and cut his stroke average from 74.55 during the fall to 73.44 during the spring. He was a bit inconsistent but finished tied for 17th at the Big Ten Championships and beat South Carolina's No. 1 golfer Matthew NeSmith, the No. 10 golfer in the country, head-to-head during the match-play quarterfinal.
So does Mike Small think next year is a rebuilding year?
"Well, to be honest with you, time will tell," Small said. "I don't know. I've been high on these recruits every year but there always is a little bit of apprehension. You don't know. Even with Thomas and Charlie four years ago, you believe and think they're good, but you don't know until they get here and how they handle the expectations and handle the adversity of college life. You just don't know. The talent is there, but the results and productivity you have to wait and see. All we can do is work with them, try to get them in our culture and get them believing in themselves. These three freshmen next year could be really, really good. Or you just don't know. That's what's fun about coaching. You just don't know.
"If it was a guaranteed deal, you'd lose some of the romanticism in it. We're going to bust our tails and start with the basic stuff next fall and start building layers of what Illini golf means to these kids. We'll see by next May or June if we have enough to get to the national finals. I mean getting there is a tough deal, let alone getting to the final eight and the final four. Time will tell. But that's obviously something we'll work hard toward and have a passion toward and get the best we can. I'm optimistic. I guess you could say cautiously optimistic about the future. These guys on our team now are good players, but they got to get better."
Some think the 2016 roster was the Illini's best chance at a national title, but I would argue that 2015 -- when the team had Detry, Danielson, Meyer, Hardy and All-American Brian Campbell -- was their deepest and most talented roster. Yet, the 2013 team -- one that lost Luke Guthrie and Scott Langley and had Detry and Danielson playing key roles as freshmen -- advanced furthest, led by Pieters' heroics.
Match play gives college golf's championship process much more randomness. So even though Illinois will lack experience next season, its talent will give it at least a chance to compete for a title yet again.
Look at this year's champion, Oregon, which came into the NCAA Championships as the No. 22-ranked team in the country. They took advantage of playing at its home courses to claim the individual (Wise) and team titles, beating the top-two teams in the country (Illinois and Texas) along the way. While some Illini fans may complain about the home-course advantage, the site was determined three years prior when Oregon didn't even advance to the NCAA Championships. And the Ducks took full advantage in front of the home crowd, while the Illini didn't play to their full capabilities.
Next year, though, the NCAA Championships is at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill., where Illinois played as recently as last September. While Rich Harvest Farms isn't the Illini's home course, if the Illini advance past the regional yet again, they will enjoy and advantage -- Illini fans likely will show up in force -- likely with a team more talented than the 2016 Oregon Ducks.
So while some may think the Illini missed their best opportunity at a title and are looking ahead to a deep, experienced roster in 2018, don't look past the 2017 Illini. Yes, they have some questions. But talent isn't a question. And they still have the best coach in the business.
"It's going to happen some time, guys," Small said. "It's going to happen some time."
Listen to Illini head coach Mike Small recap the 2015-16 season with Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner on the Tay and J Show. Skip ahead to the 25:30 mark.