URBANA — Mike Small still considers the Illinois men’s golf team a developmental program. The developmental floor has simply elevated year after year as Small turned Illinois into the top program in the Midwest and one of the best in the country year after year.
Stacking talent is a recruiting goal of any program in any sport. Small has done just that with Illinois golf in landing some of the top prospects in the state, Midwest, nationally and internationally.
That’s why Small hasn’t had to mine the transfer portal. It’s a little more low-key than it is in football or basketball, but player movement in college golf does happen and, according to Small, is growing.
Illinois has had a handful of players transfer out in the last 10 years — like Sam Jandel to Georgia State, David Kim to Southern Cal and Trevor Gold to Lipscomb — but Small hasn’t had to turn to transfers to fill out his roster.
That makes Nico Lang unique. Illinois added the West Virginia transfer last month, and the native of Ingolstadt, Germany, will join the Illini with four years of eligibility after his freshman season with the Mountaineers was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lang ranked second on West Virginia with a 71.81 stroke average, shot par or better in 10 out of 16 rounds and posted three top-20 finishes.
“The interesting thing about him transferring in is he has four years left,” Small said. “If you’ve got a grad transfer, they’ve got to be really, really good to come in and play. We’re a developmental program. I still believe that. You ask anybody in the country and that’s the impression of Illinois golf. Kids get better here, and they grow here.”
Small had the opportunity to add a transfer this offseason because Champaign native and Uni High grad Varun Chopra has opted to grad transfer out. One couldn’t have happened without the other.
The four years of eligibility Lang will bring with him helps balance out Illinois’ roster at least a little. Lang, freshman Piercen Hunt (the No. 6 golfer in the 2020 class) and sophomore Jerry Ji will be the lone golfers with fewer than one season of college golf experience for the Illini.
“Our team is deep but getting older — quickly,” Small said. “We needed to add some youth, so it made sense to do that with (Lang’s) track record and his ability. I don’t see us doing that a lot. We haven’t done that a lot.
“We’ve had guys transfer out. It seems like the better programs in the country the last few years, kids transfer out of those a lot more often than they transfer in because they’re looking for places to play and looking for opportunity. If you have 10 guys on the team, only five can play.”
Illinois would have had a fairly experienced roster in 2020-21 even without Michael Feagles and Giovanni Tadiotto taking advantage of the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility for spring student-athletes whose seasons were canceled by the pandemic. Those two deciding on a second senior season just upped the experience quotient considerably given they both played on the Illini team that reached the Final Four in 2017.
Tadiotto and Feagles were Illinois’ top two finishers in the team’s last event in Lihue, Hawaii, in late February before the season was canceled. Ji, Noah Gillard and Adrien Dumont de Chassart also made that travel roster. So did Tommy Kuhl, who competed as an individual. They all also return next season. So do Luke Armbrust and Brendan O’Reilly.
“Potentially, this is probably as deep as you can get, but golf is a fleeting deal,” Small said. “In basketball, if you can jump 43 inches, you can jump 43 inches next week or next month or next year barring an injury. In golf, if you’re putting pretty good right now there’s no guarantee you’re going to putt good next year. If they all play on point, yes, it could be a deep team.”
Small struggled putting a lineup together last fall, but felt like he had found the right group this spring. The Illini were vaulting up the national rankings after taking a tumble from their typical spot in the fall and contended in their two tournaments in February with second and fourth-place finishes.
“I’m hoping last fall was just a blip on the radar the way we didn’t compete and didn’t play golf the Illinois way,” Small said. “If we can get everybody on that mindset with the talent and potential here, then I think we’ve got a chance to compete again. As far as the lineup goes, they really control that. They really do. The golf ball does.
“You’ve got to bring consistency in our lineup. Just because you played good one time doesn’t mean you’re good two weeks later. As a coach, when it comes down to decision-making, you’ll take someone who has longevity or track record or body of work versus just one good round.”