CHICAGO — The kickoff of the college basketball season got one step closer on Thursday, as Big Ten coaches, players and media members gathered in Chicago for Big Ten Basketball Media Day.
Game action is still less than a month away, but getting the ball rolling towards the starting line is exciting for hoops enthusiasts across the conference. Media day was an opportunity to analyze the offseason, dissect the challenges that lie ahead and discuss a variety of changes across the league.
Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan talked at length about his concerns with the rule changes in the game. Nebraska head coach Tim Miles continued his open tryout as the Big Ten’s stand-up comedian. Meanwhile, Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon talked about expectations of being the preseason pick to win the country’s toughest conference.
It was all packed into one day filled with storylines. Here are the top storylines from each team in the Big Ten.
Injuries were of course the topic of discussion for the Illini once again, as junior guard Kendrick Nunn did not make the trip to media day due to a thumb injury that occurred in practice on Tuesday. The severity of Nunn’s injury has yet to be determined, but it’s hard to view it as anything but another bad break for a team that has had plenty.
Malcolm Hill was the only Illini player at media day, and he could be carrying a huge load entering the season if Nunn and Leron Black (meniscus surgery) are still out. Head coach John Groce didn't care to delve into the importance of an NCAA tournament berth, although that figures to remain as the baseline regardless of the injury misfortunes.
The Hoosiers have a lot to be excited about heading into this season, and expectations in Bloomington are certainly through the roof. Indiana returns their top five scorers from a season ago, in which they totaled the most points of any team in the league. The trio of Yogi Ferrell, James Blackmon Jr. and Troy Williams is as explosive as any in the league.
But what has Tom Crean’s squad ready to contend at a high level is the addition of freshman center Thomas Bryant. The 6-foot-10 big man has been sidelined from practice with a foot injury, but he already has Crean raving about his potential impact.
Fran McCaffery was not shy in calling last year’s squad “Aaron White’s team”. But White is gone this season, which opens it up to seniors Mike Gesell, Jarrod Uthoff, Anthony Clemmons and Adam Woodbury to carry the torch for leadership. There’s no question that Uthoff is the most talented piece on the roster, as he was named to the preseason All-Big Ten team.
The key to the Hawkeyes season could rest on the shoulders of Woodbury, though. McCaffery noted the big man may be relied upon to play up to 34 minutes per game this year.
What a difference a year makes. At this time last year, Maryland was one of the new kids on the block and picked to finish 10th in the conference by the media. This time around, the new kids are now the top dogs with as much expectations as anyone in the country. It all starts with preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Melo Trimble.
Turgeon said he expects Trimble to be more of a complete player this year with a quicker first step and better distribution skills. That will certainly pair up nicely with stud freshman center Diamond Stone, who Turgeon said is already at a Big Ten level offensively.
At the time, last year’s misfortunes were a frustrating setback for the Wolverines after two straight trips to the Elite Eight. But John Beilein admitted with a smile that his team will be much better for it this season. Michigan got to see freshmen Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman develop with the opportunity, and both will add great depth to the backcourt as sophomores.
But you can’t talk about Michigan without mentioning future pro Caris LeVert, who is one of the most offensively gifted wings in the country. Beilein said LeVert looks better than ever after last year’s foot injury, but he’s most excited about his leadership with this group.
Tom Izzo once again sat at the podium and exuded excitement about his squad at media day, despite losing key pieces from the roster. The Spartans will certainly miss Travis Trice and Branden Dawson, especially when it comes to Dawson’s ability to battle on the glass. But Michigan State still has do-it-all guard Denzel Valentine, who is the most versatile player in the conference.
Izzo noted that this will be one of the best shooting teams he has had in East Lansing, thanks largely to Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Eron Harris. The duke of the conference complimented them all for being “gym rats” this offseason, and that trio will make the Spartans a contender as usual.
The Gophers will have to overcome the youth factor this year after losing three key seniors in Andre Hollins, DeAndre Mathieu and Mo Walker. Even with that experience last year, Minnesota finished 6-12 in the conference standings. Things aren’t looking much better this time around, but head coach Richard Pitino was adamant that he will not allow youth to be an excuse for underperformance.
Minnesota does have two seniors this year in Joey King and Carlos Morris. Pitino is looking for Morris to be much improved after being introduced to the Big Ten as a JUCO transfer last season. But the future of the program is in the hands of sophomore point guard Nate Mason, who showed quite a bit of promise last winter.
With his knack for comedy, Miles is always one of the most entertaining interviews in the Big Ten this time of year. But it’s no secret that Nebraska’s performance down the stretch last season was a joke that didn’t have Huskers fans laughing. Shavon Shields returns for his senior season, and he can fill it up on the outside with the best of them.
But a big focus is on the freshman duo of Ed Morrow and Glynn Watson, who will bring some Chicago swagger to Lincoln. Miles said Morrow has one of the best motors he has ever seen, and he doesn’t believe Morrow even knows how good he can be. He is also excited about Watson’s playmaking ability, which will be counted on from the get go.
The Windy City is buzzing about this being the Cubs’ year to end a painful drought, and Northwestern is hoping for the same when it comes to making the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats return all five starters from a team that won five of their last seven conference games to close out the regular season. However, head coach Chris Collins made it clear that his team doesn’t need to shoulder the program’s dance-less streak.
It is all about embracing their identity and growing from last season. Collins said he threw point guard Bryant McIntosh to the wolves last year as a freshman and he showed his makeup as a player. The second-year coach is also excited about the development of senior big man Alex Olah, who is playing with confidence after a big leap forward as a junior.
This isn’t your typical Ohio State squad with all the uncertainty surrounding this season. Thad Matta has reeled off nine straight top-five finishes in the conference standings, and if he’s going to do it again, he’ll have to do so with a relatively unproven roster. The Buckeyes will have a tough time replacing D’Angelo Russell, but they’ll have no shortage of young talent.
Matta brought in the top 2015 recruiting class in the conference, which was highlighted by JaQuan Lyle, Daniel Giddens and Austin Grandstaff—all ranked in the top 60 by Scout.com. Nevertheless, Matta agreed that this is a rebuilding year for his program being that they have no seniors and only one junior on the roster.
The needle is pointing up for the Nittany Lions program, and you could certainly identify the excitement in Pat Chambers’ voice on Thursday. This comes despite Chambers having a 15-56 record in conference matchups during his four seasons at the helm. Penn State’s 2016 recruiting class is currently one of the top 15 in the country, and there’s reason to be excited about current freshmen Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins.
That being said, Penn State still isn’t likely to see the fruits of their labor in the conference standings this season. They will be ready to battle, though. Senior forward Brandon Taylor and sophomore guard Shep Garner can make a nice duo, and the Nittany Lions do not have a shortage of size in their frontcourt.
If you’re looking for a team to challenge Maryland for the conference crown, the Boilermakers have as good of a shot as anyone. The Purdue frontcourt is downright daunting with A.J. Hammons, Isaac Haas and McDonald’s All-American freshman Caleb Swanigan. Hammons lived up to his potential down the stretch last season, and head coach Matt Painter is even more encouraged by the consistency he continues to show.
Painter also spoke highly of Swanigan, who will immediately embody the gritty persona of this basketball team. You can’t forget about senior guard Rapheal Davis after being one of the most improved players in the league last year. The big key for the Boilermakers is whether they can get solid point guard play out of yet another fifth-year transfer in Johnny Hill.
Contrary to popular belief, Rutgers still has a basketball team after going 2-16 in the Big Ten and losing three of their top four scorers from last season. Head coach Eddie Jordan has one heck of a project in front of him with the hope that they will one day compete in this conference. It’s not going to happen overnight, and many around the league would love for Rutgers just to show some kind of value to the Big Ten.
The one major positive for the program is the addition of freshman point guard Corey Sanders, who was one of the most entertaining players to watch on the AAU circuit. This will be a year of growth for Sanders, but it should certainly come with some highlight plays along the way.
The state of Wisconsin has another sporting icon who isn’t sure when he wants to call it quits. Ryan originally announced this summer that this would be his final season, but he has taken a step back from that this fall. With a style of humor that only he can deliver, Ryan said he feels like he is at a picnic with hamburgers on the grill. He agreed to have one more, but he could easily say one and end up having two or three—as he described.
However Ryan wants to describe it, he is happy being out on the practice court right now. The Badgers have quite a challenge this season when it comes to replacing five of their top seven scorers. That fact will force some to discount and overlook Wisconsin this season, but those with a history book won’t fall into that trap. New players step up every year for the Badgers, and they still have one of the best one-two punches in the league with Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes.