At last season's Big Ten Tournament, Ohio State guards Brent Darby and Sean Connelly nearly stole the show, leading the Buckeyes, who finished in an eighth-place tie in the regular season, to the tournament title game with wins over Iowa, regular season conference champion Wisconsin and Michigan State.
Illinois proved too much for the resurgent Buckeyes, though, winning the tournament crown in fairly convincing fashion. For the first time in four games at Chicago's United Center, Ohio State's backcourt met its match in the guise of Dee Brown, Luther Head, Sean Harrington and Deron Williams. Despite scoring a combined 39 points, Darby and Connelly were unable to control the game they way they did contests against the Hawkeyes, Badgers and Spartans.
Darby and Connelly have moved on, but the Illini are just one of many conference teams that return potentially dominant, game-changing guards.
Sunday at the Big Ten basketball media day, Brown was named the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year by the media while Wisconsin point guard Devin Harris earned the honor from conference coaches.
"It is a shock," Brown said. "I think it is a guard-oriented conference because we are just so talented."
Three other guards, all underclassmen, were named to both preseason all-conference teams: sophomores Daniel Horton of Michigan and Indiana's Bracey Wright and Michigan State junior Chris Hill. The only front court player to rain on the guards' parade was Spartan sophomore center Paul Davis, who joined the five guards on the coaches' squad.
"The league is dominated by great guards," Wright said. "I don't know another league that has it like that."
Of the conference's 11 teams, eight were led in scoring by backcourt players last season and of the 27 guards who regularly started last year, 17 return to action this fall. Interestingly, six of the starters who departed led their teams in scoring. No matter: eight of the conferences top returning scorers are also guards.
"There are very good guards in the league and not just one but teams are deep at guard and if you don't have good some good guards you really are going to struggle in the league," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said.
The Badgers possess one of the league's and perhaps the nation's finest in Harris, who led the conference in steals last season (2.03 per game) and was fourth in assist/turnover ratio (1.92). Like Brown, Harris was second on his team in scoring (12.7 points per game) and was a Second Team All-Big Ten selection last season.
"I was really shocked," Harris said of receiving the preseason recognition. "There's so many great players in the conference, I figured I'd be the last one they picked for the pre-season Player of the Year. It's a great accolade, but it's only pre-season so it doesn't really mean that much."
In addition to averaging 12.0 points per game, Brown led the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.56) and assists (4.97) while averaging 1.78 steals per contest.
"He's a great player, I enjoy going against him," Harris said. "He presents a very difficult challenge for being smaller and quicker than I am. He's one of the best players in the conference."
Wisconsin and Illinois, though, also benefit from significant depth at the position. In addition to Harris, the Badgers return senior Freddie Owens and sophomore Boo Wade from last season's regular rotation. Alando Tucker, out until mid-December with a broken foot, played a post position of sorts last season, but is a swing guard by trade.
Alongside Brown, the Illini backcourt returns Williams and Head, who have started a combined 51 games in their careers.
Michigan State does not have a preseason player of the year, but the Spartans may have the league's top backcourt. Hill is one of two returning players in the conference who led his team in scoring (13.7 points per game) and he is flanked by returning starters Kelvin Torbert and Alan Anderson. Reserves Maurice Ager and Tim Bograkos provide solid depth.
"You've got Wisconsin, you've got Michigan State, both of them have great guards, but we've got great guards—that is all I'm going to say," Illinois' Brown said. "I'm not going to say who is the best, though."
The conference backcourt theme is not just talent, but youth. With the exception of Wisconsin's Owens, all of the aforementioned are underclassmen. The sophomores and juniors have been through the Big Ten trials before, though, and the league does possess some talented senior guards as well, such as Brody Boyd at Iowa and Northwestern's Jitim Young, who is the other returning team scoring leader (13.4 points per game).
The young guards, though, are leading the way in today's Big Ten conference
Ryan on awards
While the Badgers' Harris said he was shocked to receive the coaches' preseason Player of The Year honor, his coach took the point guard's acclaim in stride.
"You know, I never think about it. I don't do individual awards at the end of the year," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "I've never—in coaching at all levels—junior high, high school, small college—I've never gotten into individual awards at the end of the year. The thing that I always wanted to rejoice in was how collectively as a group we did. What did we accomplish as a team? So you say somebody is preseason—what does that mean?"
"Do you guys vote on that?," Ryan added in jest. "Did somebody stuff the ballot box?"
"Good for him," Ryan concluded. "Good for him and the fact that it says Devin Harris, University of Wisconsin."
Respect your elders
Iowa coach Steve Alford came to Rosemont, Ill. with four seniors—guard Brody Boyd, forward Glen Worley and centers Jared Reiner and Sean Sonderleiter—and made it clear that he thought the league's upperclassmen deserved their due respect.
"The preseason team seemed to be awfully dominated by young guys," Alford said. "I guess I have always been a coach where, right or wrong, I always like rewarding the guys that have been in the league three and four years. Now if you have unbelievable talent in the freshman/sophomore group, which I think we do, but I still think we have some pretty talented seniors in this league that are probably going without notice right now. But it is going to be good motivation—we have four seniors sitting right next to you that are going to be highly motivated."
He said it
Indiana guard Bracey Wright, on being named to the preseason all-conference teams:
"I feel that's where I should be placed. Anything else would be like a dis to me, you know, by not being placed there. It's alright, it's something that I have to go out and play like I'm a First Team All-Big Ten player every night."
Wright, on his expectations for the upcoming season:
"For myself: Player of the Year, First Team All-American, National Player of the Year. For my team, just to win. That's it, the bottom line, to win. You know, we have a team who if we put everything together, we can be as good as we want to be. We have to do that and I think that's something that we're going to do this year."