Big Ten media days have come and gone, as players and coaches from all 14 teams descended on Indianapolis late last week in what can be labeled as an unofficial start of college basketball season. The league’s strong year in 2020–21 came to a screeching halt in March, when just one of the conference’s nine men's NCAA tournament teams escaped the dance’s opening weekend and that team (Michigan) came up short of the Final Four. As the Big Ten looks to bounce back in 2021–22, here’s an early look at story lines surrounding every men's team in the league from the two days in Indianapolis.
Illinois: Andre Curbelo doesn’t lack confidence
If it wasn’t obvious by his flair for the dramatic on the floor, Curbelo believes strongly in himself. That confidence came out when the sophomore point guard made perhaps the boldest statement of the event.
“I’m not afraid to say we’re going to be better than last year,” Curbelo said.
If the Illini want to match what that historic team did, a lot will be riding on Curbelo. The Puerto Rican guard flashed his huge potential last year in a supporting role behind star Ayo Dosunmu, but now will be tasked with leading the Illinois offense. Word out of Champaign is that Curbelo’s shooting is much improved, particularly off the bounce. If he adds that to his game given how good he already is as a driver and distributor, Brad Underwood’s team will be hard to stop.
Indiana: Woodson noncommittal on point guard
A month before the season gets underway, Mike Woodson has a point guard battle on his hands. Pittsburgh transfer Xavier Johnson got the start in both games during the team’s summer tour to the Bahamas, but senior Rob Phinisee also played major minutes and Woodson said nothing has been decided about who will run the show in Bloomington.
Phinisee’s offensive game is behind Johnson’s, with Woodson saying he has “got to get him to shoot more.” Phinisee is just a 30% career three-point shooter and was 0–4 in the Bahamas. Johnson struggled with foul trouble in his first game of the trip before tallying 13 points and seven assists in Game 2.
Regardless of who wins the job, expect both to play a role.
“We don’t have a team where we have three or four superstars. We’ve got one dominant player in Trayce [Jackson-Davis] and we have a bunch of guys in the supporting cast,” Woodson said. “That supporting cast all has to be ready to play when called upon.”
Iowa: Jordan Bohannon moves off the ball
Iowa’s all-time assists leader will be playing mostly as a shooting guard this season. Fran McCaffery doubled down on plans to use Bohannon off the ball to help spark an offense that has to replace a pair of NBA players in Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp, as well as elite shooter CJ Fredrick.
“Having the opportunity to play [Bohannon] primarily as a shooter and move him around I think will make it even better for him in terms of having opportunities [to score],” McCaffery said. “While he’s a great shooter, he’s not someone who is just a shooter … he’s a baller.”
Taking the defense’s attention off Bohannon will be a main challenge for McCaffery. Expect Joe Toussaint to get the first look as the team’s starting point guard, but sophomores Ahron Ulis and Tony Perkins could earn minutes if they can provide more of a scoring threat than the defensive-minded Toussaint.
Maryland: Fatts Russell’s time to shine
Almost immediately, Mark Turgeon reminded the media that his team last year lacked both a true point guard and a true center. While the hole at the five was more glaring against the Big Ten’s monster post players, not having a point guard made life more difficult for Turgeon’s club a season ago. Enter Russell, who scored nearly 1,600 career points at Rhode Island before hitting the transfer portal for his extra year of eligibility.
“I knew he was good, but I didn't know he was this good,” Turgeon said.
Russell will be asked to score less and distribute more than he did at URI, but his defensive contributions shouldn’t be overlooked. Perhaps most importantly, he’s a winner.
“His team wins every scrimmage, it seems like,” Turgeon said.
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Michigan: Juwan Howard is Michigan
No coach commands the podium like Howard does, and that’s not just because he towers over it. His love for the Wolverines is palpable when he speaks, and that’s one reason why it’s hard to convince me he’ll ever be able to walk away for an NBA head-coaching opportunity.
“It's Michigan,” Howard said when asked about his program’s success retaining players. “Not saying it in an arrogant way, but it's a place that keeps reeling you back in. The Michigan block M never gets old to all of us.”
His teary-eyed press conference when he first accepted the job is hard to forget, but that passion for the university is clear every time he’s in a setting like this.
Michigan State: Spartans hope better chemistry will lead to bounce-back
Last season in East Lansing was the worst year of the KenPom era (1997 on) for MSU. And while the on-court struggles have been attributed mostly to the lack of a true point guard on the roster, chemistry issues were also apparent.
“We weren’t as connected, honestly. I think being connected can solve a lot of different issues. We lacked a little bit of leadership,” junior Malik Hall said. “I think when you are more connected, people aren’t scared to speak up and people aren’t scared to hold other people accountable.”
Just as the point guard issues were addressed with the addition of Northeastern transfer Tyson Walker (who has earned rave reviews), Hall and senior Gabe Brown have taken on the task of fixing the team’s chemistry. The veteran duo laughed recalling how many times the team gathered at Hall’s apartment this summer to watch NBA playoff games and thought more team-bonding moments like that would help players hold one another accountable on the court.
Minnesota: Ben Johnson’s rise shows unpredictability of the coaching profession
Johnson got his dream job this offseason, as a Minneapolis native and Minnesota alum earned the opportunity to be the coach at his alma mater. That opportunity only came about after he was passed over for multiple lower-profile jobs earlier in the offseason, including at Northern Illinois.
“This industry is crazy,” Johnson said. “There’s no exact science to getting [a head-coaching job]. You just have to catch a break and trust me, a lot of things came in and fell in place, and I’m very thankful for it.”
The Golden Gophers are rebuilding this year and were picked last in the Big Ten’s unofficial media poll. Johnson has put an emphasis on recruiting the state, with four scholarship players from Minnesota and three more committed in the 2022 class.
Nebraska: Improved shooting gives Huskers a chance for growth
Fred Hoiberg’s Iowa State teams were defined by their elite offenses, using NBA-style spacing principles to put together three straight top-15 ones (per KenPom) in his final three years in Ames. But through two years in Lincoln, inefficiency on that end of the floor has been the biggest reason for the Huskers’ 14–45 start to the Hoiberg era. That could change this year, though.
“The biggest area, I think, of improvement for our team is perimeter shooting,” Hoiberg said.
Returners Trey McGowens, Lat Mayen and Kobe Webster all are capable of getting hot from deep, while juco import Keisei Tominaga could be one of the better pure shooters in college basketball. Xavier transfer C.J. Wilcher should also help from a spacing standpoint.
“We had a shot profile last year that we want to continue with, 82% of our shots were in the restricted area, behind the three-point line,” Hoiberg said. “We feel we're much better equipped now to take advantage of those situations. If we do that, we'll take a huge step in the right direction on the offensive end of the floor.”
Northwestern: Talor Battle adds to staff loaded with playing experience
Chris Collins filled the staff vacancy created by Emanuel Dildy’s departure with one of the best players in the history of the Big Ten in Talor Battle. Battle, Penn State’s all-time leading scorer, spent last season on staff at PSU after ending a successful playing career. The Northwestern staff also features Bryant McIntosh, who starred at point guard on the program's only men's NCAA tournament team.
“It’s awesome to be able to work with guys who played Big Ten basketball and know the ins and outs of this league,” senior forward Pete Nance said. “Being able to take the valuable experience from someone like Talor or [McIntosh] who has been super successful in the Big Ten has been instrumental in our growth as a group.”
The biggest beneficiary of Battle's joining the program could be junior PG Boo Buie, who is Battle’s half brother. In two seasons, Buie has showcased the talent to be one of the Big Ten’s best players but has struggled with consistency and efficiency.
Ohio State: New backcourt acclimating well in Columbus
The departures of Duane Washington Jr. and C.J. Walker left a pair of major holes for Chris Holtmann to fill on a Buckeye squad with high expectations. Holtmann seemed pleased with the progress of a pair of transfers OSU added to fill that void.
In particular, he spoke highly of Penn State transfer Jamari Wheeler, who has earned a reputation as perhaps the league’s best perimeter defender.
“You want him next to you any time you're competing and doing anything,” Holtmann said. “He has really helped us.”
Perhaps the Buckeyes’ most important player in 2021–22 is Cedric Russell, who committed in July after Washington departed for the draft. The Louisiana transfer, who shot a blistering 40% from deep on high volume last season, is “finding his way,” per Holtmann.
Young players Meechie Johnson Jr. and Malaki Branham could also play big roles in the backcourt.
Penn State: Siena transfer Jalen Pickett key to early success under Shrewsberry
New head coach Micah Shrewsberry has an NBA background from his time as an assistant for the Boston Celtics under Brad Stevens and is expected to bring an NBA-style offense to Happy Valley. A centerpiece of those plans for Year 1 is Pickett, who’s expected to start at point guard.
“He’s a high-IQ player. Really good in the ball screen. That was one thing, knowing how he played when he was at Siena, especially early on with Jamion Christian, they played a high amount of ball screens and he was really good at it,” Shrewsberry said. “He makes everybody around him better.”
Per Synergy, Pickett led the nation in points created as a passer in pick-and-rolls as a freshman in 2018–19 under Christian. He then earned MAAC Player of the Year honors in 2019–20 as a sophomore before battling injuries as a junior and entering the transfer portal. If PSU has immediate success, he’ll be a big reason why.
Purdue: Matt Painter still deciding if Williams, Edey can play together
The award for the most in-depth answer of media day goes to Painter, who spoke at length about the decision-making process around whether to play star big men Trevion Williams and Zach Edey together. Last year’s platoon model made sense, but word out of West Lafayette is that Edey has improved significantly. The only problem: Williams might be a top-20 player in the sport in his own right. So can they play on the floor at the same time in modern college basketball?
“Trevion has to be able to function defensively as a four,” Painter said.
It seemed the veteran Boilermaker head coach’s biggest concern with a potential two-big lineup was in transition.
“If they're stealing points off of you, now you're playing, in theory, big; but it's counterproductive. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense no matter what the narrative is,” Painter said. “If you have functional people sitting on your bench not being able to play, you just have size; you're not functional with it. The only time it's really advantageous is when a shot goes up.”
Rutgers: Cliff Omoruyi is ready to take the next step
Perhaps the biggest question for Rutgers coming off its first men's NCAA tournament win in nearly 30 years surrounded replacing big man Myles Johnson. One of the best defenders in college basketball, Johnson was a centerpiece of the Scarlet Knights' stout defenses that carried the program to new heights. Steve Pikiell believes sophomore Omoruyi is ready for the challenge.
“He will be as improved a player as there is in the league,” Pikiell said. “He’s as talented a player as we’ve had.”
He may not have put up huge numbers as a freshman given his lofty recruiting ranking, but Pikiell commended Omoruyi’s growth throughout the year against a league with as many good big men as the Big Ten features. If the Scarlet Knights get back to the Big Dance, Omoruyi will be a big reason why.
Wisconsin: Jonathan Davis looking for breakout sophomore year
Wisconsin was one of the oldest teams in the country last season, with five senior starters. With only one of those five (Brad Davison) returning for his extra year of eligibility, young players need to step up, and Davis is the most likely candidate. Davis played this summer with the USA U-19 team that won gold in Latvia after averaging 7.0 points per game as a freshman.
“The experience he got this summer with USA Basketball … he came back with an air of confidence about him that I think players like that who can be impactful and dominating need,” Greg Gard said.
Davis scored in double figures nine times last season and also established himself as a high-level defensive player in his first season in Madison.
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