A year later, Big Ten basketball will look different. Wildly and wonderfully diverse. Add four West Coast teams and the logistics and dynamics change so much that it doesn’t matter what league it is.
So what will happen before all that can be given a permanent statement.
The old Big Ten, as it were, has one more shot here. One more opportunity to change the depth from November to February to March and April. Before the league boosts its chances with a higher program stock and with it, perhaps, a boat load of NCAA Tournament bids every year.
“They get it,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. Know that one of us has to win a national championship for this to be fixed.
There’s no better place to start the Big Ten Athletics preview for 2023-24.
Two main stories
Seriously, when is this league going to win a national title again?
2000. A simpler time. Destiny’s Child made it look like a nation. He promised to stop driving Segways forever. Joey Tribini auditioned for an Al Pacino movie. And a Big Ten team won the men’s basketball national championship. It was – stop us if you’ve heard this before – the last time it happened. This year, the league has two top-10 teams, one with the reigning National Player of the Year and another with measurable prospects. What’s left to say, but will this be the year?
Following the Purdue Virginia road map
The good part about being the second No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed is that you’re not the first. And in 2018, the same undefeated Virginia team won the national championship the following season with many of the same players. Matt Painter is a smart coach who is willing to face reality rather than run from it. (“I think it’s going to stay with me forever,” he said on Big Ten Media Day the day he lost to Fairleigh Dickinson.) Braden Smith and Fletcher Lauer are sophomores and not freshmen who crash into a wall at the right time. Zach Edey remains huge. The Boilermakers were on the brink in 2019, losing in the regional final. They have lost two of the last three NCAA Tournaments in the first round. It has a lot going for them, a lot of history that works for them and for them.
Three players to watch
Kel’El Ware, Indiana: The 7-2 sophomore and former five-star, national top-10 recruit scored in double figures on Dec. 1 after his freshman season at Oregon. Nothing but trickery with him. He could be a proven NBA prospect at the heart of the Hoosiers’ renaissance. It can be a lot of potential and not a lot. “He’s a very talented player,” Indiana coach Mike Woodson said. “For him, it’s just a matter of getting comfortable in the Big Ten and working hard. Most of these young players really believe in hard work. And I always feel like there’s another level you can reach as a player. I have to take it to that level.
Xavier Booker, Michigan State: Draft of a five-star freshman big man, via Izzo: “He’s a very talented, talented player that I like. It’s a big family that I love. And I don’t have the right to love. If the head coach is right, Booker could be the difference between a good season and Izzo’s legitimate pursuit of a second national championship. The Spartans’ schedule, as always, gets tough very quickly. How Booker responds to any struggle — any challenge, whether external or internal — dictates the direction of his growth. Which, in turn, sets him up to be another talented player… or his real breakout come February and March.
Terrence Shannon Jr., Illinois: The 6-6 wing has now played four seasons of college basketball. Here are the team finishes in conference play: third, sixth, third, fifth. Not bad, not amazing. In the year Shannon’s numbers in 2022-23 were impressive: career highs in scoring (17.2 points per game), win shares (4.8) and assist rate (17.7 percent), along with a career-best shooting percentage (.581). And yet… the feeling that there was more followed him to the champagne. Something untouched and unfulfilled. That could be at the heart of Shannon’s comeback after testing the NBA draft waters. People want what they haven’t seen yet, and Shannon knows he has one last chance to show it.
McKenzie Mbako, Indiana: We’ll stay away from transfers, though guys like Penn State’s Ace Baldwin (via VCU) could provide the keys right away. Mbako, however, encapsulates Indiana’s dynamic in every sense – depending on who you ask how good the Hoosiers will be. On the one hand, Mabako is the 10th-ranked freshman in the Class of 2023 and, as Woodson put it at Big Ten Media Day, “a piece of the puzzle that we hope can come in and play right away and do some things.” Good thing for our football club. On the other hand, Mbako was arrested early on October 22 and charged with criminal trespass and resisting law enforcement and refusing to leave Taco Bell property. Is that a one time event? Is it the canary in the coal mine? Does it have anything to do with basketball performance? Again, it probably depends on what you’re asking. But perhaps it is now more massively dynamic than ever.
A coach who has to win
Juwan Howard, Michigan
No, it’s not exactly right to do this to a guy recovering from heart surgery. But the promise of bringing in a programming icon like Howard never materialized. Yes, the Wolverines are one win away from the Final Four in 2021. He also missed the NCAA tournament last spring after going 37-31 with two top-15 NBA draft picks. A pair of three-star recruits comprise the 2024 recruiting class. By now, the trend lines should be very different in Ann Arbor.
The final of the league is predicted
(Note: Order based on preseason Big Ten media poll)
1. Purdue: There’s only one way to tell if Smith and Lauer bounce back from hitting the freshman wall. “I think the answer is how you play this year, right?” Painter said. Purdue lists Smith at 175 pounds and Lauer at 180. But they can still be better prepared mentally and physically as high schoolers. “You get to the end, and it gets harder,” Painter said. “But it’s going to be tough for everybody. The rules are no different for them than anybody else. I think you learn from that.”
2. Michigan State: Some old and skinny guards will keep the Spartans going, which is a good change to start chasing championships. Jeremy Fearing Jr.’s presence, however, may be somewhat of a key. Izzo called the top-30 recruit “one of the best leaders I’ve ever had,” and Fears’ ability to push Tyson Walker and AJ Hoggard on a daily basis eliminates even the possibility of complacency.
3. Maryland: Kevin Willard brought the program back to life in his 2nd year before a game. But the thought is… interesting. Willard is a bank of the future serving as a catalyst for the present. “Yes, we have team goals,” he said. “Yes, we have things we want to do, but we’re looking for Jahmir (Young), Donta (Scott), Julian (Reese), to take the next step, whether they’re NBA players or fans. That’s how I see it.
4. Illinois: Brad Underwood can be convincingly excited about his players, so should we take his optimism at the point guard position with a grain of salt? “Everybody seems to be worried about it except me,” the Illini coach said. But Underwood was too high on presumptive starter, sophomore Ty Rogers, before the 6-6 guard took the court. Underwood thinks his biggest mistake in 2022-23 was not playing Rodgers at the point. As it stands, Rodgers had a 9.8 percent assist rate while playing 17.4 minutes per game as a freshman, which isn’t overly compelling evidence. But it is also a small sample. Speaking of Rogers, there’s a chance that Underwood doesn’t live in make-believe land.
5. Wisconsin: “The word I’ve used most in the offseason is ‘sustain,'” Badgers coach Greg Gard said. This tracks when you return your top five players in terms of minutes logged. But the difference between another good-but-not-transcendent season is in the new one. Is it AJ Storr, who was an All-Big East freshman at St. John’s and gave the Badgers enviable size (6-7) at guard? Is Gus Yilden, the hero with a 6-9 first-person personality that makes everyone want a ticket to the “Gus Bus,” developing? If the Badgers are going to be above one of the most experienced teams around, it’s got to be someone.
6. Indiana: At least on the Big Ten media day stage, Woodson has set a career record for most prospects. Everyone on the roster seems to have “a lot to do.” or “long way to go. The same goes for the less realistic concepts of what the Hoosiers do to score points. “Right now, I don’t know what kind of team we’re going to be offensively,” he said. But Malik Reneau, who has built himself into “much better shape,” as Woodson put it, thinks a 6-9 former top-30 recruit averaging 16.5 points and 10 rebounds per 40 minutes is a key part of everything as a freshman. .
7. Ohio State: Behind the scenes in Columbus, while Brice Sensabaugh is dominating the ball, putting up scoring numbers and regularly winning Big Ten Player of the Week honors, Chris Holtzman is desperate for Bruce Thornton to shine. Mostly because the Buckeyes’ other freshman guard was the ballast for the general operation, he ended up leading the team in total minutes played (1,069). There is no need to seek attention this year. With Ohio State trying to rebound from a 5-15 conference record last winter, it’s right up there with Thornton. “I think the consistency of his work and his approach is a great thing to see, and it’s definitely contagious,” Holtzman said of Thornton.
8. Northwestern: The last time the Wildcats tried to make the NCAA Tournament, … it didn’t go well. A lot went into the 15-17 season — playing “home” games in a soulless Allstate Arena didn’t help when Welsh-Ryan Arena was being renovated, for example — but for the most part, Chris Collins’ staff couldn’t duplicate last year’s overall drive. That’s front of mind now, especially since Northwestern relied on its defense (ranked 22nd nationally in efficiency) to get to the Big Dance last spring. “What you learn is you can’t assume just because you have guys, it’s going to be the same right away,” Collins said. “You have to start over. You have to re-establish habits.
9. Iowa: Having Kaitlyn Clark consume all the hoop oxygen in Iowa City this summer might not be the worst thing. It’s not because the men’s team is bad; There are more unknown quantities and undefined variables in Fran McCaffery’s list than we’re used to. The Hawkeyes do some passing stuff. Ben Krikke is the logo of that walk; The 6-9 forward averaged 19.4 points last season at Valparaiso and was a three-year running back on the All-Missouri Valley Conference teams. It would be great for Iowa if Crick was in that production neighborhood, but the transfer results are great. There is a lot of waiting and watching here.
10. Rutgers: It remains to be seen what would happen if the Scarlet Knights didn’t suffer a major injury to a key defender (Mayweather Mag) in the middle of 2022-23, or if the selection committee interpreted Rutgers’ top 40 NET rating differently. As things stand, reaching the NCAA Tournament isn’t impossible…but whatever the build is, it’s the thing for Steve Pickle’s program. Gavin Griffiths is currently a top-100 recruit on campus. Ace Bailey, the No. 3 player in the 2024 class, is set to arrive next summer, while the Scarlet Knights remain the leader of No. 2 prospect Dylan Harper. This will inevitably be a team that makes life miserable for opponents and wins its share of Big Ten games. But it’s hard not to see 2023-24 as a vision for how it shapes what’s next.
11. Michigan: The Wolverines turned things around. If Caleb Love’s credits weren’t enough, the admissions office denied him the best way to bring Howard into a dynamic position offensively. So… you will fall in love. McDaniel scored in double figures in six of the Wolverines’ last eight games as a freshman. Jalin Llewellyn was a solid producer at Princeton and never had a chance at Michigan last year, tearing his ACL in eight games. Shares. Nimari Burnett was once a five-star recruit. Does it all add up to a competitive team? Can it even?
12. Nebraska: Fred Hoberg is happier than you, or at least more so than writers are judging his team to be. The Huskers have nine players with four or more seasons of experience and have scored more than half the goals, winning five of their last six regular season games. “If we had stayed healthy, I think we had a chance to be an (NCAA) tournament team last year,” Hoberg said. But because you’re older…or are you just too old? Can Keisei Tominaga emerge as a true breakout star? Can the team get better than 69th nationally in defensive efficiency and maybe even win that way? If Hoiberg is more right than wrong, a long-overdue move is ahead. But how long will it take to fix it?
13. Penn State: At risk of over-typing, the Nittany Lions’ head coach was listed on the Big Ten Media Day impromptu interviews as … Steve Rhoades. With Penn State hoops, it’s hard to get more on the nose than that. Then everyone will get to know each other here. Mike Rhoades – that’s MIKE – has two scholarship players on his first roster in State College. There are two transfers from his previous stop, VCU – notably Ace Baldwin Jr. – and four from other mid-major programs. Baldwin was the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year last season … and played just one game against a Power 6 team (Vanderbilt). Who knows what will happen here?
14. Minnesota: Last call for Dawson Garcia: One season left to make good on his promise as a top-50 recruit. He didn’t click at Marquette or North Carolina, and after transferring to his home-state program, the 6-11 forward was the best player (15.3 points, 6.7 rebounds per game) on a nine-win team a year ago. “He’s got more hunger than I’ve seen in a player in a long time,” Gophers coach Ben Johnson said. If he and his team have any chance of changing their narrative, Garcia must prove Johnson’s integrity and perform at a career-best level.
(Tyson Walker Top Photo: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)