B1G basketball Media Days: Day 1 takeaways
Indiana is the pick to win the Big Ten in the preseason.
But the league has depth at the top — perhaps more so than last season or in recent years — with likely fellow challengers for the title including Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Iowa and Ohio State, and maybe others.
“It will be interesting to see who’s going to be there in the last week and a half of our league, because it’s a bear, man,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “You can have a really good team; doesn’t mean you’re going to be a really good road team. And the really good road team is normally the one that wins it.”
Coaches from 7 Big Ten schools took the podium at the Target Center in Minneapolis Tuesday morning — men’s and women’s bosses from Maryland, Indiana, Rutgers, Purdue, Illinois, Northwestern and Iowa — to talk about their teams on eve of the season.
Here are 5 takeaways from Day 1 of the B1G Media Days:
Indiana embracing front-runner status
After years of false starts in trying to get its national championship program back on track, Indiana will enter the season as the clear favorite in the Big Ten.
The Hoosiers are ranked No. 1 in the joint The Athletic/Columbus Dispatch preseason media poll, receiving 19 of a possible 28 1st-place votes. Second-place Illinois received 6, while 3 others — Michigan, Purdue and Iowa — each also picked up a 1st-place tally.
But most think IU will win the B1G, which would be its 1st regular-season title since 2016.
“It is what it is. It’s a part of the game,” said 2nd-year coach Mike Woodson of preseason predictions. “When I was in school as a player, I never bought into the rankings and what the media would say about our ball club. You still have to go out and play. Hell, my senior year (at IU) we were ranked No. 1 and didn’t get it done. At the end of the day, I guess it’s kind of nice for our players who haven’t experienced that. But you’ve got to prove it on the basketball floor, that’s when it counts.”
Last season, the Hoosiers finished 21-14 overall, 9-11 in the Big Ten, and played in their 1st NCAA Tournament since 2016, winning a game in the First Four before losing to St. Mary’s in the 1st Round. Indiana has reason to think it can make an even bigger jump, with more than 78 percent of its minutes returning from last season, including preseason B1G Player of the Year Trayce Jackson-Davis, front-court running mate Race Thompson, point guard Xavier Johnson and a potentially impactful freshman class that includes 5-star Jalen Hood-Schifino.
But the centerpiece is Jackson-Davis, who decided to return to Bloomington for a final season, looking not only to help the Hoosiers take another step forward but to do so while expanding his own game to make himself a more natural fit for the NBA.
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“I just got to get him to the next level, to the point where if we handle our business in terms of winning, I think everything else will take care of itself,” Woodson said. “He’s really put a lot of work in this summer, shooting the midrange, the 3-point shot. I’ve never been one to tell him not to shoot it. I think in the game he’s just got to figure out when is the right time to take the shot.”
Purdue front-court heavy
Purdue coach Matt Painter thought the Boilermakers’ talent level outpaced its results last season. And that was a scenario that led Purdue to fail to meet lofty expectations.
“I think that’s the key for a coach, to be able to get his team more productive than its talent,” Painter said.
“I think Coach (Gene) Keady was marvelous at that with his team and the program at Purdue for 25 years. We’ve really tried to take that blueprint. Last year I just didn’t feel like even though we won 29 games, went to a Sweet 16, we didn’t quite get to that point. I think that from a coaching standpoint I’ve got to be better for us, be better for our guys. Hopefully we can do that this year.”
Painter will have an interesting mix this season, with a veteran front court led by 7-4 big man Zach Edey, but an inexperienced backcourt. Although Painter touted freshman Braden Smith, telling media that they too would soon wonder why the Indiana Mr. Basketball wasn’t a top-100 recruit, the coach thinks the Boilermakers will have to play the point by committee. The addition of Utah combo guard David Jenkins Jr. will help, as will freshman Fletcher Loyer.
“That’s your question, that’s our question,” Painter said of PG. “Really the youth is more of our question than anything in that backcourt. We have a lot of really good players, but they haven’t played together. We have some true freshmen that are going to play right away.”
Reload for the Illini
Illinois might make a run at a 2nd-straight Big Ten regular-season title, but if the Fighting Illini do so, it’ll be with a far different team than a season ago.
Gone are Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams, among others. Instead, Brad Underwood’s group has 8 new scholarship players this season, including Big 12 transfers Terrence Shannon Jr. (Texas Tech) and Matthew Mayer (Baylor) and 4 4-star freshmen, featuring guards Skyy Clark (the 33rd prospect in ’22, per 247sports), Jayden Epps (72) and Sencire Harris (109) and forward Ty Rodgers (53).
“I love our freshmen,” Underwood said. “I’m excited about what they bring. We’ve got four that I think can all help and contribute. We’ll see how that manifests itself over time.
“They’ll need some help. There’s going to be some adversity. There’s going to be some speed bumps. We accept that. That’s part of growth. Yet they’re pretty tough-minded individuals. They’re going to have to learn on the fly.”
Still, Underwood thinks the pieces can come together. If so, Illinois will seek a repeat Big Ten regular-season title, after having gone since 2005 without one.
“I love our personnel,” he said. “I think we’re as talented as we have been. It just looks different. We’ve got position-less size. I think that’s one of the things that I enjoy. It’s about taking advantage of mismatches.”
Rutgers goes for 3
Scarlet Knights coach Steve Pikiell has enough of his nucleus back for 2022-23 that he thinks Rutgers can make another run at an NCAA Tournament.
But it’ll be a different look. Rutgers has graduated Gio Baker and Ron Harper Jr., 2 of the stalwarts from Pikiell’s rebuild of the program. Still, defensive standout Caleb McConnell, point guard Paul Mulcahy and center Clifford Omoruyi return as quality pieces from a team that finished 18-14 overall last season, including 12-8 in the Big Ten, and was in its 2nd straight NCAA Tournament.
“Caleb has helped grow the program from when we weren’t in the NCAA tournament, now to have the opportunity to go three straight times, which has never been done in school history,” Pikiell said. “If you want to tack on the Covid year (in which the tournament was canceled), that was a year we were going (to be selected), too.
“We’re doing some new things with Rutgers basketball. It’s a credit to the players.”
Can Kris be Keegan?
Keegan Murray is off to the NBA.
But that leaves identical twin Kris Murray to take on more of the load this season for Iowa. Last year, Keegan Murray averaged 23.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, while Kris was at 9.7 and 4.3, respectively. But both being about the same size and stature — 6-8, 225 pounds — they frequently played the same position, aside from the instances when Iowa went to its smaller lineup. And that meant the more advanced Keegan averaged about 31 minutes per game; Kris 17.
Now, Kris Murray might be freed up. Could he face pressure, because he’s filling the shoes of a star who was picked No. 4 overall by the Sacramento Kings?
“I think that’s a fair assessment, but I don’t think it’s true,” McCaffery said. “If you’re around these two guys, they’re different. Their games are different. Their personalities are different. Kris is really a confident guy. Kris is probably more verbal than Keegan was.
“I kind of wish he could just be himself and not continually be asked that same question. He’s a completely different human being. They just look alike. If Aaron White was replacing Keegan Murray, we wouldn’t be asking these questions. (But like) I said, it’s a fair question. They look alike. Keegan was so spectacular, I think obviously it’s something we all hope that Kris puts up those kind of numbers, and he may, but he may not.
“I can tell you this, he’s going to be really good. I do feel like he’s going to end up being a first-round pick.”