Roster Moves Aplenty in the Big Ten
With the end of the academic year upon us, in college basketball that means that change is on the horizon. Whether it’s to transfer to another school or turn pro, a host of players across the country have made decisions regarding the next step in their respective careers. Add in the annual coaching carousel, and just about every program will be impacted in some way by the time next season begins. In the case of Maryland, the Terrapins have been active on the recruiting front since the end of the season.
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While Darryl Morsell and Bruno Fernando were already accounted for regarding next season, there’s still the question of where five-star guard M.J. Walker will play his college basketball next season. No decision’s been made by Walker to this point, but it isn’t as if Mark Turgeon and his staff are sitting around waiting for that news and not doing anything else. Last month Maryland landed a commitment from graduate transfer Sean Obi, who after a promising freshman season at Rice struggled with injuries throughout his three seasons (sitting one, eligible for two) at Duke.
For a Maryland team that had issues in the rebounding department last season, Obi could be a good addition if he’s healthy and producing at a level close to his 2013-14 campaign at Rice. during that season Obi averaged 11.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, shooting just over 59 percent from the field. In addition to the inconsistent rebounding, getting consistent scoring in the post was also a problem for Maryland last season. The additions of Obi — once again, if healthy — and Fernando can help the Terps in these areas, as they also welcome back Ivan Bender and Michal Cekovsky (redshirt Joshua Tomaic, too).
Maryland’s had a busy spring, but so have many other Big Ten programs. What have the other 13 teams been up to? Here are some thoughts on the top half of the league, working in alphabetical order.
The firing of John Groce as head coach led to the hiring of Brad Underwood, who made the move to Champaign-Urbana after spending one season at Oklahoma State. There was the prevailing feeling that Underwood, who’s made four straight NCAA tournaments (the first three at Stephen F. Austin) , was underpaid at Oklahoma State and the school’s lack of action on that front impacted his decision to move on. With six seniors from last season’s team, most notably Malcolm Hill and Tracy Abrams, out of eligibility the Fighting Illini have some holes to fill on the roster.
While Illinois was unable to hold onto Jeremiah Tilmon, guards Trent Frazier and DaMonte Williams decided to remain on board. Add in the signing of guard Mark Smith, and Illinois won’t lack for depth on the perimeter with Jalen Coleman-Lands leading the returnees. But the Fighting Illini are in a position where additional front court options are needed, and with three open scholarships for next season they’ve got room to address that need.
Like Illinois, Indiana went through a coaching change this spring as Tom Crean was replaced by Archie Miller. Miller was very successful at Dayton, with the Flyers being a consistent contender in the Atlantic 10 and an annual NCAA tournament team. Viewed as a rising star in college basketball, Miller is now at the helm of a program that desires to once again rank among the nation’s elite — and do so on an annual basis. While Miller was able to keep the three recruits who committed to IU when Crean was at the helm on board, he’s got at least one major hole to fill.
Sophomore big man Thomas Bryant made the decision to stay in the NBA Draft and hire an agent, which opens up more minutes for rising sophomore De’Ron Davis provided he do what needs to be done to earn those minutes. And given the other big men likely to be in the rotation, which includes incoming freshman Clifton Moore Jr., Indiana will need a much-improved Davis if they’re to be an NCAA tournament team. There’s also the James Blackmon Jr. question, as he’s going through the pre-Draft process but has not hired an agent. If Blackmon were to return for his senior season, the Hoosiers would have a primary scoring option with the likes of Davis and Robert Johnson being capable supplementary options.
The losses of Bryant and O.G. Anunoby, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, will have an impact but if they get Blackmon back Indiana can rebound from this season’s disappointment.
The Hawkeyes had just one senior on the roster last season, but in guard Peter Jok that “elder statesman” was a highly valuable player who led the Big Ten in scoring (19.9 ppg in all games). Brady Ellingson, Nicholas Baer, Jordan Bohannon and Cordell Pemsl all return, as does a power forward in Tyler Cook who could in time be an all-conference caliber player after showing promising signs as a freshman. Fran McCaffery also adds a three-player recruiting class that includes his son Connor, a 6-foot-6 guard who enjoyed a productive career at both the high school and grassroots (AAU) levels.
Compared to other Big Ten programs the offseason has been a relatively stable one for the Hawkeyes thus far. As has been the case in recent years for this team, making improvements on the defensive end of the floor will determine just how good Iowa can be. Losing Jok is a big deal; they’ll have to account for his production by committee as opposed to expecting one person to step forward. But this isn’t something that sets up as a debilitating blow to the Hawkeyes’ hopes of being an NCAA tournament team.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a program with as much roster turnover as Michigan, which lost to Oregon in a tight Sweet 16 battle in Kansas City. The Big Ten tournament champions knew that they’d be without Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin as both were in their final seasons of eligibility, and Mark Donnal (headed to Clemson) moving on as a grad transfer isn’t a major loss. However, both Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson are still navigating the NBA draft process. Should Wagner and Wilson both return to Ann Arbor next season, this is a team that could be in the mix behind early favorites Michigan State and Minnesota. Both are incredibly talented forwards who fit well into the offensive system that Beilein runs.
Michigan has some solid options on the perimeter, with Xavier Simpson taking over as the starting point guard with Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman returning as well. Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews will be eligible after sitting out last season, with freshmen Eli Brooks and Jordan Poole providing additional depth. In total Michigan adds three freshmen, with four-star forward Isaiah Livers completing the class. How much playing time Livers sees next season will depend upon the statuses of Wagner and Wilson, but he should factor into the rotation in some way. The same can be said for 6-foot-10 center Austin Davis, who redshirted last season and made progress throughout the year as a member of Michigan’s scout team.
Michigan’s hopes for next season hinge upon Wagner and Wilson’s respective decisions, but they won’t be a pushover even if both decide to move on to the pro ranks.
With Miles Bridges’ decision to return for his sophomore season, Michigan State became the early favorite to win the Big Ten in the eyes of many (Minnesota will have something to say about that). Tom Izzo will have to account for the losses of Eron Harris and Alvin Ellis III, but those are departures that the Spartans are more than equipped to address. Cassius Winston, Tum Tum Nairn, Josh Langford, Matt McQuaid and Kyle Ahrens join Bridges as the returnees at the three perimeter positions, so there’s plenty of depth on the perimeter. Michigan State appears to be on the periphery of the Brian Bowen recruitment (Creighton and DePaul, the latter recently hiring his coach at La Lumiere as an assistant, appear to be more likely destinations), but even if they don’t get Bowen the Spartans will be fine there.
The front court will be led by Nick Ward, with the key here being injuries. Both Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling, who missed all of last season due to knee injuries, can provide experience, and Kenny Goins was a contributor last season as well. Add in two talented newcomers in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Xavier Tillman, and Michigan State has options in the interior — and they can also play Bridges at the four in smaller lineups for stretches of time. After struggling with injuries last season, Michigan State has the tools needed to not only win the Big Ten but play well into March. They just need their main guys to stay healthy.
While Northwestern making the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history dominated the headlines within the Big Ten, the turnaround orchestrated by Richard Pitino at Minnesota was highly impressive as well. After winning just eight games in 2015-16, the Golden Gophers won 24 games last season and reached the NCAA tournament. And with just one key contributor from that team being a senior (guard Akeem Springs), Minnesota is well positioned to at minimum contend for the Big Ten title in 2017-18. Nate Mason, a first team all-Big Ten point guard last season, returns with Minnesota’s top four scorers from last season all expected back.
Amir Coffey, one of the conference’s top freshmen, has the look of a future first team all-conference selection, and Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer aren’t slouches either. Isaiah Washington and Jamir Harris will bolster the team’s perimeter depth, with the former being a point guard who’s game could very well make him a fan favorite for those who aren’t already familiar with his game (look up “Jelly Fam” on YouTube if you need a reference). Reggie Lynch will once again lead the way in the front court, and his progression will depend upon whether or not he can stay out of foul trouble.
The Big Ten’s best shot blocker last season, Lynch’s struggles with fouls put Minnesota in tough spots at various points in the season. Eric Curry and Bakary Konate will also be part of the front court rotation, and the same goes for Texas A&M transfer Davante Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was supposed to be available last season after sitting out 2015-16, but a torn ACL before the season began put him on the shelf. He played just under ten minutes per game as a sophomore at Texas A&M, but as a freshman he did average 7.3 ppg in 15.7 minutes per night. If Lynch can stay out of foul trouble consistently and the guards continue to make progress, Minnesota should be a Big Ten contender.
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