Media days are a great chance to not only learn about players and coaches as individuals, but also to get a glimpse at what they think of their team for that upcoming season. After all, nobody knows a team like those who are a part of preseason prep in practice day after day.
With Big Ten men’s basketball teams ready to tip off the 2023-24 season on Monday – including the first game in Peacock’s slate, featuring a New Jersey matchup between Rutgers and Princeton – here’s a blurb from each team that previews its season to come:
Fifth-year guard Terrence Shannon Jr.: “I feel like we just got to be more consistent. I feel like already this year we're more together where everyone's buying into their role and in practices is going well. We got a motto: No bad practices. And if we keep stacking days, I feel like we'll be there. We'd be in the number one spot.”
Shannon is right, consistency is the key for the Illini. Last year, they had win streaks of three and four games in conference play and yet finished tied for fifth in the Big Ten at 11-9. Head coach Brad Underwood is excited about the increased experience on this year’s team, which features returners Shannon and Coleman Hawkins. That bodes well for a team that can ride out Big Ten play more smoothly.
Head coach Mike Woodson: “The next step is winning a Big Ten title, a national title. I mean that's what I came back for. I wouldn't have taken any other college job. I've spent 34 years of my life -- over half my life -- in the NBA, and to be able to come back home and get this job, it means the world to me. So the only thing left for me to do now is to try to win a Big Ten title and a national title, and that's the only thing I'm preaching and pushing for.”
It's been a while since the Hoosiers were worthy of true contender status, but 2022-23 was a step in the right direction. After bowing out of both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments in two games, Indiana is tasked with applying the success it had en route to tying for second place in the conference to the postseason, all while replacing four starters. Those are the ropes when you set your sights on college basketball’s highest prize.
Head coach Fran McCaffery: “We're going to play fast, but we play fast, we don't play nuts. So we push it on makes and misses. We attack. My guys play with a free and clear mind. I don't micromanage them. Trust your talent, go make plays, move and share the ball, but we're going to keep coming. We're going to try to score in the nineties and don't apologize for it. High-possession game, we might give up a lot of points. Hopefully we'll score more.”
The Hawkeyes haven’t ranked outside the top five in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency stat since 2018-19, which shows you McCaffery isn’t kidding around about that offensive philosophy. The question is, who will do all that scoring with Kris Murray and Filip Rebraca out the door? This show belongs to guards Tony Perkins and Payton Sandfort, now.
Junior forward Julian Reese: “What part of your game went to another level this offseason?”
Fifth-year guard Jahmir Young: “Probably not on the court, but probably my leadership, just communication. Just having a year under my belt with Willard, just knowing the system. So definitely that.”
Reese: “I say the same thing, stepping into that upperclassman role and being a leader.”
Reese and Young were two of the players Willard pointed to as those who took it upon themselves to “put Maryland back on the map” in Willard’s first season coaching the team. They’re also the two players in whom Willard indicated he’d seen major development entering this season. It’s a team effort no doubt, but Reese and Young will be at the forefront of whatever steps Maryland takes to advance in the Big Ten.
Head coach Tom Izzo: “Last week Magic [Johnson] was in town, Draymond [Green] or three weeks ago and Steve Smith met the team, and those are the guys that kind of built the different eras. And when somebody asked the question about is there a little more pressure on this team because [it’s] picked higher, they all answered right away: That's the way it's supposed to be. That's what you built. You shouldn't run from that. You should embrace it.”
It’s hard not to feel the burden of history and the accompanying expectations at Michigan State, especially with Izzo manning the sideline. The good news is two-fold: One, Izzo knows better than anyone how to coach a team facing that pressure; two, the Spartans have the experience to handle it behind Tyson Walker, Malik Hall, A.J. Hoggard and Jaden Akins, all in the junior class or higher.
Graduate student guard Nimari Burnett on what he has learned about his teammates: “I have learned that they are very hungry. The returners are hungry from what happened last year, and the new guys, transfers have similar journeys that I have, so we all have that similar hunger and we're excited to do it together. And that's what I love about this team, and I love the personalities and how well we mesh.”
The Wolverines have plenty of production to replace with Hunter Dickinson, Kobe Bufkin and Jett Howard out the door, but that might be a good thing after a shaky 2022-23. Burnett, coming from Alabama, joins former Tennessee forward Olivier Nkamhoua as transfers looking to get Michigan back on stable footing. We’ll see if they have the talent to make a major push in the Big Ten.
Head coach Ben Johnson: “Our guys got true legit minutes. Some games they started, but our guys got at minimum 20 minutes a game throughout the year. And so with that you have a true experience and a true feel of Big Ten at this level. What it takes, how hard the competition is, how detailed you have to be with scouting report, all the little stuff that they were able to be exposed to and thrown to the fire, I think is the greatest teacher. And so now you have three of 'em as sophomores and they're almost like upperclassmen [as] sophomores. They're juniors in a lot of ways where the anxiety of not knowing or the unknown is gone.”
The three sophomores Johnson is referring to are Pharrel Payne, Braeden Carrington and Joshua Ola-Joseph, and if it’s possible to have a collective X factor, they’re it. Minnesota has Dawson Garcia and Pepperdine transfer Mike Mitchell Jr. to run the bulk of offense; they need the three sophomores to turn their taste of the Big Ten into reliable minutes. If they can do that, the Golden Gophers may move out of the conference’s basement.
Head coach Fred Hoiberg: “One thing I was really proud of with last year's group is just how they fought through the adversity, and I think we've got a similar group this year. They've got a great makeup to 'em. They come in and compete every day in practice. So the culture is where it needs to be right now.”
The Cornhuskers managed their most conference wins since 2017-18 last season with nine. Hoiberg finally saw some traction in his fourth season. Now that the dark cloud over the program has started to clear up, Nebraska can’t be satisfied. They were .500 overall in 2022-23, so now it’s time to get over the hump of being a winning team. A group of fighters is exactly what a program needs when trying to progress year over year.
Head coach Chris Collins: “I think just the belief in the buy-in from the guys. It's like anything as a coach you can say, ‘I want to do this,’ or ‘I want to play this way.’ If the guys don't fully embrace that, it's not going to work. And we brought a few different things with our scheme, and we tried to get a little bit more aggressive to get some more turnovers, maybe get out in the open floor, and it seemed to really work for us and our guys really bought in and embraced it. Hopefully that can be a continued part of our identity going forward.”
The Wildcats shocked everyone on the way to their best Big Ten season since the 1930s last season. They won’t be sneaking up on anyone this season, but with star guard Boo Buie among the key returners, they’ll be ready. With more buy-in from the players and more well-timed adjustments from Collins, Northwestern has the chance to make more major noise in 2023-24.
Head coach Chris Holtmann: “For us there's real value when you can go through a year like that that many of us hadn't experienced and yet have guys that went through that return. I think there's real benefit. That's the way it used to work as you know in college basketball is you would have guys that maybe had some struggles and then they'd get better because they went through those experiences together. So for us, we have three sophomores returning who were critical for us, who were freshmen last year who went to, we got real scar tissue. There's no question. We had real scar tissue and I think we had some really good moments towards the end of the year.”
Needless to say, Chris Holtmann is not used to seasons like the Buckeyes’ 16-19 campaign a year ago. It was the first time in his six seasons in Columbus that the team failed to win 20 games, never mind posting a losing record. Now though an inexperienced team becomes a tested one, with Minnesota transfer Jamison Battle forming a senior forward duo with Zed Key and guards Bruce Thornton and Dale Bonner having a year under their belts.
Head coach Mike Rhoades on bringing his style to the Big Ten: “That's been the question of the year for me: Can you do that in the Big Ten? Can you do that at Penn State? Well, we're going to give it a try. So I've been saying we're going to be bold and be different and doing that, we got to be very aggressive trying to be bold and different… I really believe if we try to play quarter-court offense and quarter-court defense, the word I use is we'll get bludgeoned.”
Rhoades’ VCU teams hung their hat on defense, making the top 15 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric each of the past three seasons. The Nittany Lions may be facing a total overhaul while trying to replace their top six (!!!) minutes-getters from last season, but a coach who can get his players to defend can speed up turnarounds. There’s enough experience to make it happen.
Senior center Zach Edey on upset loss to Fairleigh Dickinson in NCAA Tournament: “Just naturally, we have a lot of guys, even freshmen, that worked their asses off before that game even happened and that game happened. Now you just have a lot of stuff. You see a lot of stuff out there on the Internet [that] makes you want to work a little harder, show them that they're wrong, but at the end of the day, we have a lot of guys that just want to get better just to get better.”
In 2017-18, Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The next year, the Cavaliers won it all. There’s a reason you don’t hear that much about what a failure that Virginia team was. Those are the stakes for Purdue: It’s national title or bust, and pride is on the line. Go out and prove those naysayers wrong, or the Boilermakers will keep hearing plenty from the internet.
Head coach Steve Pikiell: Our goal since eight years ago [when] I took over, when we were picked 14th was to win a national championship, and this is the league that we can do that in. If you can compete in this league, you can compete for that. We were in the Final Four in 75… We want to get back to that level. And I talked about it eight years ago. People said, ‘Oh, this guy's lost his mind.’ And now we're getting closer, and I think this year's group is going to be a hungry group. We're going to be a little different. We're much better offensively, but we still got a little bit of that Jersey grit.”
Going from being denied entry to the NCAA Tournament to national champions does seem like a far-fetched leap to make, but that’s the Jersey grit Pikiell is talking about, right? Still, there’s development to be had without jumping all the way to a championship. The Scarlet Knights have never broken 70 points per game in any of Pikiell’s seven seasons; following through on the promise of progress there would be a great start.
Junior guard Chucky Hepburn when asked to preview the season: “Oh, we're going to keep it a secret. Let the Big Ten find out.”
Sophomore guard Connor Essegian: “I like that. I like that. They'll see what's coming for sure.”
The Badgers stumbled in Big Ten play a season ago and ended up making a run to the NIT semifinal. All in all, it was a quiet run to a 20-15 record despite the 15th-ranked strength of schedule in the country, and they seem happy to let it stay that way. Essegian and Hepburn are a year older, 7-footer Steven Crowl is back and Wisconsin profiles to have an elite defense. All the pieces are in place to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
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