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Five observations from Day 1 of Big Ten basketball media days

From the Check out the State Journal's complete coverage of Big Ten basketball media days series
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The most talked about topics on the first day of Big Ten basketball media days covered recent NCAA rulings and the prowess of the Big Ten.

Coaches and players talked for almost six hours Thursday and touched a variety of topics. Here are five that stood out.

Strength of women's game 

The Big Ten sent seven teams to last season’s women’s basketball NCAA Tournament, tying a conference record for most bids in a season set in 2012 and 2015. Four teams made it to the Sweet 16 to break the previous conference record of three teams that occured in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2009.

The conference has three teams in the NCAA preseason Power 10 rankings and returns about 70% of its players league wide. 

At least half of the coaches who spoke on the first day of media day said that “Big Ten basketball is at its best.”

There’s a mix of young, up-and-coming coaches and veteran ones, too. There’s seven All-American players returning to a Big Ten roster. The 2021 Big Ten Player of the Year Naz Hillmon returns as does Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, Maryland’s Ashley Owusu and Michigan’s Leigha Brown.

“I know it's sounding like a worn out statement because I think we're all saying the same thing,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “But Big Ten women's basketball is better than ever. Our conference has so much to be excited about coming off of the success of last year. I honestly believe it's easier to be in the Sweet 16 than it is to win the Big Ten championship.”

High performing big men

The Wolverines center speaks to the media Thursday during Big Ten basketball media days in Indianapolis.

Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn, Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson and Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell all received votes for player of the year in the media preseason poll. They were three of the most asked about players in Thursday’s media session. 

Just to give you a glimpse from last season: Cockburn averaged 17.7 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Dickinson averaged 14.1 points and 7.4 rebounds, while Liddell averaged 16.2 points and 6.7 rebounds.

Dickinson said Cockburn is the most difficult person to defend in the Big Ten. Michigan coach Juwan Howard said Liddell is definitely on his players to watch list. 

Cockburn’s return to Illinois in the offseason was one of the most anticipated decisions this summer. He was voted preseason player of the year, and Illinois coach Brad Underwood said he’s only gotten better.

Underwood isn’t worried about Cockburn’s challengers in the nonconference, but the Big Ten is another story.

“If you look at the bigs in our league, this is a league that has second to none in the quality of bigs,” Underwood said. “Teams do try to take him out a little bit. I think people don't realize how gifted Kofi is athletically.”

Offseason focus on roster management

The NCAA changed a transfer rule in April that allows athletes in men’s basketball to change schools once during their undergraduate careers without having to sit out for a season. This new ruling changed the transfer portal and roster management that many Big Ten coaches didn’t anticipate. 

More than 2,000 players entered the transfer portal following the completion of the 2020-21 season. Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said it’s not going away and creates a balancing act when figuring out scholarship spots. 

“I do think what it's going to contribute to are teams that are a little bit older, a little bit more experienced,” Turgeon said.”I think you'll see less programs recruit freshmen every year. I think you'll see more teams that will wait until the spring. It does probably allow you to potentially rebuild quicker than maybe what the traditional way used to be for certain programs.”

Ohio State coach Chris Holtman said he will have to have constant communication with his players and continually recruit them even after they’re on the roster to make sure they stick around. 

This wasn’t something coaches 20 years ago would have to worry about, but it’s a new challenge with the new transfer rules.

Underwood is just one of many coaches who benefited from the new rule. Illinois added Florida transfer Omar Payne when the team wasn’t sure if Cockburn would return. The Illini now have two dominant big men taller than 6-foot-10 who can run the center position. 

Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg also added a transfer in Alanzo Verge Jr. 

“It's really how we built our program,” Hoiberg said. “It's just a way we were able to increase the talent on our roster and get it turned over very quickly. You're going to see that a lot. I think what we have now is a very good mix of transfer, older and younger players.”

Name, image and likeness effect 

The NCAA gave college athletes the opportunity to benefit from their name, image and likeness this summer. Basketball is one of the most watched collegiate sports, giving many student-athletes a way to develop their own brand. 

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said NIL is a big reason why the conference decided to have joint men’s and women’s media days. He wanted the players to be able to get on the same stage as other fellow athletes, share their stories and promote themselves. 

Ohio State women’s basketball coach Kevin McGuff said players in both the men’s and women’s programs have had success making deals. They’ve been able to capitalize on their location and the buzz around Ohio State athletics. 

“We're at a great position at The Ohio State University, the city of Columbus, which is a great market for this and a city that supports not only Ohio State, but specifically they support women's athletics,” McGuff said. “We have a lot of powerful female business owners in the city who are ready to get behind some of this stuff.”

Rutgers women’s basketball associate head coach Tim Eatman said some Scarlet Knights players have utilized their proximity to New York to get deals. 

Iowa’s Caitlin Clark helped Team USA win its third gold medal in the FIBA U19 world cup and she’s benefited heavily from the new NIL ruling. It has been a bit of a challenge considering how new the ruling is. 

“I think she has a great supportive team around her to help her with that situation,” Bluder said. “We're proud of the fact that one of our players is so sought after for the NIL. We think that's a tremendous thing for our program.”

Commissioner puts focus on inclusivity 

Warren opened Big Ten basketball media days with a speech centered around his and the conference’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. 

He talked mostly about women’s sports equality — which you can read about here — but also touched on areas of race and mental health. 

Five new basketball coaches were hired this past offseason and four of the five are people of color — Penn State’s Micah Shrewsberry, Minnesota’s Ben Johnson, Indiana’s Mike Woodson and the University of Wisconsin’s Marisa Moseley. Warren said their hiring shows the Big Ten’s inclusivity not only from a gender perspective, but “color and opportunity” standpoint.

He said the same type of diversity is present in senior leadership among the Big Ten. Eight of 14 chancellors or presidents at member institutions are women or men of color. There are also five black men and one woman who serve as athletic directors in the Big Ten. 

Warren also announced the hiring Dr. Jim Borcher as the first-ever Big Ten Conference Chief Medical Officer. Warren said the COVID-19 pandemic helped point out areas that the Big Ten can improve upon in bettering its student athletes’ health from both a mental and a physical standpoint, and Borchers now will lead that charge. 

“We will continually be leaders in the industry to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, from a race standpoint, a gender standpoint, and sexual orientation,” Warren said. “We will create an environment that's inclusive and will empower every person to have an opportunity to be successful in the Big Ten Conference.”

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