As the 2016-17 basketball season approaches, Land of 10 spoke to players at Big Ten media day on Oct. 13 and asked for their thoughts on the forthcoming campaign. The players were granted anonymity and had only one rule: they could not vote for their team nor anyone on it.
The Big Ten is expected to be one of the deepest conferences in the nation in 2016-17, with several programs hoping for a big step forward to join an already-bustling group of NCAA Tournament-quality teams.
Trying to find some upward mobility can be tough in a conference filled with great coaches and veteran-laden rosters. For a team like Ohio State, that means figuring out how to return to national prominence after winning just one NCAA Tournament game in the past three seasons.
For a team like Penn State or Nebraska, just returning to the NCAA Tournament would be a huge accomplishment. Northwestern continues to search for its first NCAA berth in program history. For Minnesota and Rutgers, a four- to five-win improvement from last season wouldn’t mean NCAA consideration, but would be a first step in that direction after a long 2015-16 season.
We asked various players at Big Ten media day last week in Washington, D.C., which team, beside their own, they expect to make a move up the standings. Eight players responded and four different teams earned votes.
WHICH WILL BE THE SURPRISE TEAM?
1. Penn State Nittany Lions (4 votes)
The Nittany Lions haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2001 and have finished above sixth in the Big Ten just once since 1995-96 — and that was a four-way tie for fourth in 2010-11. There was an NIT championship in 2009, but that was the only above-.500 record in conference play in the past 20 years.
Penn State finished last season 7-11 in the Big Ten, but there are reasons to believe the Nittany Lions could flip that record around and reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
Penn State brings back six players who averaged at least 14 minutes per game in conference play, and will add the fourth-best recruiting class in the Big Ten. The freshmen include two top-100 players nationally, Tony Carr and Lamar Stephens, and coach Patrick Chambers wants his team to play much faster with a deeper, more-talented roster.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes (2)
The Buckeyes landed the top recruiting class in the conference and a top-5 group nationally before last season, but four-fifths of that class has transferred from the program. Ohio State still has a solid core of veteran players and adds top-100 recruit Derek Funderburk. The hiatus from the NCAA Tournament could end after one season.
T-3. Minnesota Golden Gophers (1)
The Golden Gophers have gone backwards in conference wins each of Richard Pitino’s three seasons. They’ve gone from 8-10 in the conference and winning the NIT in 2013-14 to winning three games after Dec. 1 last season during a miserable 8-23 (2-16 Big Ten) campaign.
Minnesota has improved its recruiting each of the past three seasons, and the Golden Gophers have the fifth-best class of newcomers joining the team in 2016-17. Pitino could begin to turn that talent into more victories this season.
T-3. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (1)
The Scarlet Knights haven’t finished above .500 in conference play since 1990-91, which happens to be the last time they reached the NCAA Tournament. It was also three conferences ago, when they were in the Atlantic 10.
New coach Steve Pikiell has a huge challenge in front of him. Rutgers has won three conference games in two seasons since joining the Big Ten, and has yet to win one away from home. Pikiell turned Stony Brook into an annual contender for an NCAA berth, going 88-24 in America East play the past seven seasons with four regular-season conference titles.
— Alex Putterman contributed to this report.