ROSEMONT — Illinois coach John Groce was the first coach to take the dais at the Hyatt Regency for Big Ten media day, and the second-year coach answered a variety of questions from the assembled media. It wasn’t all he had planned for the day, however.
After the question-and-answer sessions and the one-on-ones with BTN and ESPN, Groce and assistant Paris Parham made their way to the South Side to make one more visit with prized recruiting target Cliff Alexander.
Groce isn’t permitted to speak about Alexander specifically, but he was asked about his recruiting efforts in keeping top Chicago talent, like Alexander, a consensus top-five player in the country, from leaving the state.
Alexander, who made an official visit to the UI campus during the weekend, also is considering DePaul, Kansas, Memphis and Michigan State.
“Chicago is a really, really important city for us because it’s in our state; we have a great state,” Groce said. “California and New York, I believe, are the only two states that have turned out more professional basketball players than the state of Illinois. We have a very talent-rich state.”
Should he choose Illinois, Alexander would be the highest-rated recruit from the Chicago Public League to pick the Illini since Marcus Liberty chose Lou Henson’s program over Syracuse in 1987.
“It’s one of the things that makes Illinois a great job, that our state is so strong and we want to do a great job in our state. Chicago being very, very important as well as the other cities and towns in our state. We take pride in basketball in the state of Illinois.”
Northwestern coach Chris Collins also is trying to make a recruiting push in Chicago. A former All-Stater from north suburban Northbrook, Collins already has secured a commitment from 2014 four-star forward Vic Law from St. Rita during his first few months on the job.
“I know I’m biased, being from this area, but I’ve always felt like the Chicago area and the state of Illinois is the best stop for basketball in the country,” the first-year coach said. “If you look at the numbers, the amount of Division I players that come out of our state every year, but not only Illinois, I think all across the Midwest.”
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Tom Izzo has suffered some big-time recruiting losses in the Chicago area in the last few years. After spending years trying to woo Simeon’s Jabari Parker, the McDonald’s All-American chose Duke, where he soon will begin his freshman season.
Izzo also went all in on Whitney Young’s Jahlil Okafor and Marian Catholic’s Tyler Ulis. Ulis chose Kentucky, and Okafor doesn’t have Michigan State on his final list of four. Alexander listed the Spartans in his top five but didn’t grant them an official visit, and it appears unlikely he’ll wind up in East Lansing.
Izzo was asked about the challenges of recruiting Chicago, and he tried his best to remain politically correct.
“I don’t want to get slapped by somebody for saying the wrong thing as far as talking about recruiting. A lot of good players, a lot of coaches and good players. There’s a lot of middlemen,” he said.
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While Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State were getting the bulk of the attention, hardly anyone outside the media within the state was paying any attention to Illinois. Groce’s club was tabbed to finish eighth in the league in a poll of conference beat writers, and not a single player was even nominated for any preseason recognition.
Fine by the Illini.
“We can’t worry about that or who’s talking about us or not,” fifth-year senior Joseph Bertrand said. “We know what we’ve got to do. We practice every day just like everybody else. We’re going to work just as hard or harder than everybody else, and whatever happens, we’re going to go out there and play our best.”
Groce likes to talk about the chip he carries on his shoulder daily. He likes for his players to carry one, too.
“Last year’s team I thought played with a chip, I think it’s important — play with an edge to you,” Groce said. “Those guys have pride. Joe has pride. Tracy (Abrams) has pride, Nnanna (Egwu) has pride, (Mike) LaTulip has pride, (Rayvonte) Rice has pride, and obviously our nine new guys are starting to figure what this is all about,” Groce said. “Those guys don’t want any excuses. They want to find a way to get back into that tournament; that’s the expectation every year. Are we there yet? Not even close, we’ve got a long way to go. It’s a long season, it’s early. I do feel like we’re getting better every day.”
There’s one question you can ask Abrams that will get under his skin more than any, and the Illinois junior point guard was asked it plenty Thursday.
“I hate one question: ‘Is this a rebuilding year?’ ” he said. “No, we’re all competitors, why is this a rebuilding year? That’s one question that just (bothers me).”
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The Spartans, despite what is perceived to be recruiting failures in Chicago, continue to thrive as a program. While most programs strive to make the NCAA tournament and consistently make deep runs in the Dance, the expectation at Michigan State is to reach Final Fours. The Spartans haven’t been since 2010. That’s fine in some programs, but not there, where no four-year senior has ever failed to reach at least one national semifinal under Izzo.
There are big expectations for the team picked as the unanimous favorite to win the conference, but they seem to be handling the pressure well.
“Those are just preseason awards. At the end of the day, we have to go out there and play the same game. Nothing’s going to be given to us as a team or individually,” said sophomore guard Gary Harris, the Big Ten preseason Player of the Year. “It’s going to be up to us to go out there and play the game the way we know how to play and hopefully let the rest take care of itself.”
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Aaron Craft knew the questions were coming, and the Ohio State point guard couldn’t count the number of times he had answered with poise and candor how he was going to be affected by the new rule changes limiting the amount of contact defenders can have with ball handlers on the perimeter.
“I think I’ll be fine. I’m excited for the challenge,” the former Big Ten defensive Player of the Year said. “There’s a lot of people out there that think I can’t guard without using my hands — I don’t think I use my hands that much anyway. As a team we’ve had to adjust and find ways to get around it. We’ll figure it out and it’ll be fun.”
The senior point guard, considered to be one of the top defenders in the country, was named to the preseason All-Big Ten team and in a poll of media covering the league was named the preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
The new rules prohibit placing and keeping a hand or forearm on an opponent; putting two hands on an opponent; continually jabbing by placing a hand or forearm on an opponent and using an arm bar to impede the progress of a dribbler.
These rules were all put in place to force defenders to use their feet, take away some of the physicalness and allow freedom of movement for the offensive players to create more scoring.
“From what I’ve seen thus far, I don’t think it’s going to affect him,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “I think if they stay with what they are saying, it’s going to affect bad defenders because they can’t move their feet as well. I say that in the most complimentary way for Aaron because I think the thing he does better than anybody in the country is move his feet.”
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Michigan big man Mitch McGary was named to the preseason All-Big Ten team just a few months after he turned down a chance to enter the NBA draft following a stellar freshman campaign in which he helped lead the Wolverines to the national championship game.
The 6-foot-10, 255-pounder got some feedback from NBA personnel and knows what it will take for him to get to a position where being a lottery pick will be a near lock.
“They told me I need to work on my low-post, back-to-the-basket game. They said me running the floor is wonderful for a guy my size to run that well,” he said. “Just work on my low-post game, have a couple go-to moves and a counter for each in the post. I need to work a lot more on my footwork. I knew that. Just keep up the high-energy guy that I am and keep doing what I’m doing.”
His sophomore season might get off to a bit of a late start. McGary has been plagued by a bad back. Team doctors have not cleared him to play yet and he’s likely to miss at least a few games to start the season. He’s optimistic he’ll return.
“I’m feeling great. I knew this question was going to come up 100 times. I feel great. I haven’t felt this good in a while and I’m ready to get back,” he said. “I don’t have a timetable. Right now it’s just rest and be cautious. The coaches and team realize they don’t need me these first couple of games. When I come back, I will be 100 percent.”
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Coming off an appearance in the NIT championship game, expectations are relatively high for Iowa entering the 2013-14 season. Fran McCaffery’s squad was picked by writers to finish fifth in the league, even collecting two second-place votes from a 24-person panel. The Hawkeyes haven’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2006, and that’s the main goal for this season.
“We have to realize we’ve yet to make the NCAA tournament. We shouldn’t have any problems getting motivated or being complacent thinking we’re a team on the rise and people are expecting us to do great things,” forward Melsahn Basabe said. “We haven’t achieved true high-level greatness yet. That should be the goal that we need to prove that we’re capable of doing what people think we are.”
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To some it might be ugly, but as long as they keep winning basketball games at Wisconsin, Ben Brust doesn’t care how it’s done.
Brust has heard all the negative comments about the Badgers’ style of play, but in Bo Ryan’s 12 years in Madison, Wisconsin has never failed to finish lower than fourth in the Big Ten standings.
“I hear it all the time, but when you’re out there it’s not boring,” he said. “I’m trying to cut hard and open up a teammate. Whatever anyone thinks about the style of play is what they think. I just want to win a basketball game.”
The Badgers will be a little more fun for those bored fans to watch this year with the return of guard Josh Gasser, who missed last season with a torn ACL. In Gasser’s absence, Traevon Jackson and Brust emerged as frontline Big Ten guards and all three figure to be in the starting lineup together this season.
“It’s fun because we’ve got three guys where if one guy gets it the other two run. Hopefully we’re tough to guard,” Brust said. “We’re just trying to get out there and use these practices to learn to play with all the teammates who might not have as much experience, get to know each other’s tendencies. It’s going to be fun.
“(Gasser) is coming along and it’s fun to see Josh make those moves he made pre-injury and it’s like ‘Hey, there’s the Josh that I remember.’ ”
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Penn State guard Tim Frazier is watching with anticipation on how Kobe Bryant fares in his return from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. Frazier isn’t a big Lakers fan, but he did just go through what Bryant is going through now after tearing his Achilles early in the 2012-13 season, forcing him to sit out and take a medical redshirt.
Now the senior is back and ready to return to his old form that saw him average 18.8 points as a junior en route to being named first-team All-Big Ten.
“Sitting out was tough. But my coaches, teammates and family have done a tremendous job of staying with me throughout that whole time. I’ve improved. I’m 100 percent now, and I’m using that year as motivation to come back out and keep playing hard,” he said. “Of course, doubts run through my mind, but stepping out on the court, I feel comfortable where I’m at in comparison to where I was this time last year, if not better. You have to go out there and do it, and the Europe trip helped me figure that out, getting on the court and playing.”
As the basketball bounces
Here are three main talking points that basketball beat writer Marcus Jackson picked up at Big Ten media day on Thursday at the Hyatt Regency in Rosemont:
Harris garners praise
Tom Izzo has coached some great guards at Michigan State: Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, Shannon Brown and Kalin Lucas to name a few. But the dean of Big Ten coaches said Thursday that the preseason Player of the Year in the conference, Gary Harris, might go down as his best ever. “That’s an honor. I don’t feel like I’m any way comparable to some of the great guards we’ve had at this school,” Harris, a sophomore, said. “For Coach to mention that is an honor in itself, but I still have a long way to go, in my opinion.” The Spartans, who enter the season ranked second in the initial Associated Press poll, were picked as the unanimous favorites to win the league.
Another B1G challenge
Considered the best conference in the country last season, this year’s version might be better. In addition to No. 2 Michigan State, Michigan (No. 7), Ohio State (11) and Wisconsin (20) open the season ranked with Indiana and Iowa receiving votes. It’s at the bottom where the depth is evident. “Penn State got better as the year went on last year; they beat Michigan late in the year. Tim Frazier wasn’t even playing on that team, he’s back. Drew Crawford wasn’t on Northwestern last year, he’s back. (Josh) Gasser wasn’t even on Wisconsin last year, he’s back,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “Nebraska’s going to get better; Tim (Miles) has done a great job recruiting and his kids were battling last year; won a couple of games late last year. They beat Minnesota on the road, that’s hard to do, Minnesota was good. Those teams that were at the bottom of the standings, they’ve all gotten better.”
Miles of laughs
As he did last year, Nebraska coach Tim Miles stole the show with his sense of humor. The second-year coach opened by noting his team was picked to finish 12th in a poll of 24 conference beat writers. “I came home to talk to my wife and she said, ‘Why aren’t you out recruiting?’ “ Miles said. “Getting no slack at home.” Miles has had his players in the weightroom for daily workouts as early as 5:30 a.m. “I was up at 5:30, but I was running to the can, that’s about it,” Miles said. He pointed out the great things happening in Cornhuskers athletics — including women’s bowling. “We won the bowling deal, I watched that on ESPN, I was going nuts. We were good at bowling,” he said. “It’s time for men’s basketball to do our part.”
The envelope, please
The Big Ten announced its top three men’s basketball teams and individual honors at Thursday’s shindig:
1. Michigan State
3. Ohio State
PRESEASON ALL-BIG TEN
Mitch McGary, Michigan
Glenn Robinson III, Michigan
Gary Harris, Michigan State
Adreian Payne, Michigan State
Aaron Craft, Ohio State
Tim Frazier, Penn State
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Gary Harris, Michigan State
Preseason Top 25
The Associated Press released its first Top 25 on Thursday. Four Big Ten teams made the cut (first-place votes in parentheses):
1. Kentucky (27)
2. Michigan State (22)
3. Louisville (14)
4. Duke (2)
8. Oklahoma State
11. Ohio State
12. North Carolina
16. Wichita State
21. Notre Dame
23. New Mexico