INDIANAPOLIS — The opening day of Big Ten Media Days tipped off Thursday at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis just more than 200 days removed from Illinois’ 2021 Big Ten tournament championship just down the street at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The conference will be back in approximately five months, returning to Indianapolis for the 2022 tournament, with the 14-team tournament held at the same venue players and coaches occupied on Thursday along with hundreds of reporters.
Illinois intends to occupy a similar place in the league it has the past two seasons for that return trip.
After a slew of Wednesday games on the first day of the Big Ten tournament, the Illini secured double byes in each of the past two seasons, as one of the top four teams in the Big Ten.
Progressive growth. But still short of the type of program building Illinois coach Brad Underwood has in mind.
“I don’t think we ever wanted to settle,” Underwood said Thursday. “I think we had an idea of what we wanted to do. That started with recruiting guys who were winners. I think it started with understanding that it’s character over characters. I feel tremendous about our culture. I don’t think we rushed the process. I think we tried to expedite it in the best way we could. We never put anybody ahead of the foundation of our program. I hope that lasts over the course of time.”
Consecutive winning seasons, though, is just the first step. Long-term success is Underwood’s goal to return Illinois to consistent Big Ten power status.
“It’s one of the most impressive things about this league, is some of the steeped cultures and traditions that some of these programs have,” Underwood said. “We’re trying to build that. We didn’t want to take any shortcuts in doing that. I think those are some of the key things that we had, along with taking an everyday-guy mentality to the practice court every day.”
Illinois’ 2021 Big Ten tournament championship was not paired with a regular season title last season. The Illini were runners-up for the latter. More conference wins didn’t trump Michigan’s better winning percentage after the Wolverines played three fewer games because of a COVID-19 shutdown.
A sentiment arose in Champaign — pushed by athletic director Josh Whitman in early spring — that co-champions should be crowned. Spoiler alert: it didn’t happen.
“Last year was one of those years that it was not a straight-line year,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said. “We were dealing with cases of first impression. One of the things that I really do appreciate about Josh being a former student-athlete at Illinois, from being a professional (athlete), he’s passionate. ... I feel we made the right decision collectively with all the athletic directors and conference staff.”
The Illini’s pursuit of co-Big Ten champion status didn’t necessarily generate a ton of goodwill among its conference rivals. Or at least with Hunter Dickinson. The Michigan sophomore center hasn’t parse his words on social media when mentioning his dislike of Illinois this offseason. Or their fan base on Thursday.
“Illinois fans are pretty annoying,” Dickinson said. “I’m not going to lie.”
Not that the Illini particularly care. They revel in it a bit.
“If teams don’t like us, that means we’re dong something good,” Illinois junior center Kofi Cockburn said. “If teams love us, that means we’re losing and they’re beating us.
“We’re going to continue to do what we’re doing. We’re going to continue playing together and looking out for each other. We’re going to continue winning. That’s the most important thing for us.”
The Big Ten Media Days platform didn’t belong solely to the conference’s men’s teams on Thursday. The same will be true on Friday. The women’s teams were given the same stage at Gainbridge Fieldhouse after having no organized, league-wide media events in previous seasons.
So Illinois women’s basketball coach Nancy Fahey took the stage ahead of Underwood.
“Change is amazing,” Fahey said. “Putting women in this situation, they get an opportunity to talk about basketball. It’s created jobs. It’s created a future. More importantly, what the game has given back is women an opportunity to grow in places that we just didn’t really have.
“When I went through school, it was, ‘Oh, you want to be a nurse or a teacher.’ I don’t mean to date myself, but it’s changed that much. This game has really opened up doors that I wish you could all see. I wish you could be in the car ride home, because I have a feeling (the Illinois players’) stories here are going to be special.”
It was a similar sentiment shared by several of Fahey’s colleagues across the conference. For Maryland coach Brenda Frese, the only active women’s coach in the Big Ten who has won a national championship, it was about time for the shift to an all-encompassing media days event.
“For the amount of time these student-athletes put in, to finally see the exposure, to see the incredibility, to see the equalness for both genders, it’s a huge moment in our time,” Frese said.
The shift to an inclusive Big Ten media days comes just shy of the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, which provides an equal opportunity for female athletes. Warren said he wants the Big Ten to be leaders in going beyond the minimum of what Title IX requires.
“We made a lot of progress, but we have so much progress left to make,” Warren said. “We all can do better, but it is a focal point of us to do it. That’s one of the reasons why we’re here in this environment, to show that we believe in equality, that we all can do better.”
Some of what Fahey had to say Thursday in Indianapolis was a repeat of her Illinois media day press conference last week in Champaign.
The top repeated theme? How the Illini’s collection of newcomers — particularly the three freshmen — could give the team a much-needed offensive boost.
Kendall Bostic might do the same. Illinois pursued the Kokomo, Ind., native out of high school and ultimately landed her after she entered the transfer portal following one season at Michigan State.
Fahey targeted improving Illinois’ play at power forward a priority this offseason. The 6-foot-2 Bostic could be the best option.
“Incredible person,” Fahey said of Bostic. “Incredible family. Solid. Every day just comes in and does her job. That’s first. The basketball part is she’s a stretch forward. She can hit the perimeter shot. She’s been leading our team weekly in offensive boards. That tells you something right there. You can do all you want about crash, crash, crash. She just does it. That combination is what I’m talking about.”
College football has been the primary driving force behind conference realignment. It was when the Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers in 2015 during the first major movement, and it is again now that Texas and Oklahoma are shaking up the conference structure by bolting the Big 12 for the SEC.
But where does college basketball fit in that equation? Warren said the sport plays an important role, as he mostly talked around the issue when asked Thursday morning and dove more into fan interest into the sport.
“I just know from the overall college landscape, people are passionate about basketball,” Warren said. “It seems like there’s an elevated passion this year. That is one of the things I’m looking forward to, is to be able to enjoy that as we get back into our arenas. But I think from a basketball standpoint, that is a big component from a kind of conference structure, realignment standpoint. I think people are going to see that this year, the interest from a fan standpoint. There is a lot of pent-up emotion.”