College basketball’s spring signing period ends today, but the free-agent market remains open for business.
As Indiana coach Tom Crean told Iowa’s Fran McCaffery several weeks ago on the recruiting trail, “It’s early.”
Binding letters of intent will no longer be binding after today, but players will continue to come and go. Division I transfers have passed the 500-player mark, so trying to forecast the Big Ten season ahead might be a bit premature.
“You better wait a couple of months, because there’s still multiple transfers out there, many of whom are going to end up in our league,” McCaffery said.
Acknowledging that rosters remain fluid, here’s a glimpse at what Big Ten basketball, now 14 teams strong, will look like in 2014-15.
Six players, including Big Ten player of the year Nik Stauskas of Michigan and first-team pick Gary Harris of Michigan State, left early for the NBA. So did LaQuinton Ross, Ohio State’s leading scorer, and Indiana’s Noah Vonleh, the league’s top rebounder and freshman of the year. The Wolverines also saw Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary enter the draft. Iowa graduated first-team all-league guard Devyn Marble.
But seven of the 15 all-league picks from a year ago return, including first-teamers Terran Petteway of Nebraska and Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin. Eight teams return their leading scorer. Thirteen of the top 91 players on the Rivals.com list of the top 150 players in the Class of 2014 will be putting on Big Ten uniforms. Maryland, Ohio State, Indiana and Michigan all had top-25 recruiting classes. Several dabbled in the free-agent transfer market, too. That includes the Buckeyes, who get Temple forward Anthony Lee immediately eligible as a fifth-year transfer.
“Ohio State has reloaded,” McCaffery said. “Michigan lost quite a bit, but they’ve got a good class coming in. It stays pretty constant.”
Wisconsin, coming off a Final Four appearance, lost only guard Ben Brust from its rotation. Look for Nigel Hayes or Bronson Koenig to step into Brust’s starting spot to join returnees Kaminsky, Traevon Jackson, Sam Dekker and Josh Gasser.
Illinois returns all five starters and adds a trio of transfers including Ahmad Starks from Oregon State and Aaron Crosby from Seton Hall.
Nebraska made a meteoric rise to fourth last season and returns all five starters. The Cornhuskers’ Petteway was the Big Ten’s top scorer in league play and a matchup nightmare for everyone.
Michigan has made it to the national title game and the Elite Eight in the past two seasons. But after having three players leave early for the NBA, it’s hard to believe the Wolverines won’t take a step back this season. Coach John Beilein does bring in a talented six-man freshman class as well as redshirt freshman forward Mark Donnal. Caris LeVert is big time, but there’s not much experience around him other than Travis Walton and Zac Irvin.
Newcomer Maryland could drop off since two starters and four players have transfered out since the end of last season.
What about Iowa?
Senior forward Aaron White is a good place to start the discussion about 2014-15.
“I think you’ll see a different Aaron White,” McCaffery predicted. “It will be his team. He’ll look different, and he’ll play different, and he’ll be a great leader for us.”
The Hawkeyes need to find a go-to scorer to replace Marble.
“I think somebody’s got to start at the two (second guard) that’s going to score for us,” McCaffery said. “Whether it’s Pete (Jok), Josh (Oglesby) or when we play Mike (Gesell) and Trey (Dickerson) together, whether we play Dom Uhl there, somebody’s got to play there and pick up some of that scoring.”
McCaffery also expects more scoring from his front line.
“(Jarrod) Uthoff is a guy who is going to play a lot more, and he’ll be a double-figure scorer for sure,” McCaffery said.
And the defense, which went south last season, needs to improve.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to put more pressure on the ball at the point of attack and take advantage of our length,” McCaffery said. “We might do some things differently defensively. We are versatile enough and long enough to do that.”
And the winner is
Wisconsin looks to be the prohibitive Big Ten favorite.
“They have so much experience coming back, so much scoring,” McCaffery said. “They’ll be right there.”
Iowa made the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 2006, and enough pieces are in place to make it two bids in a row come March of 2015 after a third straight first-division finish.
“We have to get better defensively,” McCaffery said. “We weren’t a big mistake team. We were a really good rebounding team. Those things have to remain constant. That gives you a chance. Our 3-point shooting was better. But I’d like to see that improve.”
I see the Hawkeyes landing in fifth place in a league that will have a competitive imbalance with 14 teams and 18 league games. I see nine teams jockeying for seven bids to the NCAA Tournament. I’ll wait to pick the lucky seven until that transfer derby has reached the finish line.
Rick Brown, a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year, covers Hawkeye football and basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.