With so much uncertainty in the air, we knew this year’s NBA Draft deadline would be different than any in the past. Players not only had the typical factors to take into account, but also had to assess everything in light of a worldwide pandemic and an incredibly late Draft deadline.
But even with that said, I’m not sure anyone expected as much drama as Big Ten fans got over the weekend. In just three days, Big Ten fans learned what five of the league’s best players would be doing next season. Four of those players opted to return to school, while one went pro.
So, what should we think?
Let’s take a look.
1. What a weekend for the Big Ten.
Ever since the offseason ended, I’ve made no qualms about my belief that the league will regress next season. It’s not that I think the Big Ten will struggle to compete nationally. I just think last year’s group was historically strong and won’t be easily replicated. After all, the Big Ten had 11 teams in the top 30 on KenPom. Regardless of what next year’s teams might look like, that’s going to be really hard to replicate.
But having said all of that, this was a monster few days for the conference.
Not only will the Big Ten now return last year’s Player of the Year in Luka Garza, but you also get back legitimate stars in Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu and a budding star in Aaron Henry. Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan State all now figure to be nationally competitive as well.
The Big Ten would have been fine if these players went pro, but getting this kind of talent back doesn’t happen every year. Fans should be thrilled.
Next, we have to touch on arguably the biggest winners of the weekend. Illinois is the only Big Ten school to have two players (Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu) seriously explore their NBA potential and return to school. It was a monumental step that could reshape Brad Underwood’s tenure in Champaign.
Since Bruce Weber’s decline in the mid-2000s, things haven’t been easy for the Illini. The program hasn’t played in an NCAA Tournament game since 2013, hasn’t been ranked in a preseason poll since 2010, and hasn’t made it past the first weekend since 2005. By any reasonable measure, this has been the roughest stretch in Illinois history since the 1970s.
But in a matter of hours last weekend, Illinois will now enter next season as a Big Ten favorite and will be expected do some serious damage in March. CBS Sports has Illinois ranked 7th in its latest Top 25 Rankings and it’s hard to disagree. This team figures to be absolutely loaded next season. Dosunmu and Trent Frazier should be dangerous in the backcourt, Da’Monte Williams should be better on the wing, and Cockburn figures to be a monster down low. This team figures to be dynamic with these returns.
3. Iowa Hawkeyes.
Iowa probably didn’t get quite as much good news as Illinois last weekend, but the Hawkeyes still came out as big winners as superstar big man Garza announced he would be returning to campus. Garza is immensely talented and accomplished, having won Big Ten Player of the Year honors last season.
Obviously, anytime you return the Big Ten Player of the Year, it’s going to be significant news. Garza was an absolute monster last season, averaging 23.9 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game. He scored at least 20 points in nearly every game last season and finished with KenPom Player of the Year honors. So, yeah, getting a player like that back is pretty significant in its own right.
But for Iowa, it might be even more meaningful. This figures to be the best group of Hawkeyes in quite some time. Jordan Bohannon will return in the backcourt, Joe Wieskamp is back on the wing, and Garza now returns upfront. All three are potential All-Big Ten quality players and Iowa is going to have three of them. As a result, CBS Sports now has Iowa ranked 6th nationally. It’s a huge win for Hawkeye fans and could set up the league to be an absolute powerhouse this season.
The Spartans didn’t come out quite as well as Illinois and Iowa, but the team did avoid multiple blows. Aaron Henry announced he would return to campus for his junior season, while Xavier Tillman decided to take his talents to the next level. It now leaves Michigan State in an intriguing spot as Tom Izzo tries to get his ninth Final Four.
Tillman was the better player and would have been the more valuable returner, but there’s still a lot to like about this team. Rocket Watts should make an impact in the backcourt, Henry seemed to be hitting his stride last season, and Malik Hall had some really bright spots in his freshman year. Add in transfer Joey Hauser and you have another potential star.
This group of Spartans feels weaker than last year’s squad, but we certainly don’t want to count out Izzo and company. He’ll find a way to keep this team in contention.