Big Ten Key Offseason Questions: Part I

Posted by Patrick Engel on April 6th, 2016

The college basketball season concluded Monday night with Villanova as this year’s national champion, but the Big Ten’s season ended with North Carolina’s Sweet Sixteen trouncing of Indiana back on March 25. A lot has already happened among league teams in the interim, including a coaching hire at Rutgers and a great number of transfers. Over the next few days as we close out the 2015-16 season, we’ll review a key offseason question for each Big Ten team, starting at the bottom of the conference standings.

Rutgers (7-25, 1-17 Big Ten)

Among Steve Pickiell's many tasks as Rutgers head coach will be to gain recruiting appeal in New York and New Jersey (Photo: Julio Cortez — The Associated Press).

Among Steve Pickiell’s many tasks as Rutgers head coach will be to gain recruiting appeal in New York and New Jersey (Photo: Julio Cortez — The Associated Press).

How quickly can new head coach Steve Pickiell give Rutgers some local recruiting appeal?

Steve Pickiell, who led Stony Brook to the NCAA Tournament this season and won three America East regular season title in five years, is already a known name in the greater New York area. It’s no secret that New York/New Jersey has plenty of basketball talent, and Rutgers is located in the heart of the same recruiting territory. Pickiell didn’t waste any time in accomplishing what Eddie Jordan couldn’t in three years: earning a commitment from a New Jersey high school playerMatt Bullock from prep powerhouse Roselle Catholic will play for the Scarlet Knights next season.

Pickiell has already made a home run hire, luring away Karl Hobbs from Connecticut to become his new associate head coach. His staff would be wise to make offers to a number of the area’s best players in the classes of 2018 and 2019 right away. Rutgers needs to develop good working relationships and credibility with with the region’s top high school and AAU coaches, and getting the program’s name out there now is a key element to that strategy. The school’s local perception can drastically stand to improve, so if Pickiell can snag a couple of the area’s under-recruited but well-known players in the next class, it will pay dividends in future years. Bullock, while a recruit in this year’s senior class, is a good start who fits that description.

Minnesota (8-23, 2-16 Big Ten)

How quickly can the program’s young talent grow up?

Minnesota’s winning percentage has decreased in each of Richard Pitino’s three seasons as head coach in Minneapolis, but he has signed some of the program’s more talented recruiting classes in quite a while. His ability to ultimately keep his job (and turn the program around) will hinge on his ability to develop and nurture his young talent. Freshman forward Jordan Murphy was a clear bright spot this season. Four-star freshmen guards Kevin Dorsey and Dupree McBrayer showed flashes at times. Dorsey will transfer, but McBrayer needs to become a more dependable scorer next year. Nate Mason‘s shooting numbers need to return to their 2014-15 levels (39% 3FG) after slumping (30% 3FG) this season. Amir Coffey, a top-50 recruit in this year’s class and Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball, will enter with high expectations. Fellow youngsters Ahmad Gilbert (rising sophomore) and Eric Curry (incoming freshman) will need to produce off the bench. Pitino has signed a number of Big Ten-worthy players, so there’s little room for any more excuses.

Illinois (15-19, 5-13 Big Ten)

John Groce Has Had a Very Unlucky Run at Illinois (USA Today Images)

John Groce Has Had a Very Unlucky Run at Illinois (USA Today Images)

Can John Groce create a culture of stability and accountability in Champaign?

Any Big Ten fan who hasn’t heard of Illinois’ four player arrests since August has been living under a rock. Combine those unfortunate occurrences with an injury-plagued season that resulted in a third straight miss of the NCAA Tournament, and John Groce’s Illinois program is at a crossroads. New athletic director Josh Whitman gave Groce his full support (twice, actually), but he needs a big recruiting year in the 2017 cycle and absolutely must reverse the disturbing arrest trend. Policing players every minute of the day is unrealistic, but creating a culture of accountability is not. Something like that is much easier to enable on a winning team, however, and that’s where Groce needs to focus his energy. Whitman’s vision and support of Groce will only help in that endeavor, and a successful summer on the recruiting trail will get the fans thinking positively again. It starts with Groce regaining control of his team, though.

Patrick Engel (33 Posts)

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