It’s a well known fact — the Big Ten Conference has not produced an NCAA Tournament champion since Tom Izzo and Michigan State won the crown in 2000 — a 22-year drought.
Most pundits will say the league’s futility in March stems from a physical style of play that doesn’t translate to the postseason, and discourages high-end high school talent from even joining a team from the league in the first place.
“The league’s greatest challenge has been its ability to recruit NBA-level talent throughout the conference,” ESPN’s Myron Medcalf said last year in a discussion on why the Big Ten hasn’t hoisted a trophy in a generation.
It is undeniable in recruiting circles, the physicality of the Big Ten is a concern, and something used by coaches outside the league as a negative tool. In essence — “don’t go there, you’ll get beat up and you’ll never make it to the NBA.”
On the whole, that narrative has been accurate.
In a 2016 study by CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander, the Big Ten was last among the six major conferences when it came to NBA first round draft choices from 1996 to 2015. And here’s the update — even if you add the Big Ten’s first round choices in the six succeeding drafts while holding the other leagues at their 2015 levels — it would still be in last place. In fact, the Big Ten has had only one first round pick in each of the last two drafts.
But that’s all about changing on Thursday night.
According to most mock NBA Drafts including ESPN’s latest update on Thursday, the Big Ten should have five players hear their names called in the first round.
To be drafted in today’s NBA, you have to exhibit an ability to thrive in an open-court, free-flowing style, and to varying degrees Jaden Ivey, Keegan Murray, Johnny Davis, Malaki Branham and EJ Liddell have all done that — while playing in the Big Ten.
To be sure, the Big Ten hasn’t magically cured all that has winged it stylistically. It is still too physical, and it still hasn’t produced a product that translates in March.
And recruiting hasn’t suddenly taken off in the league either.
In fact, while Branham (247Sports Composite No. 38) and Liddell (44) might have been reasonably viewed as potential NBA players, the so-called experts were way off when it came to likely lottery picks Ivey (89), Davis (164 ), Murray (334).
But when five players from the Big Ten are called on Thursday night, the notion that the Big Ten hurts your chances to reach the NBA will fall flat, and suddenly become a recruiting counter-punch for Mike Woodson and others in the league.
Former Indiana head coach Archie Miller recently gave a candid interview where he admitted his biggest regret stemming from his time at Indiana was his approach to recruiting.
With just 13 scholarships spots to offer, talent evaluation is mission-critical for college staffs, and Thursday evening’s first round is also likely to be a condemnation of Miller’s scouting ability while at IU.
Ivey was an in-state product and thought by many to be the most complete native Hoosier in the 2020 class. But Miller didn’t even offer Ivey a scholarship despite having him down at the IU team camp in 2018, a day when he torched the nets at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall and flashed his future NBA potential.
To be sure, the thinking was Ivey, a South Bend product and the son of Notre Dame women’s coach Niele, would stay home. But obviously as it turned out, that was misguided thinking.
Blake Wesley, another South Bend product, did in fact receive an offer from Indiana, and for a while there was mutual interest. But I remember clearly in August of 2020 when his father told me the family hadn’t heard from the IU staff in months. This was a recruitment that Indiana had a chance to win if it pushed hard with the right message.
That message needed to be exactly what Notre Dame did this year — put the ball in his hands and let him go. Wesley averaged 14.4 points per game as a true freshman, and he was exactly the kind of two-way athletic scoring wing the Hoosiers were missing in 2021-22. He’ll also be drafted in the first round on Thursday.
Finally there is the Indianapolis product Jake LaRavia out of Lawrence Central HS Miller had three chances to land him — first before he committed to SIU-Edwardsville, then after he reopened his recruitment following a coaching change and he landed at Indiana State.
The last chance to land LaRavia came at an inopportune time, just as Miller’s tenure at IU was crumbling.
But his 14.6 points per game at Wake Forest and 38.4 percent shooting from behind-the-arc as a modern 6-foot-9 stretch-4 would have been another major asset for the Hoosiers.
Now on Thursday LaRavia will also likely hear his name called in the first round, and serve as yet another reminder of what might have been.
LaRavia and Wesley were two more massive misses by the recruiting sites as well. Wesley was No. 121, while LaRavia went completely unranked.
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