The Illinois Fighting Illini Men’s Basketball team stands at 6-0 with some big games against legitimate opponents coming up. With Big Ten play beginning next week, here’s a look at some of the conference’s best players, and players who potentially will break out as the season moves along.
Happy basketball watching, everyone.
10. Nate Mason: Senior Guard, Minnesota
In a conference dominated by exceptional guard play on just about every team, Nate Mason returns for his senior season to lead the Minnesota Golden Gophers back to the NCAA Tournament.
Last season, Nate Mason averaged just over 15 points per game and five assists. He is a player who’s improved each year he’s been in Richard Pitino’s program. Mason plays with a ton of grit and intensity on both sides of the ball.
Preseason expectations are flying high in Minneapolis, arguably higher than they’ve been in a couple of decades. A loaded roster and a playing style that mirrors a lot of the teams in Atlantic Coast Conference (up tempo, full court press, heavy usage of bench players 6-10) means Minnesota should be a lock for the NCAA tournament. Nate Mason leads the charge.
9. Miles Bridges: Sophomore Forward, Michigan State
The top player on the top team in the conference already has tremendous preseason national recognition. Miles Bridges received 61 of 65 Associated Press All-America votes, the most of any player in the country. Had he entered the NBA Draft last summer, he likely would have been a lottery to mid-first round pick.
Bridges averaged 16.9 points-per-game last season to go along with 8.3 rebounds. He’s a terrific passer in the lane and works his butt off on the defensive end too. He’s a multi-skilled, versatile forward who should improve on his freshman season stats with another year of development in Tom Izzo’s system.
8. Bryant McIntosh: Senior Guard, Northwestern
Books will be written about the 2016-2017 Northwestern basketball season. From Julia Louis Dreyfus and Bill Murray cheering from the stands to Dererk Pardon’s full court buzzer beater winning layup versus Michigan — there were so many memories that stand out from the ‘Cats first NCAA Tournament season.
Bryant McIntosh will captain Northwestern in the 2017-2018 season. He scores. He gets his teammates involved. He sets the tone on defense and is often the one calling the offensive sets as an extension of coach Collins on the court. This Northwestern team has a lot of balance and they aren’t too reliant on one or two players each night. McIntosh is the team leader and gained some valuable experience playing a big role on last year’s miracle season.
7. Xavier Simpson: Sophomore Guard, Michigan
Illinois fans will not be fond of their early memories of Xavier Simpson. The former four-star point guard from Ohio had Illinois high on his list and took one of his official visits to Champaign in Fall of 2015 before ultimately signing with the Michigan Wolverines.
From Trey Burke to Derrick Walton Jr, head coach John Beilein has relied on exceptional point guard play to be the catalyst of his perimeter-based offense. Xavier Simpson appears to be next in line as he’s the only returning player at his position with any meaningful experience leading this team.
Xavier Simpson averaged only 8.7 minutes per game last season, primarily because Derrick Walton Jr rarely went out of the game. Simpson showed flashes of elite defensive instincts a season ago and was never called upon to really be an impact player in 2016. His role increases from Year 1 to Year 2 perhaps more than any other sophomore in the conference.
6. Ethan Happ: Junior Forward, Wisconsin
A new era of Wisconsin basketball begins now that long-time players Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig have graduated. Stretch forward Ethan Happ is ready to take the reigns for a program that’s been to the NCAA Tournament every year since 1997-1998.
Ethan Happ should absolutely be counted on to average a double-double in every game he plays. He’s a real good passer too and a lot of the offense will run through Happ especially now that Nigel Hayes is no longer on the team.
Wisconsin is the most consistently successful basketball program in the Big Ten. Ethan Happ faces a lot of pressure as expectations aren’t going to change in much in Madison despite the loss of four seniors from last year’s squad.
5. Anthony Cowan Jr.: Sophomore Guard, Maryland
Similar to the situation at Michigan and their point guard Xavier Simpson, Maryland will rely heavily on returning sophomore guard Anthony Cowan to get the Terrapins into their offensive sets.
Gone is combo-guard and volume score Melo Trimble. Cowan is a much better passer than Melo Trimble was and Cowan should be able to do a better job at keeping his team composed and under control. His 29.0 minutes-per-game last season was among the highest for freshmen in the Big Ten. Expect his role to increase even more in 2017.
4. Mark Alstork: Senior Guard, Illinois
The Illinois Fighting Illini have a ton of new faces on their roster, and the focus this season is clearly on Mark & Mark: True freshman Mark Smith and Wright State transfer Mark Alstork. Alstork averaged 19.0 points playing for Wright State in the Horizon League. He also contributed 4.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game in his final year before transferring to Champaign.
Mark Alstork fills a lot of holes for Illinois including perimeter size, defense and scoring. For a team that lacks veteran players, Alstork’s experience matters and he’ll need to develop into a leader in Illinois’ first year with new head coach Brad Underwood.
So far in this early season, Alstork has struggled and hasn’t looked the part. If he can get into a groove with his shot and start knocking them down, he can potentially have a Rayvonte Rice-type positive impact for this team.
3. Jae’Sean Tate: Senior Forward, Ohio State
Jae’Sean Tate returns for his Ohio State senior season after missing the last four games of last season because of a shoulder injury. He had surgery on his shoulder last winter and is apparently 100% set and ready to go for the 2017-2018 campaign.
Tate’s versatility is his biggest asset as the Buckeyes look to rebound from their first sub 20-win season since 2003-2004. He can play multiple positions and he’s always been a top 10 defensive player in the Big Ten since he’s signed with Ohio State.
With new coach Chris Holtmann in town and taking over for Thad Matta, holdovers like Jae’Sean Tate are important in this transitional phase for a once consistent basketball program that fell on hard times a season ago.
2. Tony Carr: Sophomore Forward, Penn State
The Philadelphia native turned down offers from the likes of Georgetown, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Miami (FL) and Stanford to play for Pat Chambers and the Penn State Nittany Lions Basketball Team. His freshman year was an immediate success and it already looks like he’s on the cusp of becoming one of the best players in program history.
Penn State hasn’t reached the tournament since the 2010-2011 season. This program is quietly building a roster of hard-nosed players from the Philadelphia area (players in the past Penn State wouldn’t have a shot at landing) and every single student-athlete returns from last year’s team that finished 12th in the Big Ten.
Tony Carr is crafty and smooth with the ball. He’s unselfish and really sticks to his defensive assignments — a critical component of being a top point guard in this conference.
1. Jaren Jackson Jr.: Freshman Forward/Center, Michigan State
Meet the future Big Ten Freshman of The Year and potential top-five NBA Draft pick come next summer. Jackson is a consensus top-10 recruit and at 6-feet-11 and weighing 242 pounds, he already looks like an NBA big man playing with a bunch of college kids.
He’ll dominate the paint on the defensive end acting as a rim protector. He’s developing his low-post scoring moves and will continue to improve and harness new skills under Tom Izzo. Already working in his favor is his ability to drill the mid-range shot and can he make them regularly even out to the 3-point line.
Jaren Jackson Jr. comes into an ideal situation at Michigan State. He’ll be on a team loaded with strong, experienced guard play and he’ll have the chance to work as a 1-2 punch with the returning Miles Bridges.