ROSEMONT- It finally looks and feels like fall in the Chicagoland area and that means that college basketball season is around the corner. And nowhere was that more evident than the Hyatt Regency O’Hare in Rosemont on Thursday where the Big Ten Conference held it’s annual Basketball Media Day event. It’s first the time since 2015 that Chicago hosted the festivities as last year’s event was in New York City, and the 2016 edition was in Washington D.C. But this year the Big Ten returned to the home city of it’s headquarters and all 14 teams were in attendance.
That meant that Northwestern and Illinois didn’t have to fly half way across the country to attend this time. Both teams are coming off of losing seasons in which they finished below the .500 mark and missed out on the postseason. The Wildcats came into last season with high expectations, while the Fighting Illini were breaking in a new head coach with a solid track record. Things didn’t work out as planned for either program.
Northwestern (15-17, 6-12 Big Ten last year) was riding high off of the program’s first ever NCAA Tournament appearance from the previous season. Just about everybody from that team had returned and they were primed to repeat. They had an up and down non-conference schedule which saw them defeat the likes of Loyola-Maryland, St. Peter’s, La Salle, and struggling local rivals in Chicago State and DePaul, but fell to stronger teams such as Texas Tech, Georgia Tech (Big Ten/ACC Challenge), Creighton, and Oklahoma.
“We all looked at ourselves in the mirror, and we all know that we can each be better,” said NU head coach Chris Collins during his individual session at media day.
Offense was the struggle once Big Ten play began as they were held under the 65-point mark in 10 of their 12 conference losses. They finished the season losing six in-a-row before being eliminated by Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
“When you get (to the NCAA Tournament) and you feel what that’s about, you want more. To have to sit there on Selection Sunday and not hear your name and not be a part of it, I know it stung me personally and I’m sure it stung a lot of our guys,” Collins said.
Gone from last year’s team are the trio of guards in Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, and Isiah Brown along with forward Gavin Skelly. But this Wildcats team still has plenty of talent. Led by fifth-year senior forward Vic Law and senior guard Jordan Ash along with senior center Dererk Pardon, junior center Barret Benson, junior forward Aaron Falzon, and a ton of young talent with high potential, the Wildcats aren’t being counted out yet.
“We’re more focused on this year,” Dererk Pardon said. “We put last year in the past and we’re ready to move on.”
This year Northwestern returns home to a newly renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena. They played at Allstate Arena in Rosemont last year while their on-campus facility was being renovated. It’s part an overall athletic department facelift that cost roughly $400 million. For years Northwestern had some of the worst facilities in the nation, now they have some of the best.
“Having that home crowd back is going to make a big impact for us,” says Pardon.
“The final piece for our athletic department was to catch up in facilities,” said coach Collins. “You’re talking about $400 million in athletic investment at a school that’s a top ten academic institution. It’s exciting for me as a coach because you have a president, an (athletic director), and a board of trustees who want to win,” he added.
Aside from the usual Big Ten slate of foes the Wildcats will once again play Georgia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, they’ll rematch Oklahoma, travel to California to play in the Wooden Legacy, take on DePaul and Chicago State again in local action, and start the season with three consecutive home games.
The Illinois Fighting Illini (14-18, 4-14 Big Ten last season) on the other hand are entering year two of the Brad Underwood era. He was brought in from Oklahoma State to replace John Groce (who only made one NCAA Tournament appearance at Illinois) after he had made the Cowboys a tournament team in his only season there. Underwood was known for coaching teams that loved to shoot the ball. And shoot they did as the Illini started the year by winning their first six games and outscored their opponents 534-411 in the process.
After that is where things got rocky; The Illini finished November on a three-game losing streak, went 4-2 for the month of December, but started Big Ten play in January with six straight losses. They wrapped up January with wins over Indiana and Rutgers, but started February with four losses in-a-row. They broke that losing streak with a win over Nebraska on February 18th, but finished the season losing two of three before falling to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament.
“It was difficult but that’s life, that’s life in general,” said senior guard Aaron Jordan about last season.
After those first six games Illinois would only go above the 75-point mark six more times the rest of the way. They struggled in the second half of many games down the stretch, and 10 of last year’s losses were by eight points or less. This year the Illini need to figure out to finish games.
“There’s going to be up’s and down’s but it’s all about how you respond to it,” Jordan says.
This year Illinois has one of the youngest teams in the Big Ten. Jordan will be accompanied by two experienced transfers in graduate center Adonis De La Rosa (Kent State) and junior guard Andres Feliz (Northwest Florida State). The rest of the team is rounded out by six freshman, three sophomores with very limited experience, and a couple more upperclassmen who’ve seen very little playing time. But coach Underwood doesn’t look at that as a negative.
“I think the one thing that we’ve worked very hard on is that we have a lot of different pieces,” said Underwood at his media day press conference.
Underwood also says that his team is “versatile and positionless”. Either way the challenge for him will be to turn this youth movement into a winning team. Big Ten play aside, Illinois non-conference schedule contains the annual “Border War” with Missouri, Notre Dame for this year’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge, along with Georgetown, Gonzaga, Evansville, East Tennessee State, UNLV, and Florida Atlantic.
The biggest challenge for both teams however -aside from playing each other twice a year- will be the more condensed Big Ten schedule which has been increased to 20 games. This means that both schools will play two conference games each in December, limiting non-conference scheduling in the future.
“It’s going to be up to us to become that tough-minded group that finds a way to win in a tough conference,” says coach Collins.
“It’s the year that we play the toughest schedule in the history of Illinois Basketball. Strength of schedule sure won’t be a problem for us,” added Underwood.
The fun begins in just a few weeks.