FORT WAYNE — Based on the play of its freshmen, the Big Ten will be regarded as one of the nation’s top basketball conferences well past this season.
Several teams have talented first-year players in the starting lineup or count on freshmen to play big roles in the rotation.
“I think that is how – if we are going to sustain being the top conference in the country or one of the top two conferences in the country – that’s what you are going to have to have,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said during Monday’s coaches teleconference. “There is no question that we do have a very good crop of freshmen in the Big Ten.”
While Purdue (12-14, 7-6) has struggled while relying on several freshmen – A.J. Hammons, Ronnie Johnson, Rapheal Davis and Donnie Hall – to be key contributors, teams at the top of the Big Ten have been able thrive with freshmen playing crucial roles.
No. 1 Indiana (23-3, 11-2) and No. 4 Michigan State (22-4, 11-2), who play tonight with first place in the conference on the line, each has a freshman in its starting lineup.
The Spartans’ Gary Harris has won Big Ten freshman of the week honors three times and is the team’s second leading scorer with 12.9 points per game.
The Hoosiers start Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell, who averages 7.3 points and 4.3 assists.
“I think there is quite a few freshmen – I think that’s what makes this league so great,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “I wouldn’t trade (Ferrell) for any other point guard in the country, let alone a freshman in the country. The guy brings it on both ends every night, and he is consistent with it.”
Michigan (22-4, 9-4) has three freshmen making big contributions. Glenn Robinson III averages 11.3 points and has started all 26 games; Nik Stauskas averages 12.2 points and has started 20 games; and Mitch McGary averages six points and 18.2 minutes.
Iowa (17-9, 6-7) relies on Mike Gesell, who averages 9.1 points and 2.8 assists and has started every game. Northwestern (13-13, 4-9) has started freshmen Alex Olah in 24 games and Kyle Abrahamson in 11 games.
As talented as freshmen can be, there is also another side to relying on young talent.
“They are freshmen. … You have to keep them up and positive so they can continue to grow,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. “Across the league, there are some very good freshmen.
“I think for future the league is … on solid ground personnelwise.”