Three Takes: Jess Settles on Big Ten big men & Illinois' big issue

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Three Takes: Jess Settles on Big Ten big men & Illinois' big issue

This week, in my “Three Takes,” I take a trip back to the 1991-92 season, consider the Big Ten’s top big men and look at Illinois’ recurring issue inside.

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Get my latest thoughts below:

So much to like about this year’s group of true freshmen bigs

This is the best group of big men the Big Ten has witnessed since the decorated 1991-92 class. That was the season McDonald’s All-Americans Alan Henderson (Indiana), Juwan Howard (Michigan) and Chris Webber (Michigan) decided to take their talents to the Big Ten. C-Webb ended up being the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, while Henderson and Howard were first-rounders who both enjoyed solid careers. All three played in the Final Four, with the Michigan duo twice losing in the national final.

Twenty-four seasons later, it’s McDonald’s All-Americans and true freshmen Thomas Bryant (Indiana), Deyonta Davis (Michigan State), Diamond Stone (Maryland) and Caleb Swanigan (Purdue) helping ignite Final Four aspirations for their respective teams. Is it any coincidence that the current top three teams in the Big Ten, No. 1 Michigan State, No. 6 Maryland and No. 9 Purdue, have one of these talents on their teams?

Due to Indiana’s early struggles against quality competition and the high rankings of Michigan State, Maryland, and Purdue, Bryant’s start has flown under the radar. The freshman plays hard, protects the rim, and has contagious enthusiasm. He’s averaging 11.6 points and 5.3 rebounds, all while shooting a Big Ten-best 72 percent from the field. If Bryant continues to improve and the Hoosier D can take a step forward, Indiana could make some noise.

Davis runs the floor well, takes pride in blocking shots (second in the Big Ten in total blocks), and is great at anticipating Denzel Valentine’s sneaky passes. Once Davis’ strength catches up to his game, he will be a force at both ends of the court.

Stone is a very physical presence for the Terps, and many times it takes two defenders to keep him off of the boards. His stamina and overall game are improving every week and that is bad news for Big Ten opponents. He currently averages 10.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in a reserve role.

Swanigan was supposed to be wearing a Spartan uniform, but changed his mind and ended up in West Lafayette. Had he stayed in East Lansing, Michigan State would be the favorite to win it all. As a Boiler, he has helped take Purdue to new heights. He is currently the Big Ten Freshman of the Year frontrunner due to his tremendous versatility. Not only does he lead the league in rebounding, he assists (2.7) open teammates.

Not to be forgotten, there’s also Wisconsin redshirt freshman Ethan Happ, who is shooting 54 percent and averaging 11.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks.

There is no way this group will come close to the accomplishments of the class of 1991, but it has significantly upgraded the talent pool in the Big Ten Conference. All four have put their teams in a position to make a major run this March. Let’s just hope they stick around for a while so we can enjoy their development.

***

My top 5 big men

Speaking of big men, the Big Ten is full of talented post players. Here is my very fluid list of the current top five post players.

1. A.J. Hammons, Purdue. When he is locked in, Hammons is a pro and very difficult for slower centers to contain. Right now, Hammons is locked in.
2. Robert Carter, Jr. Maryland. Extremely soft touch and excellent ball skills for a big man. He has been a great fit with Melo Trimble and the Terps.
3. Isaac Haas, Purdue. On any other team, Haas would be a stat-stuffing wrecking ball. In only 17.9 minutes, he averages 13.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks, while shooting 63 percent.
4. Caleb Swanigan. Purdue. There are moments when he is the best player on the floor, but he did struggle some against Purdue’s two toughest opponents, Pitt and Florida.
5. Deyonta Davis. Davis gets the slight edge over Northwestern’s talented center Alex Olah. Michigan State is not No. 1 without the offensive rebounding (2.8 pg) and defensive presence of Davis. (2.4 bpg).

***

Why Illinois is in trouble

Yale University is well respected in America in quite a few areas. Rebounding isn’t one of them. So when the Bulldogs out rebounded the Illini 48-25, (17 offensive rebounds), there was major cause for concern. Illinois escaped with a 69-65 victory, however it provided no answers to its rebounding woes.

That’s because, once again, the injury bug has decimated Illinois. Sophomore power forward Leron Black and Mike Thorne Jr. are both out with knee injuries. Black may be returning soon, but probably not a full strength. He is tough as nails and one of the Big Ten’s best rebounders. Thorne was one of the nation’s most-coveted transfers, and was playing exceptional ball before his troubles hit. He was averaging 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds and had significantly raised expectations in Champaign. Now both players have difficult redshirt decisions looming.

The good news: Star guard Kendrick Nunn (19.8 ppg) looks to be back at full strength and Malcolm Hill is filling up the stat sheet (17.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1.5 spg0.7 bpg). It might not matter, though, if the Illini doesn’t find a consistent inside presence.

Jess Settles, BTN men's basketball analyst

About Jess Settles: Jess, a former star at Iowa, is BTN men's basketball analyst appearing in the studio and at live games. He's a frequent contibutor to BTN.com during the men's basketball season. Follow him on Twitter @BTNJessSettles.

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