College basketball coaches around the country were holding their breath as May 30 arrived — the deadline for players to withdraw from the NBA draft to keep their eligibility.
The Big Ten greatly benefited from a majority of the league’s top non-seniors deciding to stick around. They are the reason the conference is nationally relevant again in 2019. Last year, 21 Big Ten non-seniors declared for the draft, but 11 returned to college, including a who’s-who list of players.
You won’t hear many national player of the year conversations that don’t include Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ and Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, who leads the Big Ten in scoring at 24.5 points per game. Edwards participated in the NBA pre-draft combine. Happ wasn’t invited, but he did go through some NBA workouts. Both preseason All-Americas decided they had unfinished business in college.
“There were people who thought I could benefit from another year,” said Happ, who is the only player in college hoops averaging 19 points, 10 rebounds and four assists per game. “That was obviously a factor, but as well as how we ended last year.”
Led by Happ, Wisconsin is in the mix for an NCAA tournament berth this season, after the Badgers’ 19-year streak ended last spring. Michigan definitely looks like a Final Four team again with help from Charles Matthews, a star back from last year’s run to the title game. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has one of his most experienced teams, especially with much-improved Nick Ward back to man the middle.
Ward said battling against grown men in NBA workouts made him get even more serious about honing his craft and getting into shape.
“I’m fighting to be an NBA player, but some people were fighting for their [families],” the 6-9 junior said. “It was tough. It’s a lot harder than it looks. It made me work harder, it made me improve my game and my body overall.”
Imagine what the Big Ten landscape would look like if All-Big Ten first-team players such as Penn State guard Tony Carr or Ohio State forward Keita Bates-Diop — the conference Player of the Year — were still in the league.
The Buckeyes are more than just surviving Bates-Diop’s departure to the Timberwolves. They still are thriving as one of the top teams in the Big Ten. Not as fortunate are the Nittany Lions, who entered Thursday winless in the conference.
Losing stars early to the pros happens to every conference, but getting several to come back made teams trying to move up in the Big Ten this season deeper in talent.
Look at Indiana with Juwan Morgan, Nebraska with James Palmer Jr., Iowa with Tyler Cook and Maryland with Bruno Fernando. All of them are having career years after testing the draft process and boosting their stock, too. Fernando, who helped the Terrapins beat the Gophers on Tuesday at Williams Arena, went from being a projected second-round draft pick to possibly as high as a top-10 selection this summer.
“The guys still in college right now, especially in the Big Ten, we wanted to show we could fit that [NBA] mold,” Cook said. “But it was important for me and other guys to continue to be the best we could be in college and to stick with what got us to this point.”
Marcus Fuller covers college basketball for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @Marcus_R_Fuller