Moment after college basketball moment is captured on the Internet, awing viewers by the hundreds of thousands.
Indiana’s James Blackmon Jr., on the run before delivering a thunderous one-handed flush over the massive body of Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell.
Maryland’s Melo Trimble, charging full speed in a diagonal before stopping on a dime and sinking a three while his Michigan State defender topples over.
Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell, the newly crowned king of the spinning bounce pass, steering a teammate who was four steps away to a play that no one else could see yet.
This season, the Big Ten has contributed more of those clips to the national collective, and at first glance, that seems pretty normal. Long established as one of the nation’s top conferences, the Big Ten has steadily developed elite guards and fed them into the NBA draft.
But this time around, the difference is this: So many of those celebrated guards are freshmen.
“We’ve sure got some good guards in this league,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “You look at Indiana and of course Maryland and there’s no one better than this kid D’Angelo. … Sometimes it’s what you recruit, sometimes it’s how you coach, sometimes it’s the right system, and sometimes a guy makes enormous improvement from the end of his senior year [in high school] to the beginning of his freshman year.”
Among the nation’s top seven freshman guards, Kentucky, Kansas, Duke (Apple Valley’s Tyus Jones) and UNLV (former Cooper star Rashad Vaughn) all have one apiece, spread across four different conferences, according to NBAdraft.net. The other three belong to the Big Ten, where Russell, Trimble and Blackmon Jr. each guided their teams to NCAA tournament berths and could continue to wow national audiences in opening-round games in the next two days.
The three of them arguably represent the biggest impact a first-year backcourt corps has made on the conference.
“A couple of years ago, I didn’t think I would see a better freshman guard than Trey Burke [then with Michigan, now with the Utah Jazz],” Northwestern junior Tre Demps told the Chicago Tribune earlier this month. “But scoringwise, at least, these guys [this year] are a little bit better.”
Russell, the 6-5 smooth and crafty Big Ten Freshman of the Year, is the conference’s highlight, but maybe not for long. He’s expected to be a lottery pick in the NBA draft this June. The 6-3 Trimble, a fellow All-Big Ten first-teamer, can break ankles with his halt-steps and brilliant drives to the hoop. Blackmon is the 6-4 athletic sharpshooter who can rack up baskets by the handful.
But although those three All-America rookies sit at the top of the class, they were hardly the only freshman guard highlights in the conference this season. Gophers point guard Nate Mason far exceeded any expectations, replacing DeAndre Mathieu in the starting lineup and becoming one of the team’s most consistent players. Point guards Bryant McIntosh of Northwestern and Michigan State’s Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. had strong Big Ten finishes, and Nairn’s Spartans are a No. 7 seed.
“I think it’s a sign of how strong the league is,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “The Big Ten is usually a league that has a lot of older players, and the experience never really drops. So that helps those guys come in and be factors … because they’ve got people to get the ball to and people to help them understand what they need to do defensively.”
Crean added that more and more freshmen could make their mark in coming seasons, that this is only the beginning. For Russell, Trimble, Blackmon and Nairn, another new beginning starts Thursday.