As the Gophers open Big Ten play Monday in Iowa City, imagine how much different the conference outlook would be if they still had Amir Coffey. Or if Iowa still had Tyler Cook. Or if Michigan State still had Nick Ward.
College basketball teams are used to seeing players leave school early for the NBA. But those players were among the record number who bolted and weren’t even drafted.
The chance to be veteran leaders and cement their legacies at their respective programs was outweighed by a determination to be part of the NBA pipeline, even if that meant a start in the G-League. Their schools have been left to fend without them, with the void clearly noticeable, especially for the 4-4 Gophers.
It’s not just a Big Ten issue, either. Eighty-one underclassmen declared for the 2019 NBA draft, and 41 went undrafted, a reported record for players with college eligibility remaining.
“You got a broken system here,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said.
Attrition is inevitable in college basketball. There is an ongoing transfer epidemic, with more than 500 players swapping schools before this season. But some programs are even less prepared for something more unpredictable — this trend of players leaving for the NBA, despite signs they won’t be drafted.
“It’s just interesting when you look at a team and what you project [for the following season],” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “An old team can turn back into a young team.”
The Gophers advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament last year and had visions of an even longer run with Coffey back as a senior. The 6-8 guard averaged 23.5 points over the team’s final eight games last season. Pitino envisioned the former Hopkins star teaming with transfers Marcus Carr and Payton Willis and Gabe Kalscheur to make one of the deepest backcourts in the country.
Without Coffey, that backcourt has been inconsistent through eight games. One elite player leaving or staying can make that much of a difference.
“I thought Amir would be a senior,” Pitino said. “But it doesn’t mean we can’t win games. I’m not making excuses.”
Pitino is not alone in trying to overcome the loss of his best player who had college eligibility remaining. Eight underclassmen who were named All-Big Ten last season decided not to return, up from five the previous season.
Michigan State got Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston back and drew the nation’s preseason No. 1 ranking. But missing Ward’s inside presence, they fell from the top 10 and just took a 15-point loss at home to Duke.
“We do forget [Ward] was averaging 15 a game when he went out [with an injury last season],” coach Tom Izzo said. “We don’t have the low-post scoring like we had with Nick.”
Iowa is 6-3, but without Cook, last year’s leading scorer and rebounder, all of its frontcourt hopes ride on Luke Garza, who leads the Big Ten in scoring at 22.7 points per game. Like the Gophers, the Hawkeyes are severely lacking depth inside.
Nebraska will struggle to stay out of the Big Ten basement under first-year coach Fred Hoiberg. The Cornhuskers lost most of their roster, including Isaiah Roby, who now plays in the G-League.
Purdue has been up and down without Carsen Edwards, last season’s Big Ten leading scorer. Painter knew it was the right time for Edwards to leave after three years, but he doesn’t understand others across the country bolting before they’re ready for the next level.
“Just come back to school for one more year and [dominate] people,” Painter said.
“For a while you had 10 to 16 undergrad guys not getting drafted,” Painter said, noting the contrast to the 41 NCAA players who left early and went undrafted a year ago. “That’s OK. That’s their decision. That’s a very small number. There’s nothing wrong with that. The number we’ve got now [isn’t good].”
The Big Ten still has talent. Top-10 teams Michigan, Ohio State and Maryland are benefiting from several of their top players returning. Michigan lost more key players early than anyone in the Big Ten, with Iggy Brazdeikis and Jordan Poole becoming first-round picks. But new coach Juwan Howard’s team recently climbed to No. 4 after beating top-10 opponents North Carolina and Oregon.
Maryland’s Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith and Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson tested the draft process before returning to school, feeling they had unfinished business to compete for a championship. Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu and Penn State’s Lamar Stevens are back hoping to end long NCAA tournament droughts for their programs.
“Everyone’s story is different,” Dosunmu said. “I felt like it was the best decision for me and my family to come back and win and try to be better than I was last year.”
These days, Coffey is in the NBA, but he’s recovering from an ankle injury. He has a two-way deal with the Los Angeles Clippers that allows the team to move him back and forth from the G-League but no more than 45 days with their NBA roster.
Meanwhile, Pitino has a newcomer-laden roster, built around center Daniel Oturu. The Gophers had a rough start with a nonconference schedule ranked the nation’s fourth-toughest by opponent win percentage. All four Gophers losses have come against Power Six conference teams.
They’re trying to focus on how they can win with what they have going into Big Ten play. Pitino has repeatedly said he supported Coffey’s decision.
“We’re proud of him,” Pitino said.
But future situations will arise when an underclassman is a borderline NBA pick with a chance to stay and lead the team on a deep NCAA tournament run. Pitino said he hopes “we can make guys understand how good of an experience college is.”