Illinois, Indiana both building with talented freshmen
This season has been about growing up for Illinois and Indiana.
Last season, the experienced and talented Hoosiers were a No. 1 seed in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. The Illini advanced to the second game of both tournaments.
When Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo left for the NBA, the Hoosiers started over, folding in seven freshmen. When Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson exhausted their eligibility, it was an obvious rebuilding year for the Illini with seven newcomers.
"From a newcomer standpoint, us and Indiana were the two youngest teams in the league at the outset of the season by a landslide," Illinois coach John Groce said. "They get to this time of year, you try to tell them you're not freshmen anymore. You're 30-plus games in."
Those matured players will be on display Thursday in Indianapolis, where the ninth-seeded Illini and eighth-seeded Hoosiers will kick off the Big Ten tournament. The winner will face No. 1 seed Michigan on Friday.
For the Illini, freshmen Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill and Maverick Morgan have seen their roles expand. Hill and Nunn have started the last eight games, providing a much-needed spark.
Indiana's freshmen also have taken on bigger roles, although forward Noah Vonleh has had an impact all season. The Big Ten freshman of the year leads the conference with 9.1 rebounds per game.
Forward Troy Williams and guard Stanford Robinson have emerged lately. Williams averaged 17 points over the last two games, while Robinson scored 17 in a victory over Iowa on Feb. 27 and added 13 in Saturday's loss at Michigan. And forward Devin Davis earned positive minutes, while Vonleh sat out with a foot injury.
"You can tell he's getting more comfortable," Groce said of Williams. "The last time we played in Indiana, I was impressed with Stanford Robinson's improvement. Obviously Vonleh's production and what he has done for them this year is well-documented."
The same is true of Nunn and Hill.
Nunn shoots 53.7 percent and averages 12.1 points as a starter, including two 19-point performances. Hill has scored 6.1 per game since being inserted into the starting role, shooting 41 percent.
Indiana coach Tom Crean seemed especially impressed with Nunn, whom he compared to Oladipo, the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft by the Magic and a top rookie of the year candidate. Crean noted Nunn's offensive game is better at this stage of his career than Oladipo's was.
"Nunn with more minutes provides a little bit more explosiveness to their game," Crean said. "That creates things for other people. He's a very high-energy player. … People at the beginning of the season weren't as locked into [him]. They are now."
That's the case for both team's freshmen.