Busting Brackets
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Big Ten Basketball: 5 early breakout candidates to watch for 2023-24 season

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - MARCH 09: Derek Simpson #0 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights dribbles against the Michigan Wolverines during the second round of the Big Ten Tournament at United Center on March 09, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - MARCH 09: Derek Simpson #0 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights dribbles against the Michigan Wolverines during the second round of the Big Ten Tournament at United Center on March 09, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /
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Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports /

Dain Dainja, F/C, Illinois

I waffled back and forth on whether to include Dain Dainja on this list, as the Illinois big made 20 starts last season and is already an established name. However, I think the physically imposing big man has only scratched the surface of what he can be in this conference. I firmly believe there’s another level Dainja can reach and cement himself as not just one of the best big men in the Big Ten, but among the best nationally.

2022-23 was the first season for Dainja at Illinois, as he previously spent two seasons with Baylor. Dainja didn’t have the chance to make much of an impression in Waco, as he redshirted his first year and decided to transfer after just three games in 2021-22. With Illinois missing Kofi Cockburn, Dainja acclimated quickly and played a leading role. There were plenty of growing pains, but he still finished with averages of 9.7 PPG and 5.5 RPG, while shooting 64% from the field. Foul trouble was an issue at times, but he still proved to be a capable rim protector, averaging over one block per contest. As we look ahead to next winter, Dainja should benefit from a full offseason with the Illini and another year in Brad Underwood’s system.

One thing, in particular, I’m watching with Dainja is his conditioning. He actually moves pretty well for a player of his size (6’9″, 270 pounds) but I do wonder how much of a force he could be if he was able to play deeper into games. He has plenty of physical tools, as a powerful, forceful big with nice touch around the rim. But, that conditioning could be the thing that separates him from being merely a “good” player to a truly “elite” one.