Last summer, D'Angelo Russell stood on the sideline of a Louisville playground during an annual streetball tourney. Surrounded by a group of friends, he mentioned that he wanted to participate in the event but refused to risk injury.
So instead, he just stood there.
He didn't say much. But everyone in the park noticed him. And Russell bathed in that attention.
He had this "you don't know me yet, but you'll definitely know me soon" swagger that you can't fake. This slight lean to the right. This brash glare.
And there it was again on Thursday night in Ohio State's 80-56 upset over No. 16 Maryland, in which Russell finished with 18 points (4-for-6 from the 3-point line), 14 rebounds, six assists, two steals and zero turnovers.
Oh, that's the 3-point line? I'd rather stand 5 feet behind it. That ball? I'll fling it through the lane like I'm skipping rocks in a pond. These NBA scouts in the building wondering if I'm the real the deal? You see that pass? The answer is yes. Yes, I am.
The Big Ten has been the Big Flop throughout the season. And that's unusual. The league is often mentioned in conversations about the best conferences in America.
In 2012, the Big Ten secured six bids to the NCAA tournament. In 2013, there were seven berths and six more in last year's Big Dance. Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology projects six more bids this season. That's the norm.
But most of the potential tourney teams from this year's Big Ten look like programs that won't reach the second weekend of March Madness. The Big Ten produces contenders. Outside Madison, however, who in the league can compete for the national championship?
And if the Big Ten is not as entertaining as it has been in the past, and if its talent level is down, why watch?
That's why the conference needs Russell. You have to pay attention to him.
Caris LeVert is hurt, and although Michigan is off to a surprising start in conference play, it has fallen short of preseason expectations thus far. This isn't the typical gritty, reliable Michigan State squad. Iowa is up and down. Nebraska went from NCAA tournament team to a squad that could play its way out of the NIT field. Minnesota is 2-7 in Big Ten play. Indiana beat Maryland by 19 but lost to Purdue by double digits on Wednesday night. Maryland has lost its past two Big Ten road games by an average of 21.5 PPG.
Only two teams in the league (Nebraska and Maryland) are ranked among the top 40 in defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy.
Big Ten basketball is usually exciting this time of year. Right now? It's unremarkable.
But maybe Russell can change that.
The future lottery pick is clearly a dribbling, driving, shooting, dunking, And1 Mixtape Tour-passing storyline. Ohio State's defense continues to improve, and the team is on a three-game winning streak. The Buckeyes have won four of their past five. They're in second place in the league, and they won't see Maryland again this season. Plus, their only matchup against first-place Wisconsin will be on March 8 in Columbus.
And they're led by a young star, which also helps.
Right now, Ohio State has the best chance to make the Big Ten a legit race. Russell's I'm-the-man-all-day style is appealing.
Sure, Ohio State could collapse in the coming games like the rest of the league and ruin its outside shot to pursue a Big Ten title. Maybe Russell will finally compete like a freshman and struggle in the spotlight the way that fellow freshman wing Melo Trimble (0-for-8, three points) did on Thursday night for Maryland.
But at least Russell gives us a reason to watch Big Ten basketball and find out.