We conclude our preseason basketball coverage by looking at the Big Ten overall, and projecting where each team will likely be at the end of the season.* The big takeaway from last season was youth, and that youth will be on display this season. Several teams return most starters from a year ago, making the conference one of the most balanced in the entire country. Whether that translates to the best in the country, we shall see.
Below are each team based on the tiers they should be expected to reside. They could finish in any order within those tiers, and are listed in the order of finish I believe they will have within said tier.**
Tier Michigan State
Michigan State Spartans
Returning Contributors: Basically everyone. Namely Miles Bridges, Cassius Winston, Josh Langford, Nick Ward, Matt McQuaid, and Tum Tum Narin.
Key Losses: Eron Harris, Alvin Ellis III
New Additions: Jaren Jackson, Xavier Tillman
Michigan State has all the star power to run through the Big Ten like a hot knife runs through butter. Miles Bridges electing to return for his sophomore season, something Tom Izzo apparently advised against, made Michigan State go from a good team expected to have a Michgian State type of year to a downright national title contender. The Spartans matched their best preseason ranking at #2, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they stay there for most of the year.
Because it’s nearly impossible to go undefeated in basketball, and because Tom Izzo likes to play tough teams early, expect a few losses here and there, but that’s about it. This team is as complete as one could ever hope.
Returning Contributors: Isaac Haas, Carsen Edwards, Vincent Edwards, Dakota Mathias, Ryan Cline, P.J. Thompson
Key Losses: Caleb Swanigan
New Additions: Nojel Eastern, Aaron Wheeler, Eden Ewing
Purdue, like Michigan State, returns a bulk of their production from last season. Unlike Michigan State, however, they lose a key player in Swanigan. Isaac Haas has the ability to produce inside, but he lacks the versatility Swanigan gave the Boilermakers, being able to play both inside and out. This is still a team with too much returning and will be a tough out against whoever they play for most of the season.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Returning Contributors: Nate Mason, Reggie Lynch, Jordan Murphy, Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer, Eric Curry
Key Losses: Akeem Springs
New Additions: Isaiah Washington (not that one), Jamir Harris
Minnesota is yet another team that didn’t lose much from last season, and adds a new key piece in Isaiah Washington. The Golden Gophers will be poised to continue the positive momentum they started a season ago, being right in the thick of the Big Ten race throughout. Amir Coffey could end up being one of the best guards in the Big Ten at season’s end, and along with the rest of the cast, will be a matchup nightmare for the rest of of the Big Ten.
Returning Contributors: Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law, Derek Pardon, Gavin Skelly
Key Losses: Sanjay Lumpkin, Nathan Taphorn
New Additions: Anthony Gaines
The astute of you are sensing a team here. The top four teams in the conference so far have been tournament teams from last season who return nearly everyone. Not listed above for Northwestern is Aaron Falzon, who missed last season with an injury and is ready to go this season. Of the top teams, Northwestern has the most precarious situation, with the combination of having been to the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever last season, and not playing home games at Welsh-Ryan Arena due to renovations. Can the Wildcats play with expectations? Will the fans show up to the more inconvenient Allstate Arena? We’ll soon find out. The team still has the talent to compete at a high level, so if they can get rid of the distractions they should stay at top of the conference.
Returning Contributors: Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson
Key Losses: D.J. Wilson, Derrick Walton Jr., Zak Irvin, Mark Donnal
New Additions: Charles Matthews, Jaaron Simmons, Isaiah Livers, Jordan Poole, Eli Brooks
If I end up being totally wrong about a team, this Michigan squad will likely be the culprit. Of all teams expected to compete in the Big Ten this season, Michigan lost the most production. However, John Beilein has proven time and time again that he’s able to turn young teams into contenders quickly, and he’ll have to do it again this season if he wants to stay at the top of the Big Ten. Matthews and Simmons, transfers from Kentucky and Ohio, respectively, should provide some needed experience to the roster, and if they can click early, this team should still be very good.
Returning Contributors: Everyone except Peter Jok
Key Losses: Peter Jok
New Additions: Connor McCaffrey, Luka Garza
Isn’t it fun when the coach’s son also happens to be good at basketball? Connor McCaffrey was probably the most obvious commitment ever, but he adds versatility to the Hawkeyes nonetheless. Losing Peter Jok will hurt early, and the news of Nick Baer missing three to four weeks due to injury makes matters worse early, but he should be back for Big Ten play. I wouldn’t be surprised if Iowa ends up competing for a conference championship when it’s all said and done.
Returning Contributors: Ethan Happ, D'Mitrik Trice, Khalil Iverson
Key Losses: Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, Zak Showalter, Vitto Brown
New Additions: Nathan Reuvers
The Badgers are, admittedly, in this spot solely due to reputation. Wisconsin has finished at or above fourth*** in the conference for almost 20 years, and while Bo Ryan isn’t the head coach anymore, there’s no reason to doubt Greg Gard will fall off a cliff just because he only returns one starter from last season. That said, they did heavily rely on their senior starters last season, which left the rest of their cast with very few minutes of experience. Like the two teams above, don’t be surprised if Wisconsin either competes for a championship or tanks. We’ll find out soon enough.
Returning Contributors: Kevin Huerter, Anthony Cowan, Michal Cekovsky, Justin Jackson (not the ball carrier), Jared Nickens
Key Losses: Melo Trimble, Damonte Dodd, L.G. Gill
New Additions: Bruno Fernando, Darryl Morsell
Maryland is in a precarious situation right now. Mark Turgeon has had two distinct types of Terrapins teams on his tenure: those with Melo Trimble, and those without Melo Trimble. With Melo, he has competed for conference titles and made the tournament every season. Without Melo, he’s wallowed in mediocrity, missing the tournament every season. His teams haven’t really lacked talent in any of his seasons at Maryland (they are Maryland, after all), but the results would indicate that one player carried the team.
That said, this year’s team will be the most talented he’s had in College Park, and his three freshmen proved to be able to carry the team then, and should continue to do so moving forward. Will life after Melo see a dip in production? We should know early enough, as Maryland plays Butler on November 15.
Penn State Nittany Lions
If Tier 2 was defined by a group of teams returning everyone from a tournament season, Tier 3 is defined by a group of teams who could easily compete for the top of the conference, or find a comfortable spot at the very bottom. We’ve covered the Nittany Lions extensively over the past moth, so everyone should be aware of what this team returns this season. The Nittany Lions, like the rest of the teams in Tier 3, have the experience and talent to compete with most of the teams above them, and certainly the teams below, but they also have enough question marks that putting them above this spot becomes kind of questionable.
Returning Contributors: Robert Johnson, Juwan Morgan, Collin Hartman
Key Losses: OG Anunoby, James Blackmon Jr., Thomas Bryant
New Additions: Justin Smith, Race Thompson, Clifton Moore, Aljami Durham
There’s little doubt in my mind that Archie Miller will have Indiana right in the thick of the Big Ten title race fairly quickly, but I don’t know that as quickly as “in his first season.” The Hoosiers will never be devoid of talent, but losing Anunoby, Blackmon, and Bryant all in one offseason is going to hurt. They could play like a Tier 3, even Tier 2 team by the end of the season, but the lack of experience coupled with their impossible schedule will probably keep them at the bottom of the rankings this year.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Returning Contributors: Keita Bates-Diop, Jae’Sean Tate, Kam Williams, Micah Potter
Key Losses: Marc Loving, JaQuan Lyle, Trevor Thompson,
New Additions: Kaleb Wesson, Kyle Young, Musa Jallow, Andrew Dakich
Ohio State is in the same spot as Indiana, where there’s little doubt that Chris Holtmann will make Ohio State competitive, but that is probably not happening this season. The Buckeyes, like the Hoosiers, have some pieces returning, but lost too much contributing talent (along with some key recruits) to be able to compete right away. How much the new freshmen contribute will dictate how good Ohio State ends up being this season.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Returning Contributors: Michael Finke, Leron Black
Key Losses: A LOT OF PEOPLE, namely Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, Mike Thorne Jr., Tracy Abrams, Jalen Coleman-Lands, D.J. Williams, Kendrick Nunn
New Additions: Da’Monte Williams, Mark Alstork, Trent Frazier, Mark Smith, Greg Eboigbodin, Matic Vesel.
Another team with a new coach, Brian Underwood has his work cut out for him in Champaign. He lost basically everyone from a year ago, including Malcolm Hill, Illinois’ most dependable player for seemingly 19 seasons. The Illini will struggle to stay competitive, but just like the two coaches above, it won’t take long before Underwood has Illinois back at the top of the conference.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Returning Contributors: Corey Sanders, Mike Williams, Deshawn Freeman, Candido Sa
Key Losses: Nigel Johnson, C.J. Gettys, Jonathan Laurent
New Additions: Geo Baker, Souf Mensah, Myles Johnson
Steve Pikiell’s second year with the Scarlet Knights should show some improvement, and having a schedule that sees you not leave the RAC for the entire out of conference slate**** should help with the record. Pikiell is bringing in pieces slowly but surely, and his core from last season is still in place, so improvement should be expected. It just won’t be enough to overcome any of the teams ahead of them.
Returning Contributors: Glynn Watson Jr., Anton Gill, Isaiah Roby, Jordy TshimangaJack McVeigh
Key Losses: Tai Webster, Ed Morrow, Michael Jacobson, Jeriah Horne, Nick Fuller
New Additions: Isaac Copeland, James Palmer, Thomas Allen, Nana Akenten
Nebraska fans are patiently awaiting to see if Tim Miles can replicate the magic from the 2013-14 season. The Huskers were ready to return a good core from last season’s inconsistent, but surprising team, but four players transferred out at the end of the season, leaving the head coach scrambling to figure things out. He added a few pieces in Copeland and Palmer, transfers from Georgetown and Miami, respectively. Will the new players be enough to replicate the magic? If not, Nebraska will likely have a new coach next season.
*In other words, I’m going to be totally wrong about half of these and will be taken to task accordingly.
***Some of those are of the “really 7th but ties are ties” variety.
****You read that right. Rutgers plays 12 home games out of conference. They play on the road once in their first 14 games.