Whoa. It’s basketball season already. How did that happen? Penn State fans are feeling surprisingly optimistic about the upcoming campaign thanks to an exhibition win at West Virginia, but there’s a lot of talent returning to other Big Ten programs. How does the conference stack up? I’ve divided the league into five categories.
1) Teams that were successful last year and are returning a lot of talent
2) Teams that were successful last year and are likely to take a step back
3) Teams that disappointed last year but are likely to rebound
4) Teams that finished in the middle last year and will probably stay in the middle
5) Teams that were bad and will stay bad
This isn’t a projected order of finish! You probably want one of those, though, so here goes.
Michigan State, Purdue, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Maryland, Penn State, Iowa, Northwestern, Minnesota, Ohio State, Illinois, Rutgers
Still on top
Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. are off to the NBA, but the Spartans still return several key players. Cassius Winston figures to be the premier point guard in the conference, while Joshua Langford should have more scoring chances now that Bridges has departed. The most important player for Tom Izzo, though, is Nick Ward. The big man from Ohio averaged less than 20 minutes per game last season, but still managed to grab seven rebounds and score 12 points per contest. If he’s bumped up to 30 or 35 minutes, he could be the Big Ten’s most dominant player.
Nebraska did not have a tough schedule last year, hence its NIT selection despite a sterling 13-5 conference record. However, the Cornhuskers ought to be even better this season due to the return of point guard Glynn Watson Jr. and star swingman James Palmer Jr. Plus, with games like Clemson, Seton Hall, Creighton, and Oklahoma State on the non-conference schedule, Nebraska will have plenty of chances to bolster its resume in the early going.
Not as good as last year
Carsen Edwards is an early frontrunner for Big Ten Player of the Year, but what does he have around him? Isaac Haas, Vincent Edwards, and Dakota Mathias are all gone, but Matt Haarms should take over the Haas role as a dominant big man. Plus, Nojel Eastern showed flashes of talent last year and is a breakout candidate. Another player who could help the Boilers get back to the top of the league is Evan Boudreaux, an experienced transfer from Dartmouth who promises to offer plenty of scoring and rebounding from the power forward spot.
Last season, the Buckeyes were the surprise team of the Big Ten as new head coach Chris Holtmann and do-everything forward Keita Bates-Diop led the team to 15 conference wins. The 2018-19 campaign might be more of a struggle now that Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate have departed. This new-look team will rely a lot on returning big man Kaleb Wesson, point guard C.J. Jackson, and graduate transfer shooting guard Keyshawn Woods.
The experts like Michigan to take a small step back from last year, and it’s hard to doubt John Beilein with all his recent success. However, I think this team could struggle to make the NCAA Tournament due to all the talent it’s losing. Charles Matthews will be the new focal point of the offense, but the success of the Wolverines will depend on last year’s supporting cast stepping up into larger roles. Guards Zavier Simpson and Jordan Poole as well as center Jon Teske will be the guys to watch in the early going.
These guys are climbing
Wisconsin’s disappointing 2017-18 campaign left fans wondering if it could return to excellence without Bo Ryan at the helm. This season will be one for Greg Gard to prove he has what it takes to return the Badgers to greatness. The head coach is bringing back pretty much everyone from last year’s deep roster, including the dominant interior force Ethan Happ and Brad Davison, a sophomore guard who could develop into one of the Big Ten’s top scorers in 2018-19.
Nate Mason has finally exhausted his eligibility, but the Gophers still have plenty of talent remaining with Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey on board. Isaiah Washington is an experienced ball-handler who should do a decent job filling in at point guard, and Brock Stull, a transfer from Milwaukee, will stretch the floor with his shooting skills. After last season’s stop backward, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Richard Pitino return his team to the NCAA Tournament.
Iowa is bringing back every starter from last year’s team that sported one of the top offenses in the country. Now all head coach Fran McCaffery has to do is get his team to play some defense. The Hawkeyes were dreadful at stopping opponents in 2017-18, but they could be a major riser this winter if they just get a little better at making opposing shooters uncomfortable. On offense, Jordan Bohannon could develop into one of the top point guards in the nation with the way he distributes the ball and knocks down threes.
Stuck in the middle
Hopefully the Lions will do a lot of climbing this season, but with Tony Carr gone and Mike Watkins’s future uncertain, there are reasons to doubt the 2018 NIT champions. There are also sources of optimism, though. Lamar Stevens has the talent to replace Carr as the team’s star player and lead scorer, while Josh Reaves should be even more tenacious as he causes havoc on both ends of the floor. After the exhibition game in West Virginia, it looks like Myles Dread could be a major factor from long distance, and that would go a long way towards replacing Shep Garner’s production.
Juwan Morgan is a beast, and he ought to lead Indiana in scoring and rebounding once again. The bad news is that he was quite excellent last year and the Hoosiers still finished conference play with a .500 record. Taking a step forward this season will mean getting a great performance from super recruit Romeo Langford. With Robert Johnson and Josh Newkirk out of the picture, there’s a big scoring void to fill in the backcourt, so Langford shouldn’t have to beg for shots.
The Terps bring back experienced point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and last year’s freshman sensation big man Bruno Fernando. That’s a good foundation for any team, but there are a lot of question marks in between thanks to the loss of Kevin Huerter, Dion Wiley, and Jared Nickens. Darryl Morsell will start at the two or the three, but he’s got to develop a better jumper if Maryland is to space the floor properly. Incoming freshmen Aaron Wiggins and Jalen Smith will have to contribute right away if this team is to contend for the NCAA Tournament.
The frontcourt for Northwestern should be strong with the returns of Vic Law and Dererk Pardon, but both starting guards from last year’s team are gone. Enter Ryan Taylor, a grad transfer shooting guard who led the Missouri Valley Conference in scoring last year while with Evansville. How Taylor transitions to the Big Ten will be a major factor in Northwestern’s postseason hopes, but the team also needs to replace Bryant McIntosh’s presence at point guard.
Top recruit Ayo Dosunmu and last year’s intriguing freshman Trent Frazier form a talented backcourt that could help the Illini surpass expectations this season. However, with Leron Black moving on, it doesn’t look like there’s enough experienced talent elsewhere on the roster to return Illinois to the top of the Big Ten just yet.
Rutgers wasn’t very good last season, and now they’ll be without Corey Sanders and Deshawn Freeman. That doesn’t spell good news for the program’s 2018-19 prospects, but it will be interesting to see how Geo Baker meshes with incoming freshman Montez Mathis in the backcourt. Elsewhere, maybe big man Shaquille Doorson will finally fulfill his potential.