College basketball is back, which means it’s time to preview another year in the always-deep Big Ten.
After featuring a Final Four team last season in the Michigan State Spartans, the Big Ten again figures to be one of the deepest conferences in the country. Noted ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi projects seven teams from the Big Ten to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, with two more on the bubble as of his Nov. 4 bracket release.
While it may be a rebuilding season in Lincoln, the Big Ten offers some of the most competitive basketball in the country. Let’s take a closer look at this year’s squads in this week’s Big Ten power rankings.
1. Michigan State Spartans
This one is a no-brainer. The Spartans, a Final Four team from a year ago, return their most important player in senior guard Cassius Winston.
Winston, a unanimous AP Preseason All-American and Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year, is complemented by a talented supporting cast that most notably includes talented junior big man Xavier Tillman (10 points per game, 7.3 rebounds per game in 2018) and sophomore forward Aaron Henry (6.1 points per game, 1.6 assists per game in 2018).
And if that’s not enough, the Spartans expect to have senior guard Joshua Langford (15 points per game, 3.6 assists per game) back in the lineup in January after an ankle injury derailed his 2018-19 campaign. Top that with the fact that the Spartans brought in a strong recruiting class, and you’re left with a team that should be playing into late March and early April.
2. Maryland Terrapins
Despite the loss of forward Bruno Fernando to the NBA Draft, the Terrapins return some talented players from a squad that made the Round of 32 last season.
Senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. (15.6 points per game, 4.4 assists per game in 2018) will lead the backcourt. While Maryland graduated one talented forward, it retained another in 6-foot-10 sophomore Jalen Smith, who averaged 11.7 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game last season with Fernando on the floor.
After Cowan and Smith, look for sophomore guards Eric Ayala (40.6% 3-point percentage in 2018-19) and Aaron Wiggins to provide third and fourth scoring options for the Terrapins. It’s probable that Maryland will play in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament come March.
3. Purdue Boilermakers
Matt Painter is an incredible coach, and I don’t doubt he will have the Boilermakers near the top of the Big Ten — even after losing dynamic guard Carsen Edwards to the NBA Draft.
Purdue returns junior 7-foot-3 center Matt Haarms (9.4 points per game, 5.4 rebounds per game in 2018-19), but other Boilermakers will need to step up to replace the production of Edwards. Fortunately, Purdue also returns a matchup problem in 6-foot-7 junior guard Nojel Eastern while bringing in graduate transfer guard Jahaad Proctor (19.5 points per game, 3.3 assists per game at High Point in 2018-19).
Unlike last year, the Boilermakers figure to be a better defensive unit. However, it will need to figure out its identity in the post-Edwards era quickly, as Purdue faces Texas, Marquette, VCU and Virginia over the next month.
4. Ohio State Buckeyes
Out of the Boilermakers, Terrapins and Buckeyes, Ohio State may have the most upside of the bunch, but I’m counting on early-season chemistry issues to be a problem for Chris Holtman’s squad before piecing it together as the season rolls along.
The Buckeyes return a good chunk of last year’s roster highlighted by the Wesson brothers, Kaleb and Andre. Sophomore guard Luther Muhammad looks poised for a breakout campaign after averaging 7.6 points per game last season.
Freshman four-star guard DJ Carton and junior transfer forward CJ Walker round out a Buckeye squad that figures to make some noise in the Big Ten this season.
5. Wisconsin Badgers
With forward Ethan Happ gone, I think this Wisconsin team will be more balanced than last year’s version, resulting in another successful season in the Big Ten for the Badgers.
For starters, the Badgers boast an experienced backcourt led by junior guards D’Mitrik Trice (11.6 points per game in 2018-19) and Brad Davison (10.5 points per game in 2018-19), both of which are above-average 3-point shooters. Junior forward Nate Reuvers will look to elevate his play and own the paint for Wisconsin after averaging a modest 7.9 points per game and 3.9 rebounds per game last season.
Wisconsin brings experience off the bench in senior guard Brevin Pritzl and junior forward Micah Potter, an Ohio State transfer. Head coach Greg Gard brings back an experienced crew that should finish in the top half of the conference and earn an NCAA Tournament berth.
6. Michigan Wolverines
The middle of the Big Ten is truly up for grabs, but I feel that new head coach Juwan Howard will have the Wolverines trending in the right direction come conference play to finish in the top half of the Big Ten.
While the Wolverines did lose three starters from last season’s Sweet 16 squad, they do return key players like senior guard Zavier Simpson (8.8 points per game, 6.6 assists per game in 2018-19), 7-foot-1 senior center John Teske (9.5 points per game, 7 rebounds per game in 2018-19) and junior forward Isiah Livers (7.9 points per game, 3.9 rebounds per game in 2018-19).
Freshman Cole Bajema and Franz Wagner (Moritz Wagner’s brother) should provide the Wolverines with some depth. If things go according to plan, Howard should guide the Wolverines to an NCAA Tournament appearance in his first year in Ann Arbor behind an experienced core.
7. Illinois Fighting Illini
Many pundits and media members believe the Illini will break their six-year NCAA Tournament drought in 2019, and they have the talent and returning depth to get it done.
Illinois returns 85% of its scoring production from last season, led by a potential NBA lottery pick in sophomore Ayo Dosunmu. Dosunmu, who averaged 13.8 points per game last season, was named to the Naismith Trophy Watch List before the start of the season, an award that goes to the best player in college basketball.
Pair Dosunmu with sophomore forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili (12.5 points per game, 5.2 rebounds per game last season) and a top-50 recruit in freshman 6-foot-10 center Kofi Cockburn, and you’re left with an Illini squad destined to return to the NCAA Tournament.
I’m a bit more bearish on the Illini than most, only because I feel that it will take some time for them to gel before they hit their stride. Head coach Brad Underwood has the talent to bring postseason basketball back to the Illini in 2019-20, but if he doesn’t, his time in Champagne may be running out.
8. Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes are the ultimate unknown in the Big Ten, mainly because of the uncertainty surrounding the health of senior guard Jordan Bohannon (11.6 points per game, 3.4 assists per game in 2018-19).
Bohannon, who is dealing with a hip injury, appeared to be Iowa’s main weapon after losing four players from last year’s squad that made the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. If Bohannon is out for an extended period of time, look for sophomore guard Joe Weiskamp (11.1 points per game, 4.9 rebounds per game and 42.4% on 3-pointers in 2018-19) to pace the Hawkeyes’ offense.
Inside, Iowa returns 6-foot-11 junior center Luka Garza (13.1 points per game, 4.5 rebounds per game in 2018-19). However, the most interesting part of Iowa’s season will be how well head coach Fran McCaffrey’s sons, sophomore guard Connor McCaffrey and four-star freshman small forward Patrick McCaffrey, play.
If Bohannon is out for an extended amount of time or even the entire 2019-20 season, the Hawkeyes will not go dancing unless Weiskamp, Garza and the McCaffreys step up and have dominant seasons. With Bohannon healthy, the Hawkeyes could be a sleeper pick to make a surprise NCAA Tournament run.
9. Indiana Hoosiers
The Hoosiers enter 2019-20 as an unproven bunch after losing two key players in Romeo Langford and Juwan Morgan. However, Indiana does return three starters, but they’ll need to step up in head coach Archie Miller’s third season in Bloomington.
Junior guard Aljami Durham (8.3 points per game in 2018-19), junior forward Justin Smith (8.2 points per game in 2018-19) and sophomore guard Rob Phinisee (6.8 points per game) all return to Indiana’s starting five, but one (or more) of the three needs to have a breakout season in order for the Hoosiers to keep pace in the Big Ten.
To complement the returning three starters, Indiana will look for junior 6-foot-11 Butler transfer forward Joey Brunk to man the paint. All in all, this is an NIT team at best, but December tests against Notre Dame, Arkansas, UConn and Florida State will help determine whether or not the Hoosiers are a legitimate threat to crash the top half of the Big Ten standings.
10. Penn State Nittany Lions
The Nittany Lions, an inconsistent team in 2018-19, are propelled by star senior forward Lamar Stevens (19.9 points per game, 7.7 rebounds per game in 2018-19) and will look for an NCAA Tournament appearance in his final year in Happy Valley.
Penn State has the pieces surrounding Stevens to make those dreams a reality in senior forward Mike Watkins (7.8 points per game, 7.4 rebounds per game in 2018-19) and sophomore guard Myles Dread (8.3 points per game in 2018-19.) Senior transfer guard Curtis Jones (8.1 points per game at Oklahoma State in 2018-19) also looks to heavily contribute in the Nittany Lions’ offense.
However, Penn State will go nowhere if it fails to play with any consistency like it did last season. On any given night, no one knew which Nittany Lions squad would show up. Would it be the team that beat 2019 NCAA Tournament participants Virginia Tech, Michigan and Maryland? Or, the team that loss games to Bradley, DePaul and Rutgers?
If the Nittany Lions can play with consistency, this team will exceed its low ranking and shoot towards the middle of the conference standings. If not, it will be another frustrating season for head coach Pat Chambers.
The best of the rest
11. Minnesota Golden Gophers
12. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
13. Northwestern Wildcats
14. Nebraska Cornhuskers