By Kevin Sweeney
Next in our preview series (albeit a slightly delayed one due to that thing called school) is the Big Ten, one of the top conferences in the nation. I’m excited to increase my coverage of the league this year, as I am a student at Northwestern and will try to bring you guys as much coverage of the league as a whole as possible. Of note: so far no Big Ten teams have been wrapped up in the NCAA corruption scandal that rocked college basketball in recent days. Let’s get into it:
- Michigan State- National Player of the Year frontrunner Miles Bridges leads the way for a Spartan team that is as complete as any squad in the country. Look for a big jump from sophomore point guard Cassius Winston, who definitely showed promise as a freshman.
- Minnesota- I really like this Minnesota roster. They have a senior star in Nate Mason running the show, and the super-talented Amir Coffey poised to have a big year on the wing. Frontcourt depth is a bit of a concern with Eric Curry out for the year, so Reggie Lynch MUST stay out of foul trouble.
- Northwestern- A veteran club coming off its first NCAA Tournament berth in program history, the Wildcats should be even better this season. A legitimate top 25 club entering the year. One concern: how will playing home games 20 miles off campus at Allstate Arena affect this NU team?
- Purdue- Caleb Swanigan is gone, but plenty of talent remains for Matt Painter’s club. A pair of all Big Ten-level talents in Vincent Edwards and Carsen Edwards (no relation) should carry the load, but this Boilermaker team is deep and versatile.
- Maryland- I’m super high on the sophomore trio of Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter, and Justin Jackson. Even without Melo Trimble, I really like this Maryland team to make noise in the Big Ten.
- Iowa- Another team that features a loaded sophomore class in Jordan Bohannon, Isaiah Moss, Tyler Cook, and Cordell Pemsl. After just missing the NCAA Tournament a season ago, look for the Hawkeyes to return to the Big Dance for the 4th time in the last 5 years under Fran McCaffery.
- Wisconsin- Such a tough team to call. I feel almost criminal betting against this Wisconsin program that is as consistent as any in the country. However, I have major questions about that roster beyond star big man Ethan Happ. Guys like sophomore D’Mitrik Trice & Brevin Pritzl must step up.
- Michigan- John Beilein’s club suffers heavy losses from last year’s Sweet 16 team, with Derrick Walton Jr, Zach Irvin, and DJ Wilson all gone. However, skilled big man Mo Wagner is a star and the Wolverines add backcourt reinforcements in Jaaron Simmons (grad transfer from Ohio) and Charles Matthews (transfer from Kentucky).
- Illinois- Year 1 of the Brad Underwood era is certainly one of transition, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this team make some noise. Highly-touted freshman guard Mark Smith has drawn comparisons to Thomas Walkup (who Underwood coached at Stephen F. Austin), while the Illini have the athletes to thrive in Underwood’s uptempo system.
- Indiana- Another team in transition in Archie Miller’s first season in Bloomington, the Hoosiers do have some solid pieces. Robert Johnson is an excellent scorer on the wing, and the frontcourt pairing of Juwan Morgan and De’Ron Davis could wind up being one of the better ones in the Big Ten. Josh Newkirk will have to improve as a point guard if the Hoosiers are going to contend for an NCAA Tournament bid.
- Penn State- This is the year for Pat Chambers to actually win some games at Penn State. Guys like Tony Carr, Shep Garner, and Mike Watkins all return from last year’s club. I’m just not sold on Chambers winning at the Big Ten level, but the team is certainly talented enough to make a push,
- Ohio State- This begins the clear bottom tier of the Big Ten. While Chris Holtmann has things going in the right direction, the late departure of Thad Matta left the cupboard pretty bare without many pieces out there to replenish it. Things may be a struggle in Columbus.
- Rutgers- Steve Pikiell has begun the long process of turning around this Rutgers program, but things will take time. Corey Sanders, Deshawn Freeman, and Mike Williams return as the centerpieces of this toster, and I’ve heard good things about freshman guard Geo Baker. One thing I do know: Pikiell will have his team playing hard and competing for 40 minutes.
- Nebraska- I don’t feel great about having the Cornhuskers last, but I just see too many unknowns at this point to have any confidence in them. Glynn Watson will have to step up huge with Tai Webster gone, and Georgetown transfer Isaac Copeland needs to have a big season.
Champions: Michigan State
It’s scary to think how good this Michigan State team could be if things go the way I think they can. The core of the roster is star-studded, anchored by a future lottery pick in Bridges, Winston, and Nick Ward, with Josh Langford and 5-star freshman Jaren Jackson also making huge contributions. The bench is experienced, with senior leaders like Tum-Tum Nairn and Gavin Schilling giving the youthful Spartans a much-needed veteran flavor. What makes this team so dangerous to me is the versatility that Bridges in particular gives them. In small lineups, Bridges can play the 4 and let MSU run and space the floor with a mobile big at the 5. However, Bridges can also play on the wing and allow the Spartans to use their size to their advantage with a dominant force like Ward down low. Having a piece like that is so key in matching up with teams, especially once single-elimination games in March come along.
Dark Horse: Iowa
This Iowa team has some really interesting pieces. That promising sophomore class is complimented by Nicholas Baer, a versatile forward who really is the ultimate glue guy. However, the guy that could push this team over the top is Luke Garza, a top-100 recruit at the center position who posted ridiculous numbers during the Hawkeyes’ trip to Europe this summer. If he takes control of the center spot, it will allow Tyler Cook to have a more free-roaming role at his natural position (the 4) and should really improve Iowa’s rebounding. A top 4 finish in the Big Ten wouldn’t stun me.
All-Conference First Team:
- G: Nate Mason (Minnesota)
- G: Bryant McIntosh (Northwestern)
- F: Miles Bridges (Michigan State)
- F: Vincent Edwards (Purdue)
- C: Ethan Happ (Wisconsin)
Player of the Year: Miles Bridges- I touched on Bridges earlier, but its absolutely scary just how good Bridges could be this season. Despite dealing with nagging injuries for much of the season, Bridges still averaged nearly 17 points and 8 rebounds per game at excellent efficiency. He’s just so strong and quick off the bounce that it makes him nearly impossible to stop, especially when he’s hitting his jump shots. The one area where Bridges could improve is getting to the free throw line. For a guy as physical as Bridges, the just over 3 free throw attempts per game from a season ago should be much higher. I wouldn’t be stunned if he averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds per game this season.
Breakout Player of the Year: D’Mitrik Trice (Wisconsin)- This pick is as much out of necessity as anything else. After a solid year as a freshman, Trice must step up and take the reigns as the starting PG for the Badgers with Bronson Koenig graduating. He won’t need to score a ton, but Trice must make plays off the bounce and make his teammates better for the Badgers to not drop too far in the Big Ten standings.
Newcomer of the Year: Mark Smith (Illinois)- Brad Underwood made a splash early in his time at Illinois with the late add of Smith, one of the better guards in the 2017 class. He’s tough, physical, and makes winning plays for your basketball team- a perfect fit for what Underwood is building.