By Kevin Sweeney
Your favorite Big Ten fan implant is here with his preview for the upcoming season! If you’re a faithful reader here, you’ll know I’m a student at Northwestern University, and am a big fan of the ‘Cats while trying to maintain as objective an outlook as possible. As you’ll see– no bias creeped in here (unless you think Northwestern should be ranked 15th out of 14…). That said, following a Big Ten team does mean I feel I have a pretty good pulse on the league as a whole, and while the middle tier of this one is very tough to crack, I feel good about where my rankings stand. Let’s get into it:
#1. Michigan State– The consensus preseason #1 team not just in the Big Ten but nationally, there’s not much to dislike about the Spartans in 2019-20. Cassius Winston is the best player in the nation, a guy who could become the first player in the history of college basketball to record 2,000 career points and 1,000 career assists. The return of Josh Langford and the addition of top-50 recruit Rocket Watts gives the backcourt more scoring pop, and Xavier Tillman was quietly one of the most productive bigs on a per-minute basis in the country last season. This team has everything you want– experience at point guard, size, depth, shooting, and coaching.
#2. Maryland– I don’t necessarily feel comfortable buying into the elite preseason billing that Mark Turgeon’s group is getting, but I have a tough time valuing other Big Ten clubs over them right now. A savvy veteran at the point guard spot in Anthony Cowan and a budding star up front in Jalen Smith is about as good a starting place as you can get, and I’m beyond bullish on Aaron Wiggins’ breakout potential on the wing. Losing a bully down low like Bruno Fernando shrinks a team’s margin for error, but at some point, Mark Turgeon has to prove he can win big with elite talent. Another season on the fringes of the top 25 and an early NCAA Tournament exit won’t cut it.
#3. Ohio State– If you’re looking for the right sleeper Final Four team in the preseason, Ohio State might be the right one to roll with. The Buckeyes’ combo of experience, star power, and young talent (increasing upside) along with an excellent coach in Chris Holtmann creates tons of intriguing possibilities. Holtmann has a few things to work out, chiefly the backcourt situation, where Florida State transfer CJ Walker and top-50 freshman DJ Carton will battle it out at point guard while sophomores Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington scrap for minutes at the 2. Holtmann has some intriguing smaller-lineup possibilities if he chooses to pair the two point guards together with Muhammad as a 3rd guard, or can go smaller with long, athletic combo forwards like Andre Wesson, Alonzo Gaffney, and EJ Liddell all intriguing options next to Kaleb Wesson. Finding the right rotations may take time, but there’s no denying the talent and upside with this group.
#4. Purdue– I can’t say enough about the job Matt Painter did in 2018-19, replacing four starters and still winning a share of the Big Ten regular season title and coming a prayer by Mamadi Diakite away from the Final Four. He’ll have to work similar magic in 2019-20, with three starters including scoring dynamo Carsen Edwards gone from that 26-win team. The primary concern with this group is the lack of a shot creator– perhaps High Point transfer Jahad Proctor can be that guy– but the potential is there for the Boilers to be elite on defense and I absolutely love Aaron Wheeler’s game.
#5. Michigan– Perhaps the most fascinating team in the country in the preseason, Michigan under Juwan Howard is a virtual unknown quantity. On one hand, Howard has a strong rep in the basketball community for having a great mind for the game, and inherits two high-level players in Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske. On the other, Howard has never coached a college game, and both Simpson and Teske have flaws that make it difficult to project them as stars (especially outside Beilein’s system). The Athletic’s Brendan Quinn said it best: “This is a roster built by Beilein to run Beilein’s very specific system. Well, now these individuals will be asked to play a slightly different brand of ball.” Howard has said he expects to put Teske in more postups, something Beilein rarely did. For as good a defender and passer as Simpson is, his shooting struggles make him less than ideal as a shot creator in a more NBA-style offense. Freshman Franz Wagner and junior Isaiah Livers desperately need to provide shot-making for Howard’s club.
#6. Illinois– It’s now or never for Brad Underwood, whose tenure in Champaign has gone far less successfully than most projected when the Illini plucked the rising star from Oklahoma State. Underwood is out of excuses– he has a high-level lead guard in Ayo Dosunmu, nice complimentary pieces in Trent Frazier, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Andres Feliz, and Alan Griffin, and now finally has the big man he so desired to anchor his defense: Kofi Cockburn. I’m skeptical of how the Illini offense will look by pushing Bezhanishvili to the 4 and playing a non-spacer in Cockburn next to him, but Cockburn does provide the rim protection Underwood simply hasn’t had. With Dosunmu likely to go pro after this season, it’s hard to believe Underwood can sell building for 2020-21 if this season doesn’t go well. It’s NCAA Tournament or bust time.
#7. Iowa– Virtually nothing has gone right for Iowa since the offseason began– early pro departures (Tyler Cook), transfers (Isaiah Moss), injuries (Jordan Bohannon), and arrests (Cordell Pemsl) have taken much of the wind out of the Hawkeyes’ sails as we enter 2019-20. Still, Fran McCaffery’s bunch has a star in the making in Joe Wieskamp and a very good big in Luka Garza, and that’s a pretty solid place to start. The major question is at point guard: if Jordan Bohannon isn’t ready to go after hip surgery, can some combo of Valpo grad transfer Bakari Evelyn and coach’s son Connor McCaffery provide steady play at the point?
#8. Indiana– If you were ranking the weirdest teams in college basketball in 2018-19, the Hoosiers would have to be right near the top. Offensive struggles and injuries put a damper on a year that was supposed to be so promising, but a few big wins kept IU in the bubble mix most of the way. I’m more optimistic than most about Archie Miller helping turn around the team’s offense, and growth from Rob Phinisee at the point guard spot should facilitate that improvement. This team lacks star power, but has enough useful rotation players to hang around in a hotly-contested middle of the pack of the B1G.
#9. Minnesota– Talk out of the Twin Cities this offseason has mostly surrounded around shooting improvement for the Gophers, who had to win games by bullying teams inside thanks to being one of the worst outside shooting teams in the country. Having a true point guard to set the table in Pitt transfer Marcus Carr should help the offense run smoothly, and I’m huge on the sophomore duo of elite shooter Gabe Kalscheur and inside force Daniel Oturu. What Rich Pitino’s team desperately needs is one more shot-maker. Perhaps Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis can finally live up to his lofty recruiting billing of old and step up on the wing– otherwise, putting the ball in the basket will remain a concern all year long.
#10. Rutgers– This is a different-looking Rutgers team than the ones we have seen so far in the Steve Pikiell era, one loaded with talent guards but perhaps lacking the size and defensive prowess to grind out victories the way they have in the past. The continued growth of youngsters Montez Mathis, Ron Harper, and Caleb McConnell will be fun to watch, and Texas transfer Jacob Young should provide more scoring pop when on the floor. Harper feels like the big x-factor to me, a guy who can create matchup problems as a small-ball 4 and defend multiple positions while providing the edge Pikiell loves in players. An NIT bid would be a nice step in the right direction for the Scarlet Knights.
#11. Wisconsin– The Badgers are one of my most difficult teams to peg, mostly because of how virtually every player last season was pidgeon-holed into roles to optimize Ethan Happ. Somewhat similar to have Oklahoma’s role players looked worse next to Trae Young than they did the year after he left, perhaps similar positive regression could come into play with guys like D’Mitrik Trice, Brad Davison, and Nate Reuvers. Reuvers is the easiest bet to break out without Happ, showing the ability to be a weapon on both ends as an inside-out big who can really protect the rim. Sneaking onto the bubble certainly isn’t out of the question, but I simply don’t love the returning pieces and Greg Gard hasn’t recruited well enough to give this roster more depth. That said, help is on the way soon with a strong 2020 recruiting class.
#12. Penn State– I spoke more at length about the Nittany Lions on my podcast this offseason, but my thoughts can be boiled down more succinctly to this: PSU was already a bad offense that loses its most efficient guard who was also one of the best defenders in the country (Josh Reaves), and also loses its easiest bet to take major steps forward (Rasir Bolton). Consistently putting the ball in the basket will be a problem for the Nittany Lions, and Pat Chambers hasn’t earned much benefit of the doubt.
#13. Nebraska– Landing Fred Hoiberg was a grand slam for a Nebraska program with expectations and aspirations that don’t quite match its history. While I have some concern that Hoiberg was more of an early innovator by crashing the transfer market early and playing with pace and space (both things most teams are doing now) and may not live up to his lofty billing, it was about as good a hire as could have realistically been made by the Huskers. Hoiberg and his staff’s spring recruiting flurry completely revamped the roster, but landing so many long-term pieces may have some opportunity cost in recruiting down the line. For year one, a complete lack of size (French freshman Yvan Ouedraogo struggled mightily at the FIBA U18 Euros) may hinder Hoiberg’s club early on, though a backcourt that features JUCO imports Jervay Green and Cam Mack could be sneaky-good in a somewhat guard-poor conference.
#14. Northwestern– Watching the Wildcats was… not fun in 2018-19. Poor backcourt play and shooting helped make the ‘Cats one of the worst offenses at the high-major level, spoiling the senior seasons of Vic Law and Dererk Pardon. Now, a longer-term rebuild seems on the horizon, with the hope being that sophomores Miller Kopp and Pete Nance begin their acension into starring roles. Wins will be few and far between come conference play, but this season can be a success if Kopp, Nance, and other youngsters like highly-touted wing/forward Robbie Beran and freshman point guard Boo Buie can show promise and give Chris Collins a nucleus to build around.
All-Conference First Team:
- Cassius Winston (Michigan State)
- Anthony Cowan (Maryland)
- Lamar Stevens (Penn State)
- Kaleb Wesson (Ohio State)
- Jon Teske (Michigan)
Player of the Year: Cassius Winston (Michigan State)
This one’s pretty easy– Winston is probably the best player in the country, and a guy who is deserving of more pro buzz. Physical limitations aside, he’s one of the most productive players in the country, and is elite as both a passer and outside shooter. Watching him dissect defenses in the NCAA Tournament really gave me a greater appreciation for just how good Winston is. He plays with such incredible pace at all times.
Breakout Player: Aaron Wheeler (Purdue)
When you google “elite physical tools”, a picture of Wheeler pops up (I think). At 6-9 with long arms and a cut frame, Wheeler can jump out of the gym and flashed more skill than most expected last season. He can shoot, defend multiple positions, and is a menace in transition. I expect huge things from the redshirt sophomore.
Newcomer of the Year: EJ Liddell (Ohio State)
I wish I could justify putting Pat Spencer down here, but I’ll roll with Liddell, one of my favorite freshmen in the 2019 class. An athletic combo forward perfect for Chris Holtmann’s style of play, Liddell seems like the freshman most clearly on the path to big minutes from day one in Columbus. He’s an outside shot away from being an incredibly dangerous player, but should contribute in a big way for the Buckeyes (perhaps even as a small-ball 5 at times).