The Big Ten is the best college basketball conference in America right now. It might not even be close. The league has done an unbelievable job hiring coaches and recruiting at a high level in recent years, and that has created a league with competitive clubs from top to bottom and the potential for double-digit NCAA Tournament bids. With tons of returning talent across the board (including multiple guys who spurned the NBA for one more year of CBB) this league is going to be a war, night in and night out. Buckle up.
- Michigan State – There seems like something of a ‘forgotten man’ thing happening with the Spartans, as strange as that may be for a program as storied as this one. But with the defending champs in Wisconsin bringing a ton back, Illinois and Iowa presenting as legit challengers thanks to returning star power, and the overwhelming top-to-bottom depth that this conference offers, I suppose it’s not surprising that MSU has flown a tad under the radar. Yet many seem to be forgetting about all the returning talent Tom Izzo’s group holds. A big part of this projection is a healthy Josh Langford. Langford hasn’t played since early in the 2018-19 season due to foot injuries, and while he has his flaws as a defender and decision-maker, Langford is a high-level shooter and one of the premier scorers in the conference when healthy. Let’s hope he can have a healthy, successful year and jumpstart a pro career that virtually everyone would have expected to commence by now. But even an inconsistent or unavailable Langford doesn’t tank the upside. Aaron Henry has been the epitome of a ‘star in his role’ the last two seasons as an elite wing defender capable of hitting shots, and he should be set for a big year with a larger role in the offense. Henry’s creation abilities (2.9 APG last season) will also be leaned upon: MSU doesn’t have a true point guard to lean on (unless you really want Foster Loyer playing big minutes), so another creator to go with extremely talented scoring guard Rocket Watts and Langford is huge. Izzo could also design some offense through Joey Hauser, a highly skilled forward fresh off a sit-out year after coming over from Marquette. That quartet could create an awfully dynamic offense, heavy on spacing, ballhandling, and shot creation. Izzo also has a deep stable of bigs: a platoon of Marcus Bingham and freshman Mady Sissoko could be elite in the rim protection department.
- Wisconsin – It would have been inconceivable even to Badger fans that Wisconsin would win the Big Ten regular season title when they started 5-5 with three mid-major losses in November, or when they got blown out by Minnesota to fall to 6-6 in the Big Ten in February. Yet Greg Gard’s club found another gear in the season’s final month, winning eight straight before the pandemic caused everyone to close up shop. So can the Badgers of 2020-21 look like the team it was in the season’s final eight games? It depends on why you think they turned it on late. A Badger believer credits it to the emergence (and eligibility) of Micah Potter, the Ohio State transfer who became an incredible productive offensive player. A skeptic might point out that Gard’s team went from average to elite from three during that stretch and question whether that jump is truly sustainable for a season. Lukas Harkins of Heat Check CBB broke this down in June: Brad Davison improved his 3PT% by 13.4% in those final eight games, while Potter’s jumped by 10.8% and D’Mitrik Trice’s increased by 8.4%. We have three years of evidence that Trice and Davison are good but not great shooters. If and when those guys come back to Earth, a lot of close wins might become close losses. On the other hand, it’s undeniable that the team’s chemistry and togetherness was incredible down the stretch: losing Kobe King wound up seeming like a net positive, and another offseason of work should only improve the partnership between Potter and veteran big man Nate Reuvers. The Badgers also get deeper thanks to a strong freshman class that can slowly be brought along. So while I’m not picking them to win the Big Ten and won’t have them as a top ten team in the preseason, this should be a very steady, second weekend NCAA Tournament team.
- Illinois – Ayo Dosunmu coming back for his sophomore year was a surprise. In some ways, his decision to come back for a third act felt somewhat less surprising based on his relatively limited NBA Draft buzz, but was still certainly not counted on in Champaign. Dosunmu may be something of a tweener in NBA terms, but he’s a legit star in college basketball: a fearless scorer and playmaker who is confident taking and making tough shots. The return of him, veteran shooter Trent Frazier, and gifted post player Kofi Cockburn is huge, and gives the Fighting Illini a fighting chance at a Big Ten title. But this isn’t quite a run-it-back scenario: the loss of Andres Feliz seems forgotten about, but he was an awesome defender, effective slasher, and a smart decision-maker. And Alan Griffin’s shooting will be missed on a team that didn’t have another 30+% 3-point shooter last season. Replacing that duo will likely be the responsibility of newcomers – top-40 freshman Adam Miller is wired to score and should provide a spark, while there’s also plenty of excitement about D3 transfer Austin Hutcherson as a high-upside wing to add to the mix. I also wouldn’t sleep on freshman PG Andre Curbelo making an impact – his path to minutes is a bit less clear than Miller’s, but I love his game. Can a team this short on shooting compete for a conference title? That’s the question, but the star power at the top makes it hard not to buy in.
- Iowa – There have been four high-major players since 2000 to average at least 23 points and 9 rebounds per game: Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Luke Harangody, and Luka Garza. Pretty good company. Simply put, it’s incredibly rare for a player as proven as Garza to come back to school for another year. But here the defending Big Ten Player of the Year is, back to try to etch his name further into the Hawkeye record books and lift the program to new heights in the process. Luka’s mere presence on the floor opens up so much for Fran McCaffery’s offense: you can’t leave him alone on the block, you can’t double and leave a shooter open, and you can’t ignore him on the perimeter. Defending this Iowa team is a practice in settling for the least bad option – shutting this unit down is simply not an option. Joe Wieskamp, CJ Fredrick, and Jordan Bohannon are all elite shooters, and getting a healthy Bohannon back to run point should help this Iowa team late in games. Filling out a rotation is where things get challenging: do you play smaller with glue guy Connor McCaffery as a fourth guard, or bigger with skilled big man Jack Nunge filling the Ryan Kriener role up front? Can scrappy defender Joe Toussaint improve his offensive game enough to not hamper the offense? And what can they get out of a five-man freshman class not loaded with big names – I’m a fan of Indiana native Tony Perkins, an active two-way wing. The main question that has loomed all offseason though is the defense, and one that there really isn’t a clear answer for. The Hawkeyes were 97th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency last season, and the pieces that made up that defense don’t change significantly. There’s hope that perhaps Nunge brings some rim protection, though playing him with Garza creates a liability at the 4 defensively with Garza in space. But top to bottom this team doesn’t have the athleticism or strength in the backcourt to guard in man-to-man against good Big Ten teams, and its zones weren’t all that effective either last season.
- Rutgers – If Iowa is all offense and no defense, Rutgers is all defense and no offense. While the 2019-20 rendition of the Scarlet Knights was by far the best offensive team Steve Pikiell has had in Piscataway, it was still mediocre by Big Ten standards (10th in the conference in adjusted offense per KenPom). Things were mostly hindered by shooting – RU shot just 30.8% as a team from deep. That number should go up in 2020-21, if nothing else based on improvement from Geo Baker, who is a much better shooter than the 29% he made last season. How RU won last season (and how they’ll continue to win) was elite defense and hitting big shots when it mattered. Between Baker and Ron Harper, the Scarlet Knights have two of the best clutch scorers in the country, and Harper still has room for continued growth as he enters his junior season. Then there’s the x-factor in big man Cliff Omoruyi, an elite recruit who chose to stay in-state over a host of big-name suitors. Omoruyi will likely platoon with Myles Johnson up front, and he brings major rim protection and energy at the 5 spot. Getting to the NCAA Tournament is the minimum expectation for the best Rutgers roster in recent memory, but taking the step forward is predicated on a more consistent offensive attack. And I’ll also note one pandemic-related concern: New Jersey seems unlikely to allow anything close to full capacity at basketball games this winter. So much of Rutgers’ magical 2019-20 was their dominance at the RAC. Can they replicate that energy with few or no fans in the building?
- Indiana – Archie Miller’s club had some nervy moments, but the Hoosiers seemed poised to sneak into the NCAA Tournament before the world came crashing down. And with their best player back, anything less than an NCAA berth would be a major disappointment in Bloomington. It starts and ends with Trayce Jackson-Davis, an All-American candidate who is a force down low. Jackson-Davis has great hands, gets to the line at will, and is a strong defender and rebounder at the other end. TJD is the main reason IU was so good on the glass, a major reason they were able to win games despite an offense that was ugly at times. To take the next step, the Hoosiers simply need better guard play. Al Durham is a solid complementary piece on the wing, but improvement at the point guard spot will be critical. Rob Phinisee plays hard and makes big shots, but he has struggled to stay on the floor and isn’t the type of guy you can run an offense through. That guy might be Khristian Lander, the 5-star in-state product who reclassified to join the Hoosiers a year early. Lander is an explosive athlete despite his relatively short stature, and he loves to go to work in ball screens. Not only would a big year from Lander give the offense a jolt on its own, his presence would also give IU the guard depth to go smaller with Jackson-Davis at the 5 and take Joey Brunk off the floor. Those smaller lineups would free up more space in the paint for Jackson-Davis and jumpstart the sluggish offense.
- Purdue – Perhaps the best 16-15 team in the history of college basketball, the Boilermakers lost plenty of close games against an unforgiving schedule to leave themselves on the wrong side of the bubble despite a top-25 KenPom finish. Can the Boilers bounce back? It starts with re-establishing a team identity. Matt Painter’s teams in recent years have been so good because of elite role allocation: Painter found guys who were great at doing their job, and chemistry was terrific because of that. Last year’s team didn’t have that – there was no go-to guy in the backcourt to lean on ala Carsen Edwards, and simply feeding a big over and over like they did with Isaac Haas didn’t work given the platoon Painter had to deploy with Trevion Williams and Matt Haarms. In some ways, the surprising departures of Haarms and Nojel Eastern clear these up: Williams becomes ‘the guy’ that everything goes through, and Eric Hunter steps up as the full-time primary ballhandler to run offense through. An offense run through Williams will be fun to watch: beyond being a load on the block, Williams has elite vision to pass out when the double comes, opening things up for a Purdue offense that always screens and cuts well and should have better spacing without Eastern clogging things up. That said, a major key is getting junior forward Aaron Wheeler back on track. Once a trendy choice to be a future NBA player, Wheeler’s offense fell off the rails in 2019-20. With no other clear options at the 4, they desperately need him to get his shooting stroke back. Meanwhile, watch out for a pair of highly regarded freshmen in athletic combo guard Jaden Ivey and old-school wing Ethan Morton, each of whom should earn minutes as freshmen.
- Michigan – Thanks to the toughest schedule in the country and a season slightly shortened by the pandemic, Michigan became the first team in the KenPom era to finish top 20 in Pomeroy’s rankings despite not winning 20 games. That was a perfectly solid outcome for a program in transition – Juwan Howard took over late and clearly has a different vision for how to build a roster than John Beilein did. This year’s group looks much more like what you might expect the Wolverines to in the future, though lots of offseason movement puts a damper on what at one point looked to be one of the more talented rosters in the country. The biggest reason for optimism is without a doubt the pair of elite wings that Howard will trot out. Isaiah Livers is dynamic both as a scorer and shot-maker, and Franz Wagner really turned it on down the stretch to become one of the most tantalizing breakout candidates in America in 2020-21. In his final seven games, Wagner averaged 16 points and 6 rebounds while shooting 58% from the field and 38% from 3. 5-star center Hunter Dickinson promises to get plenty of touches on the block in Howard’s offense, and he’s as polished a prep post player as there is in the country. Both beyond that is where questions pop up. Replacing Zavier Simpson in this ball screen offense is a challenge – I’m not overly confident in grad transfer Mike Smith to contribute to winning at the Big Ten level despite his gaudy numbers at Columbia, and veteran Eli Brooks isn’t equipped to run offense. And a team that at one point seemed to have unbelievable depth now is reliant on Austin Davis to play key minutes up front, doesn’t have a true point guard, and really only has seven clear rotation-caliber guys. So while the potential that comes with having two studs like Livers and Wagner is tantalizing, question marks make it hard to move them up much higher in a league that won’t be at all forgiving.
- Ohio State – Someone is bound to be upset when there are so many similarly-ranked teams all duking it out in the middle of the conference, but such is life in the Big Ten. With Kaleb Wesson gone, Chris Holtmann will have to redesign his offense to run more through the guards, but an talented incoming group should keep the Buckeyes on the fringes of top 25 consideration. The highest-profile newcomers are a pair of veteran wings: an excellent slasher and defender in Cal transfer Justice Sueing and a high-level shot-maker in former Ivy Player of the Year Seth Towns. Towns is without a doubt a high-major talent, with the caveat that he hasn’t played in two years due to injury and reports are that he may not be ready to go by November 25. Towns feels like a critical piece because of his ability to score: Duane Washington isn’t leading scorer material, and I’m not sure sticking that responsibility on sophomore EJ Liddell is a smart move. That said, I’m very excited about Liddell’s development — despite being a bit undersized, he’s a terrific post scorer with the ability to protect the rim on the weak side, and he should grow into a worthy counterpart up front to glue guy extraordinaire Kyle Young. Expect a feeling-out period early on as they learn to play without Wesson, but by Big Ten play the Buckeyes should be ready to roll.
- Minnesota – There isn’t another league in America where a team this talented would be picked 10th, but here we are. Rich Pitino deserves credit for doing a terrific job navigating the transfer market this spring, adding three valuable cogs that give this team clear NCAA Tournament potential. Having to replace one of the the most efficient offensive weapons in the country in Daniel Oturu is without a doubt a hurdle, but Pitino found about as good a replacement as possible in Drake transfer Liam Robbins. A 7-footer, Robbins’ development arc has been amazing to watch, going from a guy with no offers to an intriguing NBA prospect playing at CBB’s highest level. He’s an elite shot-blocker, good on the block, and continuing to expand his perimeter game. It’s hard to believe he’ll be as good an offensive option as Oturu, but he’s certainly a capable B1G starting center with the upside to be more than that. Having a point guard like Marcus Carr to initiate in ball screens certainly helps: Carr is one of the more underrated point guards in the country, a very good passer who rarely leaves the floor and hits tough shots from 3. Western Michigan grad transfer Brandon Johnson should be an upgrade over Alihan Demir at the 4, and Utah import Both Gach (with a waiver) should serve as a steady secondary ballhandler capable of hitting outside shots. Pitino also has some high-upside bench pieces – sophomores Isaiah Ihnen and Tre’ Williams each showed flashes as freshmen, and Eric Curry has been a terrific rotation big when healthy (that’s a big caveat though given his history of knee injuries).
- Maryland – Replacing a four-year starter at point guard and an All-American-caliber big is never easy, but that’s the hurdle Mark Turgeon faces in 2020-21. And unlikely many of his Big Ten peers, Turgeon doesn’t have an elite recruiting class or high-profile transfers incoming to save the day. It’s officially Aaron Wiggins’ time to shine: a 6-6 wing with intriguing ‘3&D’ NBA potential, Wiggins didn’t take the step forward in 2019-20 that many expected thanks to regression in his 3-point shot, but becoming a more reliable scorer will be critical for the Terps to threaten for a bid. Another guard expected to take a step forward is Eric Ayala, a steady rotation guard who has mostly played off-ball in his career but will likely run point in 2020-21. Donta Scott is an intriguing breakout guy after becoming a starter in conference play for the Terps, he’s a physical wing/forward with the ability to space the floor and defend. Among the freshmen, I’m most excited about dynamic playmaking guard Aquan Smart, a late stock riser who earned tons of high-major interest during his senior season. The problem: the Terps have perhaps the worst center position in the league unless Chol Marial has an unforeseen breakout, and one of the least experienced point guard units in the conference. That doesn’t usually bode well in a league this good.
- Penn State – It appears nothing good can ever happen to Penn State basketball. Pat Chambers led Penn State to their best season in recent memory, then a pandemic shut down the season before the NCAA Tournament and Chambers resigned the day before publishing this amid allegations of player mistreatment. Jim Ferry, the former Duquesne and LIU head coach, will take over, making this team a virtual wildcard. Here’s my analysis from before Chambers’ departure: Losing the best frontcourt duo in program history will be incredibly hard to replace. Lamar Stevens was a program-changing recruit: he scored over 2,200 points and raised the bar for the Nittany Lions in his four years in Happy Valley. I had my concerns about his efficiency over the years, but Stevens was a guy you could give the ball to and tell him to get a bucket. Those guys aren’t easy to find and provide value beyond their effective field goal percentage. The drop-off will also be big at the center position Mike Watkins having graduated. Watkins was one of college basketball’s best shot-blockers and his presence on the floor had a massive impact on the game. As my good friends over at Three Man Weave point out, teams shot 6.9% worse at the rim when he was on the floor compared to John Harrar (numbers per hoop-explorer). Harrar isn’t a bad player – he knows his role and finishes around the rim – but he doesn’t change the game like Watkins did and replacing some Watkins minutes with a freshman in Abdou Tsimbila isn’t a recipe for success. With that, PSU will have to win with its guards. That starts with Myreon Jones, whose breakout year was one of the biggest reasons PSU had the season it had in 2019-20. He’s a high-level shooter with some steady playmaking ability, and he’ll have to lead the offense for PSU to contend for a bid in 2020-21. Personally, the late coaching change makes it hard for me to bet on ANYTHING with this team, and neither a last-place finish nor a NCAA bid should be ruled out.
- Nebraska – The waiver Trey McGowens received makes me move the Huskers up above Northwestern at the bottom of the Big Ten, but I’m not as sold on this group as others seem to be. To play the style Fred Hoiberg wants to play, you need shooting, and the Huskers didn’t have enough of it last season. Three newcomers could help there: WIU grad transfer Kobe Webster is a 37% career 3-point shooter, JUCO wing Teddy Allen is wired to score and hit 78 triples last season at the NJCAA level, and fellow JUCO frontcourt player Lat Mayen has earned rave reviews for his floor-spacing abilities this summer. More spacing and less Kevin Cross hurling long jumpers should be give this offense a boost. Allen will be asked to be more than just a shooter: talent has never been the problem for the former West Virginia wing, and he averaged over 31 points per game in JUCO last season. If he can keep his head on straight, he’s a difference-maker. McGowens is another impact guy: he wasn’t great at Pitt last year, but he’s athletic, can handle the ball, and is a good defender on the other end of the floor. But are there enough difference-makers on the roster? Hoiberg has rolled the dice on several transfers with high recruiting pedigree – Mayen, Dalano Banton (WKU), and Derrick Walker (Tennessee) were all once well-regarded recruits, while both Banton and Mayen fit into the more positionless style Hoiberg wants to play. If some of these guys hit, Husker fans will have a lot more to cheer for this season.
- Northwestern – As always, I have to give my full disclosure that I’m a Northwestern student and Wildcats fan, though if you follow my Twitter you know that I certainly don’t give the ‘Cats a free pass. I’m fairly confident no one in the media has suffered through as much bad Northwestern basketball over the past three years, so I think I have a pretty good understanding of where the program’s at and what it needs to do this season to get back on track. Everyone (including Wildcat fans) expected last season not to be an easy one, but Chris Collins failed to earn much goodwill thanks to some inexplicable losses. Losing three buy games isn’t acceptable, even in a rebuilding year. The ‘Cats also gave away a few Big Ten games they had no business losing: losing games when you lead by 5 with 3:20 to go against Indiana, lead by 14 with 7:47 to go against Rutgers, or lead by 8 with 4:34 to go against Purdue. Flip the three buy games and don’t blow big late leads, and all the sudden a 14-17, 6-14 B1G season during a rebuild doesn’t look so bad. And that’s the thing: for as bad as NU was at times, they also had some impressive moments that give you optimism that this young core can be something soon enough. Boo Buie flashed brilliance, including back-to-back 25-point performances in December against Michigan State and DePaul. It’s easy to wonder what type of season he could have had if he hadn’t lost several weeks with a foot injury in conference play, and as he gets stronger and improves his decision-making he has the chance to be a terrific Big Ten point guard. The other two bright spots of an otherwise-ugly season were Miller Kopp and Ryan Young: Kopp had a breakout season and proved himself as a reliable shot-making wing, and Young played steady minutes up front against so many good Big Ten frontcourts. Is there enough talent in this core to move up the ranks? So much of that depends on the likes of Robbie Beran, Ty Berry, and Chase Audige. If those guys develop into steady Big Ten players, I think Collins has a group that can win some Big Ten games. If not, getting out of the cellar will be a challenge and Northwestern AD Jim Phillips will have some tough decisions to make.
All-Conference First Team:
- Ayo Dosunmu (Illinois)
- Marcus Carr (Minnesota)
- Aaron Henry (Michigan State)
- Trayce Jackson-Davis (Indiana)
- Luka Garza (Iowa)
Player of the Year: Luka Garza (Iowa) – A relatively easy call here, Garza is the clear favorite for the Wooden Award entering the season and is the obvious choice to win Big Ten honors as well. There are few players in recent memory in college basketball as polished on offense as Garza, and it’s next to impossible to take him out of a game. Garza could put up record-setting numbers in 2020-21.
Breakout Player: Rocket Watts (Michigan State) – Watts is one of the most important players in the country this season given his likely role as the primary ball-handler for the Spartans. Watts acquitted himself well as a freshman, showcasing an ability to take and make tough shots in big moments to help the Spartans compete for a Big Ten crown. But without Cassius Winston beside him, can he make good decisions as a playmaker? High scoring outputs aren’t the only thing needed from Watts this season.
Newcomer of the Year: Joey Hauser (Michigan State) – Hauser was poised to be one of the breakout stars of last season had he stayed at Marquette, but that fate was delayed by a year thanks to his decision to transfer to MSU. Hauser is a special talent, a playmaking forward with great size and the ability to consistently knock down shots. Tom Izzo has spoken very highly of him since he stepped foot in East Lansing, and he’s a huge reason I’m rolling with the Spartans to win the best league in college basketball this season.