Basketball season is just around the corner and the Big Ten is set to be one of the toughest conferences in the nation. Regular season champions Indiana will be in position to defend their title and tournament champions Michigan State could be in trouble with early injuries. Let’s take a look at where everyone stands heading into the season.
Last season: 22-13, 12-6 B1G, loss in Sweet 16
Key players: F Nigel Hayes, G Bronson Koenig
Key losses: none
The Badgers are the most experienced team not only in the Big Ten, but in the entire nation, returning every player that averaged at least four minutes per game last season. Coach Greg Gard took over from retiring Bo Ryan in Dec. 15 after the Badgers stumbled to a 7-5 start and led his team to a 15-8 mark for the rest of the year. Now in his first full year, he’s in an ideal position to take over the Big Ten.
Nigel Hayes was one of the best players in the Big Ten last year but decided to forgo the NBA draft for his senior season. The outspoken forward led the team with 15.7 points per game and added 5.8 rebounds. He is a leading candidate for conference player of the year along with senior guard Bronson Koenig.
Experience and depth will carry this Badger squad to the Big Ten title, and possibly a deep run in March.
Last season: 27-8, 15-3 B1G, loss in Sweet 16
Key players: OG Anunoby, Thomas Bryant
Key losses: Yogi Ferrell, Troy Williams
The reigning Big Ten champs lose two of their top three scorers from last year in Yogi Ferrell and Troy Williams, but that shouldn’t stop them from leading the pack once again. Rising star OG Anunoby is poised to have a breakout sophomore season after averaging 4.9 points per game and shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc last year. He was also named to the Julius Erving Award watch list for the nation’s best small forward.
The Hoosiers also return center Thomas Bryant, one of the top recruits from last year’s class. He could have easily been a first round pick in the NBA draft but decided to return for another season. Bryant led the Big Ten in field goal percentage and will be one of, if not the best center in the conference.
If prolific scorer James Blackmon Jr. can stay healthy and improve his woeful defense, this Hoosier team will be tough to slow down on both ends of the court.
Last season: 26-9, 12-6 B1G, loss in first round
Key players: Caleb Swanigan, Isaac Haas, Vince Edwards
Key losses: A.J. Hammons, Rapheal Davis
In an era of small ball and four-guard offenses, Purdue stands alone as one of the biggest teams in the conference. Even with the loss of seven-footer A.J. Hammons, the Boilermakers still have Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan manning the post.
Swanigan was another player that could have made the jump to the NBA but elected to stay in West Lafayette. If he can improve his outside shooting, he could become a lethal stretch four. Forward Vince Edwards, arguably the conference’s most underrated player, also made an appearance on the Erving Award watch list.
The addition of graduate transfer Spike Albrecht shores up a thin backcourt, something that hurt the Boilermakers in recent years. If they can survive an early test against national champion Villanova, Purdue could quickly become one of the nation’s top teams.
4. Michigan State
Last season: 29-6, 13-5, loss in first round
Key players: Eron Harris, Tum Tum Nairn, Miles Bridges
Key losses: Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes, Matt Costello
The Spartans underwent some of the most drastic roster turnover in recent memory, losing seven players and gaining five. The heralded freshman class gave MSU fans hope for a season without Mr. Everything Denzel Valentine. But with the knee injuries to forwards Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling, MSU is woefully thin in the frontcourt. Coach Izzo will need to rely on freshman Nick Ward to be the starting center, with 6-foot-6 Kenny Goins and 6-foot-5 Matt Van Dyk filling in the gaps.
But don’t count the Spartans out just yet. Their brutal non-conference schedule will give Izzo a good idea of what his team is made of. A slow start could lead to a hot streak in Big Ten play once the freshmen get some experience. Senior Eron Harris will return to his role as go-to scorer for the Spartans and a healthy Tum Tum Nairn will lead a smaller but possibly quicker MSU squad.
5. Ohio State
Last season: 21-14, 11-7, loss in second round of NIT
Key players: Jae’Sean Tate, Marc Loving, Keita Bates-Diop
Key losses: none
One of the most experienced teams in the nation had an odd season last year. The Buckeyes got off to a horrible 2-4 start, then went on to win nine of their next ten games, including a major upset of then-No. 4 Kentucky. But the Buckeyes were never able to really click and injuries certainly didn’t help.
Now the Buckeyes have a solid core in place and are fully healthy. This is another team that could pull a few upsets if they can reach the NCAA Tournament. Look for Jae’Sean Tate to make a big jump and become one of the best players in the Big Ten.
Last season: 23-13, 10-8, loss in first round
Key players: Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton Jr., Duncan Robinson
Key losses: Caris LeVert
There’s a huge gap in talent between positions 1-4 and the rest of the league. Michigan, Ohio State and Maryland are all just about even with plenty of question marks.
Michigan was without Caris LeVert for most of last season so his loss isn’t as devastating as it could be. Guard play will be a strength of the Wolverines, but it could be their big men that decide how far this team can go. Mark Donnal is the team’s leading forward, having a sneaky good Big Ten season last year. Sophomore Moritz Wagner will be called upon more this season as well. Right now, Michigan is a just above being a bubble team, but if they stay healthy they could surprise some people come March.
Last season: 27-9, 12-6, loss in Sweet 16
Key players: Melo Trimble
Key losses: Jake Layman, Diamond Stone, Robert Carter, Rasheed Sulaimon
It’s the Melo Trimble show in College Park. The junior point guard, once thought to be a one-and-done, is the only returning player to average double digit points last season. He will be relied on to not only facilitate the offense, which he improved on immensely last year, but to also be the go-to scorer. Look for the Terrapins to take a huge step back from a year ago.
Last season: 15-19, 5-13, N/A
Key players: Malcolm Hill, Tracy Abrams
Key losses: Kendrick Nunn
Can Malcolm Hill stay out of trouble? That’s the main question for the Illini. He is one of the Big Ten’s best players and averaged over 18 points per game last season. Getting Tracy Abrams back from injury should boost Illinois’ offensive attack as well, even with the loss of Kendrick Nunn.
Last season: 22-11, 12-6, loss in second round
Key players: Peter Jok
Key losses: Jarrod Uthoff, Anthony Clemmons, Mike Gesell, Adam Woodbury
Iowa was the cream of the Big Ten crop for most of the season last year before their collapse. The Hawkeyes lost four of their last five and got crushed by Villanova in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Now only Peter Jok is left from that fantastic core Iowa had for so long, and there’s not much talent around him.
10. Penn State
Last season: 16-16, 7-11, N/A
Key players: Shep Garner, Payton Banks
Key losses: Brandon Taylor
Coach Pat Chambers has this team on the upswing. It seems like Penn State is usually a doormat, but the Nittany Lions actually have a solid recruiting class this year with three 4-star players according to ESPN. This team could finally reach its potential next year, but for this season, don’t expect much.
Last season: 20-12, 8-10, N/A
Key players: Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law
Key losses: Tre Demps, Alex Olah
After what seemed like 10 years, Tre Demps and Alex Olah have finally graduated from Northwestern. Demps was one of the most heavily used players in the Big Ten, averaging 37 minutes per game. Getting Vic Law back from injury will certainly help, but the historic tournament drought won’t end this year.
Last season: 16-18, 6-12, N/A
Key players: Tai Webster, Anton Gill
Key losses: Shavon Shields, Andrew White
Nebraska is in somewhat of a holding pattern. After coach Tim Miles resurrected Nebrasketball in 2013-14, the Cornhuskers have lost 18 games in back to back seasons. Their best player Shavon Shields graduated and Andrew White transferred to Syracuse, which means Nebraska will be missing 33.4 points and 11 rebounds per game. The Louisville transfer Anton Gill will help stop the bleeding, but it could be another dismal year in Lincoln.
Last season: 8-23, 2-16, N/A
Key players: Nate Mason, Jordan Murphy
Key losses: Joey King
Coach Richard Pitino was one of the rising stars of the Big Ten a few years ago. Now his seat might be the hottest in the conference. Luckily his two best players are back this year, but it might not help. This team lost 14 (!) games in a row last season, then went and beat then-No. 6 Maryland. The only role Minnesota can hope to play is bracket buster, because they aren’t going anywhere.
Last season: 7-25, 1-17, N/A
Key players: Corey Sanders
Key losses: Deshawn Freeman
Rutgers fired Eddie Jordan, but will that put out the dumpster fire that is Scarlet Knights basketball? Probably not. On the bright side, the only direction they can go from here is up.