Conference Preview: Big Ten

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Sometimes things change and sometimes they remain the same.  That is as true this season in the Big Ten as much as it is in any conference.  Michigan State and Purdue should once again be the class of the league and battle for conference supremacy.  In fact, the Spartans enter the season looking like a Final Four and national championship contender.  On the other hand, to see Northwestern among the list of the league’s top teams is almost a complete shock.  And that is not the only change in the conference this year, as Indiana, Illinois and Ohio State all bring in new head coaches with tons of credentials, though none of the three are likely to make the Big Dance this year.

Among the teams that could be dancing this season are Minnesota, Maryland, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin.  Penn State is a definitely a dark horse pick, but the Nittany Lions have been nailing down some very nice-looking recruits over the past few seasons, and this could be the year they break through.  Wisconsin and Iowa both look like they will take a step back this season, and the Badgers may have their run of 20 straight NCAA bids snapped.  At the end of the day, the Big Ten should once again put a nice pile of teams in the Tournament, and the basketball future of the league looks very strong with the new coaches coming in and the rise of several programs that have been perennial doormats.

Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Michigan State – The Spartans did not expect Miles Bridges to return for his sophomore season.  When he decided to come back, their prospects for this year went through the roof.  If they can avoid the plague of injuries that beset the team last season, and players such as Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling are back at or close to 100%, the sky could be the limit for this team.
  2. Purdue – After losing a player like Caleb Swanigan to the NBA Draft, most teams would expect to take a step or two back.  Not so in West Lafayette, as pretty much every other key player from last year’s Big Ten regular season champions returns, including star forward Vince Edwards, 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas, and underrated floor general Dakota Mathias.  The Boilermakers have the talent and depth to contend for another regular season championship.
  3. Northwestern – This is where we normally would be asking if this is the season the Wildcats finally break through and get their first ever NCAA bid — except that no longer applies.  Instead, this may be where we are asking whether Northwestern could actually win the Big Ten regular season title.  With four starters back, including three (Vic Law, Scottie Lindsey and Bryant McIntosh) that averaged more than 12 points per game, the Wildcats will be really good this year.  They also get Aaron Falzon back, a power forward that hit 63 3-pointers two years ago but missed most of last season with injury.  Michigan State may be the best team on paper, but if the Spartans stumble, the Wildcats could be the team to steal the crown.
  4. Minnesota – Rick Pitino’s coaching career may be over, but his son’s is just starting to get good.  Pitino proved a lot of people, including us here at HoopsHD, wrong last season with one of the most surprising success stories.  After winning 24 games and getting a 5 seed in the Big Dance, the Gophers could be Big Ten regular season title contenders with players such as Nate Mason, Amir Coffey, Jordan Murphy and Reggie Lynch back.  They also have Davonte Fitzgerald healthy after he missed last season with a torn ACL.  His presence could prove to be the piece that makes this season even better than last, and will help make the preseason injury loss of Eric Curry hurt a little less.
  5. Maryland – The Terrapins lost Melo Tremble, but return a strong contingent of players, most notably sophomore forward Justin Jackson and sophomore guard Anthony Cowan.  The addition of Duke transfer Sean Obi in the frontcourt could be a big piece, especially if he returns to his form from a few years back when he played for Rice.
  6. Michigan – The Wolverines have a lot of pieces to replace from last season, but still should have success thanks to Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman outside and Moritz Wagner on the inside.  They will need a lot from a pair of transfers, Jaaron Simmons (Ohio University) and Charles Matthews (Kentucky).
  7. Penn State – The Nittany Lions have a real chance to be this year’s breakout team in the Big Ten.  They return all five starters from a team that was only a few games below .500, led by sophomore point guard Tony Carr who led the team in both scoring and assists.  They also have some solid pieces down low, including Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins.  The best news is that this team is still very young, with a roster dominated by freshmen and sophomores.
  8. Wisconsin – The Badgers can never be counted out, even if the only starter they bring back from last season is Ethan Happ.  They will need freshmen such as Brad Davison and Kobe King to prove themselves ready for this level of play if they want to keep a streak of 20 straight years with an NCAA bid alive.
  9. Iowa – The good news is that four starters are back from a team that just missed the NCAA Tournament.  The bad news is that the one that is gone is Peter Jok, who averaged almost 20 points per game for the Hawkeyes.  Compensating for Jok’s loss is going to be tough for this team, especially given that they had the worst scoring defense team in the Big Ten and 299th in the nation.
  10. Illinois – At first glance, a case could be made that the Illini will finish at the bottom of the league standings.  However, one should never underestimate the ability of new head coach Brad Underwood and his ability to win games.  The key to the team may be Wright State graduate transfer Mark Alstork — if he can put up similar numbers in the Big Ten to what he put up last season in the Horizon League, the Illini will be a lot more competitive season than people expect.
  11. Ohio State – Jae’Sean Tate can do just about anything, and will probably need to this season as the rest of the roster is thin, especially in the backcourt, that he may end up playing the point way more than he should.  Chris Holtmann has a great chance for a ton of success in Columbus, but don’t expect much this season.
  12. Rutgers – The Scarlet Knights were much improved in Steve Pikiell’s first season, but still finished dead last in the conference.  If the improved defense continues, and players such as Corey Sanders and Deshawn Freeman can shoulder even more of the offensive load, expect them to climb up in the standings this time around.
  13. Indiana – The Hoosiers, in the wake of Tom Crean’s termination and the NBA defections of James Blackmon, Jr., Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby, are in all-out rebuild mode this year.  They do have a head coach good enough to get it done, as Archie Miller takes over the reins.  However, don’t expect much this season.
  14. Nebraska – This has a chance to be Tim Miles’ final season as head coach at Nebraska, and it is tough to see them finishing high enough in the standings to save his job.  If they are to succeed, they will need a ton of production from a pair of transfers that disappointed at their prior schools, James Palmer, Jr. (Miami) and Isaac Copeland (Georgetown).
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