The Big Ten has been close several times but has failed to win a national championship since Michigan State did it in 2000. Now, the Spartans enter the campaign as preseason No. 1 for the first time in program history and hope to bookend both sides of the conference’s title drought.
But they’re not the only team with hopes of making this year one to remember. It should be another deep Big Ten this time around, although not quite as loaded from top to bottom as a season ago, with plenty of teams eyeing NCAA Tournament bids and second-weekend runs.
Here is how I see the Big Ten breaking down as we’re only days away from the start of the season:
National Competitors: Maryland, Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue
Michigan State is carrying the banner for the Big Ten heading into the season with a tremendous amount of talent returning. Cassius Winston is of course at the top of that list. He was arguably the best point guard in the country last year as a junior. Now as a senior, he is the first AP First Team All-American to return to school the following season since Doug McDermott in 2012. You can absolutely count on Winston having one of the best seasons in the country and dominating games for head coach Tom Izzo throughout the campaign. Nick Ward, Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid are gone, but Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry are still around, plus big steps forward are expected from Kyle Ahrens and Gabe Brown. Joshua Langford’s foot issue resurfaced shortly after his team was given the No. 1 preseason ranking, which will hold him out until at least January when it’s reevaluated. It’s certainly a blow for the Spartans, but they missed Langford for much of last season and still made the Final Four. This is an Izzo-coached team with a ridiculous amount of talent, including probably the best player in the nation. With or without Langford, this team will be elite.
It’s a make-or-break year for Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon as his team enters the season with some serious expectations, and rightfully so. Everyone but Bruno Fernando is back, including a much-stronger Jalen Smith and senior leader Anthony Cowan. Four-star center Makhi Mitchell is tasked with replacing Fernando, and the rest of the big freshman class will help keep the bench plenty stocked. This will be one of the deepest teams Turgeon has had in his time in College Park, and he will need to get the best out of all the talent he has at his disposal. In the past, he has not been able to turn great teams on paper into great teams on the court, and the witching hour is here for him to make this season a memorable one in a good way.
Chris Holtmann got Ohio State to the second round of the NCAA Tournament with essentially one scorer on his entire roster. That scorer is back, and so is almost everyone who surrounded him. Holtmann will have a deep bench available to him with an even better Kaleb Wesson to design his offense around. With Holtmann’s coaching, the raw talent evident last season and the No. 14 recruiting class in the country, this team is primed to take a serious step forward back into the national conversation.
Purdue lost a good chunk of its scoring in the offseason with the departures of superstar Carsen Edwards, sharpshooter Ryan Cline and glue guy Grady Eifert. But Nojel Eastern, Aaron Wheeler and Matt Haarms and Trevion Williams are returning, and High Point transfer Jahaad Proctor, who averaged 19.5 points per game for the Panthers and will replace some of the lost scoring. At this point, head coach Matt Painter has asserted himself as a coach you can trust to have his team contending in the conference by the end of the year. The biggest task for him will be to find the offensive production that Edwards and Cline left behind, and he now has a track record of solving such problems. Purdue might not be to the same level it was last year, but if it’s pieces come together, it very well could be.
NCAA Tournament Hopefuls: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin
Michigan heads into the season with a wide range of expectations. Some key figures are back: Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers are proven commodities in the Big Ten, and having that core of players immediately means the Wolverines will be formidable. But Ignas Brazdeikis, Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole are gone, and most importantly, John Beilein is in Cleveland coaching the Cavaliers. New head coach Juwan Howard is a Michigan basketball legend and could certainly continue the momentum Beilein built, keeping Michigan in the national conversation immediately at the start of his tenure. But he isn’t yet proven to be at that level, and until we see what he can do on the sideline, expectations for the Wolverines have to be somewhat tempered. I still see them safely as a tournament team, and one opposition might like to avoid, I might add, but contending for a national title seems presumptuous.
It feels like the Fighting Illini have toiled in mediocrity since Dee Brown and Deron Williams almost lead them to a perfect season, and that’s because they have. Illinois hasn’t been to a Sweet 16 since 2005 and hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 2013. That could change this year, though, or at least the tournament drought, as head coach Brad Underwood brings back most of what made his team a tough game in the middle of conference play last season. Ayo Dosunmu is the biggest name to remain as the sophomore will be tasked with orchestrating the offensive flow. Trent Frazier, Kipper Nichols and Giorgi Bezhanishvili will be some of the most important pieces supporting him, plus four-star center Kofi Cockburn out of Oak Hill Academy. This team should be good enough to go to the Big Dance, but it’s still Illinois. Would anyone be that surprised if they screwed it up?
Losing Ethan Happ sounds like a major loss for Wisconsin, and it is. He was one of the best big men in the country and with his fancy footwork and incredible knack for creating space, Happ could have his way in the paint whenever the Badgers needed. But if there is a team to absorb the blow of a superstar graduating, it’s Wisconsin. The program consistently plays as a larger sum of its parts, and some of this year’s parts were productive last year, too. D’Mitrik Trice, Brad Davison and Nate Reuvers are the headliners, but Brevin Pritzl, Kobe King and Ohio State transfer Micah Potter will make impacts, too. Without Happ and Khalil Iverson, it’s reasonable to expect Wisconsin to take a slight step back from where it was last season, but it should still be a player in the Big Ten and playing in March.
Indiana couldn’t live up to expectations last season, and head coach Archie Miller heard about it. In his third year, he will be tasked with getting the Hoosiers back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016, and Bloomington is growing impatient. He won’t have Romeo Langford or Juwan Morgan, but Justin Smith, Rob Phinisee, Aljami Durham, Devonte Green and De’Ron Davis will be around, plus Jerome Hunter, a big-time recruit who missed all of last season with an injury. Four-star Trayce Jackson-Davis and Butler transfer Joey Brunk also join the Hoosiers ranks. With the roster Indiana has, it’s tough to see the offense getting that much better, but it’s possible that defense and size can carry the Hoosiers back to the Big Dance. For Miller’s stress level, it better.
Iowa had a more positive outlook for the season before Jordan Bohannon had to undergo surgery for his hip and labrum in May. It looked like it would hold him out entirely for the 2019-20 season, but in early October, head coach Fran McCaffery revealed Bohannon was moving along better than predicted and might appear this campaign. Regardless, he will be sorely missed while Iowa awaits his return, and it will make life that much more difficult for Luka Garza, Joe Weiskamp, Connor McCaffery and the team’s other returning players. A third McCaffery has entered the program as four-star forward Patrick McCaffery headlines Iowa’s newcomers, which will help with the departures of Tyler Cook, Isaiah Moss and Nicholas Baer. But without Bohannon for an undefined amount of time, it remains to be seen if the Hawkeyes can do enough to qualify for the Field of 68.
Pat Chambers comes back for his ninth season in Happy Valley, and although he has certainly elevated the program from conference laughingstock to capable of knocking off some of the Big Ten’s best on any given night, he is yet to get the Nittany Lions into the Big Dance. If it is to happen, this seems like the year, with Lamar Stevens returning for his senior year and will likely be one of the top players in the Big Ten. Mike Watkins, Jamari Wheeler and Myles Dread will be other important pieces to Penn State’s success in the face of losing Rasir Bolton and Josh Reaves. A pair of transfers – Izaiah Brockington from St. Bonaventure and Curtis Jones from Oklahoma State – were badly needed as depth for Chambers to work with. Penn State has the talent to go to its first NCAA Tournament since 2011, but it’ll be about consistency, and that starts with not losing any embarrassing games in the non-conference.
The Fodder: Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Rutgers
Not everyone is as down on Minnesota as I am, but I fear for this program post-Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey. Minnesota scored 0.86 points per possession when Murphy was on the bench compared to 1.03 when he was in the game, and the Gophers gave up 1.11 points per possession when Coffey sat versus 0.95 when he played. Gabe Kalscheur showed flashes of offensive brilliance as a freshman last year and should take a step forward in his game, but will that be enough? The team’s net scorer, Dupree McBrayer, is also gone, leaving even more on the shoulders of Kalscheur, Daniel Oturu and Eric Curry. Three transfers – Marcus Carr from Pittsburgh, Alihan Demir from Drexel and Payton Willis from Vanderbilt – can score, but can it all gel together in time for the Gophers to make the tournament? I wouldn’t bet on it. I see Minnesota finishing closer to last place in the Big Ten than in the Field of 68.
Rutgers took a blow when Eugene Omoruyi announced he would transfer from the program, likely knocking the team back from a possible tournament berth back down to “doing the best it can” tier. Head coach Steve Pikiell has revitalized the Scarlet Knights, though, and with Geo Baker, Shaq Carter, Ron Harper Jr., Stony Brook transfer Akwasi Yeboah and more returning talent, they will give some Big Ten teams hell. With how deep the league is yet again, it probably will be too much for Rutgers to escape one of the bottom spots in the Big Ten. But that doesn’t mean this won’t be a decent team that will knock off some of the conference’s best throughout the course of the season.
To say Nebraska is a program is transition would be an understatement. Only one player from last season remains on the roster, and not even the coach is the same. Head coach Fred Hoiberg replaced Tim Miles in the offseason, and like he used to do at Iowa State, immediately began collecting transfers. He found four to join the Cornhuskers, three of whom averaged double-digit scoring at their previous schools. All the newcomers possess serious talent, and Hoiberg has a proven record as a collegiate coach. It would take a lot for all of these pieces to come together in time for Nebraska to finish in the top half of the Big Ten, but it should be a thorn in the side of a handful of Big Ten opponents.
I would be shocked if Northwestern didn’t finish in dead last after finishing 13-19 (4-16) last season and losing more talent from that team than it added for this one. I don’t know who is going to score points for this team as Vic Law and Dererk Pardon have moved on. The Wildcats couldn’t shoot last year, and I don’t see why that would change for the 2019-20 campaign. If given a few more years, head coach Chris Collins might turn these young players into something substantial in a couple seasons, but for this one, I wouldn’t expect much.