Big Ten men’s basketball is coming off of an incredible regular season and lackluster postseason, which has become par for the course for the league. But in 2021-22, Big Ten basketball will have similar opportunities as last year with so much talent returning and entering the league.
Michigan, Purdue, and Ohio State all figure to be the favorites, but the depth in this conference is really what makes it so difficult. Will one of the contenders surprise and win the league? Will a team without high expectations burst through and get into the NCAA Tournament? Will this finally be the year the Big Ten brings home the men’s basketball national championship?
Let’s take a look.
Big Ten Men’s Basketball Preview 2021-22: Michigan, Purdue, or OSU?
The Favorites: Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue
Head coach: Juwan Howard (3rd season)
2020-21 record: 23-5 (14-3)
Conference finish: 1st
Michigan won the Big Ten men’s basketball regular season crown in 2021, returns Hunter Dickinson and Eli Brooks, added transfer DeVante’ Jones (Coastal Carolina), and have the No. 2 class in the country coming in, according to 247Sports.com.
Put it all together, and you’ve got one of the favorites for 2021-22.
Jones, who average 19.1 points per game in the Sun Belt last year, can be fill the same role that Mike Smith did last season, and Dickinson should be even more dominant than he was in 2020-21. Caleb Houstan enters the mix as a five-star freshman who can score and make plays like crazy.
Not only is a Michigan a favorite to win the Big Ten, the Wolverines are a favorite to reach the Final Four in March.
Head coach: Chris Holtmann (5th season)
2020-21 record: 21-10 (12-8)
Conference finish: 5th
Ohio State has lost some of what it had last season, but it does return E.J. Liddell, one of the best players in Big Ten men’s basketball a year ago. He scored more than 16 points per contest, hauled in nearly seven boards per night, and shot almost 34 percent from deep in 2020-21, and those numbers all figure to improve in 2021-22.
Kyle Young, Seth Towns (though back surgery will hold him out until at least December), and Justice Sueing all come back as well, plus Jamari Wheeler (Penn State) and Joey Brunk (Indiana) joined as transfers in the offseason. Four-star guard Malaki Branham will also start his college career with the Buckeyes, with the St. Vincent-St. Mary standout offering Holtmann another option in the backcourt.
There’s still some question marks surrounding this team, but with the talent it brings back and adds, it’s hard for me to not consider it a favorite to win the league.
Head coach: Matt Painter (17th season)
2020-21 record: 18-10 (13-6)
Conference finish: 4th
The core of Purdue’s team from last season is all back, including one of the best frontcourts in all of college basketball, let alone in the Big Ten.
Trevion Williams was already one of the best players in the Big Ten, and he doesn’t figure to slow down for this coming season. Pair him with Zach Edey, and you have a terrifying selection of trees for opponents to worry about. Good luck gaining control of the paint when you play the Boilermakers.
Purdue also brings back Jaden Ivey, who was good last season but seemed to show some serious leaps forward this summer at the FIBA U19 World Cup. He could be one of the best scorers in the Big Ten in 2021-22, and his driving ability plus the inside presences from Williams and Edey should open up tons of open looks from deep for Sash Stefanovic. Oh, and Eric Hunter Jr. is back, too.
This team is loaded and, like Michigan, is much more than just a favorite to win this league.
The Contenders: Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Rutgers
Head coach: Brad Underwood (5th season)
2020-21 record: 24-7 (16-4)
Conference finish: 2nd
After having a great regular season and winning the Big Ten Tournament, Illinois had a tough draw in the NCAA Tournament and bowed out in the second round. The Illini have lost some talent from that team, namely Ayo Dosunmu, but Kofi Cockburn is back to command control of the paint, and they have a stable of guards – Andre Curbelo, Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams – who can offer great production offensively and defensively. Omar Payne (Florida) gives Brad Underwood another piece to work with that he didn’t have in 2020-21.
Cockburn opting to stay in Champaign was a huge deal and keeps Illinois as a contender this season. But there are some questions about this team that keep it from being a favorite. Can Curbelo grow into the role left by Dosunmu? Can Cockburn clean up some of the inefficiencies in his game? How much of an instant impact can the trio of incoming four-star recruits have?
Head coach: Mike Woodson (1st season)
2020-21 record: 12-15 (7-12)
Conference finish: 10th
Indiana has won the offseason!
I say that both jokingly and seriously. “Winning the offseason” is a meaningless title fan bases ascribe when they’ve been extremely disappointing on the court for years (i.e., Indiana), but making positive moves in the offseason can genuinely make a difference.
Mike Woodson was able to convince Trayce Jackson-Davis to stay put, which is a massive success for the Hoosiers, and added Xavier Johnson (Pittsburgh), Miller Kopp (Northwestern), and Michael Durr (South Florida) via the transfer portal. Woodson is also bringing a couple of four-star recruits to Bloomington in Tamar Bates and Logan Duncomb.
A big question surrounds whether or not Khristian Lander is prepared to take a big step forward. He was able to contribute some off the bench, but the former five star should have plenty of room to grow from what he showed last season. Will a new coach and another year of development turn him into one of the better point guards in the league?
Head coach: Mark Turgeon (11th season)
2020-21 record: 17-14 (9-11)
Conference finish: 8th
Maryland lost two big players who were key to its turnaround in the later parts of last season in Aaron Wiggins and Darryl Morsell, but it also added a ton of talent via the transfer portal. Fatts Russell (Rhode Island) and Qudus Wahab (Georgetown) figure to make an instant impact and provide the Terps will a great guard-post tandem that is so crucial to success in this league. Plus, Ian Martinez (Utah) can offer some quality guard depth, and any of the other three transfers into the program could help, too.
Additionally, Eric Ayala and Donta Scott are back, plus Hakim Hart could take another big step forward after developing a lot between his freshman and sophomore seasons. But what happens if Wahab has foul trouble, gets injured, or otherwise can’t play 40 minutes? Will Julian Reese be ready to take on those minutes? Will Maryland have to again play small ball to compensate for little inside presence?
Some of the depth issues from 2020-21 should be solved, but maybe not all of them, plus there are still serious question marks surrounding Mark Turgeon. This will be a put up or shut up season for him.
Head coach: Tom Izzo (27th season)
2020-21 record: 15-13 (9-11)
Conference finish: 9th
The 2021-22 Michigan State team should look quite a bit different from the 2020-21 one.
Aaron Henry is gone, and that’s a big loss – he was crucial to the Spartans’ last season run to get one of the final NCAA Tournament at-large bids. But Izzo added talent to help ease that departure. Tyson Walker (Northeastern) transferred in, and he brings almost 19 points and five assists per game with him. Three commits round out the No. 12 class in the country, with five-star shooting guard Max Christie the headliner of the bunch. Gabe Brown, Marcus Bingham, and Joey Hauser will also be back in East Lansing to offer experience and ideally improvement from last season.
Do I think Michigan State will win the league? Probably not. Do I think it will be a fair bit better than last season? Yes, it should be.
Head coach: Steve Pikiell (6th season)
2020-21 record: 16-12 (10-10)
Conference finish: 7th
The Pikiell basketball renaissance is in full swing at Rutgers, and it should be another solid season for the Scarlet Knights, even if it might not equate to a better or much better finish in the Big Ten (the league is just that loaded). Myles Johnson transferred to UCLA and Jacob Young left for Oregon, but Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. opted to stick with the Scarlet Knights. Those two have the potential to be two of the best players in the entire conference and will win games all by themselves in 2021-22.
Cliff Omoruyi now has a huge opportunity in front of him. With Johnson out of the picture, the paint is now his to command. He has room to grow, as a scorer especially but overall as well, and there is absolutely no way Rutgers can contend for the league title without him offering a ton of production.
I don’t see a league championship coming to New Jersey, but an NCAA Tournament bid and a top-half finish in the Big Ten are both very possible.
Stuck in Purgatory: Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin
Head coach: Fran McCaffery (12th season)
2020-21 record: 22-9 (14-6)
Conference finish: 3rd
Let me be immediately clear: just because these teams are stuck in purgatory doesn’t mean they won’t be good or capable of dancing. This league is insanely difficult and deep. Last season, two of its teams made the NCAA Tournament with losing conference records, and something similar could happen again in 2021-22.
Anyway, back to Iowa. The Hawkeyes should take a pretty big step back from where they were last season after losing Luka Garza, who is not possible to replace, Joe Weiskamp, and CJ Frederick. I cannot see any way in which this team performs to the level it did in 2020-21.
But there is talent here, and it could be enough to dance. Joe Toussaint can really get to the hole, and Connor McCaffery and light it up from deep. Jordan Bohannon is back for a sixth season, and he can shoot from anywhere, plus Keegan Murray could be poised for a breakout campaign. However, per usual, massive defense questions remain around Iowa, and with so much offensive production lost, can the Hawkeyes remain competitive enough in this league to make their mark?
Head coach: Fred Hoiberg (3rd season)
2020-21 record: 7-20 (3-16)
Conference finish: 14th
It was a brutal year for Nebraska in 2020-21. COVID-19 absolutely ravaged it, and by the time the Cornhuskers had any hope of stringing together some momentum, they were in the thick of their conference schedule in one of the deepest leagues of all time. They were dead on arrival.
There will plenty of roster turnover yet again, and Lincoln will hope that means an improvement from last year. It also means predicting how it will all gel is tough.
Hoiberg brings in the No. 18 class in the nation, including five-star shooting guard Bryce McGowens, who will ideally make an immediate and important impact. Additionally, Alonzo Verge Jr. (Arizona State), Keon Edwards (DePaul), and C.J. Wilcher (Xavier) have entered the fray via the transfer portal.
This might be the season it comes together enough for a tournament bid, but Nebraska’s absolute ceiling in the conference is likely eighth, which would be fantastic for the program but not enough to get it outside of this category.
Head coach: Greg Gard (7th season)
2020-21 record: 18-13 (10-10)
Conference finish: 6th
This won’t be the Badgers you’re used to. Well, Brad Davison is still around, so he’s someone you’re used to, but otherwise, it’s a whole lotta new names in Madison.
D’Mitrik Trice, Aleem Ford, Micah Potter, Nate Reuvers – all graduated from last year’s team. To replace is a collection of three-star recruits, namely point guard Chucky Hepburn out of Bellevue, Nebraska, who might take a little bit of time to adjust to the level of play. A trio of transfers – Chris Vogt (Cincinnati), Isaac Lindsey (UNLV), and Jahcobi Neath (Wake Forest) – will hopefully help cushion the impact of inexperience.
This team could do well enough to get into the tournament, but it’s also very possible that its lack of experience and depth gets it eaten alive in this ferocious Big Ten. I don’t foresee the Badgers being the massively formidable force they’ve been in the league for many years now.
The Basement: Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State
Head coach: Ben Johnson (1st season)
2020-21 record: 14-15 (6-14)
Conference finish: 13th
Last season did not go the way Minnesota expected nor wanted, tanking to close out the season to miss out on the NCAA Tournament and finish below .500. It shouldn’t be much better in 2021-22.
Ben Johnson steps in as the team’s new head coach after Richard Pitino was fired in March. He returns to his alma mater to turn the tide back in a positive direction, but it’ll be an uphill battle in his inaugural campaign.
Marcus Carr, by far the team’s best player in 2020-21, has left for greener pastures. Nine other players from the roster also ditched the Gophers in the transfer portal after Pitino was let go. With an entirely new-look team in one of the nation’s best leagues, it’ll be a long season.
Head coach: Chris Collins (9th season)
2020-21 record: 9-15 (6-13)
Conference finish: 12th
A hot start last season was smoke and mirrors in the end, and while the Wildcats might turn out a little better than they were in 2020-21, escaping the basement of this league will be a tall order.
Miller Kopp has transferred out, but Boo Buie – one of the league’s hidden gems – and Chase Audige return for Northwestern. Collins also brings in three recruits, including four-star shooting guard Casey Simmons. But is that enough to get out of the league’s bottom four?
The clock has to be ticking on Collins. I’m not sure he has to get Northwestern to the tournament this year to keep his job, but you have to think that another finish in the bottom four of the league will get him canned.
Head coach: Micah Shrewsberry (1st season)
2020-21 record: 11-14 (7-12)
Conference finish: 11th
For his first State College team, Shrewsberry won’t have some of the program’s previously best players. Myreon Jones left for Florida, and Jamari Wheeler is off to Ohio State. But the new coach will have Seth Lundy, Sam Sessoms, and John Harrar at his disposal. Plus, Jalen Pickett (Siena) is transferring in, and he can bring some offensive help immediately.
Do I think Penn State will be awful in the grand scheme of men’s college basketball? No, there’s enough returning talent here that the Nittany Lions should win a handful of conference games and steal a few from some of the league’s contenders, as they are known to do. But do I see any way for Penn State to take a step forward and avoid the basement yet again? Not really. That might change as Shrewsberry has years to mold his program, but I don’t see his first season being much different from 2020-21.
2021-22 Big Ten Men’s Basketball Players to Watch
Hunter Dickinson – Center – Sophomore – Michigan
I picked three big men, but that’s just basketball in the Big Ten.
Hunter Dickinson was unreal as a freshman, scoring, rebounding, and protecting the rim at an elite level. If you let him get the ball in position in the paint, it’s a wrap. He was also tied for fourth in the league in blocks at 1.4 per game (40 overall), and all three of the players ahead of him won’t be playing Big Ten basketball in 2021-22.
Dickinson is in a position to elevate himself into not only one of the Big Ten’s best but one of the best players in the whole country. Plus, his trash talk and general antics make him even more entertaining and a must-watch.
E.J. Liddell – Forward – Junior – Ohio State
Already one of the best scorers in the league a year ago, E.J. Liddell is back after withdrawing his name from the NBA Draft. He can score in a variety of ways – back you down in the paint or hit the mid-range (shot 47.4 percent from the field in 2020-21, eighth-best in the Big Ten), convert from the free-throw line (74.6 percent in 2020-21, 11th-best in the Big Ten), and connect from deep (33.8 percent in 2020-21) when necessary – and Ohio State loves to use him all over the floor offensively to create matchup nightmares for opponents.
He should be even better in 2021-22 and will be instrumental to the Buckeyes earning the Big Ten men’s basketball throne, if it happens.
Trevion Williams – Forward – Senior – Purdue
Maybe one of the quietest dominant players in the country in 2020-21, Trevion Williams shouldn’t be so quiet this time around. He was one of six players nationally to average at least 15 points, nine rebounds, and two assists per game last season and the only high-major player to do so, and you should expect another step forward for him and his game in 2021-22.
Williams put up 11 double-doubles, nine of those in the season’s final 18 games, and should have that and then some this season. He’s an absolute load in the center of the floor, and is such a big contributor on the glass as well, which is big part of what Purdue does. With Zach Edey potentially taking a step forward and drawing some attention himself, it should make Williams that much more effective in every area of his game.
It’ll be a bloodbath when these three players are up against one another.
2021-22 Men’s & Women’s College Basketball Conference Previews
Learn more about the upcoming 2021-22 men’s and women’s college basketball seasons with Nothing But Nylon’s extensive conference previews, with a new conference covered every week before the campaign tips off in November.