When COVID-19 swept over the United States, the Big Ten’s banner season was also unfortunately washed away. We’ll never know what the conference would have done in the NCAA Tournament, but we do know the Big Ten was on the brink of sending at least 11 of the 14 members of the conference to the dance, with the outside possibility of a 12th team playing their way in with a strong showing in the conference tournament.
Fast forward eight months and the Big Ten is still as deep as ever, and should once again be the deepest conference in college basketball.
A record seven teams from the same conference appear in the preseason college basketball rankings, and this year looks just as promising as a season ago for the Big Ten to potentially send two teams to the Final Four.
How does this mammoth of a conference look heading into the new season? Let’s take a look at each team in the conference and how they figure to fare in what is sure to be another chaotic season of college basketball.
#5 Iowa (+265 to Win Big Ten)
Two words can best summarize why Iowa is a legit contender this season.
The 6-11 center had a junior season to remember before COVID-19 prevented Garza and the Hawkeyes from their appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Garza was selected as the Sporting News’ National Player of the Year and the Big Ten Conference player of the year in addition to being named as a consensus first-team All-American. And in looking at Garza’s stats it’s not difficult to see why the big man brought home a lot of awards last season. Luka averaged a practical double-double (23.9 ppg, 9.8 rpg) while shooting 54% from the floor and nearly 36% from three-point range. The 6-11 big man was the Hawkeyes’ best three-point shooter a season ago.
Iowa fans will be ecstatic to find out that most of last season’s team is back with the exception of two senior bench contributors (Ryan Kreiner and Bakari Evelyn), meaning the Hawkeyes are locked and loaded for a potentially deep run in March.
Fran McCaffery’s Hawkeyes will have senior point guard Jordan Bohannon (8.8 ppg, 3.3 apg) back in the lineup this season after he only played in 10 games a season ago, and will still have the services of the team’s second-leading scorer, Joe Wieskamp (14.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg) along with sophomore guard CJ Fredrick (10.2 ppg, 2.8 apg). This should provide the Hawkeyes with an explosive offensive unit that will play a quicker tempo than many of the schools in the conference.
If there’s a cause for concern with this Iowa team, however, it does come on the defensive end of the floor where Iowa is… passive to say the least. Iowa’s guards can shoot the lights out, but their defense is subpar at best. Luka Garza is a versatile weapon that few teams have an answer for offensively, but on the defensive end of the floor, he has shown a tendency to struggle in defending outside of the paint.
Additionally, the Hawkeyes’ reserves are extremely young with six freshmen, one sophomore, and a lone junior (Connor McCaffrey). How much depth this team actually has won’t be known until several games into the season.
If Bohannon can avoid injury and Iowa can find a gem or two on their bench, there’s no reason to believe Iowa won’t be a Top 10 team when it’s all said and done. But if the bench doesn’t progress the way McCaffrey hopes it will, this could be a team that becomes extremely reliant on Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp once again.
At the very least, expect Iowa to be one of the more entertaining teams in the Big Ten this season, and a likely strong over team given their ability to light up a scoreboard.
#7 Wisconsin (+350 to Win Big Ten)
Before COVID-19 canceled conference tournaments around the country, and then subsequently the NCAA Tournament, the Wisconsin Badgers were in the middle of an eight-game winning streak to close out the season and take the Badgers from a middling 6-6 record in conference to clinching the top seed in the Big Ten tournament.
The bad news for Badger backers is that we didn’t get a chance to see one of the hottest teams in the country during March Madness, the good news for Badger backers is that no other team in the conference will have the experience Greg Gard will have at his disposal this season.
Wisconsin returns six seniors to their team including their entire starting lineup from a season ago. The program’s only two losses entering the 2020/21 season are that of guards Brevin Pritzl (8.0 ppg) and Kobe King (midseason transfer to Nebraska).
The loss of King, one of the best recruits that Gard has brought to the program, stung initially especially when seeing him link up with a conference foe in Nebraska (though he has since departed the Nebraska program as well), but Gard did a masterful job of righting the ship after losing the team’s most talented player.
There’s a lot of reasons to be excited for this iteration of Wisconsin basketball. We mentioned the talent they’re bringing back, but possibly the most exciting development to come with this basketball team is getting Micah Potter (10.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 45.1% 3PM) for a full season. Of the Badgers’ ten losses a season ago, five of them came before Potter was eligible to play. The moment the 6-10 transfer from Ohio State entered the lineup, Wisconsin was an entirely different team. Potter provides Gard exactly what Wisconsin hopes to get from their big men – a long-player that can light it up from distance. Potter was a 45% shooter from distance a season ago.
Three-point shooting will be a running theme with the Badgers all season, as Wisconsin shot 36.1% from three-point range in conference play, only trailing Ohio State (36.2%) in three-point shooting efficiency. Gard has six players on his roster that shoot the three at a 35% clip or better. If the three-ball is dropping, the Badgers are going to be a very difficult team to beat.
Gard is one of the best coaches in the conference and given this senior-laden lineup, it’s hard not to envision the Badgers being a serious contender to the Big Ten crown once more.
#8 Illinois (+355 to Win Big Ten)
The Illini are back in the Top 10 for the first time since 2012, and while they don’t have the barrage of offensive firepower that Iowa possesses or the experience that Wisconsin brings, they will still be one of the main contenders to win the conference.
Brad Underwood’s team gets Big Ten Conference Player of the Year Candidate Ayo Dosunmu (16.6 ppg) back for his junior season after the guard flirted with the idea of entering the NBA Draft, along with their sensational 7-foot sophomore Kofi Cockburn (13.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg).
In addition to this terrific tandem, the Illini will count on senior guard Trent Frazier (9.1 ppg) and former Holy Cross guard Jacob Grandison (13.9 ppg in 2018/19) for additional offensive support.
Underwood does lose the rangy shooting forward Alan Griffin (8.9 ppg, 41.6% 3PM) who transferred to Syracuse, but four-star recruit Adam Miller could immediately start for the Illini and fill that vacancy in the stat sheet.
The fate of the new Illini season in all likelihood rests on Underwood finding another shooting threat to alleviate the pressure on his two future NBA’ers. If Frazier, Grandison, or Miller can become that dependable piece the Illini should play to the expectations of their preseason ranking. If they are unable to find consistency outside of their best two players, however, the Big Ten is monstrous enough to send Illinois tumbling down the standings.
Either way, Brad Underwood’s team should still be playing in mid-March. How far they will go remains to be seen.
#13 Michigan State (+360 to Win Big Ten)
Tom Izzo enters the new season looking to replace one of the best players to ever come through Izzo’s program in guard Cassius Winston. Arguably no player meant more to their team, at least from a leadership level, than Winston meant to the Spartans. Most college basketball fans (myself included) were saddened to see Winston’s career end in the sudden manner it did, but he has since graduated and the Spartans are now left to try to fill his absence.
Don’t feel too bad for Izzo’s Spartans, however, as they are poised to reload their roster and once again be a force in the Big Ten Conference.
Michigan State pulled in the 8th best recruiting class of 2020, but it’s Marquette transfer Joey Hauser that may excite Izzo the most. Hauser is a 6-9 forward that can score inside and out (42.5% 3PM in 2018/19) and in true Izzo fashion look for the rangy sharpshooter to have a lot of pick-and-pop plays drawn up for him this season.
Playing alongside Hauser in the Spartans’ small-ball type of lineup will be guards Rocket Watts (9.0 ppg) and Aaron Henry (10.0 ppg), but the real X-factor to Sparty’s season is that of fifth-year senior Joshua Langford.
Langford missed all of last season with a nagging foot injury and had his 2018/19 campaign cut short for the same reason, but when Langford was able to play he was a very potent scoring threat as he averaged 15.0 points per contest during his junior season.
If Langford can give the Spartans a full season, or close to it, Michigan State goes from a very good team to a legit contender.
The Dangerous Dark Horses
#23 Ohio State (+1000 to Win Big Ten)
The Buckeyes 2019/20 season was almost like three separate seasons rolled into one.
Ohio State came out of the gates scorching hot with an 11-1 record and blowout wins over then #10 Villanova, #7 North Carolina, and a narrow 71-65 victory over #6 Kentucky in Las Vegas.
Ohio State would see their ranking soar up to #2 overall before they’d meet Bob Huggins’ #22 West Virginia team. West Virginia would go on to hand Ohio State their second loss of the season, leading to a 1-6 spiral for the Buckeyes.
Sitting at 13-7 on the year and an ugly 3-6 in conference, Ohio State would find their earlier form and end the season winning nine of their last 12 games before COVID-19 would stop the season dead in its tracks.
Now Chris Holtmann’s team enters the new season with a lot of roster turnover, but still enough talent to at least put Ohio State on the likely path to another NCAA Tournament bid in 2021.
The Buckeyes lost Luther Muhammad, D.J. Carton, and Alonzo Gaffney to the transfer portal but have transfers Seth Towns (16.0 ppg with Harvard), Jimmy Sotos (11.5 ppg with Bucknell), and Justice Sueing (14.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg with Cal) ready to step right in.
Holtmann will not have the luxury of the Wesson twins this season, as Kaleb Wesson turned pro and Andre Wesson graduated, so the top returning player to Columbus this season figures to be that of junior guard Duane Washington Jr. (11.5 ppg).
While it’s unlikely that Ohio State is a National Championship contending team, they can still make a lot of noise in a loaded Big Ten. Holtmann will likely need a bit of time to get all of his new players to gel, but come February and March this may be a team that no one in the Big Ten wants any part of. A Sweet 16 run is certainly not out of the question with this group.
#25 Michigan (+1100 to Win Big Ten)
Juwan Howard’s first season in Ann Arbor was met with mostly positive results. The first-time collegiate head coach brought Michigan to a 19-12 record overall and a very respectable 10-10 in conference play.
The Wolverines began the season a perfect 7-0 including wins over then 6th ranked North Carolina and a blowout win in the Maui Invitational Final over 8th ranked Gonzaga.
As the season would go on, we’d eventually discover the North Carolina win wasn’t as impressive as we first thought it was, but their win over Gonzaga would become more impressive with each passing week.
Once Michigan entered Big Ten Conference play, however, the limitations of Michigan’s roster began to emerge. While Howard’s group was tenacious on the defensive end of the floor, they were a mixed bag offensively.
After climbing up to #4 in the polls following their blowout over Gonzaga, the Wolverines would go on a 4-8 skid that left them sitting at 11-8 overall and 2-6 in conference play. In a similar manner to Ohio State, Michigan seemed to rediscover the play they had to start the season and would rattle off eight wins in their last 12 games, putting the Wolverines comfortably in the field of 68.
Now the Wolverines enter the new season as one of the more dangerous sleepers in not only the Big Ten but in all of college basketball. The biggest question facing the team is if they will be able to find a point guard to run the offense. Zavier Simpson graduated from the program and Simpson’s heir to the throne, David DeJulius, shocked the program when he transferred to Cincinnati this offseason. That leaves Michigan potentially dangerously thin at the most important position on the floor.
Howard will now hope that either senior Eli Brooks or grad-transfer Mike Smith (22.8 ppg with Columbia in 2019/20) can fill the very large shoes left behind by Simpson. If either guard is up to the task, Michigan is in great hands once again.
Beyond their question marks at the point, Michigan returns top player Isaiah Livers (12.9 ppg) and 2019 standout frosh Franz Wagner (younger brother of former Michigan star Mo Wagner) to a very athletic and long Wolverines roster.
The floor for Michigan this season is likely where they ended the 2019/20 campaign, but the ceiling could be very high if they’re able to seamlessly replace their backcourt from a season ago. Look out for this Wolverines team this season.
Indiana (+2000 to Win Big Ten)
This very likely will be a make or break year for Archie Miller in Bloomington.
Since coming to Indiana in 2017, Miller has not made a single NCAA Tournament appearance and has a meager 55-43 record overall and a sub .500 record in conference play at 26-32. COVID-19 may have even prolonged his coaching tenure with the Hoosiers a bit further as Indiana needed at least a couple of victories in the Big Ten Tournament (though they did have one under their belt before the cancellation) to safely get into the field of 68.
Fortunately for Archie Miller, this season’s Hoosiers team should fare better than last season’s, and the temperature of his seat should cool off as the season goes on.
The straw that stirs the Hoosiers drink is that of future NBA’er Trayce Jackson-Davis (13.5 ppg, 8.4 rpg). The 6-9 lefty is a fantastic defender and a tireless glass eater for Archie Miller’s squad. Jackson-Davis will team up with senior Joey Brunk and junior Race Thompson to give Indiana one of the best frontcourts in the Big Ten.
While junior Rob Phinisee figures to start for Archie Miller to begin the season, five-star point guard Khristian Lander may eventually take that job by the time conference play begins. Lander was widely considered as the best recruit to come out of Indiana and was the 27th overall recruit according to ESPN. So Archie landing him is a pretty big deal for the Hoosiers.
The Hoosiers’ also recruited four-star talent Jordan Geronimo, giving them the 15th best-recruiting class in the country. If Miller can get the talented freshmen on this team to gel with the talent already in place, Indiana’s NCAA Tournament drought should be coming to an end.
#24 Rutgers (+3000 to Win Big Ten)
Add Rutgers to the growing pile of teams that were devastated by the cancellation of college basketball eight months ago.
The Scarlet Knights were in the middle of the best season they’ve had in a long time, winning 20 games in a season for the first time since 2004, and were almost surely headed for a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Now Steve Pikiell is hoping to replicate last season’s success and officially end Rutgers’ 30-year tournament drought.
Replicating last season’s success should be made easier by the return of Rutgers’ two best players in forward Ron Harper Jr. (12.1 ppg) and guard Geo Baker (10.8 ppg), in addition to the signing of Pikiell’s best recruit ever in Cliff Omoruyi (6-10 center, ranked 49th overall).
The Scarlet Knights were ferocious defensively a season ago, ranking 6th in the country per KenPom. That will need to continue this season if Rutgers is to meet their new expectations. One cause of concern for Rutgers this season is their woeful 2-10 road record a year ago.
However, their road woes may be greatly assisted by the fact that there will likely not be any fans for most Rutgers road basketball games this season. Conversely, that can also work against the Scarlet Knights, as Pikiell’s group was a sensational 18-1 at home last year.
I don’t believe Rutgers is a title contender or even a threat to win the Big Ten, but they have enough talent to get close to 20-wins once again and that would be a practical automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament given how stacked the Big Ten is this season.
Middle of the Pack
Purdue (+3000 to Win Big Ten)
Matt Painter faces a difficult road if he hopes to take Purdue back to the NCAA Tournament.
Weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic officially ended the Boilers season, Painter watched his two best players Matt Haarms and Nojel Eastern transfer to BYU and Howard respectively, leaving Purdue with Trevion Williams as their main threat in the low post – a position that holds greater importance in Painter’s system than with other members of the Big Ten.
However, this can also be seen as a blessing in disguise. Haarms and Eastern both chewed into the playing time and touches for Williams (11.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg), and now Williams will not have to deal with either of those issues as he becomes the focal point of the Purdue offense.
In addition to Williams, Painter will also have the services of junior guards Eric Hunter (10.6 ppg) and Sasha Stefanovic (9.1 ppg), so offensively the Boilers should remain quite the formidable group. Where Painter will run into some potential issues comes on the defensive side of the floor, as Haarms and Eastern were both outstanding rim protectors.
Purdue’s bench will be very young with five freshmen, so it remains to be seen how deep Painter’s rotations will be. If any of the freshmen happen to pop and emerge as a capable depth piece, however, Purdue is likely going to be heading back to the NCAA Tournament.
Maryland (+5000 to Win Big Ten)
Out of all the teams in the loaded Big Ten, no one lost more from the 2019/20 season than Mark Turgeon’s Maryland Terrapins.
The timing of the COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t have been worse for the Terps eight months ago, as Maryland was in the middle of their best season since their Juan Dixon National Championship team and had just captured a share of the Big Ten regular-season crown. Maryland was likely in the mix for a 2 or 3 seed in the tournament, and who knows what kind of run they could have eventually gone on.
The holes on this roster are evident, as Turgeon is faced with the daunting task of replacing star guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and NBA’er Jalen Smith. The Terps also had the worst recruiting class in the conference, not exactly what you hope to achieve in this gauntlet of a conference.
In a best-case scenario, the Terps greatly overachieve and get themselves in the mix of a possible bubble spot. The more likely scenario is they fight off Minnesota and Purdue for 10th place in the conference.
The Long Shots
Minnesota (+15000 to Win Big Ten)
Penn State (+30000 to Win Big Ten)
Nebraska (+50000 to Win Big Ten)
Northwestern (+50000 to Win Big Ten)
If you dropped any of these four teams into a weaker conference, the outlook for their seasons would probably look much differently. Unfortunately, though that’s not how college athletics work so these four teams are in for a tough slog in this behemoth of a basketball power conference.
Minnesota adds stand out transfers Liam Robbins (Drake), Brandon Johnson (Western Michigan), and Both Gach (Utah), but loses 2019 star Daniel Oturu in what is a make or break season for Richard Pitino. Marcus Carr and Gabe Kalscheur return to Minnesota’s backcourt and offer one of the most experienced guard tandems in the conference. One name of note here is that of 2020 recruit Jamal Mashburn Jr. Mashburn Jr. is of course the son of former NBA great Jamal Mashburn, so if you want to feel even older than you do after living during a global pandemic, be sure to catch a Gophers game if you can.
Penn State is in for a potentially rough season, as head coach Pat Chambers abruptly resigned in late October. Former Duquesne head coach Jim Ferry has now become the team’s interim coach, but he will have his hands full after the Nittany Lions had already lost their two best players from a season ago in Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins. Myreon Jones (13.4 ppg) is the name to look out for here, as he’s the best returning player to Happy Valley.
Nebraska enters year two of the Fred Hoiberg era hoping it goes a lot better than the 7-25 (2-18 Big Ten) showing the Huskers had in his debut season. Good news for Husker fans is the talent is getting noticeably better, and they shouldn’t be nearly as bad as they were a season ago. However, Nebraska has the unfortunate luck of their football program uprooting its basketball program into the strongest conference in the United States. The Huskers will be a team to watch in 2021 and beyond, but this season expect more growing pains in Lincoln.
Northwestern at least has a good football team to cheer for this season. They won’t have much else besides Mike Greenberg annoyingly reminding you that’s where he went to college.
Big Ten Projected Order of Finish
- Michigan State
- Ohio State
- Penn State