Big Ten Media Day was last Wednesday, and around this time last year I offered my early prediction for how the Big Ten basketball standings would shake out. I got some right, I got more wrong and I was close on the rest, so let’s give it another shot this year, shall we?
Last season, I put Michigan State at No. 1, Maryland at No. 5 and Penn State at No. 11. The Spartans finished in a tie for first, the Terrapins were fifth and the Nittany Lions finished in a three-way tie for 10th. I pegged Michigan, Iowa, Ohio State, Northwestern and Illinois within one or two spots of where there finished.
I was way too high on Indiana and Nebraska. Nebraska at least had the season-ending injury to Isaac Copeland Jr. that shook things up, but the Hoosiers were just a complete bust. Indiana finished in a tie for eight and Nebraska was way down at 13th, though both teams made the NIT.
I was too low on Purdue (No. 6), Wisconsin (No. 4), Minnesota (No. 10) and Rutgers (No. 14). The Boilermakers finished in a tie for first, the Badgers were fourth, Minnesota finished seventh and made the NCAA Tournament and Rutgers won seven league games, good for tie for 10th.
I did say I could see as many as eight Big Ten teams making the NCA Tournament, and that’s exactly what happened, even if I didn’t nail which eight.
Now, let’s look ahead to 2019-20. I’ve broken the league down into five tiers.
1) Michigan State (2018-19: 32-7, 16-4 Big Ten, NCAA Final Four)
Michigan State will likely be No. 1 in the country when the AP and Coaches polls roll out, so they’re the obvious pick for No. 1 in the Big Ten.
Big Ten preseason Player of the Year Cassius Winston leads he way for a Spartan squad that returns four starters and adds a recruiting class that includes two top-70 recruits. With Winston running the show, the Spartans’ offense will be good, and with the likes of Aaron Henry on the wing and Xavier Tillman in the paint, their defense should be stout as well.
2) Maryland (23-11, 13-7 Big Ten, NCAA Second Round)
Mark Turgeon had the top-ranked recruiting class in the Big Ten last season, and that whole class is back led by former 5-star recruit Jalen Smith who had a strong freshman campaign playing alongside Bruno Fernando. Fernando is off to the NBA, but point guard Anthony Cowan retuned for his senior year and Turgeon added another top-30 recruiting class headlined by 4-star big man Makhi Mitchell, a top-70 prospect. Maryland has a balanced roster with shot creation, shooting proficiency and defensive upside.
Whereas the first two tiers consisted of one team apiece, tier three includes four teams. Three of these teams return some talent but lost huge pieces that will be tough to replace.
3) Purdue (26-10, 16-4 Big Ten, NCAA Elite Eight)
Purdue returns two of the best defensive players in the conference in 6-foot-7 point guard Nojel Eastern and 7-foot-3 center Matt Haarms, and sophomore wing Aaron Wheeler has a lot of upside as well at 6-foot-9. However, the Boilermakers will have to find a way to replace more than half their scoring as the Big Ten’s leading scorer Carsen Edwards left for the NBA and sharp-shooter Ryan Cline ran out of eligibility.
I’m not convinced Purdue has the offensive talent to make up for those losses, but I didn’t think they’d be as close to as good as they were last year and Matt Painter finds a way to get it done year in and year out.
4) Michigan (30-7, 15-5 Big Ten, NCAA Sweet 16)
Like Purdue, Michigan returns the backbone of what was a stellar defense last year with point guard Zavier Simpson and center Jon Teske, and versatile forward Isaiah Livers is back as well. Also like Purdue, the Wolverines lost some serious offensive punch in the form of Ignas Brazdeikis, Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole. Where these two teams differ, however, is on the bench. Michigan lost its Hall of Fame coach John Beilein to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Juwan Howard is running the show now, and I have no idea what to expect from him.
I could see the Wolverines finish much lower than this if they can’t find a way to score some points, but German freshman Franz Wagner, the younger brother of former Michigan big man Moritz Wagner, is drawing rave reviews out of Ann Arbor and could make an immediate impact.
5) Ohio State (20-15, 8-12 Big Ten, NCAA Second Round)
Chris Holtmann brought in the Big Ten’s best recruiting class, a top-15 group nationally including 4-star point guard DJ Carton and 4-star forwards EJ Liddell and Alonzo Gaffney, all three of whom were top-50 recruits. Holzmann also returns one of the best big men in the conference in Kaleb Wesson, but in order to make an even bigger leap than I’ve projected here he needs the rest of his returns to make a big leap.
6) Wisconsin (23-11, 14-6 Big Ten, NCAA First Round)
Depth could be an issue for the Badgers as they only have 10 scholarship players on their roster, including a center who redshirted as a walk-on last year. Wisconsin returns three starters and three reserves from its eight-man rotation, but they lost one of the more unique players in college basketball in Ethan Happ who led the team in points, rebounds, assists and steals. That’s a lot of production to replace, and Wisconsin signed one recruit in the 2019 class, 3-star forward Tyler Wahl, and added a transfer big man in former Ohio State Buckeye Micah Potter. Like Michigan, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Badgers end up in a tier below this.
7) Iowa (23-12, 10-10 Big Ten, NCAA Second Round)
Tyler Cook leaving after his junior year wasn’t a surprise, but potentially losing point guard Jordan Bohannon for the season was a bit different. He had hip surgery and could opt to redshirt this year if he doesn’t recover in time. If Bohannon is good to go, I’d bump the Hawkeyes up a tier. They have a strong frontcourt featuring center Luka Garza and forward Jack Nunge, who redshirted last year after a promising freshman performance, and Joe Wieskamp is poised for a big sophomore season on the wing. Former Husker Bakari Evelyn joined the Hawkeyes as a graduate transfer to add depth in the backcourt.
8) Illinois (12-21, 7-13 Big Ten, no postseason)
Illinois has a strong backcourt with sophomore Ayo Dosunmu and junior Trent Frazier, and Brad Underwood also added a top-50 recruit in 7-foot, 290-pound monster Kofi Cockburn to pair with one of the biggest freshman surprises from last season in big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili, but the Illini won just 12 games last year and I’m not sure if there’s enough there for them to live up to the high expectations a lot of Illini fans seem to have for 2019-20. I think the true breakout is a year away still.
9) Nebraska (19-17, 6-14 Big Ten, NIT Second Round)
I honestly have no idea where to slot Nebraska. The Big Ten media polled by The Athletic put them at 13th, and its hard to argue with that considering the Huskers are a complete unknown. I think this team’s success will come down to two things: how quickly the junior college guards are able to translate to Big Ten basketball and whether or not Doc Sadler can devise a way for this undersized team to survive in a conference that features a lot of size.
I like a lot of the pieces Fred Hoiberg has brought in. I’m a believer in Dachon Burke and I do think Jervay Green and Cam Mack will be difference-makers by the time Big Ten play arrives. I think an NIT berth is a fair projection for this team, but it could easily miss the postseason all together if the pieces don’t quite fit, and an NCAA Tournament appearance isn’t completely off the table either in my mind based on Fred Hoiberg’s track record.
10) Minnesota (22-14, 9-11 Big Ten, NCAA Second Round)
I was low on Minnesota last year and the Golden Gophers exceeded my expectations. However, Richard Pitino lost three starters including his two best players, double-double machine Jordan Murphy and bucket-getter Amir Coffey. Center Daniel Oturu and sharp-shooter Gabe Kalscheur played very well as freshmen, but the Gophers are going to rely heavily on transfers this year to complement that duo.
Alihan Demir, a 6-foot-9 power forward, put up 14.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game at Drexel, but he played a grand total of two games against high-major competition (scoring 14 points against Rutgers and six against UConn). Marcus Carr will slide in at point guard after redshirting last season, but he shot under 40% from the field and sported a 22.1% turnover rate as a freshman at Pittsburgh. Finally, Payton Willis is a shooting specialist who shot 31.3% and 34.5% from deep in his two seasons at Vanderbilt.
I’m not a big fan of the team’s depth, either.
11) Indiana (19-16, 8-12 Big Ten, NIT Third Round)
Indiana was probably the only team more disappointing than Nebraska last season, and the Hoosiers lost their top two players from that team in freshman Romeo Langford and senior Juwan Morgan. Archie Miller landed the highest-ranked recruit in the conference in big man Trayce Jackson-Davis (30th overall in 2019) and Jerome Hunter, a 4-star and top-60 recruit in 2018, is coming off a redshirt year.
The Hoosiers do have some good size and athleticism in Jackson-Davis, senior De’Ron Davis, Butler transfer Joey Brunk, junior Justin Smith and sophomore Race Thompson, but senior Devonte Green is the only player on the team that shot better than 35% from 3 from a team that was 317th in 3-point percentage last season.
These teams lack either depth, perimeter skill or just overall talent.
12) Penn State (14-18, 7-13 Big Ten, no postseason)
Penn State has a talented duo in senior forward Lamar Stevens (a 20-point-per-game scorer) and senior center Mike Watkins (a defensive force), but there just isn’t a whole lot outside of those two. Josh Reaves is a big loss on the wing, Rasir Bolton transferred and I’m just not high on anybody else on this roster.
13) Rutgers (14-17, 7-13 Big Ten, no postseason)
Steve Pikiell is actually doing a good job with this program. He won more Big Ten games last year (seven) than he did in his first two seasons combined (six). In three seasons, Eddie Jordan won eight big Ten games. Seven conference wins is the most at Rutgers since Gary Waters led the Scarlet Knights to seven league wins (and 19 overall) in the Big East in 2005-06.
Pikiell has accumulated a ton of size and added a quality graduate transfer in 6-foot-6 forward Akwasi Yeboah from Stony Brook. But the skill level on this team just isn’t high enough. The Scarlet Knights were bottom four in the conference in 2-point percentage, 3-point percentage and free-throw percentage and they lost their best player in Eugene Omoruyi to transfer.
I think Rutgers will be competitive again this season, but I’m expecting something in the area of five Big Ten wins, a slight step back.
14) Northwestern (13-19, 4-16 Big Ten, no postseason)
Oh boy. Northwestern has 10 eligible scholarship players and Chris Collins snatched one of them from a lacrosse field somewhere. Yes, Pat Spencer has joined the team as a 6-foot-2 graduate transfer after a great lacrosse career at Boston College.
Pete Nance was a 4-star recruit in 2018 but didn’t gave a great freshman season and Northwestern has added another 4-star forward this year in Robbie Beran (a one-time Nebraska target), but the Wildcats lost their top three scorers from the last-place team in the Big Ten. There just isn’t much there.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.