CHICAGO – Coaches, players and media from all across the Big Ten assembled in Chicago on Thursday for Big Ten Media day, signaling that the college basketball season is right around the corner.
On Wednesday, the Athletic rolled out its unofficial Big Ten preseason poll while NCAA correspondent Andy Katz, who was in Chicago on Thursday, published his conference projections after media day came to a close. As such, I figured I’d throw my hat into the ring as well and give my own predictions for how the league will shape up this season.
I don’t think the league will be quite as strong at the top as it was last season where Michigan State and Purdue were 30-win teams and Michigan made a surprise run to the national championship game, but I think the conference as a whole will be much better with quality teams deep into the standings. After qualifying just four teams for the Big Dance last season, I could see as many as eight teams making it this year.
Without further ado, let’s dive into my projections.
1) Michigan State
The Spartans lost two lottery picks from last season’s 30-5 (16-2) team in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges, but they return a strong core of juniors in point guard Cassius Winston and forward Nick Ward (both preseason All-Big Ten picks) and wing Joshua Langford. Winston is arguably the best distributor and 3-point shooter in the conference and all Ward does is produce.
Seniors Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins are veteran role players and big man Xavier Tillman, a highly-regarded recruit in 2017, could be poised for a much bigger role with the departure of Jackson. Tom Izzo landed a strong class including four top-150 players, but there aren’t any 5-stars or lottery picks in that group unlike in past years.
The Wolverines got hot at the right time and ripped off 14 straight wins late in the season before finally falling to Villanova to finish the season as the national runner-up at 33-8 overall (13-5 in the Big Ten). Michigan lost it’s top two players from that team, stretch five Moritz Wagner and sharp-shooting wing Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, but John Beilein very well might be the best coach in the conference and it’s hard to bet against him. Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews was disappointing in Big Ten play but picked it up and averaged nearly 15 points per game in the NCAA Tournament.
Guard Jordan Poole and forward Isaiah Livers are poised for a sophomore season breakout while point guard Zavier Simpson and 7-foot-1 center Jon Teske are two of the best defenders at their positions in the Big Ten. Beilein signed a recruiting class that includes four top-150 prospects headlined by top-40 player Ignaz Brazdeikis, a 6-foot-7 forward who has gained some serious buzz during the preseason.
The Hoosiers went 16-15 overall and 9-9 in the Big ten in year one under Archie Miller, yet they were one of just two teams with two players on the preseason All-Big Ten team (Michigan State being the other). Forward Juwan Morgan was one of the breakout stars in the big Ten last year and returned for his senior year after testing the NBA Draft waters. The other all-conference pick was shooting guard Romeo Langford, a top-10 recruit nationally and the highest rated in the conference. Former 4-star forward Justin Smith gained experience off the bench and was one of the team’s more productive scorers on a per-minute basis. Race Thompson, another 4-star forward, redshirted last year and Langford was joined by three other 4-star recruits in Robert Phinisee, Jerome Hunter and Damezi Anderson. If big man De’Ron Davis is able to return to full strength at some point this season after rupturing his Achilles’ tendon in January, it would be the cherry on top of what should be a very young yet talented roster under one of the better coaches around in Miller.
Nebraska has a terrific core four returning in James Palmer Jr., Isaac Copeland Jr., Glynn Watson Jr. and Isaiah Roby. But Nebraska also has three big questions. One, will Palmer and Watson be able to hit from the perimeter? Two, can Nebraska find a fifth starter and establish some depth with a group with virtually no experience? Three, can they stay healthy, particularly in the frontcourt? Roby is already a little banged up and Nebraska can’t afford to lose him or Copeland. How those questions are answered will determine where the Huskers finish, and I could see that being anywhere from two to six.
I’m seemingly higher on Maryland than a lot of people are, but Mark Turgeon has a lot of talent on his hands. Anthony Cowan Jr. is one of the most productive point guards in the Big Ten heading into his junior season and sophomore forward Bruno Fernando is a physical marvel. Add the top-ranked recruiting class in the Big Ten including 5-star forward Jalen Smith, and two top-75 guards in Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins and Turgeon has something to work with. Maryland finished 19-3 but only 8-10 in the Big Ten last year, but I see a higher ceiling for this year’s squad. Had Kevin Hurter returned instead of keeping his name in the NBA Draft I probably would have bumped the Terps up a few more spots.
Matt Painter graduated four starters from a 30-7 (15-3) squad, but the one he brought back is the guy most have pegged as the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year: 6-foot-1 dynamo Carsen Edwards. He put up almost 19 points per game last season while shooting over 40 percent from 3, and his usage will probably only go up this year. Matt Haarms is a a strong defensive presence in the middle at 7-foot-2, Ryan Cline is a veteran sharp-shooter and Nojel Eastern was a well-regarded recruit that saw some action as a freshman. Evan Boudreaux, a 6-foot-8 graduate transfer from Dartmouth, put up some big numbers in the Ivy League but will have to be a lot more efficient to make a significant positive impact for the Boilermakers.
Iowa was one of the best offensive teams in the Big Ten last year, but it was also dead last in defense. All five starters are back for the Hawkeyes led by a bruiser in Tyler Cook, a heady sharpshooter at the point in Jordan Bohannon and a productive big man in Luka Garza. Jake Nunge provides versatility to the front court and 4-star freshman Joe Wieskamp looks ready to make an early impact. Iowa has more than enough firepower to compete with most teams, but will Fran McCaffrey’s alleged extreme focus on defense lead to enough improvement to start winning again? Hard to tell at this point.
Ethan Happ might be the best player in the conference and sophomore Brad Davison should be very good now that he's gotten his shoulder fixed, but I just don’t like most of the pieces around those two. Kobe King and D’Mitrik Trice are back after seeing their season cut short by injury last year and Brevin Pritzl, Khalil Iverson and Aleem Ford is a decent-yet-unspectacular group of role players on the wing, but Wisconsin needs a massive step forward by sophomore forward Nate Reuvers who shot under 40 percent from the field as a 6-foot-10 freshman. The Badgers have no depth whatsoever in the frontcourt.
9) Ohio State
Ohio State was the biggest positive surprise in the Big Ten in Chris Holtmann’s first season in Columbus as the Buckeyes went 25-9 (15-3) behind Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop and tough forward Jae-Sean Tate, but those two are gone now. Big man Kaleb Wesson had a productive freshman season and senior point guard CJ Jackson made good strides as a junior, but those two alone aren't enough to carry a team of what looks like mostly role players around them. I’m hesitant to bet against Holtman’s track record of success, but I just don’t see enough talent and honestly, this is probably a bit high for this roster. This should be a one-year slump, however, as Holtmann is putting together a monster 2019 recruiting class.
Some are high on the Golden Gophers after injuries ravaged the team last season, but I don’t think those injuries were the only reason for their struggles. The team went downhill after Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Reggie Lynch was expelled from the school. Jordan Murphy is a double-double machine at 6-foot-6 and Amir Coffey is a talented scoring wing who is hoping for a healthy season after playing just 18 games last year, but I’m not high on a lot of the other pieces. Isaiah Washington, a 4-star recruit, struggled mightily as a freshman and now has to step into the starting point guard role full time after Nate Mason’s graduation. Dupree McBrayer regressed as a junior (in part due to injuries) and they need a bounce-back season from him to turn things around. One of Eric Curry (coming off a torn ACL) or 4-star freshman Daniel Oturu will have to provide some rim protection.
11) Penn State
Penn State has one of the best trios in the Big Ten in guard Josh Reaves, wing Lamar Stevens and big man Mike Watkins but with the graduation of Shep Garner and the early departure of Tony Carr to the NBA, there’s almost nothing else on the roster. This team should be solid defensively but I just don’t see how it scores enough to keep up with good teams.
Coming off their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance — and win — the Wildcats were one of the biggest disappointments in the league last year, finishing 15-17 and 6-12 in the conference. Gone is the dynamic backcourt of Bryant Macintosh and Scottie Lindsey as well. Northwestern has a couple of nice building blocks in seniors Vic Law and Dererk Pardon and Chris Collins will rely heavily on transfers Ryan Taylor (Evansville) and AJ Turner (Boston College).
Brad Underwood seriously overhauled his roster over the offseason as just four scholarship players return from last year. Trent Frazier had a strong freshman season and freshman point guard Ayo Dosunmu was the third-ranked recruit in the Big Ten, but this season will be a work in progress for the Illini.
Steve Pikiell is starting to accumulate some talent in New Jersey led by sophomore point guard Geo Baker, but the Scarlet Knights are still a ways off from moving up the standings.
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.