Home CBB 110 Sports College Basketball Preview: Big Ten

110 Sports College Basketball Preview: Big Ten

by Josh Mullenix | @TheJMULL_

Death, taxes and the Big Ten being an absolute gauntlet for the entire conference schedule. This year is no different. The top of the conference features four teams in the top 15 of the preseason AP Poll, but there are teams deep into the conference rankings that are well-coached and have high-level college basketball players. Let’s take a look at one of the best conferences in the country in 2020-21.

1. Wisconsin

There’s a lot of hype behind the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Iowa Hawkeyes. All-americans and front runners for National Player of the Year will do that. However, the Badgers are basically bringing everyone back from a team that went 14-6 and shared the Big Ten title last season. They start five seniors/redshirt seniors: D’MItrik Trice, Brad Davison, Aleem Ford, Nate Reuvers and Micah Potter. They are the only team slated to finish at the top of this conference that has actually gotten the job done before. 

They have the best frontcourt duo in the conference in Reuvers and Potter that pair so nicely together, an emotional leader in Davison (who sometimes gets carried away) and a seasoned point guard in Trice who has been there forever. They play fundamentally sound defense that was top 20 in the country last season and should be better taking care of the basketball due to experience and continuity

The biggest question with the Badgers is how productive the bench is. Tyler Wahl is the only semi-productive player from last season coming off the bench. However, they have a top-30 recruiting class led by four star forward Ben Carlson. Carlson is the most important freshman this season, but someone else is going to need to step up, like freshman Johnny Davis, to solidify Wisconsin’s bench production.  

At the end of the day, I’m putting my money on the team that has done it before, and bringing back pretty much everyone that helped them win the Big Ten last season. It’ll be close, but I’ll give the Badgers the slight advantage. 

2. Illinois

There might not be a team in the country that has higher expectations than Illinois. At least, not compared to what the Fighting Illini’s expectations usually are. A preseason top 10 team for the first time since 2004, Brad Underwood and company are expected to be a Final Four contender. 

The company Underwood brings with him is pretty good. They have the best 1-2 punch in the country in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, both players would’ve been drafted in the 2020 NBA Draft but both decided to return for another season. Dosunmu’s offensive abilities are some of the best in the conference and Cockburn is going to anchor the interior on both ends of the floor. Trent Frazier returns as well and they hold on to a respectable amount of bench production from last season and add Holy Cross’ Jacob Grandison.

Top-50 guard prospects Adam Miller and Andrew Curbelo headline a solid recruiting class and Miller, in particular, should help address Illinois’ shooting woes from a year ago. They were last in the Big Ten in 3-point percentage and it wasn’t particularly close. Miller, along with Grandison and DII transfer Austin Hutcherson will be key in turning this team into a respectable perimeter threat (something they weren’t last season).

I see a scenario in which the Illini win this conference, I see a scenario in which the Illini and the Badgers share the Big Ten regular season title. This team excites me, but I would like to see them do it before outright picking them over a team that has clearly figured out how to compete in the Big Ten year in and year out. 

3. Iowa

If you are making a list of the must-watch teams in college basketball this season, the Hawkeyes have to be on that list. Luka Garza is coming back as the obvious preseason National Player of the Year and his 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds are coming with him. He’s joined by Jordan Bohannon, who is back from injury, CJ Frederick and Joe Wieskamp. The most important players from last year’s team are back and believed to be a top-five team in the country. 

Last season, the Hawkeyes had one of the best offenses in the country. They finished fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency at KenPom without Bohannon and were far and away the best offense in the Big Ten. However, that only equates to 20-11 overall and 11-9 in the Big Ten. That is ultimately why I only have Iowa in my top three in the Big Ten when most of the country believes they are going to be a top five team in the entire sport. Yes, they are going to shoot a lot. Yes, they are going to score a lot of points. Yes, they are going to be fun to watch, but who is going to play defense?

Iowa was 12th in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency and the only team not named Northwestern or Nebraska (those two teams went a combined 15-48 last season) to finish outside of the top 41 in defensive efficiency at KenPom. They finished 97th. I’m sorry, but the best team in the Big Ten can’t be a fringe top-100 defensive team, they just can’t. The amount of talent in this conference is too good to win it just by trying to score as many points as possible every game. They’re ranked 72nd in the preseason rankings on that end of the floor and there isn’t really a reason to suggest they’ve gotten significantly better.

Garza is going to be awesome. That backcourt is going to score a lot of points. This team will be a part of some of the most exciting games in college hoops this season. However, that defense is going to prevent them from being a truly elite team and winning the Big Ten. 

4. Michigan State

The story with the Spartans this season is who they have to replace. Cassius Winston was one of the best playmakers in the country last season and Xavier Tillman was a perfect partner for Winston on the offensive end and set the tone on the other end of the floor. However, like every season, the Spartans should be good again this season and one of the four best teams in a highly competitive conference.

They bring back Rocket Watts and Aaron Henry as the most important players who return from last year’s squad. Junior Marcus Bingham steps into the starting big man role after being a bench piece last season. Tom Izzo is a great developer of bigs, so expect Bingham to take a massive step up from 3.5 points and 3.6 rebounds per game last season. Gabe Brown and Malik Hall also return and will be valuable bench pieces for the Spartans. 

However, the ceiling of this team comes down to two names: Joshua Langford and Joey Hauser. Langford missed all of last season with an injury and Hauser sat out after transferring from Marquette. Not many teams lose as much production as Michigan State lost, but not many teams get to replace that with talent like Langford and Hauser, either. These two guys bring almost 25 points, nine rebounds and five assists worth of production (according to their 2018-19 stats) to the table and will arguably need to be better than that for this team to be a Final Four contender. 

If Henry and Watts also take a step forward while Hauser and Langford produce the way they should, the Spartans could be a team no one is really talking about right now that makes some noise in the Big Ten and the NCAA Tournament. With that being said, I’ll believe that when I see it. No disrespect to the Spartans, but they lost so much in Winston and Tillman. 

5. Indiana

There aren’t many teams I’m more intrigued by in this conference than the Hoosiers. Archie Miller officially has no excuses and Indiana fans are getting restless. They need to get the tournament comfortably for this to be a successful season. There’s reason to believe they can.

Trayce Jackson-Davis is one of the best big men in the country. He’ll take more steps forward and follow up his 13.5 points and 8.4 rebounds from a year ago with even more production. Rob Phinisee, Aljami Durham, Jerome Hunter and Joey Brunk all return as well as Armaan Franklin and Race Thompson. Five star guard Kristian Lander is on his way after reclassifying from 2021. The lefty could ultimately be the best guard on this roster and bring some pick-and-roll threat to this offense that has been missing for the last several seasons. With a guy like TJD to be the roller, having a formidable pick-and-roll game could be very advantageous for the Hoosiers. 

Indiana’s offense needs to be better in conference play. They were 12th in offensive efficiency in the Big Ten and that was a result of struggling to take care of the basketball. Hopefully, the addition of Landers can bring both more efficiency and a more steady-handed point guard to cut down on the mistakes. The offense needs to be better when the Hoosiers have a very average defensive unit. 

Archie is in year four at the helm of this program. His best season was a year ago when they went 20-12 and were probably going to make the tournament prior to the pandemic. However, he hasn’t technically made it to an NCAA tournament. He’s done a good job getting the best in-state talent. Jackson-Davis is from central Indiana and Lander is from Evansville. But now it’s time to put it together on the floor and bring Indiana back to a prominent place in the sport. 

6. Purdue

Last year was a weird time in West Lafayette. There was a considerable amount of unrest highlighted by Matt Haarms and Nojel Eastern both transferring out of the program followed by head coach Matt Painter essentially disowning Eastern after he left. They also lost Jahaad Proctor and Evan Boudreaux. 

With that being said, the Boilermakers have a lot of pieces coming back. Eric Hunter Jr., Isaiah Thompson and Sasha Stefanovic headline the three-guard lineup. Hunter is the playmaker and one of the two leading scorers from last season while Thompson and Stefanovic can shoot the lights out. They’ll move a ton off the ball and spread the floor to leave space for potential first team All-Big Ten candidate Trevion Williams. Williams is a great rebounder and has a nice touch around the rim, which makes him the centerpiece of a lot of Purdue’s offensive sets. 

Aaron Wheeler was supposed to be the breakout star last season but it just never really happened. However, the potential is still there for him to take a step forward and complete this very experienced starting five for the Boilermakers. 

Nobody has any major issues with the starting lineup. It’s a little on the small side in the frontcourt but Williams is never going to get overpowered. They have shooting, they have spacing and they have a guy who can hopefully get a bucket when you need one in Hunter Jr. The biggest question for the Boilermakers is the bench. They have a pair of top-100 freshmen in Jaden Ivey and Ethan Morton. Ivey is a tough shot maker who is a good 3-point shooter and Morton will contribute some much-needed playmaking. If they come in and immediately make an impact off the bench, then all of a sudden that isn’t as much of a problem. But that’s a big if.

7. Ohio State

Ohio State had a weird season. They beat Villanova, UNC, Cincinnati and Kentucky and started the season 11-1. But they lost six of their first eight Big Ten games including four straight to begin the conference schedule only to go 9-3 in their final 12 games to finish 11-9 and fifth in the Big Ten. It was just a strange season.

The losses are significant. They lost Kaleb Wesson, the most important player on last year’s team, Luther Muhammad, one of the better defenders on last year’s team, Kaleb’s brother Andre and DJ Carton, who transferred to Marquette. Chris Holtmann lost a lot on the offensive end. Three of those four players shot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc and Kaleb’s demand for attention from opposing defenses put the whole thing in motion. That’s where the questions for this season begin.

The Buckeyes bring back CJ Walker, Duane Washington Jr., EJ Liddell and Kyle Young. All foru are respectable players who should continue Ohio State’s consistent defensive performance, but it’s unclear if any of those guys will be playmakers and shot creators for this team. Two transfers seem to be the most obvious replacements for production in Cal’s Justice Sueing and Harvard’s Seth Towns. Both have the potential to be very important pieces on the offensive end, especially Towns. However, neither player played last season due to injury. It’s been almost two years since Towns played a competitive game and Sueing hasn’t been much healthier. These two guys must be healthy for this team to be anything close to good on that end of the floor. 

Holtmann is a good coach. There’s just no way this team is bad with the defense they have and the potential offensive pieces they have to replace the Wessons and Carton. However, the ceiling seems to be limited for this team and that might result in a very average finish in a very deep conference.

8. Rutgers

Last season, Rutgers won 20 games. I’m 22 years old, the last time the Scarlet Knights did that I was five. Let’s put it another way. Rutgers had a winning season last year. The last time they did that? I was seven. Ok, you get the point. It’s been a while since Rutgers was as good as they were last season, so major props to Steve Pikiell. And there’s reason to believe they are going to do it again. 

They bring back a lot from last year’s team. Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. are both back to lead this team and defensive anchor Myles Johnson is as well. Harper Jr. is the most important player on this team, impacting Rutgers’ performance on both ends of the floor like no one else. The Scarlet Knights were +16 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. 

Caleb McConnell and Montez Mathis join Baker in the backcourt of the second-best defense in the Big Ten last season that is bringing all of the most important pieces back. They were second in defensive efficiency, second in 3-point field goal percentage and second in block percentage. There’s no reason they won’t be one of, if not the best, defense in the conference. 

However, this is still a team that was supposed to be a mid-level seed in the NCAA Tournament last year. It’s not like we are talking about a title contender bringing everyone back. Also, and this is a big deal, Rutgers didn’t lose at home last season. It was impossible to win at the RAC last year because it was always packed and it was always loud. This year, it won’t be packed or loud thanks to COVID-19. I doubt Rutgers wins every game in that building again this season due to that fact. They only won two games on the road in conference last season, so finding a way to maintain that homecourt advantage will be crucial. 

9. Michigan

Juwan Howard is going to work on the recruiting trail. It won’t be long before this looks like one of the most talented teams in the Big Ten on paper, but it won’t be this season. The Wolverines lose a lot, and they bring back a lot. They lose Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske, the most important players on last year’s team. However, they bring back Isaiah Livers, Franz Wagner, Eli Brooks and Brandon Johns. 

The impact of losing Simpson can’t be understated. The offense ran smoothly and everyone was better when he was on the floor, except for Brooks. Shouts to Three Man Weave CBB for this stat, but Brooks’ offensive rating went up, as did his assist percentage, without Simpson on the floor. In other words, Brooks was up to the task of being the creator without Simpson on the floor in multiple categories, and that is a good thing for Michigan. Without Simpson, the playmaker and shot creator question comes before any other and will dictate the ceiling of this team. Livers is going to produce no matter who is on the floor because of his skill set of knocking down jumpers fits in anywhere. Those two guys, along with Wagner, are the most important to the success in Ann Arbor this season. 

Hunter Dickinson, Zeb Jackson and Terrance Williams are the top-100 freshmen joining the team, led by Dickinson. The 7’2 center was ranked 42nd in the country and the ninth center in the class of 2020, according to 247Sports. His size is undeniable, he’s smart and has a nice offensive game. He and Jackson should be important bench pieces along with Columbia transfer Mike Smith, who averaged 22.8 points per game last season. 

I know what you’re thinking: This Michigan team should be pretty good. You’re right, they should be solid, but that’s the reality of this conference; good teams with good coaches are going to finish in the bottom half of this conference and Michigan might be one of those teams. 

10. Minnesota 

Speaking of teams with good players, the Gophers might have the best point guard in this conference in Marcus Carr. Carr averaged 15.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.6 points per game last season and will probably improve in all three categories. When he goes, this team goes and there isn’t any reason to get more complex than that with Minnesota.

Gabe Kalscheur returns as Carr’s backcourt companion but the rest of Richard Pitino’s starting lineup is probably going to involve transfers: Utah’s Both Gach, Wastern Michigan’s Brandon Johnson and Drake’s Liam Robbins. Of course, Minnesota loses NBA draft selection Daniel Oturu, who was definitely one of the best players in the country a year ago. He averaged 20 points and 11.3 rebounds along with 2.5 blocks. He was the get-out-of-jail free card on the offensive end and one of the best defenders in the conference on the other. It doesn’t look like Robbins and redshirt senior Eric Curry are going to make up for that loss. Robbins should be an important piece and a guy that wasn’t supposed to get a waiver but did. He brings interior scoring, but the majority of the offense will come from the perimeter this year. 

Jamal Mashburn Jr. will help in the scoring department as a freshman and Isaiah Ihnen might be the player with the most potential to have a breakout season. Ihnen only played 11 minutes per game last season but has a chance to take a major step forward and fill some of the minutes left by Oturu. 

This team has a proven Division I big guy in Robbins and an elite point guard in Carr. But that’s just not enough in the Big Ten. Please welcome Minnesota to the group of teams that are solid but just won’t have the record to back it up because of how tough the Big Ten is. 

11. Maryland

Only six players really played important minutes for Mark Turgeon last season. Four of them are coming back. On the surface, that doesn’t sound like too bad of a deal, except when those two players are Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith. Cowan is multi-time All-Big Ten member and All-Defense member and Smith has a very similar resume. Finding ways to replace that production is not easy.

With that being said, the Terrapins bring back Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell, Aaron Wiggins and Donta Scott from last year’s team. That’s a lot of production and a lot of experience, but the talent just isn’t where it needs to be to compete in the Big Ten. Last season Maryland shared the Big Ten regular season title and was definitely a team capable of making a run. They are not that this season. Ayala and Morsell are big guards that will share the ball handling duties without Cowan there, but it will be in a survey of the defense role rather than a true playmaking role. The offense will be manufactured by committee rather than looking to a centerpiece like Cowan last season. 

Aaron Wiggins is the leading returning scorer at 10.4 points per game and he should be the best offensive player on the team this season. After that, the lineup gets thin quickly. Chol Marial and Hakim Hart are sophomores but neither have played significant minutes. Next on the list are guards Marcus Dockery and Aquan Smart who hopefully make an impact off the bench. 

In any other conference, Ayala, Morsell, Wiggins and Scott would be enough to fight for a middle of the pack finish, but this is not any other conference. This is the Big Ten (that sounds like a marketing strategy for the Big Ten).

12. Penn State

Pat Chamber is gone. Lamar Stevens is gone. Mike Watkins is gone. That’s where the story begins for the Nittany Lions. With that being said, a lot of this team is coming back. All five projected starters played substantial minutes for the team last season, but the downgrade in talent and the transition at head coach can’t be overlooked. 

Without Watkins and Stevens, Penn State takes a hit on both ends of the floor. At 23rd in the country according to KenPom, these two were the center of the defensive intensity and the foundation of why this team was able to hang their hat on the defensive end. Of course, Stevens was the most important offensive player on this team, but his departure also gives this team a chance to be more efficient without so many mid-range jumpshots. 

Myreon Jones should take another step forward as the leading returning scorer at 13.3 points per game without Stevens there to take as many shots. Apart from Seth Lundy, the entire projected starting lineup are upperclassmen and have played significant minutes for the Nittany Lions before. Lundy should also take a step forward as he’s the most obvious player to fill the spot left by Stevens from a positional standpoint if nothing else. 

This is a weird time for Penn State basketball. Hopefully they can continue to be a solid Big Ten team despite being behind the eight ball for on court and off court reasons.

13. Northwestern

We’ve arrived at the bottom of the Big Ten. A lot of these teams are going to be good, even Penn State has a chance to be respectable, but Northwestern and Nebraska just don’t. Northwestern gets the honor of being second to last because they bring the most players back. Boo Buie and Miller Kopp return as leading scorers along with Pete Nance and Ryan Young in the frontcourt.

Anthony Gaines returns after just 10 games last season before getting injured along with Robbie Beran. The two should be important parts of the Wildcats’ bench production. Chase Audige transfers from William & Mary after averaging 9.6 points per game and Ty Berry joins as the highest-rated recruit in Chris Collins’ class. He’s a shooter and playmaker and will eventually become the guy in Evanston. This year, he should have an immediate impact.

There just isn’t a lot going on with Northwestern. For 10-12 teams to be respectable, there have to be a couple teams that get beat a lot. Those teams this year are the Wildcats and the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

14. Nebraska

The Cornhuskers bring back almost no one from last season. Thorir Thorbjarnarson and Yvan Ouedraogo return, but they probably aren’t going to start. With that being said, they were productive last season and should be again in 2020-21. Fred Hoiberg lost two players to the pros in Cam Mack and Dachon Burke while Jervay Green and Kevin Cross both transferred.

That leaves room for the seven(!) transfers joining the Cornhuskers this season. Dalano Banton will likely take over most ball handling duties coming from Western Kentucky. Kobe Webster is a bucket from Western Illinois. Teddy Allen and Lat Mayen are both JUCO transfers that can both stretch the floor along with Shamiel Stevenson from Pitt. There is a lot of size on this team and a lot of shooting. 

This team should be better than they were last season. There’s more talent, without a doubt, and Hoiberg is a good coach, no question about that. But this is still a big transition period in Lincoln and with the lack of any continuity whatsoever and talent compared to most Big Ten teams, it will probably be another long year for Nebraska. With that being said, they are still moving in the right direction and should continue to improve.

Photo by: MGoBlog / Wikimedia Commons

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