The Big Ten was the most contested Power 5 conference last season. Five teams finished within 3 games of co-champions Michigan State and Purdue and 8 earned selections to the NCAA Tournament. The conference also played through the toughest strength of schedule in the nation. How likely is the conference to do it again?
Chasing the Spartans:
Michigan State’s run in the NCAA Tournament was better than any other in the Big 10. A Final Four birth over Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Duke was even more impressive considering the Spartans weren’t at full-strength. A leg injury to starter Joshua Langford 13 games into the season was a big loss to the team. His 15.0 PPG and a season-low 12 points against Oakland marked highly consistent production for Tom Izzo.
His return to the lineup this year is huge, after key starters Kenny Goins, Nick Ward and Matt McQuaid (30.6 PPG, 18.0 RPG, 2.1 APG, 2.5 BPG combined) graduated. Izzo will undoubtedly lean on his experienced backcourt, especially player of the year candidate Cassius Winston, to carry the team in 2019. The abundance of talent in East Lansing makes the Spartans title favorites next March, however there’s no shortage of challengers.
Even within the conference, Maryland and Ohio State are capable of derailing that plan. The Terrapins are well-positioned to compete this season with Jalen Smith, Anthony Cowan and a whole cast of talented sharpshooters. Mark Turgeon’s team failed to capitalize on winning the title with one of the most productive and dangerous frontcourt duos in the nation – Bruno Fernando and the aforementioned Smith.
Turgeon signed Top 100 big men Chol Marial and Makhi Mitchell (along with his twin – Makhel) to bolster the frontcourt. The improved experience on the perimeter and added depth leave this team as a strong contender for a run in the NCAA Tournament.
The Buckeyes also have lofty expectations for next March. Despite faltering in conference play, with an 8-12 record, Ohio State returns the majority of their core. Bruising Center Kaleb Wesson returns to Columbus with arguably a more complete roster than last season. Florida State transfer CJ Walker and freshman DJ Carton provide immediate and impactful additions to a backcourt losing experience and scoring production.
Coach Chris Holtman did a great job reloading the entire roster. The incoming frontcourt trio of EJ Liddell, Alonzo Gaffney and Ibrahim Diallo add unique skillsets to compliment any frontcourt combinations needed this season. The Buckeyes have the ability to run with the best teams in the nation or grind them out. Ohio State will be very dangerous, if they can avoid another mid-season lapse.
Who will emerge as a contender?
Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin and Iowa are bound to take a step back this season. Each program lost at least one elite scoring option from last year’s team and will be searching for emerging stars. Carsen Edwards (Purdue), Ethan Happ (Wisconsin), Tyler Cook (Iowa) and the trio of Jordan Poole, Ignas Brazdeikis and Charles Matthews (Michigan) all left for the NBA. At least 30% of each program’s scoring, rebounding and assists (including stats of other players graduating or transferring) were lost via roster changes.
Those numbers could see North of 55% for Iowa with the potential season-ending loss to starting PG Jordan Bohannon. Thin at the position already, freshman Joe Toussaint is the only other true point guard on the team. The Hawkeyes were fortunate to give Connor McCaffrey minutes in the backup point guard role last season, as he will be forced to take over the offense in Bohannon’s place.
Head coach Fran McCaffrey will run the offense through dynamic Center Luke Garza and NBA-caliber wing Joe Weiskamp. The additions of Pat McCaffrey and the return of power forward Jack Nunge have restocked the frontcourt cupboard to play alongside Garza. If the Hawkeyes can manage to play competitive defense, there may be some room to run in March.
The Badgers lost star Ethan Happ and Khalil Iverson, but return arguably the deepest backcourt in the conference. The quartet of D’Mitrik Trice, Brad Davison, Brevin Pritzl and Kobe King give head coach Greg Gard plenty of options to shoot, make plays and handle the ball.
Happ’s replacement, Nate Reuvers, started all 34 games last season, although he was far from an offensive juggernaut. Per 40 minutes, Reuvers managed a third to half of his star counterpart’s production. The Junior has a tall order ahead, but will be given every opportunity to morph into the same player this season. If he fails though, Ohio State transfer Micah Potter will be available to help carry the load. Luckily for the Badgers, neither will have to be exceptional scoring the ball with the surrounding backcourt talent.
Michigan can also make a deep run in this year’s tournament, but a new head coach and several top-end losses will cast early season doubts upon the program. NBA departures leave a large hole offensively for the defensive-minded Wolverines. Their foundation of Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers will give first-time head coach Juwan Howard the three best defensive players in the conference.
The concern resides more with how the trio will be supported scoring the ball. Simpson and Teske excel most in pick-and-roll situations, while Livers is the most consistent shooter. Yet no other player on the roster averaged more than 2.5 PPG last season. This team is incredibly thin and will need its defense to keep them in games. The additions of 4* Cole Bajema and Franz Wagner (younger brother of Mo Wagner) on the wings provide some depth, but Eli Brooks and company will need to step up in the backcourt to give this team a chance to reach its full potential.
Matt Painter’s Boilermakers on the other hand will need to find some answers in the backcourt. Team captain and scoring savant Carsen Edwards left the program for the NBA. In addition to sharpshooter Ryan Cline, the pair accounted for 40+% of the scoring and playmaking from last year. The mantle will be passed to Junior Nojel Eastern, who ideally has not been given room to fully unmask his potential.
Purdue’s offense flowed entirely through Edwards and a lot of their sets moved the ball away from Eastern, regardless of his defender’s positioning. Eastern scored the ball well around the rim, but will need to show improvement shooting the ball to really take the next step. A talented and deep frontcourt will help him to balance out spacing on the floor. Led by Matt Haarms and Trevion Williams, the Boilermakers have tons of height and are unlikely to lose the rebounding battle in many games. It’s imperative for this team to find their new identity before entering conference play to ensure they can make the tournament.
The biggest surprise of the group may come out of Champaign, Illinois. The Fighting Illini return an extremely dangerous backcourt group, led by NBA-caliber guard Ayo Dosunmu. However, this team is just as talented in the frontcourt as well. Illinois returns 6 of their top 7 scorers from last season and each managed to shoot over 40% from the field.
The elevated hopes of contending this season can be attributed to experience, but the additions of wing depth and 4* behemoth Kofi Cockburn at Center give fans more optimism. The Illini will be extremely physical and can play a legitimate 2-deep lineup without seeing a large drop in production. Don’t be shocked when this team is able to contend with some of the top programs in the conference.
Rebuilding at the Bottom:
For as deep and contested the conference is at the top of the board, there is a significant drop off for the bottom half. In addition to losing most of their roster, Nebraska hired former NBA-coach Fred Hoiberg to lead the program. The Huskers are likely a year away from contending and are hard at work building their 2020 class. Northwestern and Minnesota are in rebuilding mode, but will have the chance to impact the title race by stealing a game or two.
Rutgers was primed to take a step forward this season, before the surprising transfer of star Center Eugene Omoruyi. Now the Scarlet Knights will have to spend time to find a new star moving forward. The two programs in the best position to spring up the standings are Indiana and Penn State. The Hoosiers and Nittany Lions, led by Rob Phinnisee and Lamar Stevens respectively, bring experienced rosters to the court this season despite not having multiple elite scoring options.
Predictions for Conference Standings:
1. Michigan State
3. Ohio State
9. Penn State