Big Ten Conference preview: Purdue takes the top spot

The Big Ten disappointed in the NCAA Tournament last season. Despite getting ten teams into the Dance, only Michigan advanced past the first weekend, while Ohio State and Purdue suffered brutal upsets in their respective matchups. Without further ado, let us discuss the country’s best conference in-depth.

1.) Purdue 

PG: Eric Hunter Jr

SG: Jaden Ivey

SF: Brandon Newman

PF: Caleb Furst

C: Trevion Williams

Bench: Zach Edey, Mason Gillis, Sasha Stefanovic, Isaiah Thompson, Ethan Morton, Trey Kaufman-Renn, Brian Waddell

The Boilermakers return their entire roster sans Aaron Wheeler from their 18-10 team of last season. However, its slightly different; sophomores Jaden Ivey and Zach Edey look poised for massive jumps in their second season in College. Ivey especially flashes on both ends of the floor thanks to his unbelievably quick burst and hustle plays around the court. Ivey scored 17+ points in the team’s final four games last season. 

The duo of Ivey and Williams could find themselves receiving All-American honors next season. The 7-foot-4 behemoth Zach Edey averaged an astounding 15.1 points, 14.5 rebounds for Canada in the FIBA U19. Williams and Edey won’t play concurrently, but both will make life difficult for opposing teams in their minutes on the floor. Edey’s without question the next star center at Purdue, but what role does he fit into this season with Williams in his senior season? Matt Painter could reach his first-ever final four this season. 

Purdue X-Factor: Sasha Stefanovic

Purdue’s senior wing shot over 40 percent from deep last season — without question the Boilermakers’ top shooter, which isn’t the team’s strength on paper.

2.) Michigan

PG: DeVante Jones

SG: Eli Brooks

SF: Caleb Houstan

PF: Brandon Johns

C: Hunter Dickinson

Bench: Moussa Diabate, Terrence Williams Kobe Bufkin, Zeb Jackson, Frankie Collins, Adrien Nunez, Isaiah Barnes, Will Tschetter

In Juwan Howard’s two seasons at the helm in Ann Arbor, one thing has become clear — he does it all. Coaching, recruiting, whatever it is. Hiring Howard was the correct move. All-American center Hunter Dickinson is back after an impressive freshman season where the big lefty led the Wolverines in scoring and rebounding. Outside of Dickinson, team-leader and savvy veteran, Eli Brooks returns once again. The next four of the next five top-scorers, Isaiah Livers, Chaundee Brown, Mike Smith, and Franz Wagner, the top defender in the Big Ten, moved on. Replacing Smith could be the key — stepping into that role is 2020-21 Sun Belt player of the year DeVante’ Jones. The former Chants standout adds scoring, defense, and playmaking to the mix on a championship-caliber Michigan squad. They held the title of top-recruiting class in the country before Emoni Bates, and Jalen Duren chose Memphis as their destination. Headlining Michigan’s class is sharpshooting combo-forward Caleb Houstan and uber-athletic Moussa Diabite. Despite losing valuable pieces from the third-ranked team nationally last season, the Wolverines will be in the one-seed conversation once again.

Michigan X-Factor: Brandon Johns Jr

Whenever Johns played in recent seasons, good things seemed to happen. His first full-time starting role comes this season with Livers leaving.

3.) Illinois

PG: Andre Curbelo

SG: Trent Frazier

SF: Da’Monte Williams

PF: Jacob Grandison

C: Kofi Cockburn

Bench: Alfonso Plummer (Utah), Coleman Hawkins, Austin Hutcherson, Omar Payne, Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, RJ Melendez, Brandin Podzemski, Luke Goode

The Illini had expectations of cutting down nets in Indy last season before Porter Moser mosied his way in, and Cam Krutwig sliced & diced the defense into a victory. Of course, Ayo Dosunmu made the next step in the Basketball journey by declaring for the draft, but surprisingly, Kofi Cockburn returns for year three in Champaign. The Ramblers highlighted the weakness of Cockburn’s game in the Round of 32 loss. Cockburn should find himself in the mix for National Player of the year, while sophomore point guard Andre Curbelo is a shoo-in to breakout this season. Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams return under super-senior label. Those aren’t the lone super-seniors on the roster, as Utah sharpshooting guard Alphonso Plummer joins the mix. There aren’t much better guard/center duo’s in the country than Curbelo and Cockburn for the Illini. 

Illinois X-Factor: Austin Hutcherson

The former D3 standout will try following the career arc of Duncan Robinson, from D3 All-American to an impactful piece in the Big Ten. Hutcherson’s back injury sidelined him all of last season, but if he’s healthy — watch out. The mixture of size, athleticism, and shooting gives Brad Underwood an intriguing player in his rotation. 

4.) Indiana

PG: Xavier Johnson

SG: Tamar Bates

SF: Miller Kopp

PF: Race Thompson

C: Trayce Jackson-Davis

Bench: Rob Phinisee, Michael Durr, Trey Galloway, Anthony Leal, Parker Stewart, Khristian Lander

 The Hoosiers haven’t made the NCAA Tournament in five years — now turn to Mike Woodson, who’ll bring an NBA-style offense that should benefit National Player of the year, candidate Trayce Jackson-Davis’s development in several ways. Opposing defenses respecting the outside shooting from Miller Kopp, Parker Stewart Anthony Leal, Tamar Bates, and others will help Jackson-Davis navigate his way inside. Pittsburgh transfer Xavier Johnson brings experience at the point guard spot, starting 81 games during his career in the ACC. The selling point for me on the Woodson hiring was Jackson-Davis announcing his intention to return the day after, even with his sights set on the NBA. In year three of TJD’s career in Bloomington, his dedication and loyalty will pay off with an NCAA Tournament bid.

5.) Ohio State

PG: Jamari Wheeler

SG: Ced Russell

SF: Justice Sueing

PF: EJ Liddell

C: Kyle Young

Bench: Zed Key, Malaki Branham, Meechie Johnson, Eugene Brown, Seth Towns (Out until January at earliest), Justin Ahrens, Kalen Etzeler

Chris Holtmann has the arduous task of replacing Duane Washington Jr and CJ Walker, who made up the starting backcourt on the Buckeyes 21-win squad. Despite winning those 21 games, and appearing in the conference title game, the mission at hand will be getting the taste of defeat out after falling short to Max Abmas’s Oral Roberts Golden Eagles in the NCAA Tournament. Perhaps the Buckeyes most valuable player from last season, E.J. Liddell, returns in hopes of hitting more threes before moving onto the NBA ranks while also returning Kyle Young and big-wing Justice Sueing, who both started last season. The backcourt is the issue dropping the Buckeyes outside the top-four of the league for me — defensive ace Jamari Wheeler will do just that, and Ced Russell (Louisiana) is an absolute deadeye shooter. The lack of guard creation there drops the ceiling — if Meechie Johnson emerges, that could change things. Since taking the job in Columbus, Coach Holtmann hasn’t missed the NCAA Tournament, and that streak should continue in 21-22.

Ohio State X-Factor: Meechie Johnson

You know what you’ll get from Russell and Wheeler in the backcourt. I touched on it earlier, but if the former top-100 recruit from Columbus significantly improves, OSU’s ceiling exponentially expands.

6.) Michigan State

PG: Tyson Walker

SG: Max Christie

SF: Gabe Brown

PF: Joey Hauser

C: Mady Sissoko

Bench: A.J. Hoggard, Jaden Akins, Julius Marble, Malik Hall, Pierre Brooks, Marcus Bingham

Yes, the Spartans are ranked sixth in my preseason assessment, but they’re currently ranked 27th in my overall rankings, only two spots behind Ohio State. Speedy Northeastern transfer Tyson Walker should fill the void Cassius Winston left, which Michigan State struggled replacing last season. If the Spartans accomplish what they hope to achieve, Walker will no question play a pivotal role. Freshman wing Max Christie could wind up being the top freshman in the Big Ten thanks to his lights-out shooting prowess. Another problem last season — no consistent presence at the five spot. You’ve had Jaren Jackson, Nick Ward, and Xavier Tillman playing the five spectacularly in recent seasons. A mix of Mady Sissoko, Thomas Kithier, Julius Marble, and Marcus Bingham all played decent minutes, but who of Sissoko, Bingham, and Marble secure that role for themselves this season? I’ve long been a fan of 6-foot-7 wing Gabe Brown, who seamlessly fits the current day role of a 3-and-D wing. With Aaron Henry now in the NBA, Brown could be in for a big season. I know Coach Izzo will likely out-perform my current ranking of the Spartans. 

Michigan State X-Factor: Marcus Bingham

Bingham’s always flashed potential, especially on the defensive end, thanks to his athleticism and shot-blocking ability. The next step in becoming reliable is adding some sort of offensive game that Coach Izzo can rely upon when searching for points. 

7.) Maryland

PG: Fatts Russell

SG: Eric Ayala

SF: Hakim Hart

PF: Donta Scott

C: Qudus Wahab

Bench: Ian Martinez, Xavier Green, Pavlo Dziuba, James Graham, Ike Cornish, Aranud Revaz, Julian Reese

Maryland won an NCAA Tournament game with their least talented squad in several seasons before getting trounced by Alabama in the Second Round. The clear missing piece on the 2020-21 Terps team? A reliable offensive presence inside — The Terps went from dominant All-American bigs Bruno Fernando in 18-19, and Jalen Smith in 19-20, into Galin Smith and Jarius Hamilton splitting the majority of minutes down low. That issue is resolved by snagging Georgetown transfer Qudus Wahab, who looked poised to be Georgetown’s next star center, but moves across state lines to College Park. Losing Aaron Wiggins to the NBA Draft drops Maryland’s overall upside, but Hakim Hart should fill into the 3-and-D role Wiggins held. In the backcourt, experienced guard Eric Ayala has proven ability to play on-or-off the ball, which will be beneficial after adding Rhode Island transfer Fatts Russell at the point. Mark Turgeon will bring another team to the NCAA Tournament in 2021-22. 

Maryland X-Factor: Fatts Russell

Which Fatts Russell is Maryland getting? The one shooting below 30 percent from deep on high-usage shooting attempts at Rhode Island, or the pesky on-ball defender, who’s the top ball-handler on the roster. If it’s the latter, Russell will add to winning. 

8.) Rutgers

PG: Geo Baker

SG: Caleb McConnell

SF: Paul Mulcahy

PF: Ron Harper Jr

C: Cliff Omoruyi

Bench: Dean Reiber, Oskar Palmquist, Ralph Agee, Mawot Mag, Jaden Jones, Aundree Hyatt, Jaden Miller

Finally! Rutgers made the NCAA Tournament for the first time this century. Here’s to round two, as 1,300 point scorer Geo Baker is back for one more ride — similar to Ron Harper Jr, who led the Scarlet Knights in scoring last season. Harper Jr looked like an All-American early on until tapering off in the latter part of the season — I still believe the All-American potential is there with the Scarlet Knights’ top-scorer. A trio of players move on as Myles Johnson and Jacob Young transfer to the PAC-12, and Montez Mathis goes to St John’s. With Johnson’s departure, a prime breakout opportunity for Cliff Omoruyi is in store. The Scarlet Knights had more talent and depth last season, which makes correcting the free-throw woes of the past five seasons a necessity — in those years, Rutgers finished 330th or worse from the charity stripe on a percentage basis. In what once seemed like an impossible job for any coach to turn around, Steve Pikiell’s turned Piscataway into a Basketball town.

Rutgers X-Factor: Cliff Omoruyi

Omouryi tabbed the 51st ranked recruit in the class of 2020 is the top in program history. Replacing the stout rim-protecting ability of Myles Johnson won’t be easy, but the hometown hero is capable. 

9.) Wisconsin

PG: Brad Davison

SG: Jahcobi Neath

SF: Jonathan Davis

PF: Tyler Wahl

C: Chris Vogt

Bench: Ben Carlson, Steven Crowl, Chucky Hepburn, Matthew Mors, Chris Hodges, Lorne Bowman, Jordan Davis

The Badgers went From the oldest team in the country last season to one of the most inexperienced units in the Big Ten. Wisconsin loses four of their top five scorers, Micah Potter, Nate Reuvers, D’Mitrik Trice, and Aleem Ford, who all started last season. It’s finally time for Brad Davison to take the reigns as the team leader in his fifth season of eligibility. The player with “All-Conference” potential could be sophomore wing Jonathan Davis — a skilled shot-maker who thrived in the sixth-man role behind an experienced core. In hopes of replacing the production of Micah Potter and Nate Reuvers’ production, junior Tyler Wahl, a plus-defense player, steps into a starting role, and Cincy transfers Chris Vogt, who’s a 7-footer, coming off an injury-riddled season. There isn’t any experience on the Badgers bench, as the scholarship players have only appeared in a combined 32 games. It’s an in-between season in Madison.

Wisconsin X-Factor: Chris Vogt

The foundation of the Badgers program the last decade was built upon star big-men. — Whether it was Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Ethan Happ, and Micah Potter in a lesser-extent, the Badgers have had that guy. Vogt won’t be the Badgers star, but will the 7-foot-1, 260 pounds senior make enough of an impact to not try out the younger guys at the five?

10.) Penn State

PG: Jalen Pickett (Siena)

SG: Sam Sessoms

SF: Myles Dread

PF: Seth Lundy

C: John Harrar

Bench: Greg Lee, Jaheam Cornwall, Jevonnie Scott, Caleb Dorsey, Daillon Johnson

Year one of the Shrewsberry era in Happy Valley begins. A trio of key players Myreon Jones, Izaiah Brockington, and Jamari Wheeler — all starters from last season transferred to other high-major programs following the season. One incoming player, Siena point guard Jalen Pickett should play an instrumental role if the Nittany Lions make the NCAA Tournament. The frontcourt mix of stretch-four Seth Lundy and energizing rebound machine John Harrar reunite once again among the returning players. Lundy averaged 10.2 points last season but often showed boom-or-bust performances — scoring 22+ points in four games and below five points in seven games. It won’t be surprising if Lundy leads the team in scoring during his junior season. The Nittany Lions will once again play tough in the loaded Big Ten. 

Penn State X-Factor Jalen Pickett

Pickett averaged 15-5-6 while winning one MAAC player of the year award in his three years at Siena. Last season was the worst of Pickett’s career based on points and assists in the Saints truncated, covid-marred season.  

11.) Nebraska

PG: Alonzo Verge

SG: Trey McGowens

SF: Bryce McGowens

PF: Lat Mayen

C: Edoardo Andre

Bench: Keon Edwards, C.J. Wilcher, Trevor Lakes, Keisei Tominaga, Kobe Webster, Quaran McPherson, Wilhelm Bredenbach, Oleg Kojennets

The Cornhuskers are 14-45 in the two seasons since Fred Hoiberg replaced Tim Miles as head coach in Lincoln. It’s not been easy, but brighter days are ahead with the scoring punch provided by Arizona State transfer Alonzo Verge and five-star recruit Bryce McGowens. The question surrounding Verge is can his shot selection improve? The former JUCO standout shot only 39.8 percent and 33.8 percent from deep on an underachieving Sun Devils team in 2020-21. Verge could see similar shot numbers to Teddy Allen from last season. The unsung hero of this backcourt could come from Ranger JC transfer Keisei Tominaga — the junior guard is 6-2, 177 pounds, but is Nebraska’s best shooter if there’s a “low-floor, high-ceiling” team in the Big Ten, tab Nebraska in that spot. The Cornhuskers have the pieces to make an NCAA Tournament but could fall shy once again if things don’t fall perfectly into place. One situation to monitor is how Derrick Walker and sophomore Eduardo Andre’s grouping defend the stacked post players in the conference. 

Nebraska X-Factor: Eduardo Andre

Andre should garner more minutes with Yvan Ouedraogo (Grand Canyon) moving on from the program. Andre’s defense could be a major difference-maker when spelling glue-guy Derrick Walker in some games against the Big Ten’s stacked post players.

12.) Iowa

PG: Jordan Bohannon

SG: Joe Touissant

SF: Keegan Murray

PF: Pat McCaffrey

C: Filip Rebraca

Bench: Ahron Ulis, Connor McCaffrey, Tony Perkins, Riley Mulvey, Payton Sanford, Josh Ogundele, Austin Ash, Kris Murray

The post-Luka Garza era in Iowa City commences. This season is lower than the recent season because of the losses of Garza, Joe Wieskamp, and CJ Fredrick. Replacing that level of production between the outgoing National Player of the year, in addition to the Hawkeyes two best shooters, makes for a rough season. The immediate replacement for Garza will be Filip Rebraca, who posted 16 points-per-game at North Dakota last season. Longtime Jordan Bohannon will shatter the games played in a College Basketball career, currently held by former Big Ten mainstay David Lighty. Last year, Bohannon drilled 39 percent of his three attempts, and when his confidence is popping, there aren’t many better shooters in the nation. The next star player in Iowa City might already be in town with sophomore swingman Keegan Murray, who vastly improved the Hawkeyes defensive unit when on the floor last season. Iowa’s 38.6 percent from deep will drop significantly with some of the losses Coach McCaffrey’s endured this offseason. The Hawkeyes won’t be the top-end Big Ten team they’ve been in recent season, but they still have pieces that know how to win games. 

Iowa X-Factor: Joe Toussaint

The speedy point guard from the Bronx started 20 games in his freshman season while Bohannon took a medical redshirt. Toussaint is a veteran on this Hawkeyes team this season — what can he show in a full-time starting role?

13.) Northwestern

PG: Boo Buie

SG: Ty Berry

SF: Chase Audige

PF: Pete Nance

C: Ryan Young

Bench: Brooks Barnhizer, Robbie Beran, Elyjah Williams, Casey Simmons, Julian Roper, Matthew Nicholson

The 2021-22 season could be Chris Collins’s last ride in Evanston if the Wildcats don’t finish top-ten in the league this season. I mean, early last year, Northwestern was ranked for multiple weeks before completely falling out of the mix after an ugly 13-game losing streak. The team returns everyone sans Miller Kopp, but guys like Boo Buie and Pete Nance blossoming into consistent All-conference caliber players could change this ranking. The Wildcats added the sixth-ranked recruiting class in the Big Ten, featuring three-top-150 recruits, Casey Simmons, Julian Roper, and the sharpshooting Brooks Barnhizer. 

Northwestern X-Factor: Boo Buie

Last season, Buie scored double-digit points in seven of the Wildcats’ nine wins while scoring less than ten points in 11 of the team’s 15 losses. Northwestern goes as Boo Buie does. 

14.) Minnesota

PG: Luke Loewe

SG: Payton Willis

SF: Sean Sutherlin

PF: Jamison Battle

C: Parker Fox

Bench: Abdoulaye Thiam, Charlie Daniels, EJ Stephens, Eric Curry, Treyton Thompson, Daniel Ogele, Jarvis Omersa

Last season, Maryland couldn’t lose at home until later in the season, but they also couldn’t win on the road. The late-season demise leads to the dismissal of Richard Pitino. Replacing the outgoing coach is former Gopher player Ben Johnson, who didn’t have an easy gig as the onslaught of transfers carried on. Players including Marcus Carr, Liam Robbins, Gach, Brandon Johnson, and Jamal Mashburn Jr transferred out. Johnson had to quickly fill out the roster, leading to adding players from the portal. 

The best addition from the portal is Jamison Battle from George Washington, a 6-foot-7 power forward that averaged 17 points last season. Battle doesn’t provide much on the defensive end, but the left-handed junior knocks down shots from deep. It’s also homecoming time for Payton Willis, who spent one season at Charleston in between stops at Minnesota. During his 2019-20 campaign for the Gophers, Willis averaged 8.6 points. DII transfer Parker Fox had no shortage of teams looking to bring length, athleticism, and ball-handling to their team after 21.3 points, 9.9 rebounds last season for Northern State. Fox suffered an ACL injury this offseason, so his availability for the beginning of the season isn’t sure. If Fox can’t suit up early, Johnson could try finding big minutes for three-star recruit Treyton Thompson. 

Minnesota X-Factor: Abdoulaye Thiam

The lone JUCO addition on this Gophers roster comes in the form of Indian River State standout Abdoulaye Thiam. With four years of eligibility remaining, Thiam’s knockdown shooting prowess will make a difference early on. 

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