This has been a mixed bag of an offseason for the Big Ten basketball.
One the one hand, the Big Ten is coming off arguably its worst season since 2008 - saved only by a couple upsets by Michigan and Wisconsin in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Only one 2017 McDonald’s All-American will be playing in the B1G next fall, and recruiting was generally underwhelming in the conference.
On the other hand, the Big Ten still expressed its strength across the Midwest during a few coaching searches this spring. Illinois poached Brad Underwood from Oklahoma State, who he’d taken to the tournament in his only year in Stillwater, while Chris Holtmann jumped from a stable situation at Butler to a project at Ohio State. And of course, Indiana fans know well that Archie Miller spurned several jobs over the years before leaving Dayton to come to Bloomington.
But now that (we think) the dust has settled from transfers, draft declarers, and surprise coaching changes, it’s time to take stock of what the conference will look like next fall.
LET’S RANK EM.
They are no longer a trashfire.
I have nothing more to add about Rutger basketball at this time.
This could be Tim Miles’s last stand in Lincoln, as the Huskers lose Tai Webster, who kept them in several games last year, as well as a bunch of players who transferred out. The Huskers had some decent victories last year - they started B1G play with road wins over Indiana and Maryland, and they beat Purdue at home. But they couldn’t stay consistent, finishing with only a 6-12 conference record. Unless Miles finds this consistency, he most likely has the hottest seat in the conference right now.
12. Ohio State
In a surprise move, the Buckeyes replaced Thad Matta with Chris Holtmann, who was probably the best possible candidate for the gig. Holtmann leaves aSweet 16 team at Butler to take over this gutted roster, which only has 9 scholarship players and just lost JaQuan Lyle, Trevor Thompson, and Marc Loving. This is a multi-year project for Holtmann, but at Ohio State, he’ll have the resources to get it done. Getting Butler signee Kyle Young to follow him to Columbus is a good start.
The Illini hiring Brad Underwood away from Oklahoma State may have been the most surprising hire of the offseason, but Illinois AD Josh Whitman has built a reputation on shaking things up and making unconventional hires. But this is going to be a much different Illinois team than we’ve seen in the past few years, now that Malcolm Hill, Jaylen Coleman-Lands (transfer), and Tracy Abrams are no longer in Champaign. Look to Mark Smith, last year’s Illinois Mr. Basketball, to make an immediate impact, along with grad transfer Mark Alstork, who averaged 19 points a game last year at Wright State.
10. Penn State
Penn State was very young last year, and other than the transferring Payton Banks, they return most of their players from a team that showed sparks despite finishing 15-18. Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens will now be sophomores, while Shep Garner will be expected to show veteran leadership for the Nittany Lions. That being said, Pat Chambers is entering his 7th season in State College, and only has one winning record to show for it, and has never won more than 7 games in conference. If the Nittany Lions don’t show improvement soon and the Bryce Jordan Center remains the butt of attendance jokes, then it may be time for a change.
Tom Crean’s final victory at Indiana, in the first round of the Big Ten tournament over Iowa, most likely knocked the Hawkeyes off the bubble and out of the NCAA Tournament. The Hawkeyes were very young last year, but were led by Peter Jok, who now has graduated. Without Jok, the Hawkeyes will rely on Jordan Bohannon, Nicholas Baer, and Tyler Cook to lead the way in Iowa City. Their play may not be enough yet to lead the Hawkeyes back to the tourney, but the future looks promising for Iowa.
Melo Trimble pulled off nearly the impossible this offseason: leaving Maryland early while at the same time seeming like he had been in College Park for a decade. Trimble had his ups and downs on the Terps, but as Indiana fans can tell you, losing your longtime point guard is never fun to go through. This may be a rebuilding year for coach Mark Turgeon, as a rising sophomore triumvirate of Anthony Cowan, Justin Jackson, and Kevin Huerter lead the Terps into the post-Melo world.
Fun fact about Maryland: did you know that they finished behind Indiana in final KenPom efficiency rankings? In fact, the Terps were 8th in the conference last year in KenPom despite finishing tied for second in the Big Ten standings.
Yes, I know the Hoosiers finished 10th in conference last year and lost two of their top scoring options in James Blackmon and Thomas Bryant. But with new coach Archie Miller at the helm, there are reasons to be encouraged. A senior-laden backcourt in Robert Johnson and Josh Newkirk could compete on both sides of the ball, while De’ron Davis will have had a full offseason of workouts, and Collin Hartman provides super-senior leadership. Archie Miller was also able to hold onto all three of IU’s recruits for the coming season in Justin Smith, Clifton Moore, and Al Durham. I think the Hoosiers will be fine, and will have a decent shot at making the tourney. Regardless of how IU does, however, some fans will only judge this season as a success if Miller is able to recruit New Albany standout Romeo Langford to Bloomington.
The Badgers are losing Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Vitto Brown, and Zak Showalter next season. Sure, this seems like a lot, but Wisconsin’s best player - Ethan Happ will still be around. And counting out the Badgers - who knocked off Villanova in the tourney and were a miracle shot away from making the Elite 8 - is never a wise idea. This year may end Wisconsin’s incredible streak of 17 straight years in the top-4 of the Big Ten standings, but I don’t see Greg Gard and the Badgers losing too much ground in the conference.
On February 4, the Wolverines were 14-9, 4-6 in the B1G, had yet to win a single road game, and John Beilein was suddenly on the hot seat. A month and a half later, they won the B1G tournament and stunned Louisville in the second round on the NCAA tourney. Like Maryland, the Wolverines will have to replace a veteran point guard in Derrick Walton. If Xavier Simpson (or transfer Jaaron Simmons) is up to the task at point, and Moritz Wagner is able to dominate on the glass, then Michigan should be okay.
The Wildcats have finally made an NCAA Tournament! And not only did they get there, they won a game as well (thanks in part to a boneheaded intentional foul by Vanderbilt in the final seconds). The Wildcats lose Sanjay Lumpkin, but the rest of this team returns, including Bryant McIntosh, who will be a senior point guard next season. Northwestern may actually have been a year ahead of schedule in finally making the Dance. Now it’s up to the Wildcats to build on the positive momentum of last season. Right now, they have the pieces in place to be a top-4 B1G team. Regardless of the conference’s strength right now, this is a huge accomplishment for Northwestern basketball, of all teams.
The defending conference champs will lose their best player, Caleb Swanigan, to the pros. But the Boilermakers have plenty of talent and experience around the roster, and I don’t think the dropoff will be too precipitous next season. And without Swanigan, Purdue has a chance to really become a 3-and-D team, with mid-sized sharpshooters like Vincent Edwards, Ryan Cline and Dakota Mathias. Edwards did the Troy Williams good things/bad things routine too much last season, so if he maintains some consistency, Purdue will contend in the league once again, even without Biggie.
The Gophers flamed out at the end of last season, losing 3 of their final 4 games, including the proverbial 5-12 NCAA Tournament upset to Middle Tennessee (through really, this felt more like a 7-10 or 8-9 game). But otherwise, this was a tremendous season for the Gophers, who tripled their win total from 8 to 24 in just a year. Now, Minnesota brings back most of the same core, including a senior point guard in Nate Mason, and an underrated wing in Jordan Murphy. Minnesota should be fun next year, as long as their coach doesn’t follow in his dad’s footsteps and let his recruits get caught with hookers in the dorm rooms.
1. Michigan State
Miles Bridges shocked most people by staying in college another year instead of declaring for the draft. Along with fellow sophomore Nick Ward, and incoming McDonald’s All-American and Indy native Jaren Jackson, the Spartans could have a frontcourt that will be the envy of other Big Ten teams this fall. Last year’s Sparty team took a few months to get rolling, but Tom Izzo is a master of getting teams to play their best at just the right time, so expect Michigan State to win its first Big Ten regular season title since 2012.