With leaves on the ground, the weather getting cooler and cornfields around the state of Indiana growing emptier by the day, basketball season is just about upon us.
The Big Ten is coming off of a weird season. It sent just one team to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, big brands like Michigan and Ohio State were left out of March Madness and the conference’s champion, led by the 7’4” national player of the year, was felled by a 16-seed with the shortest roster in all of college basketball.
So, not great!
The league needs to figure itself out quick, especially with the additions of four new members from the West Coast in a year’s time.
That being said, here are some takes and predictions for each of the Big Ten’s teams (minus Indiana, we write enough about the Hoosiers).
Purdue: They’re better, but by how much?
The Boilermakers went on a tear through their nonconference schedule and maintained that momentum through league play before everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
The reliance on a freshman backcourt is gone this year, both Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer have a year of experience in Big Ten play and rings to show for it. There is, of course, Zach Edey.
One of the most dominant forces college basketball has ever seen is spending another year in West Lafayette. He’s surrounded by the same guys he was last year with some additional speed and athleticism that the Boilers didn’t have a year ago.
But will that be enough?
Purdue can, and should, feel good about last year. But all anyone outside the building really remembers is Fairleigh Dickinson. Getting swept by your main rival probably stings too.
I’m not confident saying Purdue is gonna make a Final Four push but that has to be the goal. They need redemption a season after needing redemption for a loss to a 15-seed. Not sure the roster has it but we’ll see how things go when they hit the floor.
Northwestern: Regression incoming
Boo Buie will be one of the best guards in the league and will once again be named First Team All-Big Ten. The problem? Chase Audige is gone.
Northwestern was a defensive unit during last year’s breakthrough and it lost the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year without a clear option to step up and take his place. You really can’t count on transfer portal talent for that.
I don’t think Northwestern will be bad, not at all. I think the Cats are set for a respectable season, especially in Evanston, and could contend for another NCAA Tournament berth if the league proves as weak as it did last year.
Michigan State: Title(s) inbound?
Gonna borrow a well-known analogy.
In the event of a big giant death laser contraption being pointed at the Earth by Martians demanding, for whatever reason, that we choose one Big Ten coach to draw up a play to save us all, everyone’s answer should be Tom Izzo.
He’s the only coach in the league who’s won a title and he’s been a hall-of-famer for years now. This year, he has an ideal roster built for winning just about any kind of basketball game.
Last year’s backcourt is back with some talented freshman reinforcements and sophomores with a year of experience. The frontcourt has proven its worth and should be able to account for the loss of Joey Hauser.
It’s the best roster in the league with more experience, talent and upside than just about anyone. The conference’s best coach is the one guiding the ship.
I get it. Purdue brought everyone back. I still think Izzo is the guy to win the league in that two-team race because it’s either the Spartans or the Boilers this year.
Even if he doesn’t, he’s the conference’s best coach in March and he, again, has a roster well-suited for a deep tournament run after being the sole team in the second weekend last year.
One way or another Michigan State is gonna finish as the league’s best team.
Maryland: A top-half team
Maryland has some legitimate talent, including one of the best guards in the conference, and should impress during Kevin Willard’s second year.
I think they’re a tier below the contenders (Purdue, Michigan State) but they have enough talent and coaching to get a pretty good seed when March Madness comes around. They really just have to figure out how to play on the road after their only league win outside the DMV was the league’s free space (Minnesota).
Willard is a good enough coach to keep this program around the top half of the league but he’ll need to prove it this year.
Illinois: Boom or bust?
Here’s the thing: I think Brad Underwood is a good coach who’s capable of doing big things in this conference if all the pieces are in place.
That last part really, really matters though.
Champaign was a bastion of less-than-ideal happenings last year, from Skyy Clark’s early season departure to the Orange Krush’s failed invasion of Carver Hawkeye. The roster, with a considerable amount of talent, didn’t look like it fit.
The big storyline for the Illini this offseason was the lack of a true point guard. Will Ty Rodgers be able to step up and get the ball to that considerable amount of talent? Will those pieces jell?
If Illinois works out well, it’s probably a top three team in the league. If there’s more dysfunction they could sink to another first round exit or worse. Terrence Shannon Jr is an extremely good guard who can win games in March and Illinois probably needs some more reliable output from Coleman Hawkins.
Iowa: Navigating a post-star world
Iowa typically runs a fun, high-scoring offense that is among the best in the league on a yearly basis.
But Fran McCaffery has a new challenge this year, he’ll have to do it without a great centerpiece. Gone are Luka Garza and the Murray brothers, the latter two are off the the NBA.
The Hawkeyes have had a clear star to step up the past few seasons. Keegan Murray was there when Garza left and Kris Murray stepped up in his brother’s absence this past season. Now, Iowa doesn’t have a returning, go-to star.
This is going to lead to a breakout from someone like Tony Perkins or Payton Sandfort. The Hawkeyes brought in some interesting transfers as well.
McCaffery probably puts together another good offense, but will he have enough firepower to get back to the NCAA Tournament?
My guess is Perkins and Sandfort both take another step with the former running the show and setting the tone on offense and the latter becoming a great scorer from the arc to keep Iowa in games.
The Wolverines had a centerpiece after the departures of Hunter Dickinson, Kobe Bufkin and Jett Howard... until they didn’t.
Caleb Love in Ann Arbor was always gonna be interesting. We didn’t fully expect it to happen days later, when he had to re-enter the portal reportedly because of his UNC credits not transferring.
Another offseason, another great portal addition taken from Howard.
Michigan had so much going for it last season and still ended up missing the tournament. Now it’s difficult to see what the Wolverines have.
Without the high-caliber talent to rely on, this year could get even worse for Howard to the point that his seat starts warming up. Worth keeping an eye on given how big the job is and how high the program’s ceiling is.
Penn State: What’s the point?
Gone is wunderkind Micah Shrewsberry and his super fun roster of guys like Jalen Pickett, Andrew Funk and Seth Lundy. Enter Mike Rhoades of VCU, a home-state hire, as his replacement.
It’s hard to call Shrewsberry’s departure anything but a huge bummer. There was a vision to what he was building in State College and, one way or another, Notre Dame just offered more.
Rhoades enters with an entirely new roster led by his star with the Rams, Ace Baldwin, who should have some fun moments and is instantly among the better guards in the conference.
Aside from that? No real expectations here. Will Rhoades offer a vision for the future? If he does, will Penn State let another good coach just walk out the door?
Rutgers: Hey, Cliff Omoruyi is here!
This is gonna be a weird season in Piscataway.
Steve Pikiell’s group lost some real pieces from last year’s roster in Paul Mulcahy and Cam Spencer. The centerpiece, Cliff Omoruyi, remains and he should be enough to make a difference between a win and a loss as one of the league’s better bigs on both ends of the floor.
Outside of that, this will be a season of transition for the Knights. They’re waiting on Ace Bailey and, maybe, Dylan Harper next year which could prove to be something special.
Can Pikiell get back to the tournament after the Knights fell apart down the stretch last season? Will Omoruyi play at a high enough level to will them there?
Wisconsin: More? Of that??
Usually every member of a roster returning is good news for a team. That may not prove true in the case of Wisconsin.
The Badgers brought back every member of a bottom-tier Big Ten roster with their prized offseason addition being AJ Storr, a castoff from Rick Pitino’s St. John’s rebuild in Queen’s.
Storr will be a good piece on offense... but will that really be enough? Wisconsin looked bad last year with this same group, what can they accomplish by running it back?
They may win a few more games?
Gonna preface this by saying Nebraska was absolutely not good last year.
... But the emergence of Keisei Tominaga as one of the conference’s most fun players to watch at the very least made the games worth watching.
He’s back and should be set for a better year, maybe as the Huskers’ centerpiece. They’re gonna have to figure out the backcourt a bit more with Ahron Ulis’ eligibility up in the air.
The Huskers probably won’t be good again as Fred Hoiberg enters a big year in Lincoln. If he manages to improve from last year the solution could just be more time. If they falter, Nebraska may be looking for another coach soon.
*Saw his exhibition injury this morning, hoping he makes a recovery soon.
Ohio State: Can Chris Holtmann bounce back?
Chris Holtmann has run into a one-and-done issue. He really needs some of these guys in Columbus for another year before they take a leap to the NBA.
There’s more NBA talent on the roster, but the Buckeyes plummeted to the bottom of the league (non-Minnesota division) last year. Those are inexcusable results for the head coach at Ohio State.
Holtmann’s in too big of a job to go two years without March Madness this many years into his tenure at Ohio State. He needs a tournament berth this season and may have the talent to do so.
... But he had that last year. So, who knows. Ohio State will be better and has tournament talent, they just can’t unravel as the season goes on like last year.
Minnesota: Abandon Ship
The Gophers are going nowhere fast with Ben Johnson.
Prized recruits are backing out for the greener pastures of *checks notes*.... Kenny Payne’s Louisville. Really, really bad vibes.
They lost talent this offseason after finishing worst in the league. An immediate crossoff. Johnson’s seat is actively on fire and there’s not an extinguisher in sight.