An Early Look At Big Ten Basketball; Michigan State Current Favorites
While football tends to be the focus this time of year — nice win for the Terps, huh? — the calendar flipping to September also means that we’re that much closer to the start of the college basketball seasons. Programs have the option of kicking off practices at the end of this month, and the regular season will start even earlier as the first games are scheduled for November 6. For the Big Ten, this all means that the time for the league as a whole to redeem itself from a disappointing 2017-18 campaign is rapidly approaching.
Only four teams received bids to the NCAA tournament, with one of the programs left out (Nebraska) having to settle for the NIT despite winning 13 league games due in large part to its underwhelming non-conference profile. While it appears as if there’s a clear favorite heading into the 2018-19 season — Michigan State — there are other teams, including Maryland, Nebraska and Wisconsin, capable of making a run at the Spartans, which should make for an entertaining winter. Below are some early thoughts on Maryland’s 13 Big Ten foes and where they stand as the start of practices approach.
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Note: Last season’s record in parentheses
Illinois (14-18, 4-14 Big Ten)
The first season of the Brad Underwood era in Champaign was a difficult one, with the Fighting Illini’s lack of experience and top-level talent proving to be issues the team could not overcome. The end result was Illinois picking up just four wins in Big Ten play, the program’s worst performance since the 1998-99 team went 3-13. While losing your top scorer and rebounder is a tough hit to take, as Illinois will need to account for the loss of Leron Black, but there are some quality young players on the roster. Guard Trent Frazier averaged 12.5 points and 3.1 assists per game as a freshman, and redshirt junior Kipper Nichols is coming off of a season in which he averaged 10.0 points and 4.2 rebounds per game.
Those two will be key returnees, and Illinois adds a seven-member recruiting class headlined by elite guard Ayo Dosunmu, who even with the presence of Frazier will likely be handed the keys immediately. A concern for this group is the lack of experience in the post, with graduate transfer Adonis De La Rosa and three freshmen joining the ranks as the Illini move on from the aforementioned Black and Michael Finke. There’s more talent on this roster than there was a season ago, but this isn’t a team that’s ready to be a factor in the Big Ten just yet. At minimum they’ll play with energy, which got them in trouble at times due to the foul issues, but Illinois should be a pesky opponent in 2018-19.
Indiana (16-15, 9-9)
Indiana’s 2017-18 season, the program’s first under Archie Miller, wasn’t spectacular by any means. But the Hoosiers picked up their biggest win in the spring, when five-star guard Romeo Langford announced that he would be a Hoosier. To get that kind of recruiting win is a big deal for Miller and his staff, especially when said prospect is an in-state product. With the addition of Langford to what was already a good class, and the return of one of the Big Ten’s best forwards in senior Juwan Morgan, the expectations have been raised significantly heading into the 2018-19 season. Morgan averaged 16.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game as a junior, leading Indiana in both categories, and he did so while shooting nearly 58 percent from the field. The talent boost should, in theory, open things up for Morgan as many defenses were geared towards stopping him as the 2017-18 season wore on.
Indiana did lose two guards in Robert Johnson and Josh Newkirk, but there’s enough talent on the perimeter — both returning and incoming — to help the Hoosiers account for this. Devonte Green, who averaged 7.6 points and 2.5 assists per game last season, is back as is shooting guard Al Durham and wing Justin Smith. How will that trio adjust to the newcomers, who all have the talent needed to earn immediate minutes? In addition to Langford there’s guard Robert Phinisee and wings Jerome Hunter and Damezi Anderson joining the program, and in the front court forwards Jake Forrester and Race Thompson (redshirted last season) will also compete for minutes. Saint Mary’s grad transfer Evan Fitzner is a good addition due to his talent and experience, especially when considering the fact that De’Ron Davis is working his way back from a ruptured Achilles tendon. Indiana will be expected to factor into the Big Ten race thanks to the infusion of talent, but it may take a little time for this group to mesh. The key: getting consistent production, especially from a distribution standpoint, from the point guard position.
Iowa (14-19, 4-14)
The Hawkeyes were a very young team last season, as just one of the team’s top eight scorers — guard Brady Ellingson — was an upperclassman. But youth doesn’t excuse the fact that defense was once again a problem for Fran McCaffery’s program, something that’s been said about Iowa each of the last two seasons. So with the core having another season in the Big Ten under its collective belts, getting better defensively has to be the focus if Iowa is to make a move in the conference pecking order. In juniors Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook, Iowa has one of the better guard/forward tandems in the Big Ten, as they combined to average nearly 29 points per game last season. Cook led the Hawkeyes in rebounding with an average of 6.8 boards per game, while Bohannon was the assist leader at 5.4 assists per game.
Those two, along with redshirt junior guard Isaiah Moss, started all 33 games for Iowa last season, and along with redshirt senior Nicholas Baer will be asked to carry the load from a leadership standpoint. Sophomore center Luka Garza comes off of a debut season in which he averaged 12.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, and the 6-foot-11 big man could be in line for a breakout season after what was a solid freshman campaign. Iowa has both the talent and experience needed to make a move in the Big Ten, but once again it’s all about the defensive end of the floor with this group. Last season the Hawkeyes ranked dead last in the Big Ten in adjusted defensive efficiency (conference games only). Iowa did not defend well either inside or outside of the three-point line, and it doesn’t take a genius to realize that you can’t win games that way. It’s known where Iowa needs to improve, it’s all about whether or not McCaffery’s guys can actually attack those issues at this point.
Michigan (33-8, 13-5)
After Michigan won the Big Ten tournament, played a week earlier than usual in order to get into Madison Square Garden, the question was whether or not John Beilein’s team would lose something by having to wait even longer for the NCAA tournament. The answer was an emphatic ‘no,’ as Michigan went on to reach the national title game where it lost to Villanova. Three of the top four scorers from that team, Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson, have all moved on which means there are some major holes to fill in the team’s rotation. What helped Michigan was being able to take a trip to Spain this summer, with those ten practices ahead of the excursion being of great value when it came to seeing how the new pieces fit with the holdovers. Michigan wasn’t whole on the trip, as Beilein (who’s expected to be available when practice begins) remained stateside as he recovered from heart surgery, leaving the team to interim head coach Saddi Washington.
Michigan won just one of its three games in Spain, but while the game action is important at that stage of the trip team bonding is of greater value. Freshman wing Ignas Brazdeikis led the Wolverines in both scoring and rebounding, averaging 15.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, and the 6-foot-8 newcomers should be one of the Big Ten’s best freshmen. Brazdeikis and senior Charles Matthews project to be Michigan’s top two perimeter scoring options, with point guard Zavier Simpson once again running the show. While Simpson isn’t much of a scorer, his defensive ability was one of the reasons why Michigan found itself one win away from a national title last season. Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers and Eli Brooks will all be factors in the perimeter rotation, with freshmen David DeJulius and Adrian Nunez providing additional depth. The interior will be an area worth watching, as Michigan adjusts to life without a big in Wagner who was able to score from just about anywhere on the floor. Redshirt sophomore Austin Davis received positive reviews for his play in Europe, with junior Jon Teske also being a holdover. Freshmen Brandon Johns and Colin Castleton will also compete for minutes in the front court, with the latter not playing in Spain as he recovered from a broken hand.
The Wolverines do have some holes to fill, but when it comes to this program it would be a mistake to underestimate them. They project as a Top 25 team right now, and in the winter should be among the challengers to Michigan State for the Big Ten title.
Michigan State (30-5, 16-2)
Not sure if the word “disappointment” would be fair to use for Michigan State’s 2017-18 season, as Tom Izzo’s squad did manage to win the Big Ten regular season title. But there has to be a feeling that a lot was left on the table by that group, which was bounced out of the NCAA tournament in the second round by Syracuse. Now the Spartans will look to rebound from that finish, and they’ll be doing so without last season’s leading scorer (Miles Bridges), the Big Ten’s top freshman and defender (Jaren Jackson Jr.) and team leader Tum Tum Nairn. Both Bridges and Jackson moved on to the NBA, as many expected before last season began, which means Michigan State’s highly-touted recruiting class will need to hit the ground running. Guard Fostery Loyer, wings Gabe Brown and Aaron Henry and forwards Marcus Bingham Jr. and Thomas Kithier will all have the opportunity to compete for minutes, and they’ll be doing so with a group of veterans who have accomplished a lot during their time in East Lansing.
Cassius Winston is one of the Big Ten’s best point guards, and he’s coming off of a sophomore season in which he averaged 12.6 points and 6.9 assists per game. Nick Ward sets up to once again be one of the league’s top big men after he averaged 12.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, and junior guard Joshua Langford is a very good perimeter shooter. Add in seniors Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins and sophomore Xavier Tillman, and the newcomers won’t lack for experienced players who can give them guidance throughout the course fo the season. When looking at this Michigan State team, which is viewed by many as the early favorite to win the Big Ten, many will likely focus on what the program needs to do in order to account for the early departures of Bridges and Jackson. But do not overlook the loss of Nairn and what his impact on that program was; it went well beyond his averages of 1.7 points and 2.9 assists per game as a senior. Which leaders step forward — and how capable they are in leading the Spartans — will have a major impact on this group’s potential in 2018-19.
Minnesota (15-17, 4-14)
On paper the 2017-18 season was expected to be a good one for Richard Pitino’s program. With six of the top seven scorers back from a team that won 24 games and reached the NCAA tournament, last season was supposed to be the one in which Minnesota stepped forward as a contender in the Big Ten. But it didn’t work out that way, beginning with Eric Curry suffering a season-ending knee injury last August. Reggie Lynch played in 16 games before he was suspended in January (and ultimately did not play in another game) following an alleged violation of the school’s sexual misconduct policy, with the center facing his second such allegation at that point in time. Amir Coffey went down with a right shoulder injury in early January, and did not return to action either. That left the Golden Gophers with a depleted roster, and they struggled mightily as a result. Getting some stability will be key for Pitino’s program as they look to rebound from a forgettable 2017-18 season.
Coffey, one of the Big Ten’s best freshmen in 2016-17 and one of the league’s top wings entering 2018-19, is back for his junior year and seniors Dupree McBrayer and Jordan Murphy return as well. While McBrayer was a valuable member of Minnesota’s perimeter rotation, Murphy emerged as one of the conference’s top forwards. Last season Murphy led Minnesota in scoring and rebounding, averaging 16.8 points and a conference-best 11.3 rebounds per game. Sophomore point guard Isaiah Washington will take over for the dependable Nate Mason, who was second on the team in scoring and first in assists as a senior. And in Curry, Minnesota welcomes back a forward who was a valuable option off the bench during that NCAA tournament season. Among the newcomers power forward Daniel Oturu is the most highly regarded, and Minnesota will need the in-state product to live up to said hype. If things within the program are stable, and their main options remain healthy, Minnesota should be in the fight for those spots in the middle of the Big Ten pecking order.
Nebraska (22-11, 13-5)
The 2017-18 season was an interesting one for the Cornhuskers. While the 13 league wins were the most for the program during its time in the Big Ten, which led to head coach Tim Miles receiving a one-year contract extension through 2020-21, that did not result in a trip to the NCAA tournament. Of those 13 wins just one — January 18 over Michigan — came against a team that finished ahead of the Huskers in the conference standings. Add to that the fact that Nebraska’s best non-conference win came at home against Boston College, and the end result was a trip to the NIT. James Palmer and Isaac Copeland both decided to return for the 2018-19 season after testing the NBA draft waters, and that along with Glynn Watson and Isaiah Roby also returning means that Nebraska will be expected to at minimum reach the NCAA tournament. The talent accomplish that goal, and possibly contend in the Big Ten, is certainly there.
Palmer, a first-team all-Big Ten selection last season, led Nebraska in both scoring (17.2 ppg) while also averaging 4.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. Copeland chipped in with 12.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per night, and Watson was the team’s assist leader (3.2 apg) while also averaging 10.5 points per game. Roby didn’t move into the starting lineup until mid-January but it was a good decision by Miles to place him there, as the 6-foot-8 forward averaged 11.0 points and 7.9 rebounds per game as a starter, shooting 59.1 percent from the field and 75.9 percent from the foul line. That quartet should rank among the best in the Big Ten, but the question for Nebraska to answer will be the depth. Jordy Tshimanga, who started 18 games last season, has transferred and both Anton Gill and Evan Taylor have moved on as well. Can guard Thomas Allen take a step forward from his freshman season? And in the front court, can junior college transfer Dedoch Chan make an immediate impact after averaging 17.0 points and 8.6 rebounds per game at Mississippi Gulf Coast CC last season? Nebraska has the top-end talent needed to be a factor in the Big Ten and not leave its NCAA tournament hopes to chance. But to make good on that promise, the Huskers will need some of their unheralded options to step forward.
Northwestern (15-17, 6-12)
Having made the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament appearance in 2017, the expectation was that Northwestern would build on that success last season. Things didn’t go as planned, as the Wildcats struggled with the adjustment required of teams that become the “hunted” after years of service as the plucky underdog. That resulted in Northwestern finishing below .500 for the first time since the 2014-15 season. In looking go rebound from that disappointment Northwestern will need to account for the graduation of two of last season’s top three scorers in Scottie Lindsey and Bryant McIntosh. McIntosh, whose 2017-18 season was a bit of a letdown when compared to his play the season prior, was also the team’s assist leader. But the cupboard isn’t bare, as double-figure scorers Vic Law and Dererk Pardon are both back in Evanston.
Law averaged 12.0 points and 5.8 rebounds per game last season, shooting 41.8 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from three. With Lindsey and McIntosh no longer in the fold, Northwestern will need Law to continue on his trend of improving his efficiency on the offensive end of the floor every season. Pardon added 11.3 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, shooting nearly 62 percent from the field. Those two seniors will be asked to lead the way, and juniors A.J. Turner, Aaron Falzon and Barret Benson will all need to contribute as well. If there’s a concern is the point guard position, with McIntosh out of eligibility and Isiah Brown having transferred. Freshman Ryan Greer will have the opportunity to earn minutes, but the lack of depth at that spot is something to keep an eye on in the lead-up to the start of the season. If Northwestern can find playmakers on the perimeter — guys who can create for themselves and others — that would go a long way towards ensuring that the Wildcats rebound from last season.
Ohio State (25-9, 15-3)
Given the change at the top of the Ohio State program heading into the 2017-18 season, with Thad Matta “stepping down” and Chris Holtmann being hired in June, the general expectation was that the Buckeyes would need some time to get things going under the former Butler head coach. Well, outside of a stretch in non-conference play in which it lost three of four games (two at the PK 80) Ohio State was just fine under Holtmann, finishing second in the Big Ten standings and reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament. Now comes year two and the question of what Ohio State will do for an encore, especially given the pieces they have to replace. Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop was a first round pick in June’s NBA draft, and Jae’Sean Tate, Kam Williams and Andrew Dakich have all moved on as well. In total Ohio State lost three of its top five scorers, and as a graduate transfer Dakich had a greater impact than many imagined when he joined the program last summer.
Those are some tough personnel losses to absorb, but Ohio State returns some quality options as well. C.J. Jackson averaged 12.6 points and 3.9 assists per game as a junior, and as a freshman power forward Kaleb Wesson accounted for 10.2 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. Michah Potter and Andre Wesson will also factor into the front court rotation, and they’ll be joined by two four-star freshmen in Jaedon LeDee and Justin Ahrens. On the perimeter grad transfer Keyshawn Woods, who averaged 11.9 points and 2.5 rebounds per game at Wake Forest last season, is a key addition as are freshmen Duane Washington Jr. and Luther Muhammad. Add in sophomore Musa Jallow, who averaged 14.0 minutes per game last season, and Ohio State won’t lack bodies in the perimeter rotation. But how will they account for the production from last season’s team? It will likely be by committee, and if last season did anything it served as a reminder — for those who may have needed it — to never underestimate Holtmann.
Penn State (26-13, 9-9)
Last season was a big one for head coach Patrick Chambers, who began the year squarely on the proverbial hot seat. While Penn State’s run to the Big Ten tournament semis wasn’t enough to get the Nittany Lions into the NCAA tournament, it did give the program the momentum needed to go on a run and win the Postseason NIT. That run led to Chambers getting two years added onto his contract, which now runs through the 2021-22 season, and the chance to see if he can get this program back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2011. But there are some major holes to fill, most notably that of point guard Tony Carr. Carr, who left for the NBA after his sophomore season, led Penn State in scoring (19.6 ppg) and assists (5.0 apg) and his possession percentage (29.6) ranked second in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ. Penn State also lost Shep Garner, who — like Carr — shot 43.3 percent from three last season. With Garner’s shooting ability and leadership qualities, he’s just as big of a loss for the program as Carr.
That being said, Penn State will not lack for weapons in 2018-19. Forward Lamar Stevens, who averaged 15.5 points and 5.9 rebounds per game last season, is back as are guard Josh Reaves and center Mike Watkins. Garner is one of the Big Ten’s best defenders, and with his ability to shoot from the perimeter he’s a guy to keep in mind with regards to the NBA when it comes to that league’s desire for “3 and D” wings. As for Watkins, while he’s been productive when on the court there have been some issues off the court during his time in Happy Valley. Penn State needs the redshirt junior to take care of his business away from the court if this group is to build on last season’s success. What will also help the returnees is the arrival of a solid recruiting class that includes the likes of guards Rasir Bolton and Myreon Jones and wing Myles Dread. All three will have the opportunity to compete for minutes, as will sophomore Jamari Wheeler, and how those battles shake out will help determine whether or not Penn State can account for the losses of Carr and Garner. While some have used the early departure of Carr as a reason to drop their expectations of Penn State, this group has the opportunity to put together a good season. Maybe not a “Big Ten title contender” season, but one good enough to have the Nittany Lions in the NCAA tournament conversation come March.
Purdue (30-7, 15-3)
After winning 30 games and reaching the Sweet 16, Purdue will look to account for the departure of four of the five starters from that team. Isaac Haas, Vince Edwards, Dakota Mathias and P.J. Thompson are all out of eligibility, which leaves one of the nation’s best point guards to lead the way. As a sophomore Carsen Edwards was outstanding for the Boilermakers, averaging 18.5 points and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field, 40.6 percent from three and 82.4 percent from the foul line. The presence of Vince Edwards and Mathias, who combined to average 6.8 assists per game, gave Carsen Edwards the freedom needed to be more aggressive when it came to his scoring opportunities. With those two gone, not only will Carsen Edwards need to score at the same level but he’ll also have more on his plate from a distribution standpoint.
Matt Haarms and Nojel Eastern, two players who chipped in off the bench as freshmen last season, and senior guard Ryan Cline also return from last season’s team. The 7-foot-3 Haarms, who when Haas was healthy served as a nice change of pace in the middle, received even more playing during the latter portion of the season with an elbow injury sidelining the 7-foot-2 Haas. Both he and Eastern will be trendy picks for players due to breakout in 2018-19, with the athletic Eastern appearing to be the next in line when it comes to the run of quality perimeter defenders that Matt Painter’s program has churned out. And with the personnel losses Eastern, who averaged 2.9 points and 2.5 rebounds per game last season, should also get more opportunities to make an impact offensively. Another name to keep in mind: Evan Boudreaux, who averaged 17.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game at Dartmouth in 2016-17. The 6-foot-8, 220 pound redshirt junior will need to have an immediate impact, and while the level of competition is different having the season to practice should help Boudreaux (who’s quite skilled) when it comes to getting used to the Big Ten.
Sasha Stefanovic and Aaron Wheeler, who both redshirted last season, are in the fold as are four-star freshmen Eric Hunter Jr., Trevion Williams and Emmanuel Dowuona. Purdue will have a Big Ten and national Player of the Year candidate in Carsen Edwards, that much is certain. How good this team is, and whether or not they can contend in the Big Ten, will depend upon the growth of his “supporting cast.”
Rutgers (15-19, 3-15)
If you’ve followed college basketball long enough, especially in the Northeast, there’s a good chance you’ve gotten used to hearing Rutgers described as a “sleeping giant” of sorts. The program hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1991, and since then there have been three conference homes (Big East, American and now Big Ten) and multiple instances of coaches torpedoing their chances of leading the program into the future. Under Steve Pikiell the feeling that something really bad is about to happen has subsided, as he and his staff have at the very least changed the attitude within the program. The next step for Rutgers is to work its way out of the Big Ten basement, and this season the Scarlet Knights will attempt to do so while accounting for the loss of three of the top four scorers from last season. Corey Sanders was the team’s best scorer/playmaker, DeShawn Freeman the best front court option, and Mike Williams was the heart and soul. That’s a lot to lose, and with Rutgers winning just three Big Ten games last season that could lead some to expect even worse in 2018-19.
But in Geo Baker, Rutgers has its point guard of “now” after he earned a spot in the starting lineup last season as a freshman. Baker averaged 31.6 minutes per game, second on the team behind Sanders, and accounted for 10.8 points and 2.6 assists per contest. Juniors Eugene Omoruyi and Issa Thiam are back as well, and Rutgers will be deep in the post as well. Shaquille Doorson, Shaq Carter, Mamadou Doucoure and Myles Johnson will all compete for minutes, with Carter and Johnson taking the court as Scarlet Knights for the first time in their respective careers. The 6-foot-9 Carter was a second team all-conference player at Eastern Florida State College last season, and the 6-foot-10 Johnson redshirted last season after a solid career at Long Beach Poly HS in southern California. And on the perimeter, newcomers Peter Kiss (13.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg at Quinnipiac in 2016-17) and four-star recruit Montez Mathis are among the players who will be called upon to assist Baker.
Rutgers is likely to sit at or near the bottom of the Big Ten standings once again this season, but effort has been a constant under Pikiell’s watch. The wait for a breakthrough will continue, but don’t be surprised if Rutgers pulls off an upset or two.
Wisconsin (15-18, 7-11)
After 11 straight season with at least 20 wins, the 2017-18 campaign was an unusual one for the Wisconsin program. Freshman guard Brad Davison played through a shoulder injury that would require surgery at season’s end for much of the year, and injuries before the season even began left Greg Gard with a less than full deck. The end result was Wisconsin’s first losing season since 1997-98, but the good news is that everyone’s healthy and one of the best forwards in the country is back for his senior season. Ethan Happ, who led the Badgers in scoring, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, shot 52.8 percent from the field as a junior, and after earning first team all-conference (media) honors last season at minimum he’ll be in the Big Ten Player of the Year conversation. Happ performed well on both ends of the floor, and that was with many teams gearing their game plans towards stopping him.
He’ll have more help this season beginning with the aforementioned Davison, who despite his shoulder issues appeared in all 33 games and averaged 12.1 points and 2.5 assists per game. D’Mitrik Trice, who appeared in just ten games due to a foot injury, is healthy as is redshirt freshman guard Kobe King who sat out last season due to a torn ACL. Redshirt junior Brevin Pritzl, freshman Tai Strickland and wings Khalil Iverson and Aleem Ford round out the perimeter rotation, with Pritzl and Iverson combining to average 17.5 points and 8.9 rebounds per game last season. What Wisconsin can get from its big men outside of Happ will have a significant impact on the team’s chances of contending for a Big Ten title. Seniors Alex Illikainen and Charlie Thomas IV were on the outskirts of the rotation last season, with Illikainen playing 6.8 minutes per game and Thomas 6.0. Sophomore Nate Reuvers, who started 15 of the 28 games he appeared in, is the most established of the non-Happ big men and is the one most likely to take a step forward production-wise. Rounding out that group is 6-foot-8 freshman Taylor Currie, who also held offers from Michigan (who he de-committed from last September) and Xavier, and 7-foot preferred walk-on Joe Hedstrom.
Wisconsin may ultimately land just outside of the group that ultimately makes a run at the Big Ten title, but with everyone healthy this is a team capable of making a move. At the very least, Wisconsin should be an NCAA tournament team…and begin another streak of 20-win seasons.