This weekend, the 2014-15 college basketball season will be wrapping up in Indianapolis with two Big Ten teams making the cut. As such, it should be exciting to see if either Michigan State or Wisconsin can get the conference its first national title since 2000.
Of course, with the end of the season, many fans are starting to look ahead to next season, especially fans of teams that have already been eliminated from contention. With that in mind, it seemed like a good time to give a first look at how the Big Ten should look for the 2015-16 season.
However, before I jump into these rankings, it's important to add a few disclaimers. First, as everyone knows, things are a long way from shaking out. Not only are there still NBA decisions to be made for many of the conference's top players from this season, but there will likely be news of more transfers and the door has yet to shut officially on any potential coaching moves.
To assist in reading this list, here are the players I assumed would be declaring for the 2015 NBA Draft. Keep in mind that these are not projections, but rather just something to assist in this process. Essentially, if I state that "Player A" is the best returning player, it's because I have already assumed these guys are gone. Here is the list:
- Indiana: Yogi Ferrell
- Michigan: Caris LeVert
- Ohio State: D'Angelo Russell
- Purdue: AJ Hammons
- Wisconsin: Sam Dekker
With that, here are my first set of offseason power rankings.:
Big Ten Way Too Early Power Rankings
#1 - Maryland Terrapins
There's a ton to like about what the Terps will have coming into next season. Not only should they be considered a serious contender for the Big Ten title, but they will likely be in play for a #1 or #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and for a Final Four run. This is a team stacked with talent, depth, and experience. When evaluating team's roster, I typically like to use a four step process where I start with the team's top player, move to the top 3 players, move to the starting lineup, and then evaluate the bench. Maryland holds up well in each of these categories.
To start, they are set to be the only team returning an All-Big Ten player from last season in Melo Trimble. When you move down to the team's top contributors, you will likely have Jake Layman, Diamond Stone, and Melo Trimble. Not only is this an outstanding group, but it might be the best three player combo on any Big Ten roster next season. It's not unreasonable to see all three of these players ending up on the All-Big Ten or All-Big Ten 2nd teams. To close out the starting lineup, you might see players like Jared Nickens or transfer Robert Carter, depending on the lineup they want to use. Finally, the depth for Maryland is going to be solid as well with a ton of frontcourt depth and the backcourt adding a solid recruit in Jaylen Brantley. The Terps are going to need at least a few guys to step up, but it's hard not to think Maryland is the frontrunner in the Big Ten for next year.
Despite coming off a Final Four season and the loss of two senior starters, the Spartans are still setup well to be a serious contender in 2015-16. They may be losing Branden Dawson and Travis Trice, but that's about all they are set to lose this offseason. They will return the other 3 starters from their Final Four lineup, every key bench contributor this season, and are set to add even more with a very talented recruiting class.
Coming in, Denzel Valentine looks to be the star of this team, but incoming recruit Deyonta Davis and now eligible transfer Eron Harris could easily emerge next season. Davis should fit into the void left by Dawson and Harris should become the team's primary offensive threat and is one of the best players out there at creating his own shot. The frontcourt will likely remain a position by committee and Tum Tum will have to improve his consistency in the backcourt, but this looks like a really nice starting lineup and a team that should have plenty of depth. The only reason MSU is slotted in at #2 for next season is that they probably do not have a single player at the level of Maryland's Trimble and despite having plenty of options upfront, most of those options don't have the upside of a player like Stone for Maryland. Still, with Tom Izzo at the helm and plenty of quality players, this could very well be a Top 10 Spartan team.
#3 - Michigan Wolverines
The 2014-15 season was one to forget in Ann Arbor, but the next season is looking like it could be a bright one for the Wolverines. Michigan finished at 9th in the Big Ten last season, but their finish was largely due to an astounding string of injuries and a 10 game period filled with close losses where Michigan went 1-6 in games decided by 10 points or less or in overtime. Michigan was not a good team last season, but at the end of the season, they were much better than their 16-16 record indicates and are set to return nearly everything from last season.
The key piece heading into next season for the Wolverines appears to be junior Zak Irvin, who was inconsistent early in the year, but developed significantly as a passer and rebounder. Along with Irvin, Aubrey Dawkins became one of the team's offensive bright spots and point guard Derrick Walton, Jr. should be back into the lineup after recovering from a foot injury this season. Along with these three, Spike Albrecht, Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and Ricky Doyle should also be in heavy consideration for starting spots and bench players like Kameron Chatman and incoming transfer Duncan Robinson should contribute. There will be concerns about whether this team will feature enough top end talent to finish at the top of the Big Ten, but there are plenty of pieces to compete with anyone in the conference.
#4 - Wisconsin Badgers
The defending Big Ten champions come in at the #4 spot in these rankings for a few reasons. The Badgers are coming off one of the best seasons in program history, but are set to lose major contributors in Sam Dekker, Josh Gasser, and Frank Kaminsky. Those losses are massive and there's simply no other way around it. Bo Ryan has made it a habit to overcome these types of departures, but it will not be easy this time with the loss of two players that could be in the 1st Round of the 2015 NBA Draft.
The key player for next season appears to be Nigel Hayes, but Bronson Koenig has played very well done the stretch and these two could turn into one of the best duos in the conference. The other returning contributor is Zak Showalter, who played in just 17% of the team's minutes this season. After these three, there are going to be a lot of questions about this Wisconsin team. The Badgers are bringing in a nice recruiting class featuring several wing prospects and Ethan Happ redshirted this season so there are options, but until some of these questions are answered, this is probably the top end of any Wisconsin predictions.
#5 - Indiana Hoosiers
Despite the concern in Bloomington, many are overlooking the potential for Indiana next season. The Hoosiers are not only set to bring back star freshman guard James Blackmon, Jr., but also could bring back Robert Johnson and Troy Williams to form a really nice three man group. Along with this, the Hoosiers have a boatload of wing options not only on the roster, but in the incoming recruiting class as well. The one red flag for this roster - as it was all this season - will be upfront, where the team lacks a true big man and a shot blocker. It is a huge reason that Indiana was rated #214 in defensive efficiency last season. There could be a potential answer to this issue if a recruit like Thomas Bryant commits, but this will still likely remain the major question mark on the roster coming into next season. Realistically, Indiana should have one of the best wing groups in the Big Ten, but until they get the frontcourt issue addressed, they will likely finish near where they did last season.
#6 - Ohio State Buckeyes
One of the more interesting teams in the Big Ten next season appears to be Ohio State, who comes in at #6 on this list. The Buckeyes appear to be headed toward a transition period, but the question will be how well the team can perform and how long the transition will last. The key returner for next season will Jae'Sean Tate, who really came on as the year continued. Keita Bates-Diop, Marc Loving, and Kam Williams also showed promise as young contributors on an NCAA Tournament team, but outside of these four, there are a lot of moving parts. There is plenty of incoming talent with five recruits that are 4-star prospects or higher, but figuring out where these players will fit will be interesting, especially considering that OSU is set to lose four starters. This should be one of the most talented rosters in the country, but with so many moving pieces, the Buckeyes look set to be a good, but not great team again.
#7 - Purdue Boilermakers
Last year's surprise team comes in at #7 on this list and for good reason. The Boilermakers may have been underwhelming in non-conference play last season, but they really came on as the year continued and ended up getting a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament. Though this team is set to have to replace two starters, there is plenty of depth and plenty of young players that could be positioned to take the next step. Most eyes will be on returning freshman players Vince Edwards and Isaac Haas, who both made significant contributors last season. Along with these two, a young backcourt of Dakota Mathias and Kendall Stephens has the potential to take a big step forward for the team as well, especially if Edwards and Haas are playing well inside. However, the challenging of losing key contributors like AJ Hammons and Jon Octeus will be difficult and though there are plenty of solid players, the lack of really good or great players could be an issue for Purdue next season.
#8 - Iowa Hawkeyes
For the second season in a row, the Hawkeyes will lose their best player to graduation. This time it's Aaron White and with him goes a boatload of minutes, points, and rebounds. However, this year, the team also loses significant contributors in Josh Oglesby and Gabriel Olaseni. In total, Iowa loses it's leader and three of its top eight players in minutes. The Hawkeyes were a good team last season, but overcoming these losses is going to be a challenge. The key returner appears to be Jarrod Uthoff, but Mike Gesell and Peter Jok should also help to create one of the Big Ten's better backcourts, especially with reserve Anthony Clemmons back as well. The backcourt and wing for Iowa appear to be in good position heading into next season, but there are major question marks upfront, especially given the fact that the best returner there is Adam Woodbury, who had foul issues for most of the season. Iowa should be a solid team in NCAA Tournament consideration, but unless someone takes a huge step forward, there will probably be a decent dropoff from the top Big Ten teams to Iowa.
The Illini may have been one of the most frustrating teams in the Big Ten for fans last season. On paper, the team not only had enough to make the NCAA Tournament, but also to be in the running for a solid seed. However, the team just could never put things together, especially when injuries and suspensions took their toll on the lineup. This year, Illinois is not only is hoping to take a step forward, but will have to do it without key contributors Aaron Cosby, Nnanna Egwu, Rayvonte Rice, and Ahmad Starks. In total, Illinois will lose three of their top five and four of their top seven in minutes from last season. The key returners for next season are Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn, who both have star potential, but outside of these two, there are major questions. Tracy Abrams should be back from his ACL injury and key incoming recruit Jalen Coleman-Lands should be a contributor, but both are unknowns. Illinois should have talent and solid depth for next season, but with so many moving pieces and the lack of a proven frontcourt, the team will likely find itself toward the middle to bottom of the conference.
#10 - Northwestern Wildcats
The 2014-15 season was an up and down one for Northwestern, but they appear lined up to continue their progress under head coach Chris Collins. Every major contributor down the stretch should be back for next season including three freshmen who played starters minutes and a handful of sophomores that saw time off the bench.
The key contributors appear to be Vic Law, Bryant McIntosh, and Alex Olah and if Law and McIntosh take the traditional freshman to sophomore offseason leap, this team could take a big step forward. However, there are a lot of question marks outside of these three on the roster and about how big the freshmen to sophomore leap can be for Law and McIntosh next season, which is why Northwestern is ranked here.
#11 - Minnesota Golden Gophers
After winning the NIT in 2013-14 and returning much of their lineup, most thought 2014-15 would be a step forward for the Gophers, but unfortunately for Minnesota fans, the team failed to even make the NIT. Though the team was competitive in most games, their horrid 2-7 start to Big Ten play featuring six losses of 10 points or less doomed the team's resume and put them too far back to ever get back in consideration. Now, with the team losing leading scorer Andre Hollins, Deandre Mathieu, and Maurice Walker, there will be more questions heading into next season. The key returns are Joey King and Nate Mason, who both played well down the stretch. Along with this, Mason could have been one of the most underrated freshmen in the Big Ten. This roster has a lot of players with high ceilings like Gaston Diedhiou and Bakary Konate, but with so many big departures and question marks, Minnesota finds itself at #11 on this list.
#12 - Penn State Nittany Lions
Though the Nittany Lions had a nice run in the Big Ten Tournament, 2014-15 was largely one that fans will want to forget considering the team's 4-14 Big Ten regular season record. Now, with the loss of DJ Newbill and Ross Travis, Penn State is going to have to find new contributors. The big returner will be Shep Garner, but the other big storyline will be how much newcomers Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins could bring to the team next season. Both are rated as 4-star prospects and this is set to be Penn State's best recruiting class in years. If Penn State gets production from its recruits, this team could be good enough for an NIT run, but with the loss of Newbill, it's going to be a work in progress for much of the season.
#13 - Nebraska Cornhuskers
Last season quickly went from one with a lot of promise to one to forget in Lincoln as the Cornhuskers ended up dropping to 13-18 overall on the season. Now, with Terran Petteway and Walter Pitchford departing for the pros, the team will be losing its leader, three of its top four, and six of its top nine in minutes. Instead of returning most of its contributors from last season and bringing in one of its better recruiting classes in years, Tim Miles will be looking down the bench and at young contributors to take big minutes and to take big steps forward. Nebraska has the potential to become a solid program in the future, but 2015-16 might not be the year to do it.
#14 - Rutgers Scarlet Knights
The 2014-15 season was a terrible one for Rutgers. The win over Wisconsin was nice in January, but this is a team that finished 10-22 overall and lost its final 15 games to end the season. In fact, Rutgers had a winning record in just one month of the season (December) where the team had games against teams like Manhattan, Monmouth, and Sacred Heart. This was a bad team. Now, with Junior Etou, Kadeem Jack, Malick Kone, and Myles Mack leaving, things could be even more challenging. In total, the team is set to lose its top two players and three of its top four in minutes from last season and will return just 42.5% of its scoring from last season. Again, this team was 10-22 last year. Perhaps Bishop Daniels can take a step forward or one of the newcomers like Corey Sanders can make an impact, but even if they do, it's hard to see this team finishing much better than last year.