Early this week, 2015 5-star center Caleb Swanigan opted to commit to the Purdue Boilermakers over other top contenders including California, Kentucky, and Michigan State among others. With Swanigan's commitment, there do not appear to be any major roster changes on the horizon for the conference.
As such, BTPowerhouse Managers Thomas Beindit and Bryan Steedman got together to chat about Swanigan's commitment and the outlook for the Big Ten next season.
BEINDIT: It's been a crazy couple of weeks for the Big Ten roster-wise and Caleb Swanigan's commitment appears to have sealed up a really nice (albeit early) offseason for the conference. When the offseason first began, there were a lot of guys in position to leave early for the NBA, but after all the madness, only Sam Dekker, Terran Petteway, Walter Pitchford, and D'Angelo Russell opted to declare early for the NBA Draft. In total, the Boilermakers, Hoosiers, and Wolverines were just some of the teams to return real NBA prospects.
Of course, along with the returns, there have been some important transfers like Johnny Hill for Purdue and major commitments like Thomas Bryant for Indiana and Caleb Swanigan for Purdue. All of these returns and additions have set up the Big Ten to possibly be the deepest conference in the country next season.
Starting at the top, Maryland has to be the favorite, right?
STEEDMAN: Possibly. The Terps will benefit considerably from Melo Trimble and Jake Layman returning and then they also managed to add a stud in Diamond Stone, while also landing a solid guard in Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon. The team has a ton of talent and should be the favorite, but I think Purdue could be a solid sleeper pick as well. The team already had an impressive frontcourt as is, but now that they're adding Swanigan it's loaded to the point where finding playing time for some of the guys might be a bit tricky (Vince Edwards is going to likely be forced out of the four slot, Smotherman is now the odd man out). The only thing keeping Purdue from being my pick is their point guard situation is still a potential problem spot, even with Johnny Hill transferring in. But if the Boilers can match (or at least come close) last season's performance at the point? It'll be hard to see them not right there with the Terps.
BEINDIT: Purdue definitely has a lot coming back and are adding at least two key pieces in Johnny Hill and Caleb Swanigan. I do have some concerns about Purdue though. For one, offensive spacing is going to be an issue to say the least. Vince Edwards will likely be the best 3PT shooter in the starting lineup next season and he shot 32.6% from 3PT range last season. The Boilermakers were only #328 in 3PT shooting as a team last season and still made the NCAA Tournament, but it's hard to imagine them taking the step from a #9 seed to a Big Ten title contender without improving in that category.
For me, I really like Maryland in the top spot right now. The Terps have proven stars in Jake Layman and Melo Trimble and are not only adding 5-star recruit Diamond Stone upfront, but also transfer Robert Carter, Jr. and Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon. Maryland was probably a bit overrated last season, but they still finished #2 in the Big Ten and could be upgrading 4 spots in their starting lineup.
After Maryland, I see Michigan State, Michigan, and Indiana rounding out the Top 4. Where do you see those teams?
STEEDMAN: I'm not sure if Edwards will be the best three point shooter in the main lineup. I say main because I think the starting five could very likely be irrelevant as there's a solid chance of a six man rotation where a lot of the guys balance minutes, with someone like Kendall Stephens possibly coming off the bench but still averaging 20-25 minutes a night. Purdue wasn't exactly consistent from outside last season, either, and their biggest issue from deep was when they decided to keep firing it up when they weren't hitting.
As for the two Michigan schools and Indiana, I can see that. I think regardless of the losses they're experiencing (as well as Swanigan) decommitting, there's still more than enough talent in East Lansing, especially with Izzo coaching that team. I'm not as sold on Michigan or Indiana, though. I think the Hoosiers should be right around there, but the team has a track record of underachieving considerably and if things get off to a rough start, there's going to be a massive amount of pressure on Crean to immediately turn it around. As for Michigan, they definitely weren't very good last season even before injuries became a major issue. A number of their younger players developed, sure, but I'm curious to see if it was them simply producing because somebody had to or if they were legitimately improving. Until the Wolverines show that they can be a top three or four team, I'm hesitant to buy into them.
I still wouldn't be surprised if someone like Wisconsin or Ohio State inexplicably makes a run, just because. Seems like regardless of the situation both the Badgers and Buckeyes can hang with anyone in the conference.
BEINDIT: I think I'm on the same page for most of those teams with the exception of Michigan. Both Indiana and Michigan State are returning key contributors and added major recruits in Thomas Bryant and Deyonta Davis that should instantly improve their lineups. The Spartans will have to replace Branden Dawson and Travis Trice, but Davis should fill in nicely upfront and transfer Eron Harris could be one of the most overlooked additions in the conference. When you add in Izzo, I don't have many doubts about Michigan State.
I really like this Indiana roster as well. They had a great 1 through 4 combination in their lineup and if they can add a quality center (Thomas Bryant cough, cough), they could be a truly elite team. Their rough 5-10 finish to last season coupled with a horrendous defense does concern me about them being good enough to compete for a Big Ten title, but they should at least take another step forward.
As far as Michigan goes, I think we are a little split there. There's no denying that Michigan was not a great team last season, but I think a lot of people are creating too simple of a narrative surrounding Caris LeVert. Many are mistakenly viewing this as a 16-16 Michigan team simply returning its best player from injury, but that's not really that accurate here.
The Wolverines not only return LeVert, but they also return starting point guard Derrick Walton, Jr. from injury, get two players off redshirt in Duncan Robinson and DJ Wilson, and added a solid recruit in Moritz Wagner. They're literally adding an entire lineup that includes a former 2nd team All-Big Ten player (LeVert) and an All-Big Ten Freshman team player (Walton) to a team that was highly competitive in Big Ten play and was #334 in experience per KenPom. This is a team with a lot of writing on the wall to say they'll improve.
For me, I think I would rate the order as Maryland, Michigan State, Michigan, Indiana, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Ohio State right now. How do you see it shaking out?
STEEDMAN: I think LeVert will be fine but I'm not sure if Walton, either redshirt freshmen or the new guys are enough to launch the Wolverines to compete with the top teams in the conference. With John Beilein as their coach, there's more than enough talent to compete and get to the postseason but I still can't see a top three finish unless some of the other teams falter.
As for the order, I'm not sure about Michigan and Indiana over Purdue. I think Wisconsin or Ohio State could jump both teams as well, but I can't get behind putting Indiana above Purdue, especially as Purdue was considerably better than the Hoosiers last season and there isn't much to show Indiana leapfrogging the Boilers this upcoming season. As for Michigan, I feel like there are a number of question marks for them heading forward. Really in order for them to finish third in conference every single one of those questions will have to pan out favorable and I don't really see that happening.
I'd probably put Maryland, Michigan State and Purdue into tier 1, followed by Ohio State, Wisconsin, Indiana and probably Michigan in the second tier. Without a dominant team this year like Wisconsin (or maybe there's just more parity this season), they'll all likely end up relatively close to each other, though.
BEINDIT: I've already ranted about Michigan a bunch above, so I won't go on too long, but I'm not sure the Wolverines need even close to a "perfect storm" type of scenario to move up. At the end of the season, they had 3 freshmen starters and 3 of their top 4 bench contributors were freshmen. The only player they lose this offseason is backup center Max Bielfeldt.
As such, even if Michigan added nothing outside of a few average 3-star recruits, this would be a team primed to take a step forward. Certainly not to 3rd in the Big Ten - as I have them right now - but would it really be that surprising to see a team where 6 of its Top 9 players at the end of the season were underclassmen take a significant step forward? I certainly don't think so and when you add in 5 new additions including two relatively proven players (LeVert & Walton), that's when I think you see the major rise. It's just a lot of factors working together at once.
As far as Ohio State and Wisconsin are concerned, I have some major concerns about the losses for both of those teams and the Buckeyes in particular. Ohio State's incoming recruiting class has received a lot of attention and for good reason, but this is a team losing 66.6% of its minutes, 64.9% of its points, 60.7% of its rebounds, 87.4% of its assists, and 70.7% of its blocks. Losing D'Angelo Russell will be a huge hit, but this is massive, massive turnover to overcome for a team that went 11-7 in the Big Ten and was a #10 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Maybe the talent overcomes it, but realistically, Ohio State is going to need a new player to produce like D'Angelo Russell and also find 3 new starters. That's not easy to say the least and that's just to get back 6th place in the Big Ten where they finished last year.
For Wisconsin, I have similar concerns, but the two things that make me step back a little on criticizing them is the fact that they have Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig coming back. Returning two legitimate star caliber players is going to take a lot of pressure off the other three positions. Plus, the whole Bo Ryan in the Top 4 effect seems like a real thing, so I'm not going to doubt them too much.
I think that's everybody though. Any final thoughts here as far as the Big Ten title goes?
STEEDMAN: Yeah, both Ohio and Wisconsin have their flaws but it just seems like Matta and Ryan get their teams to compete regardless of their skill level. And while Russell is a big loss, the Buckeyes have been a bit underwhelming as of late so having a ton of new faces can't hurt them that much. Same thing with Wisconsin to some extent. They're going to take a step back, but Ryan annually turns a bunch of ho-hum recruits into stars. I mean no one though much of Kaminsky until he came out of absolutely nowhere two years ago.
As far as the rest of the Big Ten, I think there's some potential with Minnesota if they can get over the hump of losing winnable games. There's a lot of teams grouped together towards the bottom-to-mid section of the conference and regardless of how much they can compete with the top half of the conference, it'll be interesting. Pitino is going to start having some pressure if he can't get Minnesota to the tournament and there's enough talent at hand to do so, but after two years and there's little confidence that he can get his team to win close games. Then you have John Groce and Illinois, another program with enough talent to make the postseason, but instead completely trips over their own feet time and time again. Iowa had a balanced roster these past few years and couldn't make the jump as well, though they at least were capable of reaching the NCAA Tournament. Watching these three teams is going to be interesting because they've all underwhelmed to some level the last few years and are talented, but still overmatched compared to a lot of other teams in the conference. There's going to be a few seats steadily growing hotter if none of these teams can make a run this season.
As for the rest of the league, I really think Nebraska's tourney run two seasons ago was just getting hot at the right time and the Cornhuskers are going to struggle once again in 2015-16. For every positive thing we've seen at times last year, it's hard to predict much improvement from schools like Nebraska, Penn State, Northwestern and Rutgers, even if they should technically be better overall.