Yesterday College Basketball Talk posted a list of programs on the rise and decline in 2015-16. Two programs from the Big Ten made the list, with Purdue being listed as on the rise and Nebraska set to decline. Instead of merely discussing what they went on to say, for today's countdown piece we'll take a look at two Big Ten programs that are on the rise and two on the decline, expanding a bit past Purdue and Nebraska. I'm sure a couple of these schools on this list likely won't sit well with their respective fans, so leave a comment if you agree or disagree.
What a difference a month or two makes. At one point last season the fan base was calling for Painter's head and now they're hyping up a team that is considered to be the most talented squad of Boilermakers since the Baby Boilers were all healthy and on campus. Even better for Matt Painter and company was the ability to snag five-star forward Caleb Swanigan late in the recruiting process after Swanigan decided against enrolling at Michigan State. Now Purdue boasts one of the most experienced and skilled frontcourts in the nation and has started to get back to playing hard-nosed, disciplined basketball with an emphasis on defense.
Considering everything Purdue did during Big Ten play last season and the fact that they basically return everyone of value outside of Jon Octeus, and it's easy to see why people think Purdue should be set to build off of an already impressive conference season last year. It should also be noted if Purdue could have avoided some dreadful upsets in the first two months, the program would have likely had a ton of hype throughout the last few months of the season. If Purdue can find an answer at the point guard position, with Johnny Hill set to try his best, the Boilermakers are a legitimate contender for the Big Ten title and have the depth and skill to make a deep postseason run this March. Not bad for a program that had a fan base arguing that they should fire their head coach less than a year ago.
I know it seems weird to say that Ohio State is on the 'rise' but it really feels like it heading into 2015-16. In a four year span from 2009 to 2013 Thad Matta never lost more than eight games and made it to at least the Sweet 16 every season (including one Final Four and another Elite Eight appearance). The last two seasons have been considerably more problematic for Matta, though, especially thanks to losing a number of key players early to the NBA. After four years of massive success the Buckeyes have lost at least 10 games the last two years, gone 21-15 in conference play and have won only one NCAA Tournament game.
So once you consider the two more difficult seasons in Columbus, the loss of D'Angelo Russell to the NBA and a mass exodus of talent due to graduation...I'm sure my inclusion of Ohio State will raise some eyebrows. That being said, Matta can definitely recruit and his 2015 class should be huge for the program. Besides five star (Rivals) point guard JaQuan Lyle, Matta also adds two more four-star guards in Austin Grandstaff and A.J. Harris, a four-star center in Daniel Giddens and three-star forward Mickey Mitchell, as well as finally having former Virginia Tech forward/center Trevor Thompson eligible. The Buckeyes are also returning a number of contributors including Jae'Sean Tate and Marc Loving. While growing pains are likely, the massive amount of talent incoming will give Matta a ton of new toys to play with and Ohio State should start working their way back to the top of the conference after two years stuck in the middle.
The Cornhuskers surprised everyone in 2013-14 when they made an inexplicable run to the NCAA Tournament. Nebraska was predicted to finish towards the bottom of the Big Ten and with the team sitting at 9-9 (1-5), they were playing up to the part. They managed to get hot at the right time and ended up closing out the regular season with a 10-2 mark, enough to get them into the postseason as they lost their first Big Ten Tournament game and then fell to Baylor. This led to a massive amount of hype and plenty of writers/analysts placing Nebraska up top last season, something that felt a bit off to me as I was under the impression that their hot streak at the end of the season was more of "in the moment" then signs of being a potential contender. Especially when you look at those last ten wins as only two came against Big Ten programs that made it to the NCAA Tournament.
So while I expected the team to not finish towards the top of the conference, the drop off to 13-18 was a bit harsher than anticipated. Now Nebraska is coming off of a rough season where they finished 310th in the nation in scoring, lose their top scorer in Terran Petteway and lose a majority of their main contributors. There are some worthwhile pieces coming to Lincoln this season, like Illinois natives Glynn Watson and Ed Morrow Jr., as well as Kansas transfer Andrew White III, but the offensively challenged Cornhuskers didn't show any improvement at shooting from the perimeter during their exhibition trip and if they can't fix up their offense it's going to be a very long winter (even if the team has plenty of young and talented players set to be eligible this season). The reality is most other programs in the Big Ten are either getting better to some extent (Northwestern, Minnesota) or have already essentially bottomed out so they can only improve from where they're at (Penn State, Rutgers). That means a Nebraska team expected to be in the postseason this past spring is likely going to be at the bottom of the Big Ten again in 2015-16 and the idea of a quick turnaround doesn't seem likely, or at least any more possible than the other programs down below with Nebraska.
The Badgers declining in 2015-16 is definitely inevitable, thanks to losing so many star players after last season's run to the title game. Gone are stars Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, as well as major players like Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser and Duje Dukan. The Badgers do return Nigel Hayes, but there's now a lot of youth, inexperience and question marks on the roster. So while Wisconsin will likely take a step back this season, with Bo Ryan still running the show the Badgers will still be a difficult team that will end up back in the postseason once again. After that? Who knows. The Badgers coach originally said he was set to retire, only to start backtracking almost immediately. With the head coach position for next season still unknown, it will make recruiting more problematic and it's already starting to show with Wisconsin not having a single commit in 2016. That could be even more problematic if Nigel Hayes blows up this season and decides to head to the NBA in 2016, something that could be more likely if Ryan does end up retiring.
So the Badgers have a depleted roster in 2015-16, limited recruiting in the near future (that is being influenced by the potential of Ryan being gone after this season) and then you have to realize Bo Ryan may actually leave after this season. While Ryan wants longtime assistant Greg Gard to be his successor, it's unknown if that will happen right now and there's always the realistic possibility that the program could slip under Gard. What Bo Ryan has done in Madison has been absolutely spectacular, so the idea of another coach being able to replicate that success seems somewhat unlikely, even if it's Ryan's handpicked successor.