This weekend, the 2016-’17 college basketball season will be wrapping up in Arizona. With no Big Ten teams making the cut for this year's Final Four, it seemed like a good time to start the process of projecting, predictions, and breaking down next season and what it could bring for the conference.
However, before I jump into my latest Big Ten Power 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 plenty of upcoming NBA decisions still to be made, but there will also likely be news of more transfers. Plus, there's always the possibility or some surprising coaching moves this offseason.
In light of those pending decisions, I have taken the liberty of projecting the league’s potential 2017 NBA Draft decisions below. Keep in mind that these are not reports, 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.
So, here are my NBA projections for purposes of this list:
Big Ten Players Assumed To Be Going Pro:
- Indiana: OG Anunoby, Thomas Bryant
- Maryland: Melo Trimble
- Michigan State: Miles Bridges
- Ohio State: Trevor Thompson
- Purdue: Caleb Swanigan
With that, here is my first set of Big Ten offseason power rankings.:
Big Ten Way Too Early Power Rankings
#1 - Minnesota Golden Gophers
The 2017 NCAA Tournament was a rough one for the Golden Gophers. Despite entering March Madness as the Big Ten’s second highest seeded team, Minnesota didn’t even make it past the first game of the tournament, losing to Middle Tennessee State. It was a tough loss for a team that had shown so much promise during the regular season.
However, Minnesota should be ready to put that loss in the rear-view mirror as the Gophers will enter next season as one of the Big Ten’s best teams, at least on paper.
Minnesota figures to return four of five starters from last year’s team that went 24-10 overall and 11-7 in Big Ten play. Those four starters include All-Big Ten guard Nate Mason, All-Big Ten Freshman Amir Coffey, and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Reggie Lynch.
Additionally, the Gophers will also return some key reserves. Specifically, upperclassmen Dupree McBrayer (11.1 PPG) and Bakary Konate (9.7 MPG) will return and Eric Curry and Michael Hurt will return after decent freshmen campaigns.
Oh, and that doesn’t even include the new additions.
Minnesota will be welcoming a loaded 2017 recruiting class that features two great guard prospects in Jamir Harris and Isaiah Washington. Notably, Washington enters as a four-star recruit and is rated as the No. 64 prospect in the nation. Oh, and former Texas A&M transfer Davonte Fitzgerald will also be coming off a redshirt.
The Gophers will face a tall task next season. Somehow, head coach Richard Pitino needs to take a good team and make it into a great one with largely the same cast of players. However, with so much youth returning and some great talent entering the roster, Minnesota is my top pick at this point in the offseason.
#2 - Maryland Terrapins
Following close behind Minnesota, Maryland will also enter next season with a good bit of hype. The team should return three starters and five of its top seven players in overall minutes from last season. And considering that all three of those starters were freshmen, it’s hard not to feel good about where the Terps are heading.
Unfortunately, unlike Minnesota, there’s a massive, massive question mark for next year’s Terrapins and that’s the anticipated loss of Melo Trimble.
Over the last three seasons, Trimble has been everything for Maryland. There were certainly good players around him during his career, but there’s little arguing that Trimble has been the straw to Maryland’s pdrink.
If he’s been good, things have gone well for Maryland.
And if he hasn’t played well, the Terps have typically struggled.
However, it seems like the time has finally come for Trimble to take his talents to the NBA. And as such, he will leave a massive void behind him in College Park. Even if you believe that Maryland’s other guards are capable of replacing Trimble’s impressive 32.1 minutes, 16.8 points, and 3.7 assists a game, it’s a huge question mark. It’s also the key reason why Maryland is second on this list and not first.
The good news is that with Jaylen Brantley, Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter, and Dion Wiley expected to return in the backcourt, there’s talent, depth, and experience to (attempt to) replace Trimble’s production. Moreover, a young and talented frontcourt group of Ivan Bender, Michal Cekovsky, and Justin Jackson should, theoretically, help ease that transition as well.
Maryland has a lot on its roster heading into last season. It is also set to add two nice prospects in its 2017 recruiting class. However, the key losses of Damonte Dodd and Melo Trimble will dominant the program’s offseason discussion. Until we know what to expect without those two and Trimble, in particular, this team has an expectations cap.
#3 - Michigan State Spartans
At this time last spring, Michigan State sat atop these same rankings. With an elite recruiting class and some key returners, the table appeared to be set for the Spartans to lead the Big Ten and pursue a second national title for head coach Tom Izzo.
However, after a 20-15 campaign that was filled more with malaise than crowning moments, Michigan State will enter this offseason with substantially less hype. Additionally, with the loss of projected First Round NBA pick Miles Bridges, questions will abound for a team that was solid, but not great last season.
The good news, though, is that Michigan State will enter next season with more than enough firepower to make up for last season. The team should return three starters and three more key replacements from last year’s unit. Plus, the addition of two top 100 prospects should only help build the team’s depth.
Of course, perhaps the most encouraging thing about next year’s team is how much youth should return. All three of those returning starters were freshmen and the three returning depth players had underclassmen eligibility as well. In other words, it’s reasonable to expect some significant improvement from that group.
Michigan State should be loaded with talent and depth heading into next season, but can Izzo turn some of that depth into a killer five-man lineup?
#4 - Northwestern Wildcats
This is the fourth team on this list that figures to return almost its entire starting lineup from last season. After earning the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament bid, Northwestern will return, looking to build on such a historic season.
That effort will start in the backcourt, where Northwestern will return seniors Scottie Lindsey and Bryant McIntosh. Additionally, freshman Isiah Brown will be back after playing well in a reserve role and the program will add Anthony Gaines to fill in for some of the minutes lost from Nathan Taphorn’s departure.
But even if the backcourt will get the attention, the wing group will also return Vic Law and the frontcourt features Dererk Pardon and Barret Benson, who will both great as underclassmen last season. Add in underclassmen Aaron Falzon and Rapolas Ivanauskas, who both missed last season with injuries, and that’s a deep and talented group to accompany what figures to be a loaded backcourt.
On paper, everything looks pretty good for Northwestern. However, there will be questions as to how much Northwestern can improve on what it did last year. In short, did the Wildcats already hit the team’s ceiling last season?
#5 - Iowa Hawkeyes
Perhaps no team in the Big Ten alternated between really good and underwhelming more than Iowa did last season. To put things into perspective, take a quick look at my abbreviated recap of Iowa’s season below:
- Started 3-5
- Lost four straight
- Won five straight
- Lost two of three
- Won two in a row
- Lost three straight
- Won three straight
- Lost three straight
- Won four straight
- Lost two of three
No matter how the schedule developed or your opinions on Iowa’s team, that’s an incredibly inconsistent performance. Perhaps the most frustrating part of that inconsistency is that Iowa ended up falling just short of an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. Even a bit more consistency would have meant Iowa would have been in the field.
But things look far more optimistic for next season. To start, the team will return four starters from last year’s team and every contributor on the roster, save one. Add in that all four of those starters were underclassmen last season and that four of the team’s top six in minutes were freshmen and things look very encouraging.
Unfortunately, that one departure will come in the form of Peter Jok, who was arguably the Big Ten’s best offensive player last season. All told, Jok averaged an impressive 19.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game. Even with so much depth and talent returning, that’s a massive loss.
The good news, obviously, is that virtually everyone else on the team returns. Plus, Iowa will be getting two four-stars in its 2017 recruiting class. Iowa is a team that will likely see some attrition this season in the transfer market, but that’s a core that can grow into something special down the line. And enough to push Iowa to six on this list.
#6 - Michigan Wolverines
For people who only started watching Michigan in February and beyond this season, this is going to be a pretty surprising ranking. But, for those who watched the Wolverines from the season’s opening tip, this should be a decent projection for a team that will have plenty of questions next season.
While Michigan’s impressive 12-3 finish to this season turned plenty of heads, with the losses of Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton, next year’s team will have some serious questions in the backcourt. The team will also be losing some major experience upfront thanks to Mark Donnal’s departure.
The good news is that with Moritz Wagner and DJ Wilson returning, Michigan figures to have the Big Ten’s best frontcourt next season. Additionally, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson are proven contributors and point guard Xavier Simpson will return after a decent freshman campaign.
Michigan also projects to be adding some major pieces next season. Not only will the Wolverines be adding two four-star prospects (of three commits) in the team’s 2017 class, but the program will also be getting Austin Davis (a three-star in last year’s class) and former Kentucky player Charles Matthews off redshirt seasons. In other words, John Beilein will have five new players to work into his rotation next season.
But still, even with the new additions, losing Irvin and Walton is massive. Specifically, because Michigan’s season turned around only after those two improved their play. As such, it’s hard to feel too confident in this group until we’ve seen how the team can perform without these two seniors, who were huge for Michigan late in the year.
#7 - Purdue Boilermakers
The reigning Big Ten champions fall to No. 7 on this list after seeing star player Caleb Swanigan declare for the NBA Draft and senior guard Spike Albrecht leave the program. However, this lofty drop probably has less to do with Purdue taking a step back and more to do with the top of the Big Ten improving considerably.
For Purdue, next season will begin and end with replacing Swanigan upfront. If the Boilermakers can find a way to minimize his departure, the team should be in decent shape. But if not, expect some substantial regression. In particular, the pressure will be on Vincent Edwards and Isaac Haas to take most of Swanigan’s minutes.
However, the good news is that both Edwards and Haas are solid replacements. Plus, Carsen Edwards will return after a great freshman year and Ryan Cline, Dakota Mathias, and PJ Thompson should also be back to take on significant roles. In short, there’s more than enough depth and experience to keep Purdue in the top portion of the Big Ten.
#8 - Wisconsin Badgers
Perhaps nothing on this list makes me more uncomfortable than putting Wisconsin at No. 8 in my current Big Ten Power Rankings. After 19 straight NCAA Tournaments, it just doesn’t feel right to project the Badgers to finish among the bottom half of the Big Ten.
But, here we go.
Wisconsin had a great 2016-’17 season, but the team will be losing four senior starters this offseason, including Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig. While star big man Ethan Happ should return, the loss of four starters is simply massive. Even for a program like Wisconsin, that’s going to be tough to overcome.
The good news is that Wisconsin will have many of its key reserve players back, including three underclassmen. That’s a good start. But considering that those reserve players had trouble when Wisconsin had to overcome injury adversity this season, those players are far from guarantees. And as such, expect Wisconsin to see some regression next season.
#9 - Illinois Fighting Illini
The Illini were one of the Big Ten’s most disappointing teams last season. Despite a roster stacked with depth, experience, and talent, Illinois limped to a 20-15 overall record and failed to make the NCAA Tournament yet again. Ultimately, the team’s underwhelming performance cost John Groce his job.
Now, new head coach Brad Underwood will inherit a new look roster, but one with serious talent. Jalen Coleman-Lands and Te’Jon Lucas should return in the backcourt, Leron Black and Aaron Jordan on the wing, and Michael Finke upfront. Plus, Illinois is expecting to add the league’s best recruiting class next fall.
My guess is that Underwood’s coaching ability and the roster’s talent will keep the program out of the Big Ten’s lowest group this season. However, the transition and youth will likely hold Illinois back from the top of the league as well.
#10 - Indiana Hoosiers
Illinois may have underwhelmed, but no Big Ten team underperformed more than Indiana did during the 2016-’17 season. Despite three probable NBA players in its lineup and plenty of talented depth, Indiana ended up playing in the NIT after a lackluster performance in Big Ten play. Tom Crean was subsequently fired.
While Archie Miller will come to Bloomington with plenty of optimism, he’s going to have a major challenge on his hands. I’m expecting two of Indiana’s best players to depart for the NBA (OG Anunoby and Thomas Bryant) and the program’s 2017 recruiting class is still up in the air.
Unless Miller can save that 2017 class, talk some guys into staying, or add some guys on the transfer market, expect a rough year in Bloomington.
#11 - Penn State Nittany Lions
According to KenPom’s experience rating, Penn State was the second youngest Big Ten team last season. Led by freshmen Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, and Mike Watkins, Penn State relied almost exclusively on underclassmen in route to its 15-18 overall record.
On paper, there’s a lot to like about Penn State. To start, the team should only get better with more experience. In particular, those three freshmen starters look primed to improve as sophomores. Plus, Shep Garner and Josh Reaves have also proven themselves as starters for the Nittany Lions.
However, I have two major concerns about Penn State. The first is about the offensive development. If Penn State is going to make a run, it needs to display a more coordinated attack on that side of the floor next year. Second, the team has already seen three key reserves players depart this offseason. Depth isn’t everything in college basketball, but it could spell trouble if Penn State gets hit with any injuries.
#12 - Ohio State Buckeyes
Thad Matta has seen more than his fair share of success in Columbus, but after missing his second straight NCAA Tournament last season, his program is now filled with questions heading into the 2017-’18 season. It seems like Ohio State has stalled and it will be Matta’s challenge to get it back in gear.
Expect Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate to lead next year’s group of Buckeyes. All should have plenty of experience. However, the season will be determined by what Matta can get out of his backcourt and his young contributors. Specifically, look to players like JaQuan Lyle and Micah Potter.
#13 - Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Despite finishing at 15-18 overall and 3-15 in Big Ten play, Rutgers could very well have been the Big Ten’s most improved team last season. The Scarlet Knights weren’t good, but the team was competitive.
Rutgers will now look to take the next step and start winning games. Unfortunately, until the Scarlet Knights add some serious talent around Corey Sanders, it’s hard to see the team doing too much damage.
#14 - Nebraska Cornhuskers
For a brief moment last January, it looked like Nebraska might be starting another surprise run to the NCAA Tournament under Tim Miles. Unfortunately, that run was a mirage, as Nebraska ended up finishing the season at just 12-19 overall.
Nebraska will have hope for next season thanks to players like Ed Morrow, Jordy Tshimanga, and Glynn Watson, but the loss of senior guard Tai Webster will weigh heavy on a Husker team that wasn’t all that good last season.
[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article projected Trevor Thompson to return to Ohio State. This has been corrected to confirm that Thompson will depart Columbus.]