Soon after the conclusion of the 2016-’17 college basketball season, I posted my initial set of way too early rankings for next season. I tried to make my predictions based upon which players I expected to enter the 2017 NBA Draft.
However, after roughly two months of NBA Draft decisions and transfer announcements, we now have a much better idea as to how next season will look for the Big Ten and beyond. There will be ample more changes between now and November, but it’s time to update my initial predictions.
So, with that, here is my second set of Big Ten offseason power rankings:
Big Ten Way Too Early Power Rankings
#1 - Michigan State Spartans (+2)
Regardless of how you evaluated the Big Ten prior to this year’s NBA Draft deadline, the instant that Miles Bridges opted to return to school, Michigan State became next year’s Big Ten favorite. It was a monumental decision that turned the Spartans into a Final Four contender next season.
Last season’s 20-15 campaign was filled with more malaise than crowning moments, but this year’s roster will be loaded with depth and talent. Not only is Michigan State returning four starters and most of its bench contributors from last season, but it is also getting Gavin Schilling back from injury, adding a sixth-year player in Ben Carter, and adding two top 100 prospects.
For perspective, just consider that Carter, Schilling, and the two new recruits could probably make up a pretty decent Big Ten lineup (assuming you add one more body) themselves and the four are joining a roster that already made the Round of 32 last March. That’s an incredible amount of depth and talent for any Big Ten team.
But perhaps the most encouraging thing about next year’s team is how much youth returns. Michigan State earned a Round of 32 appearance in 2017, despite finishing No. 323 nationally in KenPom’s experience rating, giving four freshmen (all returning) starter minutes, and two other underclassmen (both returning) major minutes as well. Simply put, it would be pretty shocking if those six players didn’t take significant steps forward and that doesn’t even account for any of the new roster additions.
Given Michigan State’s youth and roster additions, most would have expected the Spartans to be a good team next season, even if Bridges had left for the NBA. But with Bridges back in the fold, this looks like a roster more than capable of walking through the majority of the regular season and making the Final Four.
#2 - Minnesota Golden Gophers (-1)
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 joining the roster, Minnesota figures to be in good position to build on last season.
#3 - Maryland Terrapins (-1)
Following close behind Minnesota, Maryland will also enter next season with a good bit of hype. The team should return three starters and four 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 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 drink.
If he’s been good, things have gone well for Maryland.
And if he hasn’t played well, the Terps have typically struggled.
However, 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. That loss could also be exacerbated by the transfer of Jaylen Brantley, who averaged 16.8 minutes a game.
The good news is that with 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.
#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 returns seniors Scottie Lindsey and Bryant McIntosh. Additionally, freshman Isiah Brown will be back after playing well in a reserve role last season and the program will add Anthony Gaines to fill in for some of the minutes lost from Nathan Taphorn’s departure.
But on top of what the backcourt has to offer, the wing group also returns Vic Law and the frontcourt features Dererk Pardon and Barret Benson, who were both great as underclassmen last season. Add in underclassmen Aaron Falzon and Rapolas Ivanauskas (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. After all, transitioning from a young upstart into a top-tier contender is a major challenge. Fans will have to wait and see whether the Wildcats hit the team’s ceiling last season.
#5 - Purdue Boilermakers (+2)
Arguably no Big Ten team had more riding on this year’s NBA Draft deadline than the Boilermakers. With three key players (Vincent Edwards, Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan) declaring for the NBA, Purdue projected somewhere between an NCAA Tournament bubble team and a Final Four contender, depending on who returned.
Ultimately, Purdue learned that Edwards and Haas would be returning to campus for their senior seasons and Swanigan would be heading to the NBA. That’s about the best fans could have reasonably hoped to see, but the loss of Swanigan along with senior guard Spike Albrecht will leave some major minutes to be filled.
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 Edwards and Haas to take most of Swanigan’s minutes. Simply put, these two need to take steps forward next season if Purdue is going to remain a top contender.
Perhaps the biggest question between those two will be what Haas looks like next season. His efficiency numbers (106.5 offensive rating, 58.7 percent from two-point range) were solid during last season, but Haas has never played the minutes he will be expected to next season. In fact, Haas saw the most playing time of his Purdue career last season and he still only accounted for 48.2 percent of the team’s minutes. Whether Haas can replicate his limited production with more minutes could very well define Purdue’s upcoming season.
The good news, of course, is that Purdue returns four starters from a team that went 27-8 last season. The Boilermakers also have a nice returning bench option in Carsen Edwards and are adding a top 100 prospect in Nojel Eastern. That’s six capable options without even taking into account players like Eden Ewing and Jacquil Taylor.
Purdue has the depth and experience to compete at the top of next year’s Big Ten. However, Swanigan’s absence is a big one and one that will likely lead to trickle down effects across the roster. Until we see how those things unfold, I am putting Purdue at No. 5 in my power rankings.
#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, Derrick Walton, and DJ Wilson, next year’s team will have some serious question marks. The team will also be losing some major experience upfront thanks to Mark Donnal’s departure.
The good news is that Moritz Wagner is returning and figures to be one of the league’s best frontcourt players. Additionally, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson are proven contributors and point guard Xavier Simpson will return after a decent freshman campaign.
Michigan will also be adding some major pieces to its roster 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 transfer Charles Matthews off redshirt seasons and Ohio transfer guard Jaaron Simmons. In other words, John Beilein will have six new players to work into his rotation next season.
But still, even with the new additions, losing Irvin, Walton, and Wilson is massive. Michigan has some really nice replacements available, but all of them have questions. As such, it’s hard to feel too confident in this group until we’ve seen how the team can perform without these three, who were huge for Michigan late in the year.
#7 - Iowa Hawkeyes (-2)
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 made 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 may still face 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 put Iowa seventh on this list.
#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 - Penn State Nittany Lions (+2)
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 respectable starters for the Nittany Lions.
However, I still have some major concerns about Penn State heading into next season. To start, how much better can the offense get? The Nittany Lions ranked No. 168 nationally in offensive efficiency last season and most of the pieces will be the same. Some improvement seems reasonable, but how far can the team progress?
Additionally, the team’s depth could be a significant problem. Payton Banks and Terrence Samuel transferred after playing major minutes last season along with fellow reserve Isaiah Washington. And this was off a roster that finished No. 217 nationally in bench minutes. Penn State’s 2017 class doesn’t appear to have any immediate solutions either.
Given Penn State’s youth, this is a team that could take some substantial steps forward next season. But until Pat Chambers can improve the offense and sure up the team’s depth, it’s hard to see the Nittany Lions finishing too highly in the Big Ten.
#10 - Indiana Hoosiers (--)
No Big Ten team suffered more at the NBA Draft deadline than the Hoosiers. The team lost three probable starters in OG Anunoby, James Blackmon, and Thomas Bryant and will now have to move forward with an incredibly inexperienced roster next season.
The good news is that the always reliable Robert Johnson will return in the backcourt and De’Ron Davis and Juwan Morgan return upfront after making progress last season. The program is also adding two four-star prospects in its 2017 recruiting class.
Unfortunately, unless Indiana sees some major progress from at least two or three returners and lands a freshman that can contribute early, next year looks like it could be a rough one in Bloomington. New head coach Archie Miller will have his hands full.
#11 - Illinois Fighting Illini (-2)
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. Underwood is a quality coach and recruiter that should build Illinois into a consistent winner. He also runs an offensive-based system that should be thrilling for fans to follow.
Unfortunately, that point is sometime in the future. Illinois is losing three starters and its top bench option this offseason and saw its once heralded 2017 recruiting class fall apart over the last two months. The program also still has an incredible four (!!!) open scholarships heading into next season without many quality options available.
Next season isn’t hopeless for Illinois, but barring something unusual, the team is simply going to be too thin and inexperienced to compete with the top of the Big Ten.
#12 - Rutgers Scarlet Knights (+1)
Despite a 15-18 overall record and 3-15 performance in Big Ten play, Rutgers was arguably the most improved team in the Big Ten last season. Now, with Corey Sanders back in the fold, Rutgers will look to put together its first winning record since the 2005-’06 season.
#13 - Ohio State Buckeyes (-1)
This offseason has been nothing short of disastrous for Ohio State. The Buckeyes are not only losing two starters (Marc Loving and Trevor Thompson) from a 17-15 squad that failed to make the NIT, but the team also saw a key bench player (JaQuan Lyle) quit the team, another transfer, and has struggled to fill its (now) two open scholarships. Ohio State has Keita Bates-Diop, Jae-Sean Tate, and Kam Williams to build around, but things aren’t looking encouraging in Columbus right now.
#14 - Nebraska Cornhuskers (--)
At one point last season, Nebraska was 9-6 overall, 3-0 in Big Ten play, and had wins over Dayton, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana Tech, Maryland, and South Dakota. That’s three wins against top 50 KenPom teams (including two on the road), five against top 100 opponents, and six against top 150 opponents.
Oh, and those six losses? Five came against top 50 teams and four came away from home. That might not have been a top five resume, but it was certainly on pace to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
However, Nebraska has been in meltdown mode since that point last season. The team finished 3-13 down the stretch and has suffered massive roster attrition since then. The team lost its best player in Tai Webster to graduation and four (!!!) players to transfer, including probable star forward Ed Morrow.
Thanks to newly available players like 2017 prospect Thomas Allen and transfers Isaac Copeland* and James Palmer, there’s hope for Nebraska next season. But substantial improvement will be necessary for the Huskers to finish above the bottom-tier in next year’s Big Ten.
* - Copeland is appealing for eligibility for the first semester next season.