On Tuesday, the 2018-’19 college basketball season tips off with a plethora of great games. It’s been months since Michigan fell short against Villanova in the national championship game and fans are certainly excited to get things rolling again.
This year marks an intriguing one for the league. The Big Ten is bumping up to a 20-game conference slate for the first time in history and, as such, fans should get to see even more marquee matchups between the league’s best teams.
Additionally, this marks the first year in some time that things appear to be wide open. There is no clear Big Ten favorite this year and that should make things even more interesting for fans. Plenty of teams could find themselves hoisting the regular season crown at season’s end. Undoubtedly, that should be fun for fans to follow.
So, let’s get things started with a look at the final set of Big Ten preseason power rankings.
Big Ten Preseason Power Rankings
#1 - Michigan Wolverines (--)
No Big Ten team had a better 2018-’19 season than the Wolverines. After a 7-3 start, Michigan ripped off seven straight wins and began its drive to a Big Ten Tournament title and its second trip to the Final Four in the last six years. Michigan finished with a 33-8 overall record and won 14 straight before falling to Villanova in the title game.
But last season is now over for the Wolverines.
And with the conclusion of last year comes the loss of some program greats.
Not only will Michigan be losing mainstays in Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson, but Moritz Wagner also declared for the NBA Draft. Add in the loss of Jaaron Simmons and a transfer from Ibi Watson and this team is going to look much differently than it did for all of those marquee wins.
The good news is that Michigan returns Charles Matthews, Zavier Simpson, and Isaiah Livers and some key bench players like Jordan Poole and Jon Teske. Michigan also adds a really nice 2018 recruiting class that includes two top 100 prospects. The biggest addition will be Ignas Brazeikis, who started the team’s exhibition game on Friday night.
Michigan will some growing pains ahead, but this has a look of a team that could do some major things down the line. The biggest question will be how the newcomers develop. However, with a proven head coach and some key players returning, Michigan should be considered the favorite coming into this season.
#2 - Michigan State Spartans (--)
Last season was a disappointing one in East Lansing. That might be an odd thing to say about a team that won 30 games and finished sixth on KenPom, but it’s the truth. With the talent and experience on the roster, Michigan State should have been competing for a national title. Instead, it was knocked out on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
And while Michigan State lost Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, and a few other contributors, there’s still plenty returning. Notably, three starters in Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston, and Nick Ward and depth options in Kenny Goins, Matt McQuaid, and Xavier Tillman. Michigan State is also adding a very talented recruiting class.
There’s no debating that this year’s Michigan State team will have less firepower than it had a year ago. However, this is still an experienced team that should win plenty of games. If a few of last year’s bench options can turn into quality starters, Michigan State could win the Big Ten and plenty more.
#3 - Indiana Hoosiers (--)
For the better part of a decade, Indiana has struggled to compete in the Big Ten and on the national level. The Hoosiers haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2016 and have missed the Big Dance in three of the last five years. Not exactly a great run for a program that describes itself as one of the Big Ten’s elite.
But optimism is back in Bloomington. While Archie Miller had a rough first year, the program looks poised to take major steps forward in year two. The team returns some major contributors in De’Ron Davis and Juwan Morgan and adds major recruits in Romeo Langford and Jerome Hunter. By any measure, this could be the most talented Indiana team since the 2012-’13 squad that won 29 games and won a conference title in a loaded Big Ten.
And this is the ambivalence that has gripped fans for this offseason. This is a team that should accomplish some major things this season. It has experience. It has talent. And most of all, it has star power. There are some questions here and there, but nothing that would prevent this team from winning at a high level.
However, we’ve seen this story before. This isn’t the first season where Indiana has had talent in the last few years. And many of those seasons have ended poorly. It’s unfair to hold this team accountable for previous year’s blunders, but it’s hard to overlook what has become a losing culture within Indiana’s program. It’s not easy to try and flip the switch and starting winning at a high level.
Nonetheless, Indiana has more than enough pieces heading into this season. The Hoosiers should be a factor in the Big Ten race. And if Archie Miller finds a few surprise contributors, Indiana could end up with a high seed in March and some hardware.
#4 - Maryland Terrapins (--)
If Justin Jackson had returned for another season, Maryland very well could have been at the top of this list. However, with Jackson’s entrance into the NBA Draft, Maryland find itself once again looking for solutions on the wing. Injuries and the bench derailed what initially appeared like a promising 2017-’18 season and avoiding that needs to be the team’s top priority.
The key piece will be Anthony Cowan, who had really nice sophomore seasons. Both Bruno Fernando and Darryl Morsell are also set to come back after playing complimentary roles. The Terps also add an immensely talented 2018 recruiting class, including two top 50 prospects in Jalen Smith and Aaron Wiggins.
Generally speaking, all the pieces are here to do some major damage. Cowan could very well lead one of the more talented backcourts in the Big Ten, Fernando could be a dominating force upfront, and the team is adding some major talent on the wing. There’s an immense amount of talent and enough experience to make it work.
The question will be how much players like Fernando can improve and what the freshmen can do in year one. If things go right, Maryland’s ceiling is immensely high.
#5 - Nebraska Cornhuskers (--)
A few months into last season, nobody would have expected that Nebraska would look like one of the best teams in the Big Ten heading into 2018-’19, but here we are. It’s all thanks to the team’s remarkable improvement down the stretch and 8-1 finish to the regular season.
The most encouraging development for Nebraska heading into this season is that virtually every key contributor is expected to return. The Huskers lost three seniors in Anton Gill, Duby Okeke, and Evan Taylor, but all three are replaceable. None saw massive usage on the offensive side of the floor and Okeke averaged 7.0 minutes per game.
James Palmer and Glynn Watson will be the key pieces on offense and Isaac Copeland and Isaiah Roby will hold things down upfront. Add in ascending playerss like Thomas Allen and it’s easy to see how the Huskers could find success.
The one concern for Nebraska will be whether the Huskers fall into the trap of many of the other teams that have “returned everybody” coming into a new year. Tim Miles and his staff will need to find a way to improve with many of the same pieces. That’s not necessarily an easy thing to do and it will be the primary challenge for Nebraska.
#6 - Wisconsin Badgers (--)
Although the Badgers put up a fight down the stretch, last season marked the end of Wisconsin’s impressive 19-year NCAA Tournament streak. Unfortunately, massive offseason departures and injuries were too much for Greg Gard and his team to overcome. It was the end of an era in Madison and will signal the true start of Gard’s tenure for the Badgers.
But with the start of a new season also comes the chance to put those struggles in the rear-view mirror. The team returns virtually every major contributor from last season and many will be far more prepared for action. The Badgers were 328th nationally in experience last season and should finally start to reap some of the rewards of having to play so many young players during last season.
The biggest question for Wisconsin will be what the team does around star Ethan Happ down low. He should be a force once again, but he often struggled with double teams last season and the Badgers didn’t have enough around him to punish opponents for teaming up on the big man. All eyes will be on Brad Davison and Khalil Iverson to see whether they can do just that this season.
#7 - Minnesota Golden Gophers (--)
Perhaps no team fell off harder than the Gophers did last season. Despite starting the season at 13-3 overall and 2-1 in Big Ten play, Minnesota finished at 15-17 overall and well outside of NIT contention. The Gophers lost 14 of the team’s final 16 games, including a brutal loss to Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament.
The season was a major setback for head coach Richard Pitino, who looked like he might be starting to figure things out in Minneapolis. He will now enter the 2018-’19 season with some major pressure after missing the NCAA Tournament in four of his five seasons at the helm. Minnesota has been patient with him so far, but this could be the end of the road.
Fortunately, Minnesota has the pieces to get back to the Big Dance this year. Minnesota returns Isaiah Washington in the backcourt, Amir Coffey on the wing, and Jordan Murphy upfront. The Gophers are also set to add a talented recruiting class, including top 50 prospect Daniel Oturu. There’s more than enough talent to win at a high level.
The only question will be how these pieces fit together. Coffey was limited last year, but these guys were on the team that went 15-17 last year. And that team had Nate Mason as well, who departed this offseason. As such, it’s hard to feel too confident in Minnesota. Nonetheless, the team slides in at seventh in these rankings heading into this season.
#8 - Purdue Boilermakers (--)
Over the last few years, Purdue has arguably been the best and most consistent program in the Big Ten. The team has won 20 games in each of the last four seasons and at least 25 in the last three, which included two trips to the Sweet 16 and a Big Ten title. It’s been one of the better runs in program history.
However, Purdue heads into this season with a plethora of questions about its team. While Carsen Edwards returns, Purdue losing four starters in the offseason, including program mainstays in Vincent Edwards and Isaac Haas. The team does return key players in Ryan Cline, Nojel Eastern, and Matt Haarms, but the Boilermakers are losing a lot.
While I admit that it’s a dangerous endeavor to compare teams and do so across seasons. One team shouldn’t be held accountable for what another did or didn’t do. After all, Edwards and company had nothing to do with whether Iowa or Michigan did something a few years back, or with former Purdue teams before they arrived on campus.
But even with that issue in mind, it’s hard not to compare this Purdue roster with recent Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin teams that got gutted by offseason departures. All three recently had years where they were coming off great seasons and returned one star, but lost everybody else. And all three teams ended up missing the NCAA Tournament.
Purdue probably has more returning pieces than the three team listed above, but the elephant in the room is still here. The Boilermakers are going to need more than Edwards to make the NCAAs and compete for a Big Ten title. Matt Painter has a proven track record and this will be one of his bigger challenges to date.
#9 - Illinois Fighting Illini (--)
No Big Ten team had a more frustrating 2017-’18 than Illinois. The Illini weren’t the worst team in the league, but the team consistently got killed by close losses. While Illinois was never making the Tournament last season, it didn’t have to be quite so painful.
And to lessen the pain, Illinois got nailed by offseason departures after going through a frustrating 2017-’18 season. Leron Black announced that he would be entering the NBA soon after the season ended, Michael Finke, Te’Jon Lucas, and Mark Smith transferred from the program, and Mark Alstork graduated. It wasn’t a fun time.
Illinois now looks like a young roster with some major holes. There is some talent in the backcourt with Trent Frazier and Ayo Dosunmu. However, the frontcourt is going to be a major obstacle this season. Illinois also needs inconsistent players like Aaron Jordan and Kipper Nichols to take steps forward this season.
All told, Illinois should be in contention for an NIT bid at season’s end. It would take quite a coaching job by Brad Underwood to push this team into the NCAAs. But there is enough talent for the Illini to make some noise.
#10 - Ohio State Buckeyes (--)
No Big Ten team was more surprising last season than Ohio State. Despite some incredibly skeptical preseason projections (including predictions from yours truly), Ohio State found itself near the top of the Big Ten and made the Round of 32 at season’s end. The Buckeyes looked like a league bottom-dweller and, instead, finished 16th on KenPom.
It was a great first season for Chris Holtmann.
Unfortunately, the downside to last season was that much of the team’s success came as a result of players who were playing their final year in a Buckeye uniform. Half of the team’s top six players in minutes were seniors and that didn’t even include Keita Bates-Diop, who declared for the NBA Draft after a remarkable season.
With those departures, Holtmann and his staff will once again have to piece together a roster that may not be entirely ready to compete at the top of the Big Ten. It worked last season, but there’s no telling on whether it will work again this time around.
Things will start with Kaleb Wesson upfront and CJ Jackson at the point. Both players were solid as starters last season and will hope to improve this season. The Buckeyes also return depth options in Musa Jallow, MiKyle Young, and Andre Wesson and are adding a top 25 recruiting class that features two top 100 prospects.
Simply put, this roster doesn’t look particularly great on paper. There are a lot of solid options, but no proven star power and a lot of question marks. This will be a huge task for Holtmann this season.
#11 - Penn State Nittany Lions (--)
Coming off the program’s first real postseason appearance under Pat Chambers and its first-ever top 20 finish on KenPom, many initially had high hopes for Penn State this season. It seemed to be a program on the rise after years of underwhelming finishes.
However, with the departure of Tony Carr, things no longer look as optimistic. Not only is Penn State losing its best player by some margin in Carr, but it’s also losing a senior starter Shep Garner, who pushed the team to much of its late season success. As such, Penn State now has to replace its starting backcourt and improve on last season.
The good news is that some key pieces do still return. Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins should lock down things upfront and players like Josh Reaves and Jamari Wheeler should help fill out the lineup. There’s no debating that Penn State will have a great deal of talent still on the roster heading into next fall.
But the loss of Carr and Garner can’t be understated. The two were a huge part of the team’s offense and there’s no way Penn State would have been in Tournament contention without them. And with an underwhelming recruiting class coming in to replace those departures, it’s hard to see Penn State even matching what it did last season.
#12 - Iowa Hawkeyes (--)
The Hawkeyes were another team that appeared to be trending up heading into last season. Iowa returned the vast majority of its roster and had a plethora of young players who looked like they could take the next step.
Unfortunately, that optimism was ill-founded. Iowa was horrible out of the gate and was never in serious NCAA or NIT consideration. The Hawkeyes were 9-9 through the first week of January and ended up finishing at just 14-19 overall. The top also finished outside the top 80 on KenPom for the first time since the 2011-’12 season, which was Fran McCaffery’s second year with the program.
And while Iowa’s offense finished at 19th nationally on KenPom, its defense killed the team’s chances. All told, Iowa’s defense ranked a putrid 242th nationally, well below any similar unit in the Big Ten. In fact, the second-worst Big Ten defense last season belonged to Minnesota and the Gophers were nearly a 100 spots higher at 152nd nationally.
Iowa now enters this season with virtually everyone back from last season. But like some other teams on this list, it’s a double-edged sword. The roster now has plenty of depth and experience, but can McCaffery make a better dish with the same ingredients? Can he get the same group of players to play functional defense? These are the major questions and why Iowa is 12th on this list heading into this season.
#13 - Northwestern Wildcats (--)
In hindsight, fans probably should have expected the Wildcats to regress during 2017-’18 season. Northwestern was coming off its best season in program history and it was only natural for the team and its players to lose a little bit of their intensity. The team was probably never living up to its lofty preseason rankings.
However, few would have anticipated a 15-17 overall finish and seven straight losses to finish the season, including a loss to Rutgers in mid-February. And the program got nailed in the offseason as well, losing Scottie Lindsey, Bryant McIntosh, and Gavin Skelly to graduation. Chris Collins and his staff will now have to find a way to move on from that disappointment and do it without those players.
The good news is that Northwestern does enter this season with some depth and experience. Barret Benson and Dererk Pardon return upfront and Anthony Gaines and Vic Law return as well. The Wildcats also have an intriguing 2018 recruiting class that could make an early impact, highlighted by three prospects ranked in the top 110 nationally. Northwestern will also be adding Boston College transfer AJ Turner, who sat out last season per NCAA rules.
Northwestern’s challenge, however, will be replacing that stellar senior class. And there really isn’t any predicting how Collins and his staff will do that. Players like McIntosh don’t come around often and the Wildcats have to replace him and several others. As such, the team enters the season with relatively low expectations.
#14 - Rutgers Scarlet Knights (--)
After two straight 15-win seasons, fans are hoping that Steve Pikiell can find a way to elevate Rutgers to the next level in his third season. Unfortunately, with Corey Sanders departing and a relatively underwhelming roster elsewhere, it won’t be easy.
The key for Rutgers next season will be how its young backcourt develops. Geo Baker showed some positive signs and the program is adding four-star Montez Mathis as well. The Scarlet Knights desperately need those two to become productive Big Ten guards.
Expect Rutgers to have more offensive firepower than last year, but it’s going to take some surprises for this team to compete in the Big Ten.