Last week, the 2017-’18 college basketball season wrapped up in San Antonio with Villanova’s win over Michigan to win the national championship. And, with the conclusion of the season, 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 be plenty of other roster moves, including 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 2018 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:
- Maryland: Justin Jackson
- Michigan: Moritz Wagner
- Michigan State: Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, Nick Ward
- Ohio State: Keita Bates-Diop
- Penn State: Tony Carr
- Rutgers: Corey Sanders
- Wisconsin: Ethan Happ
With that, here is my first set of Big Ten offseason power rankings:
Big Ten Way Too Early Power Rankings
#1 - Michigan Wolverines (--)
While Michigan only ended up being the five seed in last season’s Big Ten Tournament, the team’s progression over the course of the year along with its postseason success were remarkable. The Wolverines ended up finishing with a 33-8 overall record and a top 10 performance on KenPom. Both were high marks for John Beilein since the 2012-’13 season.
The success of next year’s team will start with Charles Matthews, who improved from an offensive liability into a monster down the stretch. The 6-foot-6 wing scored double-digits in each of Michigan’s five NCAA Tournament wins and had a huge performance in the team’s win over Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament as well.
Along with Matthews, Michigan is poised to return two starters in Isaiah Livers and Zavier Simpson along with key reserves in Jordan Poole and Jon Teske. Add in Eli Brooks and the nation’s 16th ranked recruiting class and there are plenty of talented pieces for Beilein and his staff to build around for next season.
Maybe this is a lofty projection considering that Michigan will likely lose three players that saw starter minutes and its best bench option, but with Beilein’s track record of development, Michigan’s incoming recruits, and the returning pieces, this should be a potential Final Four team once again.
#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 is set to lose Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, and Nick Ward, there’s still plenty set to return. Notably, two starters in Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston and depth options in Kenny Goins, Matt McQuaid, and Xavier Tillman. Michigan State is also adding the nation’s 11th ranked recruiting class.
There’s no debating that next year’s Michigan State team will have less firepower than it did last season. However, with an upperclassmen backcourt and plenty of depth elsewhere, this team could end up winning a ton of games anyway. The big question will be how players like Tillman develop. Tom Izzo will need to see players like him take the next step.
#3 - Nebraska Cornhuskers (--)
A few months into last season, nobody would have expected that Nebraska would look like one of the best Big Ten teams heading into 2018-’19, but that’s now reality. 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 next season is that virtually every key contributor is expected to return. The Huskers will lose 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 pieces like Thomas Allen and Jordy Tshimanga 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.
#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 pieces will be Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter, who both 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 and Huerter could very well be the most talented backcourt 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 - Purdue Boilermakers (+2)
No team in the Big Ten is set to lose more this offseason than Purdue. Not only will the Boilermakers be looking to replace four starters, but two of those starters were Vincent Edwards and Isaac Haas. Both were program greats and won’t be easy to replace.
The biggest question for Purdue heading into next season will be whether Carsen Edwards decides to enter the NBA Draft early. Edwards was a fantastic player last season and has already declared without an agent. If he entered the Draft, Purdue would then be looking at replacing its entire starting lineup and all of its best players.
But, assuming Edwards does return, there is hope. He would return in the backcourt and the Boilermakers also return key reserves in Ryan Cline, Nojel Eastern, and Matt Haarms. While the last three made mixed contributions, they would likely would have started on weaker Big Ten teams. More simply put, all three were solid, they just weren’t good enough to start on a loaded Boilermaker squad.
The tricky part, of course, will be finding a way to replace so many offseason departures. Players like Vincent Edwards and Haas don’t just pop up on a yearly basis. The program also isn’t bringing in a loaded recruiting class this year, so Painter will need to find replacements from those already on his roster. Something that isn’t always easy to do.
#6 - Ohio State Buckeyes (--)
No Big Ten team was more surprising last season than Ohio State. Despite some incredibly skeptical preseason projections (including from yours truly), Ohio State found itself near the top of the Big Ten and made the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. The Buckeyes looked like a league bottom-dweller and, instead, finished 16th on KenPom.
It was a great first season with Chris Holtmann at the helm.
Unfortunately, the lone downside to last season was that much of the team’s success came as a result of players who were set to leave the program thereafter. Half of the team’s top six players in minutes were seniors and that didn’t even include Keita Bates-Diop, who recently declared for the NBA Draft after a remarkable season.
What those departures mean is that 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, Micah Potter, Kyle Young, and Andre Wesson and are adding a top 25 recruiting class that features two top 100 prospects.
Ohio State has the pieces to get the job done. The question will simply be whether the young contributors can hit the ground running.
#7 - 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, too many offseason departures coupled with a few injuries ended one of the nation’s most impressive runs.
But Wisconsin will now have an opportunity to get back on track after a down year as the team returns virtually every major contributor from last season. The Badgers were 328th nationally in experience last season and should now finally start to reap some of the rewards from so many young players seeing key minutes.
The one major question about this team will be what happens with star Ethan Happ. He declared for the NBA Draft without an agent and I have projected him going pro. If he ended up returning, it would be huge news for Badgers fans for next season.
The biggest returners (outside of Happ, potentially) will be Brad Davison and Khalil Iverson. However, it’s really important to note just how many players are set to return. Wisconsin started three underclassmen for much of last season and may have started more, should Kobe King have avoided injury early on.
All told, there’s a lot to like about next year’s Wisconsin team, especially if Happ were to return. The question will be whether Greg Gard and his staff can get players like Davison and King to take the next step.
#8 - Penn State Nittany Lions (+2)
Coming off the program’s first real postseason appearance under Pat Chambers and its first-ever top 20 finish on KenPom, many have high hopes for Penn State next season. It seemed to be a program on the rise after years filled with 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.
#9 - Indiana Hoosiers (--)
After an underwhelming initial season in Bloomington, fans are hoping that Archie Miller can get the Hoosiers on the right track this time around. Indiana showed progress late in the season, but still finished at 16-15 overall and ended the year with a loss to Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament. It was a long way from the debut that many had hoped to see.
Unfortunately, Miller will have to find a way to improve on his first season, despite facing a some pretty significant offseason departures. Indiana is losing five seniors from the roster, including two starters, and has already seen Curtis Jones transfer.
While none of these six players were particularly impressive last season, it’s never easy to replace that many players. And it’s worth mentioning that a few of those players did make some significant contributions. Robert Johnson led the team in minutes, Josh Newkirk led the team in assists, and four of the six finished in the top nine on the team in total minutes.
The good news is that Juwan Morgan is set to return after a stellar campaign, De’Ron Davis should return from injury, and Indiana has a plethora of young talent set to emerge around them. Specifically, players like Aljami Durham, Justin Smith, and Race Thompson should be able to take some of the minutes left open by the departing seniors.
Indiana’s biggest issue, however, remains the lack of top-tier options. Indiana has depth and talent, but the only player that truly stands out is Morgan. Fans will have to hope somebody else emerges next season.
#10 - Northwestern Wildcats (--)
There’s no debating that 2017-’18 was a disappointing season for Northwestern. After finally making the NCAA Tournament the year prior, Northwestern limped its way to a 15-17 overall record and an immediate exit to the Big Ten Tournament. This was a team that was ranked in the preseason to 25 and it didn’t even end up coming close to making the NIT.
And perhaps the most disappointing part of last season was the fact that it was the final year for a great senior class. Players like Scottie Lindsey and Bryant McIntosh deserved a swan song, but they got a dud. 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 still have 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.
#11 - 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 from the preceding year and had a plethora of young players who looked like they could take the next step. It’s one of the major reasons why I was so high on Iowa early on during last offseason, before dropping them later on.
Unfortunately, that optimism was ill-founded. Iowa was horrible out of the gate and was never in serious NCAA Tournament or NIT consideration. The Hawkeyes were 9-9 through the first week of January and ended up finishing at just 14-19 overall.
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.
The tricky part for Iowa, like many other teams on this list, is the double-edged sword of returning nearly everyone. While Tyler Cook and Isaiah Moss have declared without agents, both are expected to return at this point. As such, Iowa is set to return basically everybody from last season. While that’s generally good news, getting the same players to commit to playing defense won’t be an easy task. And it will likely determine Iowa’s upcoming year.
#12 - Illinois Fighting Illini (--)
No Big Ten team has been as frustrating as Illinois over the last year. After bringing in Brad Underwood last offseason, Illinois has gotten killed by tough losses and roster attrition. Even though it seems like Underwood has done good work, it hasn’t shown up on the court.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like things will change next season, either.
The biggest issue will, once again, be roster issues. Star forward 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.
Thanks to those departures, Illinois quickly went from a team returning a great deal to one desperately looking to fill roster spots. All told, Illinois lost three starters from a team that went 14-18 and a promising depth piece.
Underwood will still have Trent Frazier and a loaded 2018 recruiting class, but it’s hard to see Illinois doing too much damage without someone surprising rising up. The good news is that Underwood has a great track record of player development.
#13 - Minnesota Golden Gophers (--)
Nobody had a bigger collapse in the Big Ten than Minnesota 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 also lost 14 of the team’s final 16 games, including a brutal loss to Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament.
Minnesota will now hope to move forward with 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.
Unfortunately, with Nate Mason departing and the poor play through the last two months of the season, it’s hard to feel optimistic about Minnesota’s chances. A lot will depend on how depth players like Michael Hurt progress this offseason.
#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.