Well, many were skeptical, but we’ve finally made it. After a plethora of cancellations in March, a national shutdown, and months of speculation, it’s finally happening. Big Ten basketball is officially back as of Wednesday and let’s hope it’s here to stay.
And while things won’t be typical, this remains a highly anticipated season. Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin enter the season with Final Four aspirations and at least seven more teams have serious NCAA Tournament hopes. Fans are going to be treated to a litany of high profile games and matchups with plenty of NBA talent. It’s going to be a fun year.
So, without further adieu, here are my preseason Big Ten power rankings:
Big Ten Preseason Power Rankings
#1 - Illinois Fighting Illini (--)
After years of frustration and underwhelming results, Illinois finally put together a successful campaign last season. The Illini finished 21-10 overall, 30th on KenPom, and were clearly going to make the NCAA Tournament before the season was cancelled.
But while many thought last year might be the height of Illinois for the foreseeable future, that all changed when Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn surprisingly announced their returns to campus. The announcements instantly catapaulted the program’s roster and expectations. Illini fans went from imagining an NCAA bid to hoping for a Final Four. It’s quite a transition for just a few days.
And the hype is justified. Dosunmu and Cockburn will lead things, but there’s plenty more around them as well. Trent Frazier returns in the backcourt, Da’Monte Williams is back on the wing, and Giorgi Bezhanishvili remains in the frontcourt. Illinois is also adding a top 15 recruiting class, including two top 60 prospects in the backcourt.
There really isn’t an obvious hole in this Illinois lineup. The team will need to improve its perimeter shooting from last season, but this looks like a special group. If Brad Underwood and staff can get something out of the freshmen, watch out. Illinois is going to win a lot of games this year. The only question is how many.
#2 - Wisconsin Badgers (--)
Many thought last season would be a step back for the Badgers after losing Ethan Happ to graduation. Instead, Wisconsin ended up posting a 21-10 overall record and winning a share of the Big Ten regular season title. The Badgers were also set to enter the Big Ten Tournament as the league’s highest seeded team before the season was cancelled.
And while Wisconsin will have to replace Brevin Pritzl in the backcourt, there are a lot of reasons to like this Badger squad. Brad Davison and D’Mitrik Trice return in the backcourt, Aleem Ford returns on the wing, and Micah Potter and Nate Reuvers are both back in the frontcourt. It’s a really deep and experienced group. Plus, Wisconsin will be adding five new commitments in its 2020 recruiting class, including four-star Ben Carlson.
Perhaps the lone question about Wisconsin this season will be how much the team can improve on last season’s performance. With the same supporting cast, Greg Gard will be trying to improve a dish with essentially the same ingredients. It’s one thing to expect improvement from a freshman, but much different for upperclassmen. That will be Wisconsin’s major challenge this offseason.
But even if Wisconsin doesn’t improve substantially on its performance last year, this projects to be a great team that will find success in the heart of Big Ten play thanks to its depth and experience. And having Potter for a full season will help as well.
#3 - Iowa Hawkeyes (--)
Perhaps no team made out better at the NBA Draft deadline than Iowa. Despite winning Big Ten Player of the Year honors, KenPom’s national player of the year honors, and getting serious NBA attention, star forward Luka Garza decided to return to Iowa City for another year. With Garza in the fold, Iowa now sets up as a serious national title contender.
For Iowa, everything will start with Garza. He was arguably the best player in the nation last season and an absolute monster down low. Garza averaged an incredible 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, leading Iowa to a 20-11 overall record. By any reasonable evaluation, he projects to be the best player in the Big Ten this season. And if you have the best player in the conference, that’s a pretty good place to start.
Along with Garza, Iowa is also set to return CJ Fredrick and Connor McCaffery in the backcourt and Joe Wieskamp on the wing. Add in Jordan Bohannon returning from injury and you have a killer lineup. We’re talking about a National Player of the Year candidate and at least two or three more All-Big Ten contenders. That sounds like the core of a team destined for big things in March.
The lone question for the Hawkeyes will be whether the team can correct some of its serious defensive deficiencies from last season. Despite ranking fifth nationally in offensive efficiency last year, Iowa finished 97th nationally on the other side of the floor. Obviously, that’s not going to be good enough to cut it if the team hopes to win some hardware at season’s end. A lot will be on Garza on the other members of the frontcourt to improve there. If so, this could be a special season in Iowa City.
#4 - Michigan State Spartans (--)
Whether Spartan fans like it or not, this year’s Michigan State squad is going to look much different than last year’s group. And while the team isn’t losing a plethora of contributors, there’s no denying the loss of Cassius Winston is a monumental one. He was a leader on and off the court for the Spartans and the team’s entire offensive style and outlook will be changing significantly with his graduation.
The loss of Xavier Tillman also looms large. The big man didn’t post huge raw numbers, but was a key force for the Spartans down low. He was an outstanding defender, knew how to play with Winston in ball screens, and set fantastic screens for teammates. His loss is going to leave a mark.
The good news is that Michigan State has plenty of other players waiting in the wing to keep the Spartans competitive. Even though Winston and Tillman will be gone, Marcus Bingham is back upfront, Gabe Brown and Aaron Henry return on the wing, and Rocket Watts figures to lead things in the backcourt. Those are four players with experience and at least a few with serious All-Big Ten potential if they hit the ground running.
The Spartans are also adding some major pieces this offseason. Joey Hauser will be eligible after transferring from Marquette and the program adds two four-star prospects in AJ Hoggard and Mady Sissoko. It’s also worth reminding fans that Malik Hall and Watts were both freshmen last year and figure to take sizable steps forward this season.
Navigating things without Winston and Tillman won’t be easy, but once Michigan State finds its feet this season, it’s more than capable of accomplishing some remarkable things.
#5 - Rutgers Scarlet Knights (--)
The cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament was disappointing for every college basketball fan. March Madness is a staple in this country and going a year without it surely left many feeling out of sorts.
But for certain teams, it was even worse, and Rutgers is certainly among them. After decades of underwhelming results, Rutgers finally put together the year fans had been waiting for. The Scarlet Knights were in the NCAA field when the pandemic hit and fans never got to celebrate it. Fans will now have to wait at least one more year to enjoy that elusive trip to the postseason.
Luckily for fans, they might not have to wait very long. Rutgers will enter this season with high expectations in large part because of the team’s returning pieces. Geo Baker and Jacob Young return in the backcourt, Ron Harper on the wing, and Myles Johnson upfront. All four have a substantial amount of experience and should be productive players for the Scarlet Knights this year. It’s one of the best returning cores in the league.
And perhaps even more importantly, the team will also be getting some impressive reinforcements as well. Shaq Carter and Akwasi Yeboah might be leaving, but Rutgers is adding one of its best recruiting classes in recent years, highlighted by top 50 prospect Cliff Omoruyi. Without exaggerating, Rutgers may be deeper and more talented than last year, despite winning 20 games and having one of the better seasons in program history.
We’ll have to see how the pieces fit together and who Steve Pikiell puts in the lineup to replace Yeboah, but there’s a lot to like here. And if Omoruyi is ready to go as a freshman, this team could be a dark horse to finish near the top of the standings.
#6 - Michigan Wolverines (--)
All things considered, Juwan Howard had a pretty good run in his first season as head coach of the Wolverines. The team finished with a 19-12 overall record, 19th overall on KenPom, and was almost assuredly going to make the NCAA Tournament before it was cancelled. Michigan faded a bit toward the end of the season, but the team did record some notable wins during the season, beating Gonzaga in November, Iowa in December, and Michigan State in February. Not bad for a first-time head coach.
Heading into year two, there’s a lot of uncertainty for Howard and the program. Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske are graduating, key reserves Colin Castleton and David DeJulius are transferring, and the team is also losing a young prospect in Cole Bajema. That group includes the team’s leader, two of its top three, and three of its top six in total minutes. That’s not unprecedented, but it’s going to leave Michigan looking much differently this season. It will be Howard’s first real chance to put his stamp on things.
The good news is Howard will have some pieces to work with. Eli Brooks returns in the backcourt, Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner return on the wing, and Michigan will also have an experienced big man in Austin Davis. Players like Brandon Johns and Adrien Nunez could also be in line for big improvements heading into this year.
But more importantly, Michigan added an onslaught of talent during the offseason. Michigan’s 2020 recruiting class is ranked 15th nationally by 247Sports and features four commitments, including four-star prospect Hunter Dickinson. The Wolverines will also be adding transfers in Chaundee Brown from Wake Forest, Michael Smith from Columbia, and Brandon Wade from Duquesne and Michael Smith from Columbia. No Big Ten team currently projects to be adding more talent than Michigan this offseason.
If Howard can get mold all these new pieces together and hit on at least one of his new additions, Michigan should be more than capable of finishing near the top of the Big Ten this year.
#7 - Purdue Boilermakers (--)
Despite what some believe, thee Boilermakers weren’t a bad team last year. The team’s overall record wasn’t great, but Purdue still managed to finish with winning record against a brutal slate, finished 26th nationally on KenPom, and beat a number of quality opponents, including a huge victory over Michigan State in early January. By any reasonable evaluation, Purdue was better than its record.
But even if Purdue wasn’t as “bad” as some think, it also wasn’t great either. The Boilermakers were 16-15 overall and had a losing record in conference play. Those aren’t marks of an elite squad. Purdue also blew a number of key opportunities down the stretch, including three of the team’s last four games at home. It was a middling season after four years of elite play and fans will be anxious to see the team get back on track this season.
The good news is Matt Painter should have the pieces for Purdue to take some major steps forward this year. Four of the team’s starters return, including Eric Hunter, Sasha Stefanovic, and Trevion Williams. Hunter led the team in minutes, Williams led the team in scoring, and Stefanovic was one of the team’s most productive players down the stretch. Purdue will also be adding a talented 2020 recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects. The losses are also manageable as the team is losing just one starter and two other depth pieces. An offseason injury for Hunter could make things more challenging, but the core is there.
Purdue probably doesn’t have enough high-end talent to compete for a Big Ten title this year, but it certainly has enough to get into the top 25 picture.
#8 - Ohio State Buckeyes (--)
If you took five people and had each of them watch a different Ohio State game from last season, they’d probably come away with starkly different opinions about the Buckeyes. During the season, Ohio State saw more highs and lows than anybody in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes roared out of the gate, backslid in December and January, and regrouped for a nice finish in March. It was a pretty bizarre way to get to 21-10 overall and 8th nationally on KenPom. Rarely do you see a team with those measurements put together 11-1 and 3-7 stretches during the same season.
But for better or worse, Chris Holtmann and staff will now have to find a way to build off last year. And they’ll have to do it without some key pieces. Andre Wesson and Kaleb Wesson are gone and DJ Carton, Alonzo Gaffney, and Luther Muhammad all transferred as well. And even in an era highlighted by transfers, there’s a lot of contributors walking out the door. After all, Kaleb Wesson was the team’s best player and that group also includes three other players who started games last season.
Fortunately, Ohio State does have some key returners, highlighted by CJ Walker and Duane Washington in the backcourt. EJ Liddell and Kyle Young will also be back in the frontcourt after productive seasons. All five of those players are capable of starting on quality Big Ten squads.
Holtmann has also been extremely active on the recruiting trial, adding a handful of transfers and two solid prospects in the program’s 2020 recruiting class. Harvard transfer Seth Towns should be able to start immediately and Eugene Brown is one of the better freshmen coming into the Big Ten. Even with some key players leaving, those are enough reinforcements to keep Ohio State in the NCAA picture.
#9 - Maryland Terrapins (--)
The Terps turned a lot of corners last season. After years of coming up short, Maryland finally closed the deal, winning its first ever Big Ten regular season title. The team also finished really well down the stretch, despite the cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament.
Unfortunately, after a banner year, Maryland now has to live with the aftermath. Maryland is losing star players in Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith and has plenty of questions about who might replace their contributions. Add in a few transfers and the Terps will have their hands full in trying to sustain their high level of play.
There are some reasons for hope, however. Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell, Donta Scott, and Aaron Wiggins all return after solid seasons and the team is adding a few interesting additions in its 2020 class, highlighted by Alabama transfer Galin Smith. Most expect Smith to help answer some of team’s depth questions upfront.
Naturally, the biggest question for Maryland will be figuring out how to replace Cowan and Smith. In particular, replacing Cowan will be a massive challenge. He was a natural playmaker and Maryland’s leader on the court. Expect Ayala to do his best to fill in there. If he can play well, the Terps could be a factor in the Big Ten once again.
#10 - Indiana Hoosiers (--)
When Archie Miller was hired by Indiana, fans were expecting a lot. And while Indiana has underachieved with Miller at the helm, the Hoosiers have gradually improved. The team went 16-15 in year one, jumped to 19-16 in year two, and were 20-12 this season before things got cancelled in March. And while we will never know it with absolute certainly, Indiana was going to make the NCAA Tournament this year for the first time with Miller.
Again, not what Hoosier fans hoped for, but the progress is there.
And things appeared that way following the abrupt conclusion of last season once again. However, Indiana hit a speed bump when star forward Justin Smith opted to transfer after the season ended. He was second on the team in overall win shares last season and it’s hard to tell who might replace his contributions. Jerome Hunter and Race Thompson both return, but neither has been extremely consistent over their careers.
The good news is rising sophomore Trayce Jackson-Davis. returns after a great season. Indiana also adds a really talented 2020 class, highlighted by five-star guard Khristian Lander and top 100 forward Jordan Geronimo. With those additions, Indiana should have more than enough pieces to win big this year.
The biggest concern for Indiana will be the same as last season: Can the Hoosiers find enough perimeter shooting to win? Indiana has been atrocious from deep over the last few years and really needs to improve there to take serious steps forward. Fans will have to hope Rob Phinisee and the incoming freshmen can help Indiana improve there.
#11 - Minnesota Golden Gophers (--)
Like Purdue, I firmly believe last season’s Minnesota squad was better than its record. The Gophers may have finished at 15-16 overall, but the team finished 27th nationally on KenPom and were 351st in KenPom’s luck metric. Minnesota played a brutal schedule (ranked 3rd nationally) and ended up losing a bunch of tight games against it. If that schedule had been even a tad easier, Minnesota probably makes the NCAAs with relative ease.
The goal now will be correcting those mistakes and improving on last season. Unfortunately, Minnesota will have to do that without superstar big man Daniel Oturu. He improved substantially during his time with the Gophers and turned into a legitimate All-American contender before he departed to the next level. The Gophers will also be losing Payton Willis in the backcourt and Allihan Demir and Michael Hurt upfront. Those three weren’t massive contributors, but they did play.
Minnesota’s strength this season figures to be its backcourt. Marcus Carr is back after a great initial season in Minneapolis, and the team should also return Gabe Kalscheur and Tre Williams as well. Things will be more fluid upfront, but Minnesota figures to have two nice young players in Sam Freeman and Isaiah Ihnen. The Gophers are also adding two top 140 prospects this offseason. Simply stated, there are some pieces to work with here.
Much of this season will depend on how Minnesota overcomes the loss of Oturu. Should the Gophers find a way to negate his loss, they have a chance to get into the NCAA conversation.
#12 - Penn State Nittany Lions (--)
Outside of Rutgers, there’s probably no Big Ten fan base that suffered more from the cancellation of this year’s March Madness than Penn State. After years of middling results and inconsistency, Penn State finally put together a squad good enough to make the NCAA Tournament with ease. Penn State was going to make it this year and it’s a shame the players and fans won’t get to enjoy that experience.
Unfortunately, Penn State will now have to move past last season and things are set to regress substantially for the Nittany Lions this fall with Curtis Jones, Lamar Stevens, and Mike Watkins all gone. All three were program-changing players and the program is going to have its hands full replacing them, Stevens in particular.
The sudden departure of long-time head coach Pat Chambers will also leave some major question marks. Jim Ferry was announced as the Interim Head Coach after serving as an assistant on the staff. Most anticipate Ferry will make few changes. However, it’s hard to tell what could happen, especially in a year unlike any other.
Penn State’s strength this season figures to be in the backcourt where it returns virtually all of last season’s contributors, save Jones. Starter candidates Myreon Jones and Jamari Wheeler will be back along with depth pieces like Izaiah Brockington and Myles Dread. Things will be more unsettled upfront, but Penn State should have John Harrar and Seth Lundy back after solid seasons.
Things will almost certainly take a step back for Penn State this season with the loss of players like Stevens and Watkins. Still, if Penn State can find another contributor or two, it probably has a chance to get back into the postseason conversation. The key will be finding someone to replace Stevens’ massive contributions.
#13 - Northwestern Wildcats (--)
The Wildcats weren’t great last year. In fact, Northwestern had its worst season in over a decade and finished with a horrendous 8-23 overall record. The team repeatedly went weeks without winning a single game and finished with just two total wins against top 100 opponents. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
And while Northwestern should be better, it’s hard to see things improving substantially. The team will look pretty similar to how it did last year, just without graduating seniors Pat Spencer and AJ Turner and with a few underwhelming additions. Northwestern will be adding Chase Audige from William & Mary and two incoming recruits, both rated outside the top 130 nationally. Guard Ty Berry will be the freshman to watch among the two.
The biggest question for Northwestern this season will be whether the team can find a star contributor. Pete Nance showed flashed last year, but never had the consistency and top-tier production to earn that moniker. Until the Wildcats find a top-tier player again, the team is going to keep struggling on the court. And unfortunately, that seems likely to continue this year.
#14 - Nebraska Cornhuskers (--)
Year one wasn’t a particularly fun one for Fred Hoiberg and Husker fans. Despite some high hopes at the time of his hiring, Nebraska floundered with Hoiberg at the helm last season. The team struggled early in non-conference play and never found any consistency, finishing with the program’s lowest win total since the 1963-’64 season.
But for as bad as last season was for the Huskers, the team’s talent is set to upgrade this season, even if it won’t show up massively in the win column. The Huskers played short handed for much of the season and were forced to rely on many last second additions after a tough coaching transition. Hoiberg did the best he could, but he inherited one returning player. That’s no way to overcome that in just a few months.
The key returners for the Huskers figure to be Thorir Thorbjarnarson and Yvan Ouedraogo. Both started at least a game last season and should be primed for significant improvement this summer. Nebraska will also be adding players like Teddy Allen, Kobe King, and Kobe Webster in the backcourt and Lat Mayen upfront. If King can win his NCAA appeal and get immediate eligibility, that’s a much better group of players than Nebraska had last season.
Hoiberg won’t have this thing turned around by this year, but there’s clearly a trend here and the Huskers should have a much better group this season than before.