With the 2019-’20 college basketball season coming to a screeching halt last month and with a few weeks for fans to process things, 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. Projecting things in any year is tough and it will be even tougher with everything going on in the world. Nonetheless, we’ll give it a try.
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 2020 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:
- Illinois: Kofi Cockburn, Ayo Dosunmu
- Maryland: Jalen Smith
- Michigan: Isaiah Livers
- Minnesota: Daniel Oturu
- Ohio State: Alonzo Gaffney, Kaleb Wesson
With that, here is my first set of Big Ten offseason power rankings:
Big Ten Way Too Early Power Rankings
#1 - Iowa Hawkeyes (--)
Perhaps no Big Ten team was more unbalanced than last year’s Iowa squad. The Hawkeyes led the league in offensive efficiency, but finished 12th in the same category on the defensive end of the floor. The team was led by Luka Garza, who put up one of the best individual seasons in Iowa basketball history, finishing as KenPom’s highest rated player.
And while we still don’t know if Garza will return to Iowa City next fall, I am assuming he will for purposes of this projection. I think the chance to come back and lead what figures to be one of the best Iowa teams in modern history will be too much to pass up on for the big man. But Hawkeye fans will have to wait and see if that does end up being the case.
For Iowa, everything will start with Garza. He was 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 next season. And if you have the best player in the conference, that’s a pretty good place to start.
But Iowa won’t have to rely solely on Garza. The team 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.
#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 21-20 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 set to be 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 for next 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 - Michigan State Spartans (--)
Whether Spartan fans like it or not, next year’s Michigan State squad is going to look much different than this 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 good news is that Michigan State has plenty of other players waiting in the wing to keep the Spartans competitive. Even though Winston will be gone, Xavier Tillman and Marcus Bingham should be back upfront, Gabe Brown and Aaron Henry return on the wing, and Rocket Watts figures to lead things in the backcourt. Those are five 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 won’t be easy, but once Michigan State finds its feet next season, it’s more than capable of accomplishing some remarkable things.
#4 - 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, Isaiah Livers declared for the NBA Draft, and Colin Castleton and David DeJulius are transferring. That group includes the team’s leader, two of its top three, and four of its top six in total minutes. That’s not unprecedented, but it’s going to leave Michigan looking much differently next 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, Brandon Johns and Franz Wagner return on the wing, and Michigan will also have an experienced big man in Austin Davis. Players like Cole Bajema and Adrien Nunez could also be in line for big improvements heading into next year.
But more importantly, Michigan will be adding an onslaught of talent this offseason. Michigan’s 2020 recruiting class is ranked eighth nationally by 247Sports and features four commitments, including four-star prospect Hunter Dickinson. The Wolverines will also be adding transfers in 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 a few freshmen, Michigan should be more than capable of finishing near the top of the Big Ten next year.
#5 - Rutgers Scarlet Knights (--)
While everyone feels terrible about how the 2019-’20 season came to a close, it’s hard not to feel particularly disappointed for Rutgers fans. After decades of underwhelming results, Rutgers finally put together the year fans had been waiting for. The Scarlet Knights were on the verge of making the NCAA Tournament when the season got canceled. 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 all that long. Rutgers figures to enter next season with virtually the same roster it had last year, including Geo Baker and Jacob Young 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 next year. It’s one of the best returning cores for any Big Ten team.
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 - Ohio State Buckeyes (--)
If you took five people and had each of them watch a different 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 perhaps any Big Ten team. 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 season without some key pieces. Andre Wesson is gone and Kaleb Wesson seems destined for the NBA Draft. Additionally, DJ Carton, Alonzo Gaffney, and Luther Muhammad are also gone via the transfer portal. Even in an era highlighted by transfers, those are a lot of contributions walking out the door. Kaleb Wesson was probably 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 Luther Muhammad, 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.
#7 - Purdue Boilermakers (--)
Despite what some believe, thee Boilermakers weren’t a bad team last year. Purdue had a winning record against a brutal slate, finished 26th nationally on KenPom, and beat a number of quality opponents, including a huge win against 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 particularly great either. The Boilermakers were 16-15 overall and had a losing record in conference play. Those are not 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 for the team to get back on track next season.
The good news is Matt Painter should have the pieces for Purdue to take some major steps forward next 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.
Purdue probably doesn’t have enough high-end talent to compete for a Big Ten title next year, but it certainly has enough to get into the top 25 picture.
#8 - 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.
This year, Indiana again looks poised to improve. The Hoosiers are set to return the team’s entire starting lineup from last year, including rising sophomore Trayce Jackson-Davis. Add in three top 130ish prospects in the program’s 2020 recruiting class and Indiana should have more than enough depth to win 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.
#9 - Maryland Terrapins (--)
The Terps turned a lot of corners last season. Maryland won its first ever Big Ten regular season title and finished really well down the stretch. Unfortunately, Maryland is now set to lose Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith, who were major factors in Maryland breaking through those walls. Add in a few transfers and the Terps will have their hands full in trying to sustain their high level of play.
The key players to watch heading into next season will be Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell, Donta Scott, and Aaron Wiggins. All four already averaged at least 20 minutes a game and could take steps forward, especially considering how many were underclassmen. Maryland isn’t adding a ton in its 2020 class, but they should provide some more depth.
Maryland’s only major question will be what the team does in the backcourt. Cowan was a natural playmaker and Maryland’s leader on the court. He won’t be easily replaced and it’s fir to expect some early missteps.
#10 - 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 lost some tight games against it. If the Big Ten had even been a little weaker, 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 next season figures to be its backcourt. Marcus Carr should be 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 next 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.
#11 - Illinois Fighting Illini (--)
Barring some unforeseen changes, Illinois will look much different next season. After a really productive year, the Illini are set to be gutted this offseason. Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn declared for the NBA Draft, Andres Feliz and Kipper Nichols graduate, and Alan Griffin and Tevian Jones are transferring. That group includes the team’s leader and three of its top four in minutes and its top three in scoring. Unless you’re recruiting at an elite level, there’s no reasonable way to replace that in a single offseason.
But even if there will be some regression, Brad Underwood does have some pieces to work with next season. Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams figure to return in the backcourt and Giorgi Bezhanishvili is back upfront. And Bezhanishvili’s return shouldn’t be understated, as his contributions were minimized by Cockburn last year. The two just didn’t fit all that well together. Illinois is also adding a top 15 recruiting class, including two top 60 prospects in the backcourt. That’s still enough talent to make some noise in the Big Ten.
#12 - Penn State Nittany Lions (--)
Outside of Rutgers, there’s probably no Big Ten fanbase that feels worse about 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 next fall with Curtis Jones, Lamar Stevens, and Mike Watkins all gone. All three were program-changing players and Patrick Chambers will have his hands full replacing them, Stevens in particular.
Penn State’s strength next 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 next 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 - 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, Yvan Ouedraogo, and Kevin Cross. All three 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 next year, but there’s clearly a trend here and the Huskers should have a much better group next season than before.
#14 - 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 next 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 next season.