The Big Ten is a bit of a jumble entering the 2016-17 season. There are teams at the top that should be good, but there are also certifiable reasons to doubt them. Then there are teams at the bottom filled with potential, but potential can be a silly word.
Michigan State has an amazing freshman class but no true stars. Wisconsin tore up the league late last season but its two best players had underwhelming junior years. Indiana is once again as skilled as anyone but lost one of the best players in program history.
On the other end, Illinois was a dumpster fire last season but has a starting five that, when healthy and not under arrest, can match up with almost any other in the conference. Penn State has been irrelevant for years but now sports a terrific young core.
So without further ado, here’s a look at this wonderful mess of a conference.
1. Michigan State
Despite losing four of its top fiver scorers, Michigan State is in shape to win the 2016-17 Big Ten title. The Spartans return a terrific scorer in senior Eron Harris and add one of the nation’s best recruiting class. Freshmen Miles Bridges and Joshua Langford will likely start as a freshmen alongside Harris and nifty, veteran point guard Lourawls Nairn Jr.
Even with a great recruiting class, the Spartans are trying to replace conference player of the year Denzel Valentine, lethal shooter Bryn Forbes and starting big men Matt Costello and Deyonta Davis. The freshmen are historically good, but they are, of course, young. That combined with losing an alpha dog like Valentine is enough to question this squad a bit.
The Badgers came alive under new coach Greg Gard last season, winning 11 out of 12 games at one point in conference play and then reaching the Sweet 16. Now they return everyone from that team. Forward Nigel Hayes could compete for conference player of the year and point guard Bronson Koenig could compete for an all-league spot as well. And don’t sleep on forward Ethan Happ, who was Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season and will be among the conference’s best defenders.
There’s not a lot of size on this team, and as solid as Koenig is, I’m not totally sold on him being an elite point guard. His offensive rating dropped last season by 11 points, although the decrease was only about five in Big Ten games. Hayes as well was far less efficient last season. Let’s see if they can get their numbers back to where they were two years ago.
There’s no question Wisconsin is a top 25 team. But I’m doubtful they live up to their preseason billing as a top 10 team. Maybe Keonig, Hayes and Happ will prove me wrong.
Even with Yogi Ferrell, Troy Williams and Max Bielfeldt gone, Indiana is still loaded with firepower. Guard James Blackmon Jr. returns after averaging 15.8 points in a truncated sophomore season. 6’10” center Thomas Bryant should blossom into an all-league player as he takes on a larger load. The big fella can overpower the best down low and step out to knock down a jump shot.
Sophomore forward OG Anunoby broke out during Big Ten play lsat season and had strong showings against Chattanooga and Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament. He’s a popular pick to be a breakout star in the conference this season.
Williams was talented but can be replaced. But replacing Ferrell is a far larger task. Yogi did everything for Indiana last year, averaging 17.3 points, 5.6 assists and 1.1 steals. He also shot 42% from 3-point range and was easily the best late shot clock option in the Big Ten. While juniors Robert Johnson and Josh Newkirk will be solid point guard replacements, who can be that go-to scorer for the Hoosiers this season?
4. Ohio State
Ohio State failed to reach the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 2008, but the good news is the Buckeyes return their top six scorers. This group was young last year, but with an extra year of experience they could be quite dangerous. KenPom’s preseason ratings have Ohio State as the 13th best team in the nation to start the season.
The biggest concern is that while the roster is older, it’s still the same group that went 21-14 with only one win against a team in the top half of the Big Ten. Aging doesn’t guarantee maturity and improvement.
Purdue is something of a mystery entering this season. The Boilermakers return a handful of very skilled players from last year’s NCAA Tournament group but lose leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker A.J. Hammons, lockdown defender Rapheal Davis and backup point guard Johnny Hill.
P.J. Thompson thrived starting at the point last season but now the team is relying on banged-up Michigan transfer Spike Albrecht as his back up. The time has also arrived for sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan and junior center Isaac Haas to take their games to the next level. Without big frontcourt production from that duo, Purdue fans will realize just how great Hammons was.
Coach Matt Painter has built this team on defense, and the roster lost arguably its three best defenders. Davis was one of the conference’s best perimeter defenders while Hill was No. 3 in the league in steal percentage and Hammons was No. 2 in block percentage. That’s not to say there aren’t still some great defenders, namely Thompson, junior forward Vince Edwards and of course Haas with his shot-blocking ability at 7’2″. But can the Boilermakers remain an elite defensive team without last year’s seniors?
With their top five scorers returning, Michigan likely won’t need a pair of nail-biting victories in the Big Ten Tournament to reach The Big Dance, as was the case last year. Keeping point guard Derrick Walton Jr. healthy all season will be crucial. Forward Duncan Robinson is one of the nation’s best 3-point shooters, and Zak Irvin has the skills to be among the Big Ten’s leading scorers. Those are a good top three players to build around.
While the Wolverines have good backcourt starters in Walton and Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman, they have minimal depth at those positions. The only other guards on the roster are freshman Xavier Simpson and walk-ons. The frontcourt depth is only slightly better.
The Terps caught a break with Melo Trimble returning for his junior year, but their next four leading scorers graduated or went pro early. With big men Diamond Stone and Robert Carter Jr. gone, the weight falls on 6’11” senior Damonte Dodd and 6’8″ Duquesne transfer L.G. Gill for post production. Coach Mark Turgeon said he thought Dodd could be a breakout player each of the two previous seasons. We’ll see if he can reach that potential this year.
One big question is simply if Trimble is actually the star he seemed to be as a freshman and early in his sophomore season. Although his assist numbers improved a bit last season, his effective field-goal percentage dipped from 53.4% as a freshman to 48.2% as a sophomore. In Big Ten games, he really struggled to score efficiently.
Maryland has some solid pieces around Trimble, but the supporting cast is not as good as last year’s. If Trimble doesn’t improve on last season, the Terps could be a bubble team.
The Illini have the league’s top returning scorer in senior guard Malcolm Hill and a deep backcourt filled out by sophomore Jalen Coleman-Lands, graduate student Tracy Abrams, senior Jaylon Tate and sophomore Aaron Jordan.
The frontcourt is not as deep but has two very skilled bigs in 6’11” Mike Thorne Jr. and 6’7″ Leron Black, although each played only eight games last season due to injury. With those two out last season, Maverick Morgan and Michael Finke stepped in as solid replacements.
A lot of junk went on in Illinois last season. The year started with Darius Paul getting kicked off the team after being arrested for vandalism and resisting an officer, then there were scores of injuries throughout the roster, and to bring things full circle forward Leron Black was arrested in February for pulling a knife at a nightclub and guards Kendrick Nunn and Tate were arrested in March for separate domestic violence incidents. Although Black and Tate are back with the team, Nunn was dismissed in May.
Between all of that and a 15-19 record last year, the Illini are battling a lot of negative momentum. That being said, if Illinois can stay clean off the court and healthy on the court, this team has the talent to challenge for a top six finish.
9. Penn State
Penn State is similar to last year’s Ohio State team. The Nittany Lions don’t have a single senior on the roster, and their young players are very skilled. Junior Shep Garner averaged 14.8 points and 3.4 assists last season while classmate Payton Banks chipped in 9.4 points and 4.3 boards. Sophomore Josh Reaves struggled as a scorer during his freshman campaign but was among the league’s premier perimeter defenders.
Among the freshman class, guard Tony Carr, wing Lamar Stevens and forward Mike Watkins were all top 100 recruits. The Nittany Lions are likely still a year or two away from making the NCAA Tournament. However, for the first time under sixth-year coach Pat Chambers they have a legitimate chance to go .500 in the Big Ten.
The biggest issue is youth. Looking at last year’s Ohio State team as a comparison, that team was more talented and still struggled plenty throughout the season. However, unlike last year’s Ohio State team, Penn State had two wins against teams in the top half of the Big Ten, including a victory over conference champion Indiana. So maybe this team is further along than I am giving them credit.
Northwestern returns one of the Big Ten’s top guards in junior Bryant McIntosh and gets forward Vic Law back as a redshirt sophomore after he missed last season with a torn labrum. That duo along with sophomore sharpshooter Aaron Falzon should create some exciting offense at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
With 7-foot Alex Olah and and 6’10” Joey van Zegeren graduating, the Wildcats are left with a tiny, inexperienced frontcourt. 6’8″ sophomore Dererk Pardon is expected to get the starting nod at center. Northwestern also lost shooting guard Tre Demps, which means a second quality scoring option will need to emerge alongside McIntosh.
Senior guard Peter Jok will likely be going toe-to-toe with Malcolm Hill for the Big Ten scoring title this season. Jok averaged 16.1 points last season and will be taking the bulk of Iowa’s shots with Jarrod Uthoff gone.
Iowa struggled at the end of last season and is now a much younger team with four starters graduating. The development of junior forward Dom Uhl as he takes on a starting role will be crucial for the projection of this team.
Time to see if Richard Pitino can put something together. Minnesota returns its top two players from last season, junior guard Nate Mason and sophomore forward Jordan Murphy. It also adds a strong group of newcomers, featuring freshman guard Amir Coffey, Texas A&M transfer Davante Fitzgerald, Milwaukee transfer Akeem Springs and Illinois State transfer Reggie Lynch.
The offense was brutal last season, and although Mason and Murphy are back, the Gophers lose their most efficient offensive player in forward Joey King. They could use some scoring from Coffey and Springs.
Sophomore point guard Glynn Watson Jr. is set up for a breakout sophomore year. As a freshman, he cracked the Big Ten’s top 20 in assist rate while averaging close to double figures in scoring.
Who’s going to score for Nebraska this season? The Huskers had a strong one-two punch last year with Shavon Shields (16.8 ppg) and Andrew White (16.6 ppg), but both guys are gone. Rutgers should be the worst team in the Big Ten this year, but the gap may not be as large.
With three of its top four scorers returning and Kansas State transfer Nigel Johnson getting eligible, maybe Rutgers can crack the top 200 this year.
Let’s keep this short and just go with “everything.”
All-League 1st Team
Thomas Bryant, Indiana
Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
Peter Jok, Iowa
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
Melo Trimble, Maryland
All-League 2nd Team
Miles Bridges, Michigan State
Eron Harris, Michigan State
Malcolm Hill, Illinois
Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern
Derrick Walton, Michigan
Miles Bridges, Michigan State
Tony Carr, Penn State
Amir Coffey, Minnesota
Anthony Cowan, Maryland
Josh Langford, Michigan State
Player of the Year
Thomas Bryant, Indiana
Defensive Player of the Year
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
Freshman of the Year
Miles Bridges, Michigan State
Coach of the Year
Tom Izzo, Michigan State