By Jesse Kramer
The Big Ten was hands-down the best conference in college basketball last season. That status may be removed because of the revamped ACC, but the amazing thing is the Big Ten may be even better this season than it was in 2012-13.
Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin are all preseason top 15 teams, and Indiana and Iowa are borderline top 25. Even the bottom six teams in the conference all have the potential to make the NIT.
1. Michigan State
Michigan State is a 2014 Final Four favorite. The Spartans, who advanced to the Sweet 16 last season, return four starters, with only forward Derrick Nix (9.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg) departing.
Sophomore shooting guard Gary Harris (pictured) and senior forward Adreian Payne are both potential All-Americans, and they have a phenomenal supporting cast in point guard Keith Appling, Branden Dawson (8.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Denzel Valentine (5.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.4 apg), and Travis Trice (4.8 ppg).
Harris, who battled shoulder injuries during his freshman season, averaged 12.9 points and shot 41.1% on three-pointers. Now fully healthy, he has the potential to dominate the Big Ten.
Payne was the Spartans’ best all-around player last year. He averaged 10.5 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 54.6% from the field. He also made 16 of his 42 three-pointers. An efficient forward, Payne ranked No. 40 nationally in true shooting percentage and No. 54 in defensive rebounding percentage.
Appling, although inconsistent, was still a very important piece for Michigan State. He led the team with 13.4 points and 3.3 assists per game, and he also averaged 1.3 steals.
2. Ohio State
Departed are starters Deshaun Thomas and Evan Ravenel, but the Buckeyes will still be one of the team’s to beat in the Big Ten this year.
Point guard Aaron Craft, the best point guard in the conference, returns for his senior year. He will get strong support in the backcourt from fellow senior Lenzelle Smith Jr. (9.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and junior Shannon Scott (4.9 ppg, 3.8 apg).
Craft averaged 10 points, 4.6 assists, and 2.1 steals per game, and he ranked No. 89 in steal percentage.
The Buckeyes also return forwards LaQuinton Ross, Sam Thompson, and Amir Williams.
Ross, a highly-ranked recruit out of high school, had a very solid sophomore season. In 16.9 minutes per game, he averaged 8.3 points and shot 46.8% from the field and 38.9% from beyond the arc. In the Buckeyes’ four NCAA tournament games, he exploded for 15 points per contest and shot 44.4% on three-pointers. If he continues to play at that level as a junior, he will have a breakout season and possibly make the All-Big Ten First Team.
The Buckeyes also add a pair of four-star recruits in Kameron Williams and Marc Loving.
After finishing last season as the national runner-up, Michigan lost a pair of starters, who were also its two best players: Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway. However, the Wolverines still have plenty of talent returning with sophomores Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, and Nik Stauskas.
Robinson averaged 11 points and 5.4 rebounds last season and proved that he could be a consistent scorer from day one. He shot an impressive 57.2% from the field, and five times he scored at least 20 points. The 6’6″ small forward also ranked No. 10 in offensive rating, No. 33 in effective field-goal percentage, and No. 37 in turnover rate.
McGary (pictured) got off to a slow start and finished the season averaging only 7.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks, but during the final eight games of the season, during the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, he was astonishing. In the NCAA tournament, he posted 14.3 points and 10.7 boards while shooting an unbelievable 67.8% from the field. McGary has the potential to lead Division I in rebounds and field-goal percentage this season.
Stauskas averaged 11 points per game and was one of the nation’s better three-point shooters at 44%. The 6’6″ shooting guard scored in double figures in all but five regular season games. His most impressive outing came against Florida in the Elite Eight, when he scored 22 points and shot 6-of-6 from beyond the arc.
In addition to those three, the Wolverines return Jordan Morgan (4.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Jon Horford (2.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg) to their frontcourt and Caris LeVert (2.3 ppg) and Spike Albrecht (2.2 ppg, 54.5 3P%) to their backcourt.
They also add top-100 recruits Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin, and Mark Donnal.
Wisconsin lost three starters from last year’s team, but head coach Bo Ryan will still find a way to make the Badgers a top-20 group.
The Badgers, who have never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten under Ryan, return their starting backcourt of senior Ben Brust and junior Traevon Jackson, as well as their sixth man, sophomore Sam Dekker.
Brust led the team in scoring last season with 11.1 points per game, and he also averaged 5.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists. Brust led the Badgers with 79 three-pointers, draining treys at a 38.9% clip.
Jackson, a 6’2″ point guard, averaged 6.9 points and 2.8 dimes per game. Due to a season-ending injury to point guard Josh Gasser in the preseason, Jackson was thrust into a starting role after playing only 5.4 minutes per game as a freshman.
Gasser, who averaged 7.6 points and 4.2 rebounds in 2011-12, is healthy and will be back with the Badgers this season. He was Wisconsin’s best three-point shooter two seasons ago at 45.2%.
Dekker, a highly-touted recruit, is the team’s second-best returning scorer with 9.6 points per game. As he transitions into a starter’s role, expect him to have a breakout season.
In the frontcourt, the Badgers also return 6’11” forward Frank Kaminsky, who averaged 4.2 points and 1.8 boards in 10.3 minutes as a sophomore.
Indiana is coming off its best season in recent history as the Hoosiers were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and won the Big Ten title outright. Although the Hoosiers could still be a top-25 program this season, they will likely not repeat as Big Ten champions after the loss of four starters plus key reserve Remy Abell, who transferred to Xavier.
Among Indiana’s key returners are starting point guard Yogi Ferrel and Will Sheehey.
Ferrell had his ups and downs as a freshman point guard, but ultimately he was very successful. The Indianapolis native averaged 7.6 points and 4.1 assists per game, and he improved as the season went on.
Sheehey, who has been an impactful bench player in each of his first three seasons at Indiana, will likely start as a senior. The energetic wing averaged 9.5 points last season while shooting 48.6% from the field and a respectable 34.6% on treys.
Head coach Tom Crean is bringing in another great recruiting class, including four top-100 recruits: Noah Vonleh, Luke Fischer, Troy Williams, and Stanford Robinson. Vonleh, who was ranked in top 15 of the Class of 2013 by ESPN, Rivals, and Scout, will be a definite starter.
Aside from Eric May, Iowa returns everyone from last year’s club, which lost to Baylor in the NIT championship.
The Hawkeyes have an extremely deep and also talented frontcourt with Roy Devyn Marble, Aaron White, Adam Woodbury, Zach McCabe, Melsahn Basabe, and Gabriel Olaseni.
Devyn Marble led the team in scoring and assists last season with 15 points and three dimes per game. He earned All-Big Ten third team honors from the coaches and should once again earn all-conference honors this year.
White and Woodbury anchored Hawkeyes down low. White, a 6’8″ forward who was named to the All-Big Ten third team by the media, averaged 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds. He ranked No. 5 nationally in free throw rate and No. 27 in fouls drawn per 40 minutes. Woodbury, a 7’1″ center, averaged 4.9 points and 4.8 boards while shooting 48.8% from the field.
The Hawkeye backcourt is not as deep, but it still contains some talented players in Mike Gesell (8.7 ppg, 2.6 apg), Anthony Clemmons (4.3 ppg, 2.8 apg, 36.2 3P%), and Josh Oglesby (4.5 ppg).
Purdue will have a very good starting five this season, but the Boilermakers are lacking in depth. Returning are their top three scorers, Terone Johnson, A.J. Hammons, and Ronnie Johnson, as well as Rapheal Davis, who started half of their games.
Terone Johnson led Purdue in scoring with 13.5 points while Ronnie Johnson led the team with 4.1 assists per game as a freshman. Davis, 6’5″ sophomore, joins the Johnsons in the backcourt. He averaged 5.7 points and 3.9 rebounds while shooting better than 48% from the field last season.
In the frontcourt, the Boilermakers return Hammons and add Cornell transfer Errick Peck. Hammons averaged 10.6 points, six rebounds, and two blocks. He was one of the better freshman in the Big Ten and is poised for a huge season. Peck averaged 9.7 points and 4.8 rebounds for the Big Red last season and should make an immediate impact at Purdue.
Under new head coach Richard Pitino, Minnesota has the potential to sneak up on some teams in the Big Ten. The Golden Gophers have an accomplished, returning backcourt with Andre Hollins (pictured) and Austin Hollins, but their frontcourt is a mess after the departures of Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe.
The Golden Gophers’ three most notable returning forwards are Elliott Eliason (2.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg), Maurice Walker (2.2 ppg, 2.0 rpg), and Oto Osenieks (2.2 ppg, 1.7 rpg).
The Hollinses are not related, but they can still carry this team to some upsets. Andre averaged 14.6 points and 3.4 assists last season while shooting 41.8% on three-pointers, and Austin averaged 10.7 points per game. They will be supported by junior college transfer Deandre Mathieu, who received offers from UCLA, Ole Miss, and Memphis, and Florida International transfer Malik Smith.
After 13 long seasons under Bill Carmody, Northwestern chose to head in a new direction with the hiring of former Duke associate head coach Chris Collins, and he will have his work cut out for him in his first season.
The Wildcats, who are still searching for their first-ever NCAA tournament berth, graduated a pair of starters, Reggie Hearn and Jared Swopshire, in addition to key reserve Alex Marcotullio.
However, they do return starters Dave Sobolewski (9.8 ppg, 4.0 apg), Alex Olah (6.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.0 apg), and Kale Abrahamson (4.9 ppg), plus reserve guard Tre Demps (7.6 ppg). In addition, graduate student Drew Crawford, who averaged 16.1 points two seasons ago, is back after missing most of last season with an injury, as is JerShon Cobb, who was suspended all of last season. Cobb averaged 7.1 points and 1.4 steals in 2011-12.
Freshman small forward Nate Taphorn, a three-star recruit on ESPN, Rivals, and Scout, should make an immediate impact off Northwestern’s bench.
10. Penn State
Coming off a last-place season, Penn State can only move up. And it likely will.
The Nittany Lions graduated starters Sasa Borovnjak and Nick Colella, and guard Jermaine Marshall transferred to Arizona State. However, leading scorer D.J. Newbill is returning, and star point guard Tim Frazier (pictured), who missed all but four games last season with a ruptured achilles, is back on the roster.
Newbill, a Southern Mississippi transfer, stepped up last season in Frazier’s absence to average 16.3 points, five rebounds, and four assists per game.
Two seasons ago, Frazier was a national sensation, averaging 18.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.2 assists, and 2.4 steals. He posted five double-doubles that season and fell one assist shy of a triple-double against Nebraska. He finished the 2011-12 year ranked No. 2 in assist rate and No. 43 in steal percentage.
Penn State also adds Miami-Ohio transfer Allen Roberts to the backcourt. Roberts led the Redhawks in scoring last season with 12.3 points per game.
In the frontcourt, Penn State returns junior Ross Travis (7.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and sophomore Brandon Taylor (5.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg).
Illinois returns starters Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu and reserve shooting guard Joseph Bertrand, and adds two transfers in Rayvonte Rice from Drake and Jon Ekey from Illinois State.
Abrams averaged 10.6 points, 3.4 assists, and 1.4 steals last season, and he is the Illini’s best returning player. Egwu, who started at center last saeson, averaged 6.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks.
Illinois’ success this season will depend heavily on how well Rice and Ekey adjust to playing in a tougher league. Rice averaged 16.8 points as a sophomore at Drake, but he required 13.2 field goal attempts per game to achieve that. Ekey, a 6’7″ forward, was a solid starter for Illinois State with 6.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game.
The Illini also add a pair of top-100 recruits in shooting guards Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill.
Nebraska won five Big Ten games in its first-year under head coach Tim Miles, but despite a brand new, basketball arena, the Cornhuskers will drop back down in the conference standings this season.
Leading scorer Dylan Talley, starting forward Brandon Ubel, and backup center Andre Almeida all graduated.
The Cornhuskers return three starters, most notably Ray Gallegos and Shavon Shields, and they will also add a pair of impact transfers in Terran Petteway from Texas Tech and Walter Pitchford from Florida.
Big Ten Player of the Year
Gary Harris, Michigan State
Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year
Aaron Craft, Ohio State
Big Ten Freshman of the Year
Noah Vonleh, Indiana
Big Ten All-Conference Team
Aaron Craft, Ohio State
Gary Harris, Michigan State
Glenn Robinson III, Michigan
Mitch McGary, Michigan
Adreian Payne, Michigan State
*All advanced statistics are courtesy of KenPom.