Hoops season is underway with Big Ten teams playing exhibition games this week. In preparation for the regular season, our Will Ragatz ranked the conference’s squads from first to last.
The Terrapins are being talked about as one of the best teams in the entire country and should win the Big Ten with relative ease if they stay healthy. Mark Turgeon’s team boasts the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year in point guard Melo Trimble and also returns leading rebounder Jake Layman. They will replace graduated Dez Wells’ 15 points per game and then some with the additions of 5-star freshman Diamond Stone and transfers Rasheed Sulaimon (Duke) and Robert Carter Jr. (Georgia Tech). With Trimble back for his sophomore season and surrounded by talent, I just don’t see how this team will lose more than two or three games in conference play. Maryland is a true national title contender.
I know, ranking Indiana second seems foolish. This isn’t the first time Tom Crean’s team has entered a season with huge expectations, and they usually don’t live up to them. But…there’s just too much talent on this roster, and with too easy of a schedule, to put any of the Big Ten’s traditional contenders above the Hoosiers. Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon Jr., each of whom averaged over 15 points per game last year, lead a backcourt full of playmaking and shooting. Freshman Thomas Bryant, the sixth-ranked center recruit in the nation, will provide a much-needed inside presence. I haven’t even mentioned Troy Williams, one of the most athletic players in the conference. Add that talent to the fact that Indiana’s Big Ten home and home series are against Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, and the Hoosiers could be a top-10 team in the country all year.
The Wolverines had a hugely disappointing (albeit injury-riddled) season in 2014-15, but I fully expect this year’s team to rebound in a big way. There won’t be many changes to the starting lineup, but this team will put it all together if they stay healthy. Getting a full season from versatile guard Caris LeVert, last year’s leading scorer, is crucial to Michigan’s success, but he won’t be alone. John Beilein also returns double digit scorers Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. to go with pieces like Spike Albrecht and Aubrey Dawkins. In the paint, Ricky Doyle will be joined by European big man Moritz Wagner, a highly touted signing. This is a roster packed with talent and experience and if they can avoid injuries, the Wolverines will be primed for a deep tournament run.
While it may seem bold to have two Final Four teams from last year in Michigan St. and Wisconsin outside of the top three in the conference, it’s a testament to how good the Big Ten is. Senior leaders Travis Trice and Branden Dawson played incredibly well in leading the 7th seeded Spartans to a national semifinal matchup against Duke, but now they’re gone. Denzel Valentine’s return alone keeps them in the top four, but barely. Secondary players like Matt Costello, Bryn Forbes, and Gavin Schilling will need to step up for Tom Izzo’s team to make another run. If those three progress, 4-star freshmen Deyonta Davis and Matthew McQuaid contribute immediately, and Denzel Valentine is one of the conference’s best players, Sparty could compete for a Big Ten title. However, I just don’t see it happening this year. The top three are just more talented, and there are teams I’ve ranked behind Michigan St. that could push them as well.
This is another Final Four team from last year that lost a lot. Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker were first round NBA draft picks and key contributors Traveon Jackson and Duje Dukan graduated too. However, there is still a lot of talent on this team and with Bo Ryan leading the way, I can’t see the Badgers dropping out of the top five. Bronson Koenig, the unflappable point guard who shined in the tournament last year, will provide excellent ball-handling and shooting. Nigel Hayes, last year’s third-leading scorer, should make the leap to a starring, 15 points per game role with ease. Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown have tournament experience and will step into starting roles. Redshirt freshman Ethan Happ has loads of potential, as does 4-star recruit Brevin Pritzl. Wisconsin isn’t going to come close to matching last year’s 16 wins, but this team might surprise people.
Not convinced that the Big Ten is the best conference in the country? I am ranking Purdue sixth, yet this is a team with the potential to reach the Final Four. Which is crazy. The Boilermakers boast the best frontcourt in the conference, and one of the best in the nation. Shot-blocking machine (2.8 per game) and last year’s leading scorer A.J. Hammons leads a group that also features the underrated Isaac Haas and the nation’s number nine recruit, Caleb Swanigan. The backcourt offers a lot more questions. Matt Painter returns Rapheal Davis and Kendall Stephens but loses a leader in Jon Octeus. Can Texas-Arlington transfer Johnny Hill step up and fill Octeus’ shoes? Who else will distribute the ball? Purdue also faces an extremely tough schedule, which keeps this talented team outside of my top five.
The Buckeyes are one of the conference’s more unpredictable teams for 2015-16. Their best player from last year, D’Angelo Russell, is now playing alongside Kobe in LA. He averaged 19.3 points per game, second best in the Big Ten, and was the team’s leading rebounder, despite being a point guard. Also graduated are Sam Thompson, Shannon Scott, and Amir Williams. However, Thad Matta has a few good returners and a lot of talent coming in. Forwards Marc Loving and Jae’Sean Tate and guard Kam Williams are back, and they are joined by five, count ‘em five, 4-star freshmen. At least two of those will step into the starting lineup immediately and the quintet will ultimately determine how far Ohio State goes. This team should have enough talent to make the tournament but won’t be a contender for the Big Ten title.
The Wildcats at 8 may seem high for casual Big Ten fans, but this team isn’t going to be the bottom-feeder it has been for the past three seasons. Seniors Tre Demps and Alex Olah will lead a roster that returns its top five players in terms of minutes played. Demps is the star of the backcourt, but Bryant McIntosh should make a big leap in his sophomore season and is someone to watch. Virginia Tech transfer Joey van Zegeren and freshman Dererk Pardon provide big bodies to spell Olah, and this team is deep at the forward position, where Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey are joined by 4-star freshman Aaron Falzon. If Chris Collins’ team can put it all together and find a way to win some close games, Northwestern could be going dancing for the first time ever. The time is now in Evanston.
The Hawkeyes finished tied for third in the Big Ten last year but aren’t going to come close to repeating that this year. Do-it-all forward Aaron White, who led the team in points, rebounds, and steals, graduated, as did third-leading scorer Gabriel Olaseni. White was one of the most heavily relied upon players in the conference last year, and Fran McCaffery has added essentially nobody to replace him. Returning players like Jared Uthoff, Adam Woodbury and Anthony Clemmons will need to take huge steps forward to bring this team back to the tournament. In all likelihood, Iowa won’t have enough talent to finish with a winning record in Big Ten play.
When a team that already failed to make the tournament loses its best player (Rayvonte Rice) and three other top scorers, that’s usually not a recipe for success. John Groce is adding a lot of unproven talent in three 4-star freshmen and frontcourt transfers Mike Thorne Jr. and Darius Paul. However, the Illini are decimated by injuries, and they might not be at full strength until conference play. Given their lack of experience and top-level talent, I don’t think it’ll come together for the Illini this season. I have them finishing in the bottom five of the conference.
The Nittany Lions, perennial cellar dwellers in the Big Ten, lose the conference’s leading scorer in D.J. Newbill (20.7 ppg). Pat Chambers does retain a dynamic duo in Brandon Taylor and Shep Garner, which should be enough to help them win a few games. Penn State just doesn’t have enough talent to compete in this league and won’t win more than six games.
Losing Andre Hollins, Mo Walker, and DeAndre Mathieu hurts a team that won only six conference games last year. Richard Pitino will rely on the likes of Nate Mason, Carlos Morris, and Joey King to win basketball games this year. The Gophers have some freshman with potential, but will be pretty awful this year.
The Cornhuskers were a bad basketball team last year and will be even worse this year. They lost leading scorers Terran Petteway and Walter Pitchford, despite neither of them actually graduating. Both will be playing in the NBA D-league this year after declaring for the draft and not being selected. Tim Miles will lean heavily on Shavon Shields (15ppg) and a lot of freshmen. There will be a lot of ugly results in Lincoln this winter, but they won’t be the worst team in the Big Ten!
That distinction belongs to the Scarlet Knights, who will be dreadful this year. Is it possible for a team that won two games in conference play to get worse? Rutgers graduated leading scorers Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack and four other players transferred. Eddie Jordan has a decent incoming class but that won’t be enough to stop his team from getting blown out every game.