1. Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans are the clear favorites to capture the Big Ten title, opening the season as the #2 team in the nation. They return the core of a solid team from last season that earned a 9 seed and made the second round, and they also bring in top 10 recruit Jaren Jackson.
Small forward Miles Bridges decided to forego a likely selection in the NBA lottery to continue his career as a Spartan in his sophomore year and he’s miles (no pun intended) ahead of the field in the Big Ten POY race as the year gets underway. His combination of athleticism, shooting, motor, and high basketball IQ make him a force of nature that was a legitimate star even as a freshman.
Nick Ward will continue to man the middle. Though slightly undersized, he’s very strong and very physical and possibly the conference’s best rebounder. The duo will combine with 6’11” freshman power forward Jackson to form one of the most formidable frontcourts in the nation.
In the backcourt, savvy point guard Cassius Winston teams with Tum-Tum Nairns, the senior leader of this team, to support the stars up front. And of course, Tom Izzo is still at the helm which means this team could be successful with ZERO stars on the roster…but they happen to have several which means this could be a special season for a Spartans program that hasn’t raised a banner since 2000.
Prediction: Final Four
2) Purdue Boilermakers
The glaring difference between last year’s Boilermakers team and this one is the absence of All-American Caleb Swanigan, who is now in an NBA jersey. But the balance and the veteran leadership on this squad will help the Boilers to fill the void.
In the middle, all those looks inside will be absorbed by 7’2” Isaac Haas. He’s shown flashes of greatness as a scorer and now it’s time for him to put it all together and be the go-to guy inside for this team.
Carsen Edwards is a bit undersized at shooting guard (6’0”) but he is fearless and could already be one of the league’s best at getting to the rim. Dakota Mathias challenged for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last year and comes back for his senior season as both one of the league’s best defensive players and one of its best shooters.
And finally, Vince Edwards briefly declared for the draft this summer and is the straw that stirs the drink for Purdue. A good freshman class that includes top 100 recruit Nojel Eastern will help this team make the transition to life after Biggie, but it shouldn’t be too troublesome for Matt Painter’s squad.
Prediction: Sweet Sixteen
3) Northwestern Wildcats
The Wildcats are a bit of a surprise pick here at #3, but after earning their first tournament bid as a program, it’s their time to take it up a notch. The stars of last year’s team return: Bryant McIntosh, Big Ten POY candidate at the point guard position, Scottie Lindsey, McIntosh’s high-scoring senior backcourt mate, breakout small forward Vic Law, and emerging center Dererk Pardon.
McIntosh is a savvy floor general in his fourth year, potentially the Big Ten’s best scoring and distributing point guard. He and Lindsey both are looking to go down as two of Northwestern’s all-time greats.
Coach Chris Collins has this team playing efficient basketball, and I would expect he will raise his team’s win total for the 4th straight time as he enters year five. Freshman Anthony Gaines will round out the lineup as a hyper-athletic guard who plays bigger than his 6’4” frame. The Wildcats have shown they can make the dance but now the expectation is that they show they can win in March.
Prediction: Round of 32
4) Wisconsin Badgers
The loss of veterans Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Vitto Brown, and Zak Showalter, all contributors on the 2015 runner-up squad, will definitely be a blow. But they return Ethan Happ, one of the greatest big men in the nation and perhaps the biggest threat to a Miles Bridges Big Ten Player of the Year coronation.
For much of last season, he was the main threat to Caleb Swanigan for Big Ten POY and will return this season after having had a summer to work on weaknesses of his such as free throws. This team will feature a whole lot of Happ but he will be surrounded by a decent, if inexperienced supporting cast.
Key reserves from last season, including D’Mitrik Trice, Khalil Iverson, Andy Van Vliet, and Brevin Pritzl make out the rest of the starting 5. Coach Greg Gard has picked up where Bo Ryan left off in his time at Wisconsin, consistently putting them in the top 4 of the standings, a feat the Badgers have accomplished each year since this writer was 6 years old (for perspective, I’m 22 now). Key match ups against Xavier and Baylor highlight the non-conference schedule as the Badgers prepare to take another shot at the Big Ten Championship.
Prediction: Round of 32
5) Minnesota Golden Gophers
Their dreams ended in a first round upset last season, but Richard Pitino has done an undeniably great job of turning this program around. Their duo of tough post players in Jordan Murphy and Reggie Lynch returns as well as one of my favorite candidates for a breakout year in sophomore Amir Coffey.
Last but not least, senior leader at the shooting guard spot, Nate Mason, will lead this team with his scoring ability and poise.
Minnesota has all sorts of size, skill, and toughness in their starting lineup and it won’t be a surprise at all if the Gophers take the Big Ten championship this season.
Prediction: Round of 32
6) Michigan Wolverines
The Wolverines are banking on Mo, Mo, Mo of that Moritz Wagner magic as the 6’11” Berlin native broke out last season as a high-efficiency scoring machine. This season, he should be playing more minutes and, if his rebounding has improved, will look to be one of the premier players in all of the conference.
On hand to support him are promising senior shooting guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman who finally takes the reins as the lead offensive option on the perimeter for this offense, as well as Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews, a 6’6” shooting guard who comes in as sort of a wild card after playing sparingly behind his more highly-touted teammates in one season at UK.
If Matthews is the real deal when given significant minutes and Wagner can continue his breakout that we witnessed last season, this is a team with upside that can bust into the upper echelon of the conference despite expectations of a middle-of-the-pack finish this season.
Prediction: Round of 32
7) Penn State Nitany Lions
It’s do-or-die time for coach Pat Chambers at PSU. If he can’t win with this talented group of 2016 recruits now entering their sophomore year, he’s probably not going to win games at Penn State.
Shooting guard Tony Carr could lead the league in scoring, center Mike Watkins gave taller, more experienced big men fits last season, and Lamar Stevens has the length and versatility to be the glue that holds it all together at the small forward position.
Senior Shep Garner is the leader and another fantastic scoring option in his own right and should play a big role in keeping this otherwise-young team grounded. 7th might ordinarily be a little high for this team compared to the prognostications of most members of the media, but I liked what I saw from this group of sophomores last season as mere freshmen and expect them to use that moderate success as a jumping-off point to their first tournament berth since 2011.
Prediction: Round of 64
8) Maryland Terrapins
Melo Trimble has been the face of Maryland basketball for the past four years about as much as any player has been the face of their program in the conference in that same stretch. But now that he, as well as Damonte Dodd inside, are gone, the rest of last year’s core can begin to make their own way. Last year’s amazing recruiting class will now take the reins as sophomores.
Shooting guard Anthony Cowan is a fantastic scorer who will now face much more responsibility on offense with renowned shot creator Trimble departed. Sharpshooter Kevin Huerter brings a good blend of size, shooting, and passing on the wing.
Justin Jackson MD might’ve been the most highly-touted of them all coming out of high school so now he gets a chance to prove he’s a star. And Michal Cekovsky is a skilled 7’1” post player who provides this team with a stable senior presence in the paint.
This season could have a lot of different outcomes for the Terrapins with their heavy reliance on so many young-but-talented guys, but at the very least, a return trip to the Big Dance is a reasonable expectation for this team.
Prediction: Round of 64
9) Ohio State Buckeyes
Transitions between coaching regimes are always tough, but fortunately for the Buckeyes, they brought in a pretty good head coach in former Butler head coach Chris Holtmann to take the helm.
A few key guys have departed, but the Buckeyes bring several once-highly-recruited guys to the table and may be poised to exceed expectations this season. Keita Bates-Diop, in particular, has a lot of the physical tools to be great for this team and he’s a guy who seems to be poised to take over as the star.
Point guard CJ Jackson, shooting guard Kam Williams, and small forward Jae-Sean Tate were all key contributors last season and if they continue to show the flashes they have shown, Chris Holtmann might find himself in the tournament in his first year as a Buckeye.
10) Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes said goodbye to their all-conference shooting guard Peter Jok but they do return their next 9 leading scorers from last season.
Talented sophomores Tyler Cook and Jordan Bohannon can carry this team a ways, but is this a roster full of decent role players or are there guys capable of being bonafide stars in the wake of Jok’s departure?
Skilled freshman big man Luke Garza, a borderline top 100 guy, will help anchor this team in the middle. Nearly 20 minutes per game of production are being replaced but this Hawkeyes team has a lot of upside to more than make up for it.
11) Indiana Hoosiers
Even with the coaching change and the loss of the trio of O.G. Anunoby, Thomas Bryant, and James Blackmon Jr., it’s hard to imagine the Indiana Hoosiers falling any lower than this, post-Kelvin Sampson years excluded.
Robert Johnson will be expected to step up and be the go-to guy on offense, along with the help of sharpshooting guard Josh Newkirk and power forward Juwan Morgan. But Justin Smith and Aljami Durham, the four-star prizes of this recruiting class, should immediately step in and be a big part of the offense on the wings.
Archie Miller is a very talented coach but there may not be enough leftover from last year to make much noise this season.
Prediction: No Tournament
12) Rutgers Scarlet Knights
The perennial conference basement dwellers throughout their time in the Big Ten gain a couple spots for me because of their consistency from last year to this one. Point guard Corey Sanders, likely the best Rutgers recruit in a long time, enters into his junior season as he looks to lead this team.
Mike Williams provides another scoring option on the perimeter, and Deshawn Freeman will anchor the post once more. If Sanders can raise his efficiency and his game to All-Conference levels, the Scarlet Knights could steal some games they have no right being in this season.
Prediction: No Tournament
13) Nebraska Corn Huskers
A lot of uncertainty surrounds this Nebraska roster as three of last year’s top five Cornhusker scorers have moved on. Glynn Watson Jr. now steps into the starring role with Tai Webster gone, and the 6’0” guard looks to build off of the breakout year he had last year scoring the basketball.
Transfers James Palmer Jr. (Miami) and Isaiah Copeland (Georgetown) come to Lincoln with major conference experience under their belts, and Jack McVeigh is one of the conference’s best shooters. There isn’t a lot of elite-level talent on this roster as far as one can see, but this team has the whole season to change the perception of them.
Prediction: No Tournament
14) Illinois Fighting Illini
The Illini lost star forward Malcolm Hill whose illustrious career ended at the end of last season, so they find themselves in need of a first scoring option as a replacement. Leron Black is the logical choice as the small forward leads all returning players in scoring.
Beyond the 6’6” senior small forward, little production from last season returns. Mark Alstork, a graduate transfer, and Mark Smith, a freshman, have a chance to make an immediate impact. In a year of major turnover to begin the Brad Underwood era, it may be hard to find stability with this roster full of inexperience.
The Big Ten conference has recently produced a jubilee of NBA talent and this year should be no different. Throughout the conference, each team has a few prospects that are either destined for NBA success now, or have the potential to enter the draft conversation as their collegiate careers progress.
Top 5 Big Ten Prospects
1. Jaren Jackson, Freshman, PF/C Michigan State
Jackson enters this season as one of the most coveted recruits in the nation, after a successful high school career that concluded with exciting performances with the USA Basketball Team at the Hoop Summit and in the McDonalds All-American Game. After a season filled with inconsistent production at the Center position, Michigan State has filled a major need in Jackson, who will be learning Tom Izzo, who has a long history of sending players to the NBA.
Jackson already has the attention from NBA scouts for his versatility and especially for his 7’4 wingspan. In this day and age of “Small Ball” NBA basketball, Jackson fits the mold as a special big man who is able to space the floor on offense, and guard both forwards and centers on defense. With a star-studded cast around him at Michigan State that has a No. 2 Preseason ranking, Jackson can develop into a high lottery pick if he plays to his abilities.
2. Miles Bridges, Sophomore, SF/PF Michigan State
Bridges is the clear top returning prospect and player in the Big Ten by a pretty large amount. As a Freshman, Bridges came into the season as a highly touted recruited and he did not disappoint. Bridges averaged 16.9 points, 2.1 assists and 1.5 blocks in his first year as a Spartan and was projected as a lottery pick in last year’s NBA draft.
Even after advisement from his coach, legendary Tom Izzo, Bridges decided to return to East Lansing for his sophomore season. This decision shows Bridges’ commitment and dedication to the Michigan State program, but also proves his acknowledgment of room for growth before he starts his professional career.
Bridges’ game is highlighted by his ability to ignite the crowd through his display of sheer athleticism, specifically when he drives to the basket. It is easy to point out his vast portfolio of dunks, but on the defensive side of the ball Bridges showed mobility and versatility when it came to guarding players at various positions. Look for Miles Bridges to be a leader on the court and in the locker room for the Michigan State Spartans this season, and for his stats as well as his draft stock to increase as the season progresses.
3. Moritz Wagner, Junior, PF-C Michigan
As mentioned before, there is no better time to be a versatile big man prospect than now. Moritz Wagner is widely known around the conference for being a matchup nightmare who can dominate on both offense and defense.
Last year, Wagner played a major role in helping the Michigan Wolverines win the Big Ten Tournament and make a nice run in the NCAA Tournament. Over the course of last season, Wagner averaged 12.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game and shot 39.5% from long range which is very respectable, especially as a swingman.
If he is able to gain some more consistency behind the arch and show more of an ability to guard both forwards and centers, Mo Wagner could be a potential first round pick next year.
4. Justin Jackson MD, Sophomore, SF Maryland
With Melo Trimble no longer a part of this program, Jackson will be utilized as the prime source of scoring for the Terps. Jackson averaged 10.7 points and 5.9 rebounds as a Freshman, which shows that despite only standing at 6’7, he is able to go up against larger opponents to bring in rebounds. The Canadian forward has a huge 7+ foot wingspan that comes in handy on the defensive end and finishing around the rim.
The most intriguing aspect of Jackson’s game may be his production behind the 3-point line. Last year, Jackson shot a stellar 44% from long range which established him as one of the best long-range shooters in the country.
Jackson tested the NBA draft waters at the end of last season, but eventually decided to return to Maryland for his Sophomore season. If Jackson improves on the defensive side of the ball and displays leadership on this talented Maryland team, he could potentially enter next year’s draft and be selected.
5. Ethan Happ, Junior, PF/C Wisconisn
With the Nigel Hayes entering the draft last year, all eyes will be on Ethan Happ to lead this young Wisconsin team to a successful 2017-2018 campaign. Last season, Happ averaged close to a double-double with 14 points and 9 rebounds.
Happ exemplifies the prototypical Wiscon player as a competitor who is full of grit and determination. Although his play style is not necessarily flashy, Happ is a consistent force that can always be relied upon in the closing stretch.
Some scouts have discounted Happ’s NBA potential due to a lack of size and versatility on offense, but as a 2017 3rd Team All-American and 2018 All-Big Ten player, Happ is destined for another successful season.