Big Ten Offseason Report: Power Rankings and Burning Questions for 2019-20

Molly Geary
Sports Illustrated
Our offseason conference reports roll on with the Big Ten, which is coming off a very successful 2018–19 season.

Big Ten Offseason Report: Power Rankings and Burning Questions for 2019-20

Our offseason conference reports roll on with the Big Ten, which is coming off a very successful 2018–19 season.

As the midpoint of college basketball’s offseason approaches, it’s time to check in on every major conference. Every team in the country has questions at this point of the summer, some more pressing than others. So in addition to power ranking each league, we’ll be asking some burning questions about the conference that won’t be answered until tip-off. With the AAC, ACC, Big 12 and Big East down, next up is the Big Ten.

Big Ten Summer Power Rankings

1. Michigan State: With All-American Cassius Winston leading the way, the Spartans will likely open the season as the No. 1 team nationally, not just in the Big Ten.

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2. Maryland: Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith return to lead a still-young but very talented group that fell just shy of the Sweet 16.

3. Ohio State: Big man Kaleb Wesson is back and a top-15 recruiting class is on the way in. Chris Holtmann has more than proved himself in his first two years in Columbus.

4. Purdue: Carsen Edwards and sharpshooter Ryan Cline are gone, but a solid group of rising juniors and sophomores should keep the Boilermakers chugging.

5. Michigan: Juwan Howard inherits a pretty good core, but the loss of the Wolverines’ top three scorers points toward a step back from the recent big-time success in Ann Arbor.

6. Illinois: Optimism is high in Champaign despite coming off a 12-win season, and that’s because the bulk of a young team that made impressive strides in the second half is back.

7. Wisconsin: The Badgers enter life without Ethan Happ, but retain offensive weapons in the form of shooters D’Mitrik Trice, Brad Davison and Nate Reuvers.

8. Penn State: Lamar Stevens should be one of the best players in the conference once again after a monster junior year.

9. Indiana: The Hoosiers need some of their promising role players—or freshman Trayce Jackson-Davis—to break out after losing their only double-digit scorers.

10. Iowa: The big question here is whether Jordan Bohannon will play (see below) this winter. For these rankings purposes, we’ll err on the side that he will not.

11. Minnesota: Three starters are gone, but sophomores Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur are solid young pieces, and spring addition Isaiah Ihnen was a nice get. Still, it's an uphill road to the conference's top half.

12. Rutgers: Tangible forward momentum took a step back when top player Eugene Omoruyi surprisingly transferred out, but Geo Baker leads seven returning rotation players.

13. Nebraska: An almost entirely new roster pulled from transfers and recruits will need time to adjust under new coach Fred Hoiberg.

14. Northwestern: The top three scorers are all gone from the team that finished last in the Big Ten, with A.J. Turner and Anthony Gaines leading the returnees. Even with four-star Robbie Beran coming in, it could be another long year in Evanston (but the Wildcats do have Pat Spencer!)

Burning Questions

Can Anyone Challenge Michigan State?

The Spartans won regular season and Big Ten tournament titles and brought back more than any of the other 2019 Final Four teams did, a big reason why they’ll likely deservedly open the year as the AP No. 1. Numbers-wise, it will be tough for Cassius Winston to repeat his stellar junior campaign, but he shouldn’t need to put Michigan State on his back this time around. Starter Joshua Langford is set to return after missing most of 2018–19 with injury, while junior Xavier Tillman makes up for the departing Nick Ward down low after impressing down the stretch. Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown showed potential as freshmen, and a top-25 recruiting class led by talented scorer Rocket Watts comes on board. Tom Izzo teams always seem to only get better as the year goes on, which is a scary thought for the rest of the Big Ten.

Where Will Michigan’s Offense Come From?

It’s been an interesting offseason for the Wolverines. They lost three players—Charles Matthews, Iggy Brazdeikis and Jordan Poole—to the NBA draft, then lost longtime coach John Beilein to the NBA as well. First-time head coach Juwan Howard now runs the program, which is looking to keep the momentum going after back-to-back 30+ win seasons. And while Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers form a solid returning core that should once again be strong defensively, it’s not hard to imagine Michigan’s offensive struggles of 2018–19 being magnified this winter after losing its top three scorers. Simpson and Teske are reliably solid on offense but not likely to light up the scoreboard, while Livers is going to be counted on to produce in a bigger role. Can the likes of David DeJulius, Brandon Johns and Colin Castleton—all four-star 2018 recruits who played minimal roles as freshmen—emerge as dependable options? What about incoming four-stars Franz Wagner (yes, younger brother of Moe) and Cole Bajema? They’ll all play a key role in determining this team’s ceiling.

Are Maryland’s Sophomores Ready to Take the Leap?

When it came to experience, the Terps were one of the five youngest teams in the country last season—and sometimes even played with five freshmen on the floor at once. All of those freshmen (Jalen Smith, Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala, Serrel Smith and Ricky Lindo) are back, and Mark Turgeon has a senior point guard (Anthony Cowan) for the first time in his College Park tenure. With just one notable departure (Bruno Fernando), expectations are high, but what will truly dictate whether this team can meet or surpass them is the offseason development of the now-sophomores. In particular, Jalen Smith, a former five-star recruit, has the talent and ability to become one of the best players in college basketball—especially if he can get stronger and improve his outside shooting—and Wiggins, who shot 41.3% from three on 150 attempts as a freshman, is a breakout candidate. If both make the leap, or someone else—like Ayala, junior Darryl Morsell or one of the five incoming freshmen—emerges as a double-digit scoring option, it could be the year everything comes together for Turgeon.

Can Illinois and Rutgers Continue Their Momentum?

Seven league wins apiece might not seem like a lot, but both Illinois and Rutgers had something to hang their hat on in 2018–19. Both schools had a breakthrough in the second half of the season, pulling off multiple upsets despite the Big Ten being its strongest in years. The outlook is rosier for the Illini, thanks to the return of 6’5” sophomore guard and NBA prospect Ayo Dosunmu, who spearheads a core that includes junior guard Trent Frazier (13.7 ppg), sophomore big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili (12.5 ppg) and senior guard Andres Feliz (8.3 ppg). In all, eight of Illinois’s top nine scorers are back, and four-star center Kofi Cockburn joins. After another offseason spent learning Brad Underwood’s system, the team could make a nice leap this winter. Meanwhile, the Scarlet Knights, no longer a punch line, were poised to bring back nearly their entire rotation before leading scorer and rebounder Eugene Omoruyi took his talents to Oregon. There’s still reason for optimism here, with Geo Baker, Montez Mathis and Ron Harper Jr. leading the way, but even a repeat of last season’s effort isn’t a guarantee.

Who Steps Up for Purdue?

Carsen Edwards wasn’t just the Boilermakers’ top scorer last season; he was their clear-and-away top offensive option, taking a whopping 37.5% of his team’s shots when on the floor (only five players nationally posted a higher percentage). His departure, as well as the one of the sweet-shooting Ryan Cline, means plenty of opportunity—and pressure—for Purdue’s other pieces to step up. The most obvious candidate for an increased workload is sophomore center (and breakout candidate) Trevion Williams, but he’ll need to show he can stay on the floor longer after spending much of 2018–19 battling foul trouble. Juniors Matt Haarms and Nojel Eastern will be key pieces on both ends, while sophomores Aaron Wheeler (36.5% 3PT) and Eric Hunter Jr. will take on larger roles in the offense. Incoming four-star guard Brandon Newman could make an early impact, and High Point transfer Jahaad Proctor is on board as well to help try to replace Edwards and Cline’s lost backcourt production.

What Does Wisconsin Without Ethan Happ Look Like?

It’s been a long time since the Badgers’ roster didn’t feature Ethan Happ—since 2013–14, to be exact—and they’re going to have a different look next season now that the center has graduated. Rising 6’11” junior Nate Reuvers is in line for a big role after averaging 7.9 points in 22.9 minutes as a sophomore, and he offers a different type of game than Happ, with the ability to stretch opposing defenses and knock down the three (which he did at a 38.1% clip on 84 attempts in 2018–19). Outside shooting will be a major part of this team’s makeup, even if it won’t be able to have its shooters pepper the arc for kickouts from a double-teamed Happ anymore. But D’Mitrik Trice, Brad Davison and Brevin Pritzl are all more-than-capable from deep—the question now is whether they can all develop enough to produce the offense needed to contend.

Is This the Year for Penn State?

Entering year nine of the Pat Chambers era, Penn State is still searching for its first trip to the Big Dance under him (it does have an NIT title, however). Last season, the Nittany Lions ranked 343rd in kenpom.com’s “luck” factor (which essentially measures a team’s difference in actual record from what it would have been expected to be), suggesting their hot streak to end the year was not an aberration. And with First-Team All-Big Ten star Lamar Stevens back alongside senior Mike Watkins down low, the frontcourt should remain strong. The transfer of Rasir Bolton dealt a blow to the backcourt, and Penn State will need more offense from junior guard Jamari Wheeler and Oklahoma State grad transfer Curtis Jones to help make up for it. Add in returning starter Myles Dread, and its fair to think PSU can challenge for that elusive NCAA berth.

Can Indiana Put Its Bizarre and Ultimately Disappointing Season Behind It?

Did anyone have a weirder year than the Hoosiers last season? If you’ve forgotten (or blocked it out of your memory), oft-injury plagued Indiana started 12–2, then went 1–11 over its next 12 games before nearly sneaking back into the Big Dance thanks to an unlikely season sweep of Michigan State. Romeo Langford and Juwan Morgan are gone, but its next top five scorers are back as the Hoosiers look to notch their first 20-win season under Archie Miller. Top-30 recruit Trayce Jackson-Davis is the new name to know and Butler grad transfer Joey Brunk arrives as well, but fans shouldn’t forget about Jerome Hunter, a former four-star who missed 2018–19 with injury. But first and foremost, the hope needs to be that IU has reset itself mentally, and that returnees Rob Phinisee, Devonte Green, Al Durham and De'Ron Davis can take the next step (and stay healthy).

How Will Nebraska’s Transfer-Heavy Roster Fare in Fred Hoiberg’s First Year?

The Cornhuskers rivaled Indiana as the Big Ten’s most disappointing team in 2018–19, and it ended in Tim Miles's dismissal. Nebraska, the only power conference program that has never won an NCAA tournament game, swung big by hiring Fred Hoiberg, who brings an almost entirely new roster to Lincoln. There’s so much turnover that the Huskers feel like a complete unknown heading into 2019–20, even if expectations will obviously be low. Former Marquette and Florida Gulf Coast guard Haanif Cheatham is probably the most familiar new name, while Robert Morris’s Dachon Burke Jr., Pitt’s Shamiel Stevenson, Seattle's Matej Kavas and JUCO standout Cam Mack are among the transfers who can suit up this year (Stevenson must sit the first semester unless he receives a waiver, however). Hoiberg has his work cut out for him in a transition year, but the pressure isn’t on for immediate results.

Can Ohio State’s Recruiting Class Deliver?

In both seasons under Chris Holtmann so far, the Buckeyes have largely been written off as contenders in the preseason only to surprise with an overachieving year that culminates in an NCAA tournament berth. Last year’s team achieved it despite going 6–12 to close the regular season, a period that included a three-game suspension of standout big man Kaleb Wesson. Wesson is back, along with his brother, Andre, plus promising sophomores Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington Jr. But it’s Ohio State’s freshman class, which includes three top-50 recruits, that could make the difference this winter. Holtmann, who two years ago helped turn Keita Bates-Diop into the Big Ten Player of the Year, will have plenty of talent on hand to work his magic with, including four-stars D.J. Carton and E.J. Lidell. If they can become immediate contributors, this team won’t catch anyone off guard this time around as it eyes its first Sweet 16 since 2013.

Will Jordan Bohannon Play?

The announcement that Bohannon, Iowa’s rising senior point guard, elected to have hip surgery in June and could redshirt the 2019–20 season, was more bad news in an offseason littered with it for Hawkeyes fans. Big man Tyler Cook left for the NBA and guard Isaiah Moss transferred to Kansas, and longtime Fran McCaffery assistant Andrew Francis went to Cal. However, all is not lost. Joe Wieskamp is back after an excellent freshman season, while the dependable Luka Garza is the other returning starter. Fran’s son, Connor McCaffery, could have a bigger role, and his other son, four-star recruit Pat, arrives. Valpo grad transfer Bakari Evelyn will look to help the backcourt, while forward Cordell Pemsl will be back after season-ending knee surgery. If Bohannon plays, this team will make noise again in the Big Ten. If not, there will lowered expectations, and a lot riding on the development of Wieskamp and last season’s role players.

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