Big Ten Season Preview: Power Rankings, Preseason Awards and Michigan State’s title run?

Scott Phillips

Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2019-20 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big Ten.

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The Big Ten had another strong season last year as Michigan State made the Final Four and the league went an outstanding 7-1 in the first round.

With the Spartans falling short of the national title, however, the Big Ten is still seeking its first championship in men’s basketball since Michigan State won in 2000.

Despite the Big Ten’s outstanding depth, coaching and overall talent year to year the league’s lack of a title is a major stain on them as the ACC has multiple champions this past decade and other leagues like the Big East develop juggernauts like Villanova.

But there’s a huge title contender and preseason Player of the Year favorite returning to East Lansing this season to lead another deep year in the Big Ten.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Michigan State is the favorite and Cassius Winston the Preseason Player of the Year

After last season’s Final Four appearance and the return of Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston, the Spartans are being projected by many to win the national championship this season. Michigan State has plenty of help for its senior point guard and Preseason Player of the Year favorite.

Senior shooting guard Joshua Langford returns from injury as a double-figure scorer. Junior big man Xavier Tillman was one of the most improved bigs in the country down the stretch last season. And the sophomore class led by Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, Thomas Kithier and Foster Loyer should be ready for larger assignments as well.

Michigan State has perimeter pop and experience to go along with tough and talented big men. This team’s ceiling might be the major question mark entering November. There isn’t really a clear-cut pro on this Michigan State roster and national champions generally require a McDonald’s All-American — something this roster lacks. In a season with not a lot of clear title contenders, however, Michigan State’s previous Final Four run and overall talent makes them a team to really like at the end of the season.

2. Maryland is another major threat to win a league (and national) title

Expectations are massive for Maryland this season as a Round of 32 team returns everyone except for big man Bruno Fernando. The Terps are armed with an all-league floor general in Anthony Cowan Jr., a potential lottery pick in sophomore big man Jalen Smith and talented guards and wings like Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell, Aaron Wiggins and Serrel Smith.

But Mark Turgeon teams have had a tough time breaking through in the past when the preseason expectations have been high. And there’s reasons to be cautious about this team when it comes to the overall national picture. Cowan has been the same player the past two seasons. Smith has to help offset Fernando’s massive presence. And Maryland has to improve its shaky perimeter shooting and unproven frontcourt depth.

This is also a program that had a top 31 offense AND defense on KenPom last season and enough balance is in place to offset a bad game from a star player. In a strange season with not a lot of clear-cut favorites, Maryland is a sleeper team to watch in both the Big Ten race and the national landscape.

3. Michigan replaced John Beilein with Juwan Howard

The end of the John Beilein era happened swiftly this offseason with the veteran head coach taking the Cleveland Cavaliers job. Fab Five alum and NBA veteran Juwan Howard takes over the Wolverines after a lengthy playing career and sizable stint as an NBA assistant the last half decade.

While Michigan will have to replace three double-figure scorers in Iggy Brazdeikis, Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews the program has some familiar faces returning in Howard’s first season. Point guard Zavier Simpson returns along with center Jon Teske and junior Isaiah Livers will be expected to take a major leap in scoring. A talented sophomore class is also something to track with this Wolverines team along with freshman forward Franz Wagner — the little brother of Mo.

Howard is a first-time head coach in his first year at the college level taking over a semi-veteran team trying to find its go-to scoring. It’ll be a strange season at times in Ann Arbor. But as long as Michigan adheres to its strong defensive identity instilled by former assistant coach Luke Yaklich over the past several years, they should have the talent to remain in the top 25 conversation and compete for an NCAA bid. And if things don’t go as planned this season, Michigan fans can at least have some peace knowing that Howard has been very active with top five-star talents on the recruiting trail for the Class of 2020.

4. Depth remains a major strength of the Big Ten

Following last season’s massive first-round tournament success, the Big Ten has a lot to live up to. And although a lot of key players return to veteran teams, the league also lost a lot of successful players to graduation and the pros.

Even with all of the losses, the Big Ten should remain one of the deepest conferences in college basketball this season. Michigan State and Maryland look like legitimate preseason top-10 teams while Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan should all make top-25 cases at some point. And the middle of the pack has a lot of fascinating teams including Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana to keep tabs on as the Big Ten once again tries to get eight teams into the field.

The Big Ten might not be as top-to-bottom deep as last season. There is still the chance this league has a lot of teams playing in March though as coaching and talent continues to remain at a solid level.

5. Fred Hoiberg takes over at Nebraska

The only other new coach in the Big Ten this offseason is Nebraska hiring Fred Hoiberg to replace Tim Miles. After a disappointing NBA stint with the Chicago Bulls, Hoiberg’s presence on the sidelines is a major coup for the Huskers.

Hoiberg isn’t expected to make major waves with an entirely new roster of 11 new scholarship players this season. During Hoiberg’s time at Iowa State, however, he took the Cyclones to four NCAA tournament appearances in five seasons as he quickly turned over the roster using transfers and unique recruiting methods.

That could be a perfect recipe for Nebraska as the Huskers have invested a lot into Hoiberg and his previous family connections to the program. The Huskers don’t have a great natural recruiting base but a rabid fanbase at Pinnacle Bank Arena could still get some very good teams if Hoiberg is able to get a few good transfers. In a league filled with good and successful coaches, Nebraska is hoping Hoiberg’s return to the college game will go smoothly.

PRESEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State

The reigning Big Ten Player of the Year is easily the most important individual player in the country. During a terrific junior season, the 6-foot-1 Winston helped lead an injury-depleted Spartans team to the Final Four as he was incredible down the stretch last season.

Averaging 18.8 points, 7.5 assists and 3.0 rebounds per game, Winston shoots efficiently from all over the floor (46% FG, 39.8% 3PT, 84% FT) while also making things much easier on his teammates. Winston seems to have an innate ability of getting everyone else touches as he has look-ahead vision and half-court savvy. Michigan State is banking on its first national title in 20 years as Winston will be the big reason why this team reaches its ultimate ceiling.

THE REST OF THE BIG TEN FIRST TEAM

  • LAMAR STEVENS, Penn State: The 6-foot-8 Stevens continued to put up prolific numbers (19.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg) despite not a lot of help around him last season.

  • ANTHONY COWAN Jr., Maryland: Senior point guard has tons of experience and puts up steady production across the board (15.6 ppg, 4.4 apg, 3.7 rpg).

  • KALEB WESSON, Ohio State: Conference’s best post scorer (14.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg) is an underrated passer who could improve as a rim protector this season.

  • JALEN SMITH, Maryland: Potential first-round pick skipped NBA Draft process to return for sophomore season after showing signs of possible greatness as a freshman (11.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg).

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • AYO DOSUNMU, Illinois

  • ZAVIER SIMPSON, Michigan

  • XAVIER TILLMAN, Michigan State

  • LUKA GARZA, Iowa

  • BRAD DAVISON, Wisconsin

BREAKOUT STAR: Joe Wieskamp, Iowa

Wieskamp is going to have a lot fall on his shoulders as a sophomore. With the departures of Tyler Cook (pros) and Isaiah Moss (Kansas) along with the uncertain injury future of Jordan Bohannon this season, Wieskamp is going to be expected to be a secondary ball handler, knock down shots and do more off the dribble. While Iowa’s offense is still going to pound it inside to players like Luka Garza, Wieskamp’s 42 percent three-point shooting and fearless approach to scoring gives him a chance to make a major leap as a sophomore.

Getty Images
Getty Images

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Pat Chambers, Penn State

Entering his ninth season at Penn State, Pat Chambers is still looking for his first NCAA tournament appearance. And given the issues facing the Nittany Lions outside of Lamar Stevens this season, making the Big Dance doesn’t appear likely entering the season. Chambers had a window with the Stevens/Tony Carr class when the program won an NIT in 2017. But Carr’s decision to go pro put Penn State back below .500 as they were only 14-18 last season despite a monster junior campaign from Stevens. If the Nittany Lions don’t improve dramatically this season then the program could opt for a new leader.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The Big Ten isn’t as deep as last year’s ridiculous first-round showing but there will be plenty of damage done to the field among the eight teams that get in.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

Juwan Howard’s stint on the sidelines in Ann Arbor should bring a lot of excitement to Michigan basketball. I’m anxious to see how the Wolverines play and what Howard is able to do inheriting Beilein’s program.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Nov. 5, Michigan State vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic)

  • Dec. 3, Michigan State vs. Duke

  • Dec. 4, Purdue vs. Virginia

  • Dec. 19, Maryland at Seton Hall

  • Dec. 21, Ohio State vs. Kentucky (Las Vegas)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. MICHIGAN STATE: On the road to a potential title, Michigan State will have a tenacious schedule to grind through. Tests against Duke and Kentucky as well as a road game at Seton Hall and the Maui Invitational highlights the Spartans’ non-conference schedule as the preseason top team will get a lot of tests early. That could play a big factor in Winston, Langford and company gaining a No. 1 seed in March that ultimately gets them to another Final Four. The defending Big Ten champions will see all sorts of challenges in 2019-20 as all eyes will be on them this season.

2. MARYLAND: Maryland should be relatively similar to last season. The perimeter group stays the same while Smith gets most of the touches that previously went inside to Fernando. Frontcourt minutes will be something to watch for with the Terps as they figure out their rotation early this season. Forward Ricky Lindo Jr. could factor in while freshmen Makhi and Makhel Mitchell could also earn minutes. If Maryland knocks down perimeter shots and plays small, they could be a fascinating team.

3. OHIO STATE: Ahead of schedule last season, Chris Holtmann’s crew made it to the Round of 32 behind big man Kaleb Wesson and a solid roster of young players. Andre Wesson returns to play with his brother in the Buckeye frontcourt while sophomores Luther Muhammad, Duane Washington Jr. and Justin Ahrens all return. And Ohio State has the Big Ten’s top freshman class coming in along with Florida State point guard transfer C.J. Walker. Five-star point guard D.J. Carton and Walker should swallow the lead guard minutes while lanky wing Alonzo Gaffney and bouncy forward E.J. Liddell could earn immediate minutes. Wesson should have many more weapons around him this season as Ohio State could take a leap into the NCAA tournament’s second weekend.

4. PURDUE: Things will feel very different in West Lafayette this season without Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline. Matt Painter did a great job designing his offense to put those two guards in motion for numerous three-point bombs. Now without those two, Purdue could go back to an interior-based attack like the Caleb Swanigan/Isaac Haas teams. Big men Matt Haarms and Trevion Williams are among the Big Ten’s best interior players while junior guard Nojel Eastern can handle the ball and defend up to four spots. The development of the sophomore group of Aaron Wheeler, Eric Hunter Jr. and Sasha Stefanovic will have an impact in how good Purdue is post-Edwards. Painter should switch up how his team plays and they have the pieces to be good defensively. How good the new-look offense is could determine Purdue’s season.

5. MICHIGAN: Finding offensive production to replace Brazdeikis, Poole and Matthews will be the key to Michigan’s ceiling this season. With Simpson, Teske and a team of veteran role guys, the Wolverines’ defense should still be very good. But making sure that the team’s offense finds easy buckets in Howard’s first year will be a subplot to watch. Seeing what kind of offense Howard brings with him will be something else to watch for. Livers should take a step forward and Eli Brooks should help more as well. If one of the sophomores in Brandon Johns Jr., Colin Castleton, Adrien Nunez or David DeJulius can step up it’ll be huge.

6. ILLINOIS: Starving for an NCAA tournament appearance, this could be the year Illinois breaks its streak since 2013. The perimeter of sophomore Ayo Dosunmu and junior Trent Frazier is among the league’s best while promising sophomore forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili gets some help in the form of four-star freshman center Kofi Cockburn. The Illini need to improve their shaky perimeter shooting (34 percent). Getting better overall defensively is another chief concern. Role players like Alan Griffin, Da’Monte Williams and Andres Feliz will need to ideally make some shots as well. But the Illinois backcourt has big-time talent and the frontcourt has multiple scoring options as well. Head coach Brad Underwood finally has some depth and experience after overhauling the roster and should have an intriguing potential tournament team.

7. IOWA: Rotational depth should not be an issue for the Hawkeyes. Figuring out major holes in the lineup will be te thing to watch for when it comes to Iowa. Big man Luka Garza and sophomore shooter Joe Wieskamp are promising double-figure scorers. The Hawkeyes have frontcourt depth (Cordell Pemsl, Ryan Kriener, Jack Nunge) and two McCaffery sons with talented pedigrees. But does this team get enough consistent stops to be a tournament team? How will the point guard play be? This will be a fascinating season at Iowa as the Hawkeyes have some talent and experience but a lot of question marks without Tyler Cook, Isaiah Moss or potentially Jordan Bohannon.

8. WISCONSIN: It will feel strange watching the Badgers play without frontcourt pillar Ethan Happ. One of the Big Ten’s most prolific players of all time moving on means Wisconsin will build its offense around a perimeter-oriented attack more like a traditional Badger version of the Swing offense. D’Mitrik Trice, Brad Davison, Brevin Pritzl and Kobe King are all experienced guards who will be counted on to produce offense. There’s also a tendency for the Badgers to develop big men as junior Nate Reuvers is expected to make a leap. The transfer addition of big man Micah Potter after first semester could really help. The Badgers are likely on the borderline of the Big Ten’s top half and will be an intriguing team to watch in terms of the NCAA tournament.

9. INDIANA: Figuring out where Indiana stands is one of the Big Ten’s many questions in the middle of the pack. Archie Miller has a solid core back but lacks star power and end-of-shot-clock shooters with the loss of Romeo Langford and Juwan Morgan. Following up on a disappointing season, the Hoosiers have to hope the experienced backcourt of Devonte Green, Rob Phinisee and Al Durham steps up while Justin Smith, Da’Ron Davis and Joey Brunk bring experience to the front court. Indiana Mr. Basketball Trayce Jackson-Davis is another main ingredient to Indiana’s success this season but it seems like the Hoosiers could be destined for the NIT with the lack of go-to player.

10. PENN STATE: The Nittany Lions started Big Ten season 0-10 last year before closing out 7-3. So which team will we see this season with many of the same pieces returning? Senior forward Lamar Stevens is a player to build around but big man Mike Watkins and grad transfer guard Curtis Jones Jr. have been inconsistent. Sophomore Myles Dread is intriguing but not much else about this roster is a sure thing.

11. MINNESOTA: Losing Amir Coffey along with Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer really hurt the Golden Gophers this season as a young roster attempts to find its footing. The development of the sophomore class will be the key to this season’s ceiling as shooter Gabe Kalscheur and big man Daniel Oturu both return along with the addition of transfer guard Marcus Carr. Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis should add additional shooting but not much else is known about a very young rotation. The season-ending injury to forward Eric Curry hurts Minnesota.

12. RUTGERS: Talent and depth continues to improve under Steve Pikiell but the transfer of forward Eugene Omoruyi gutted this team’s outlook. A young perimeter core featuring point guard Geo Baker, Montez Mathis, Ron Harper Jr. and transfer guard Jacob Young should compete with most in the Big Ten. Frontcourt depth is a major concern as an unproven group will have to handle many tough assignments. The good news for the Scarlet Knights is that most of the roster is scheduled to return again next season. So an additional step above 14-17 and making the postseason would be a step in the right direction.

13. NORTHWESTERN: Major questions still linger at Northwestern as the program has never found a point guard to follow Bryant McIntosh’s departure two seasons ago. The Wildcats have some enticing shooting options on the wing with A.J. Turner and Miller Kopp along with some young forwards that could develop in Pete Nance and Robbie Beran. Former lacrosse star Pat Spencer becoming a one-year basketball graduate transfer is one of the most fun stories to follow in college hoops this season. But it’s hard to envision Northwestern competing for much in the Big Ten following last season’s last-place finish and losing Vic Law, Dererk Pardon and Ryan Taylor.

14. NEBRASKA: Fred Hoiberg’s tenure begins with only two returning players from last year’s roster (Thorir Thorbjarnarson and transfer Dachon Burke Jr.) and 11 new scholarship players. The Huskers are essentially an entirely new team than the previous Tim Miles era. Hoiberg and his staff deserve credit for getting so many new faces so quickly. French freshman forward Yves Ouedraogo and junior college point guard Cam Mack are two newcomers to watch.

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