Big Ten preview: Wisconsin's stable of returners makes it a favorite
- Wisconsin returns 99% of its minutes from the team that made the Sweet 16 a season ago, but Purdue and Indiana will provide a significant challenge.
Sports Illustrated’s 2016–17 preview is guided by data from our College Basketball Projection System, a collaboration between economist Dan Hanner and SI’s Luke Winn and Jeremy Fuchs. We project teams on a player-by-player, lineup-based level and then simulate the season 10,000 times to generate our 1–351 national rankings and conference forecasts.
These are the model’s projections for the Big Ten, including individual awards, the teams’ order of finish and (advanced and raw) stats for the top seven players in each school’s rotation.
The Big Picture
The Big Ten may not have a true powerhouse, but it does have a projected champ with a rare level of roster continuity. Wisconsin returns 99% of its overall minutes played from ‘15–16 and figures to have one of the nation’s best defenses in Greg Gard’s first full season as coach. Purdue and Indiana look like top-15 teams who’ll challenge the Badgers, and our model’s most contrarian projection is that Michigan is the league’s fourth-best team—just ahead of Michigan State—and worthy of a top-25 ranking.
Player of the Year: Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
This is a wide-open race. Hayes will have competition from teammates Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ; Maryland’s Melo Trimble could have a bounce-back junior season and run away with the award; Indiana has multiple candidates in Thomas Bryant and James Blackmon Jr.; and Iowa’s Peter Jok and Illinois’s Malcolm Hill project to the be the conference’s top two scorers. But Hayes, whom SI forecasts to lead the league’s best team in points (15.9) and assists (2.8) per game, is the most sensible pick. After just a so-so junior season, his efficiency is likely to improve as his supporting cast gets more experienced, and he’s already the conference’s most advanced frontcourt passer.
Newcomer of the Year: Miles Bridges, Michigan State
Bridges and teammate Josh Langford are the only RSCI top-20 freshmen debuting in the Big Ten this season. SI projects Bridges to be the Spartans’ highest possession-user (at 25%) and average 12.5 points and 3.5 rebounds. He’s a physically imposing, explosive 3-4 man who’ll produce plenty of highlights. Coach Tom Izzo has called Bridges a “man-child.” But will he be efficient? If he settles too often for his unreliable three-point shot, he could drag down Michigan State’s offense.
All-Conference First Team & Sixth Man
PG: Melo Trimble, Maryland
SG: Malcolm Hill, Illinois
SG: Peter Jok, Iowa
SF: Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
PF: Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
6th man: SG: James Blackmon Jr., Indiana
(Second team: PG: Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin; WG: Zak Irvin, Michigan; SF: Vince Edwards, Purdue; PF: Ethan Happ, Wisconsin; C: Thomas Bryant, Indiana)
Projected Order of Finish
(Projected conference record in parentheses. The tiebreaker for teams with identical records is their standing in SI’s 1-351 national rankings, which will be revealed in early November.)
|Conference Rank||Team||Proj. Conf. Record||’15-16 Conf. Record|
1. Wisconsin (14–4)
Sophomore forward Ethan Happ is the key component in the league’s best defense. He led the Big Ten in steal rate—a rare achievement for a 6' 9" frontcourt player—and was fourth in defensive rebounding percentage as a redshirt freshman. Happ has the potential to be a big-time scorer as an upperclassman, but the bulk of the Badgers’ shots, for now, figure to be taken by Hayes and Koenig.
2. Purdue (12–6)
Our projection system loves 7' 2" giant Isaac Haas, who’s one of the league’s most efficient, high-usage scorers. He’s forecasted to play 20.8 minutes per game, but if he can overcome stamina and foul issues to stay on the floor for 25, he could be the Boilermakers’ leading scorer and find his way onto the All-Big Ten team.
3. Indiana (12–6)
Sophomore center Thomas Bryant and wing OG Anunoby are the Hoosiers’ top two NBA prospects, but junior guard James Blackmon’s history of high-volume, high-efficiency scoring makes him their projected offensive leader. The X-factor is transfer Josh Newkirk, a speedster who could start at point guard. He’ll need to improve on his sophomore-year performance at Pitt—in which he had a 92.0 offensive rating on 21.0% usage—to keep Indiana’s offense running at an elite level.
|James Blackmon Jr.||Jr||SG||17.6||4.3||1.9||124.6||26%||70%|
4. Michigan (10–8)
Our projections expect Zak Irvin to positively regress to the mean; he was sidelined for multiple months with a back injury in the summer and fall of 2015, and it dragged down his junior-year efficiency. The Wolverines also have two of the league’s most valuable offensive role players in junior sharpshooter Duncan Robinson and forward Mark Donnal.
|Derrick Walton, Jr.||Sr||PG||13.0||5.0||4.3||116.7||22%||85%|
5. Michigan State (10–8)
If Tom Izzo can turn this roster into one of the Big Ten’s best defenses, it’ll be one of his better coaching jobs. The Spartans lost nearly all of their defensive rebounding and rim protection from last season, when they had the stingiest D (on a per-possession basis) in Big Ten play, they’re dangerously thin in the frontcourt after losing Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling to injuries, and they’ll be relying on four freshman to play significant minutes.
|Tum Tum Nairn Jr.||PG||Jr||3.7||1.8||3.4||108.0||15%||52%|
6. Maryland (10–8)
Melo Trimble—and the Terps as a whole—underperformed their preseason projections from ‘15–16, when he was picked as the Big Ten POY and they were ranked No. 4 in SI’s preview. This time around, we see Trimble improving on his sophomore-year numbers and carrying Maryland to either the league’s last or second-to-last NCAA tourney bid.
7. Ohio State (10–8)
The Buckeyes look like an NCAA tourney bubble team, and their candidacy for a bid will depend on the progress of point guard JaQuan Lyle, who was too inefficient as a ball-dominant freshman last season for their offense to thrive. OSU projects to have the league’s most balanced scoring attack, as the only team with five players averaging in double-figures.
8. Northwestern (9–9)
This marks a slight improvement for coach Chris Collins, who was 6–12 in his first two seasons in the Big Ten before going 8–10 last year. But the Wildcats will likely need to outperform this projection by 1–2 wins—and get a monster year out of workhorse point guard Bryant McIntosh—to reach the first NCAA tournament in school history.
9. Illinois (8–10)
Senior guard Malcolm Hill can do everything for the Illini: He scores, he distributes, he defensive-rebounds, and he can handle four different positions. But he still may end his career without ever playing in the Big Dance. If Illinois is going to surprise this season, Charlotte transfer Mike Thorne, who started the first seven games of ‘15–16 at the five spot and was productive before suffering a knee injury, will need to make a major impact.
|Mike Thorne Jr.||Sr||C||11.0||6.7||0.5||110.9||26%||55%|
10. Iowa (8–10)
This is the season of Peter Jok in Iowa City. We project the 6' 6" senior guard to lead all major-conference players (even Duke’s Grayson Allen!) in points per game. Jok will play huge minutes, come off endless screens and keep Iowa’s offense afloat, but he’ll need some support. The most likely candidate for a breakout is German forward Dominique Uhl, who projects to make the leap to double-digit scorer and the Hawkeyes’ top rebounder after playing a bench role last season.
11. Penn State (7–11)
The Nittany Lions are amassing talent—this year’s recruiting class, led by Tony Carr, Mike Watkins and Lamar Stevens, is coach Pat Chambers’s best yet—and none of their top six projected scorers is a senior. If the underclassmen develop and the roster sticks together, there could be a shot at an NCAA tourney breakthrough in ‘17–18.
12. Nebraska (7–11)
Andrew White III’s decision to graduate-transfer to Syracuse leaves the Huskers without a natural go-to-guy—and most likely, with an offense that will rank outside the national top 100. It’ll be more of a score-by-committee situation between Glynn Watson Jr., Tai Webster and Louisville transfer Anton Gill.
|Glynn Watson Jr.||So||PG||11.6||2.5||3.0||108.7||22%||72%|
13. Minnesota (6–12)
The Gophers should improve from last year’s turbulent, suspension-ridden, 2–16 campaign but still finish second-to-last in the league. They have an established lead guard in Nate Mason and better depth with the addition of Milwaukee transfer shooting guard Akeem Springs and former Illinois State center Reggie Lynch.
14. Rutgers (3–15)
New coach Steve Pikiell did great work at Stony Brook, coaching the Seawolves to the NCAA tournament—and a No. 94 efficiency ranking—last season. The bar should be extremely low for him in Year 1 at Rutgers, though. The roster he inherits projects to be the nation’s least efficient major-conference team for the second season in a row. If he can somehow get this team not to finish last in the Big Ten, that should be viewed as an accomplishment.