In the Big Ten, Maryland enters the season as a national championship favorite, while Indiana, Michigan State and Wisconsin should be contenders again.
With spring recruiting having closed and nearly every transfer player in place, SI.com is here to catch you up on the state of each conference heading into the summer. So far we’ve covered the AAC, ACC, A-10 and Big East. Now, the Big Ten:
State of the champion(s): Wisconsin
Wisconsin’s magical 2015 season ended in heartbreak, as the Badgers squandered a nine-point lead to Duke (while Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow were on the bench, no less) in the second half of the national championship game. It’s unlikely that this year’s team will be quite as good—or quite as fun—as last year’s. Wisconsin lost four key seniors: center Frank Kaminsky, forward Duje Dukan and guards Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson. Kaminsky is the most meaningful loss, as he was the team’s leader on the court and its lighthearted center off of it. He swept the national player of the year awards and still had time to tweet at Arizona’s Stanley Johnson and challenge media members in FIFA. The Badgers also lose breakout junior wing Sam Dekker, who declared early for the NBA draft after an electric NCAA tournament performance.
Still, Wisconsin has some strong returning experience in its likely starting five. Bronson Koenig took over the point after Jackson’s injury and proved to be a consistent offensive threat. Nigel Hayes, in addition to charming stenographers, is a big man who can shoot the three and could be a player of the year candidate. For Wisconsin, the biggest problem may not be the loss of its own talent—coach Bo Ryan has a knack for player development—but the increase in competition around the Big Ten. Maryland is an early national championship favorite, and Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State combine returning talent with strong recruiting classes. Expect Wisconsin to be an NCAA tournament participant, but don’t hold out hope for another Big Ten crown.
Notable newcomer: Diamond Stone, Maryland
A year ago, Maryland lost five players in the off-season, and head coach Mark Turgeon was on every “hot seat” list. Then he led Maryland to a surprising 28-7 record, a second place finish in the Big Ten regular season race and an opening round win in the NCAA tournament, the school's first visit to the Big Dance in five years. This year, Turgeon’s Terps will be Big Ten favorites in large part because of the addition of a five-star freshman. Stone could have a Jahlil Okafor-like impact on the offensive end for Maryland this season and, at 6’10”, he might be the best scoring big man in his class.
Stone will also have the advantage of Maryland’s three-point shooters drawing defenses away from him. Sophomores Melo Trimble and Jared Nickens, senior Jake Layman and graduate transfer Rasheed Sulaimon are all threats from beyond the arc, meaning Stone will have more room to work in the paint. Moreover, Stone doesn’t have to worry about being doubled down low, as Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter, who is 6’8”, will command plenty of attention of his own. Stone may not be a player of the year candidate—in fact, Trimble will likely be Maryland’s top dog—but he could be the country’s best freshman.
Notable departure: Kaminsky, Wisconsin
The Big Ten had the best player in college basketball last year in Kaminsky, who was an unlikely star after sitting for much of his freshman and sophomore seasons. Kaminsky really didn't begin to garner national attention until he helped the Badgers reach the 2014 Final Four in his junior season. Some questioned whether he could live up to the preseason hype placed upon him in November. By almost every measure, he exceeded expectations.
There is no obvious candidate on Wisconsin—or in the rest of the Big Ten—to replace Kaminsky. He had the footwork and post moves of an elite college center and also shot 41.6% from the three-point line. His shot selection was excellent—he seldom settled for long twos, instead preferring to pop threes from his favorite spot on the floor (above the right elbow) or drive and finish at the rim. He was also an underrated rim protector. Kaminsky was a great college basketball story. In the right system, he went from an unheralded recruit to a likely top-10 pick in the NBA draft.
Illinois: The Illini need to shoot better. It seems simple, and it is, but Illinois was 235th in effective field goal percentage and shot just 44.4% on twos last year (300th in the country). Losing senior guard Rayvonte Rice early to the NBA draft won’t help. Junior Malcolm Hill will continue to shoulder much of the scoring load, but someone needs to step up to help him out.
Indiana: The Hoosiers return plenty of talent from their NCAA tournament team, most notably rising senior guard Yogi Ferrell. They also welcome in five-star big man Thomas Bryant. Improving the defense will no doubt be Tom Crean’s focus this summer. The Hoosiers were 330th in turnover percentage, 188th in offensive rebounding and 224th in opponent effective field goal percentage.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes made the NCAAs for the second straight year and have four starters returning, but the one who isn't back is a big loss: forward Aaron White, who averaged 11.1 points and 5.7 boards in 31.5 minutes a game. Senior forward Jarrod Uthoff will be the main candidate to absorb the extra touches for the Hawkeyes.
Maryland: Mark Turgeon has the equivalent of a head coaching “first-world problem” this season. He has plenty of talent, but needs to make sure it meshes together into a strong rotation.
Michigan: The loss of Caris LeVert to a broken foot at midseason was the final blow that doomed the Wolverines to a 16-16 season. LeVert’s return will help, but Michigan needs to improve in offensive rebounding (it was 325th in the country last year), drawing fouls (350th) and defensive effective field goal percentage (247th). Michigan badly needs a big man to emerge.
Michigan State: The Spartans’ Final Four run masked many of the troubles they encountered during the regular season, the low point of which was losing to Texas Southern at home in December. Izzo is reinvigorated in East Lansing, and his mission now will be to put a consistently good product on the floor from November to February.
Minnesota: Growing pains are going to be the Golden Gophers’ biggest problem early in the season. They lose three key seniors in Maurice Walker, Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu. Can guard Nate Mason or center Bakary Konate have a breakout sophomore season to ease the transition?
Nebraska: The Cornhuskers had huge offensive problems a year ago, and their best offensive player has left for the NBA. That may be a benefit though, as Terran Petteway became a high-usage (32.3%), mediocre-efficiency (94.8 offensive rating) offensive player as a junior. Guard Shavon Shields seems poised to benefit from more scoring chances, but who will help him?
Northwestern: The Wildcats return a solid core of experienced players, but there are some fundamental issues that need to be addressed in the off-season. Chief among them is rebounding. Northwestern has a true 7-footer in Alex Olah but was 243rd in offensive rebounding last year and 283rd in offensive rebounding percentage.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes need to find fast replacements for freshman star D’Angelo Russell and senior leader Shannon Scott in the backcourt. Jae’Sean Tate had a fine freshman campaign that was overlooked in part because of Russell’s brilliance at the point, but he’ll be counted on to take a big step forward as a sophomore.
Penn State: This was a mediocre scoring team a season ago, with an offensive rating of 102.1 (171st in the country). And unfortunately, the team’s best offensive player, D.J. Newbill, has graduated. Penn State needs to find points, and there isn’t an obvious candidate on the roster who can deliver them.
Purdue: The Boilermakers had a good season a year ago, finishing 61st in offensive efficiency and 58th in the defensive efficiency en route to the NCAA tournament. To improve, they need to focus on turnovers. On offense, the Boilermakers were 228th in turnover percentage, and they were 263rd in forcing turnovers on defense.
Rutgers: A 15-game losing streak to end the 2015 campaign leaves the Scarlet Knights with plenty to work on this off-season. Their defense is passable, but the offense was horrendous a year ago, finishing 287th in the country in efficiency. There is a lot of room for improvement in every category, from turnover percentage to three-point shooting.
Wisconsin: The Badgers last year boasted the most efficient offense of the 14 seasons for which kenpom.com tracks such data. Without Dekker, Kaminsky & co., it’s unlikely they’ll be able to stay on that mountaintop. Instead, they could focus on defensive improvement, where they’ll have to adjust to not having a 7-footer in the paint.