Now that August is here and we’re less than three months away from the start of college basketball’s regular season, it’s time to check in on each of the six major conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC). 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, whether they’re related to specific teams and players or the league as a whole. We’ve already done the ACC, the Big 12 and the Big East, next up: the Big Ten.
Big Ten Summer Power Rankings
1.Michigan State: Despite losing two lottery picks, the returning core of Nick Ward, Joshua Langford, Matt McQuaid and Cassius Winston is probably the best of the conference.
2. Michigan: The national runners-up should be able to ride a strong defense again, but the Wolverines will need someone to step up offensively after losing three of their top four scorers.
3. Nebraska: After making a strong push for the tournament with a surprising 13–5 league mark, the Huskers bring back a substantial nucleus led by James Palmer Jr.
4. Indiana: Romeo Langford will garner the headlines with good reason, but don’t overlook the return of All–Big Ten second-teamer Juwan Morgan.
5. Wisconsin: The young Badgers started to come into their own near the end of last season and return nearly everyone of note, including Big Ten player of the year candidate Ethan Happ.
6.Maryland: Kevin Huerter’s decision to join Justin Jackson in leaving early lowered this team’s ceiling, but the performance of the Big Ten’s top recruiting class could re-raise it.
7. Minnesota: The Golden Gophers could surprise after a year when they disappointed, but they must stay healthy and need Amir Coffey to return to form following February soulder surgery.
8. Purdue: As examined in depth below, it’s hard to gauge right now exactly how good the Carsen Edwards-led Boilermakers will be after losing four starters.
9. Ohio State: Losing the conference player of the year in Keita Bates-Diop is significant, but grad transfers Keyshawn Woods and C.J. Walker arrive.
10. Penn State: The departure of Tony Carr was a tough blow for the NIT winners, which must pick up his 19.6 ppg on offense but could be strong again defensively.
11. Iowa: Tyler Cook, Jordan Bohannon and Luke Garza are solid pieces, but the Hawkeyes have to prove they can defend after a dreadful year on that end.
12. Northwestern: After a letdown season, the Wildcats will turn to Vic Law, Dererk Pardon and some new faces to right the ship.
13. Illinois: Brad Underwood has the Illini on the right track with a top-25 recruiting class led by four-star Ayo Dosunmu, and promising sophomore Trent Frazier returns.
14. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights have yet to get out of the Big Ten cellar since joining the league, and the loss of Corey Sanders and Deshawn Freeman doesn’t help.
Is the conference title race an all-Michigan battle?
We’ll answer this one now: Probably not. While the Spartans and Wolverines lead our summer power rankings and could very well finish 1–2, it’ll be surprising if they’re not pushed by as many as three or even four other teams. Michigan State feels like the most secure pick as the preseason favorite, with a strong batch of returners and three top-100 recruits on the way (the highest of which is No. 62), and Michigan also adds three top-100 recruits (the highest of which is No. 67) to a group that includes Charles Matthews, Zavier Simpson, Jordan Poole and Jon Teske. Head coach John Beilein and the Wolverines get a little bit of the benefit of the doubt for now after a Final Four run, but their losses may prove tough to overcome, particularly on offense. The next group of teams are either returning a ton or mixing in some top talent (see below), and you can probably count on some surprise contenders, such as Ohio State and even Nebraska.
Will the Big Ten’s two incoming five-stars have a five-star impact?
The only two Big Ten schools to bring in a five-star recruit in 2018—Romeo Langford for Indiana, Jalen Smith for Maryland—or have a top-10 class both find themselves outside the top three in our rankings. However, they may be the two schools with the most potential to break into that group, or even contend for the conference title, if things go right. The Romeo Langford hype in Bloomington is real, and his addition was of particular importance after the graduation of starting guard Robert Johnson. But the Hoosiers return Juwan Morgan, De’Ron Davis and Devonte Green, and they seem poised to take a definite step forward in Archie Miller’s second year in charge—the question is just how big of a step.
Over in College Park, Smith joins Bruno Fernando in what could end up the league’s best frontcourt duo, giving junior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr., entering his third year as a starter, two big targets. The play of four-star freshman Aaron Wiggins on the perimeter will be pivotal, as the Terps are going to need their freshmen to step up if they’re going to make noise in the Big Ten.
What should we make of Purdue?
The Boilermakers have been all over the map in terms of national expectations—they appear in some way-too-early top 25s and nowhere near others. The reason for the varied opinions probably comes down to one man: talented junior guard Carsen Edwards, who will likely be a national player of the year candidate. The flip side is that Edwards is the lone starter returning from a senior-laden team that was very, very good (Matt Haarms, who started in place of injured center Isaac Haas in Purdue’s final two NCAA games, also notably returns as a sophomore). The sheer impact of losing that amount of experience and veteran leadership can sometimes be underestimated, even when there is a player as talented as Edwards leading the way. If you take a glass half-full approach to Purdue, you envision Edwards starring while Nojel Eastern breaks out as a sophomore and Haarms and Dartmouth grad transfer Evan Boudreaux form a solid tandem down low, and the Big Ten-contending Boilermakers sail back to the tournament. If you take a glass half-empty one, you envision a team that doesn’t quite have enough support around Edwards and finds itself on the bubble, at best.
Can Wisconsin continue its late-season upward trajectory?
The Badgers, coming off a 15–18 season, may seem a bit high at No. 5, and that’s fair. But there’s something to be said for continuity, and Wisconsin is overflowing with it. This is a team that was expected to take a step back last year after graduating a senior-laden core—and it did, starting the year 4–7 amid a tough slate. It also hit a bad skid in Big Ten play, losing seven of eight in January and early February. So why believe in the Badgers? They started two freshmen, a sophomore and two juniors, and in the last month of the season it seemed like things were finally coming together: They won five of eight, including a win over Purdue, and gave Michigan State a strong fight twice, losing by a combined eight points in two games. Freshman point guard Brad Davison impressed down the stretch and could have a strong sophomore season and, oh yeah, there’s Ethan Happ (yes, he’s still in college). Wisconsin’s remarkable 19-year NCAA tournament streak is finally over, but expect it to start a new one in 2019.
Will the Big Ten be more balanced this year?
The Big Ten had a pretty distinct tier system last season: Michigan State and Purdue were the league’s cream of the crop for most of the year, with Ohio State and Michigan eventually working their way into that top group. The conference sent only four teams to the NCAA tournament (its fewest since 2007–08, when it had only 11 total teams), but all four were No. 5 seeds or better. That fact illustrates the gap that existed in the conference, but it seems likely that the Big Ten will be more balanced next season. It might not have anyone regarded as highly as the Spartans or Boilermakers were at points, like when both were in the top five, but there should be more depth and less drop-off from the top few. That could work against the league in some aspects—one of those top teams, Michigan, went all the way to the national championship game—but it might also strengthen its overall reputation and even those of its individual top teams. (remember when Purdue was considered fairly untested while 12–0 in conference play?)
Was Northwestern’s surprisingly down year an anomaly?
Coming off their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance, the Wildcats were supposed to be even better in 2017–18 after bringing back their top five scorers. After opening at No. 19 in the preseason AP poll, things went south early when they got rocked by Texas Tech, ultimately ending a 15–17 season with seven straight losses. Now, four-year starting point guard Bryant McIntosh is gone, as well as leading scorer Scottie Lindsey and big man Gavin Skelly. Chris Collins does, however, return Vic Law and Dererk Pardon, adds four-star recruits Pete Nance and Miller Kopp and gets the services of two key transfers: guard Ryan Taylor, a big-time scorer who led the Mountain Valley Conference in scoring last season with 21.3 ppg on 42.4% shooting from three, and A.J. Turner, who sat out last season and averaged 8.4 points for Boston College in 2016–17. If everyone stays healthy—which wasn’t always the case last year—there’s reason to believe the Wildcats will be improved. The big question, though, is replacing McIntosh at point guard, especially after backup Isiah Brown transferred out in March, leaving plenty of uncertainty at the position.
Is Minnesota in line for a bounce-back year?
Speaking of teams that underperformed in 2017–18, the Golden Gophers were ranked even higher than Northwestern last preseason at No. 15 and also finished 15–17, including a brutal 4–14 mark in Big Ten play. The beginning of that skid coincided with an injury that became season-ending to standout sophomore guard Amir Coffey, as well as the exit of starter Reggie Lynch, who was expelled after two sexual misconduct rulings. Coffey will be back, and if he’s healthy after undergoing shoulder surgery, Minnesota should be closer to resembling the team that many heading into last season than the one that stumbled through conference play. Jordan Murphy, who averaged 16.8 points and 11.3 rebounds, returns as a senior, joining guards Dupree McBrayer and Isaiah Washington and wing Michael Hurt. Additionally, big man Eric Curry will be back after missing all of last year with a torn ACL, and top-50 recruit Daniel Oturu arrives.
What impact will the league’s new 20-game schedule have?
This is the first year of the Big Ten’s switch to a 20-game conference schedule, up from 18. The most obvious impact of that move is a couple fewer nonconference games for each school, but it also means we’re getting Big Ten basketball in early December (and even on Nov 30!) again. In 2017, that happened because the league had to move up its tournament a week to host it in New York City; now, the conference slate is simply extended, with a week of games from Nov. 30-Dec. 6 and then a full run from Jan. 2 to March 10. Having conference games in the first week of December is always a little jarring, and for teams that are particularly young or still trying to jell, it represents two very early tests that could potentially cost them in the standings later. If the Big Ten has another year with unimpressive depth beyond the top few, it’s going to make each team’s marquee nonconference games all the more important for résumé building.