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Big Ten Preview: Michigan State Leads an Intriguing Set of Conference Contenders

Was last year's top-heavy Big Ten an anomaly? With fewer elite teams but more depth, the conference seems poised to have a different look in 2018–19.

As part of's preview of the 2018–19 college basketball season, we're breaking down each of the seven major conferences, plus the best of the rest. Our predicted order of finish for each league is drawn from our master 1–353 rankings, the full list of which will be revealed later this month. We did the AAC, ACC and the Big East; Next up for our conference previews is the Big Ten, complete with our analyst's breakdowns of each team and anonymous scouting takes from coaches or assistants around the league.

The Big Picture

Last season was a top-heavy year for the Big Ten, which earned only four NCAA tournament bids after a number of teams underachieved but also saw Michigan get all the way to the title game. This year, the conference is short on truly elite preseason contenders—the closest is Michigan State, which will probably start the year just inside or on the fringe of the top 10 nationally—but has the potential to be notably deeper. That could be an overall advantage for the league, which saw Nebraska go 13–5 in Big Ten play and win 22 games overall last year and yet not make the Big Dance. Depth in the conference will be especially important after the Big Ten opted to move to a 20-game schedule this year.

Conference Player of the Year: Carsen Edwards, Purdue

Edwards likely won’t just be a favorite for Big Ten Player of the Year, but National Player of the Year as well. The 6'1" point guard averaged 18.5 points and 2.8 assists while shooting 45.8% from the floor and 40.6% from three as a sophomore, and that was as the floor general of a starting lineup that featured four seniors. With the likes of Isaac Haas, Dakota Mathias and others no longer in West Lafayette, Edwards will be counted on even more to produce following his breakout year. He was already Purdue’s most used offensive weapon a season ago and now will need to adjust to defenses further keying in on him as a junior.

Newcomer of the Year: Romeo Langford, Indiana

Langford is the obvious pick, yes, but he feels like the surest thing among the conference’s new faces. The hype is off the charts in the Hoosier State for the Big Ten’s first RSCI top-five recruit since Jared Sullinger in 2010, and maybe he’ll meet those expectations—or maybe he won’t. But what’s clear right now is that he has a starring role in the Indiana offense awaiting him, sliding into the graduated Robert Johnson’s starting shooting guard spot, and will have the requisite talent around him in the likes of Juwan Morgan, Devonte Green and Justin Smith to keep defenses busy. The 6'6" guard will likely fill up the score sheet and prove to be one of Indiana’s top threats from deep.

Dark Horse Team to Win the Conference: Nebraska

Nebraska has never won a Big Ten regular-season title and hasn’t won a regular-season conference title, period, since it finished in a three-way tie for first in the Big Seven in 1950. The Cornhuskers’ fortunes could change this year because they have—on paper, at least—a winning formula: A conference player of the year candidate in James Palmer Jr., a defense that can keep them in most games (Nebraska finished second in Big Ten play in defensive efficiency in 2017–18, per and a veteran lineup that will be among the most experienced in the country. If the Huskers can improve their defensive rebounding woes, they’ll be in great shape to contend for the crown.

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Predicted Order of Finish

1. Michigan State

The Skinny: Despite losing two NBA lottery picks, the Spartans bring back a wealth of experience that makes them the favorite to repeat as regular season champs. Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford are all upperclassmen now, while sharp-shooter Matt McQuaid and role player Kenny Goins return for their senior years. One of the biggest questions may be whether Ward, who averaged only 18.9 minutes per game last season, can maintain his torrid rebounding and foul-drawing paces in expanded playing time. Sophomore forward Xavier Tillman is a name to keep an eye on, as well as three top-100 freshmen: Marcus Bingham Jr., Foster Loyer and Gabe Brown.

Scout’s Take: “[Tom] Izzo is a Hall of Fame coach who always has his guys ready to play. Their team will go as Cassius Winston goes.”

They Said It (Notable Media Day Quote by the Head Coach): “I think Cassius [Winston] is one of the smartest players … If I think this team in general is a little better, I think we have a better basketball IQ than some teams we’ve had. But Cassius is right up there with one of the best we’ve ever had as far as his basketball IQ. It’s just putting the rest of his game together that’s going to be a key.”

2. Michigan

The Skinny: The national runners-up bid farewell to three key players, including Moritz Wagner, but return Charles Matthews as the leader of a group that could once again overachieve. Seven-footer Jon Teske should see his role increase, while Zavier Simpson and Jordan Poole return in the backcourt. The Wolverines will be stingy on defense again, but successfully replacing the offense of Wagner and Co. will be key to contending for the Big Ten title. A solid five-man recruiting class arrives, led by four stars Brandon Johns and Ignas Brazdeikis.

Scout’s Take: “I’ve been told the kid from Canada they got, Ignas Brazdeikis, he’s going to be really, really good. I talked to an NBA scout who watched him practice and he said he’s going to be very good, too. They’re expecting a lot of big things from him.”

They Said It: “The style that we’re going to have to play, we have to adapt again. We had to adapt last year, midway, to some things. Again, I think that’s what I love: embracing change, trying to change your team both offensively and defensively, what can work. I think we have a chance to be a good defensive team again, but I think offensively we’re a work in progress.”

3. Purdue

The Skinny: Four senior starters are gone from the Boilermakers’ Sweet 16 team, but Carsen Edwards returns as a National Player of the Year contender alongside a group that includes Matt Haarms, who backed up Isaac Haas at center last year, Nojel Eastern and Ryan Cline. Matt Painter also added Dartmouth big man transfer Evan Boudreaux, who averaged 17.5 points two seasons ago. If Purdue is going to remain a contender, it will need Edwards’s supporting cast to step up and help avoid too much drop-off from an offense that ranked second in’s adjusted efficiency a season ago.

Scout’s Take: "[Carsen] Edwards will have to do a lot for Purdue because they lost a lot. Matt Haarms will get his chance now that [Isaac] Haas is gone."

They Said It: “[Carsen Edwards] is a very dynamic player. He’s unique from a physical standpoint. He’s kind of got the body and the explosiveness like a Saquon Barkley. He plays through his offense.”

4. Nebraska

The Skinny: The Cornhuskers improved throughout last season, culminating with a 13–5 Big Ten record, and now an NCAA tournament bid at the minimum is well within reach for 2018–19. James Palmer Jr., Glynn Watson Jr. and Isaac Copeland Jr. are all back as seniors, while junior Isaiah Roby returns as well to complete Nebraska’s four leading scorers. After losing some of its depth, however, it will need guys like sophomore Thomas Allen to be ready for larger roles, especially on the perimeter. The Huskers could really benefit from an improved offensive showing and aggressiveness inside the arc, where their 62.5% shooting percentage at the rim ranked 246th in Division I, per Hoop-Math.

Scout’s Take: “They return a core of solid players and it starts with James Palmer Jr. If Palmer has a year like he did last year, Nebraska will be a tough out.”

They Said It: “James [Palmer Jr.] has been very impressive. As he came from Miami, he’s gotten a lot stronger, his ball skills have improved, his jump shot has improved, which I think is important, his three-point shooting has to be better this year.”

5. Wisconsin

The Skinny: The Badgers were a young team that got better as the season went last year, and they’ll now look to roll that momentum over after bringing back their entire rotation. It starts with Ethan Happ, of course, but sophomore point guard Brad Davison is a strong breakout candidate and 6'10" Nate Reuvers should see a bigger role alongside Happ in the frontcourt. Upperclassmen D'Mitrik Trice, Brevin Pritzl and Khalil Iverson will all bring a veteran presence and be relied upon for a consistency that was sometimes lacking in 2017–18.

Scout’s Take: “[Ethan] Happ will determine how good the Badgers do. However, they have a nice group of young players that make them an intriguing team.”

They Said It: “[Brad Davison] is impactful in so many ways. His fingerprints were all over the improvement and how we played at the end of the year. I know he’s excited to be healthy and to have guys returning around him that can utilize the experience that they gained last year, put us in position to have a great experience this year.”

6. Indiana

The Skinny: Romeo Langford is the headliner, but don’t overlook Indiana’s returning core. Second-team All-Big Ten honoree Juwan Morgan is back, and Devonte Green and Justin Smith are ones to watch. The health of De'Ron Davis, who tore his Achilles in January, is a question, but any boost he can give would help. Three-point shooting was a weakness for Indiana last season, but Langford will help there—as will St. Mary’s transfer Evan Fitzner, who has a career 41.4% shooting percentage from the perimeter. The Hoosiers must improve at the free-throw line as well.

Scout’s Take: “Another year of Archie [Miller] being able to teach them defense, and obviously they’ve got Romeo [Langford] coming in and [Juwan] Morgan’s gonna be really, really good. I just think them learning his system, they’re gonna be even better at it defensively.”

They Said It: “I think the thing that's been really enjoyable so far about Romeo [Langford] is he's just like one of the other guys. He's embraced his teammates. We're coaching hard. He's being coached. He's asking questions. He knows he's not perfect.”

7. Maryland

The Skinny: Point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. returns for his third year as a starter to lead a Terps team with the ingredients to put last season’s disappointment in the rearview mirror. Beyond Cowan, Bruno Fernando and Darryl Morsell, freshmen will be depended on a lot in College Park. Five-star forward Jalen Smith is the big name here, but guards Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala will both compete for starters’ minutes and Serrel Smith Jr. will provide offense off the bench. Depth in the frontcourt is a concern, with freshman Ricky Lindo Jr., senior Ivan Bender and junior Joshua Tomiac needing to show they can be reliable options.

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Scout’s Take: “Loads of talent, in my opinion. With Bruno [Fernando] and then Jalen Smith, who’s a freshman … not a lot of people have seen him, I’ve seen him on the AAU circuit. He’s super, super talented.”

They Said It: “We might be the youngest team I’ve ever had. But we're talented, fun to coach, they’re working hard. We’re excited for the year. Should be a really a fun team to watch because of their skill set and their length, their ability to play together.”

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8. Minnesota

The Skinny: This is a big year for the Gophers and coach Richard Pitino, who have a chance to rebound nicely now that some key pieces are expected to be healthy. Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer are both back after dealing with injuries last season, while Jordan Murphy returns after averaging a double double in the frontcourt. Giving Murphy a boost down low will be Eric Curry, who sat out last season with injury, and promising freshman center Daniel Oturu, a top-50 recruit. Sophomore Isaiah Washington, junior Michael Hurt and transfers Brock Stull (Milwaukee-Wisconsin) and Matz Stockman (Louisville) help round out the rotation. Now, the challenge for Pitino is putting it all together on both ends.

Scout’s Take: “You’ve got guys coming back from injury, they’ve got to be looking forward to having a full team so they can practice and get better at what they’re trying to do. But that’s a big key to them. [Amir] Coffey is, in my opinion, an NBA player. With him back, that’s gonna really benefit them. And [Jordan] Murphy too, Murphy’s big, strong and physical, he’s unique and a hard matchup.”

They Said It: “[Isaiah Washington] has grown a lot on the court. With all freshmen, it's habits. For him, as difficult as all the injuries were, it thrusted him into meaningful minutes. Now it’s just a matter of terminology, understanding offensively, defensively, never taking a play off, just understanding the difference between high school and college, AAU and college.”

9. Ohio State

The Skinny: The Buckeyes took the league by storm in Chris Holtmann’s first year, vastly outperforming most expectations, and to pull off a repeat they’ll have to reset without do-it-all star Keita Bates-Diop and fellow starters Jae'Sean Tate and Kam Williams. C.J. Jackson and Kaleb Wesson are solid returning pieces, while Wake Forest grad transfer Keyshawn Woods will boost the backcourt on offense. Forwards Micah Potter and Andre Wesson could see bigger roles, and a pair of top-100 freshmen arrives in guard Luther Muhammad and big man Jaedon LeDee.

Scout’s Take: “With no [Jae'Sean] Tate or [Keita] Bates-Diop, Ohio State will need to develop a go-to scoring option. But they have some solid options ready to fill that role.”

They Said It: “Luther Muhammad has been a really important recruit for us, given our lack of guard depth. We have loved coaching him. He has a tremendous work ethic, capacity for work. He is really competitive. I think he has the ability to impact the game on both ends.”

10. Penn State

The Skinny: Losing Tony Carr to the NBA took the Nittany Lions from a team that would’ve been expected to make the tournament to one that is back on the preseason bubble. But the NIT champions have key returning talent in the form of Lamar Stevens, Mike Watkins (who missed the postseason with injury and is currently dealing with legal issues) and Josh Reaves. Sophomore Jamari Wheeler is expected to step into Carr’s role at point guard, and John Harrar could have a larger role down low. A freshman class that includes four-stars Rasir Bolton and Myles Dread will be expected to contribute early.

Scout’s Take: “Tony Carr was clutch for them so that’s a lot to lose. However, they return Lamar Stevens who is a tough check along with [Mike] Watkins to go in the middle. Penn State will play hard every night.”

They Said It: “Right now Jamari Wheeler is playing great basketball … Great defender. Also good at managing the team right now. Really bringing those freshman guards along, setting the table for Josh [Reaves], Lamar [Stevens] and Mike [Watkins] to be successful on the offensive end. As long as he continues on that path, I think he's got a great chance to do something special for us, to lead us.”

11. Iowa

The Skinny: The good: The Hawkeyes can score. Playing at the fastest tempo in the Big Ten last year, they averaged 80 points per game and finished with a top-20 offense on Even better, their top nine scorers are all back—led by juniors Tyler Cook and Jordan Bohannon—and they add top-60 recruit Joe Wieskamp.

The bad: This returning group had the worst defense in the Big Ten last season, and it wasn’t particularly close. Iowa ranked 317th nationally in scoring defense and let opponents routinely shoot the lights out. The Hawkeyes have a lot of talent, but until they show notable improvement defensively it’s hard to forsee them making noise.

Scout’s Take: “Tyler Cook always makes you nervous, just because he’s such a physical and talented kid. He’s got NBA talent, and that’s always a matchup that you worry about. But even some of the younger guys that got more experience last year, I think they’re gonna be really good.”

They Said It: “I think [Tyler Cook] recognizes now the jump that he has to make. He has made it, in my estimation. Off the dribble, he’s been phenomenal. Making plays for other people this summer he’s been phenomenal. His assist-turnover ratio throughout a number of workouts has been spectacular.”

12. Northwestern

The Skinny: A disappointing 2017–18 season might not get much better after the graduation of Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and Gavin Skelly and the transfer of Isiah Brown. Vic Law and Dererk Pardon do return, however, as key holdovers from the Wildcats’ first-ever NCAA tournament team in 2016–17. Evansville grad transfer Ryan Taylor will help the offense after averaging 21.3 points and shooting 42.4% from three in the Missouri Valley, and former Boston College transfer A.J. Turner will be eligible after sitting out a year. But point guard is a major question mark and may fall to someone who’s more of a natural two, like Anthony Gaines.

Scout’s Take: “They did lose a lot, but I think the biggest key for them is going to be replacing Bryant McIntosh. He did so many good things for them. They lost a lot of experience.”

They Said It: “I feel like we have more shot-makers than we've had in the past. Certainly we're going to miss what [Bryant] McIntosh and [Scottie] Lindsey brought in the backcourt. But with the pieces we added, the ability to have more guys that can put the ball in the basket will help some of those offensive woes we went through at times last year.”

13. Illinois

The Skinny: The Illini did lose leading scorer Leron Black, but Brad Underwood looks to have something brewing for the future in Champaign. Sophomore Trent Frazier could take a leap after averaging 12.5 points as a freshman, and Aaron Jordan and Kipper Nichols are veteran leaders. Illinois brought in the No. 32 recruit in the country, Chicago product Ayo Dosunmu, who heads a seven-man class that also includes four-star wing Tevian Jones and top-ranked Juco point guard Andres Feliz. Seven-foot grad transfer Adonis De la Rosa is intriguing as well. Underwood has the right building blocks in place, but it may be a year too early for this team to break through.

Scout’s Take: "Coach [Brad] Underwood is still building his program, but once they grasp his style and get some momentum they might surprise some people."

They Said It: “The one thing that Trent [Frazier] has done is accepted some of the things that he didn’t do well. He’s allowed us to coach him. He’s gotten better. There’s no secret, he was a left-hand-dominant player last year. Now he’s just as good going right.”

14. Rutgers

The Skinny: The Scarlet Knights have yet to finish outside of the Big Ten basement since joining the conference in 2014, and losing leading scorers Corey Sanders and Deshawn Freeman won’t make that task easier. Guard Geo Baker could take the reins as the No. 1 option after a solid freshman season, one of several young but talented players who make up this roster. Center Mamadou Doucoure, a former four-star prospect, should see his role expand, and an influx of players, including redshirt freshman Myles Johnson, four-star freshman Montez Mathis, Juco transfer Shaq Carter and freshmen Caleb McConnell and Ron Harper Jr., could make Rutgers competitive.

Scout’s Take: “[Steve Pikiell] is doing a really good job, just keeps getting talent every year. Their guards are really good. And they got a Juco kid that played last year and usually takes another year to get ready, Shaq Carter. They’re getting more talent and it’s becoming a tougher place to play, because their talent level is going up and they’re packing that place. It’s not an easy place to play.”

They Said It: “You'll see an improvement with Geo Baker, his body. Now he’s going to be an exclusive point guard. With the ball in his hands, he really knows how to play. He’s got a little swagger about him. He’s showing great signs of being a good leader.”