Big Ten Preview: Can Anyone Chase Down Michigan State?

The Spartans are the clear favorite to win the Big Ten in 2019–20, but this could be another deep season for the conference.
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Big Ten basketball 2019-20 rankings preview preseason

As part of SI.com's preview of the 2019–20 college basketball season, we're breaking down each of the seven major conferences, plus the best of the rest. We've done the AAC, ACCBig East and Big 12; next up for our conference previews is the Big Ten, complete with our analyst's breakdowns of each team and a projected order of finish.

The Big Picture

It was a banner year for the Big Ten in 2018–19. No, the conference didn’t end its national championship drought, but it sent more teams (eight) to the NCAA tournament than any other league and was represented at the Final Four by Michigan State. Additionally, those eight teams went 7–1 in the first round of March Madness, a testament to the conference’s top-to-bottom depth. Sending another eight teams dancing will be difficult, but isn’t out of the question. Of course, the biggest prize the league is chasing is that elusive national title, which hasn’t been won by a Big Ten team since the Spartans in 2000 (Maryland won as an ACC school in 2002). With the nation’s preseason No. 1 team and two other schools in the AP top 20, the pressure is already on for postseason results.

Conference Player of the Year: Cassius Winston, Michigan State

Winston isn’t just the favorite to win this award in the Big Ten—he’s also a top candidate nationally after a sparkling junior season that saw him average 18.8 points and 7.5 assists, with the nation’s No. 3 assist rate. Michigan State needed every bit of that production to get to the Final Four last March, but the Spartans should have more balance and depth this time around. Still, expect Winston to shine as the engine that makes the nation’s preseason No. 1 team run, especially if he can cut down on what was at times a nagging turnover problem in 2018–19.

Newcomer of the Year: D.J. Carton, Ohio State

Despite the Big Ten having no five-star freshmen, there’s a few intriguing options here, including Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis, Michigan State’s Rocket Watts and even Michigan’s Franz Wagner as a darkhorse. We ultimately went with Carton due to a mix of both talent and opportunity. Ohio State needs a new starting backcourt after graduating CJ Jackson and Keyshawn Woods, and Carton is well-positioned to slide in, along with former FSU transfer CJ Walker. The freshman can play both guard positions and will likely split time with Walker at the point running the Buckeye offense. The athletic Carton brings both shooting and solid court vision to a team that needs its offense to catch up to its defense if it’s to live up to expectations in 2019–20. Expect Carton to play a major role for Ohio State, which needs consistent play from its top-ranked freshman.

Darkhorse Team to Win the Conference: Purdue

It feels weird calling Purdue a darkhorse team, especially considering it’s finished no lower than fourth in each of the last five seasons. But one year after replacing four starters and being a few bounces away from the Final Four, Matt Painter has another tricky job to do. Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline are gone, taking away the top two scorers of an offense that was No. 4 in adjusted efficiency. There’s several intriguing pieces still here, and together they have the potential to make a run at the conference title. But a lot of things need to go right.

First Team All-Conference

Cassius Winston, guard, Michigan State
Ayo Dosunmu, guard, Illinois
Kaleb Wesson, forward, Ohio State
Lamar Stevens, forward, Penn State
Jalen Smith, forward, Maryland
Sixth Man: Xavier Tillman, Michigan State

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

1. Michigan State

No surprise here. Coming off a co–Big Ten title and a Final Four run, the Spartans brought back three starters, including National Player of the Year candidate Cassius Winston, plus get former starter Joshua Langford back from injury and add the conference’s No. 2 recruiting class (Editor's note: After publish, it was announced that Langford will be out indefinitely). Junior big man Xavier Tillman looks set for a breakout after performing well down the stretch when the departed Nick Ward was injured, and sophomore Aaron Henry could be in line for a notable leap as well. Langford is likely to return to his starting two guard spot, with Henry on the wing and Tillman in at center.

The biggest question for this team might be the power forward spot, where options include 6’6” senior Kyle Ahrens (if Tom Izzo wants to go small), 6’7" four-star freshman Malik Hall and 6’11” sophomore Marcus Bingham, a former top-70 recruit who played sparingly as a freshman and is still working on bulking up. Incoming top-40 guard Rocket Watts will provide depth in the backcourt, which is critical for Michigan State after Winston got overtaxed down the stretch while carrying the team through a series of player injuries. Watts is a combo guard with scoring potential and, along with sophomore Foster Loyer, will likely see some time at the one when Winston isn’t on the floor.

2. Maryland

The pieces are there for this to be the Terrapins’ best team under Mark Turgeon—now, it comes down to execution. Maryland was one of the five youngest teams in the country last year, and its ceiling as a national contender depends on two things: 1) whether its now-sophomores make the individual leaps necessary to improve on a 23-win campaign and 2) cutting down on a consistent turnover bug. Bruno Fernando is the only notable roster loss, and it’s a big one, but 6’10” Jalen Smith has the talent to be one of the Big Ten’s best players, especially with added strength and improved perimeter shooting. Aaron Wiggins is full of potential on the wing but will need to show more of an aggressive and efficient approach inside the arc to reach it, and 6'8" Ricky Lindo is a bit of a wild card, with all the physical tools needed to be a glue guy but an offensive game that needs to catch up. Freshman forward Donta Scott and center Makhi Mitchell look to be the likeliest new immediate contributors. Pulling the strings will be senior point guard Anthony Cowan, who saw his shooting efficiency dip as a junior but has started every game of his career, with sophomore Eric Ayala (40% from three as a freshman) and junior defensive stopper Darryl Morsell filling out the backcourt.

3. Ohio State

The Buckeyes have overachieved in both seasons under Chris Holtmann so far. Now, he’s got his most talented roster yet—overlook them at your own risk. Kaleb Wesson will be one of the conference’s best big men, especially if he can find more consistency and avoid some of the foul trouble that limited him as a sophomore. His brother, Andre Wesson, is also back as a senior option at the three or the four, and guards Luther Muhammad, Duane Washington Jr. and Musa Jallow and forwards Kyle Young and Justin Ahrens make up the rest of the returning core. Together, that’s six of Ohio State’s top eight scorers, while Holtmann adds the nation’s No. 14 recruiting class (and the Big Ten’s best). Guard D.J. Carton and forwards E.J. Lidell and Alonzo Gaffney are all top-50 recruits, giving a team that tended to stall offensively last year a jolt of new talent. Former Florida State guard C.J. Walker brings valuable experience and should join with Carton in the starting backcourt, making for a strong balance of veterans and youth up and down the lineup.

4. Purdue

The Boilermakers have two big holes to replace in 2019–20: their go-to scorer, Carsen Edwards (who took 37.5% of their shots when on the floor), and uber efficient sharpshooter Ryan Cline. Those are not easy holes to fill, but this isn’t the first time a Matt Painter team has had to overcome a ton of lost production. The biggest questions are on offense, where a drop-off from last year’s top-five efficient team feels likely. Not only is shot-creating a concern, but Edwards and Cline were responsible for two-thirds of the threes Purdue took last season, and no returning player attempted more than Aaron Wheeler’s 85. There’s also the matter of replacing Edwards at the point, and 6’6” junior guard Nojel Eastern may be an answer there as he continues to work on developing his shot. High Point grad transfer Jahaad Proctor and freshman Brandon Newman could add scoring in the backcourt.

Up front and on the wing, Purdue is well-positioned. Junior 7’3” center Matt Haarms returns, and sophomore big Trevion Williams showed flashes in limited minutes as a freshman. Wheeler, a 6’9” sophomore power forward, could be in line for significant growth, and sophomore wing Sasha Stefanovic has shown sharpshooter potential. Defensively, this team should be right up there with the best in the Big Ten given its length and anchors like Eastern and Haarms.

5. Michigan

The Juwan Howard era begins in Ann Arbor with the Wolverines needing to replace three starters from a team that won 30 games. The two that return, Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske, are solid pieces, and last year’s sixth man, Isaiah Livers, could be a guy that excels in an expanded role. Livers’s offensive development is especially important after Michigan lost its best shot-creators, and there’s real question about whether there’s enough offense here to rise out of the middle pack of the conference. Keep an eye on freshman Franz Wagner, younger brother of Moritz. Early returns on the 6’8” wing out of Germany have been promising, and he’ll bring shooting and should be a scoring source once he gets back from a recent fractured wrist.

With Simpson and 7’1” Teske anchoring it the Michigan defense should be sound again, though it remains to be seen how much of an impact losing defensive guru Luke Yaklich to Texas will have. The Wolverines will also obviously be adjusting to a new head coach and a new system on both ends after years under John Beilein.

6. Wisconsin

Ethan Happ is gone after a stellar college career, but don’t overlook the Badgers’ returning pieces. Happ is a significant loss both in terms of his raw production and his presence in the paint, and, similar to Purdue, Wisconsin has to adjust to life without a player whom the offense went through. Junior 6’11” big man Nate Reuvers has plenty of starting experience and will see his role increase, and unlike Happ, he can knock down the three (38.1% in 84 attempts last season). Aleem Ford and former Ohio State transfer Micah Potter (the latter of whom won’t be eligible until Dec. 21) will also be called upon in the frontcourt, and together the trio’s contributions will be critical.

The Badgers have the pieces to be at least solid on defense again after finishing fourth in kenpom’s defensive efficiency, but they’ll need to find more consistency on offense. Even without Happ drawing double teams and finding kick outs, expect Wisconsin’s three-point rate to increase as the likes of Brad Davison, D'Mitrik Trice, Kobe King and Brevin Pritzl roam the perimeter. This team should be sure-handed with the ball, but rebounding is a potential concern and the Badgers will have to prove they can overcome the inevitable poor shooting nights that cost them in 2018–19.

7. Illinois

It’s been a while since there’s been this much optimism around Illinois men’s basketball. Yes, the Illini are coming off a 12-win season, but they return four starters from a team that started to click after a disastrous first half of the year. Under Brad Underwood’s system, Illinois plays at a fast-paced, high-pressure style designed to create turnovers, which it did better than anyone in the Big Ten during conference play. Now, the team must improve on turning those into easy opportunities on offense, as well as stopping opponents when they don’t force a giveaway. The raw numbers for the Illini defense last season weren’t pretty, and on both ends, they struggled in the halfcourt (one big culprit that needs to be fixed: shooting just 47.1% on two-pointers in Big Ten play while letting opponents shoot 54.3%).

So why the national sunny outlook, which includes buzz that this team can get all the way to the NCAA tournament? It starts with 6’5” wing Ayo Dosunmu, an All-Big Ten candidate and NBA prospect who will benefit from a second year in college as he continues to develop his shot. In the backcourt, Trent Frazier and Andres Feliz are both back, with Frazier serving as the leading returning three-point shooter. Down low, Giorgi Bezhanishvili was a revelation as a freshman, averaging 12.5 points and 5.2 rebounds, and should be even better as a sophomore. The Illini also add 6’10” center Kofi Cockburn, a top-50 recruit who could provide a much-needed interior defensive boost.

8. Iowa

Will Jordan Bohannon suit up this year? That’s still the big question for the Hawkeyes with the season two weeks away. The senior guard had hip surgery in May and made it clear that he would redshirt 2019–20 if he’s not ready to play, and while he’s been recovering well, there’s been no decision made. A healthy Bohannon would be a major boost for Iowa this season, and without him, a lot of offensive pressure will fall to sophomore wing Joe Wieskamp, who shot 42.4% from three as a freshman and is likely in line for a significant increase in offensive usage no matter what.

Without Bohannon, Wieskamp and junior center Luka Garza would be the only returning starters, the latter of whom can be counted on to provide both scoring and rebounding down low. Depth in the frontcourt is a concern, though, especially after Cordell Pemsl was suspended indefinitely following a drunken-driving arrest. Senior Ryan Kriener and redshirt sophomore Jack Nunge lead the options, while 6’8” freshman Patrick McCaffery could be a versatile weapon at multiple positions for his head coach father. His brother, sophomore Connor McCaffery, returns in the backcourt, and at least one of Connor, freshman Joe Toussaint or Valpo transfer Bakari Evelyn is going to need to prove to be a viable starting point guard if Bohannon indeed sits out.

9. Indiana

Indiana won’t enter 2019–20 with the same optimistic buzz it had nationally before last season, and maybe that’s a good thing. The Hoosiers have talent but were far too inconsistent in 2018–19, going on a roller coaster, injury-plagued year that ended in the NIT. Romeo Langford and Juwan Morgan are gone, but a solid core remains with seniors De’Ron Davis and Devonte Green, juniors Al Durham and Justin Smith and sophomores Rob Phinisee, Race Thompson and Damezi Anderson. Former top-60 recruit Jerome Hunter is finally healthy and should bring versatile scoring on the wing, while incoming No. 30 recruit Trayce Jackson-Davis and Butler transfer center Joey Brunk will help make up for the loss of Morgan. The Hoosiers were hurt offensively last season due to some awful three-point shooting (they ranked 311th at 31.2%), but two of the biggest culprits were the departed Langford and Morgan. Green led the team at 41% and returns, but the rest of the roster must step up as well on the perimeter to see meaningful improvement.

10. Penn State

Entering Year 9 under Pat Chambers, Penn State is still chasing its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011. Is this the year that changes? It’s certainly a possibility, thanks primarily to the return of senior forward Lamar Stevens, an All-Big Ten first-team honoree in 2018–19 after averaging 19.9 points and 7.7 rebounds. After a dreadful 10-game losing streak in January tanked the season, the Nittany Lions turned things around down the stretch, going 7–3 to end the regular season with a pair of ranked wins. Their top two scorers behind Stevens are gone, but junior Myles Dread and senior Mike Watkins make for solid returnees and junior guard Jamari Wheeler started 25 games. However, Josh Reaves is a big loss for a defense that thrived in transition, as his 4.7% conference steal percentage led the Big Ten. Shooting and halfcourt offense held back PSU last season, something it's hoping newcomers Curtis Jones (Oklahoma State grad transfer) Izaiah Brockington (St. Bonaventure transfer), and three-star freshmen Seth Lundy and Patrick Kelly can help stem.

11. Rutgers

After years of futility, the Scarlet Knights matched their conference win total of the last three years (7) combined in 2018–19, and they did it amidst a collective Big Ten season that was miles better than the previous three. Rutgers now enters Year 4 under Steve Pikiell with its most optimism yet, despite seeing its leading scorer and rebounder, Eugene Omoruyi, transfer out. Its next top seven scorers are all back, including junior guard Geo Baker and a host of sophomores who could all make a leap: Montez Mathis, Ron Harper, Myles Johnson, Caleb McConnell and Mamadou Doucoure. In a move that could help make up for losing Omoruyi, Pikiell brought in Stony Brook leading scorer and rebounder Akwasi Yeboah, and the Scarlet Knights are also hoping for more out of senior big man Shaq Carter. Three-star freshman Paul Mulcahy could see time at the point, while Texas transfer Jacob Young is now eligible and will bring experience and scoring potential to the floor. This was a young team that overachieved last season and turned itself into a tricky opponent on the defensive side, but some serious offensive strides (particularly with shooting, where Rutgers ranked 315th in efficiency) will need to be made if it’s to take the next step and appear on the NCAA tournament bubble.

12. Minnesota

Of the bottom five teams here, the Golden Gophers may have the most potential to surprise. Their departures—namely Jordan Murphy, Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer—will be tough to overcome, but there’s some intriguing pieces still here. Sophomore guard Gabe Kalscheur could see a nice breakout after averaging 10 points on 41.7% shooting as a freshman, and his 24-point NCAA tournament effort vs. Louisville shows what he’s capable of. Sophomore center Daniel Oturu will be a double-double threat every night, but Minnesota will need players like senior Michael Hurt, sophomore Jarvis Omersa and four-star freshman Isaiah Ihnen to step up down low in Murphy’s absence. In the backcourt, a pair of key transfers were added: Marcus Carr (Pitt) and Payton Willis (Vanderbilt), who both sat out last season. Both Carr and Willis could start, with Kalscheur on the wing, and Carr is expected to run the offense at the point. If Minnesota can find more consistent shooting after struggling on the perimeter in 2018–19 and get solid showings from its new pieces, it could be an under-the-radar team worth keeping tabs on.

13. Nebraska

Throw out everything you knew about Nebraska last season, because this is an entirely new team. No, seriously—the only Husker who saw the court in 2018–19 and is back is Thorir Thorbjarnarson, who averaged 2.0 points in 12.2 minutes. Fred Hoiberg has his work cut out for him in Year 1, and his patchwork roster is heavy on freshmen and transfers, not all of whom are immediately eligible. The biggest name is former Marquette and Florida Gulf Coast guard Haanif Cheatham, who has shot 36.7% from three in his 80-game career and brings Big East starting experience. Cam Mack was ranked as the 27-best JUCO recruit and third-best point guard, and has been praised for his vision and passing ability. Former Robert Morris guard Dachon Burke Jr. was with the program last year as a redshirt, while guards Shamiel Stevenson (Pitt) and Matej Kavas (Seattle) are other transfers who can play in 2019–20—though Stevenson must sit the first semester unless he gets a waiver. Kavas is a sharpshooter who should provide a perimeter boost for Nebraska, but up front, the Cornhuskers will be reliant on freshmen.

14. Northwestern

Things have not gone Northwestern’s way since its breakthrough season in 2017–18, and the outlook isn’t promising for 2019–20. Program stalwarts Vic Law and Dererk Pardon are gone from a team that won just 13 games, and Ryan Taylor’s exit means all three leading scorers (and top two rebounders) are gone. With 10 players who are redshirt sophomores or younger, this is a young team that can build for the future even if tough times are ahead in the short term. Guard Anthony Gaines and forward A.J. Turner represent experience and are the leading returning scorers, while forwards Miller Kopp and Pete Nance are sophomores with potential. The ‘Cats three-man freshman class includes four-star Robbie Beran and three-stars Jared Jones and Boo Buie. And as a wild card, there’s Pat Spencer, who spent the last four years as a lacrosse star for Loyola (Md.) before transferring to spend his final year on the hardwood. If Northwestern can find a reliable point guard, it may be able to climb out of this basement projection.