Big Ten Basketball Preview: Who Will Rise to the Top of a Loaded Conference?

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As part of SI.com's preview of the 2020–21 men's college basketball season, we're breaking down each of the six major conferences. We've done the ACCBig 12 and Big East, and the Pac-12 and SEC are still to follow. All will be complete with our analyst's breakdown of each team and a projected order of finish.

The Big Picture

Though the Big Ten never got a chance to flex its muscle this past March, make no mistake: 2019–20 was a banner year for the conference. The league was extremely deep (only Nebraska and Northwestern never got the chance to realistically dream of an NCAA tournament bid) and boasted multiple contenders who had their eyes on the Final Four. Sometimes, after a season like that, the bottom drops out the next year as stars move on to the NBA or graduate. Don’t expect that to be the case in the Big Ten in 2020–21; in fact, the conference is potentially poised to be just as good, with 11 or 12 teams that can enter the season with tournament hopes if things break right.

Conference Player of the Year: Luka Garza, Iowa

An easy pick here, though it should be noted that the last official Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year to also win the conference’s postseason award was Frank Kaminsky back in 2014–15. Garza is coming off a monster breakout season for the Hawkeyes and is set to once again be the fulcrum of one of the nation’s best offenses, so it’s hard to picture him taking too much of a step back. The senior big man has been an efficient player his whole career but managed to keep it up while carrying a huge offensive load as a junior. And if opponents try to shut down Garza (tough enough on its own, given he can score both in the paint and on the perimeter), there are plenty of weapons around him to make defenses pay.

Big Ten players Nate Reuvers, Luka Garza and Ayo Dosunmu

Newcomer of the Year: Joey Hauser, Michigan State

The Spartans were one of the big winners of the transfer cycle back in spring 2019, but it’s taken until now to reap that reward. Hauser, the former Marquette forward (and younger brother of Sam, who transferred to Virginia), shot 42.5% from three and averaged 9.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists in his freshman year back in 2018–19, and he’ll bring that shooting to a Michigan State team in need of it after Cassius Winston's graduation. The 6’ 9” Hauser will also bring some stability to the Spartans’ frontcourt, and the fact that he sat out for a season means he’s had a year to get up to speed on Tom Izzo’s system.

Dark-Horse Team to Win the Conference: Michigan

Picking Michigan State as a dark horse feels like cheating, so let’s turn to a different team in the Mitten State. There are reasons to believe in the Wolverines, but one big nagging question has them at seventh in our preview: depth. A season ago, Michigan made a huge splash early in Juwan Howard’s first season, but the wheels fell off a bit when Isaiah Livers—who was enjoying a breakout and was key to the team’s lineup flexibility—was sidelined by injury. Livers’s decision to return to Ann Arbor, coupled with the expected growth of talented sophomore Franz Wagner, makes for two solid pieces around which the Wolverines can build. How much transfer additions Chaundee Brown (Wake Forest) and Mike Smith (Columbia) and the Big Ten’s top-ranked recruiting class bring to the table will go a long way toward determining whether Michigan can truly make a play at the conference title or simply get lost in a sea of capable teams.

All-Conference First Team

Marcus Carr, guard, Minnesota
Ayo Dosunmu, guard, Illinois
Luka Garza, forward, Iowa
Trevion Williams, forward, Purdue
Trayce Jackson-Davis, forward, Indiana
Sixth Man: Franz Wagner, guard, Michigan

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Wisconsin

The Badgers were third in SI’s Big Ten summer power rankings, but after (repeatedly) sleeping on it, we’ve bumped them up to No. 1. Wisconsin feels like it has the highest floor in the conference, and in a season that could be as unpredictable as one taking place during a global pandemic, that doesn’t count for nothing. There’s a lot to like about this roster—for one thing, there are five seniors who are major rotation pieces (D'Mitrik Trice, Brad Davison, Nate Reuvers, Micah Potter and Aleem Ford), and the Badgers only lost Brevin Pritzl from a group that came a bit out of nowhere to earn the No. 1 seed in the canceled Big Ten tournament. Then there’s this: of Wisconsin’s 10 losses last season, five came before Potter was eligible to suit up, and the 6’ 10” Ohio State transfer quickly showed he’s a difference-maker, with the ability to stretch the floor (45.1% from three on 51 attempts) and control the boards (first in conference play in defensive rebound rate, per KenPom). Potter did it in 17.5 minutes per game, and while the Badgers added a five-man recruiting class led by forward Ben Carlson, their most direct path to improvement may be from Potter simply playing a larger role.

2. Iowa

The hesitation to put the Hawkeyes first is this: it’s hard to see exactly how their defense—which earlier this year finished 97th nationally and 12th in the Big Ten in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency—is going to suddenly and significantly improve with largely the same cast. Defense has repeatedly been an issue for Iowa teams in recent years, but its offense stands to be so good in 2020–21 that in many games, it will simply be able to overwhelm its opponent. It’s not just that Garza is back. It’s that sophomore CJ Fredrick was a dead-eye shooter (46.1% from three) as a freshman. It’s that 6’ 6” wing Joe Wieskamp continues to quietly be a conference standout. It’s that guards Connor McCaffery and Joe Toussaint now have a wealth of starting experience under their belt. And it’s that Jordan Bohannon, once one of the conference’s best shooters before a hip injury limited him to 10 games in 2019–20, is, in essence, being added to an offense that was already elite. There’s no doubting this team’s credentials on that end. But if it wants to achieve all of its goals this season, being 97th nationally on defense again isn’t going to cut it.

3. Illinois

The Illini don’t boast the offensive prowess of Iowa or the pure seniority of Wisconsin, but make no mistake: this team is capable of winning the Big Ten. The returns of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn ensured Illinois would enter 2020–21 with more hype than it's had in a long time, and a tantalizing matchup with Duke at Cameron Indoor on Dec. 8 is circled on fans’ calendars. The transfer of the uber-efficient Alan Griffin was significant to a team that too often struggled to shoot the rock last season, but Brad Underwood is hoping incoming top-40 recruit Adam Miller will soften that blow. Dosunmu and Cockburn should remain a dynamic inside-out duo, especially if the former can get closer to his freshman-year form from deep. Look for senior Da'Monte Williams to help fill the “glue guy” role vacated by Andres Feliz, especially on defense.

4. Michigan State

Underestimating Izzo-coached teams is always a risky endeavor, and to be fair, that might be happening here. The Spartans represent the end of the conference’s preseason “top tier,” because despite the loss of talents as big as Winston and Xavier Tillman, this is a promising roster. Perhaps the biggest question is what exactly to expect out of Joshua Langford, a former 15.0 ppg scorer before foot issues kept him off the court for the last season-and-a-half. The addition of Hauser combined with the natural progressions of Aaron Henry, Rocket Watts, Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham should keep Michigan State in the thick of the Big Ten race, though it remains to be seen how this team will adapt to life without a program legend like Winston. Expect point guard duties to be split between a combo of Watts, Foster Loyer and freshman AJ Hoggard.

5. Rutgers

According to T-Rank, only 19 teams nationally bring back more returning possession minutes than Rutgers—and only four other teams among the Power 5 or Big East. The Scarlet Knights are hoping that kind of continuity will help them build off their best season in years, one that heartbreakingly ended without what was set to be their first trip to the Big Dance in 29 years. But Steve Pikiell has built this roster to be more than a one-year flash in the pan, with the likes of Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr., Myles Johnson and Jacob Young all back. Harper came into his own last season and could take a step further as a junior, a development that will be critical for a team that was, at times, offense-averse. Rutgers plays a physical, crash-the-boards style of defense that gives opponents fits (one that should suit 6’ 10” freshman center Cliff Omoruyi), but to become more than just a solid team in the middle of a stacked Big Ten, it needs more consistency on the other end.

6. Indiana

In their first three years under Archie Miller, the Hoosiers have been a program for which the parts haven’t quite seemed to mesh (thanks, partly, to injuries); this could be the season that changes. Sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis has All-Big Ten quality, and he’s joined in the frontcourt by Race Thompson and the hard-nosed Joey Brunk. In the backcourt and on the wing, Rob Phinisee, Al Durham and Jerome Hunter all return to pair with incoming five-star point guard Khristian Lander, who can give Phinisee some ballhandling relief and add scoring. Indiana is counting on some individual leaps to kickstart an offense that was far too streaky a season ago, but with a potential star in the paint and an experienced backcourt, there’s little reason to think this can’t be the year the Hoosiers break through.

7. Michigan

We discussed Michigan’s main strengths above when calling the Wolverines a dark horse, but there are a couple reasons to temper expectations. The graduation of the ball-screen dominant Zavier Simpson and transfer of David DeJulius left the roster thin at point guard, and while Smith, the Columbia transfer, impressed in the Ivy League, mid-major grad transfers can be a bit of a wild card. Senior Eli Brooks is another option at the one, but it’ll be an adjustment after spending most of 2019–20 serving as Simpson’s off-ball shooting guard. Regardless, either will have big shoes to fill in replacing a player who was fifth nationally in assist rate. The other main question is up front, where Jon Teske’s graduation puts a lot of pressure on the likes of 7' 2" freshman center Hunter Dickinson and fifth-year senior Austin Davis.

8. Ohio State

The range of expectations for the Buckeyes seems to be higher than most teams. They placed 23rd in the preseason AP poll—fifth among Big Ten teams—but rank as low as ninth in various outlets’ Big Ten previews. Beyond the crowded nature of the conference, a big part of that variance might be due to the uncertainty around replacing star big man Kaleb Wesson and the transfers that saw D.J. Carton, Luther Muhammad and Alonzo Gaffney depart and Justice Sueing (from Cal; sat out 2019–20), Seth Towns (Harvard) and Jimmy Sotos (Bucknell) arrive. (A fourth transfer, Abel Porter, recently had to end his career due to a heart condition.) Ohio State’s tallest expected contributor is versatile 6’ 8” forward Kyle Young, but despite being a bit undersized, this is an experienced group. Point guard CJ Walker, wing Duane Washington and forward E.J. Liddell are all critical returning pieces, but ultimately, this team’s ceiling may hinge on whether Sueing and Towns live up to expectations, particularly on the offensive end.

9. Purdue

The Boilermakers are an intriguing case for 2020–21. Gone are stalwarts Matt Haarms and Nojel Eastern, but Trevion Williams is back for what could be a big year for the junior center, and he’ll be the clear fulcrum to which the offense runs through. Fellow juniors Sasha Stefanovic, Eric Hunter and Aaron Wheeler will be key to the Boilermakers’ hopes, and the group will need to stabilize what was a wildly up-and-down team a season ago. Last year’s Purdue team was Matt Painter’s worst shooting group in several years, and the path toward a top-half finish in the Big Ten starts with improving on the offensive end (Wheeler, in particular, could change this team’s outlook with a bounce-back year). The development of four-star freshmen Jaden Ivey and Ethan Moten is also something to monitor.

10. Minnesota

Expectations were raised for the Golden Gophers when transfers Liam Robbins (Drake) and Both Gach (Utah) were both granted immediate eligibility, and together, the duo might be one of the most underrated additions nationwide. Robbins, a 7-footer, sported the nation’s sixth-highest block rate last season, and could go a long way to making up for the loss of Daniel Oturu in the frontcourt. Meanwhile, the 6’ 6” Gach is coming off a solid sophomore season at Utah and has the ability to play either lead guard spot, adding another dynamic to the Marcus Carr/Gabe Kalscheur-led backcourt. This is a deeper group than the one that sputtered down the stretch in 2019–20, and that should make a difference. It feels a bit unfair to have the Gophers this low, but in a stacked conference, there’s not a ton of separation.

11. Maryland

Normally a team that loses just two starters doesn’t tumble all the way down to 11th after a co-conference championship, but in the Terrapins’ case, those starters were Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith. The two combined for 31.8 ppg, with Cowan—a four-year starter—running the offense, and Smith powering the team’s rebounding effort and interior presence. Mark Turgeon didn’t add any true impact pieces on paper, so the effort to replace those two will come via committee. At point, some combination of junior Eric Ayala, senior Darryl Morsell and freshman Aquan Smart will have to get the job done, and in the frontcourt, a lot depends on the health and ability of 7’ 2” Chol Marial. Alabama transfer Galin Smith (yes—Maryland went from a Jalen Smith to a Galin Smith), who played a limited role for the Tide, will also be counted on, as will 6’ 8” forward Jairus Hamilton, who arrives from Boston College. While there’s questions around the Terps’ depth and shooting, this team belongs to the returnees: Ayala, Morsell, Aaron Wiggins and Donta Scott. While a solid core, it’s hard to see this team making a climb for the Big Ten’s top half unless at least two of those four make a notable leap on offense.

12. Penn State

Pat Chambers’s abrupt resignation one month before the 2020–21 season leaves the Nittany Lions in a tough spot, and not just on the recruiting trail. Penn State was coming off a breakout season, but the transition to life without Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins was already tricky enough even before the late coaching change. Former Duquesne coach Jim Ferry is now the interim head man, and he inherits a team that will have a very different look in the frontcourt due to the departure of the aforementioned duo. The strength of this team lies in the backcourt, where a lot of offensive responsibility will fall on junior Myreon Jones, who blossomed into a lead guard last season. The interior defense will take a hit from not having Watkins manning the paint anymore (instead, 6’ 9” senior John Harrar will get his chance), but the likes of Jones, Jamari Wheeler, Myles Dread, Izaiah Brockington and Seth Lundy can still cause opposing offenses fits.

13. Nebraska

After undergoing massive roster turnover when Fred Hoiberg took over in 2019, the Cornhuskers are essentially starting clean again for 2020–21. Per T-Rank, they return only 21% of possession minutes, which ranks 338th nationally and last in the Big Ten. Iceland native Thorir Thorbjarnarson—the lone roster holdover from the Tim Miles era—is the team’s leading returning scorer and is poised to take another step forward in his senior year, but the story here is about the newcomers. Pitt transfer Trey McGowens leads the bunch (and in a year, he’ll be joined in Lincoln by his brother, 2021 five-star Bryce McGowens), while Teddy Allen (West Virginia/JUCO) and Kobe Webster (Western Illinois) bring promise as well. Ex-Pitt guard Shamiel Stevenson is also eligible now, and returning starting center Yvan Ouedraogo and JUCO forward Lat Mayen add size inside. Nebraska played at a breakneck pace but was a dreadful offensive team last season, and Hoiberg has to hope his new pieces can at least pick up some of the shooting slack (including at the free throw line, where the Huskers ranked 351st nationally). It’s likely to be another long year–but with more of a light at the end of the tunnel this time.

14. Northwestern

The Wildcats are going to be mighty young—again—but you can definitely see the outline of a group that will continue to gel and gain invaluable experience before likely making a move away from the conference basement in a year. Sophomore point guard Boo Buie looks like a future league standout, even if his efficiency numbers left a lot to be desired as a freshman thrown into the fire. Junior 6’ 7” wing Miller Kopp, who can score inside and out, is the offensive leader of the bunch, while sophomore Ryan Young and junior Pete Nance make up the rest of the key core. Incoming three-star guard Ty Berry and center Matt Nicholson will add depth to a group that only lost one starter: lacrosse star turned college basketball player Pat Spencer.