By Derek Mohr
In the last 25 years, the Big Ten has sent 8 teams to the NCAA Finals, with only Michigan State ending up cutting down the nets in 2000. Two seasons later, Maryland, then a member of the ACC, took down Indiana, making them the Big 10 team with the most recent NCAA title. After a fantastic 12-4 league record in their inaugural Big Ten season, fifth-year coach Mark Turgeon’s Maryland squad looks primed to make a serious run all the way to Houston next April. New faces bring plenty of optimism to the experienced squads in East Lansing and West Lafayette, while Thad Motta and Bo Ryan will look to quickly rebuild.
The Cream of the Crop (Make plans for March)
MARYLAND Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Melo Trimble and All-Conference returnee Jake Lyman will welcome former Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon and highly touted freshman Diamond Stone. The best team in the league has one of the toughest schedules in the country, but expectations in College Park have not been this high in the last 20 years.
MICHIGAN ST After a tremendous run to last year’s Final Four, Tom Izzo’s squad has quickly reloaded with the addition of West Virginia transfer Eron Harris and McDonald’s All-American Deyonta Davis to go with Denzel Valentine. In the last 15 years, the Spartans have finished out of the league’s top four only three times…that won’t happen this year.
PURDUE The Boilermakers, the biggest team in the league, are led by unanimous preseason All-Conference center A J Hammons. Purdue came on strong late in the year to finish tied for third in the conference, their best finish since the 2010-11season. McDonald’s All-American Caleb Swanigan joins a lineup that returns 83% of their scoring from last season and led the league in field goal percentage defense (39.3%)
INDIANA Senior point guard Yogi Ferrell has received pre-season All America mention from several publications, will be joined by former Michigan sixth man Max Bieldfeldt on the league’s best scoring team last season. There is no question about the scoring ability, but the Hoosier’s season win be defined by their ability to improve their overall defensive play.
The Second Tier (Don’t go to sleep on them, or you will lose)
WISCONSIN There is no doubt about Bo Ryan’s position as one of the best coaches in the country, but to finish in the top four of the Big Ten for the 15th consecutive season and get to his third consecutive Final Four, he has to find replacements for two NBA first rounders (Kaminsky and Dekker). Bronson Koenig had a stellar 2.9 assist-turnover ratio last season but will need to carry some of scoring load to take pressure off of Nigel Brown.
MICHIGAN Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton hold the keys to the Wolverine’s success, but if Michigan wants to return to the postseason they will need continued improvement from Zak Irvin and Aubrey Dawkins.
IOWA Teams with experienced seniors tend to do well. Preseason All-Conference first teamer Jarrod Uthoff will be the go-to scorer for Fran McCaffery, who will be figuring out how to build consistency from a roster that has eight new faces.
Trying to move up (The future is bright)
OHIO ST Thad Matta is one of the best recruiters in the nation, and he will need to get immediate scoring contributions from freshmen (JaQuan Lyle?) as well as continued development of Jae’Sean Tate and Marc Loving if they want to make it to the NCAA tournament.
NORTHWESTERN The time will come for Chris Collins. 90% of last season’s minutes are back. Tre Demps can score, and Aaron Falzon is a freshman to keep your eyes on. Interior defense is where the Wildcats excel, especially at home
PENN ST The Nittany Lions are in full re-build mode. Point Guard Shep Garner has started from day one. Expect Freshman Josh Reaves to do the same, but don’t count on Penn State winning more than one game in the Big Ten tournament.
ILLINOIS Injuries are the story here. Coach John Groce has his work cut out for him, relying on fifth year transfers Khalid Lewis (LaSalle) and Mike Thorne Jr. (Charlotte). Freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands will be counted on to score right away.
Best of the Rest (Wait until next year…or the next)
MINNESOTA Three big pieces are gone from a mediocre team. Amir Coffey and Eric Curry are the two best recruitsthe Gophers have had in recent memory, but they won’t bring enough to prevent at least 12 league losses this season.
NEBRASKA Terran Petteway left early and will be missed. The addition of Kansas transfer Andrew White III gives the Cornhuskers some young talent to mold. But much of the success will depend on the play and leadership of seniors Shavon Shields and Benny Parker.
RUTGERS The top two scorers are gone from a Scarlet Knight squad that was outscored by almost 10 point per game last season. Coach Eddie Jordan likes what he sees in Mike Williams and Bishop Daniels. Unless there is a surprise from a freshman, there just isn’t much else there as Rutgers enters their second season in the Big Ten.