1. Michigan State
Pretty much everyone is picking the Spartans to win the title and with good reason. Miles Bridges returns after a great freshman season along with the other good freshmen off last year’s team — Nick Ward, Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford — along with a top-10 recruit in 6-10 Jaren Jackson. Point guard Tum Tum Nairn is still around to provide leadership and many of the capable role players are still on the roster, too. The Spartans were No. 2 in the Associated Press preseason poll and No. 1 in the USBWA poll. I’m not quite sure they’re that good but they definitely should win the Big Ten.
Many experts are picking the Boilermakers lower than this but some of us don’t expect much of a drop-off from last season, when they won the Big Ten title by two games. Yes, Caleb Swanigan is gone and that’s a huge loss. But they still have some of the best perimeter shooters in the league, arguably the best defender in Dakota Matthias, a very underrated point guard in P.J. Thompson and an extremely versatile forward in Vince Edwards. If 7-2 Isaac Haas can play 28 minutes a game instead of 19, he’s a first-team All-Big Ten player. There may not be much of a drop-off at all. This is the one team that could potentially challenge Michigan State.
The Golden Gophers’ only significant losses from a 24-10 team were veteran guard Akeem Springs and sophomore forward Eric Curry, who is out for the year with a torn ACL. They’ve added a tremendous freshman guard in Isaiah Washington and young players like Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer who were major contributors a year ago should be even better this season. This team should be an absolute lock to make the NCAA tournament again.
The Wildcats made the NCAA tournament for the first time ever last season and it’s hard to imagine them not getting there again. They return four starters and the one they lost — Sanjay Lumpkin — wasn’t exactly their strongest link. They still have the formidable perimeter trio of Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law and should benefit from getting back a couple of good players who missed all of last season with injuries — Aaron Falzon and Rapolas Ivanauskas.
Melo Trimble is gone but three freshmen who started pretty much every game — Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson — all return and they’re joined by two more top-100 recruits — Bruno Fernando and Darryl Morsell — who are hard-nosed, college-ready players. Add in Duke transfer Sean Obi and most of the same role players who helped the Terps go 24-9 last season, and you have a really good basketball team.
Most experts are picking the Hawkeyes lower than this, but there may not be a team in the league with more depth and size. Because of their depth and balance, the Hawkeyes are going to be much less vulnerable to injuries than other teams. Tyler Cook and Jordan Bohannon, both of whom made the All-Big Ten freshman team last season, are back along with Sixth Man of the Year Nicholas Baer. Isaiah Moss needs to take a step up to replace some of the perimeter firepower provided by Big Ten scoring leader Peter Jok, but the Hawkeyes are going to be much better on the boards with the addition of 6-11 freshmen Luka Garza and Jack Nunge.
The Wolverines not only lost three starters but also a ton of leadership with the departures of long-time stalwarts Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin. But there is just as much physical talent as ever with center Mo Wagner becoming the focal point of the offense along with Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews and returning sharpshooter Duncan Robinson. A decent freshman class will help, but the key may be how well guard Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman fills the leadership void left by Walton and Irvin.
The Badgers clearly were offended that many experts were picking them to finish seventh in the Big Ten this season. I’m picking them eighth. They lost four starters from a 27-10 club and while junior center Ethan Happ is a great player and they’re still going to play that same stingy Wisconsin defense, it’s difficult to pick them much higher. D’Mitrik Trice and Kahlil Iverson will step comfortably into the starting lineup and there are some new, young players who are going to be good eventually, but the Badgers’ string of 16 consecutive top-four finishes in the Big Ten is in serious jeopardy.
The Hoosiers made a great choice in hiring Dayton’s Archie Miller as their new coach to replace Tom Crean, but he has his work cut out for him. He has good veteran guards in Rob Johnson and Josh Newkirk, some talented young big men and a great leader in fifth-year senior Collin Hartman, but it’s hard to envision the Hoosiers competing with the top teams in the league. They tied for 10th place last season and lost Thomas Bryant and James Blackmon off that team. Miller will have this program back near the top of the league eventually, just not this season.
10. Penn State
The starting lineup returns intact from a 15-18 team and you have to think the three freshmen who started almost every game last season — Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins — are going to be improved. But it’s still hard to see the Nittany Lions moving up too much in the standings this season. It’s a team that will be capable of beating the best teams from time to time, just not on a regular basis. Maybe the best 10th-place team in the country.
The Illini already have shown some chinks in preseason exhibitions and scrimmages, but new coach Brad Underwood’s team should be vastly better at the end of the season than it is right now. They will depend on Wright State transfer Mark Alstork and freshman Mark Smith to lead a team that doesn’t figure to be that formidable under the basket. Big men Michael Finke and Leron Black need to have very strong seasons for this team to even finish in the middle of the pack.
12. Ohio State
The Buckeyes lost three starters and changed coaches in June so there’s a chance they could even finish lower than this. Forward Jae’Sean Tate is one of the hardest working players in the league and it will help to get versatile Keita Bates-Diop back from injury, but the Buckeyes need a very big year from freshman big man Kaleb Wesson if they’re going to contend for any sort of postseason berth in their first season under Chris Holtmann.
The Scarlet Knight have been 14th in each of their first three years in the Big Ten, but they now have a very capable coach in Steve Pikiell and could start to move up in the standings this season. They have solid guards in Corey Sanders and Mike Williams, an underrated forward in DeShawn Freeman and have started to stockpile big bodies upfront. They were vastly improved on the defensive end last season and if the offense improves, they won’t be 14th this season.
The Cornhuskers actually had the worst overall record in the Big Ten last season (12-19) and not only did leading scorer Tai Webster graduate but starting forwards Ed Morrow and Michael Jacobson inexplicably chose to transfer. They still have a very capable point guard in Glynn Watson, but they’re not going to go very far with Evan Taylor, Jack McVeigh and Jordy Tshimanga as some of their marquee guys. The addition of 6-9 Georgetown transfer Isaac Copeland, a former five-star recruit, will help but may not be enough to keep this team out of the cellar.