Big Ten Basketball Primer

Written by: Luke Sheehan 

2015-16 Season Re-cap

As is the standard with one of the premier leagues in the country, last season was a thrilling one for Big Ten fans. Five teams made appearances in the top 10 of the AP poll, while three made appearances in the top five. Consider this: In a league known for top-to-bottom strength, its champion, Indiana, did not crack the top 5 even once, while its sixth-place finisher, Iowa, spent four straight weeks during the heart of conference play in the 3, 5, 4, 4 position in the poll.

The fate of last year’s Iowa squad, a veteran-laden team led by all-conference performers Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok, serves as a poignant reminder of how cruel the Big Ten roller-coaster can be. But for every Iowa, there is an Indiana. Or a Wisconsin. The Hoosiers had perhaps the best guard in the conference in Yogi Ferrell, but expectations were tempered when dead-eye shooter James Blackmon Jr. was lost for his entire sophomore campaign. And the Badgers, fresh off the surprising mid-season retirement of college hoops legend Bo Ryan, were perhaps the most dangerous team in the conference by the time conference tournament time rolled around. Simply put, there’s no telling what a Big Ten season will bring. But you should be awfully excited to find out.

The Contenders

As the page turns to the 2016-17 Big Ten season, its fans will notice a lot of familiar faces have moved on to the professional ranks, or in some cases, other schools. The aforementioned Uthoff and Ferrell are two of four first team All-Big Ten performers to have graduated. Denzel Valentine and AJ Hammons join them. The lone returner? Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes, the charismatic Badgers leader who may well be the favorite to win conference POY honors (more on that later). There’s a lot of buzz in Madison this year, and for good reason. They return virtually every contributor from a team that made an unexpected Sweet 16 appearance, keyed by the emergence of rising sophomore Ethan Happ. Happ will surely be one of the premier big men in the league this season, and he’ll team with Hayes and senior point man Bronson Koenig in their bid to get back to the Final Four. Many pundits consider them the favorite to win the league, but there is no shortage of legitimate contenders to the claim.

If you’re looking for a good bet to keep the Badgers off the top spot, look no further than the defending champs. The Hoosiers will surely miss program legend Yogi Ferrell, and Troy Williams’ athleticism and rebounding prowess are practically impossible to replace. Lucky for Coach Tom Crean, he has another physical freak in OG Anunoby, who he’ll deploy in the same way he did Williams. Anunoby’s physicality and length were on full-display in his matchup with Kentucky’s Jamal Murray in last year’s Sweet 16 matchup. Hoosier faithful will be looking for more of the same from the sophomore this year. Equally as important to Indiana’s quest to defend their title will be the return of redshirt sophomore James Blackmon, whose sophomore year was cut short by a knee injury. Blackmon impressed in his freshman season as a knock-down three point shooter, and he’ll be heavily relied upon as a primary scorer.

Michigan State, despite the losses of Valentine, Bryn Forbes, and Matt Costello, will again be a force not to be taken lightly in the B1G. The Spartans welcome perhaps the best recruiting class Tom Izzo’s ever assembled to East Lansing. Sparty fans have a lot to look forward to in incoming guards Cassius Winston and Josh Langford, and they’ll be joined by forwards Nick Ward and Miles Bridges, the crown jewel of the group. Bridges should see the most minutes early in what could be his only season in East Lansing. In the backcourt, Izzo needs senior Eron Harris and sophomore Matt McQuaid to assume leadership roles in the absence of Valentine. Valentine and Forbes paired to create one of the best shooting backcourts in the country last year, and McQuaid in particular will be key for the Spartans to replace this production.

One of the Big Ten’s bigger mysteries this season will be Purdue. Purdue loses Hammons, but should be fine in the front-court with Isaac Haas assuming a larger role and forward Caleb Swanigan deciding to return to school for his sophomore campaign. Vince Edwards will have to do most of the scoring for Matt Painter’s club, but keep an eye on blast-from-the-past point guard Spike Albrecht. Albrecht, he of 2012 National Championship game fame, will use his final year of eligibility in West Lafayette following his departure from Michigan, and should provide the Boilermakers steady decision-making at the head of the offense. Albrecht battled health issues throughout his career in Ann Arbor, but he’ll need to stay healthy for guard-thin Purdue to contend with the top dogs in the conference.

The Maryland Terrapins, not unlike Purdue, also enter the season with no shortage of intrigue. Despite losing four starters to graduation and professional basketball, the return of Melo Trimble for his junior year has Terps fans feeling optimistic. Mark Turgeon quietly put together one of the best recruiting classes in the country, and redshirt sophomore Dion Wiley returns from a torn MCL. Incoming freshmen Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter will team with Wiley to provide Maryland with terrific guard depth that the team visibly lacked last season. Keep an eye on Huerter, who developed a reputation as one of the best 3-pt shooters in the country on the prep circuit. Junior Jared Nickens and Canadian freshman Justin Jackson will look to replace the lost production of Jake Layman and Robert Carter. Tough defense, strong rebounding, and vocal leadership will be expected of grad-transfer LG Gill and senior Damonte Dodd in the frontcourt.

John Beilein’s Michigan Wolverines enter the year a bit under the radar, but return practically everyone from a team that competed in 2015. Seniors Derrick Walton, Duncan Robinson and Zak Irvin are the proven commodities, and they’ll need to perform at a high-level for Michigan to finish in the top-4 of the standings. One player who hasn’t gotten enough preseason love? Junior Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman. The aforementioned trio of seniors carried the team for much of the season, but Abdur Rakhman looked like their go-to scorer down the stretch. He sports a lightning-quick first step and thrives within a spacious Michigan offense that likes to stretch defenses with shooters. As is the case with all John Beilein teams, this Michigan squad will live and die by the three pointer.

Predictions

Final Standings

  1. Indiana – A healthy backcourt of Blackmon and Robert Johnson, paired with the athleticism and size of Bryant and Anunoby up front makes for the strongest starting unit in the B1G. Hoosiers repeat.
  2. Wisconsin – Veterans at every position should make life easy for Coach Greg Gard in his first full year steering the Badgers.
  3. Maryland – What Mark Turgeon loses in professional talent, he gains in functional talent. More guards, more wins for the Terps.
  4. Michigan – Elite shooting in Ann Arbor makes the Wolverines a bear to deal with every night. Look out for German-import Moritz Wagner to splash in his second year.
  5. Michigan State – Izzo’s group may struggle a bit early in the wake of the Denzel Valentine era, but they’ll be a national player by March (per usual).
  6. Purdue – Swanigan emerges as a star on the national scene, but weak guard play usually spells trouble in the college ranks.
  7. Ohio State – Jae’Sean Tate is one of the best players you haven’t heard about. Thad Matta needs big seasons from Kam Williams and JaQuan Lyle.
  8. Illinois – Malcolm Hill is appointment television. Jalen Coleman-Lands will be key to any Illini success. Coach John Groce is firmly in the hot seat.
  9. Iowa – Peter Jok returns, but this will be a rebuilding year for Fran McCaffery and the Hawkeyes.
  10. Northwestern – It will take a superhuman effort from point guard Bryant McIntosh to get the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament.
  11. Nebraska – Nebrasketball is reeling in the wake of Andrew White’s departure. A brutal loss for sure, the Huskers will struggle. Coach Tim Miles sideline mannerisms could be their most exciting draw.
  12. Minnesota – Local prized recruit Amir Coffey looks to spearhead the rebuilding efforts of Coach Rick Pitino.
  13. Penn State – Pat Chambers’ teams always compete, but he’ll need a few more recruiting classes like the one he’s welcomed this year before the Nittany Lions compete with the league’s best.
  14. Rutgers – The Scarlet Knights, well … Scarlet is a wonderful color for a scarf or a tie.

All-Conference Team

G: Melo Trimble, Maryland, Jr.

G: James Blackmon, Indiana, Jr.

F: Jae’Sean Tate, Ohio State, Jr.

F: Caleb Swanigan, Purdue, So.

C: Ethan Happ, Wisconsin, Sr.

 

Player of the Year

Melo Trimble, Maryland, Jr.

 

Coach of the Year

Greg Gard, Wisconsin

 

Freshman of the Year

Miles Bridges, Michigan State

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