Bridges, Spartans look best in Big Ten

By Greg Peterson  ( 

November 17, 2017 11:05 PM
Miles Bridges is back to lead Michigan State, which should hold off Purdue and Minnesota to win the Big Ten.
© USA Today Sports Images

Many considered last season to be a downer for the Big Ten because of its lack of a Final Four contender. Despite not having a dominant team, seven teams from the conference made the NCAA Tournament and three advanced to the Sweet 16.

Michigan State was ousted in the second round after clawing its way to a No. 9 seed in the NCAAs. The Spartans were dealt a bad hand with injuries as their two projected starting forwards did not step onto the floor last year and star 6-foot-7 guard Miles Bridges missed seven games and played hurt through many others.

With Bridges unexpectedly returning after registering 16.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game while shooting 38.9 percent from 3-point range in an injury-plagued freshman campaign, it bodes well for coach Tom Izzo.

Bridges will be joined by the two forwards who missed all of last year because of injuries in Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter, a graduate transfer from UNLV who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after being sidelined last year with a knee injury. During the 2015-16 season, the 6-foot-9 Carter registered 8.6 points and six rebounds per game.

It would not be surprising to see Carter as a priority reserve and 6-foot-8 sophomore Nick Ward retain his starting spot after he put up averages of 13.9 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game last year. Starting alongside him likely will be Jaren Jackson, who stands 6-foot-11 and was rated by ESPN as the second-best power forward in the 2017 recruiting class. The 6-foot-9, 240-pound Schilling will see a lot of minutes off the bench due to his familiarity with the program. Despite not averaging huge numbers, he started most of the 2014-15 season.

Izzo will have to retool the guard stable a bit with Eron Harris out of eligibility, but him missing the final few games of the season due to injury may have helped this team long term.

Six-foot-5 Matt McQuaid was not overly successful in the playing time he received the past two seasons, but he did start 11 games last season and got his 3-point shooting efficiency up to 35 percent. The team could use Cassius Winston to continue his improvement as his numbers got better throughout his freshman season. He had 6.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game and peaked in Big Ten play before experiencing some tough sledding in the NCAA Tournament.

Joshua Langford also showed himself as a solid 3-point shooter last year, converting 41.6 percent of his 3s while notching 6.9 points per game. If the Spartans can get even more production from Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn, it will make this squad extremely potent. He is mainly a distributor and defensive stopper, averaging 3.5 points and 3.6 assists last year.

If Xavier Tillman, a 6-foot-9 freshman, can also chip in a few minutes, Michigan State should have both the most talented starting five and the deepest roster of any team in the Big Ten. This looks like one of the top four teams in the nation, plain and simple. Anything less than a Final Four appearance should be looked at as a disappointment.

The team that won the Big Ten regular-season title last season was Purdue, which is attempting to repeat despite its best player departing for the NBA. Caleb Swanigan did it all for coach Matt Painter a year ago, averaging 18.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists while making nearly 45 percent of his 3s.

The other half of the Boilermakers’ big man duo, 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas, is back after he totaled 12.6 points and five rebounds per game. The team has recruited Swanigan's replacement to join him in 7-foot-2 Matt Haarms.  The freshman is coming over from the Netherlands and is still a bit raw but has upside and better ball skills than most 7-footers.

Getting back 6-foot-7 wing Vince Edwards aids both the guards and forwards as he did a bit of everything last year with 12.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game as a junior. Being a 42.3 percent 3-point shooter last season just adds to his arsenal of weapons. He aids point guard Dakota Mathias in the ball handling department as he had 9.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game while hitting 45.3 percent of his 3s.

Carson Edwards also was a solid scoring option with 10.3 points per game in his freshman campaign. At 34 percent, he was one of the worst 3-point shooters on the roster as the team combined to make 40.3 percent of its 3s, which ranked ninth nationally.

Another of those sharp shooters is Ryan Cline, who drilled 41.3 percent of his 3-pointers while averaging 5.4 points off the bench. P.J. Thompson was also quite prolific from deep, converting 40.2 percent of his triple tries while totaling 7.4 points and 2.9 assists a game as a junior.

If ESPN-rated four-star recruit Nojel Eastern can be a solid rotation player as a 6-foot-6 wing who spells minutes for Edwards, it will give the team a chance to go to the Sweet 16 for a second straight year.

Even with Swanigan gone, Purdue's outlook for 2017-18 is bright. The team is incredible at sharing the ball, has solid post play, a good stretch player and sharp shooters, a recipe that often leads to big runs in March.

Wisconsin has been a rock of consistency in college basketball this millennium, making the NCAA Tournament each of the past 19 years and the second week of the dance six of the past seven. To make it seven of eight in regard to Sweet 16 appearances, coach Greg Gard will have to do yeoman's work as four of the team's five starters from a season ago are gone.

Ethan Happ, a 6-foot-8 junior, will have to be the leader of the team as he's the lone returning starter and averaged 14 points, nine rebounds and 2.8 assists last year.

Though the team loses 62.5 percent of the scoring production from last year, one positive is that the uncharacteristically poor free-throw shooting from a year ago should turn around. As a team, Wisconsin made 64.4 percent of its free throws to rank 336th in the country. With sophomores D'Mitrik Trice and Brevin Pritzl likely to start in the backcourt, it should help offset the 50 percent free-throw shooting from Happ. Trice was the team's top 3-point shooter last year, making 41.8 percent of his 3s and averaging 5.6 points off the bench.

Six-foot-5 Khalil Iverson will have to give the crew some help after tallying 3.9 points per game off the bench. He seldom shoots 3s, so he sort of plays the role of an undersized forward. Junior forwards Charles Thomas IV and Alex Illikainen can use the assistance as they combined for 3.6 points and 2.8 rebounds per game. Wisconsin very rarely gives freshmen significant playing time, but the lack of quality big men on the roster could lead to ESPN-rated four-star recruit Nate Reuvers vying for a starting spot. The team also brings in Wisconsin native Kobe King and Minnesota high school four-star recruit Brad Davison to the guard stable.

The Badgers seem to always find ways to exceed expectations, and with the amount of experience they have going from the bench to key roles, they should get back to the dance. With that said, this is not a powerhouse Wisconsin team and will likely be an 8-seed at best as the Badgers will rack up losses in a tough Big Ten.

Minnesota had one of the largest increases in wins of any team in the country last year, going from an 8-23 record to 24-10. Though the Golden Gophers were the victims of a 5-12 upset due to being seeded a line or two too high with Middle Tennessee being under-seeded, the future appears to be bright under coach Richard Pitino.

All four players who averaged 10 or more points last year are back, including leading scorer Nate Mason. The 6-foot-1 senior did a little of everything as the team's point guard, averaging 15.2 points, five assists, 1.4 steals and 3.6 rebounds. He was also an asset with his outside shooting, making 36 percent of his 3s.

Amir Coffee paid huge dividends as a freshman last year as he become a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-8, yet being able to handle the ball well and shoot from the outside. He was mainly used as a wing, averaging 12.2 points and 3.8 rebounds. Dupree McBrayer also carved out a nice role, logging 11 points and 2.7 assists per game while converting a team-high 40.9 percent of his 3s.

The team may not get oodles of scoring from 6-foot-10 Reggie Lynch, he is a dominant force on defense.  He led power-five conference players with 3.5 blocks per game to go with 8.4 points and 6.1 rebounds. Six-foot-9 forward Eric Curry was solid off the bench with 5.5 points and 5.2 rebounds a game and 6-foot-6 Jordan Murphy was the team's top scoring forward with averages of 11.3 points and 8.8 rebounds.

The team was only seven deep last year, so losing graduate transfer Akeem Springs after he had 9.5 points per game is a noteworthy blow. ESPN top 100 recruit Isaiah Washington is a point guard, but has a good enough jump shot to play off the ball and will likely join the rotation.

Minnesota has what it takes to be back in the top four of the conference and be a Top 25 team.

Maryland was tied for second place in the Big Ten with Wisconsin and earned a 6-seed in the NCAA Tournament, but it was unable to pull out a win in the big dance. The Terrapins went 24-9 overall, but it felt a bit inflated as their nonconference schedule was 126th in the country.

The team will have to adjust to life without guard Melo Trimble, who had 16.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, which leaves coach Mark Turgeon in need of a spark for his backcourt. The leadership role in the backcourt will be held my sophomore Anthony Cowan, who had 10.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game a year ago. Fellow freshman Kevin Huerter was a very solid 6-foot-7 stretch player last season, contributing 9.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game.

The team also saw Justin Jackson have a huge freshman year as a 6-foot-7 forward/guard hybrid, totaling 10.5 points and hitting 43.8 percent of his 3s. He had to do tons of work in the paint as starting center Damonte Dodd missed seven games last year and 7-foot-1 Michal Cekovsky was out for 16 contests. Cekovsky will need to return as a force this year. The team will also lean on 6-foot-10 Ivan Bender to make contributions after he had 4.8 points and 3.2 rebounds per game off the bench.

Given all the experience coming back to the program, Maryland should be a Top 25 team when the dust settles. The Terps need to find out who will be the alpha dog scorer, but the pieces are in place for a run to the second week of the tournament.

Michigan's year started sluggishly, but the Wolverines closed strong with a Big Ten Tournament title and a trip to the Sweet 16. The level of difficulty to duplicate this is extremely high as the team’s top two guards from last year as well as a multi-faceted starting forward are gone.

Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin had a combined 28.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, eight assists and two steals per game with Walton connecting on 42.2 percent of his 3s and Irvin 34.4 percent. The departed D.J. Wilson provided a lot as well with averages of 11 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game while hitting 37.3 percent of his 3s. His 6-foot-9 size made him one of the toughest players to guard in the conference.

With five of the Wolverines’ main seven rotation players from a season ago gone, 6-foot-10 German forward Mo Wagner will have to be a team leader after averaging 12.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game as a unique stretch five. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman will have to take command of the front court after he registered 9.1 points while connecting on 37.8 percent of his 3s.

The team will lean heavily on Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews, who should be starting at the three after sitting out the 2016-17 season due to NCAA transfer rules. The 6-foot-6 wing rarely played in during his lone season at the SEC school after being an ESPN four-star prospect out of high school.

Michigan is also pinning its hopes on Ohio graduate transfer Jaaron Simmons having a massive year after posted averages of 15.9 points, 6.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds a year ago. He also hit 34.6 percent of his 3s last year and 41 percent two years ago. With Michigan ranking fourth in the nation in 3s made a season ago, his deep shooting will come in handy.

The team also welcomes in two ESPN top 100 recruits in 6-foot-5 shooting guard Jordan Poole, and 6-foot-7 forward Isaiah Livers. Both will at the very least be key rotation players and it would not be surprising to see at least one of these guys start give all the turnover with the roster.

Michigan is in the same boat as Wisconsin, with the difference being the Wolverines do not have as good of a track record at reloading. This team will rely on Simmons emerging with a huge season. It all could lead to Michigan going to the NIT instead of the field of 68.

Northwestern made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history and is looking for more this year. With the vast majority of its roster back, including star point guard Bryant McIntosh, this is the first shot this team gets at having a monster year.

The 6-foot-3 McIntosh led the Wildcats with 14.8 points and 5.2 assists per game. He got a lot of help from 6-foot-5 shooting guard Scottie Lindsey, who chipped in 14.1 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.

Both these guys are aided by 6-foot-7 Vic Law being lethal on the perimeter. He was the top 3-point shooter among the starters last year, making 39.9 percent of his triples while posting averages of 12.3 points and 5.8 rebounds.

Northwestern might not have a team that can make the Final Four, but this is a strong team that very nearly rallied against Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in March. This should be a Top 25 team that has the chops to make the second week of the tournament.

Indiana is looking to pick up the pieces of an underachieving 2016-17 season that saw the team go 18-16 with an exit in the first round of the NIT. That led to the school firing coach Tom Crean and turning the program over to former Dayton coach Archie Miller.

The cupboard has has a few pieces missing with James Blackmon, Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby all bolting for the NBA, leaving it up to guards Josh Newkirk and Robert Johnson to lead the charge. Johnson had 12.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. Both were good 3-point shooters as well, combining to shoot just over 37 percent from distance.

Forwards Juwan Morgan and De'Ron Davis should also be difference-makers after both got big minutes as underclassmen. Morgan racked up 7.7 points and 5.6 rebounds per game while the 6-foot-10 Davis had 5.9 points and 3.1 rebounds.

The recruiting class for the Hoosiers isn't as great as most years, with 6-foot-7 forward Justin Smith being the best player of the bunch. Smith along with Devonte Green and Curtis Jones, who are both sophomore guards, should see a good amount of minutes in Miller's rotation.

Miller has his work cut out for him but should have a team good enough to make a push for the NCAA Tournament bubble. The team has a pretty low floor, but Miller is a solid coach and should get the most out of this roster.

Sticking with the new coach theme, Ohio State is hoping former Butler coach Chris Holtmann can lead the Buckeyes back near the top of the Big Ten after the school and Thad Matta surprisingly severed ties in June.

Holtmann has the top scorer from a year ago returning in wing Jae'Sean Tate. The 6-foot-4 combo player had 14.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game as a junior.

Though it is far from a monumental addition, guard Andrew Dakich enter the program as a graduate transfer after playing for three seasons at Michigan. The team does have a reliable forward returning who can be one of the lynch pins of the team in 6-foot-11 Trevor Thompson, who had 10.6 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game last season. He will get help from 6-foot-9 ESPN four-star center Kaleb Wesson, who should start as a freshman for Holtmann. Freshman Kyle Young should also play a significant role for this team as a 6-foot-7 freshman forward and is also an ESPN-rated top 100 recruit.

Ohio State will have the services of 6-foot-7 Keita Bates-Diop, who was limited to nine games last year due to injury. He had 9.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game prior to being ruled out for the season.

The team will lean on guards Kam Williams and C.J. Jackson for production after Williams had 9.4 points per game last year and Jackson 5.6 points and 2.9 assists per contest as a reserve point guard.  Williams also was a solid 3-point shooter, making 37.6 percent of his 3s.

The team has the athletes needed to make an NCAA Tournament push, but the question is whether or not this team will mesh given it is operating with a coach put in place in June. An 18-win season and the Buckeyes riding the NIT bubble should be the expectation.

Illinois also has a new leader in former Oklahoma State and Stephen F. Austin coach Brad Underwood after John Groce failed to get the Fighting Illini to the dance for a fourth straight year.

Underwood brings with him three ESPN-rated four-star guard prospects as well as graduate transfer Mark Alstork. With all of the team's top four scorers from last year gone, Alstork will likely be shooting until his arm falls off. He averaged 19 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game at Wright State last season, though he was responsible for 4.3 turnovers per game.

Added pressure is on 6-foot-7, 220-pound Leron Black, who had a team high 6.3 rebounds per game along with 8.1 points. Guards Mark Smith and Trent Frazier both enter the program as point guards with ESPN-rated top 100 recruit Da'Monte Williams.

The team has a star in Alstork, but with not much around him, it will be tough for Illinois to make an NCAA Tournament push. This young team will likely take some lumps and break out after a year of seasoning.

Penn State has made the NCAA Tournament just twice in the past 21 seasons, but it has a solid starting lineup in place with a bunch of young players back for another go.

Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens set the tone for the team by combining for 25.9 points and 10.3 rebounds per game as freshman. Carr was the team's main point guard, while Stevens played the four position for coach Patrick Chambers.

Senior Shep Gardner's experience will be a paramount part of this team as he is a three-year starter who has had essentially the same stat line the past three years, averaging 12 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists a year ago.

Penn State has won between 15 and 18 games each of the past four years and this season likely will be the fifth. This has all the signs of a .500 team.

Iowa had a 19-15 record last season, getting on the NCAA Tournament bubble before losing by 22 in its first Big Ten Tournament game to derail those hopes.

Peter Jok is gone after leading the way with 19.9 points, but the team has plenty of young guns. The Hawkeyes return two forwards in 6-foot-9 Tyler Cook and 6-foot-8 Cordell Pemsl who averaged a combined 21.2 points and 10.3 rebounds as freshmen. The team also has a good point guard in sophomore Jordan Bohannon, who had 10.9 points and 5.1 assists per game as a freshman a year ago.

Coach Fran McCaffery also got lots of quality playing time from guard Isaiah Moss, who had 7.5 points per game as a freshman starter. It will be interesting to see if Brady Ellingson can continue his hot 3-point shooting from a season ago, as he hit 47.1 percent of his 3s, but had just 4.4 points per game.

With the team having so many guards, it will be fascinating to see how Connor McCaffery, the son of the coach, is used. He's a 6-foot-6 shooter who can be used as a shooting guard or a small forward and was an ESPN-rated top 100 recruit.

While losing Jok hurts, the rest of last year's lineup is back. The Hawkeyes’ seasons have been incredibly inconsistent as they either start strong and tail off at the end, or start slow and finish with a flurry. Iowa could be an NCAA Tournament team, but it likely will not be in the Top 25.

It was another tough season for Nebraska as the Cornhuskers had a 12-19 record despite starting Big Ten play 3-0 with victories over Indiana, Maryland and Iowa.

A key player will be junior Glynn Watson Jr., who had 13 points and 1.6 steals per contest while serving as Nebraska's top 3-point shooter, making 39.7 percent of his attempts. The team shot just 32 percent from 3 as a team, which ranked 307th in the country, and that will need to improve with two of the top forwards transferring in the offseason.

Australian 6-foot-7 forward Jack McVeigh will have to do a ton of work in the paint after swatting a team-high 1.1 blocks per game while also pouring in 9.4 points per game.

It has been a struggle for coach Tim Miles as of late with three straight losing seasons, and the program has made the NCAA Tournament just once since 1998. Nebraska should be better, but the team has tons of question marks and is hoping to strike gold on transfers.

Rutgers is stuck with a conference mark of 6-54 in three years as a Big Ten member. The Scarlet Knights started last season 11-1, but that was a credit to playing a nonconference schedule that ranked 336th in the nation.

The good news for coach Steve Pikiell's team is leading scorer and primary ball handler Corey Sanders is back after posting 12.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. He is a volume shooter as he made just 38.2 percent of his shots overall and 26.6 percent of his 3s a year ago, a big reason the team was 338th in the nation in 3-point shooting efficiency and 328th in efficiency on two-point shots. Forward DeShawn Freeman will be a main source of support as he posted 11.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.

Rutgers is still the worst team in the conference and it isn't close.

The Big Ten appears to be very strong with Michigan State leading the way. Purdue, Minnesota and Northwestern look like solid Top 25 teams with Maryland possibly in the tier, as well. If Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan can do their part, the conference has a chance at getting seven teams into the tournament again.

Greg Peterson’s Big Ten Conference forecast:

1. Michigan State

2. Purdue

3. Minnesota

4. Northwestern

5. Maryland

6. Iowa

7. Michigan

8. Wisconsin

9. Indiana

10. Illinois

11. Ohio State

12. Penn State

13. Nebraska 

14. Rutgers

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