Previewing Big Ten basketball

Preseason hype is just hot air, but the Big Ten has several teams and players worth hyping going into the 2020-21 season. Iowa senior center Luka Garza is the favorite to win national player of the year honors, and the Hawkeyes are among four conference teams — along with Illinois, Michigan State and Wisconsin — considered to be Final Four contenders. If the Big Ten gets 10 teams into the NCAA tournament, can it boast of being college basketball’s best conference, or is winning the tournament most important? The last Big Ten team to win the NCAA championship was Michigan State in 2000. Since the Spartans’ triumph, the league is 0-7 in the national title game — the losers were Indiana (2002), Illinois (2005), Ohio State (2007), Michigan State (2009), Michigan (2013, 2018) and Wisconsin (2015).  Speaking of futility streaks, Iowa has not won even a share of the league’s regular-season championship since 1979, when the cost of a gallon of gas was less than $1. Last season’s race ended in a three-way tie with Maryland and Wisconsin catching Michigan State down the stretch. The Big Ten was the No. 1 conference in the Kenpom.com ratings, which showed 12 of the 14 teams in the nation’s top 35. Ten teams were on the verge of reaching the NCAA field. The conference might not prove as strong this season, but 11 teams have realistic NCAA hopes at the outset. The only head-coaching change in the league occurred at Penn State, where Patrick Chambers resigned under pressure in late October. Chambers, who had a successful nine-season tenure and won 21 games last season, faced allegations of inappropriate conduct toward players. A 20-game league schedule is planned again this season, with nonconference schedules a work in progress and subject to change. Spartans coach Tom Izzo always lines up elite opponents, and he has done it again. Michigan State will face Duke on Dec. 1 and play at Virginia on Dec. 9 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Spartans were ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll for the first time in program history last year, but injuries played a part in a disappointing 22-9 finish. Izzo has made eight Final Four appearances. At the Westgate SuperBook, Michigan State is getting 18-1 odds to win the NCAA title, followed by Illinois (25-1), Iowa (25-1) and Wisconsin (30-1).
 
 
 
TOP 10 PLAYERS
Luka Garza, Senior, C, Iowa
Kofi Cockburn, Sophomore, C, Illinois
Ayo Dosunmu, Junior, G, Illinois
Rocket Watts, Sophomore, G, Michigan State
Trayce Jackson-Davis, Sophomore, F, Indiana
Ron Harper Jr., Junior, F, Rutgers
Micah Potter, Senior, F, Wisconsin
Isaiah Livers, Senior, F, Michigan
Marcus Carr, Junior, G, Minnesota
Trevion Williams, Junior, F, Purdue
 
 
1. Iowa: It is rare that an All-American returns to school, but Iowa has that luxury in Luka Garza. He notched 23.9 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game while converting on 35.8% of his 3-point shots, but this team is not all about him. Connor McCaffery had the second-best assist-to-turnover ratio at 4.6, and every one of the team’s top nine scorers besides Garza shot at least 75% from the line. The Hawkeyes will also get back Jordan Bohannon, who was limited to 10 games due to a hip injury but is a career 40.3% 3-point shooter with career averages of 4.5 assists and 11.7 points per game. C.J. Fredrick and Joe Toussaint emerged as freshmen with a combined 5.7 assists per game. And Fredrick made 46.1% of his 3-point shots, 13th best among qualifying D-I players, while averaging 10.2 points. If the Hawkeyes can improve on the 75 points per game they allowed in conference play, they have the tools to be a title contender.
 
2. Illinois: After playing a hard-core pressing style in his first two years, coach Brad Underwood slowed things down and found success shifting Illinois’ focus to rebounding and good ball control. Having guard Ayo Dosunmu back is key. He averaged 16.6 points and 3.3 assists and closed the year playing his best basketball. As Illinois won five of its last six games, he shot 53.4% and averaged 19.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and a steal. With Alan Griffin, the only player who made more than 31% of his 3-point attempts, transferring to Syracuse, the Illini will need 6-foot-6 Holy Cross transfer Jacob Grandison to duplicate his 36.5% 3-point shooting percentage with 13.9 points, five rebounds and 2.9 assists in 2018-19. The growth of 6-foot-9 Giorgi Bezhanishvili seemed stunted last year, as he registered 6.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. But if he and Kofi Cockburn, who had 13.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, can do as well as they did defensively, it will open looks for their guards. With a great pure shooter in freshman Adam Miller and Trent Frazier back after giving the team 9.1 points per game and 85.3% free-throw shooting, Illinois could separate in a Big Ten that has a lot of teams that seem fairly equal entering the season.
 
3. Wisconsin: The addition of leading rebounder Micah Potter during the season was huge, as the Badgers opened 5-5 without him but went 16-5 with him and were set to be the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Nearly everyone is back from a group that won its final eight games. The offense came alive for Wisconsin, which was in the bottom 10 in possessions per game, scoring at least 70 points in six of those eight wins. Veteran guard Brad Davison was a big reason, shooting 45.5% from 3-point range with 12.4 points per game in February and March. The Badgers also had one of the most multifaceted 6-foot-11 players in the country in Nate Reuvers, averaging 13.1 points and 1.9 blocks while shooting 33.7% from 3-point range. Potter registered 10.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and a block while making 86% of his free throws and 45.1% of his 3-pointers. D’Mitrik Trice is back at the controls after giving out 4.2 assists to 1.7 turnovers per game and making 37.6% of his 3-point shots, and getting another potential stretch forward in freshman Ben Carlson should help the Badgers pick up where they left off in March.
4. Michigan State: Trying to replace All-American guard Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman will be a challenge. The Spartans will try to offset part of their massive production with Marquette transfer Joey Hauser, who practiced with the team last season after shooting 42.5% from 3-point range with 9.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game as a Big East all-freshman. The Spartans should also get back guard Joshua Langford, who last played Dec. 29, 2018. In the 13 games he played that 2018-19 season, Langford averaged 15 points and 2.3 assists while making over 40% of his 3-point shots, as he has done in all three seasons he has played. Michigan State will need Aaron Henry to replace some of the rebounding after Tillman’s exit, and Henry’s 10 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game show his versatility. Rocket Watts earned Big Ten all-freshman honors last year, and the trio of Gabe Brown, Malik Hall and Marcus Bingham each had 3.6 to 3.7 rebounds per game as underclassmen. Brown made 94.7% of his free throws, and if freshman A.J. Hoggard can provide scoring off the bench, the Spartans have a chance to look as good as they did late last season, when they won five straight, four against top-20 opponents.
5. Ohio State: In an uneven season, the Buckeyes went from ranked second in the country to unranked in four weeks. Former Ivy League Player of the Year Seth Towns registered 16 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 44.1% from 3-point range in his last full season, but that was in 2017-18 and it is still unclear when he will suit up. Cal transfer Justice Sueing practiced with the Buckeyes last season after averaging 14.3 points, six rebounds and 1.7 steals in 2018-19. It will be up to Kyle Young, who had 7.5 points and 5.8 rebounds last season, to take over some of the void left without Kaleb Wesson. Getting back Musa Jallow, who missed the 2019-20 season due to injury, and the addition of Bucknell transfer Jimmy Sotos should give Ohio State more depth. But it will be tough for the Buckeyes to stay in the upper half of the conference.
6. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights were lined up to make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1991 and have a roster that might be even better this season. Geo Baker emerged for 15 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists while committing 1.9 turnovers per game. Rutgers will be fortified down low with 6-foot-10 freshman Cliff Omoruyi entering the program, and his offensive game should allow Myles Johnson to continue to pound the glass after registering 7.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. Among players who took at least one 3-point shot per game, Ron Harper Jr. is the only one who shot at least 30% from that range. His 12.1 points per game led the team. Rutgers’ only conference loss of more than eight points came at Michigan State in early December, showing this team was close. The Scarlet Knights finally ended the jinx of failing to get big road wins by closing the season with an overtime win over Purdue.
7. Indiana: After averaging 79.8 points against nonconference foes, Indiana registered just 66.5 in the Big Ten. Guard Khristian Lander reclassifying to the Class of 2020 gives the Hoosiers an immediate offensive jolt, as he is at his best driving to the glass, and sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis will assist in that. As a freshman, Jackson-Davis had team highs of 13.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. Butler transfer Joey Brunk contributed another 6.8 points and 5.2 rebounds. Lander’s presence should also help Rob Phinisee, who has shown flashes of being a special guard but fails to create his own shot. He averaged 7.3 points and 3.4 assists, and Indiana was 11-4 when he had at least four assists in a game. Aljami Durham, who made 38.3% of his 3-point shots and 81.1% of his free throws, will need to pick up more of the scoring load after notching 9.8 points per game, and former top-50 recruit Jerome Hunter needs to increase his 3.8-point average.
8. Michigan: In switching from coach John Beilein to Juwan Howard, the Wolverines cranked up the tempo and will look to a strong backcourt for success. Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner return after averaging a combined 23.5 points and 9.5 rebounds, with Livers making 40.2% of his 3-point shots and 95.7% of his free throws, including 31-for-31 in the Big Ten. Columbia graduate transfer Mike Smith filled it up with 12.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, 7.9 assists and a steal per game while making 36% of his 3-point shots. Wake Forest transfer Chaundee Brown should also aid the backcourt after averaging 12.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. The Wolverines will get help down low from 7-foot-2 Hunter Dickinson and Eli Brooks, who averaged 10.6 points and 3.7 rebounds. Michigan has the depth to compete in a balanced Big Ten.
9. Purdue: For years the Boilermakers have been toward the top of the Big Ten thanks to dominant big men, and they will look to Trevion Williams to pound the boards. He averaged 11.5 points and 7.6 rebounds last season and was at his best down the stretch with three double-doubles in the final seven games, including at least eight rebounds in six of those seven games. Guards Eric Hunter Jr. and Sasha Stefanovic combined for 19.7 points and two steals, with both shooting at least 35.5% from 3-point range and 76% from the line. But with Hunter likely to be out until at least early January, freshman Jaden Ivey will need to show off his ability to run the offense and drive to the glass. Freshman Zach Edey is 7-foot-4 but is quite raw and lacks the control needed to stay out of foul trouble at the college level. Isaiah Thompson’s 36% 3-point shooting as a freshman is promising, but it could be another stagnant year for Purdue.
10. Maryland: The Terps will get a big boost from Boston College transfer Jairus Hamilton, who averaged 9.5 points and 4.3 rebounds. Alabama transfer Galin Smith made 17 starts the last two seasons, but this will not be enough to replace the 15.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game coupled with 36.8% 3-point shooting the departed Jalen Smith brought to the table. Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell and Aaron Wiggins combined for 27.9 points and six assists per game, but all shot 33.3% or worse from 3-point range. With a lean recruiting class coming in and five reserves transferring, the Terps will have a hard time maintaining the level of excellence they’ve had recently.
11. Minnesota: Blown leads and an inability to close games hurt Minnesota last season, as 12 of its 16 losses were by single digits. Adding Utah transfer Both Gach is significant. He shot 69.1% on 2-point attempts in 2018-19 as a freshman while registering 7.7 points per game, but his efficiency slipped last season despite increasing his raw averages to 10.7 points and 2.9 assists. Freshman Jamal Mashburn Jr. has a well-rounded game and he and Goch will benefit from Marcus Carr’s superb vision. Carr averaged 15.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.5 assists while making 36.1% of his 3-point shots. With Carr the only returnee who averaged at least three rebounds, the arrival of Drake transfer Liam Robbins and Western Michigan transfer Brandon Johnson is even more significant. Robbins had the fifth-most blocks per game in D-I last year with 2.9 to go with 14.1 points and 7.2 rebounds, while Johnson averaged 15.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and a block. If Gabe Kalscheur can be more consistent than his 34.1% 3-point mark, the Gophers might be able to overachieve in a deep Big Ten. The team had to deal with a 14-day COVID-19 shutdown in November.
12. Northwestern: After another long year, coach Chris Collins will look to a healthy Anthony Gaines to try to turn things around. Gaines started 10 games last season and was never fully effective at only 5.9 points per game. But he should take some of the attention away from Miller Kopp, who led the team at 13.1 points per game while shooting 39.6% from 3-point range and 89.6% from the line. After a slow start, Boo Buie averaged 12 points and 2.8 assists after Dec. 18. Tandem post players Ryan Young and Pete Nance combined for 17.5 points and 12.1 rebounds per game. Northwestern also will need 6-foot-9 Robbie Beran to build off the 40% 3-point shooting and five points per game he contributed last season as a freshman.
13. Penn State: Parting ways with coach Pat Chambers in October leaves Penn State with former Duquesne coach Jim Ferry as interim coach. After losing their top scorer, the Nittany Lions will be more guard-oriented. Myreon Jones will be at the controls after averaging 13.3 points, three assists and 1.3 steals game while making 40.3% of his 3-point shots. Sam Sessoms lit it up at Binghamton last season with 19.4 points, five rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.6 steals per game, but he also averaged 3.4 turnovers. Guard Myles Dread shot only 34.3%, and with forward John Harrar being the only returning player with more than 3.2 rebounds per game, Penn State will need combo player Seth Lundy to step up. He made 39.1% of his 3-pointers and averaged 5.3 points as a freshman.
14. Nebraska: Second-year coach Fred Hoiberg is looking to the recipe he used to attain success at Iowa State — bringing in a lot of transfers. Former Pittsburgh Panthers Trey McGowens and Shamiel Stevenson should provide a backcourt presence. The 6-foot-6 Stevenson made 39% of his 3-point shots while McGowens averaged 11.5 points, 3.6 assists and 1.9 steals. A pair of 6-foot-8 players in Tennessee transfer Derrick Walker and Western Kentucky transfer Dalano Banton were afterthoughts in their former offenses, as neither averaged 3.5 points per game. Juco transfer Teddy Allen found himself in the same circumstance at West Virginia before making 37% of his 3-point shots and 88.1% of his free throws at the lower level. The team will look to Western Illinois graduate transfer Kobe Webster to ignite the offense after averaging 17.6 points and 3.6 assists. Thorir Thorbjarnarson and Yvan Ouedraogo return after combining for 14.5 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
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