Big Ten Preview 2016-17

- Jim Root

Big Ten Preview

1.      Michigan State
     Ohio St.
     Penn St.

All Conference Awards

POY: Thomas Bryant, So., Indiana
Coach of the Year: Tom Izzo, Michigan St.
Newcomer of the Year: Miles Bridges, Fr., F, Michigan St.
Freshman of the Year: Miles Bridges, Fr., F, Michigan St.


1.      Michigan State

Key Returners: Eron Harris, Gavin Schilling, Tum-Tum Nairn, Matt McQuaid
Key Losses: Denzel Valentine, Matt Costello, Bryn Forbes, Deyonta Davis
Key Newcomers: Miles Bridges, Josh Langford, Cassius Winston, Nick Ward, Ben Carter

Postseason Projection: 1-4 seed

Good old Sparty lost either the best or the second-best player in the country last year (Valentine), the Big Ten’s best three-point shooter (Forbes), an NBA-bound freshman big man (Davis), and a heart-and-soul senior big man who averaged 11 and 8 (Costello)…and yet here they are, ranked first in 3MW’s Big Ten rankings.

Why? Well, Tom Izzo’s wizardry (wIzzo-dry?) is a prime reason. Though more known for his March exploits, Izzo is an elite developer of talent, and it would surprise almost no one to see the returning players step up into leading roles this season. He gets his players to buy in and play defense, move the ball on offense, and generally play the type of basketball that AAU detractors smile upon. (He’s also the number one coach I’d want to play for in the country).

Another gigantic reason is the crop of newcomers. A freshman class of Miles Bridges, Josh Langford, Cassius Winston, and Nick Ward may be the best one Izzo has ever brought to East Lansing, and the Spartans also benefitted from the insane UNLV exodus to nab grad transfer Ben Carter, a burly but skilled forward who should have a big role.

Bridges is the jewel of the class, a stoutly-built southpaw combo forward that oozes skill and athleticism. He has a devastating spin move and can dominate the glass, and he could swipe the Conference Player of the Year if Izzo gives him the reins from Day 1. He doesn’t totally have an NBA position, but he should be an elite college smallball 4 in Izzo’s offense. Langford is a rangy shooting guard with a surprising passing ability with either hand. His stroke is also smooth, though the release is a tad slow at this point. Winston and Ward have chances to start at PG and C, respectively, though the experienced incumbents may stand in their way (at least at first).

Combining with these newcomers is a returning group that includes ultra-bricky Tum-Tum Nairn (a true Izzo floor leader), athletic guard Eron Harris (holding up a giant neon “Breakout Candidate!” sign), forward Gavin Schilling (a ripped rebounder), and lanky wing Matt McQuaid (who looks just as nerdy as his name sounds, but he is effective).

A Tom Izzo team will always get up in you defensively in the man-to-man, using physicality and discipline to disrupt opposing offenses. This year’s squad has the athletes and length to be an outstanding perimeter defense, although the back line rim protection could be a bit vulnerable without Davis and the surprisingly decent Costello. Despite that potentially weak back line, though, this Spartan team is too talented offensively (and too well-coached) to dip very far. I’m extremely bullish on them this year, as evidenced by this conference title pick.

2.      Wisconsin

Key Returners:  Everyone
Key Losses:  No one
Key Newcomers: Brevin Pritzl, Andy Van Vliet

Postseason Projection: 2-4 seed

The most important fact about the Badgers is in the first two lines of this preview – they return every mildly important piece of a team that farted away an Elite Eight berth; an incredibly experienced team with offensive skill, defensive toughness, and a seemingly on-the-rise coaching star in Greg Gard.

As a student of the swing offense who played in it for 8 years, it brought me great joy to watch Wisconsin’s midseason renaissance coincided with Gard switching the offense back towards Bo Ryan’s (and Dick Bennett’s) favored approach. It favors skilled big men that can shoot (see Vitto Brown and Nigel Hayes, to an extent) and players that can exploit mismatches and score in the post (Ethan Happ and his footwork is elite at this, Hayes is too quick or too big for most defenders). The floor spacing will only be better this year as two smooth-shooting redshirt freshmen join the mix in guard Brevin Pritzl and Belgian big man Andy Van Vliet.  A penetrating point guard is not a huge necessity, although many possessions will end with Bronson Koenig pulling up at the top of the key in late shot clock situations. Badger PGs have long had to do this (Jordan Taylor and Trevon Hughes were great at it, Traevon Jackson not so much), and the long possessions help the Badgers control the pace of the game.

In fact, Gard’s biggest test this year will be managing chemistry and role allocation. Eleven guys have legitimate arguments for playing time, but he won’t want to have Koenig, Hayes, or Happ off the floor very much. Alex Illikainen may be the odd man out despite being part of the rotation last year; there’s just too many weapons to really give every guy decent minutes, and Illikainen was the least far along last year of the rising sophomores. Khalil Iverson is an elite athlete and should be a plus defender, Charlie Thomas is a burly rebounder who showed a burgeoning shooting tough, and junior Jordan Hill proved extremely effective when given more of a chance after Gard took over. Also, expect the rotation to change from game to game as Gard exercises the luxury of playing the hot hand(s).

Gard will also make a lot of rotation decisions based on who plays defense - Zak Showalter is one of the premier perimeter defenders in the Big Ten, and Happ dominated the defensive glass. In one of the crazier stats of the year, Happ was also 20th in the entire country in steal rate (4.0%). To put that in context, he would have been the best thief per possession on West Virginia’s insanely high-pressure defense. A post player being that adept at pilfering is like rhino being the best at Jenga. Overall, though, Wisconsin will play highly disciplined man-to-man and will take away any and all transition opportunities.

Another fun little note: the younger brother of former Michigan State guard Travis Trice will be a freshman this year (D’Mitrik Trice). The last time the Badgers nabbed the younger brother of Big Ten opponent’s star, it turned out pretty well. He won’t see the floor this year, but remember the name.

The Badgers are loaded again with skill and experience, and part of me dreams of a situation where they ruin an undefeated Duke season in the NCAA Tournament (similar to what they did to Kentucky in 2015) and avenge the 2015 title game. I’m not sure anyone will beat Duke in the postseason this year, though, so it may be best to avoid the Blue Devils as long as possible.

3.      Indiana

Key Returners:  Thomas Bryant, Robert Johnson, OG Anunoby, Collin Hartman, James Blackmon
Key Losses: Yogi Ferrell, Troy Williams, Nick Zeisloft, Max Bielfeldt
Key Newcomers: Josh Newkirk, Freddie McSwain, De’Ron Davis, Curtis Jones

Postseason Projection: 2-5 seed

Excuse me, I’m going to need a few minutes to recover after picking a Tom Crean-led team to succeed.

*waiting, overcoming nausea*

Okay, I think I’m all better. After being extremely critical of the Hoosiers‘ defense early last year (but optimistic that it would get better, as it did!), Indiana finished squarely in the middle of the B1G (7th) on that end, allowing their #6 nationally ranked offense to lead the team to Sweet 16 prosperity (including a program-affirming win over Kentucky). The offense probably won’t be QUITE as good this year without a hyper-efficient maestro like Yogi Ferrell running the show, but the defense should be better with more experience for Thomas Bryant and more minutes for everyone’s favorite breakout candidate, OG Anunoby. All of that change shouldn’t lead to much of a dropoff overall, and the Hoosiers have a fair chance at repeating as Big Ten Champs.

Crean wants to play man to man defensively, and Anunoby’s outrageous versatility (can almost defend all 5 spots equally well) will make that a lot easier. They’ll need to hide James Blackmon on a weaker offensive player, though, as he is prone to taking a snooze off the ball and getting blown by on ball. Bryant isn’t an elite shot-blocker, but his length bothers opponents, and he did an acceptable job of avoiding foul trouble last year in his first college season. Without Bielfieldt to provide center depth, he’ll need to continue that prudent trend. Expect to see some zone mixed in here and there, both for personnel reasons and to manage Bryant’s exertion.

Offensively, Pitt transfer Josh Newkirk will be a huge key. Without Ferrell, he’ll take the reins at point guard; he’s nowhere near the shooter or distributor that Ferrell was, but he can penetrate and with the weapons around him, he should be fine. The depth behind him is Dan LeBatard’s Highly Questionable, though, as either Robert Johnson or Blackmon will bring the ball up - neither of whom is a true point guard. Anunoby showed a flash potential as a shooter last year (13/29 from deep), and if he can really provide that, IU’s offense will be extremely potent once again. Blackmon returns as a prolific scorer who can get it done in a variety of ways; as much as you can question his defense, there’s no doubting his dynamic offensive ability.

Several other newcomers will be crucial off the bench. Junior college transfer Freddie McSwain has an excellent name and some game to back it up (he’s a bouncy 6’6 rebounder). Freshmen De’Ron Davis and Curtis Jones will also likely play big roles; with Jones in particular being the main source of backcourt depth. Reports out of Bloomington are that he looks great so far in summer workouts. Davis is an excellent shot-blocker (all-time leader in Colorado high school bball) and should be able to spell Bryant at times. Anunoby and Collin Hartman will also probably play some minutes at the 3 in bigger lineups.

Crean catches plenty of flak, but he was legitimately very good last year in his leadership of the Hoosiers and reinvention after Blackmon’s injury. The talent is there to be in the top 15 and earn another Sweet 16 berth.

Note: Collin Hartman may miss the 2016-17 season after suffering having surgery on a non-contact knee injury suffered in practice.

4.      Michigan

Key Returners: Derrick Walton, Duncan Robinson, M. Abdur-Rahkman, Zak Irvin, Mark Donnal
Key Losses: Caris LeVert,  Aubrey Dawkins, Ricky Doyle
Key Newcomers: Xavier Simpson, Jon Teske, Austin Davis

Postseason Projection: 4-7 seed

I feel terrible saying this, because I love Caris LeVert (no relation to my aunts/uncles/cousins – we reallllly don’t look alike) and his well-rounded, smooth game, but I have a weird suspicion that the Wolverines will benefit from his departure. For two straight years, the team was designed with him as the primary usage guy and catalyst, and in both of those years, he got hurt midway through the year, forcing Coach John Beilein to scramble and reshape the team on the fly. This isn’t LeVert’s fault, but more stability and consistency throughout preseason and in-season strategy can’t be a bad thing.

The starting lineup is particularly impressive here, with a very good point guard, a versatile big man, and three skilled wings who are nearly interchangeable. Expect the team to play more traditional two-big lineups due to the transfers of Kameron Chatman and Aubrey Dawkins, but the floor-spacing potential here with a multitude of both shooters and ball-handlers is incredibly appealing. Former Division III player Duncan Robinson, in particular, is one of the best shooters in the country, and he has a high, quick release that makes it very difficult to contest effectively. Zak Irvin had a poor shooting year last year and his form is pretty gross, but he hit 38% of his 357 attempts over his first two years, so a bounceback wouldn’t be surprising. Derrick Walton is a highly effective PG who can shoot or slash-and-kick, and Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman is a serviceable wing who got a lot better last year. Freshmen Xavier Simpson and Ibi Watson are the wild cards. Simpson is a jet-quick PG with a great crossover and first step; he has an elite floater game already and can shoot the 3 a bit, but his release is a little low and slow at this point. Watson is more of an above-the-rim athlete; his ability to fit into Beilein’s various zone schemes will dictate how much he plays early on.

The aforementioned zone schemes are a crucial point of examining a Beilein team. He popularized the 1-3-1 with his ricidulously fun West Virginia teams (Pittsnogle!), and he’s continued that in Ann Arbor. He mixes things up with some matchup elements and other variations (2-3, 3-2, etc.), but the 1-3-1 is the staple. He likes to put length on top to keep the ball on one side (likely Irvin or Watson), narrowing the court and forcing the ball to the corner (where open threes can often be had). Walton will roam the baseline, fronting big men and closing out to shooters when necessary, a role that Simpson would excel in as well with his quickness. Mark Donnal is a good-enough athlete in the middle who rebounds and also provides great finishing offensively. Finding spots for the more lumber freshmen bigs, Jon Teske and Austin Davis, will be a challenge, but Beilein is smart enough to make it work.

Though this is largely the same roster that had to be shoehorned into a First Four game last season, a full run through the season without crucial injuries would go a long way towards getting the Wolverines back into the top 4 in the Big Ten. Defense will be the difference – shot-blocking provided by Teske and Davis could be a major factor, and don’t discount the possibility of a breakout year for 6‘10 German import Moritz Wagner either. If they can deter some of the easy interior baskets that the Michigan zone gave up last year, the defense should climb out of the conference’s bottom half.

I expect a significant leap for the Wolverines this year, easily avoiding the First Four round and almost surely wearing white (well, yellow for this squad) in a first round game.

5.      Purdue

Key Returners:  Isaac Haas, Vince Edwards, PJ Thompson, Dakota Mathias, Ryan Cline, Caleb Swanigan
Key Losses: AJ Hammons, Raphael Davis, Johnny Hill, Kendall Stephens
Key Newcomers: Carsen Edwards, Spike Albrecht

Postseason Projection: 4-7 seed

After having one of the most intimidating front lines in college basketball last year, Purdue now brings of the most intimidating front lines in college basketball. Led by absolutely ginormous human Isaac Haas, the Boilermakers’ starting front line can match up with anyone in the country. Haas looks like a normal large human ate a Mario mushroom and grew 1.5x the size. He looks like a very tall person consumed a gorilla and absorbed his size and strength. He looks like the Pokemon Machamp if you cut off his weird extra set of arms. It’s a good thing he doesn’t play in a trench coat because he would look like two bodybuilders stacked on top of each other.

Isaac Haas is huge, folks! But he’s not all they have - Vince Edwards and Caleb Swanigan are two of the best forwards in the league. Swanigan was a major recruiting coup last year, switching his commitment late from Michigan State, and he was a force on the glass. He wasn’t very efficient offensively, though, showing a major propensity for turnovers in the post and an ill-advised shot selection (29% on 72 attempted threes). He’s a massive candidate for a sophomore leap, though, and playing some lineups with him at center (and thus more space around his post-ups) could be helpful. With Haas and AJ Hammons last year, it was hard to play with neither of them on the floor, often cramping the lane around Swanigan. Edwards, on the other hand, was very efficient, showing a solid passing ability to go along with good outside shooting and a nice midrange game.

The questions, then, will be in the backcourt. At point guard, PJ Thompson returns, flaunting the country’s #3 overall O-rating after shooting 42% from three and rarely turning it over. Questions exist about his ability to create for teammates, though - he’s almost better off playing off the ball offensively. That may be an option this year with the arrivals of Spike Albrecht from Michigan, also more of a shooter but definitely a better creator than Thompson, and Carsen Edwards, a freshman who has played extremely well on the Boilers summer foreign tour. Ryan Cline and Dakota Mathias return as effective wing shooters and not much else (though Mathias also showed a penchant for timely passing).

Part of the benefit of being so huge defensively was playing conservatively on the perimeter (not looking to pressure at all - 348th nationally in turnovers forced) while dominating the paint (3rd nationally in defensive rebound rate, 17th in 2p% against). That should be the case again this year behind Haas and Swanigan, and the team’s lack of pressure defenders on the perimeter won’t bother them.

Matt Painter’s club will be a pain in the ass again, suffocating teams with their paint dominance and putting enough shooters on the floor to keep some spacing. Shot creation in important situations will be a problem again due to the lack of a true dribble-breakdown threat (just ask them about the last couple minutes against Little Rock in the NCAA Tournament), but Albrecht and possibly Edwards could have some say in lessening that. This is a surefire tournament team again that could improve on last season’s frustrating first round loss.

6.      Ohio St.

Key Returners: JaQuan Lyle, Keita Bates-Diop, Marc Loving, Jae’Sean Tate, Kam Williams, Trevor Thompson
Key Losses: Daniel Giddens, Mickey Mitchell, AJ Harris
Key Newcomers: Derek Funderburk, Micah Potter

Postseason Projection: 9 seed-bubble

Ohio State returns all 5 starters, a key bench piece in Kam Williams and brings in a couple solid freshmen, and yet the offseason was still slightly disastrous in Columbus. A vaunted 5-man 2015 recruiting class seemed destined to build the roster’s depth in the short-term and be program a cornerstone for the long-term, but fast forward one year, and all that remains of that group is sophomore point guard JaQuan Lyle, as Daniel Giddens, Austin Grandstaff, AJ Harris, and Mickey Mitchell all transferred. Rumor has it, they all hated saying “THE Ohio State University” and wanted to play for a less pretentious school; those reports are unconfirmed at this point.

For most schools, the exodus of nearly an entire class would be a major problem, but the Buckeyes were one of the youngest teams in the country last year (346th in KenPom’s “experience” stat), and still return the aforementioned 6 key players from last year’s squad. Last year’s squad was in range of an NCAA Tournament berth, but some bad early season non-conference losses and a 1-8 record against Big Ten teams in KenPom’s top 50 (including 3 swings and misses at Michigan State in the season’s last 3 weeks) doomed them to the NIT. The epitome of the team’s frustration came when Jae’Sean Tate aggravated a shoulder injury in February while slapping the floor defensively and getting burned by Nebraska’s Tai Webster in the process.

Based on the continuity that the primary rotation will have, Ohio State will likely play similar to last year’s team, which means an extremely strong interior defense and very iffy shooting. Trevor Thompson is a paint force, one of the nation’s better returning rebounders and rim protectors, and Tate plays far bigger than his 6’4 listed height would indicate. Lyle is a superb creator and should only get more efficient in his sophomore campaign, but he needs to fix his bricky jumper (25% on 123 attempts).  Williams was a sharpshooter off the bench, but his 52% clip in conference play is unlikely to be repeated this year. Marc Loving and Keita Bates-Diop both shot it well in 2014-15, but they’ll need to re-find their strokes after struggling a bit last year.

One way to help shooters make more shots is to give them more open opportunities, and since Thad Matta’s team will have more threats inside this year, that should be the case. Derek Funderburk is one of the best post scorers in the incoming class, and his game should complement Thompson’s defensive acumen very well. If Funderburk can draw a few double teams and pass effectively out of them, he’ll be a major key in juicing up the Buckeye attack. Fellow freshman Micah Potter also has potential as a post scorer (more powerful but less skilled than Funderburk). Finally, CJ Jackson is a tough junior college scorer who should also have an impact right off the bat.

Matta’s group returns enough firepower, along with potential for internal development and addition of solid newcomers, to be a tournament team out of the Big Ten. Look for a bounceback year from Loving efficiency-wise and continued development from Lyle to lead the Buckeyes to an at-large bid.

7.      Maryland

Key Returners:  Jared Nickens, Damonte Dodd, Melo Trimble
Key Losses: Robert Carter, Diamond Stone, Rasheed Sulaimon, Jake Layman
Key Newcomers: Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter, Micah Thomas

Postseason Projection: 8 seed-bubble

I was all ready to be super down on this team - losing all 5 starters, no experience in the backcourt, a coach that hasn’t exactly displayed the ability to get the best out of his talent - but then Melo Trimble withdrew from the draft. A third-year starter, conference POY candidate at point guard is the antidote for a lot of ills, someone who can control the game and make his inexperienced teammates better. Trimble can shoot the 3 (though his ‘15-16 % was far lower than ‘14-15), finish at the rim against size, and distribute to others. And he also has fantastic hair!

Without Trimble’s return, the playmaking would have fallen mostly to freshmen and former junior college transfer Jaylen Brantley, a 5’10 senior who basically only played when Trimble was tired last year. Without Rasheed Sulaimon, it would not be surprising to see Trimble play off the ball some, with either Brantley or freshman Anthony Cowan being the primary ball-handler. Cowan has a slight frame, but he is lightning fast in the open court and can use that speed to create for others. As difficult as it will be to take the ball out of Trimble’s hands at times, giving him chances to score from the wing off the catch may help the Terp offense. Another freshman, 6’5 guard Kevin Huerter, could be in for a big season as well right out of the gate, as he’s a lights out shooter that will benefit hugely from Trimble’s distribution. Finally, Dion Wiley could be a key contributor as well if he can show he’s back healthy from his season-ending meniscus tear last year.

Defensively, the Turtles should be pretty big inside - both Damonte Dodd and Michael Cekovsky are huge options at center, and they have a nice group of 6’7 forwards to pair with them. The most likely option is starting Duquesne grad transfer LG Gill, a versatile, smooth-shooting stretch 4. Obtaining his services was a great move by Turgeon and will ease the burden on the team’s pair of freshmen forwards, Justin Jackson and Micah Thomas, both of whose versatility will be useful on both ends of the court.  Jackson comes in ready-made for rugged Big Ten play, a 225-lb. 3/4 ‘tweener who can stretch the floor on offense and guard bigger players defensively. An ultra-floor-spacey lineup of Jackson or Gill, 6’7 shooting wing Jared Nickens, Huerter, Trimble, and Cowan/Brantley could be hell for opponents to guard with shooting and handling everywhere. Turgeon’s teams never really force turnovers, but with Dodd and Cekovsky instead of the ground-bound Diamond Stone, they’ll have more rim protection than last year.

With the amount of reliance on freshmen, Maryland has a pretty wide variance in outcomes this year - if Cowan, Huerter, and Jackson are all good right away, they could finish as high as 4th. If Trimble has to shoulder way too much of the offensive load, though, they’ll struggle in the bubble conversation and could miss the tournament.

8.      Northwestern

Key Returners:  Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law, Aaron Falzon, Scottie Lindsey
Key Losses: Alex Olah, Joey Van Zegeren, Tre Demps
Key Newcomers: Barrett Benson, Isiah Brown

Postseason Projection: Bubbly

The perpetual hope that “this will be the year Northwestern makes the tournament!!!” enters its 69th year (restraining myself), as Wildcat fans everywhere continue to pray that the drought eventually ends. There’s a chance that this is the year, though the chance is probably less than 50/50. Chris Collins continues to build the talent level, with the return of Vic Law and the entrance of another solid freshman class pushing the program slightly up the Big Ten talent ranks. If Collins can maneuver X-and-O wizard, the ‘Cats could very well finish higher than this slot.

Over three years, Collins teams have shown some fairly consistent trends - they play exceedingly slow, ranking in the bottom 15 of tempo every year; they never get to the free throw line (mostly due to a lack of athletes that can get to the rim and draw contact); they pass the ball extremely well, ranking highly in assist rate (on the strength of Bryant McIntosh’s elite passing); and they don’t force any turnovers, instead opting to guard the paint at all costs, forcing teams into jumpers. Collins is looking to add a group of athletes in order to change some of those things (play faster with more pressure defense), but the roster just isn’t there yet. This will be another year of playing the same way and hoping internal development will push them over the mystical NCAA Tournament edge.

There’s certainly some talent here, though - Aaron Falzon, Law, and McIntosh were all highly-regarded recruits, and the incoming frontline prospects of Rapolas Ivanauskas and Barrett Benson are both very solid. Ivanauskas is extremely bouncy, a lanky 6’9 who tries to dunk everything. He’s probably not strong enough to help a ton right away, though. Benson is stronger, but not anywhere near as explosive. Derek Pardon was surprisingly effective in his limited time last year after his redshirt was pulled; he’ll soak up a lot of the numbers that Alex Olah and Joey Van Zegeren leave behind.

The lack of a true secondary creator could be a problem for this squad - sophomore Jordan Ash, junior Scottie Lindsey, and freshman Isiah Brown will all fight for that role, but none of them appear to have the chops to generate shots against Big Ten defenses. As a result, a ton of the burden will fall on McIntosh once again in both isolation and pick-and-roll situations.  

Don’t get me wrong, Northwestern has a chance to make the tournament this year, but they’re probably a year away from the make-or-break season (only Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn are seniors). Development across the board is the primary goal this year, with next year being the true great hope.

9.      Illinois

Key Returners:  Malcolm Hill, Jalen Coleman-Lands, Mike Thorne, Tracy Abrams
Key Losses: Khalid Lewis, Kendrick Nunn
Key Newcomers: Te’Jon Lucas

Postseason Projection: Bubbly

With the dismissal of Kendrick Nunn, the questions about the Illinois basketball program seemed to be about the discipline of the program and the departure of Nunn’s prolific scoring (15.5ppg). The larger questions for me, though, surround the health of Tracy Abrams and Mike Thorne, two redshirt seniors. If healthy, they’ll be outstanding, experienced bookends to the Illini lineup, with Abrams providing some shooting and distributing and Thorne going to work in the post. If they aren’t healthy, though, some inferior seniors (Maverick Morgan, Jaylon Tate) will be forced into larger roles than they’re comfortable with (and 9th will likely be too high a prediction).

The heart and soul of the team, regardless, will be senior Malcolm Hill, a do-it-all forward who can play the 2-4 spots comfortably and even play the 5 in smaller lineups at times. Hill played a ton of minutes last year, and he likely will again, as he’s too good to sit for too long. He’d benefit greatly from Thorne drawing defenders and Abrams setting him up, possibly increasing his already sterling efficiency numbers.

Illinois also has a couple solid breakout candidates - Jalen Coleman-Lands was effective as a freshman, particularly at lighting it up from the outside, and he should be even more comfortable in his second go-round. The true wild card, though, is redshirt freshman Kipper Nichols, a skilled wing who sat out last year (never played at Tulane), with coach John Groce commenting that Nichols looked outstanding in practices last year. Nichols could be a crucial piece in helping to fix the Illini’s weak perimeter defense from last year, as well. If both those guys show up like Groce thinks they will (coupled with the super seniors being 100%), the Illini will have the starting lineup to propel them into the conference’s top half. There’s some average pieces behind them to provide depth, but players like Tate and Leron Black need to be in the right roles - not expected to be leaders/playmakers.

Without Thorne last year, the Illini struggled mightily on the offensive glass (fairly uncharacteristic for a Groce team), and in more traditional Groce fashion, they never got to the free throw line. They always play extremely disciplined, never turning it over, but last year’s lack of easy points off second chances and at the line put a glass ceiling on his team’s offensive efficiency. The addition of Thorne will go a long way towards improving both areas.

Groce’s most successful Ohio teams found success playing faster than his weaker Illinois squads, leading one to wonder why he’s slowed things down some. Part of it is due to not having elite guard-play on either end; without better passing offensively and more disruption defensively, it’s a lot harder to make that style work. Does this year’s squad have the right pieces to play faster? A lot of that rests on the shoulders of Abrams and Nichols. With a great recruiting class coming in next year, it seems like Groce has the program moving in the right direction in the future, but fans and the administration alike will want to see some real progress on the court in 2016-17 as well.

10.   Iowa

Key Returners:  Peter Jok, Dom Uhl, Ahmad Wagner, Nic Baer, Brady Ellingson
Key Losses: Jarrod Uthoff, Mike Gesell, Adam Woodbury, Anthony Clemmons
Key Newcomers: Jordan Bohannon, Tyler Cook, Cordell Pemsl, Ryan Kreiner

Postseason Projection: Bubbly

This is a major sticking point team around the 3MW offices - my colleague Ky McKeon believes strongly in the Hawkeyes this year, including a possible POY campaign from Peter Jok, whereas I think the team will struggle without much returning experience and that Jok’s efficiency will fall as he becomes the primary scorer (and doesn’t have a senior PG creating for him). There may or may not be a friendly wager between us on the Hawkeyes (if that were legal).

Dom Uhl is a glaring breakout candidate, a skilled big man who will have a lot more opportunity (both playing time and shots) with the graduation of Jarrod Uthoff and Adam Woodbury. Uhl can knock down the 3, hitting a crisp 45% of his treys last year, and he’ll be a terror as a trail big man. Freshman Tyler Cook should be a perfect complement as a Big Ten-ready banger who will be a monster on the glass from Day 1 with his physicality, motor, and athletic ability. He’ll be especially effective with Uhl pulling another big away from the rim.

Fran McCaffery teams always do a great job of attacking on offense while making opponents grind defensively, consistently ranking among the shortest offensive possession lengths and longest defensively. They disrupt opponent’s offensive flow, usually with great rim protection, and Fran likely hopes Cook is the next in that line. They play disciplined defense without fouling, walling off the paint and forcing opponents into uncomfortable jump shots. Aside from Cook’s stalwart board work, the Hawkeyes may struggle on the defensive glass this year, though.

Fran has a bevy of young, rangy wings who will work for playing time next to (and backing up) Jok. Ahmad Wagner is likely the most athletic of that group, and he should be a great defender in Iowa’s scheme. Redshirt freshman Isaiah Moss is also an athletic, attack-minded player who can get to the rim. Nicolas Baer is a former preferred walk-on who earned playing time with his tenacity and intelligence last year, and he also showed an impressive ability to hit outside shots. Brady Ellingson is another good shooter, but his numbers didn’t show it last year, and his defense lagged behind his classmates in Baer and Wagner. Jordan Bohannon (the younger brother of former Badger Jason Bohannon) will play a lot of point as a true freshman, as sophomore Christian Williams didn’t exactly seize that job last year.

There’s a ton of roster turnover here with Iowa graduating one of the most celebrated classes in school history. Like Maryland, that equates to a wide range of possibilities for this team, and I’m a little lower on them than the Terps. They could certainly be a tournament team, but with all the uncertainty, falling short of that seems more likely.

11.   Penn State

Key Returners:  Shep Garner, Payton Banks, Julian Moore, Josh Reaves
Key Losses: Brandon Taylor, Devin Foster, Donovan Jack, Jordan Dickerson
Key Newcomers: Tony Carr, Joe Hampton, Lamar Stevens, Mike Watkins, Nazeer Bostick, Terrance Samuel

Postseason Projection: NIT, bubble if it comes together quickly

If you’re reading this, there’s a 99.9% chance you know all about the Fab 5 (you’re that 0.01%, Mom!!!). After many years of struggle (many, many years), Penn State fans have talked themselves into having a “Fab 5 Jr.” of sorts this year with the additions of Top 100 prospect Tony Carr, 4-star forwards Joe Hampton and Lamar Stevens, redshirted 2015 Top 100 center Mike Watkins, and UConn transfer Terrance Samuel (or if you want it to be a freshman, 3-star wing Nazeer Bostick). It’s the best set of newcomers in Happy Valley since Jerry Sandusky & Co. were replaced! Yikes, sorry. Really, though, Pat Chambers has done an excellent job of assembling talent here, with Shep Garner, former Top 100 recruit Josh Reaves, and Payton Banks returning along with that great set of arrivals.

Chambers is an interesting case study in that he had very little head coaching experience before getting a Power 5 job. Granted, it’s not a terribly appealing gig, but it’s a Big Ten job nonetheless. He was an assistant at Philadelphia U and Villanova (under Jay Wright) for 8 total years before 2 years as the head coach at Boston University in the Patriot League...and that’s it. He’s been up and down in his 5 seasons in State College, but given the talent influx he’s managed recently and the difficulty in getting a big name replacement, the administration would be wise to let him show if he can take it somewhere. Another interesting note about how blah the Penn State job really is - the prior coach, Ed DeChellis, toiled for 8 years here, finally making the tournament in 2011 - only to parlay that success into a job at…Navy? Huh? He left (voluntarily) mostly because he wasn’t offered a longer extension after making the tournament, but still, leaving here to go try to recruit at a military academy is a shocking move.

Anyways, about this year’s team! Chambers’ teams traditionally don’t move the ball very well (low assist rate - they haven’t really had a true point guard in the past), but that could change with the addition of Carr. He’s a tall, rangy athlete with good vision who moves Garner, a gifted scorer and decent passer himself, off the ball, which automatically upgrades two positions at once. Samuel, Banks, Stevens, Reaves, and Bostick give Chambers a plethora of options on the wing as well, allowing him to play to their strengths (sadly, none of them can shoot). Reaves, for instance, is an abysmal shooter, but he’s a defensive terror, averaging 1.4 steals and an impressive 0.9 blocks in only 24 minutes per game. Samuel is another, bigger ball-handler who hit 0 (zero) threes during his two years Storrs, while Stevens is more of a 3/4 ‘tweener who wants to mix it up in the paint when he can. Bostick is a bouncy, physical driver who excels at finishing with his weak hand, but he, too, can’t reliably hit an outside shot. Banks is the best hope after hitting a blah 32.5% from deep last year. Yeesh, after writing that, the Nittany Lions could have major spacing issues this year.

Defensively, this team always fouls too much, though the biggest culprits there (Donovan Jack and Jordan Dickerson, last year’s centers) both graduate. The additions of Watkins and Hampton along with playing more of Julian Moore should alleviate that to a degree, though Hampton and Watkins are slightly undersized for their respective positions. Watkins is actually a very good shotblocker for his height, though, and he spent last season putting on more weight to match Hampton’s Big Ten-ready strength. Watkins also looks like a freakin’ man, too.

The Nittany Lions are on the upswing with a lot of young talent, but for a coach that has proven almost as little at the D1 level as his players, they just don’t seem quite ready to leap up a competitive Big Ten. If Chambers can find the right style of play for them, though, they’ll make some noise in the coming years.

Note: After this preview was published, Joe Hampton left the university for "personal reasons." That severely hampers their interior presence, and I could see Minnesota and even Nebraska overtaking them. 

12.   Minnesota

Key Returners:  Nate Mason, Jordan Murphy, Dupree McBrayer
Key Losses: Joey King, Carlos Morris, Charles Buggs, Kevin Dorsey
Key Newcomers: Akeem Springs, Amir Coffey, Reggie Lynch, Davonte Fitzgerald, Eric Curry, Michael Hurt

Postseason Projection: NIT, could maaaaybe get on the bubble

Honestly, this is a pretty good roster. There’s perimeter and post talent, experience, promising youth, scoring, defense, and versatility; the problem is, Richard Pitino has shown no ability to competently coach a team, despite some successes on the recruiting trail this year. Most coaches who get a Big Ten gig had a period of success at a lower level league; Pitino coached an extremely mediocre FIU team to an 18-14, 11-9 record in a blah 2012-13 Sun Belt; for basically no other reason than nepotism, Pitino was rewarded with the Golden Gophers’ head job. The team has gotten worse every year he’s been in Minneapolis; Tubby Smith’s final team finished 26th in KenPom, while Pitino’s teams have finished 48th, 58th, and a galling 223rd over the past 3 years, falling down the Big Ten standings each year as well. A couple lessons there - Tubby Smith was vastly underrated for a while, and like a badly overmatched son of Walder Frey, handing an important job to incompetent big name son can have calamitous results. Hopefully no one ends up baking poor Richard into a pie and feeding him to Papa Rick, though.

Now that we’ve established how little faith I have/you should have in Pitino, let’s talk about the roster he has to work with. He used the transfer market well, bringing in grad transfer Akeem Springs from Milwaukee, a well-built wing, as well as center Reggie Lynch from Illinois State and combo forward Davonte Fitzgerald from Texas A&M. Springs and Fitzgerald will need to help stabilize the Gophers’ perimeter defense, as they gave up too many open outside shots. They also aren’t disruptive enough; one of the few trends Pitino’s teams have shown in his 4 years is that opponents can move the ball easily (very high assist percentage). Taking opponents out of their comfort zones and forcing them into bad isolation situations would be extremely useful. The addition of Lynch should be a huge help in that regard - he was the #1 rim protector (by block %) in the country 2 years ago, and that paint security should allow the guards to extend and pressure more without fear of giving up easy layups.

Even more concerning than the defense last year was the anemic offense. The transfers will also help there; Lynch is an elite offensive rebounder, and Springs and Fitzgerald provide some much needed athleticism. Nate Mason (a very good passer) and Jordan Murphy (also a great rebounder) should continue to improve as they get older, but perhaps the biggest boost will come from stud freshman Amir Coffey. Coffey can do it all offensively as a skilled 6’7 lefty; he can create for others, get into the paint, shoot from the outside, hit open threes, and get to the line. He’ll be the team’s most talented player right away and Pitino will need to figure out the best way to use him (doubtful).

The Gophers have some great potential on this roster, but it may take a more seasoned coach to bring it all together. Coffey probably won’t be a one-and-done guy, and aside from Springs, no one will graduate after this year. That makes 2017-18 the key year for the program, and the athletic department will need to determine this year if Pitino is the right man for the job.

13.   Nebraska

Key Returners:  Tai Webster, Glynn Watson, Michael Jacobson, Jack McVeigh
Key Losses: Shavon Shields, Benny Parker, Andrew White
Key Newcomers: Anton Gill, Isaiah Roby

Postseason Projection: Uhhhh...not gon' be able to do it!

The Huskers were shaping up as an interesting team - some developing young talent, a Ewing Theory candidate without Shavon Shields soaking up nearly 30% of possessions - but Andrew White’s late decision to transfer was a crushing blow. White was a deadeye, volume shooter who caused nightmares as a lanky smallball 4 at 6’7, and along with Tai Webster, Glynn Watson, and Louisville transfer Anton Gill, gave the Huskers a very high quality group of guards/wings. His departure leaves them thin on depth and without the only player on the team who made more than 34 threes last year, and it looks like a long year lies ahead in Lincoln.

All is not lost for Nebrasketball quite yet, though. Watson, Webster, and Gill form a capable backcourt, and a trio of sophomore forwards (Jack McVeigh, Michael Jacobson, Ed Morrow) provide hope on the interior. McVeigh will take the role of stretch 4 from White, as he hit 34% from deep as a freshman. He only hit 37% inside the arc, though, and will need to add some elements to his game this year. Jacobson is the bruiser of the group, a strong offensive rebounder and a promising shotblocker despite only being 6’8. Morrow was the best finisher inside and a stout offensive rebounder in his own right; he was very loose with the ball, though. All three should make strides with a year of experience.

Last year’s Huskers broke a major trend for Tim Miles, as Morrow and Jacobson led them to the first non-bottom-50 offensive rebounding ranking. That helped vault the Huskers from 285th to 88th in the country in adjusted offense (though White’s shooting played a gigantic part in that, also). Miles teams always have struggled to maintain fluid ball movement (and he’s never really had a linchpin point guard in Lincoln), instead relying on Shavon Shields and Terran Petteway iso-ball. Webster, Watson, and Gill aren’t the same matchup nightmares with the ball in their hands, so they might have to find new ways to score (especially with very little shooting with which to space the floor).

Defensively, they should be better than last year, when they played White and Shields (bigger wings, but still wings) at the two post positions way too frequently to be sustainable. More conventional lineups and matchups should improve the defense, which is traditionally Miles’s strong suit. They take away transition and make opponents work in the halfcourt, usually a good recipe for success.

Unfortunately for Miles, the talent gap between his team and the rest of the league (Rutgers, you don’t count) is just too wide for the Huskers to make much noise this year. Their ceiling in the conference is probably 11th, and that won’t be good enough for a tournament bid.

14.   Rutgers

Key Returners:  Corey Sanders, Mike Williams, Jon Laurent, DeShawn Freeman
Key Losses: Bishop Daniels, DJ Foreman, Greg Lewis, Omari Grier
Key Newcomers: Nigel Johnson, Matt Bullock, Issa Thiam, Jahlil Tripp

Postseason Projection: Postseason? What’s that?

*Shudders, scared and alone*

At the bottom of a deep, dark, foggy cavern, well below the line where sunlight can reach, where the cold can chill you down to your bones, lies Rutgers basketball. Few who venture down to these depths emerge alive, and even when doing so, they are never the same. The state of things in Piscataway is, in a word, bleak.

It’s nearly impossible to truly convey how pitiful they were last year (and how bad they’ve been lately) – per KenPom rankings, they were 43 spots lower than the second-worst Power 5 team (Boston College), sitting behind such luminaries as 6-25 Drexel, 7-24 Drake, 10-18 Cornell (the lowest-ranked team in the Ivy League), 9-21 San Diego (lowest-ranked team in the WCC), and many, many others (285 others, in fact). They had the worst offense AND defense, efficiency-wise, in the Big Ten. They haven’t finished better than 6-12 in conference in the last 10 years across three different leagues and they’re on their 4th coach in that span.

The glimpses of hope are few and far between, but that aforementioned new coach (Stony Brook’s Steve Pikiell) and the current team’s sophomore backcourt provide at least a little bit. Pikiell built a legitimate America East power over his 11 years there. He started with a 4-24 shitshow of a season in 2006, but eventually built up to winning 4 conference regular season championships and earning the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth in 2016. He steps into a very difficult situation, but if the administration is patient with him, he has the potential to raise Rutgers from its perpetual basketball malaise.

Similarly, the young backcourt of former blue chip recruit Corey Sanders and Kansas State transfer Nigel Johnson offer cause for cautious optimism. Both can be playmakers and scorers alike, alternating between being the primary ball-handler and off-ball scorer, and it gives Rutgers some real Big Ten-level quality. The rest of the roster has some potential – DeShawn Freeman is a Big Ten player when healthy, Jon Laurent has a lot of athletic tools, and one of Ibrahima Diallo, Shaq Doorson, or UNC-W grad transfer CJ Gettys should emerge as a decent defensive presence inside, but it will all come back to the coach and the backcourt.

Pikiell can really pick any aspect of the game and start improving there; there’s nowhere to go but up for the Scarlet Knights. My hunch is that he’ll build from the defensive end first, trying to build discipline and physicality on that end to compensate for the team’s slightly lower talent level relative to the rest of the league. I think Coach Pikiell is a good hire, all things considered, but I worry that this job will drown him after he worked so hard for a decade to build Stony Brook.