- Matt Cox
Note: Predicted conference standings may not line up exactly with our Top 40 rankings; this is because Top 40 were ranked via consensus voting, while individual conference ranks are up to the specific writer.
Player of the Year: Carsen Edwards, Jr., Purdue
Coach of the Year: Tim Miles, Nebraska
Newcomer of the Year: Romeo Langford, Fr., Indiana
Freshman of the Year: Romeo Langford, Indiana
1. Michigan State
See full preview here: #13 in our Top-40 countdown
See full preview here: #21 in our Top-40 countdown
See full preview here: #30 in our Top-40 countdown
See full preview here: #32 in our Top-40 countdown
See full preview here: #28 in our Top-40 countdown
See full preview here: #34 in our Top-40 countdown
See full preview here: #33 in our Top-40 countdown
Key Returners: Jordan Murphy, Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer, Isaiah Washington, Eric Curry (missed 2017-18 w/ injury)
Key Losses: Nate Mason
Key Newcomers: Daniel Oturu, Brock Stull (Milwaukee transfer)
Outlook: There's a slew of reasons, or excuses, for why the 2018 season went from a Rocky Mountain high to a Death Valley low for the Gophers. The year kicked off with an unprecedented level of optimism with Minnesota sporting a consensus top-15 caliber roster, which many thought had the chops to challenge for the league title.
Five months, three injuries and one suspension later, Richard Pitino found himself on the mat of the Big Ten conference ring. The Gophers never could stop the bleeding that ensued from losing three of their top five players (Eric Curry, Amir Coffey and Reggie Lynch) and spiraled down to the cellar of the Big 10 standings when it was all said and done.
Despite last season's despair, Minny's returning roster has Big Ten sleeper written all over it. Many will pencil in the Gophers as a lock to finish somewhere in the bottom-half of the league standings - we have them ranked right on that cut line at #8, but with how jumbled the upper and middle part of the conference is this year, the Gophers are a sneaky good VALUE bet to crack the top-5. The big unknown is health sustainability, but if everyone can stay on the floor - a BIG if, no doubt - the Barn will be rocking in Minneapolis all year long.
Eric Curry is back in the mix after missing the entirety of the 2017-18 season with a knee injury. Curry was an integral part of Minnesota's success the year prior as the first guy off the bench on a 5-seeded NCAA tournament team. While he could be a full-time starter from Day 1 next to a bonafide force in Jordan Murphy up-front, Pitino also welcomes another rangy athlete in 6'10 freshman Daniel Oturu to the front court. A fringe top-50 ranked prospect, Oturu is cut from the same cloth as Curry, both in his physical make up and the production he'll bring on the floor. Oturu will deliver a lot of the same rebounding and rim-protecting value that Curry provided two years ago, but many scouts think Oturu is just scratching the surface of his offensive potential. He's already shown flashes of an established midrange game, where he can knock down a face-up jumper out to 15-feet, but also exploit slower bigs with face-up, intermediate drives.
Spacing was a major inhibitor for the Gopher offense last year, which is why Oturu and Curry must earn the respect of their defenders by establishing a consistent midrange jumper needed to pull their respective defenders out of the lane. Whether it be off pick-n-pop action or simple flashes out of the paint, Oturu and Curry must have the gravity to stretch the defense ever-so-slightly to allow Murphy to eat in the middle with minimal disruption.
Completing the primary frontline rotation will be Louisville transfer Matz Stockman and freshman Jarvis Omersa. Stockman rarely saw the floor playing behind superior athletes during his time at Louisville, but he should be a solid backup to spell Murphy from time to time, and Omersa's athleticism will allow Pitino to play him at either forward spot.
So, with a formidable collection of forwards back in the picture, the real question marks lie on the perimeter. Nate Mason leaves a gaping hole at the point guard spot, but the Minnesota faithful know they have an enticing protege in Isaiah Washington ready to take the reigns. The Harlem, NY native has the potential to be a game-breaking playmaker with his explosive burst and advanced handles. Shooting is the obvious improvement area, which marred his overall efficiency last year, but a 77% free throw percentage is one indicator there's significant headroom for improving his midrange pull-up and becoming a more consistent threat from long range.
In addition to Washington's own development, the external situation around him sets up for a standout sophomore campaign. He'll be supported by an established wing scorer in Amir Coffey, a consummate 'glue guy' in Michael Hurt and a cerebral veteran off-guard in Dupree McBrayer, who should now be fully healthy after being hampered by a lingering leg injury last year. If McBrayer can return to his sophomore season form and retune his 3-point shooting stroke, Washington will have two plus 3-point marksmen next to him in the backcourt with McBrayer and incoming Milwaukee transfer Brock Stull.
Stull did about all you can ask for a crappy Milwaukee team back in 2016-17. The 6'4 hybrid guard / wing, proved to be an excellent rebounder for his position, a sound ball handler and steady decision-maker, as well as a razor-sharp shooter from distance. Stull will be used in a variety of ways at multiple positions for Pitino this season and his sturdy physical frame should help him transition to the Big Ten's level of physicality with ease. Incoming 6'4 freshman Gabe Kalscheur enters college with a comparably stout frame as his elder teammate Brock - Pitino has had kind words to say about the 6'4 Kalscheur, who he said impressed many with his versatility in high school and should be able to slide up and down the lineup on both ends of the floor.
Bottom Line: A lot is riding on both Curry and McBrayer avoiding significant injuries, along with Washington making a substantial sophomore leap as a potent primary creator on offense for the Gophers to reach the pinnacle of their potential. It's a make-or-break year for Pitino whose job security seems to fluctuate by the hour, but a bounce back 2019 campaign would help alleviate the lingering heat from last season's demise.
9. Ohio State
Key Returners: CJ Jackson, Kaleb Wesson
Key Losses: Keita Bates-Diop, Jae'Sean Tate, Kam Williams
Key Newcomers: Keyshawn Woods (Wake Forest transfer), Luther Muhammad, Jaedon LeDee, Duane Washington, Justin Ahrens
Outlook: It’s hard to evaluate Chris Holtmann’s performance in his first season on the sidelines as anything worse than an A+. Holtmann did inherit some intriguing pieces leftover from the Thad Matta era, but still shattered what were relatively tempered preseason expectations heading into the 2017-18 campaign. The former Butler head honcho walked into Columbus and whipped up some miraculous potion for Keita Bates-Diop, which transformed him from a forgotten role player on a sub .500 Big Ten team to an All-American and NBA draft pick in the blink of an eye.
Holtmann’s player development brilliance also rubbed off on Kaleb Wesson, who emerged as a dominant low-post weapon in his first collegiate season, despite many considering him to be an out-of-shape, long-term project. The 6’9 270 pound Wesson – not to be confused with his older brother Andre Wesson – is an absolute load in the middle and commands a double team whenever he touches the rock deep in the paint. His conditioning and foul prone nature limited his playing time to 20 MPG last year, but Holtmann has explicitly stated the need for Kaleb to take on a more prominent role offensively in 2019.
Kaleb's plodding lateral quickness can sometimes be a liability on the defensive end, so it will be interesting to see if these limitations are exposed with Keita Bates-Diop no longer providing cover on the back end. KBD and Jae'Sean Tate were two of the best 'pound-for-pound' rebounders at their positions and neither will be by Kaleb's side to help corral opponent's misses this year. The good news is that the younger Wesson is now over a year into a D1-caliber workout and diet regimate, which has reportedly starting to show payoff as cited by some early observations at summer practice sessions.
Even with Kaleb anticipated to shoulder a larger share of the scoring load, offensive playmaking and consistent outside shooting will be the first order of business for CJ Jackson and Wake Forest grad transfer Keyshawn Woods. With JaQuan Lyle out of the picture last year, Jackson thrived as one of the mainstays in the Buckeyes' backcourt and was a perfect complementary lead guard to KBD. He rarely forced the action offensively and effectively balanced the art of knowing when to get others involved and when to pick his spots to attack. It was a match made in heaven for Jackson, who doesn't need the ball in his hands all the time to feel comfortable offensively. Collectively, Jackson and Woods, a career 43% 3-point shooter himself, will comprise what might be the best shooting backcourt in the conference, along with highly touted incoming freshman Luther Muhammad.
Outside of Jackson, Woods and Wesson, Holtmann may need significant production out of his freshmen class, particularly Muhammad and Jaedon LeDee, each of whom etched their name into the 2018 ESPN Top-100 recruiting rankings. Muhammad has earned rave reviews from scouting experts this offseason as a legit two-way guard capable of contributing right away in a multitude of areas. With two starting spots essentially up for grabs – that is, assuming Jackson, Woods and Wesson have the other three spots locked up – both LeDee and Muhammad could be thrown into that top-5 right out of the gate. Given Kaleb’s limitations as a screen-and-roll defender out on the perimeter, Holtmann may be wise to slot a top-flight athlete like LeDee at the 4 to help cover Wesson defensively (similar to his approach last year with KBD), but he'll be competing with Kaleb’s older brother Andre (more of a floor-spacing wing) along with a slew of other formidable wings and forwards for minutes.
Kyle Young, Micah Potter, and Musa Jallow round out the rest of the returning rotation players, but the other two freshmen Duane Washington and Justin Ahrens could get some run as well. Projecting how much each of these 5 guys will play is essentially a crapshoot, but it appears Ahrens (the lowest rated of the four freshman) is most likely to get buried deep on the pine.
Bottom Line: There’s a laundry list of questions facing the Bucks heading into 2018-19, particularly in how Holtmann will divvy up the minutes to so many guys chomping at the bit to crack the primary rotation. But the more pressing question from my vantage point is how Jackson will respond as his role inevitably will expand offensively. With KBD, Tate and Williams no longer around, Jackson will need to morph into more of an 'offensive alpha' who can initiate offense on his own and for others more frequently.
For the record, I love Jackson as a player overall - he's as cerebral of a guard as there is in the Big Ten and always seems to make the smart, heady play when he has the rock. He wasted no time mastering Holtmann's offense as the primary point guard last year, but the difficulty of that task was eased with the plethora of scoring options around him. The word I would use to describe Jackson is "solid", not necessarily "dynamic" or "explosive" and that's where I see a minor gap on this year's roster. Still, there's plenty of reason for optimism with this team, thanks to a freshman class flushed with talent and one of the sharpest basketball minds in the conference in Holtmann, who made a mockery of preseason predictions last year.
Key Returners: Trent Frazier, Kipper Nichols, Aaron Jordan
Key Losses: Leron Black, Michael Finke, Mark Alstork, Mark Smith (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Ayo Dosunmu, Tevian Jones, Andres Feliz (JUCO), Alan Griffin
Outlook: Peanut Butter & Jelly… Cookies & Milk… Beer & Wings… Chicken & Waffles…
Those four delectable dishes make up what is my Mount Rushmore of food pairings. The harmonious relationship between these combinations is a special bond, one that can’t be replicated by aimlessly blending any two types of food - I mean, you wouldn’t ask for a side of mayonnaise with bacon would you? (narrator: wait, that might be ok actually...)
That same 'yin and yang' must exist on a basketball team between a coach's stylistic blueprint and the archetypes of his personnel. Unless you can reload with waves of blue-chip talent year in and year out - you can count the number of those programs on one hand - recruiting players that will mesh within a broader system is critical.
But, the importance of "recruiting for fit" is further amplified for coaches who instill more extreme styles of play (see ‘Press Virginia’ under Bob Huggins or the 2-3 zone under Jim Boeheim), which is exactly the case at Illinois now under the direction of Brad Underwood and his full throttle brand of basketball.
This is why when Underwood inherited a whole new collection of players last year in his first season at the helm, it was like he was served steak with a side of cream cheese. Underwood himself echoed this sentiment as one of the root causes of last year’s free fall into the Big Ten's abyss…
“We didn’t recruit those guys,” Underwood says of the players who composed his first recruiting class last spring. “We filled scholarships.”
Much of last year's core rotation clearly felt the same disconnect, some of whom graduated while others opted to take their talents elsewhere via the transfer wire - but Trent Frazier, Aaron Jordan and Kipper Nichols chose to buy in and drink the kool-aid of Underwood's longer term vision. Frazier, Jordan and Nichols began the season coming off the bench, but played their way into more featured roles down the stretch. Frazier was a fixture in the starting lineup throughout Big Ten play, while Nichols and Jordan each earned spot starts over the final month of the season.
Frazier headlines a deep stable of guards at Underwood’s disposal this season, which includes top-40 freshman Ayo Dosunmu and highlty touted JUCO transfer Andres Feliz. What makes this group unique is that all three are technically point guards by trade, but they’ll be sharing the floor together for significant stretches of time as a three-pronged guard attack on the perimeter. Frazier will be the lead catalyst offensively – as well as spearhead Underwood’s pressure-heavy scheme defensively (more on this later) – but all three are potent playmakers, capable of creating offense on their own.
All signs indicate a sophomore explosion is looming for Frazier after Illini fans got a glimpse of his sky-high ceiling in a few marquee Big Ten performances last year. He’s about as quick off-the-dribble as any guard in the league, capable of breaking down his defender 1-on-1 with relative ease. Much like Frazier, Dosunmu is a slash-first guard who loves to attack the rim, but his length at 6’4 is what separates him from his peers. His frame bodes well for his development as a multi-positional defender, something Underwood values highly in his chaotic defensive scheme. The least discussed of this backcourt triumvirate, Feliz should be a perfect complement to his other two backcourt mates. He tends to play at a more controlled pace and is a proven long-range shooter (he shot 42% from 3 at Northwest Florida State last season), neither of which are hallmarks of Frazier or Dosunmu's games. From watching highlights of Feliz on the JUCO circuit, he exhibits an uncanny knack to finish at the rim through a combination of soft floaters and creative lay-ups, which should translate well against longer Big Ten frontlines.
Given U of I finished with the 2nd worst 3P% in the Big Ten last season, the addition of Feliz and fringe top-100 recruit Tevian Jones should provide a much needed injection of outside shooting. Also keep in mind that with the exodus of size up-front, Nichols and Jordan, despite both being undersized at 6’6, will likely get run at both forward spots. Given how well they shot it from distance last year, this gives Underwood a potentially deadly small-ball lineup option that could torch traditional Big Ten lineups with ‘pace and space’.
The question is how Underwood plans to utilize these relatively small lineups on the defensive end. Underwood’s calling card at SFA was a high-risk, high-reward defensive structure which took opposing offenses out of their comfort zone by disrupting half-court sets with relentless pressure. This worked wonders at the mid-major level - back at Stephen F. Austin, Underwood steamrolled the Southland competition losing just one time in 54 contests over a 3-year span.
But when he brought that system to the ‘big leagues’ in his first season at Oklahoma State, he was in for a rude awakening. An 0-6 start in league play revealed that higher caliber ball handlers and elite size was more immune to the in-your-face defensive havoc. So, Underwood, being the astute coach that he is, responded with a slight tweak to his patented system (refer to article from Pistols Firing Blog):
“I changed the pickup point,” Underwood said after the Texas Tech game. “I’ve always been a very heavy-based denial team – not letting teams run their stuff and forcing them to do things that they don’t want to do. We got away from that a little bit. We backed off and got more into the gaps.”
After making that adjustment, the Pokes rattled 10 of 11 wins and flipped a 0-6 Big 12 record to 9-7 in just a month. This epiphany is important to note for Illini fans who saw many of the same flaws with Underwood’s defensive system last year – that is, overextended perimeter pressure and gambling for steals resulting in easy, uncontested lay-ups. While the roster this year is built to execute Underwood’s pressure-intensive defense, this change in philosophy proves he is in no way stubborn. Some critics have called into question how effective that style can translate at the Power 6 conference level, but Underwood has shown a propensity to adjust and adapt as the season plays out – yet another sign that Illinois struck gold by bringing in Underwood to replace Groce on the sidelines.
Having elite size has never been a priority of Underwood's, but Kent State grad transfer Adonis de la Rosa and 7’0 freshman Samba Kane will be valuable assets to combat some of the elite size seen around the Big Ten. De La Rosa was one of the top two-way rebounders in America last year, and should thrive as a rim-running big for Underwood with free reign to crash the offensive glass on every shot.
Don’t discount the bench either – Underwood is notorious for going deep into the pine, which means the rest of the freshman class (Alan Griffin, Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Anthony Higgs) should get plenty of chances early on to assert themselves as foundational puzzle pieces for the future. Underwood also raved about the development of rising sophomore Da'Monte Williams on Andy Katz's podcast this offseason, and should be an integral component of the backcourt rotation.
Bottom Line: Losing 5 of the top 7 players in one offseason would leave most programs ailing, but this turnover is precisely what Underwood needed to lay a sound foundation for the future. With a recalibrated roster that is much more aligned with his patented style of play – the same style that transformed Stephen F. Austin into a mid-major powerhouse and produced the nation’s most efficient offense at Oklahoma State – momentum should begin to build in his 2nd season on the sidelines in Champaign.
Key Returners: Tyler Cook, Jordan Bohannon, Luke Garza, Isaiah Moss
Key Losses: Ahmad Wagner (transfer), Brady Ellingson (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Connor McCaffery, Joe Wieskamp
Outlook: Theoretically, Iowa should be fairly straight forward to assess this season. They return everyone of importance from last year’s roster and, for the exception of Connor McCaffery (a 4-star freshman and son of head coach Fran McCaffery) and Joe Wieskamp (Iowa Gatorade high school player of the year), the same faces will be fulfilling the same roles as last year. Typically high roster continuity is a good thing when projecting how a team will transition or evolve from year-to-year - but this Hawkeyes team is a unique case study and that roster continuity variable is somewhat of a double-edge sword.
On one hand, an optimist would cite how few teams lost as little as the Hawkeyes did this summer, which should bode well for their improvement potential moving into 2018-19 and put them in a position to leapfrog other Big Ten squads that have to replace few key players.
Fair point - but a pessimist might respond with: "hmmmmm, do you really want all the guys back from one of the worst defensive teams in Power-6 conference history? And are you sure there's THAT much room for improvement offensively, especially with almost all of the returners already past the sweet spot of the 'freshman-to-sophomore' development window?"
*Spoiler*: I side with the pessimists on this one
The heart and soul of the Hawkeye roster is the rising junior class, led by a 3-point sniper in Jordan Bohannon at the point and a low-post warlock in Tyler Cook on the interior. After Peter Jok graduated last summer, this inside-out, 1-2 punch took centerstage for Iowa’s offense last year. Surrounded with a plethora of offensive skill at multiple positions, Bohannon struck the perfect balance between scoring and facilitating as the primary floor general. While his primary task was – and will continue to be – igniting the fast break and running the half-court offense as a pass-first point guard, he didn’t hesitate to take over games himself with a flamethrower for a 3-point shot. Cook also took major strides in his 2nd full collegiate season, with notable improvements seen in his finishing precision around the rim and production on the glass. Bohannon, Cook, along with jack-of-all-trades off-guard Isaiah Moss and freshman standout Luka Garza, deserve a ton of credit for the net uptick in Iowa’s overall offensive efficiency without Jok in the lineup.
Outside of Bohannon and Cook, McCaffery will once again utilize a deep and versatile bench with a slew of players capable of playing multiple positions. Nick Baer and Maishe Dailey are each microcosms of Iowa's overall roster versatility - both are 6’7 wings that can slide up and down the lineup and guard multiple positions, depending on the matchups at any given time. McCaffery will likely use both of their services as off-the-bench sparkplugs, assuming he continues his experiment of starting Jack Nunge– a hyper-skilled 6’11 hybrid wing / forward – next to Cook and Garza up front. While Baer has a clear edge in both strength and experience, Nunge’s ceiling may be the highest on the team. His lanky build and sometimes unorthodox body movements bring about easy comparisons to Jarrod Uthoff, whose deceptive quickness off-the-bounce and smooth shooting stroke were nearly impossible to cover at that size. Nunge has a long way to go to make those Uthoff parallels come to fruition, but he certainly has the tools to make the jump. His skillset presents an interesting conundrum for McCaffery, who also has Cordell Pemsl and Ryan Kreiner back in the rotation, which could create a logjam at the 4 and 5 spots - this may explain why McCaffery tinkered with the ultra-long Nunge / Garza / Cook starting lineup late in the season last year.
Despite all the length and interchangeability of the returning pieces – two traits that should translate into defensive effectiveness – Iowa was a giant block of Swiss cheese last year on defense. McCaffery traditionally mixes up defenses quite frequently throughout the course of a game, switching back-and-forth between standard man-to-man and either an extended 1-3-1 zone or a more vanilla 2-3 zone. Since losing a premier two-way rebounder in Adam Woodbury two years ago, McCaffery has ever-so-slightly trended toward playing more zone to try and combat the lack of a dominant glass cleaner. Per synergy, Iowa played zone on 37% of all defensive possessions last year, an uptick from 33% and 30% in 2016 and 2015, respectively.
Bottom Line: As you run through the gamut of versatile offensive weapons McCaffery has back in his arsenal, it’s easy to get sucked into believing Iowa is a sleeping giant in the Big Ten this year. But please proceed with caution before buying too much stock in the Hawkeyes – it’s now been two straight seasons where the defense could be assessed as anywhere from 'bad' to 'atrocious'. With no dominant rebounding force like Adam Woodbury or reliable rim-protector like Jarrod Uthoff, McCaffery has yet to find a band-aid big enough to stop the bleeding defensively inside. Barring a significant stylistic change this season, the data simply doesn’t support the notion that Iowa will all of sudden figure out how to guard in 2018-19. Sure, some improvement should be expected after surrendering 1.19 points per possession in league play last year (please pause to digest just how terrible that is), but it likely won’t be enough to drive the change needed for Iowa to vault too much higher in the conference standings.
Key Returners: Vic Law, Dererk Pardon, Aaron Falzon
Key Losses: Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Gavin Skelly, Isaiah Brown (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Ryan Taylor (Evansville grad transfer), AJ Turner (Boston College transfer), Ryan Greer, Pete Nance, Miller Kopp, Ryan Young
Outlook: The 2016-17 hoops season is one that will live in infamy for the tried and true Northwestern faithful. Chris Collins’ rebuilding project delivered slow, yet steady gains during his first three years in Evanston, which ultimately culminated in the program’s first ever NCAA tournament appearance and victory. Given the prolonged frustration of failing to reach the Big Dance year after year during the Bill Carmody era, the magical run in 2017 felt as if the Wildcats had finally eclipsed what once seemed like an insurmountable barrier.
This honeymoon period quickly deteriorated as the hangover from the prior year’s success carried over into 2017-18. Even with the crux of the 2016-17 roster back, NW regressed in just about every facet of the game as the Wildcats stumbled to a 6-12 league record, which matched Collins’ Big Ten win totals in each of his first two seasons. Long tenured floor general Bryant McIntosh and the other key veteran cogs saw their individual offensive games plateau – and in some cases, decline – while younger players struggled to find their footing with restricted playing time. If Collins wants to right the ship in 2019 and get back to that upward trajectory the program was on a year ago, he’ll need to expedite the development of that next wave of talent coming through the pipeline.
There’s a justifiably high level of excitement surrounding the incoming freshman class this season, which is headlined by one the highest ranked recruits in Northwestern history, Pete Nance (son of Larry Nance, baby bro of Larry Nance Jr.). Cut from the same cloth as his father, Nance is a high-flyer who will undoubtedly bring the fans at newly renovated Welsh Ryan Arena to their feet with some highlight reel throwdowns this season. But he also possesses an under appreciated skill level offensively that should translate well to his projected role as a heavily utilized screener. In pick-n-pops, he’ll be a threat to catch-and-shoot and catch-and-drive when opposing forwards step out to close space, and he'll be salivating for alley-oop opportunities as a roll man as well. The major knock on Nance at this juncture is his underdeveloped physical frame - he currently weighs in at 200 pounds despite standing 6’8, which could be problematic for his effectiveness as a defender. Nance will need to live in the weight room this summer to get his body ready for bruising Big Ten forwards, especially since he’ll be tasked with guarding opposing 4s the majority of the time.
The good news is Nance will have a pseudo bodyguard as backup on defense with senior Dererk Pardon back to patrol the paint. Pardon has taken substantial strides in improving his all-around game and has transformed himself into one of the premier rim protectors in the Big Ten. He’s continued to hone his repertoire of low-post moves, which will be critical as he moves higher in the offensive pecking order. Barret Benson and 3-star freshman Ryan Young are the other notable names of the front court depth chart, both of whom will have to provide valuable minutes when Pardon needs a breather or finds himself in foul trouble.
The strength of this year's team will undeniably be a deep and talented wing core, headlined by Vic Law, Ryan Taylor, Aaron Falzon, Miller Copp and AJ Turner. Law is a known commodity around the Big Ten as a multi-dimensional scorer and outstanding rebounder at his position. Wildcat fans are well versed into what Law brings to the table, but they will quickly fall in love with prized offseason acquisition Ryan Taylor – a 20 PPG scorer at Evansville – who closely resembles the versatility that Law brings to the table. Both Law and Taylor are high-level shot-makers who can score over undersized guards and make contested shots in the midrange area.
It’ll be interesting to see how Collins plans to incorporate Turner and Falzon to the primary rotation, neither of whom are as dynamic offensively as Law and Taylor. Both Turner and Falzon are assets because of their ability to stretch the floor as stand still shooters at 6’7, but predicting their role this season is guesswork. Falzon’s inconsistency has turned him into somewhat of an enigma since arriving at Northwestern with lofty expectations coming out of high-school. Turner was effective in a low usage role at Boston College, but he benefitted greatly from the defensive attention that shaded towards Jerome Robinson and Ky Bowman.
The real riddle the coaching staff must solve is how to replace McIntosh. The university’s decision to revoke its scholarship offer to Jordan Lathon - initially dubbed as the heir apparent to McIntosh – put Collins in a major pickle as he now inherits a roster without a reliable, proven point guard. Per some local reports out of Chicago, Colllins is leaning toward a “by-committee” approach to this position with multiple players expected to share the ball handling duties.
The ripple effect of this decision could be a restructuring of the offense, which so heavily relied on high pick-n-roll action with McIntosh as the trigger man over the last few years. While there are a few serviceable options that could partially patch up the hole at point – Ryan Greer, Jordan Ash and Anthony Gaines – look for Law and Taylor to initiate the half-court offense and bring the ball up a fair amount as well.
Bottom Line: The Wildcats’ freshman class lays a sound foundation for the future, but it’s the seniors that must steer Northwestern back on the right track in 2019. Adjusting to life without Bryant McIntosh will be a uncomfortable transition for the Wildcats, who has been the unquestioned floor leader for the entirety of his 4-year career.
However, there’s a reasonable case that his departure could actually be a net benefit for an offense that was very one dimensional last season. Given how much McIntosh controlled the ball, the Wildcats were highly leveraged on his shooting consistency and scoring efficiency, both of which took major dips last season. Perhaps this is an opportunity for Collins to open up the offense and maximize the output from two top-tier scorers in Law and Taylor – this, in turn, will also take the burden off of an inexperienced backcourt in Greer, Ash and Gaines while they continue to mature.
13. Penn State
Key Returners: Lamar Stevens, Mike Watkins, Josh Reaves, Jamari Wheeler
Key Losses: Tony Carr, Shep Garner
Key Newcomers: Myles Dread, Rasir Bolton, Myreon Jones, Danlil Kasatkin
Outlook: The stars finally aligned last season for Pat Chambers, who badly needed some positive momentum to reignite a program stuck in quicksand over the past few years. The Nittany Lions brought back all five starters, including standout sophomore stud Tony Carr, and grinded to a respectable 9-9 Big Ten record before ascending to “Kings of the Garden” as NIT champs for an encore.
Penn State’s stellar postseason play propelled them to a top-20 finish in kenpom.com’s overall adjusted efficiency rankings, a major reason that many publications and blogs slotted them as a top-25 team in 'way too early rankings' for the 2018-19 season - but much of that bullishness was predicated on Carr returning for his junior season, which made his decision to stay in the draft all the more painful for Happy Valley.
Before speculating as to what the backcourt will look like sans Carr, let’s cover what will undeniably be the strength of this year’s roster: the front court. Anchoring the paint will once again be big Mike Watkins, a 6’9 245 pound force who was the Big Ten’s top defensive rebounder and 3rdbest shot-blocker last year on a per possession basis. As critical as Tony Carr was to the offensive output, you could argue Watkins was equally as paramount on the other side of the ball. Watkins’ irreplaceable value on defense was put to the test when he when down with a right leg-injury in the 2ndto last game of league play, forcing Chambers to call upon freshman John Harrar to man the middle. Harrar was unfazed by the bright lights of the Big Ten tournament and NIT and his consistent, game-to-game rebounding production helped lessen the blow of losing Watkins down the stretch. Harrar’s work on the glass during Penn State’s postseason run should ease Chambers’ concerns about quality front court depth behind Watkins, given 7-footer Satchel Pierce has had major issues staying on the floor over the past three years.
With Watkins and Harrar back to stabilize the paint, Lamar Stevens reassumes his role as a versatile two-way asset at the 4 position. Stevens is an electric athlete who’s always looking to explode past slower forwards off the dribble, but a rapidly improving outside jumper is why he enters his junior season with lofty expectations. He’s certainly not flying under the radar as a 2-year starter, but many believe he’s in store for a yet another leap as a junior – that’s saying a lot for a guy who averaged 15 and 6 last year.
Without a ball dominant offensive alpha-dog like Carr conducting the offense, both Stevens and Josh Reaves will see their usage rates spike substantially in 2019. Reaves played a complementary ball handler and facilitator role in the backcourt next to Carr last season and depending on how quickly 3-star freshman Rasir Bolton comes along, he may slide over to the full-time point guard. As jaw-dropping as Carr’s individual shot-making was last season at times, Reaves’ consistent and efficient scoring output on a nightly basis allowed everyone else to fall in line as 3rd, 4th and 5th scoring options offensively. The advanced numbers validate just how vital he was to the Nittany Lions’ offense, as indicated by the drop-off when he came off the floor (1.14 PPP on vs. 1.00 PPP off):
The other two perimeter newcomers, Myles Dread and Myreon Jones, will likely get thrown into the fire right away, just given the scarcity of other proven guards for Chambers to bring off the bench. Dread is documented as a big-time scorer hailing from the DMV area – he walked into a perfect situation at Penn State where there should be plenty of shots to go around in the backcourt. Jones was a late addition to Chambers’ 2018 freshman class, but he alone significantly bolstered the underclassmen talent pool. 247Sports is especially high on Jones, who ranked him 81stnationally in their top-100 list. Chambers will have his eyes fixated on this young perimeter duo, one of whom could find themselves in the starting lineup along with Reaves, Stevens, Watkins and potentially veteran reserve Jamari Wheeler.
Bottom Line: To contextualize the importance of Carr, think about where Penn State might fall in these rankings if he were returning to school. There’s dissenting opinions amongst myself and my two colleagues Jim and Ky on Penn State’s outlook this year, but we'd all agree the Nittany Lions would be a fringe top-30 team, if Carr came back to school. His absence will put an unfair amount of weight on the shoulders of a young backcourt, as well as the core group of veteran forwards who will have to replenish Carr’s scoring production on the inside. The defense should once again be the bedrock of success with Reaves and Watkins (both earned All-Defensive team honors last year), but points will come at a premium without a polished offensive playmaker like Carr – that is, unless Josh Reaves takes a giant step forward in his senior farewell tour.
Key Returners: Geo Baker, Eugene Omoruyi, Issa Thiam
Key Losses: Corey Sanders, Deshawn Freeman
Key Newcomers: Peter Kiss (Quinnipiac transfer), Ronald Harper, Montez Mathis, Shaq Carter (JUCO), Caleb McDonnell
Outlook: Now two years in to his new gig in Piscataway, Steve Pikiell is quickly learning what he signed up for as the head coach at Rutgers. Many have tried and failed before him to turn a basketball purgatory into a desirable east coast college hoops destination - one that can lure in top-tier talent from NYC and its surrounding areas. Before giving a quick primer on this season’s outlook (spoiler – it ain’t much different from last year), lets quickly set the stage for just how miraculous it would be if Pikiell were ever able to lift the Scarlet Knights out of the Big Ten cellar – and I don’t just mean this year… I mean like, ever…
Copy / pasting this image from Wikipedia is admittedly lazy, but it gives a sense of the 'Great Wall' sized barrier Pikiell must climb to make this program relevant:
The last time the Scarlet Knights went dancing, I was a grizzled, seasoned 1-year old (1991) and 2006 marked the most recent year Rutgers got a whiff of postseason basketball. Success this season won’t be defined by the win column – Corey Sanders’ decision to turn pro early solidified that fate. Instead, 2018-19 will be all about identifying foundational pieces to build on for the future, while Pikiell and his staff focus on replenishing the talent pool with some big wins on the recruiting trail off-the-court.
With Corey Sanders heading for greener pastures, the spotlight now shifts to rising sophomore Geo Baker. Baker was one of the lone bright spots for Pikiell last season, emerging as a viable 2nd scoring option on the perimeter next to Sanders. Pikiell has already hinted that Baker will now slide over to the lead guard spot, which will put his on-court leadership and decision-making prowess to the test right away. Newcomer Peter Kiss did play a fair amount of point during his brief stint at Quinnipiac, but he’ll face a steep learning curve transitioning from a bottom-tier MAAC team to the Big Ten.
Baker and Eugene Omoruyi, a versatile forward who improved dramatically in each of his first two seasons, will carry as big of a load on both ends of the floor as any 1-2 combination in the league. Sanders was a superb on-ball defender, so his prior duties as perimeter ball stopper will likely transition Baker, while Omoruyi must now anchor the interior defensive front. Inverted forward Issa Thiam is back to join the bruising Omoruyi in the frontcourt after morphing into a 3-point marksmen – an invaluable skill for a team that is STARVED for outside shooting.
The rest of the roster will be filled by fresh new faces in the form of three true freshman (Montez Mathis, Ronald Harper and Caleb McDonnell), one redshirt freshman (Myles Johnson) and a JUCO newcomer (Shaq Carter). While Mathis enters with the highest recruiting pedigree, local reports from Jerry Carino indicate Ron Harper is the guy Pikiell feels is most ready to step in and contribute right away.
Bottom Line: The Scarlet Knights posted the 4th worst effective FG% in the entire country last year, a whole stratosphere below the next best team in the Big Ten. To Pikiell’s credit, he knows what he has and he knows what he doesn’t have, which explains why the Scarlet Knights attempted the 2nd fewest 3s in the country on a per possession basis – if you remove Thiam’s 44/116 (38%) 3-point shooting numbers, Rutgers was historically bad shooting the rock.
Without any top-tier offensive talent, Rutgers will once again look to throw waves of bodies at the glass and live off 2nd and 3rd shot opportunities to score points. While some of this stems from Pikiell’s affection for interior-toughness, the fact of the matter is there’s simply no one who can throw it in the ocean consistently.