Big Ten Basketball Predictions: Spartans Are The Team To Beat

What will the Big Ten standings look like come March?

97.1 The Ticket
October 21, 2019 - 11:06 pm

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

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By Kyle Beery | 97.1 The Ticket

Ready or not, we’re officially two weeks out from the start of the college basketball season.

And for the first time ever, it will begin with the Michigan State Spartans as the team at the top of the AP Top 25 Poll. Say what you will about preseason rankings -- or pre-February rankings, if you’re that stingy -- but the Spartans are rightfully pegged as the top team in the nation, with their eyes set on bringing home a national championship to East Lansing exactly 20 years after their last one.

Sure, the Spartans will take some lumps along the way, especially with a schedule as tough as theirs, but as this group looks to re-write history and erase the narrative that Tom Izzo can’t get it done with his best teams, they’re right at the top of the Big Ten, which figures to be a relatively top-heavy league in 2019-20.

Who might challenge MSU for the title? How will Michigan fare as the Juwan Howard era (Part II) gets underway in Ann Arbor? Which teams could surprise this season? Who’s got the toughest road ahead?

Here’s a look at my predicted order of finish and one big question facing each team.

1. Michigan State

The Spartans are quite possibly the deepest team in all of college basketball. Cassius Winston is clearly the heartbeat of the team, while the likes of Josh Langford, Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry are crucial cogs in the system. But Tom Izzo will be able to plug and play returning guys like Kyle Ahrens, Gabe Brown, Foster Loyer, Thomas Kithier and a handful of others – and not think twice about doing it. Plus you add incoming freshmen Rocket Watts, Malik Hall and Julius Marble, and a team that ranked in the top 10 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency a year ago is off and running with a “national championship or bust” mentality.

One Big Question: Who will get the bulk of the time at the 4 position and can they step up?

2. Maryland

The Terrapins lost big man Bruno Fernando to the NBA, but that’s about it. No, that’s literally it. He was the only player to leave the program, meaning the likes of Jalen “Sticks” Smith, Anthony Cowan Jr., Eric Ayala, Ricky Lindo and Aaron Wiggins are all back to form an experienced core of players. With a top-10 preseason ranking, the Terps' expectations are just about as high as at the start of the 2015 season

One Big Question: Can Mark Turgeon be trusted to take a highly talented roster to the next level and actually live up to lofty expectations for once?

3. Ohio State

Chris Holtmann found a way last season to hold steady with a roster that had taken a major step back and managed to make the NCAA Tournament for a fifth straight season as a head coach. Now he returns the bulk that team, with the Wesson brothers leading the way, alongside Luther Muhammad and Kyle Young.

One Big Question: Which freshman – DJ Carton, Alonzo Gaffney and CJ Walker – will step up and help the Buckeyes contend for a double-bye spot in the Big Ten standings?

4. Purdue

Replacing Carsen Edwards is simply not possible. What he did to carry the Boilermakers to within seconds of the Final Four last spring cannot be replicated. But what Matt Painter can do to compete near the top of the league is rely on Nojel Eastern, Matt Haarms and Trevion Williams to remain rock-solid and hope role players like Eric Hunter and Sasha Stefanovic – as well as transfer Jahaad Proctor – can all pop. The analytics do seem to like the Boilermakers in life after Edwards, though:

One Big Question: Is there enough shooting talent – mainly from the newly lengthened 3-point distance -- for the Boilermakers to avoid finishing outside the top three for the first time since 2014?

5. Illinois

There’s an awful lot to like about this team. Ayo Dosunmu is clearly the go-to guy on this roster and is capable of finishing first team All-Big Ten. Throw in Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Trent Frazier and 7-foot freshman Kofi Cockburn, and the resurgence in Champaign is on. Needless to say, expectations are high for the Illini and a first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013 is well within reach.

One Big Question: Can Brad Underwood figure out how to have a functional defense and not waste the talent on his roster?

6. Michigan

The Juwan Howard era begins on the heels of a promising start to last season ending with a loss in the Sweet 16 and the departure of the team’s three leading scorers in Iggy Brazdeikis, Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole. But Howard has three solid core guys to build around: Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers. Beyond that though, there are a lot of question marks, especially after news broke Monday that Franz Wagner, brother of former Wolverine Moritz Wagner, could miss about six weeks with a broken wrist.

One Big Question: What exactly will Wagner bring to the table, and how badly will his absence hurt the team early on?

MORE: UM Basketball Coaches Say Program Can Reach 'Another Level' Under Juwan Howard

7. Wisconsin

For the past four years, everything in Madison ran through Ethan Happ. While rather unorthodox and not the greatest NBA prospect, his game was so difficult to manage for Big Ten teams. Now, he and Khalil Iverson are both gone, and Greg Gard has to turn to Brad Davison, D’Mitrik Trice and a cast of potential breakout players to carry the team.

One Big Question: What will the Badgers’ offense look like in the post-Ethan Happ era?

8. Iowa

This is where the Big Ten’s talent starts to fall off. Joe Wieskamp is certainly a capable player for the Hawkeyes and could find himself in the mix for an All-Big Ten spot, but beyond the 6-foot-6 sophomore with a knack for hitting the outside shot, Iowa has 6-foot-11 Luka Garza. And that’s about it, aside from a handful of role players and unknown incoming freshmen.

One Big Question: Will Fran McCaffery’s job be in danger by the end of the season?

9. Penn State

Pat Chambers’ program showed a lot of promise two years ago when he led the Nittany Lions to the NIT title, but they took a massive step back last year with the departure of Tony Carr. He’ll have to rely on Lamar Stevens – likely a first team All-Big Ten guard – to continue to build on his breakout season a year ago, when he averaged 19.9 points and 7.7 rebounds a game.

One Big Question: Can Detroit native Myles Dread make strong enough progress in his sophomore season to have the Lions in the NCAA Tournament bubble conversation by season’s end?

10. Indiana

The Romeo Langford Experience didn’t go as expected in Bloomington. While he’ll forever be a Hoosier State high school basketball legend, he and IU sorely underachieved last season. Archie Miller is left with a mish-mosh group on offense that didn’t show a ton of promise in 2018-19. Rob Phinisee needs to make major strides and Hoosiers fans are hoping Trayce Jackson-Davis has a better freshman campaign than Langford.

One Big Question: Can Archie Miller get his defense to be good enough to keep the Hoosiers afloat and near the NCAA Tournament bubble?

11. Rutgers

Whether his record shows it or not, Steve Pikiell has the Scarlet Knights’ program on the upswing. Last season they finished better than last place for the first time since joining the Big Ten and they return three of their top four scorers, including Geo Baker. If Baker can continue to improve as a junior and keeps shooting from the outside, the Knights will frustrate many a Big Ten fan base this season.

One Big Question: Who other than Baker can step up to replace leading scorer Eugene Omoruyi, who transferred to Oregon in the offseason?

12. Minnesota

If you feel like this is a sharp drop-off for a team that earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament just three years ago and won a tournament game last spring, you’re not wrong. But that’s what happens when a middling team loses its top two scorers and four of its top six. Life without Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy is going to be rough on Richard Pitino.

One Big Question: What help, if any, will be available for rising sophomores Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur?

13. Nebraska

The Mayor is back in college basketball, this time taking on a major rebuilding project in Lincoln. The battle facing Fred Hoiberg is a daunting one, especially considering the Cornhuskers have 14 new faces on their roster from a season ago. Hoiberg is virtually building a program from scratch and the first year will be a rough go round.

One Big Question: Which players will assert themselves as the biggest building blocks for Hoiberg?

14. Northwestern

Any Northwestern fan would have been appalled had you told them in the spring of 2017 that within two seasons they’d be back to the cellar of the Big Ten. At the time, the Wildcats had just made their first ever NCAA Tournament, and won a game, no less. But that was followed by a losing season the next year and a dead last finish in 2018-19. This year they lose their three top scorers and 65% of their scoring production. Tough times in Evanston.

One Big Question: Will head coach Chris Collins make it through the season with his job?