A year ago, the Big Ten couldn’t push any teams past the sweet 16. Maryland, Indiana, Purdue, and Michigan State were all advertised as possible Final Four teams. Michigan State as a two seed was knocked off on day 1 by Middle Tennessee State and preseason overall number 1-seed Maryland was blown out in the Sweet Sixteen by Kansas.
Best Team: Wisconsin
The Badgers bring back four of their five starters. Although Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are the big names, Ethan Happ is the difference maker that turns this team into a championship contender. Happ shot 54-percent from the floor last season and at 6’10 was a nightmare to cover in the paint. When you thought he was going to drive, he would pull up and knock down a 12-15 footer. He is somewhat comparable to Frank Kaminsky and as a sophomore. After a full offseason with Greg Gard holding the clipboard, there will be several plays and sets designed to get Happ buckets.
Surprise Team: Illinois
John Groce has a big opportunity to turn Illinois around this season with Malcolm Hill, possibly the most talented player in the conference, back for another year. He also has Tracy Abrams (assuming he can stay healthy) and Mike Thorne, two players who are amazingly back for their sixth year! Abrams hasn’t played in two full seasons but was a monster for the Illini in his sophomore and junior seasons before tearing his ACL and then his achilles in subsequent seasons. They haven’t been in the dance since 2013, expect that to change this season.
Overrated Team: Michigan State
I’m more than prepared to eat my words as every Tom Izzo team turns into something marvelous come March, with he exception of last year’s disappointment. Tum Tum Nairn isn’t as strong of a leader as players of State’s past and teams were able to figure his game out after his injury during last season. The Spartans lost their top three players from a year ago, and losing a Denzel Valentine leaves a larger hole than most fans realize. Izzo can coach any players up and make them contenders, but I don’t see Nairn, Gavin Schilling and Matt McQuaid leading this team deep into March.
Best Player: Melo Trimble
Maryland came into last season with a star studded roster that seemed destined for greatness with Trimble heading the list. Now with Layman, Carter, Stone, and Sulaimon gone, Melo’s role gets even bigger and more important. He could have gone to the NBA two years ago but chose to stay. This will be the season that Maryland fans remember as one of the best any Terp has had in recent memory.
Preseason All-First Team
G – Melo Trimble
G – Malcolm Hill
G/F – Nigel Hayes
F – Caleb Swanigan
F – Ethan Happ
How They’ll Finish:
- Wisconsin-Greg Gard gets the job done with Nigel Hayes, Koenig, and Happ, the best big three in the conference.
- Indiana-Blackmon’s back and Thomas Bryant will continue to develop and make the Hoosiers a threat throughout the nation.
- Purdue-No Hammons, No problem, Caleb Swanigan and Zach Haas will fill in for the departure of the 7-footer. Boilermakers are still one of the tallest teams in the country and toughest to score on in the paint.
- Michigan-Beilein’s best team in quite some time with Walton, Irvin, Robinson, and Abdur-Rahkman all return and new point guard Xavier Simpson adds more guard depth to an already strong backcourt.
- Maryland-Trimble takes over, and incoming freshman Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter, and Justin Jackson player a major roll towards the Terps making the dance.
- Michigan State-Freshman Miles Bridges (obvious first-team all-name-team) will have to step up largely with a strangely inexperienced Tom Izzo team. Again, I could possibly eat my words, but I don’t see Michigan State being a dominant force.
- Ohio State-How much longer can the Buckeyes stay quiet in this powerful conference? No longer as they return their top five scorers. Jae’Sean Tate, Marc Loving and Keita Bates-Diop will make this team an absolutely terrifying team come conference play. Michigan State is only higher because Izzo > everyone.
- Illinois-Malcolm Hill is a an absolute stud, I can’t imagine the Illini being any lower than 8th, and probably sneaking their way into the field of 68.
- Northwestern-So close, but the Wildcats will still find themselves on the outside looking in, now impatiently waiting for their FIRST ever NCAA Tournament berth (yes, that’s true).
- Iowa-Peter Jok is really all thats left from Fran McCaffrey’s great team of the last few seasons. It’s gonna be tough in Iowa City for a few years.
- Penn State-A great backcourt duo with Shep Garner and Payton Banks won’t be enough to put the Nittany Lions in the top half of the conference.
- Minnesota-Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy are back to try to bring the Gophers higher in the ranks in a tough conference.
- Nebraska-Tim Miles had a promising start with the Huskers, but it’s going to be a tough year in Nebraska.
- Rutgers-New head coach Steve Pikiell has his hands full, but Corey Sanders is still one of the most fun players to watch in the conference.