Season Preview: Big Ten Breakdown

Tuesday, November 24, 2020 - 6:08pm

Austin David prepares to guard Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu on a switch.

Austin David prepares to guard Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu on a switch. Buy this photo
Olivia Cell/Daily

Few conferences are slated to be more competitive in the 2020-21 college basketball season than the Big Ten. 

In the AP preseason Top 25 poll, three Big Ten teams are in the top 10. In total, seven are in the top 25, including Michigan at No. 25. Plus, ten teams are included in the top 30 of KenPom’s preseason rankings. Here’s a look at how the Wolverines’ competition stacks up. 

Illinois 

Besides Ohio State, Illinois was the only other team to beat Michigan twice last year. The Fighting Illini handed the Wolverines their second loss of the season in a nine-point win in Champaign in early December. And then six weeks later, Illinois won again on a last-second pullup jumper from star guard Ayo Dosunmu. 

Fortunately for Michigan, it’s only scheduled to play Brad Underwood’s team once this season. Unfortunately for the Wolverines and the rest of the Big Ten, the Fighting Illini might be even better than they were a year ago. After considering an early exit to the NBA, Dosunmu returns for his junior season as a preseason All-American. He’s a skilled offensive player with all the requisite savviness and athleticism to dominate games. 

Dosunmu is not the only one returning despite NBA interest though, as 7-foot, 285-pound center Kofi Cockburn brings his bruising game back to college. Cockburn averaged 13.3 points and 8.8 rebounds a season ago and was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Dosunmu and Cockburn already make the Fighting Illini serious contenders in the conference, but role players like senior guard Trent Frazier and energetic junior forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili arguably make them the favorites. Four-star freshmen guard and 2020 Illinois Mr. Basketball Adam Miller could also come in and contribute right away. Illinois is scary. 

Iowa 

Two words: Luka. Garza. 

After finishing second in Wooden Award voting to Obi Toppin a year ago, the reigning Big Ten Conference Player of the Year is widely considered the best player in the country as he enters his senior year. Garza averaged 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds on 54-percent shooting last year. In the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten opener against Michigan, Garza dominated down low en route to a career-high 44 points. Don’t be surprised if he surpasses that mark this season.

Around Garza, Iowa has a veteran roster of capable scorers. After missing the bulk of last season due to a hip injury, redshirt senior guard Jordan Bohannon, Iowa’s all-time leading 3-point shooter, returns for one last ride. Junior wing Joe Wieskamp has started every game of his career and is a dynamic offensive player. Redshirt sophomore guard CJ Fredrick shot 46.1% from deep last season and could be headed for a breakout season. Proven guards Connor McCaffrey and Joe Toussaint will also rotate through the backcourt for the Hawkeyes too. 

Iowa could have the best player and offense in the country. Even in a league as competitive as the Big Ten, anything less than a conference title is a disappointment.

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Alexandria Pompei/Daily

Wisconsin 

After winning a share of the Big Ten last season, Greg Gard and the Badgers once again return as one of the conference’s top contenders. With senior guard Brevin Pritzil being the only key contributor to depart in the offseason, Wisconsin returns much of the same squad that helped them win 21 games last season.

The Badgers will bring back one of the conference’s most experienced backcourts in the form of senior duo Brad Davison and D’Mitrik Trice. Davison is a sweet-shooting point guard with a knack for big defensive plays, while Trice has the ability to perform at a high level on any given night, as evidenced by his 28-point outburst against Michigan on Feb. 27. Senior forwards Nate Reuvers and Micah Potter will be key as well. Reuvers led Wisconsin in scoring with 13.1 points per game, and Potter averaged 10 points and six rebounds per game after missing the first 11 games of the season due to eligibility concerns following his transfer from Ohio State. 

The Badgers, as always, will compete for the Big Ten crown. With nearly their entire main cast returning to fill out one of the deepest and most well-rounded rosters in the sport, there’s no reason to believe that they can’t repeat as champions.

Michigan State 

The Spartans lost last year’s cornerstones, second-team All-American Cassius Winston and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Xavier Tillman, to the NBA Draft. Replacing their production is an uphill battle, but writing off Tom Izzo-coached teams is a foolish endeavor. 

Sophomore guard Rocket Watts and junior forward Aaron Henry will be thrust into greater roles. Watts, a dynamic and confident scorer, will have to hone his role as a facilitator; Henry will have to put his tantalizing package together, which he began to do in the tail end of last season, averaging 12 points per game over the final eight contests. Joey Hauser, who sat out last season after transferring from Marquette, provides proven inside-out scoring from the forward spot. The biggest question mark on the roster is Joshua Langford, a former 15-point per game scorer, who has been out of action since December 2018 due to foot injury. 

There are certainly kinks to iron out without Winston to orchestrate the offense and Tillman to anchor the defense, but as players acclimate to their roles, the Spartans should be dangerous per usual.

Rutgers 

Heading into the postseason last year, it looked like Steve Pikiell had the Scarlet Knights on the verge of their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1983. Rutgers finished the regular season at 20-11, its first winning season since 2006. Whether Rutgers’ success last season was merely a mirage remains to be seen, but with four returning starters and four-star center Cliff Omoruyi — the Scarlet Knights’ highest ranked recruit in over a decade — joining the program, the future looks bright. 

Among the returners, senior guard Geo Baker leads the way. Despite only averaging 10.9 points per game last season — down from 12.2 as a sophomore — Baker is at his best when the game is on the line. Teaming up with Baker in the backcourt is Montez Mathis, whose athleticism and 6-foot-4 frame make him a pesky perimeter defender. Senior guard Jacob Young and junior wing Ron Harper Jr. are dangerous 3-point shooters. Harper actually led the team in scoring last season. Center Myles Johnson impressed against Penn State and Iowa last year and will look to build upon his eight rebound average as a junior. 

This will be the Scarlet Knights’ best chance at breaking their tournament drought in over a decade. With Pikiell at the helm, they could be a dark horse candidate within the Big Ten too. 

Ohio State 

There may not be a Big Ten foe shrouded in more uncertainty than the Buckeyes. Chris Holtmann loses the Wesson brothers (Kaleb and Andre) to graduation and DJ Carton and Luther Muhammad transferred out of Columbus. That’s 40 points of production, with Kaleb Wesson being last year’s focal point. 

Talent, though, is not lacking. 6-foot-8 Seth Towns missed the last two seasons due to a knee injury, but is a prolific scorer when healthy — as evidenced by his 2017-18 Ivy League Player of the Year accolade at Harvard. Cal transfer Justice Suenig averaged 14.3 points per game as a sophomore before sitting out last season. On the perimeter, senior CJ Walker and junior Duane Washington make for an above-average backcourt. In the interior, sophomore EJ Liddell seems poised to replace Wesson as a formidable post player and shot blocker. 

Chemistry will undoubtedly be a concern, especially in the early going. How quickly the pieces gel together will dictate the Buckeyes’ ceiling. 

Purdue 

The Boilermakers had an unexpectedly turbulent offseason, losing a pair of rising seniors — defensive stalwart Nojel Eastern and 7-foot-2 Matt Haarms — via transfer. 

Their departures solidify Trevion Williams’ role as the offensive fulcrum. Michigan fans will remember Williams — a 6-foot-10, 265-pound junior — from his dominant 36-point, 20-rebound performance in Ann Arbor last January. Alongside Williams, Purdue needs a bounce-back campaign from junior wing Aaron Wheeler. After flashing promise as a freshman, Wheeler’s scoring touch disappeared last season, shooting just 26% from the field and 21% from deep. Junior guard Eric Hunter Jr. returns as last year’s second-leading scorer, but will miss the first 6-to-8 weeks of the season with a broken tibia. 

Assuming Hunter is only sidelined for the beginning of the Big Ten slate, the Boilermakers have the requisite pieces to be a middle-of-the-pack team. 

Indiana 

Year four in Bloomington is a crucial one for Archie Miller. The Hoosiers have been mediocre through three seasons, compiling a pedestrian 55-43 record with no NCAA Tournament appearances. 

If Indiana is to turn its trajectory around, the effort starts with sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis. After posting 13.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game as a freshman, Jackson-Davis enters his second season with First-Team All-Big Ten expectations. 

Jackson-Davis’ supporting cast, though, is a bit more dubious. Indiana’s second- and third-leading scorers from last season are no longer with the program — forward Justin Smith transferred to Arkansas and guard Devonte Green graduated. To alleviate the burden off of Jackson-Davis, five-star point guard and Indiana native Khristen Lander will be asked to contribute from the get-go, and senior Aljami Durham will be depended on for more consistent offensive production. 

Minnesota 

The Golden Gophers have to replace center Daniel Oturu, last year’s centerpiece who dominated opponents to the tune of 20 points, 11 rebounds and 3 blocks per game. 

To do so, Richard Pitino turned to the transfer market. He brings in Both Gach, a 6-foot-6 junior who averaged 11 points per game at Utah, and Liam Robbins, a 7-foot junior who averaged 14 points per game at Drake. Redshirt junior Marcus Carr was quietly one of the best point guards in the conference last season, finishing top-10 in the Big Ten in both scoring and assists. Minnesota will rely more heavily on Carr and junior guard Gabe Kalscheur, a double-digit scorer and noted defensive presence. 

With Oturu, Minnesota finished with a record of 15-16 last season, a victim of attrition in a stacked conference. Without him, and with the Big Ten equally as talented, the Golden Gophers are likely to again find themselves as bottom-dwellers.  

Maryland 

Maryland enters the season as one of the Big Ten’s defending regular season champions alongside Wisconsin. Unlike the Badgers, though, the Terrapins will deal with a great amount of roster turnover.

Maryland lost senior guard Anthony Cowan, Jr. to graduation and sophomore forward Jalen Smith to the NBA Draft. While Mark Turgeon will continue to man the sidelines, Maryland will need a new go-to scorer with its two leaders now gone. Senior guard Darryl Morsell seems to be the top candidate to ascend to this role, and he should be more than ready to shoulder the scoring load after averaging 8.7 points last season in a complementary role. Junior guards Eric Ayala and reigning Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year Aaron Wiggins will man the backcourt, and both have shown that they can be willing passers while also possessing talent from beyond the arc.

The Terrapins’ roster should be competitive enough to contend for a NCAA Tournament bid this season. Winning the Big Ten again, though? A middling finish seems much more realistic. 

Penn State 

Penn State was on the cusp of advancing to its first NCAA Tournament since 2010 last season before COVID-19 put a halt to the NCAA postseason. Eight months later, punching a ticket to the Big Dance seems like a pipe dream.

The Nittany Lions will be without forward Lamar Stevens, who graduated as the second-leading scorer in program history and averaged 17.6 points per game in his senior season, as well as forward Mike Watkins, who was a defensive stalwart averaging 2.2 blocks a night. Penn State also lost head coach Chris Chambers after he resigned in the offseason due to an investigation regarding inappropriate conduct. He will be replaced by assistant coach Jim Ferry, who served on the staff for two seasons and previously coached at Duquesne and Long Island. During his tenure with the latter, Ferry led the Blackbirds to NCAA tournament berths in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. Without Stevens, Ferry will lean on junior guard Myreon Jones to shoulder the scoring load after a season that saw him average 13.3 points per contest. Senior guard Jamari Wheeler should be an active facilitator and the team’s top defender after notching 1.5 steals per contest last season.

Penn State has some intriguing pieces, but don’t expect them to make too much noise in Big Ten play. With a new coach and two of their program cornerstones moving on, the Nittany Lions will likely find themselves towards the bottom of the standings.

Northwestern 

Following an 8-23 finish last season, there doesn’t appear to be a lot to get excited about in Evanston for Chris Collins’ crew at face value. That being said, there are some intriguing players on the roster.

Sophomore guard Boo Buie will be a name to watch after averaging 10 points per contest before suffering a high ankle sprain in January. Junior forward Miller Kopp’s scoring average jumped from 4.7 to 13.4 last season, and he looks ready to take the reins as the team’s go-to scorer this season. 

With a young roster last season, many gave the Wildcats the benefit of the doubt for struggling in a tough Big Ten conference. This year, though, Northwestern is expected to take a leap. While that may not result in an NCAA tournament berth, look for the Wildcats to be a more competitive squad this time around, although they will likely be unable to escape the Big Ten’s cellar just yet.

Nebraska 

Juwan Howard wasn’t the only first year head coach in the Big Ten Conference last year. After a three-year stint as the coach of the Chicago Bulls, Fred Hoiberg returned to the college game to coach Nebraska. It went poorly. The Cornhuskers finished bottom of the pack in the Big Ten, going 2-18 in-conference and 7-25 overall. 

Hoiberg’s roster heading into Year 2 looks vastly different than it did last season, though. The Cornhuskers added one of the nation’s best junior college players in Teddy Allen, as well as Pittsburgh transfer Trey McGowens and former Western Illinois standout Kobe Webster to their backcourt. Senior forward Trevor Lakes also joins the program from the University of Indianapolis, where he averaged 15.7 points per game as a 3-point specialist. 

In terms of returning players, Reykjavik, Iceland product Thorir Thorbjarnason hopes to build on a solid junior season in which he started the last 24 games of the season. Possibly the most promising storyline to come out of Lincoln last season was the emergence of 17-year old French center Yvan Ouedraogo. Despite being undersized at 6-foot-9, Ouedraogo started 30 games at the ‘five’ and led the team in rebounding with 6.3 boards per game. Though his game is far from polished, Ouedraogo could be a handful for opposing bigs. 

With all that said, Nebraska might just find itself at the bottom of the conference standings once again. Hoiberg signed a seven-year contract last offseason, and for good reason. But if last season is anything to go by, the rebuild in Lincoln is going to take some time.


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