Big Ten Breakdown: Crowded race for the crown
Caught in a precarious position of transition, the Michigan men’s basketball team is attempting to take advantage of its roster turnover both on the court and on the sideline by finding the perfect blend between old and new.
After flipping their conference record from 8-10 in 2014 to 10-8 in 2015 (returning to the NCAA Tournament in the process), the Wolverines look to be trending upward. Though the team lost four players — Spike Albrecht, Kameron Chatman, Aubrey Dawkins and Ricky Doyle — to transfers and one — Caris LeVert — to the NBA, none of them necessarily played major roles for Michigan last season.
With five teams ranked in the Associated Press preseason standings, the Big Ten seems poised to return to its familiar position as one of the strongest conferences in the country. While the Wolverines will likely face an uphill climb on their road back to the top, they have four talented freshmen additions and two respected new coaches to help them find their way back to competing for the conference crown.
The Daily breaks down the teams that will provide the stiffest competition for Michigan in the Big Ten this season.
No. 9 Wisconsin
The Badgers may have finished in a four-way tie for third place in the Big Ten last season, but they seem to be the favorite to win the conference outright this year. Wisconsin returns all five starters, including Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year and first team All-American Nigel Hayes.
After opting out of the NBA Draft in favor of one last go-around in college, Hayes will lead the Badgers with help from senior guard Bronson Koenig and sophomore forward Ethan Happ, who were both selected to the Preseason All-Big Ten team. All three averaged over 12 points per game last season, while consensus Big Ten Freshman of the Year Happ also earned Big Ten All-Defensive Team honors. Along with two experienced seniors, forward Vitto Brown and guard Zak Showalter, the quintet started every game together except for one.
Chemistry might be the strongest suit in the cards for Wisconsin this year, and with the level of comfort these star players have with one another, the Badgers look to be the best team in the Big Ten.
No. 11 Indiana
The defending conference champions with a 15-3 record last year, the Hoosiers have the potential to continue their reign atop the Big Ten this season. Despite losing their strongest offensive threat in Yogi Ferrell and sturdiest role player in former Wolverine Max Bielfeldt, Indiana has enough quality returners to give Wisconsin a run for its money.
After a highly successful freshman season in which he averaged 11.9 points and 5.8 rebounds as the unquestioned starter, sophomore center Thomas Bryant decided to return to Indiana and was subsequently named to the preseason first team All-America team as well as the All-Big Ten team. He will anchor the Hoosier frontcourt, while the backcourt will be manned by fellow Preseason All-Big Ten selection junior guard James Blackmon Jr., who has been cleared to play after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament halfway through the season.
Though Indiana missed out on the conference and tournament championship double after being upset by Michigan in the tournament quarterfinals, the Hoosiers played like the best team in the Big Ten for the majority of the year and could very well repeat the feat this season.
No. 12 Michigan State
Finishing as the runner-up in the conference with a 13-5 record despite having two more wins and two fewer losses than Indiana, the Spartans proved that they could make a strong case for the top spot by capturing the 2016 Big Ten Tournament title. Having to replace AP National Player of the Year Denzel Valentine will be a tall order, but if there is any team that can shoulder the blow, it’s Michigan State.
Boasting a freshman class made up of five-star recruits Miles Bridges and Josh Langford and four-star recruits Cassius Winston and Nick Ward, the Spartans seem eager to wrest the conference crown from the Hoosiers. Bridges and Langford were ranked in the top five nationally in their respective positions, while Winston and Ward were ranked in the top ten.
With head coach Tom Izzo — who was recently inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame — guiding these budding stars, Michigan State looks to be as dangerous as ever in the Big Ten this season.
No. 15 Purdue
Another part of the four-way tie for third place in the Big Ten last season, the Boilermakers have jumped back into the conference title conversation with back-to-back 12-6 records after finishing in last place in the 2013-14 season. In his 12th season at his alma mater, coach Matt Painter looks to guide the program to even greater heights after reaching its eighth NCAA Tournament last year.
Though the Boilermakers lost star player A.J. Hammons to the NBA, they held onto another in sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan. Selected to the Preseason All-Big Ten Team, Swanigan led the team in rebounds with 6.7 per game while averaging 10.2 points in his first season at the collegiate level. Purdue will also benefit from the veteran experience of former Wolverine Spike Albrecht, who returns to his home state as a graduate transfer and the lone Boilermaker to have won an NCAA Tournament game.
While Purdue may be overlooked because of the caliber of the other three teams at the top, the Boilermakers have the pieces in place to make their presence felt in the title race.
No. 25 Maryland
The final team in that four-way tie for third place on the preseason AP Top 25, the Terrapins fell short of expectations after being tabbed as the favorite to win the conference crown before last season. But they bounced back with a NCAA Tournament run that lasted until the Elite Eight — on par with Wisconsin and Indiana for the best showing of any Big Ten team — before succumbing to the top-seeded team in their region, Kansas.
Junior guard Melo Trimble returns to carry the load for Maryland, despite playing well enough his freshman year to warrant the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year nod at last season’s outset. While that title belongs to Wisconsin’s Hayes now, Trimble should remain one of the best players in the conference. Last year, he led the team in scoring average with 14.8 points per game, 3-pointers with 58, assists with an average of 4.9 and steals with 44.
The Terrapins will look to ride their momentum from the end of last season in order to position themselves back into the conversation for the conference title this year.
Landing in the middle of the pack in the conference last year, just above Michigan at 11-7, the Buckeyes have the ability to crash the party at the top this season. With all five starters returning to the team, Ohio State brings a developing core made up of three juniors, a senior and a sophomore to the table.
Sophomore guard JaQuan Lyle, a rising star, announced his arrival to the collegiate level last season with an average of 11.2 points, 4.2 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game. Meanwhile, senior forward Marc Loving, an established presence, capitalized on his leadership role with 14 points, 1.5 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game. Together, the pair will likely spearhead that effort for the Buckeyes this year.
Growing into their roles both individually and collectively, the starting five seems poised for a breakthrough, which could lead Ohio State to make a splash in the Big Ten this season.