Returning nearly all of its players from an injury-plagued and disappointing 2014-15 season, the Michigan men’s basketball team is trying to find its footing again.
After missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years and stumbling to an 8-10 conference record, the Wolverines are eager to rediscover the success they have grown accustomed to in the Big Ten.
But even with all the talent it has returning, Michigan is far from a lock to finish near the top of the conference. With former powerhouses like Wisconsin suffering huge losses to the NBA Draft and newcomers like Maryland — the media’s preseason favorite — rapidly ascending to the top of the conference, the Big Ten will again feature more parity than many other major conferences.
The Daily breaks down the upper echelon of the Wolverines’ competition this season, as ranked by Big Ten media in the preseason:
The Terrapins won’t be able to surprise anybody like they did in their first Big Ten season last year, but they may not have to. Maryland boasts one of the best backcourts in the conference, as star point guard and preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Melo Trimble is joined by Duke transfer guard Rasheed Sulaimon, who served as the Blue Devils’ sixth man for three seasons before being dismissed from the team in January.
To complement those offensive threats and do-it-all wing Jake Layman, the Terrapins also boast a brand-new frontcourt. Transfer Robert Carter Jr., a 6-foot-9, 235-pound power forward from Georgia Tech, flew under the radar this offseason and could be a constant double-double threat. And coach Mark Turgeon landed an elite recruit in center Diamond Stone, a 6-foot-11 potential NBA lottery pick who won’t even need to be the focal point of the offense.
After bursting into the Big Ten last season and upsetting Wisconsin and Michigan State on the way to a 14-4 conference record, Maryland seems poised to be just as good or better this season. With their combination of scoring and size, the Terrapins match up well with any team in the conference.
After two straight disappointing seasons by coach Tom Crean’s standards, the Hoosiers return this season with their best chance to contend in the Big Ten since the days of Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo.
Indiana had the worst scoring defense in the conference last year, but it didn’t lose any impact players to the draft or graduation, and it has the explosive offense to compensate. Longtime point guard Yogi Ferrell is back for his final season, and with the talented supporting cast around him, he could be both a lethal scorer and distributor. That cast is led by guard James Blackmon Jr., a prolific shooter who broke the school record for 3-pointers by a freshman, and forward Troy Williams, a proven scorer and rebounder with NBA potential.
Perhaps the biggest key for Indiana to avoid disappointment again this year is filling a void in the frontcourt. At 6-foot-10, freshman Thomas Bryant could be the impact post player the Hoosiers need, and Crean also landed Michigan’s Max Bielfeldt as a fifth-year transfer to add some more depth. If the frontcourt proves effective and the defense steps up its game, Indiana is a very credible threat to finish at the top of the conference.
The expectations in West Lafayette are higher than they have been in a long time. The Boilermakers suffered a first-round NCAA Tournament exit after winning 21 games last season, but they return one of the most physically intimidating frontcourts in the nation, featuring two 7-footers — Isaac Haas and the much-improved A.J. Hammons.
But Haas may be relegated to the bench after the Boilermakers pulled off one of the offseason’s biggest steals, snatching prized recruit Caleb Swanigan right out from under Michigan State, where he had previously committed. Swanigan’s natural ability to score in the post should make him a strong contender for Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
With those threats down low, coupled with guard Raphael Davis’ senior leadership and stellar defensive play, Purdue fans have plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
4. Michigan State
Senior leaders Travis Trice and Branden Dawson are gone, but the Spartans have plenty of talent remaining to build on their surprise run to the Final Four last season.
That effort will start with returning senior guard Denzel Valentine, who can play anywhere on the floor and has a proven ability to shoot the lights out. Valentine’s versatility leaves coach Tom Izzo with a number of options for his starting backcourt, including work-in-progress point guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn, 3-point specialist Bryn Forbes and newly-eligible transfer Eron Harris, who was a talented scorer at West Virginia.
Dawson’s presence will be sorely missed in the frontcourt, but the platoon of Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling has proven to be serviceable at the least. Izzo will have a number of options at the ‘4,’ including Javon Bess, Marvin Clark and highly touted freshman Deyonta Davis.
No matter what Izzo decides to do with his lineup, the Spartans figure to be as dangerous as ever when Big Ten play rolls around.
Last year’s national runner-up is not nearly the same threat this year, but the Badgers are still a dangerous team. Even with the departures of Wooden Award winner Frank Kaminsky and NCAA Tournament hero Sam Dekker, Wisconsin will field a talented lineup led by returning starters Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig.
Hayes, whose sense of humor gained mass media attention during the Badgers’ tournament run, has become just as captivating on the court as he is off of it. His well-rounded game and tireless work ethic — he went from not attempting a 3-pointer his freshman year to shooting nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc last year — makes him a strong contender for Big Ten Player of the Year. Koenig established himself as a capable floor general last season when former starter Traevon Jackson went down with an injury, but he faces a greater challenge now that two of his biggest weapons are missing.
For coach Bo Ryan’s squad to keep up its winning ways in his final season, Wisconsin will need some immediate contributions from guard Zak Showalter and forwards Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown. But if Ryan’s track record is any indication — 14 straight top-four Big Ten finishes — no one should be surprised if any of those players has a breakout year.
6. Ohio State
Coach Thad Matta admitted this season would be something of a rebuilding year for the Buckeyes, and with the talent they’ve lost, it’s easy to see why.
Last year’s star freshman, D’Angelo Russell, is now a Los Angeles Laker. The senior class of Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson and Amir Williams is gone as well, leaving Ohio State as a young team with lower expectations than usual.
Talented freshman JaQuan Lyle will attempt to fill the void left by Russell at point guard. The team’s sophomores — including forward Jae’Sean Tate, forward Keita Bates-Diop and guard Kam Williams — have high ceilings and will have to reach them in a hurry for the Buckeyes to contend with the top teams in the conference. Despite standing only 6-foot-4 at the forward position, Tate in particular should be in position to shine after a solid freshman campaign in which he shot 58.9 percent while averaging 8.8 points and five rebounds in just 22 minutes per game.
In the best-case scenario, the Buckeyes would lean on leadership from junior Marc Loving and quickly develop their 2015 recruiting class to fill their remaining holes, but it’s likely that this team is still a year or two away.