For the first time under coach Juwan Howard, the Michigan men’s basketball team enters the season as one of the favorites to win the Big Ten, due to the returns of sophomore center Hunter Dickinson and graduate guard Eli Brooks and the addition of the nation’s second-ranked recruiting class. But with the Big Ten as strong as ever, the path to repeat as Big Ten regular season champions will be difficult. The Daily breaks down Michigan’s top challengers in the conference:
No. 7 Purdue
The Boilermakers figure to be the Wolverines’ toughest challenger in their quest to raise a second consecutive banner. Following a disappointing first-round NCAA Tournament exit at the hands of 13-seed North Texas, Purdue returns its top seven scorers from last season. Few teams can match the experience of the Boilermakers, and they’ll be entering the season with a chip on their shoulders.
Player to Watch: guard Jaden Ivey
Forward Trevion Williams — the Boilermakers’ leading scorer each of the past two seasons — is back for his senior year and will play a key role, but it’s Ivey who has the ability to elevate Purdue from a good team to a championship contender. A unanimous preseason All-Big Ten selection, Ivey averaged 11.1 points per game as a freshman, but began to come into his own down the stretch. He scored in double figures in each of the Boilermakers’ final seven games, highlighted by a career-high 26 points against the Mean Green to nearly stave off elimination. Look for him to be the conference’s breakout player and the key that unlocks Purdue’s full potential.
No. 11 Illinois
While Howard has tried to deny that the Fighting Illini are no more of a rival to Michigan than any other Big Ten team, the two teams clearly have some animosity brewing. Illinois’s comments contesting the Wolverines’ Big Ten regular season championship last season and Dickinson’s comments about the Illini stirred the pot between the two teams, a fact Dickinson doubled down on at Big Ten media day.
“It’s really their fans,” Dickinson said then. “They just act like they’re some powerhouse in the Big Ten, and they’re really not. I mean, like they are now. They’re one of the best teams in the Big Ten now, but I don’t know too much history about Illinois basketball.”
While Dickinson’s words will only continue to build anticipation for the Jan. 14 matchup in Champaign, the Illini face a more immediate challenge in replacing departed star Ayo Dosunmu, last year’s leading scorer and unanimous first-team All-Big Ten selection. The Illini beat Michigan last season with Dosunmu out due to injury, and the return of center Kofi Cockburn will provide stability in the frontcourt, but Illinois won’t be much of a threat to win the Big Ten if it can’t adequately replace most of Dosunmu’s production.
Player to Watch: guard Andre Curbelo
Most of the weight of replacing Dosunmu will fall on Curbelo, a prolific passer who averaged 4.2 assists in just 21.5 minutes per game as a freshman. Curbelo hasn’t proven himself the scorer that Dosunmu was, but he averaged 14.7 points per game in the three games that Dosunmu missed last season. Even if Curbelo can’t replicate Dosunmu’s gaudy scoring numbers, if he’s truly the player that showed up last year in Dosunmu’s absence, the Illini will be in good hands.
No. 17 Ohio State
The Buckeyes are also coming off a disappointing first-round NCAA Tournament exit at the hands of No. 15 seed Oral Roberts, but unlike the Boilermakers, Ohio State faces questions in the backcourt entering this season. While their frontcourt highlighted by E.J. Lidell will be stable,the Buckeyes’ three backcourt minutes-leaders all departed, including leading scorer Duane Washington Jr., leaving a group of mostly inexperienced newcomers to fill those roles.
Player(s) to Watch: the entire backcourt
Without seeing what the rotation will look like in an actual game, it’s too difficult to pick just one, but some combination of five guards who saw double-digit minutes in Ohio State’s Nov. 1 exhibition against Indianapolis will have to step up if the Buckeyes want to contend for a Big Ten Title.
Jamari Wheeler — a graduate transfer from Penn State — will fill one of the starting roles, with the most Big Ten experience of the bunch. Wheeler is a prolific defender, but has never averaged more than 6.8 points per game in a season, and Ohio State needs a scorer in the backcourt to pair with Lidell in the pick-and-roll game.
“That’s always a challenge for me and the other big men in the league when they put us in a lot of pick and rolls and (Lidell will) pop,” Dickinson said. “They have a lot of good guards that can get downhill, like Duane Washington last year was able to do really good at finishing in the lane, so they kind of put us in some tough spots last year.”
Meechie Johnson Jr. will initially look to add some scoring punch while starting alongside Wheeler to begin the season. Johnson saw limited action in 17 games last year as an early enrollee. Eugene Brown III also appeared in 29 games last year with limited success, but scored 15 points in the exhibition.
Malaki Branham, the No. 34 recruit in the country according to ESPN, and Cedric Russell, a graduate transfer from Louisiana who averaged 17.2 points per game last season, may be the most talented of the group, but Branham may take some time to acclimate to the college game, while Buckeyes’ coach Chris Holtmann didn’t seem too impressed with Russell at Big Ten media day. How the rotation shakes out may be one of the most interesting early-season storylines in the conference.
No. 21 Maryland
Considering that the last time the Terrapins and the Wolverines met, an argument between Maryland coach Mark Turgeon and Howard resulted in Howard’s ejection, there may be another budding rivalry between the teams. While the Terrapins were a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team last year, Turgeon’s use of the transfer portal to restock the program has left them with higher expectations this year, and the potential for a more competitive rivalry. Maryland’s roster includes six incoming transfers, two of whom — guard Fatts Russell and forward Qudus Wahab — project to start.
Player to Watch: Guard Fatts Russell
One of the highest-profile transfers in the country, the former Rhode Island guard averaged over 14 points per game in each of his three seasons with the Rams. A threat on both ends of the court at Rhode Island, Russell’s defensive skills will be needed just as much as his scoring due to the departures of Aaron Wiggins and Darryl Morsell — the 2021 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Turgeon believes Russell will be able to fill in on both ends effectively.
“He can make an impact on both ends,” Turgeon said at Big Ten media day on Oct. 7. “Some kids can just make an impact on one end. He gets shots, his team wins every scrimmage it seems like, then he gets two or three steals a practice just because he’s so fast and anticipates well. I knew he was good, but I didn’t know he was this good.”
The Spartans haven’t entered a season unranked since 2011, but after last season’s debacle that nearly stopped their NCAA Tournament appearance streak at 22, they find themselves on the outside looking in this year. Add to that the departures of Aaron Henry, Joshua Langford and Rocket Watts, and Michigan State may not have enough firepower to contend for a Big Ten Championship. This should be a good team with some incoming talent and returning depth, but is decidedly in the next tier of the conference.
Player to Watch: guard Max Christie
The Spartans struggled to find a go-to scorer at times last year, and with little in the way of returning offensive prowess, will likely rely on Christie — a five-star recruit — to be that guy. With the losses of their top three guards, Christie and fellow newcomer, Northeastern transfer Tyson Walker, will step right into starting roles. Christie has impressed so far, scoring a combined 31 points in 45 minutes over two exhibition games, and could elevate Michigan State to a true contender.
Other Notable Teams
Rutgers and Indiana both received votes in the preseason AP Poll and should be NCAA Tournament teams, but both would need everything to fall its way to win the Big Ten. The Hoosiers return unanimous preseason All-Big Ten honoree Trayce Jackson-Davis, and first-year coach Mike Woodson brought in three transfers to put the program in a much better spot than it was at the end of last season. The Scarlet Knights, on the other hand, will look to build off momentum from nearly early upsetting second-seeded Houston in last year’s NCAA Tournament and will be led by the experienced duo of Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr.