An early primer for the Big Ten men's basketball season: Teams and players to watch
While there’s still some uncertainty regarding the start date for college basketball, one thing already appears certain.
Whenever the season tips off, the Big Ten once again will be one of the top conferences in the country.
With several stars returning to their respective schools, the league — on paper — boasts a handful of preseason top-15 teams capable of making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, such as Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan State.
That doesn’t include others like Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Rutgers who have the pieces to contend for top-25 ranked status throughout the season, however long it may be.
And even though there are some who will be looking to replace the face of the team — like at Minnesota where Daniel Oturu departed after a sensational sophomore season, and at Penn State where the post-Lamar Stevens era will begin — the league still has the makings to be a juggernaut.
As the light at the end of the tunnel begins to flicker, here’s an early look at the Big Ten heading into a 2020-21 season that should be unlike any other:
Team to beat: Wisconsin
While other Big Ten teams were sweating out the extended NBA Draft withdrawal deadline this summer, the Badgers were sitting comfortably with their roster already in place. They return the core of their lineup that won eight straight games to close out the regular season and earned a share of the conference crown with Maryland and Michigan State, with only Brevin Pritzl (graduation) missing from that rotation. Fifth-year seniors D’Mitrik Trice and Aleem Ford and seniors Brad Davison and Nate Reuvers are all back to form one of the most experienced groups in the country. More importantly, the Badgers will get a full season of Micah Potter, who is in line to play an even bigger role. The 6-foot-10 forward shot 45.1% from 3-point range and was a matchup problem for opponents last year, as evidenced by Wisconsin’s 16-5 record with him on the floor. On top of that, the Badgers are bringing in reinforcements with a five-man recruiting class that ranks No. 30 in the nation and features top-100 prospect Ben Carlson and three-star guard Lorne Bowman II (Orchard Lake St. Mary’s).
Conference contenders: Iowa, Illinois, MSU
That sound you hear is the growing preseason buzz for Iowa and Illinois. The Hawkeyes and Fighting Illini both received huge boosts when Luka Garza, Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn announced they were returning after flirting with the NBA Draft. Garza, the reigning Big Ten player of the year, is the centerpiece for a seasoned Iowa squad and is surrounded by a sharpshooting trio of perimeter players in Joe Wieskamp, CJ Fredrick and Jordan Bohannon, who is back after missing most of last season due a hip injury. Dosunmu, a closing-time killer last season, and Cockburn, a mountainous force in the paint, give Illinois one of the premier inside-out duos in the nation to go along with an injection of new talent in top-50 guards Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo. However, Iowa will need to improve on defense (the Hawkeyes ranked last in the league in adjusted defensive efficiency in three of the past four seasons) and Illinois will need to better its outside shooting (the Illini shot a league-worst 29.3% on 3-pointers in conference play last season) to aid their title hopes. Michigan State, on the other hand, lost a pair of its stars in Cassius Winston (graduation) and Xavier Tillman (NBA), but can’t be underestimated. Marquette transfer Joey Hauser is a strong addition to a mix that includes Aaron Henry, Rocket Watts and Gabe Brown, and it’s possible a healthy Joshua Langford could return to the court for the Spartans.
Dark horse candidate: Rutgers
The Scarlet Knights have gone from a pushover to a tough-nosed team that nobody wants to face during Steve Pikiell’s tenure. And coming off their most successful season in decades — one that was heartbreakingly cut short by the coronavirus pandemic — they are in position to make even more noise. With Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr., Myles Johnson, Jacob Young, Montez Mathis and Caleb McConnell back, and the addition of top-50 center Cliff Omoruyi, Rutgers should be stingy on the defensive end again. But for the Scarlet Knights to make a serious run at the conference crown, they’ll need to have better success away from The RAC and hope the roster continuity leads to offensive improvements.
Trending up: Indiana
The Hoosiers have yet to finish above .500 in league play under Archie Miller, but there’s optimism that could change in 2020-21. Forward Trayce Jackson-Davis should take another step and be one of the best frontcourt players in the league after averaging 13.5 points and 8.4 rebounds as a freshman. The unexpected loss of forward Justin Smith, who transferred to Arkansas, was offset by the early addition of five-star point guard Khristian Lander, who reclassified from 2021 and is the highest-rated recruit entering the Big Ten this season. Despite losing two of their top three scorers, the Hoosiers return four players who made at least 16 starts (Jackson-Davis, Aljami Durham, Rob Phinisee and Joey Brunk), will have better depth on perimeter and should have enough talent to make a move up the standings.
Trending down: Maryland
Replacing Anthony Cowan Jr. (graduation) and Jalen Smith (NBA) won’t be easy, given the duo was responsible for 44% of Maryland’s offensive production a year ago and the Terrapins struck out on most of their grad transfer targets. That means Mark Turgeon will be relying on a core of Aaron Wiggins, Darryl Morsell, Eric Ayala and Donta Scott — who were all key cogs in the rotation — to raise their game and take the reins. But outside of that foursome, there are unproven options throughout the roster, questions at the point guard spot and concerns about the team’s depth, particularly in the frontcourt. Add it up and Maryland could find itself falling to the middle of the pack after winning a share of the Big Ten title last season.
Player of the year: Luka Garza, Iowa
Garza returns to the Big Ten as one of the most decorated players in college basketball and as the front-runner for the national player of the year award. He earned numerous national honors and was named a consensus first-team All-American after averaging 23.9 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game during his monster junior campaign — which was one of the greatest individual seasons in program history. The big man broke Iowa’s single-season scoring record with 740 points without the benefit of a postseason and became the third Big Ten player to record at least 740 points and 300 rebounds in a season. If that isn’t absurd enough, he scored 20-plus points in 16 consecutive games in arguably the deepest and most competitive conference. One can only wonder what more Garza has in store and if it’s even possible to top such a performance.
Breakout candidate: Rocket Watts, MSU
The Spartans have a massive hole to plug and plenty of production to replace with the departure of Cassius Winston. Enter Watts. The sophomore is expected to take over the point guard duties and could shine with even more opportunities next season. Watts flashed his potential and showcased his tantalizing skill set as he closed the regular season on a high note, averaging 17.8 points on 42.9% shooting over the final four games. While he has room to grow as a facilitator (45 total assists) and as a 3-point shooter (28.1% on 121 attempts), he’ll have a say in how high Michigan State can climb in 2020-21, especially if he’s able to pick up where he left off.
Freshman to watch: Hunter Dickinson, UM
With Jon Teske gone, there’s a starting job up for grabs and a path for Dickinson to play a major role right away. Fifth-year senior Austin Davis will be vying for minutes at the center spot, but he never has played more than 17 minutes in a game in his career and he doesn’t have the offensive upside as Dickinson. Coupled with coach Juwan Howard’s willingness to feed the post, Dickinson should have the opportunity to become the next top-50 center to make an immediate impact, and it’s not difficult to think he could post a similar stat line like Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn (13.3 points, 8.8 rebounds), Maryland’s Jalen Smith (11.7 points, 6.8 rebounds) and Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu (10.8 points, seven rebounds) did as freshmen.
Transfer to watch: Seth Towns, Ohio State
Towns, a two-year starter at Harvard, is part of a group of transfers Ohio State will count on to help fill the voids left behind by key contributors D.J. Carton (transfer), Luther Muhammad (transfer), Andre Wesson (graduation) and Kaleb Wesson (NBA). A former Ivy League player of the year, Towns was one of the most sought-after transfers on the market this offseason and received interest from the likes of Duke, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Syracuse and Virginia. How effective he’ll be in the Big Ten, though, remains to be seen. Towns averaged 14.2 points and five rebounds his first two years at Harvard, but he missed the past two seasons due to injuries and hasn’t played in a game since March 2018. If he’s able to stay healthy and return to form after the long layoff, it’ll be a boon for the Buckeyes.
Familiar face in new place: Brandon Johnson, Minnesota
Johnson was a three-year starter at Western Michigan before he opted to leave the Mid-American Conference and join the Golden Gophers as a graduate transfer. A torn meniscus sidelined him for the 2018-19 season, but the 6-8 forward bounced back to average 15.4 points and 8.1 rebounds during a breakout campaign last year. He enters a situation at Minnesota where there are minutes up for grabs in the frontcourt with starters Daniel Oturu (NBA) and Alihan Demir (graduation) both gone. Regardless if he starts, Johnson will fill an important need and figures to be a fixture in the Golden Gophers’ rotation.