Big 10 Preview: All Smiles in Madison

This isn’t your older brother’s Big 10! Since bottoming out five years ago featuring games like Penn State beating a ranked Illinois team 38-33 in 2009, the Big 10 has blossomed into a clear top two basketball conference. This year should be no different although several of the top teams face significant roster turnover, making for what should be an entertaining conference race.

What’s New?

It was a quiet year in the coaching carousel in the Big 10 with zero coaching changes though several seats may be heating up this season. However, things aren’t quite status quo as Rutgers and Maryland enter the fold for their first seasons in the Big 10.

Fresh Faces

D’Angelo Russell of Ohio State and Romelo Trimble both look to be players to know right off the bat. Trimble should start in Maryland’s transfer-decimated backcourt and don’t be surprised if Russell leads Ohio State in scoring this year.  Indiana will rely on two highly touted freshmen wings to make up a significant part of their rotation in James Blackmon Jr and Robert Johnson.  Also, it wouldn’t surprise me if Kameron Chatman ends up starting for Michigan by the end of January, if not earlier. Finally, Top 50 PF Leron Black should immediately contribute for the Illini off the bench.

Hot in here or just me?

After a last place finish in the Big 10 last year, it’s a fair question to ask about Matt Painter. Not sure how hot his seat actually is considering his run of success through 2011 as well as the 8 year extension he signed through the 2018-19 season. He played at Purdue and has coached there since 2005. When all is said and done, his seat may only be lukewarm, but he needs to show some improvement this year.

Probably the hottest seat in the Big 10 belongs to Tom Crean. A frustrating season last year compounded by off the court troubles from his players has Indiana fans grumbling for something to change. Whether or not Crean should be on the hot seat after one disappointing season on the heels of back to back Sweet 16 appearances is another question entirely.

Conference Outlook

This may be the deepest conference in college basketball. I could see eleven of these teams hovering around .500 or better in conference play. At the top, you have Wisconsin returning a majority of their Final Four squad from last year, but after that you have the ‘elite’ of the conference facing major questions with a deep and improving tier of teams closing the gap behind them. The separation between teams two through seven is razor thin and I could see this conference getting as many as eight teams into the tournament.

Wisconsin – Everybody’s favorite Big 10 team this year, and what’s not to like? They return potentially the two best players in the conference from a Final Four team in Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. They lose Ben Brust to graduation, but have potentially the easiest slate of teams they play twice in conference (Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State, Nebraska, and Minnesota).

Ohio State – Ohio State loses Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross, and Lenzelle Smith yet somehow still returns a deep and talented squad. Senior Shannon Scott will lead the way in the backcourt in the absence of Craft and is no slouch defensively himself. Senior transfer Anthony Lee comes over from Temple for his final year of eligibility to provide rebounding and scoring in the frontcourt and most importantly, D’Angelo Russell. He’s been garnering rave reviews from scouts and staff, and should give this team a scoring element they have not had. Even if the defense takes a slight step back, this Ohio State team should be able to score much more effectively.

Michigan State – Michigan State lost over half their scoring from last season to graduation and faces a lot of questions across their roster, primarily in the frontcourt. They do return Brandon Dawson, Denzel Valentine, Brandon Trice, and add sharpshooting transfer Bryn Forbes. However, they are relying on one of their two big men – Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling – to provide a boost down low. They’ll be tested early against Duke, but have a relatively easy out of conference schedule for Tom Izzo to refine his rotation. I know it’s cliché, but I trust Izzo to keep this team competitive.

Iowa – Even after a historic collapse to end last season losing seven of their last eight games, I still believe in this Iowa team. Before that stretch, this team was ranked 16th in the country with wins at Ohio State and a blowout win over Michigan. This team has a great offense, but an absolute meltdown on defense fueled their collapse. Even after losing Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa returns an experienced and talented roster lead by senior Aaron White, PG Mike Gesell, and emerging wing Jarrod Uthoff. Look for this team to play fast and score a lot. Also, keep an eye on JC transfer PG Trey Dickerson coming off the bench; he will often be the fastest player on the floor and could be a difference maker. Assuming their defense can bounce back, this is a very dangerous team.

Michigan – I love Derrick Walton’s game at point guard. Caris LeVert is a star in the making while Zak Irvin looks to improve and provide shooting. This team is young and not very deep heading into this season with almost nothing to speak of down low. Their rotation candidates down low have zero minutes of D-I hoops experience in freshmen Mark Donnal and Ricky Doyle. I could see this team playing small with freshman Kameron Chatman masquerading as a stretch four. This is still a very good team that is going to have defense issues and I’m not sure if LeVert can do as much as Stauskas and Burke have done for this team in years past.

Illinois – The Illini were looking like a popular sleeper until senior PG Tracy Abrams tore his ACL in September. However, I still believe this is a tournament team. Lead by Rayvonte Rice as well sophomores Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn; this team also adds two transfers in PG Ahmad Starks (Oregon State) and sharpshooter Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall) as well as a top recruit in PF Leron Black. John Groce will have this team playing great defense, and I think the offense takes enough of a step forward to get into the dance this year.

Minnesota – Richard Pitino heads into his second season with the Gophers coming off an NIT championship. They also enter the season with an experienced backcourt lead by a dynamic senior backcourt in Andre Hollins and Deandre Mathieu.  They also add JC All American Carlos Morris to help replace the loss of swingman Austin Hollins. Minnesota has a lot going in its favor and is very much on the tournament bubble. For me, I think this is a tournament team and I’m looking forward to seeing them tip off the season against Louisville.

Maryland – Talk about roster churn in College Park! I know transfers have become a big part of college basketball, but they lost six players to transfer after last season and that’s not including top recruit Trayvon Reed being dismissed from school over the summer. However, the cupboard isn’t bare with Dez Wells, Evan Smotrycz, and Alex Layman returning. This team will go as far as their new additions can take them. They add two top 50 recruits to join Dez Wells in the backcourt in Romelo Trimble and Dion Wiley. Also, Slovakian big man Michal Cevolsky figures to add some much need bulk down low with the ability to step out and hit jump shots. Well-travelled transfer Rishaud Pack (NC A&T) will add some shooting off the bench. This is still a talented team that certainly has the horses to finish around .500 in conference.

Nebraska –A strong finish lead by leading scorer Terrance Pettway propelled the Huskers into the tournament and into the preseason top 25 for 2014-15. I’m still not a believer in this team. They’ll still be very tough to beat at home and likely around .500 in the league, but Pettway and junior Shavon Shields need more help to repeat last year’s 11-7 Big 10 record. I don’t think it’s there, but things are definitely trending upward for Tim Miles and Nebraska.

Indiana – This is an extremely young team for Tom Crean that has 10 underclassmen. Top 50 recruits James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson should add scoring to complement Yogi Ferrell and (recently suspended) sophomores Stanford Robinson and Troy Williams. Already thin up front, Devin Davis’s injury in a car accident leaves Hanner Mosquera-Perea to hold down big minutes and rebounding at center. Yogi Ferrell will continue to be spectacular, but a young team and a lot of turmoil off the court will have the Hoosiers falling short again.

Purdue – Bottomed out as the last place team in the Big 10 last year. Even with the transfer of Ronnie Johnson to Houston, I still think there’s talent in West Lafayette. Matt Painter brought in two top 100 recruits in Eric Haas and Vincent Edwards, and returns the best true center in the league in AJ Hammons. Considering how many teams are facing questions on the interior, I think Hammons will provide a huge lift to a young Purdue team. I don’t think this is anywhere near a tournament team, but I think they get over .500 and into the NIT.

Northwestern – Will Northwestern make the tournament for the first time in school history under coach Chris Collins? Not this year. They return most of their team from last year with the exception of leading scorer Drew Crawford and bring in what I imagine has to be one of the top recruiting classes in Northwestern history lead by Victor Law. Things are looking up for the future and this team should be a tough out. The fact that they may finish this low in conference speaks to the depth of the Big 10 and the fact that they have to play Iowa, Illinois, MSU, Michigan, and Wisconsin twice. That schedule will keep them toward the bottom of the standings this season.

Penn State – Penn State faces the tough task of replacing their best player in Tim Frazier. A lot of that load will fall on DJ Newbill who averaged 17.8 ppg last season and could challenge for the league scoring title. He may be one of the most underrated players in the NCAA because he plays on Penn State. There’s just not enough else there to keep them away from the basement.

Rutgers – Did you know Eddie Jordan was coaching Rutgers? I didn’t. He did bring in a respectable recruiting class in 2014 and this team does return some talent in Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack. This is a team capable of springing some upsets, but I have a hard time seeing this team finishing better than 13th in a loaded Big 10.

All Big 10

First Team

Yogi Ferrell

Caris LeVert

Andre Hollins

Sam Dekker

Frank Kaminsky

Second Team

D’Angelo Russell

Denzel Valentine

Terrance Pettway

Brandon Dawson

Aaron White

Third Team

Shannon Scott

DJ Newbill

Rayvonte Rice

Evan Smotrycz

AJ Hammons

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