By Chris Cheetam, Staff Writer. Ryan Houlihan, Staff Writer. Drew Dykowski, Sports Editor
College basketball season is finally back, which means we can watch another epic season in the Big Ten. One of the best conferences in the country features the preseason No. 1 team in Michigan State. Michigan State, Maryland, Ohio State, and Purdue also enter the season ranked and poised for big seasons.
Outside of the favorites, Illinois and Minnesota pose distant threats. Michigan and new head coach Juwan Howard are seeking to do what hasn’t been done since 1989: win a national title. The Big Ten season will no doubt be one of the most entertaining yet.
Michigan State: Fresh off a Final Four appearance last season, the Spartans look to maintain their elite reputation this season. Coming in ranked number one in the country for the first time in program history, Tom Izzo and the Spartans have added pressure to win. Senior point guard Cassius Winston is the favorite to win the Naismith Award going into this season. He posted averages of 18.8 points and 7.5 assists last year and is the unquestioned leader of this Michigan State team. He will be without high volume scoring guard Josh Langford until at least January, freshmen combo guard Rocket Watts will look to fill his shoes in the starting lineup.
Guard/Forward Aaron Henry was key for State’s tournament success last year. Big man Xavier Tillman (10.0 PPG, 7.3 RPG) will anchor the defense again this season. This Michigan State team must overcome the losses of Matt McQuaid, Kenny Goins, and Nick Ward to get back to the Final Four. They come in with added depth players in Gabe Brown, Thomas Kithier, Kyle Ahrens, and talented forward Marcus Bingham Jr. Highly touted freshman Malik Hall and Watts will look to make an impact when called upon in the tournament. If Langford can get back to full health before seasons end, the Spartans could finally get that elusive second national title for Izzo.
Purdue: The Boilermakers were one missed free throw and one rebound away from beating the eventual National Champions in Virginia. All Big Ten and consensus All-American Carsen Edwards had a historic tournament, averaging almost 35 ppg, and his departure to the NBA is a huge blow for Purdue. The Boilermakers also lose two of their best shooters in Ryan Kline and Grady Eifert, which is problematic for a team that needs shooting. Purdue does return shot blocking force Matt Harms (9.4 ppg, 2.1 bpg) and guard Nojel Eastern (7.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg), who is an excellent defender and slasher. Big man Trevion Williams showed great flashes of potential last year and looks to have a breakout season. The Boilermakers also add High Point transfer guard Jahaad Proctor, who averaged 19.5 ppg last season. Purdue’s lack of shooting leaves some question marks on offense, but the addition of Proctor should help.
Defensively, this is a top 10 unit in the country, led by Harms inside and Eastern on the perimeter. Matt Painter is one of the best coaches in the country and will always get the most out of his guys. The Boilermakers should get a good seed in the tournament and will fight for a top-four spot in the Big Ten.
Illinois: While the Illini finished last season with a 12-21 record, they did go 8-9 in the back half of their schedule with big wins over Michigan State and Ohio State. Many experts are high on Illinois for a strong season. The Illini bring back almost everyone from last year, including future NBA first-round pick Ayo Dosunmu, sharpshooting guard Trent Frazier (13.7 ppg, 40% 3pt shooter), and big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili (12.5 ppg. 5.2 rpg). Dosunmu is a scoring threat and uses his great speed to get to the rim at will. Bezhanishvili is a crafty post scorer with great footwork. While scoring will not be a problem for head coach Brad Underwood, the leaky defense that allowed over 75 ppg last season should be a point of emphasis for this season. The Illini are a legitimate darkhorse to be a top four-team in the Big Ten this year and have a great shot to make the NCAA Tournament.
Wisconsin: Wisconsin’s 2018-19 season ended in disappointment with an upset at the hands of Oregon in the tournament. The disappointments kept coming in the offseason as they lost one of the best players in program history in Ethan Happ, who elected to play for the Vanoli Cremona of the Italian LegaBasket Serie A. Happ was the focal point of their team the past few seasons and averaged 17.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 4.5 assists last year. The Badgers have had a stretch of sustained success over the last several seasons, but that could come to an end this year with the loss of Happ. Although his departure will be difficult to overcome, Wisconsin does welcome back a couple of solid players from last season’s team. D’Mitrik Trice averaged 11.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 2.6 assists, while Brad Davison averaged 10.5 points and 3.3 rebounds. Trice and Davison will provide enough for Wisconsin to be competitive in a tough Big Ten and they could contend for a tournament berth. However, this will likely be a transition year for the Badgers.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes ended last year with an impressive showing in the tournament. They upset Cincinnati in the first round and nearly upset one of the country’s best teams in Tennessee in the second round. That is where the positives ended for the Hawkeyes, however. Tyler Cook chose to enter the NBA Draft and Jordan Bohannon could miss the entire season after offseason hip surgery. They do return one of the best bigs in the Big Ten in Luke Garza, who averaged 13.1 points and 4.5 rebounds last year. Joe Wieskamp will also lead the team offensively after he shot 42.4 percent from three last season and averaged 11.1 points and 4.9 rebounds. The Hawkeyes will be good offensively, but the losses of Cook and Bohannon will make an already suspect defense even worse. They could sneak up on some teams, but Iowa is likely NIT bound.
Indiana: In recent seasons, the blue blood Hoosiers have not been the historic program of years past. Former Dayton head coach Archie Miller is looking to improve on a sub .500 Big Ten record through his first two seasons. Romeo Langford leaving for the NBA Draft creates big shoes to fill, but who will do so? Rob Phinisee could be a top candidate for this role, but he is more of a floor general than a true scorer. Devonte Green returns as their top scorer. He averaged 9.4 points a game last year and shot 41 percent from 3-point range. Al Durham shot 35 percent from beyond the arc last year and is poised to become another contributor in the backcourt. Newcomer Trayce Jackson-Davis could be the Hoosiers best player in his freshman year. He is a highly touted prospect with superior athleticism, as a dominant center. De’Ron Davis, Joey Brunk, and athletically gifted Justin Smith could compete for a starting spot in the frontcourt as well. Lacking any semblance of a go-to scorer, one player within this talented bunch must step up in order for the Hoosiers to earn a tournament berth. They could compete for a top-five seed in the Big Ten tournament, and possibly surprise teams during March Madness, if Archie Miller can maximize this core group.
Northwestern: Things in Evanston have not been great the past two years since their 2017 NCAA Tournament appearance. Last season, the Wildcats finished 13-20 with a 4-16 conference record, and losing 12 of their last 13 games. The Wildcats finished 315th in the country in points per game. The Wildcats also lost their top three scorers from last season: Vic Law, Dererk Pardon, and Ryan Taylor. Leading the offense this season will be forward AJ Turner (8.7ppg), guard Anthony Gaines (6.9 ppg), and forward Miller Kopp (4.9 ppg). The Wildcats added four-star freshman center Robbie Beran. His development should be something to focus on as one of the only bright spots for this team. Chris Collins might be on the hot seat as the Wildcats are in for another last place finish in the Big Ten.