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Big Ten preseason basketball predictions

The 2018-19 season is nearing tip-off. Let’s look at how things will shake out in the end for the Big Ten.

Another edition of college basketball is upon us. Last season, the Ohio State Buckeyes exceeded expectations and found themselves not only in the top two of the conference, but in the NCAA Tournament after a two-year hiatus.

But that was last year. What does this season look like?

Let’s take a look at each team, their early season schedule, how they’ll end the season, and make some forecasts for how this Big Ten basketball season will go.

1. Michigan State

Once again, Tom Izzo has assembled a Spartan squad that not only looks to conquer the Big Ten, but college basketball world as well. Even though Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. departed for the NBA Draft, there is a trio remaining in East Lansing ready to pick up the slack.

Cassius Winston, Nick Ward and Joshua Langford will be the production leaders this time around, and will hope to avenge the early-round exit from last season’s NCAA Tournament.

Before Big Ten play heats up, the Spartans face Kansas, UCLA, Louisville and Florida on their non-conference slate. Those games against quality programs will help iron out any kinks that Sparty might have in adjusting to the new lineup. That’s good for MSU, but bad for everyone else.

2. Purdue

Coming off of a Sweet 16 run, the Boilermakers look to continue to steamroll the conference (and national) scene, and Carsen Edwards will be the conductor of the whole operation.

Edwards pulled back from entering the NBA Draft, and already the accolades are pouring in for this season. He was recently named preseason First-Team All-America by the Associated Press, and is in the conversation in many national watch-lists.

Opening up at No. 24 in the AP Poll, the Boilermakers will have a couple weeks of easy competition before the real heavy hitters show up on their schedule. From Nov. 28 to Dec. 15, contests against Florida State (on the road), Michigan (on the road), Maryland, Texas (on the road) and Notre Dame will show us how good this Matt Painter-coached squad is.

Like Michigan State, a heavy dose of tough, early season competition may very well strengthen the Boilermakers. If that’s the case, they’ll be on pace with the Spartans, but will have a national player of the year candidate in Edwards on their side.

3. Michigan

Last season’s national runners-up bring back a talented group, but the loss of Moritz Wagner will be felt — especially with how much talent there is in the conference.

Charles Matthews, the lone senior, will be leading the way this season, and right off of the bat, we’ll see if he can avenge his 3-of-9, six-point performance from the national championship game loss. Villanova takes on Michigan on Nov. 14 as part of the Gavitt Games. A couple weeks later, the Wolverines take on North Carolina in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Early season tests against top-10 teams push UM, but the experience gathered will help the young corps develop. Two-game series with Michigan State and Indiana will be tough conference matches, as well as the one-game meetings with Nebraska and Ohio State.

4. Nebraska

Tim Miles lobbied hard at the end of last season for Nebraska’s passage into the NCAA Tournament. However, the selection committee said “no.” The Cornhuskers went 13-5 in the Big Ten and 22-11 overall, but a weak non-conference slate and lack of marquee wins outside of beating a then-No. 24 Michigan were the deciding factors.

Once again, the scoring duo of James Palmer Jr. and Isaac Copeland Jr. return, and hope to bring the Huskers to their first dance since 2014. We’ll get a glimpse at how good this year’s squad will be early on, as Seton Hall, a preseason ranked Clemson team, and Creighton are on the schedule. If convincing wins can be secured in these three games, I’d wager on Nebraska being a legitimate team in the Big Ten this season.

Nebraska gets Ohio State at home at the end of January, and will be looking for some redemption after losing to the Buckeyes by five in Columbus last season.

5. Indiana

Of all the teams in the conference, Indiana is my wildcard. Archie’s Miller inaugural season at the helm ended in a 16-15 record. Will they be better than that this season? Oh yes. But, can they be one of the best in the conference?

Having one of the hottest recruits in the 2018 recruiting class, Romeo Langford, certainly helps. Langford and his Hoosier compadres have Marquette early in the season, and then very winnable games with Arkansas and UT-Arlington. All of this is a tune up, of course, before they battle Duke. If Langford shines at Cameron Indoor, then watch out. Purdue’s Edwards is my favorite to be conference player of the year, but expect Langford to be in the conversation before the calendar flips to March.

I’ve talked so much about Langford, that I’ve forgotten Juwan Morgan. A second-team All-Big Ten honoree last season by USBWA, Morgan was a top-10 scorer in the conference.

Miller has a squad assembled in Bloomington, but can they mesh together sooner rather than later. I think there will be some growing pains in the early going — and may even include a bad non-conference loss. But around mid-January, this team is going to be cooking.

6. Minnesota

Injuries and off the court problems hampered Minnesota last season. That was part of the reason why they were one of the most inefficient teams in the conference.

Richard Pitino may have better fortune this time around, as Amir Coffey is back after missing 14 games last season due to injury. Jordan Murphy is a double-digit scorer that returns, and with Coffey, they may be the ones getting most of the buckets for this Gopher offense.

Good basketball coaches find ways to not only make improvements, but to adapt. Figuring out how to be more efficient with the ball will make or break Minnesota’s NCAA Tournament chances. Washington (No. 25) is the only non-conference team on the Gophers’ schedule that is currently ranked. Even if Pitino has a 20-win squad, the same bugaboo that cost Nebraska last year — strength of schedule and lack of quality of wins — may cost Minnesota this year.

They’ll have to win their non-conference matchups, and pull together an 11 or 12-win season in the B1G. With a little luck it’s possible.

7. Ohio State

The Buckeyes are without Keita Bates-Diop on this journey, but they still have the ability to surprise. Chris Holtmann took a group last season, who were projected to be towards the bottom of the Big Ten, and turned them into a Second Round NCAA team.

Now that teams in the conference know what Holtmann can do, it’s his turn to adapt the strategy for wins. He has a quality class coming in with Luther Muhammad and Jaedon LeDee leading the way, and graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods to help C.J. Jackson and Kaleb Wesson.

In a way, this is a “rebuild year” for Holtmann. However, that doesn’t mean that another trip to the Big Dance is off the boards. If the Buckeyes get hot, like they did last season, they have a chance. Non-conference matchups with Syracuse, Cincinnati and Creighton will help propel the résumé come March — if they can get wins, of course.

I think OSU will slip into the tournament as one of the last four, and may be a play-in kind of team.

8. Maryland

Earlier, I said Indiana was the biggest wild card for the B1G. If I had to pick a second wildcard, it’d be Maryland.

Mark Turgeon has had some good UMD teams since he took over in 2011. However, getting big road wins has been one of his shortcomings with the talent that he’s assembled. Anthony Cowan Jr. and Bruno Fernando are the top pieces to the Terps’ pyramid, but that’s because Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson are no longer in College Park.

Virginia and Loyola-Chicago are on the schedule this season, and are the only marquee games they have outside the conference. Any stumble outside those two games will hurt the résumé. A four-game stretch of Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State could be the beginning of a stumble, especially with OSU and MSU being on the road.

On the bubble goes UMD, but they are probably an NIT team when all is final.

9. Wisconsin

Last season was a departure from the norm in Madison. There was no NCAA play — a first in 20 seasons. The Bo Ryan era is now very much in the rear-view mirror, and the Greg Gard era is now in cruising range.

To help get them back to March Madness, Ethan Happ has returned. A first-team conference selection by the media a year ago, Happ chose to return to the Badgers instead of depart for the NBA. Between helping the draft stock and leading the team, it looks like a good deal for Happ.

Wisconsin could be this season’s Ohio State from 2017-18, surprising us all. Xavier, Stanford and NC State are on the docket before the Big Ten season starts, so we’ll know very early what they bring to the table.

10. Iowa

In football there is a common cliché: defense wins championships. That same cliché can be used in basketball. Last season, Iowa had no defense, and a 4-14 conference record to show for it.

Tyler Cook leads the merry band of ballers from Iowa City, so scoring shouldn’t be too tall of a task. However, stopping the opposing offense might just be.

Too much talent in the conference (that can score) is not going to help Fran McCaffery’s defensive rebuild.

11. Penn State

Not having Tony Carr is gonna hurt the Nittany Lions. They only get the Buckeyes once this season, and compounding to PSU’s misfortune, it’ll be on the road (not that that was a problem last year). Home-and-home series with Michigan, Purdue and Nebraska easily could spell six losses just right there. The odds are stacked against them, but there could be another NIT run assembled if they can win a couple of the above games.

12. Northwestern

After making a tournament run in 2017, Northwestern had to move away from their home venue because of renovations. With those upgrades complete, the Wildcats return to Welsh-Ryan Arena this season. Fan turnout should be pretty good — as they typically are when an arena gets a new, shiny makeover — and that could help NU down the stretch.

Vic Law and Dererk Pardon are the two key players returning to Chris Collins’ program, but transfer additions Ryan Taylor and A.J. Turner shouldn’t be discounted. If the pieces can come together, postseason play in the NIT is very much on the table.

13. Illinois

Brad Underwood did a remarkable job leading Stephen F. Austin to the tourney a few years back. Times have changed, though, as he’s struggled to get solid footing in the Big Ten since his arrival in 2017. They’ll hover around the 14-18 mark like last season, but things are looking up for Underwood and the Illini, as his recruiting is starting to blossom.

This season might be another rough one, but next season, Illinois could progress to the top half of the conference.

14. Rutgers

Geo Baker, who averaged a touch over 10 points per game last season, is back. That’s about the only bright spot for the Scarlet Knights.

Other Predictions

On top of final standings, here’s some forecasts for other accolades and postseason play.

Big Ten Player of the Year: Carsen Edwards (Purdue)

Big Ten Freshman of the Year: Romeo Langford (Indiana)

All-Big Ten Selections: Carsen Edwards (Purdue), Charles Matthews (Michigan), Romeo Langford (Indiana), Ethan Happ (Wisconsin), James Palmer Jr. (Nebraska)

Big Ten Tournament Championship Game Final: Michigan State over Indiana

NCAA Tournament selections [seeding]: Michigan State [1], Purdue [3], Indiana [5], Michigan [6], Nebraska [7], Ohio State [10]

NIT: Maryland, Minnesota, Wisconsin

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