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B1G Basketball Preview: Predicting the chaos that is the 2020 college basketball season

Ohio State isn’t the favorite, but Chris Holtmann’s squad is loaded with talent and ready to turn heads.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019-2020 Ohio State basketball season was a book comprised of three chapters:

  • Chapter 1: Buckeyes start hot and climb into the top 10 of the AP Poll by late December
  • Chapter 2: Buckeyes completely puke on themselves, record a 2-5 record in January, and fall out of the top 25 altogether
  • Chapter 3: Buckeyes win four of their final five games, including three wins over ranked teams, but cannot parlay that into postseason success as the NCAA Tournament is cancelled

Chris Holtmann is certainly hoping for a more.... even performance from this year’s team, but if he wants improved results, it’ll have to be with some brand new personnel. The Buckeyes have five new faces on the roster, replacing two graduates and three outgoing transfers from the program.

The 2020-2021 college basketball season is finally upon us, and with COVID-19 still clutching much of the nation, things are bound to go sideways. Even without a raging pandemic, Big Ten basketball always finds a way to provide its own share of chaos.

It’s time to take a peek at what the B1G has to offer this upcoming season, including projected standings, all-conference awards, who will make the NCAA Tournament, and who will come up just short.

(1) Illinois

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

I was drinking the Illinois Kool-Aid last season when I picked them to finish 5th after a pretty mediocre 2018. Illinois made good on my promise, going 21-10, including 13-7 in the B1G, and falling just short of a Big Ten title. Illinois returns essentially the same team from a year ago, but more seasoned.

Ayo Dosunmu could have left for the NBA for each of the last two years, but ultimately chose to stay at Illinois. The All-Big Ten Second Team honoree is coming off a season where he scored 16.6 points per game to go along with 4.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists, and is a legitimate Big Ten POY and National POY candidate.

Kofi Cockburn (pronounced co-burn) would’ve been drafted if he chose to leave for the NBA too, but instead last year’s B1G Freshman of the Year decided to come back to school. Cockburn (13.3 PTS, 8.8 REB) will provide rim protection alongside Georgian native Giorgi Bezhanishvili (6.8 PTS, 4.8 REB). Coach Brad Underwood and the Illini also have Trent Frazier (9.1 PTS) and Alan Griffin (8.9 PTS) returning.

One of the worst defensive teams in the conference just two seasons ago, Illinois is now ranked 20th in KenPom’s adjusted defense ratings, a sign that the Illini not only get buckets, but can stop them, too. This team is a legitimate Final Four contender.

(2) Iowa

Iowa is going to go as far as Luka Garza can take them. The reigning Big Ten Player of the Year scored 23.9 points per game last season while pulling down 9.8 rebounds and blocking 1.8 shots per game for good measure. A more “traditional” center with an average outside shot, NBA executives were lukewarm on his pro prospects. Because of this, Garza decided to return to Iowa and chase both B1G and national championships.

Garza will go into battle with the best offensive unit in the conference, as All-Big Ten Third Team honoree Joe Wieskamp (14 PTS, 6.1 REB) is back for his junior year, as well as All-Big Ten Freshman honoree CJ Fredrick and his conference-leading 46.3% 3-point percentage.

Joe Toussaint and Connor McCaffery give the Hawkeyes a few defensive-oriented guards to rely on, but Iowa’s biggest weakness lies with their defense. Last season they allowed 72.3 points per game to opponents, which was 260th in the country. In Big Ten play specifically, the porous Hawkeye defense allowed 75 points per game, which was 13th in the B1G. Iowa has a strong team this season, but if they fall short of their goals, it will be because of that leaky defense.

(3) Wisconsin

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

I tried to convince myself that Wisconsin is the best team in the Big Ten because of how much of last year’s Big Ten-Champion team is returning, but I just can’t do it. The Badgers have a plethora of good players, but they don’t have any elite playmakers like the teams above them.

Wisconsin doesn’t have a Dosunmu or Garza, but they do have five players returning who averaged 8+ points per game last season. Nate Reuvers (13.1 PTS, 4.5 REB) is the best of the group, but Brad Davison (9.9 PTS), D’Mitrik Trice (9.8 PTS), Aleem Ford (8.6 PTS), and Ohio State transfer Micah Potter (10.1 PTS) are all above average college basketball players.

The Badgers will start five seniors this year and without a doubt are the most experienced. But I just can’t see this Wisconsin team winning the Big Ten or making a deep tournament run without a true star. They’ll be very good this season, but not the Big Ten’s best.

(4) Michigan State

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Underestimating a Tom Izzo-coached team is never a good idea, but the Spartans lost two truly iconic members of their program when Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman left. Despite the loss of those two Spartan greats, this roster is still very talented. B1G All-Freshman team honoree Rocket Watts (9.0 PTS, 1.7 AST) will be asked to step into Winston’s old role as the primary ballhandler, and Aaron Henry will look to build on his solid sophomore season where he averaged 10 points, 2.9 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game.

Joshua Langford retained one more year of eligibility (his fifth) because he missed all of last season with a foot injury. He’s a potent weapon when healthy (15.0 PTS, 40.3% 3PT two seasons ago), and he could end up being the X-factor that helps Michigan State rise to the top of the conference. Oh, and 3-point sniper Joey Hauser is ready to go after transferring form Marquette last season and sitting out his transfer year.

The Spartans are still scary, people.

(5) Michigan

Juwan Howard’s second Michigan team is intriguing because they have two of the best wings in the conference in Isiah Livers (12.9 PTS) and Franz Wagner (11.6), but they are frighteningly thin at guard. With Zavier Simpson graduating and David DeJulius transferring to Cincinnati, it will either be Columbia transfer Mike Smith or freshman Zeb Jackson (No. 88 recruit in 2020) running point.

Smith scored 22.8 points per game last season in the Ivy League while dishing out 4.5 assists, but he also turned the ball over 3 times per contest and took 19.3 (!!) shot attempts per game. Smith will most likely win the starting job, but he will not get 19 shots per game at Michigan. The Wolverines will be forced to start either fifth-year senior Austin Davis (4.9 PTS, 2.6 REB) or 7-foot-2 freshman Hunter Dickinson (No. 40 Recruit in 2020) at center. The choice seems obvious to me, but Howard could opt to play both with one of them being the starter by name only.

(6) Ohio State

The Buckeyes have the widest range of any Big Ten team between their floor and ceiling, in my opinion. The 2020-2021 edition of Ohio State basketball could win several games in the NCAA Tournament and compete at the very top of the Big Ten if everyone can stay healthy. That same group could also struggle mightily and need to scratch and claw just to get into the NCAA Tournament if key contributors don’t bounce back from some pretty serious injuries.

Kyle Young (appendix, ankle), Musa Jallow (ankle), Justice Sueing (foot), and Seth Towns (knee) all have had serious injuries in the past calendar year, with all but Young needing surgery during the offseason to address them.

If the Buckeyes stay healthy, Chris Holtmann has his most talented team since coming to Columbus. If not, the load will fall on guys like CJ Walker and E.J. Liddell to step up in their absence.

(7) Rutgers

Rutgers is going to be a very good team this year. Last season the general attitude about Rutgers was, “That’s so cute that they’re not a joke this year, but is this real?” Yes, the Scarlet Knights are for real, and ranking them at No. 7 here might not be giving them their dues, truthfully.

Geo Baker (All-B1G Third Team) and Ron Harper Jr. (All-B1G Honorable Mention) are both back, and Steve Pikiell was able to pull in four-star center Cliff Omoruyi in the 2020 recruiting cycle, too. He will most likely back up Myles Johnson (7.8 PTS, 7.9 REB) at the start of the season, but having the No. 48 recruit in the country coming off your bench shows how far Pikiell has brought this Rutgers program in four seasons.

Rutgers is experienced, deep and hurt that their first tournament appearance in 29 years was wiped away last season when the whole dance was cancelled. This Rutgers team is no joke.

(8) Indiana

Indiana was probably going to get into the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time under Archie Miller, but it was cancelled. Because of that, Miller has not gotten Indiana into the big dance yet since taking over the program in 2017. By pretty much every standard, Miller has failed to meet the lofty expectations Hoosiers fans had for him when he was first hired.

This season could be the first time Archie Miller has a team talented enough to be better than just middle of the pack. Trayce Jackson-Davis (13.5 PTS, 8.4 REB) could have entered the NBA Draft, but returning for one more year was probably the right choice. He could be the best post player in the conference not named Luka Garza.

But Indiana’s supporting cast around Jackson-Davis is going to be stout as well. Al Durham (9.8 PTS), Joey Brunk (6.8 PTS), and sure-handed guard Rob Phinisee (7.3 PTS) are all back too, providing a good frontcourt-backcourt balance for the Hoosiers.

(9) Minnesota

The Gophers went 15-16 (8-12) last season and would have missed the NCAA Tournament if there was one, but I think they’ll bounce back this season and could potentially sneak into March Madness as a 10 or 11-seed. Gone is Daniel Oturu, their star big man who averaged a double-double on the season, but Marcus Carr hasn’t gone anywhere.

If you need a reminder about what Marcus Carr is all about, look no further:

Carr averaged 15.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 6.5 assists per game last season and was named All-Big Ten honorable mention. He rebounds extremely well for someone as small as he is, and is great at both creating his own shot (see above) and creating for others.

And despite Oturu being gone, he’ll have help. Gabe Kalscheur (11.6 PTS) shot nearly 40% from beyond the arc last season, and both he and Carr have two seasons of eligibility left. And forward Liam Robbins (14.1 PTS) was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA after transferring from Drake University. Watch out for the Golden Gophers as a sleeper team in the conference.

(10) Purdue

Matt Painter is one of the most underrated and least-mentioned coaches in the country, but he might have a project on his hands this season. Trevion Williams (11.5 PTS, 7.6 REB) is going to have a monster junior year and could enter the NBA Draft afterwards. But beyond Williams, there are question marks.

For the first time in what seems like a decade, Purdue won’t have a 7-foot-2 white guy coming off the bench, as Matt Haarms transferred to BYU this offseason. Williams is officially Purdue’s starting center with no competition, and he is essentially the only offensive threat on the team.

How Purdue’s incoming freshman perform will likely determine if the Boilermakers are an NCAA Tournament team or an NIT team. There will be added pressure on four-star guards Ethan Morton and Jaden Ivey to support Williams and get this team over the hump.

(11) Maryland

Maryland only lost two players from last season’s team, but one was the sixth-leading scorer in program history (Anthony Cowan Jr.) and the other was an NBA Draft lottery pick (Jalen Smith). These two players contributed a combined 31.8 points per game last season, which was 44.2% of Maryland’s offense.

Without Cowan Jr. and Smith, returnees such as Darryl Morsell (8.5 PTS), Aaron Wiggins (10.4 PTS), and Eric Ayala (8.5 PTS) will need to step up. There likely won’t be one go-to “guy” for Head Coach Mark Turgeon, which means the whole Maryland lineup will be relied on for buckets.

There were instances last season when Wiggins looked like he was ready to blossom into a star, as he scored in double digits 18 times last year. The 2019-2020 Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year scored a season-high 20 in Maryland’s 79-72 loss to Ohio State on Feb. 23.

The cabinet isn’t completely bare, but Maryland is going to take a serious step back this season. They’re not an NCAA Tournament team.

(12) Penn State

On the heels of a breakout season where they went 11-9 in conference play and spent much of the season ranked in the AP Poll, the trajectory for Penn State was growing higher and higher. Losing program-changing players like Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins would be tough to overcome, but Penn State still had a solid group of contributors returning.

And then Pat Chambers resigned.

Chambers, the head coach of the men’s basketball program for the last nine seasons, resigned on Oct. 21 following an internal investigation into his conduct towards his student-athletes. Penn State’s entire 2021 recruiting class has since decommitted, so there are no freshman set to join their basketball program next year. Jim Ferry is filling in as interim head coach, but more likely than not he will be just that, and will be relieved at the end of the season.

The Nittany Lions return some quality pieces like Myreon Jones, Seth Lundy, and defensive specialist Jamari Wheeler, but there’s not enough here to stay afloat in the Big Ten. Penn State is embarrassingly bare in the frontcourt, and opposing teams are going to absolutely eat this team up.

(13) Northwestern

Northwestern was the butt of quite a few jokes last year after going 3-17 in conference play, and unfortunately for them, it’s going to be ugly again this year. However, they’re not going to be the worst team in the conference, and they may even have the chance to creep up to the 11-12 range by the end of the season.

Boo Buie (10.3 PTS), Miller Kopp (13.1 PTS), and Pete Nance (8.5 PTS) are a solid core for Northwestern. That trio will get both this season and next to play together, so I expect Northwestern to dip their toes in the water a bit this year before actually contending for an NCAA Tournament bid during the 2021-2022 season.

(14) Nebraska

Like Ohio State, Nebraska acquired its best player this offseason when former Pitt guard Trey McGowens was granted immediate eligibility for the upcoming season. McGowens has two seasons of eligibility left, and his younger brother Bryce McGowens (No. 25 recruit in the 2021 class) will join him in Lincoln next season.

Aside from McGowens, Nebraska resembles a haphazardly thrown together bowl of trail mix from whatever old snacks you found in the cupboard. The Huskers were mostly made up of transfers last year, and that rings true again in Fred Hoiberg’s second year at the helm. They’re going to be bad again, but they’re only a year away from being relevant.

Other Predictions

Aside from standings, here are forecasts for other accolades and awards that will be awarded at the conclusion of the 2020-2021 season:

All-Big Ten Selections: Ayo Dosunmu (Illinois), Marcus Carr (Minnesota), Luka Garza (Iowa), Trayce Jackson-Davis (Indiana), Trevion Williams (Purdue)

Big Ten Player of the Year: Luka Garza (Iowa)

Big Ten Freshman of the Year: Khristian Lander (Indiana)

Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year: Brad Davison (Wisconsin)

Big Ten Coach of the Year: Steve Pikiell (Rutgers)

Big Ten Tournament Championship Game Final: Illinois over Michigan State

NCAA Tournament selections [seeding]: Illinois [1], Iowa [2], Michigan State [3], Wisconsin [4], Michigan [5], Ohio State [5], Rutgers [7], Indiana [9], Minnesota [11]

Coaches potentially on the “Hot Seat”: Chris Collins (Northwestern), Jim Ferry (Penn State)

One Bold Prediction

To close it out, I’d like to present my hottest take for the upcoming basketball season. Feel free to comment/reply tweet with your hottest take.

The national champion will be a Big Ten team for the first time since 2000.