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College basketball is back! Full Big Ten preview, award predictions for 2021-22 season

Connor’s third annual Big Ten preview is here just in time for the beginning of the 2021-2022 season.

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NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Ohio State Columbus Dispatch-USA TODAY NETWORK

It is finally here. For the first time since that fateful day in March, when brackets were busted and hearts were broken, the Ohio State Buckeyes are back in action on the hardwood. They take on Division-II Indianapolis tonight at 7:00 p.m. ET at the Schott, and if you’re interested in going, you can purchase tickets here.

Ohio State is hoping to compete at the same level as last season — if not better—, when they finished fifth in the conference and earned a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament. They’ll have to do it without the services of Duane Washington Jr. and CJ Walker, but they will have several key contributors returning, such as E.J. Liddell, Justice Sueing, and Kyle Young. Not to mention some intriguing transfers in Jamari Wheeler, Joey Brunk, and Cedric Russell.

The Big Ten conference has been heralded as the best in basketball the past few seasons, but I think it may take a small step back this year. While the B1G likely won’t push 10 tournament teams, I think the seven or eight who do make it will collectively be better than what we saw last year, when the conference (for the most part) fizzled out early in the Big Dance.

Just like I’ve done the past two seasons, here are my projected standings (from first to last) as well as predictions for most of the post-season accolades that are handed out. I am so excited for college hoops to be back, I can’t even find appropriate adjectives to describe it. We’re back, folks!

(1) Purdue

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-North Texas at Purdue Andrew Nelles-USA TODAY Sports

Time to get my clown nose and wig out again, because folks, I believe in the Boilermakers this season. This team really found their stride at the end of the season, winning six of their final seven games before losing to Ohio State (in overtime) in the Big Ten Tournament. Not coincidentally, sophomore guard Jaden Ivey really came into his own down the stretch, averaging just over 14 PPG in those seven games. He followed that up with 19 against the Buckeyes in the B1G Tournament and 26 against North Texas in Purdue’s overtime loss to the Mean Green in the NCAA Tournament.

This is a deep, experienced team that returns its top eight scorers from last season. Jaden Ivey was a unanimous preseason All-Big Ten selection, and we all know what Trevion Williams is capable of. Not to mention that Purdue got a sizable chunk of its offense from four freshmen last season (Ivey, Mason Gillis, Brandon Newman, and Zach Edey), all of whom return and will be even better with experience.

Add all of that talent on top of the attitude Purdue will likely have due to that NCAA Tournament loss (North Texas was a 13-seed), and I think it’s a recipe for a dominant season from the Boilers. The Big Ten runs through West Lafayette this season.

(2) Michigan

The Wolverines have a few question marks that will need to be settled before we truly know what their ceiling is. The man-child better known as Hunter Dickinson is back after garnering All-American, All-Big Ten, and Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors last season. He will look to expand his offensive toolbox a bit this season, but even if he doesn’t he is stll an extremely tough matchup around the basket at 7-foot-1 and 255 pounds. Eli Brooks —Michigan’s secret weapon — is also back, and will line up alongside Coastal Carolina transfer DeVante’ Jones in the backcourt.

Jones averaged 19.3 points per game last season in the Sun Belt and was named the Sun Belt Player of the Year. He shot nearly 50% from the floor and also pulled down 7.2 rebounds per game, but the question will be how it all translates to the Big Ten, where he is unlikely to get 14 shots per game.

The biggest question I have about Juwan Howard’s squad is the performance of stud freshmen Caleb Houstan (No. 10 in 2021 class) and Moussa Diabate (No. 16), both of whom could be one-and-done’s. If they step in and are difference makers right away, Michigan will stay right at the top. If there is a longer adjustment period, perhaps drop the Wolverines a spot or two.

(3) Maryland

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Maryland at Connecticut Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

Purdue is one team I’m sticking my neck way out for, but most people feel that way about the Boilermakers this season. The other team I’m very interested in is Maryland.

The Terrapins went 17-14 last season, but they also had four very winnable games (Monmouth, Towson, George Mason, James Madison) cancelled due to COVID-19 issues within the program. Because of this, they basically had three non-conference games, a two-week, non-active break, and then were thrown right into Big Ten play in early December. They responded by starting out 1-5 in Big Ten play, but won 8 of their final 14 games to finish eighth in the conference and earn a 10-seed in the NCAA Tournament. They then knocked off NBA lottery pick James Bouknight and the 7th-seeded UConn Huskies in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Aaron Wiggins (NBA) and Darryl Morsell (transferred to Marquette) are gone, and their absence will be felt on both ends of the floor. To offset these losses, Mark Turgeon brought in point guard Fatts Russell (Rhode Island) and 6-foot-11 center Qudus Wahab (Georgetown). While Russell and Wahab may not be as talented as the Morsell and Wiggins, their additions will let Eric Ayala move off the ball where he’s more comfortable, and let Donta Scott play a true power forward position instead of the hybrid-center he played last year.

I have questions about their depth behind their starting five, but the lineup of Russell, Ayala, Hakim Hart, Scott, and Wahab will be one of the best in the conference and I expect them to fly under the radar for the first month or two of the season while quietly racking up a ton of wins.

(4) Ohio State

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Ohio State vs Illinois Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State will look to find a better balance between offense and defense this season after finishing fourth in adjusted offense and 82nd in adjusted defense last year. Chris Holtmann said that he would like both their offense and defense to be “top-25” but to do that, Ohio State will need to better defend the post and communicate better on the perimeter.

Too many times last season, there was a lack of communication on perimeter screens leading to wide-open three’s — especially in the second Illinois game. This should not be too terribly difficult to fix, and allegedly the first few weeks of practice were focused almost exclusively on defense. Ohio State’s defense in the low post should get a shot in the arm with the addition of seven-footer Joey Brunk, although he won’t bring very much to the offensive end.

Ultimately, the Buckeyes will go as far as E.J. Liddell’s supporting cast takes him. We know Liddell can score, but he will need the likes of Sueing, Ahrens, Young, and Zed Key to help, too. Someone from that group will need to take a major step forward this year — ideally, more than one.

(5) Illinois

Illinois won the Big Ten Tournament last season and claimed they won the regular-season championship, but this season they’ll have the chance to replace their mickey mouse banner with a real one — and they have the talent to do it.

Ayo Dosunmu is gone, and that loss cannot be overlooked. One of the all-time greats in the history of Illinois basketball, the Illini do not have an alpha-type scorer to replace him. Instead, they’ll try to do it by committee.

After dabbling with the NBA Draft and then briefly sitting in the transfer portal, All-American and All-Big Ten center Kofi Cockburn chose to return to Illinois for a third season. At seven feet tall and close to 290 pounds, he is as difficult a matchup as there is in the country, but the loss of Dosunmu will suddenly make Cockburn “the guy” opposing teams focus on shutting down. I personally think we’ve seen the extent of Cockburn’s offensive toolbox, and do not expect him to improve all that much this season. Maybe I’m wrong!

In Dosunmu’s absence, Illinois brought in former Utah guard Alfonso Plummer (13.6 PPG last season) and Florida center Omar Payne. Add in returning players Andre Curbelo, Da’Monte Williams, and Trent Frazier to the mix, and Illinois has the potential to be just as explosive as last season, despite the loss of Dosunmu.

(6) Michigan State

This is definitely flawed logic, but part of my reasoning for putting Michigan State this high is just because there’s no way they suck again, right? Yes, the Spartans did beat the Buckeyes last season down the stretch, and they made the NCAA Tournament, too. But a 15-13 record and a sub-.500 record in Big Ten play is not the standard that Tom Izzo has set in East Landing over the past 26 years. Michigan State’s roster won’t be all that improved from last year, so they’ll need to get off to a better start than last year’s 8-7 record in their first 15 games.

Dependable lefty bucket-getter Aaron Henry is gone, as is Josh Langford. The Spartans bring back Joey Hauser, Marcus Bingham, Gabe Brown, and Malik Hall, and also add five-star guard Max Christie (No. 19 in the 2021 class) and transfer guard Tyson Walker from Northeastern. Walker and Christie will look to give the Spartans some stability in the backcourt that they so desperately lacked last season.

(7) Indiana

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

On paper, I like this team quite a bit. Trayce Jackson-Davis has proven everything he could possibly prove at the college level, averaging 19 points an 9 rebounds per game as a sophomore. When Mike Woodson was hired as the new head coach in Bloomington, he was able to persuade Jackson-Davis to come back for one more season. While neither are spectacular players, Race Thompson and Rob Phinisee are both back in tow, plus former five-star recruit Khristian Lander.

Lander was pegged as a future star, but averaged just 2.1 PPG in a season where he looked rattled and overmatched much of the time. He also shot below 30% from the floor, which is absolutely putrid. Perhaps Woodson can unlock the potential in Lander that Archie Miller wasn’t able to get out of him.

The Hoosiers also add transfers Miller Kopp (Northwestern), Xavier Johnson (Pittsburgh), and Parker Stewart (UT-Martin), who were all key contributors at their previous stops. All three of these players are likely starters. When we spoke to the Columbus Dispatch’s Adam Jardy last week, he named the Hoosiers as his surprise team to watch in the Big Ten this season.

(8) Rutgers

Steve Pikiell has done a great job resurrecting a Rutgers program that had been a laughing stock since they joined the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights made the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time in 30 years, and they darn near made their first Sweet Sixteen since 1979.

Rutgers lost Myles Johnson and Jacob Young — two of their best players — but bring back Ron Harper Jr., Geo Baker, Caleb McConnell, Paul Mulcahy, and Cliff Omoruyi. For Rutgers to make it back to the NCAA Tournament, two things need to happen:

  • Ron Harper Jr. needs to be more efficient. He shot 31% from beyond the arc last season, but is taking 5.5 three-point attempts per game. Overall, he was a 44% shooter. He either needs to take fewer threes, or fewer shots.
  • Cliff Omoruyi needs to do his best Myles Johnson impression. A former four-star recruit, this season will be his first chance to play extended minutes at the five. Rutgers will need him to anchor that lineup the same way Johnson did for three seasons.

(9) Iowa

This is where we begin the tier of teams who I do not expect to make the NCAA Tournament. Iowa lost what appears to be an insurmountable amount of talent from last year’s team, with Luka Garza (draft), Joe Wieskamp (draft), and CJ Fredrick (transferred to Kentucky) all moving on.

Jordan Bohannon is back for his ninth year of college basketball, and head coach/eternally angry man Fran McCaffery plans on moving Bohannon to the off-guard spot and allowing Joe Toussaint to run the offense. He hopes this will open up more shot opportunities for Bohannon, who is a 40% three-point shooter.

Beyond Bohannon and sophomore Keegan Murray, the Hawkeyes just don’t have a whole lot of punch in that lineup. I think they’ll regress quite a bit.

(10) Northwestern

Northwestern is another team that, on paper, looks solid. Six of Northwestern’s top seven scorers from last season return, and we’d typically expect them to improve with a year of experience. Boo Buie, Chase Audige, and Pete Nance have all proven to be capable scorers, and Ryan Young is a dependable anchor down low.

Somehow, this team continues to underperform year in and year out. You’ve heard the phrase “The product is greater than the sum of its parts” right? Northwestern basketball is the opposite — the parts all look good, but the total product has not panned out.

On our preview podcast, I pinned Northwestern as my “team to watch” because this could be Chris Collins’ last year in Evanston if Northwestern doesn’t figure it out. There is just too much talent on this roster to not be competitive.

(11) Nebraska

Nebraska has been the Big Ten’s resident bottom feeder the past few seasons, but this season the Cornhuskers are poised to take a major step forward.

Five-star combo guard Bryce McGowens (No. 28 in 2021 class) has arrived to join his older brother Trey in Lincoln, and together they’ll be one of the top guard duos in the Big Ten. Fred Hoiberg also was able to add former Arizona State star and Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year Alonzo Verge via the transfer portal — he will have an immediate impact. C.J. Wilcher also joins the team as a transfer from Xavier.

Overall, this is the most talented roster Hoiberg has possessed since taking over in 2019. I don’t think they’re a tournament team, but they’re not the worst in the conference by a considerable margin. That’s progress, right?

(12) Wisconsin

I’m not nearly as confident in the Badgers as some folks are. “It’s Wisconsin, they always find a way” is one way of thinking, but will they really “find a way” when their go-to offensive weapons are Brad Davison and Tyler Wahl? Like Iowa, Wisconsin’s roster turnover from last season was pretty drastic with Nate Reuvers, Micah Potter, Aleem Ford, and D’Mitrik Trice all moving on. I’m just not sure if the Badgers will be able to come anywhere close to replacing all of that offense.

The Kohl Center is a tough venue to win at, so perhaps the Badgers will use some home cooking to play their way into the middle of the Big Ten. I doubt it, but maybe!

(13) Penn State

Penn State begins the third tier of the conference, which are the two teams that we know are not making the NCAA Tournament and will not be a factor in the conference. The Nittany Lions weren’t as bad last season as their 11-14 record would indicate, as they played in more tough, one-possession games than I can remember.

Former Purdue assistant Micah Shrewsberry was hired to replace Jim Ferry, who replaced Pat Chambers a year prior. With Ferry’s departure, several Nittany Lions left, meaning Shrewberry had to fill in a roster with several mid-major transfers. Not great. However, Sam Sessoms, Seth Lundy, John Harrar, and Myles Dread are still in the program, giving Shrewbserry a solid base to begin his tenure in Happy Valley. As I type this, I’m starting to believe in Penn State more and more, so I think I’ll stop right here.

Penn State, 13th in the conference. Don’t think about it too terribly hard.

(14) Minnesota

Ben Johnson was installed as the new head coach at Minnesota this offseason, and nearly every contributor from last season’s team transferred out of the program. Division II All-American and native Minnesotan Parker Fox’s transfer into the program was a bright spot, but he has since sustained a season-ending injury and may never play for the Golden Gophers.

I wish I could tell you more about this team, but I can’t. And I don’t care to. Minnesota actually could wind up being the first team to go winless in Big Ten play since the 1999-2000 Northwestern Wildcats. The roster is as cold and bare as a Minnesota farm field in January.

Other Predictions

Aside from standings, here are forecasts for other accolades and awards that will be awarded at the conclusion of the 2021-2022 season:

All-Big Ten Selections: Eric Ayala (Maryland), Jaden Ivey (Purdue), E.J. Liddell (Ohio State), Trayce Jackson-Davis (Indiana), Hunter Dickinson (Michigan)

Big Ten Player of the Year: E.J. Liddell (Ohio State)

Big Ten Freshman of the Year: Bryce McGowens (Nebraska)

Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year: Jamari Wheeler (Ohio State)

Big Ten Coach of the Year: Matt Painter (Purdue)

Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year: Alfonso Plummer (Illinois)

Big Ten Tournament Championship Game Final: Maryland over Purdue

NCAA Tournament selections [seeding]: Purdue [1], Michigan [2], Maryland [3], Ohio State [3], Illinois [4], Michigan State [5], Indiana [8], Rutgers [11]

Coaches potentially on the “Hot Seat”: Chris Collins (Northwestern), Greg Gard (Wisconsin)

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.

Minnesota is the first team since 1999-2000 Northwestern to go winless (0-20) in Big Ten play.