Several Big Ten basketball programs have title aspirations this season. What is the biggest question facing each team?
Big Ten basketball is widely considered to be one of the best conferences in America every year. Yet, the league has gone without a national championship over the last 20 campaigns. Could that change in 2021-22? Perhaps, as there are a few teams that appear to be among the top preseason contenders to cut down the nets. Michigan, Purdue, Ohio State, and Illinois should all be slotted in the Top 25 on opening day.
These teams are not without potential flaws, though. Every team in Big Ten basketball, from top to bottom, has questions that need to be answered in order to exceed preseason expectations. This includes three programs (Indiana, Penn State, and Minnesota) under new leadership, as well as some traditionally strong teams looking to regroup after losing large chunks of their scoring (Iowa and Wisconsin).
Big Ten basketball is a physical, grueling season-long challenge. As the 2021-22 campaign draws near, let’s dive into each team in the league and examine what might be the toughest question to answer.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Who takes over the “clutch” role?
Ayo Dosunmu was “the guy” in the clutch for Illinois over the last two seasons. Replacing an All-American is never easy, and finding someone who can replicate Dosunmu’s late-game ability will be nearly impossible. Close, late-game situations are inevitable, though, and it is worth wondering who head coach Brad Underwood will trust with the rock. Kofi Cockburn is easily the team’s top returner, but he is a non-threat outside of the paint.
Perhaps rising sophomore Andre Curbelo is the most likely answer to this question. The wizard of a point guard is set for a massive jump in usage after winning the Sixth Man of the Year Big Ten basketball award last season. He is a dark horse to launch into All-American candidacy and will wield the ball more than anyone else in the rotation. Yet, he lacks the reliable 3-point shot to be the traditional late-game scoring guard. He is best suited to be a distributor.
Trent Frazier is another possibility. While mostly known as a defender, the senior guard has gobs of experience and can score at all three levels. A dark horse contender for this role could also be Utah transfer Alfonso Plummer, who is a proven tough-shot-maker, particularly from three. Curbelo is likely the one that will initiate things down the stretch, but perhaps Frazier or Plummer could be the play-finishers if they need a jumper.
Is there enough shooting for a 4-out scheme?
Mike Woodson arrives in Bloomington this year as the new coach of Indiana basketball. While the Hoosiers have struggled to live up to their program standard in recent years, Coach Woodson hopes to reinvigorate the former blueblood. While this is his first stint as a college coach, the expectation is that he will deploy NBA schematics and a four-out offensive system. In theory, the Hoosiers would space the floor with shooters around returning All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis. This sounds great in theory, but are there enough shooters?
Indiana ranked in the bottom half nationwide in 3P% in each of Archie Miller‘s three seasons. Their three top shooters from last year departed this offseason as well. Personnel changes, such as adding Xavier Johnson and Miller Kopp (as well as Parker Stewart, who did not play last season), will hopefully yield improvement:
Perhaps the biggest X-factor here is Race Thompson. The senior has epitomized the term “glue guy” during his IU career but has only attempted 28 total 3-pointers in 65 games. Coach Woodson appears to be encouraging him to launch from distance this season as part of the new offense. Additionally, incoming four-star guard Tamar Bates should help instigate much-needed perimeter improvements.
Who emerges as the primary scorer?
Iowa might rank seventh in Big Ten basketball in minutes percentage returning, but it is arguably due for the largest year-over-year makeover. Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp combined to average 38.9 points per game and each exhibited a plus-22 percent usage rate. Replacing both will be an arduous task.
Head coach Fran McCaffery has posted Top 50 adjusted offensive ratings in eight straight seasons. The track record is strong, but he has to essentially remodel his offense this year. Returning super-senior guard Jordan Bohannon helps as a lights-out shooter and steady playmaker, but being high-usage is not his strongsuit.
With Garza and Wieskamp both now in the NBA, who takes over the primary scoring role? Bohannon is the easy answer, but the one that would raise the Hawkeyes’ ceiling most would be Keegan Murray. The 6-8 rising sophomore averaged 7.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game last year. He is extremely long and athletic with next-level potential. Patrick McCaffery is another potential breakout underclassman.
Is an interior resurgence in the cards?
Maryland has earned NCAA Tournament bids (including 2020) in six of their seven seasons in Big Ten basketball. While he occasionally gets a bad rap, head coach Mark Turgeon has been consistently solid. Heading into this season, the Terps need to improve in the paint. Namely, offensive rebounding and shot-blocking have been key points of emphasis during this recent run of success. They struggled in those areas last season amidst a step backward:
The Terps could be due for a massive resurgence in those categories this season thanks to a big-time offseason acquisition. Qudus Wahab rather shockingly decided to transfer this summer and he will help shore up Maryland’s frontcourt in a big way. The 6-11 rising junior is an excellent athlete capable of wreaking havoc underneath. He posted a 10.4 percent offensive rebounding rate (161st nationally) and a 6.2 percent block rate (92nd nationally) last season.
Wahab will pair with returning junior Donta Scott in the frontcourt. Scott, 6-7, had to play a small-ball 5 role last season but can return to the 4 this time around. They should form a much-improved frontcourt in College Park.
Will the newcomers live up to the hype?
Michigan head coach Juwan Howard has quickly proven himself as one of the top coaches in the nation. He is an elite recruiter and the Wolverines have finished in the KenPom Top 16 in each of his first two seasons at the helm. Expectations are high for a repeat elite season thanks to the return of Hunter Dickinson and exciting newcomers. In order for Michigan to live up to the preseason Top 5 hype, though, those fresh faces need to instantly live up to the hype.
Most notably, Coach Howard is bringing in the nation’s second-best recruiting class. This group is headlined by a pair of five-stars; Caleb Houstan is a 6-8 scorer while big man Moussa Diabate will be an elite back-up behind Dickinson. Four-star freshmen guards Kobe Bufkin and Frankie Collins should also see minutes behind a veteran backcourt that includes seniors Eli Brooks and DeVante Jones.
While Brooks is a returner, Jones is coming to Ann Arbor via transfer. The former Coastal Carolina guard averaged 19.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.8 steals per game last year. He has a strong track record and could follow in the footsteps of Mike Smith as a big-time transfer addition who succeeded as a Big Ten basketball point guard. Jones was the Sun Belt Player of the Year.
Dickinson is a proven star, but a lot of Michigan’s hype surrounds their newcomers. Can they answer the call?
Michigan State Spartans
Will Walker be the answer at point guard?
The lack of Cassius Winston was evident last season for Michigan State. In the absence of their long-term floor general, the Spartans stumbled to their worst season in recent memory. The program’s No. 64 finish on KenPom was its worst in the history of the site (since 1997) and the No. 11 seed was their worst since missing the Big Dance entirely in 1997. While MSU’s assist rate ranked in the Top 15 nationally for the eighth straight year, their eFG% rate plummeted.
Put simply, Rocket Watts was not the solution to Winston’s graduation at the point guard slot. He has since transferred as well, leaving AJ Hoggard as the lone returner at the spot. The potential “answer”, though, is coming via the transfer market. Tyson Walker, a 6-0 guard from Northeastern, is headed to East Lansing this year with high hopes to fill the hole in the rotation. He averaged 18.8 points, 4.8 assists, and 2.4 assists per game last season.
Walker is an elite defender and has shown the ability to score against high-major competition. He is a major upgrade at point guard compared to last season. Barring a major breakout from Hoggard or immediate stardom from freshman Jaden Akins, a potential resurgent year for the Spartans might ride on Walker’s shoulders. He needs to be the initiator.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
How quickly can the rebuild develop?
There is a lot to unpack here. With a new coaching staff, only one returning healthy player, and nine newcomers arriving via the transfer market, Minnesota is going to look extremely different this season. Settling on just one question is essentially impossible. The Gophers rank dead-last nationally in both returning minutes (7.9 percent) and returning possessions (5.8 percent) while also featuring a first-time head coach.
Ben Johnson is essentially entering a full-blown rebuild. And while he did a nice job attacking the transfer portal this offseason, the Golden Gophers are still likely to be pegged near the cellar of Big Ten basketball. Six transfers are coming in after averaging double-figures per game at their last spot — most at the mid-major level, however. Jamison Battle, who averaged 17.3 points per game at George Washington last year, might be the top offensive weapon.
Coach Johnson has a good reputation from his years as an assistant and it feels like he will begin to recruit the local area better than Richard Pitino did. This could be a long season for Minnesota, but there are opportunities to exceed expectations. At the very least, we should get a slightly better idea of what the Johnson era will look like.
Will the frontcourt take a step forward?
Fred Hoiberg has not exactly gotten off to a scorching start with Nebraska. The Cornhuskers just 14-45 (5-34 B1G) in his first two years at the helm. There are reasons to be optimistic about a potential breakthrough this season, particularly with the additions of Bryce McGowens and Alonzo Verge. There are questions in the frontcourt, though.
It’s no secret that Nebraska really struggled inside last season:
Looking ahead to this season, the core pieces are the same with Lat Mayen and Derrick Walker set to reprise their starting roles. The biggest new addition, though, is Top 100 big man Wilhelm Breidenbach. He should instantly see a consistent role off the bench. Eduardo Andre and Oleg Kojenets are also in the mix.
Nebraska’s backcourt features several solid pieces, but they won’t take a step forward in the Big Ten basketball ranks without better play inside.
Will Boo Buie find consistency?
Northwestern’s Boo Buie is one of the biggest enigmas in Big Ten basketball. When he is on his game, he plays at an All-Big Ten level and can guide the Wildcats to some big wins. The problem is his lack of consistency with playing to his potential. Buie started last season extremely long, propelling Northwestern to a 6-1 start and a No. 19 spot in the AP poll. A dramatic drop-off in production quickly followed as the Wildcats lost 12 straight.
With Miller Kopp moving on this offseason, even more of the offensive burden will fall on Buie’s shoulders this season. Fellow double-digit scorers Chase Audige and Pete Nance are returning around him, but that is it in the “proven high-major offensive threats” department. Northwestern will look to several newcomers, including three highly regarded freshmen, to hopefully propel them up the standings. Buie’s performance, though, is the barometer.
If he plays his best consistently, the Wildcats could pleasantly surprise this season.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Is this the year for a postseason breakthrough?
An 87-44 (46-32 B1G) overall record. An average KenPom finish of 19.75. Four straight NCAA Tournament appearances (including the canceled 2020 edition). It is easy to see that head coach Chris Holtmann’s first four years in Columbus have been filled with success. Prognosticators can essentially count on Ohio State to be a top-half Big Ten basketball team every year as long as he is at the helm. There has only been one thing missing: postseason success.
Despite receiving high seeds as a result of regular-season achievements, the Buckeyes have yet to advance past the first two rounds under Coach Holtmann. In fact, the program has not reached the Sweet 16 since 2013; this eight-year hiatus comes on the heels of reaching four straight second-weekends from 2010-2013. This past season was an obvious disappointment, with the Buckeyes falling as a No. 2 seed in the first round. Overall, Holtmann is 2-3 in the NCAA Tournament while at Ohio State.
Ohio State once again faces high expectations this season. Even though the program lost some key pieces this offseason, they return E.J. Liddell as an All-Conference caliber forward. Kyle Young and Justice Sueing are also back while Holtmann added some key newcomers. Regular-season success is likely, but will they win in March?
Penn State Nittany Lions
Can PSU protect the paint?
Penn State’s interior defense was among the worst in the nation last season. The Nittany Lions consistently surrendered post touches to their opposition and they were seemingly powerless in stopping them. Penn State ranked 302nd nationally in 2-point percentage allowed last season (53.9 percent) and third-worst among all high-major programs. The group also slotted in at just 265th in block rate (6.9 percent) as they were not threatening as rim-protectors.
This needs to improve in head coach Micah Shrewsberry’s first season at the helm. He does have a pair of returning frontcourt starters to work with in Seth Lundy and John Harrar. While both are solid rebounders, though, neither were super impressive as interior defenders last year. In terms of newcomers, Penn State is adding Greg Lee (Western Michigan), Jevonnie Scott (JUCO), and Jalanni White (Canisius).
The Nittany Lions are still a tad undersized in the frontcourt but perhaps will have improved depth this season. Big Ten basketball is one of the most physical conferences in the country and PSU will need to be a lot more formidable underneath. Coach Shrews is more known as an offensive mind, but Purdue — where he coached recently an assistant — has consistently been a good interior defensive team. PSU lacks Purdue’s shot-blocker(s), though.
Just how big will Jaden Ivey‘s jump be?
Purdue is widely anticipated to be a Top 10 team in the country for this coming season. The return of star big man Trevion Williams is at the core of this optimism, but the most important piece of the puzzle might be sophomore Jaden Ivey. I love Ivey as much as the next guy — and have since his high school days — but there is a lot of pressure on him to truly break out as a national star.
Outlets are pegging him as high as a Top 15 player nationwide this year. Ivey was very impressive last season — averaging 11.1 points per game — but that is setting the bar awfully high. This is especially true for someone who has a ways to go in the efficiency department; Ivey shot just .399/.258/.726 from the floor. His .445 eFG% ranked 20th among 24 high-major freshmen who averaged at least 10 points per game.
The rest of the pieces around Williams and Ivey aren’t much different than they were a year ago. Mason Gillis, Brandon Newman, and Zach Edey are also making the freshman-to-sophomore transition but only Edey seems to have star potential. He, along with highly touted freshmen Trey Kaufman and Caleb Furst, will mostly be behind Williams in the rotation.
Purdue will be excellent even if Ivey just takes a regular-sized jump. In order for the Boilermakers to truly compete for the national title, though, he needs to leap. If FIBA U19 is any indication, he is ready to do exactly that, but the question remains.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Is there enough depth?
Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell has *shattered* expectations. After a relatively slow start to his tenure at the helm, the Scarlet Knights went 36-23 (21-19 B1G) over the last two seasons. This included an NCAA Tournament berth last year and they would have danced in 2020 had it not been canceled. Receiving essentially back-to-back at-large berths for a program that had not reached the Big Dance since 1991 deserves major respect.
There are also a good chunk of pieces returning in hopes of another strong campaign. This includes double-digit scorers Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr., as well as sophomore big man Cliff Omoruyi. On the surface, Rutgers’ core is definitely strong enough to compete for an NCAA Tournament bid. The uncertainty relies on if there is enough of a supporting cast.
Only two projected reserves are coming off seasons in which they averaged more than 4 points per game, and both are transfer additions: Aundre Hyatt (LSU) and Ralph Agee (San Jose State). These two will need to be impact backups while someone else will likely have to emerge as well. Rutgers has ranked 55th in the country in bench minutes percentage in 2020 and 279th in 2021; expect more of the latter again this season.
Can a traditionally experienced program overcome youth?
Wisconsin built itself into one of the nation’s best basketball programs behind the idea of “get old, stay old”. The Badgers have been heralded for their player development and tendency to feature upperclassmen more than most schools. The memes about this ran especially rampant last season when showing that Wisconsin’s starting lineup had a higher average age than the Chicago Bulls.
The 2021-22 version of the Badgers, though, will be much younger than normal. They rank just 347th in projected effective experience (1.26), 302nd in returning possession minutes (35.9 percent), and 295th in returning minutes (42.1 percent), per Bart Torvik. This might not bode particularly well given that Coach Gard’s worst two seasons at the helm are directly correlated to the experience and continuity of his roster.
If the Badgers are going to exceed expectations this season and remain in the upper half of Big Ten basketball, they will have to do it in an unfamiliar fashion. Wisconsin is going to have to rely on underclassmen to drive the ship. There are some fun pieces to work with — especially Jonathan Davis and Chucky Hepburn — but the Badgers will look much different outside of fifth-year senior Brad Davison.