After several tumultuous months due to COVID-19, we now have a start date for college hoops. Thus, it is time to start seriously diving into previewing the campaign. First and foremost, Big Ten Basketball should be the nation’s best conference with four likely preseason Top 15 teams. Additionally, 12 of the 14 teams appear to have legitimate aspirations to compete for NCAA Tournament bids. The league’s depth is tremendous.
In terms of star power, the biggest household name coming back this season is Iowa’s Luka Garza, though there is no shortage of stars in the conference. For instance, Illinois experienced arguably the nation’s best offseason with both Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn electing to return to school. Add in Wisconsin’s balanced roster, Michigan State’s consistent dominance, and an incoming group of potential freshmen studs scattered across the league, and it’s easy to get excited about Big Ten basketball in 2020-21.
Without any further ado, though, let’s dive right into our preseason power rankings for the league. A full breakdown will accompany each team and all fans have reasons to be optimistic.
– Tier 4 –
14. Nebraska Cornhuskers | Last Season: 7-25 (2-18 B1G)
Head coach Fred Hoiberg‘s inaugural season at Nebraska…wasn’t pretty. The Cornhuskers struggled basically from the opening tip of the entire campaign, dropping back-to-back home games to UC Riverside (by 19) and Southern Utah to start things off. The season didn’t get much better from there, as it took until January 7th for Nebraska to secure its seventh win. That six-point triumph over Iowa at home was great, but it also marked their last victory of the entire year. The Cornhuskers lost each of their remaining 17 games, and by an average of 14.6 points.
But that is all in the past, as is most of the roster since six of their eight top scorers departed this offseason. Coach Hoiberg naturally turned to the transfer market to fill his roster holes and he has lots of newcomers joining as a result. In fact, there is a pretty good chance that Nebraska’s entire 2020-21 starting lineup will be comprised of transfers. Thorir Thorbjarnarson and Yvan Ouedraogo are the lone major returners from last season, but they both could be better fits to be primary reserves.
In this particular case, though, the drastic amount of roster turnover isn’t a bad thing. Coach Hoiberg had extensive success with transfer-heavy teams while at Iowa State and this group looks to be molded more in his image. Most notably, there are far more legitimate 3-point threats on the roster this year. That is worth noting because finding quick offense from the perimeter has been a Hoiberg staple for years.
Iowa State ranked in the Top 105 in both 3PAr and 3P% in each of Hoiberg’s five seasons with the program. Nebraska similarly let it fly from distance last year (120th in 3PAr) but was inefficient (31.8%, 250th nationally). Yet, here is a quick overview of why there is reason to be optimistic about perimeter improvements for the Cornhuskers in 2020-21:
On the whole, Nebraska should be better this season. Their roster personnel is simply better for the scheme. The problem is that the Big Ten is too loaded for their improvements to move them out of the cellar. It could be another long year in league play, but Cornhuskers’ fans could be encouraged by some of the year-over-year developments.
13. Northwestern Wildcats | Last Season: 8-23 (3-17 B1G)
Northwestern was Nebraska’s lone counterpart in the Big Ten’s cellar last year, narrowly securing the 13th spot by winning two of their last three regular-season games. While those wins helped the Wildcats end the campaign on a somewhat bright note, it’s impossible to ignore their dismal overall. They only beat one non-Nebraska team in Big Ten play (Penn State). As a result, Northwestern finished with its lowest final KenPom ranking since 2014 (No. 132).
Head coach Chris Collins started his tenure at Northwestern with steady improvements in each of his first four seasons. He even guided the program to its first NCAA Tournament appearance ever in 2016-17. It has been a major struggle ever since then, though, as the Wildcats underachieved over the following two campaigns before truly plummeting in 2020-21. Northwestern’s relevance in college hoops has fallen just as quickly as it rose.
As evidenced by my placement of Northwestern at No. 13 in these rankings, I am not expecting the program to climb back up the Big Ten standings this year. With that said, though, all hope is not lost in Evanston. The Wildcats were one of the youngest teams nationally last season (shown above) and their core is returning.
Sophomore point guard Boo Buie will be the leader of this group. Despite being limited by injuries at different points in his first year, Buie put together strong averages of 10.3 points (.376/.282/.708), 2.1 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game. He wasn’t the most efficient scorer, but he flashed a high ceiling. Joining him in the backcourt will be newcomers Chase Audige (W&M sit-out transfer) and Ty Berry (No. 142 recruit). Expect both to play big minutes alongside Buie in their first seasons with the program.
Miller Kopp, who led the Wildcats in scoring last season at 13.1 points per game, is the most important returning frontcourt piece. He will fill the starting “3” spot while Pete Nance, Ryan Young, and Robbie Beran will form the trio at the 4/5. These four all bring above-average positional size to the court and should take individual strides to help push the ‘Cats to a more successful season. Matt Nicholson (No. 294 recruit) joins the fray as well.
On the whole, I’m not expecting Northwestern to escape the basement in 2020-21 but the program’s young core is exciting to watch and this season could signify a return to making positive strides. I’m expecting at least a couple more conference wins.
– Tier 3 –
12. Penn State Nittany lions | Last Season: 21-10 (11-9 B1G)
Penn State blew even the most optimistic expectations out of the water during the 2019-20 season. Despite having missed the NCAA Tournament in nine straight seasons to begin the “Pat Chambers Era”, the Nittany Lions jumped out an impressive 20-5 (10-4 B1G) record by mid-February. Even after losing five of their final six regular-season games, they were projected to land a No. 6 seed by average bracketology projections. It was a stellar all-around season for the program, and just what the doctor ordered for Coach Chambers’ seat to cool down a bit.
This offseason, though, was not kind to the Nittany Lions as it meant the graduations of Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins. Not only were they the team’s leading scorers, but they were also the anchors of the nation’s 23rd-best defensive unit (by AdjD). As a result of their departures, it’s reasonable to project struggles on both ends of the floor. Falling all the way to No. 12 in the conference would certainly be cruel fate after not being able to compete in the canceled Big Dance last year, but that is the challenge of playing in the nation’s deepest conference.
Even with my low projection for the Nittany Lions this season, though, there are reasons to believe that they could still compete for the NCAA Tournament. Surprisingly enough, this starts with Coach Chambers, who has perhaps received an unnecessary amount of criticism recently. Penn State has finished in the KenPom Top 50 in three straight years largely due to defensive consistency. Continuing this trend would seriously raise PSU’s ceiling for this season:
Offensively, Penn State will once again rely on its talented backcourt to push the pace in transition. The Nittany Lions ranked 50th nationally in offensive tempo last season (16.2 seconds per possession) and return their entire backcourt core of Jamari Wheeler, Myreon Jones, and Myles Dread. Without Stevens as the go-to scorer, PSU could look to run even more this year. Once in the halfcourt, it will be up to Jones to be the primary option this year. He averaged 13.3 efficient points per game (.444/.403/.776) a year ago.
Seth Lundy and Izaiah Brockington are also potential breakout scorers this year. Those two making big strides will be critical for PSU to replicate some of last season’s success. John Harrar could also be huge as the team’s interior presence as a rebounder and defender.
11. Minnesota Golden Gophers | Last Season: 15-16 (8-12 B1G)
Minnesota’s record last season did not reflect the team’s actual level of play. That’s just fact as the Golden Gophers were efficiency darlings despite an under-.500 record. They ended the season ranked at No. 27 on KenPom and were firmly on the bubble throughout the year. At least, until their poor record was too much to overcome, that is. Heading into this coming year, Minnesota is only returning two major contributors but boasts a similar talent level due to a strong incoming group of transfers. With that said, the Gophers should compete for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Marcus Carr is right at the core of this optimism as he is fresh off averaging 15.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 6.6 assists per game last season. With Daniel Oturu taking his talents to the NBA, Carr will become the go-to star for the Gophers and he is ready to carry that burden. He is an excellent all-around offensive threat and his combo of scoring and passing makes him deadly in the pick-and-roll. It also helps that backcourt running mate Gabe Kalscheur will also be taking the court alongside him.
In contrast to the returning backcourt, Minnesota’s entire starting frontcourt could be filled with transfers. Brandon Johnson (Western Michigan) and Liam Robbins (Drake) were both stellar at their previous stops and will be eligible to start at the 4 and 5 spots. Both Gach (Utah) is the other name to watch, though his waiver is yet to be approved. If he is ready to go, then the Gophers’ starting five will be as rock-solid as just about anyone else.
Considering Minnesota ranked 330th nationally in bench minutes last season at 21.9%, their lack of depth (at least on paper) shouldn’t be too much of an issue. If the reserves need to step up, Isaiah Ihnen and Jamal Mashburn Jr. could provide some punch. Tre Williams could be improved as a sophomore as well while David Mutaf can help space the floor as a jump-shooter.
My main concerns for Minnesota are roster integration and the strength of the Big Ten. If Gach receives a waiver to play right away, then the Gophers will likely start three transfers from the opening tip of the season. With fewer “tune-up” games due to COVID-19, there won’t much time for the newcomers to get acclimated to the system. I think they will figure it all out and be a solid team worthy of postseason contention, but the Big Ten is loaded and any weakness will be detrimental.
Minnesota has reached the NCAA Tournament in just two of Coach Pitino’s first seven seasons at the helm. I think he’s a very solid coach, but not in the upper echelon of the conference.
10. Maryland Terrapins | Last Season: 24-7 (14-6 B1G)
Maryland put together its best campaign in recent memory in 2019-20. There’s no doubt about that. Behind the leadership of Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith, the Terrapins lived up to their preseason hype and won a share of the Big Ten regular-season title with a 24-7 (14-6 B1G) record. They finished the year ranked at No. 11 on KenPom and were a lock to land a Top 4 seed at the NCAA Tournament. Yet, the cancelation of the Big Dance ended their hopes of a deep postseason run. The offseason was similarly disastrous as they lost both Cowan and Smith.
Even with four major contributors returning, Maryland will have a hard time replicating success without its stars. The Terps ranked near the bottom of the entire nation in bench minutes (18.8%, 346th) last season and it is thus tough to predict any players that could experience breakouts with increased playing time. In addition to Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell, Aaron Wiggins, and Donta Scott all taking individual strides, a currently hard-to-project supporting cast will need to emerge for Maryland to be successful.
Transfer bigs Galin Smith (Alabama – eligible) and Jairus Hamilton (BC – needs waiver) are a good place to start while rising sophomores Chol Marial and Hakim Hart could be safe bets to play solid minutes. Could Marcus Dockery (No. 215 recruit) be a surprising freshman star in the backcourt? We’ll have to wait to find out. There are a ton of question marks regarding this team, but Coach Turgeon has proven that he knows how to win in the Big Ten:
The Big Ten is extremely deep this season and Maryland will have difficulty maintaining its level of success. With that said, though, it feels disrespectful to place the Terps as low as No. 10 in the preseason rankings. Even with some of their postseason disappointments, you can’t ignore how good they’ve been in the regular season. Let’s just say that I won’t be shocked if Maryland blasts media expectations out of the water.
– Tier 2 –
9. Ohio State Buckeyes | Last Season: 21-10 (11-9 B1G)
Ohio State quickly emerged as an elite team last season. In fact, the Buckeyes were rated as KenPom’s No. 1 overall squad after a neutral-site win over Kentucky in late-December. And while they struggled over the following few weeks, dropping six of seven games, Coach Holtmann’s team got back on track to finish the regular season as a Top 10 team by efficiency metrics (Top 20 in both AdjO and AdjD). This coming campaign will likely signify a bit of a step back after a few big departures, but it’s still safe to assume that Ohio State will remain a contender for an NCAA Tournament bid.
This is largely due to Coach Holtmann’s track record as a defensive maestro. Over nine seasons at a D1 head coach, Holtmann’s defenses have outperformed his offenses on seven occasions. Additionally, his high-major teams have averaged finishing in the Top 35 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. That even includes one outlier year where Butler ranked 97th in the category. Even while losing a strong stopper in Luther Muhammad this offseason, Ohio State should remain rock-solid defensively in 2020-21.
Holtmann’s schemes are excellent but the Buckeyes boast strong individual defenders as well. CJ Walker is superb at the point of attack, Musa Jallow can resume his stopping role after sitting out last year (injury), and incoming transfers Seth Towns (Harvard) and Justice Sueing (Cal) are both well-respected as defenders. Incoming freshman Eugene Brown shouldn’t be overlooked either, as he is a solid lengthy wing defender that can let it fly from distance offensively.
OSU’s frontcourt of E.J. Liddell and Kyle Young might be undersized, but they fit very well alongside each other. Liddell is a talented shot-blocker while Young holds his own underneath as a well-built, physical rebounder. Zed Key is a similar small-ball option while playing Ibrahima Diallo could also give OSU a more traditional look at center. Holtmann may choose to stick with small-ball more often than not, though.
The big question will be how the offense looks in the absence of Kaleb Wesson. The big man led the team in usage rate last season (26.1%) and the offense largely ran through him. Duane Washington is a solid offensive option, but the ceiling of this team is dependent on Sueing and Towns. The two transfers were both excellent at their prior stops but are also coming off injuries. Sueing sat out last season due to transfer rules but his injury also kept him from practicing. Towns, on the other hand, hasn’t played a full college game since 2018.
If they are healthy and look like their old selves, Ohio State will exceed this projection. For the time being, though, there are more Qs regarding the Buckeyes than the four teams ahead of them. That isn’t a major criticism, however, as they still belong as a likely NCAA Tournament team.
8. Indiana Hoosiers | Last Season: 20-12 (9-11 B1G)
Indiana was a difficult team to judge last season. Despite winning 20 games and playing in arguably the nation’s toughest conference, the Hoosiers hovered firmly around the bubble for most of the year. This was largely due to their relatively poor non-conference strength of schedule (198th). They rarely left the confines of Assembly Hall over the first two months. They did play relatively well in their Big Ten schedule, though, and finished at No. 34 on KenPom. On the whole, the season represented a step in the right direction and IU’s strong returning core could push them to a higher finish in 2020-21.
Most notably, Trayce Jackson-Davis is a legitimate preseason contender for the Big Ten Player of the Year award this season. The versatile 6-foot-9 forward posted superb first-year numbers of 13.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game last season. While not a threat from 3-point range, he is an excellent offensive rebounder and does a ton of damage thanks to strong cuts and positioning. TJD should take his post game to another level as a sophomore and he will be the Hoosiers’ go-to scorer and defensive anchor.
Head coach Archie Miller is also bringing back several other rotation pieces from last season. I am especially eager to see Race Thompson reprise his role alongside TJD as the glue-guy “4”. If the Hoosiers choose to go big, they could also turn to Joey Brunk (though spacing becomes an issue in TJD+Brunk lineups). Jerome Hunter might also be the breakout forward star that the Hoosiers need following Justin Smith’s transfer.
IU lost Devonte Green this offseason but is still bringing back Rob Phinisee, Al Durham, and Armaan Franklin. Additionally, five-star Khristian Lander could burst onto the scene as a star. While I am wary to set the bar too high for Lander as it typically takes time for reclass candidates to succeed right away, he is supremely talented. He is a prototype point guard with good size (6-foot-2), shifty ball-handling, and a smooth lefty jumper. Phinisee and Durham are the favorites to start in the backcourt, but Lander should play a ton as well.
He isn’t alone as a potential first-year contributor, though. Anthony Leal could crack the rotation thanks to his smooth perimeter jumper while Jordan Geronimo is a versatile player that could see time either on the wing or as a small-ball 4. Trey Galloway rounds out the class as a two-way wing.
Indiana, once again, isn’t short on talent this season. TJD is already a proven star and there is a strong returning core around him. The big key might be whether or not the Hoosiers can hit threes with any consistency. The program has shot worse than 33% from distance (outside of the national Top 200) in each of its first three seasons under Coach Miller. If they improve in that area, this will easily be an NCAA Tournament team.
7. Purdue Boilermakers | Last Season: 16-15 (9-11 B1G)
Purdue is another team that was far better than its record indicated last season. Despite being slotted at No. 24 in the final KenPom rankings, the Boilermakers were barely above-.500 for the campaign and likely would have missed the NCAA Tournament. Regardless, it was a down season compared to recent Purdue campaigns and the program will be looking to right the ship in 2020-21. They will have to do so without graduating seniors Jahaad Proctor and Evan Boudreaux, as well as surprising outgoing transfers Matt Haarms and Nojel Eastern, though.
Even with those four departures, Purdue has a pretty strong core to work. Trevion Williams, most notably, looks poised to be an All-Big Ten performer this season. The 6-foot-9 big man averaged 11.5 points and 7.6 rebounds per game last season while boasting an enormous 30.6% usage rate. He proved himself as a sophomore and should be ready to be the star for the Boilermakers in 2020-21. If there is one program that I feel comfortable with trusting their ability to develop bigs, it is Purdue. Their recent track record is rock-solid, particularly with players like Williams (see Swanigan, Caleb).
Additionally, the backcourt duo of Eric Hunter Jr. and Sasha Stefanovic is one of the more underrated in the nation. The two rising juniors showed flashes of excellence last season and will be the go-to perimeter shot-makers. Stefanovic is terrific as an off-movement shooter and Hunter is a necessary shot-creator. Sophomore Isaiah Thompson should also play big minutes in the backcourt as a strong 3-point threat.
Those four will be at the core of Purdue’s rotation for this season but they aren’t alone, either. Aaron Wheeler struggled to live up to the hype of being a potential breakout star last season but he is still a valuable contributor with great size at 6-foot-9. Brandon Newman and Mason Gillis are both coming off redshirt years and are wildcards as a result. Newman is a former four-star recruit and Gillis could rediscover his potential now that he is healthy.
Personally, though, I love Purdue’s true freshmen. Jaden Ivey, most notably, could be a stud from Day 1. He is the type of go-to scorer that has thrived in Purdue’s system in the past. He likely won’t fill a starring role as a freshman but could be a valuable spark sixth man. Ethan Morton is a fellow Top 100 addition and he is a high-level playmaker with great size at 6-foot-6. He might actually be the best passer on the roster. Zach Edey can also bring lots of size at 7-foot-3 if necessary.
The lack of a true home-court advantage in 2020-21 is another potential concern for Purdue. Home teams losing their “sixth men” will be challenging for everyone, but it could impact Purdue more than most. That isn’t a slight, either, but rather a testament to their tremendous fanbase. Per Haslametrics, Purdue’s away-from-home rating (-8.41) ranked 342nd in the entire nation last year. As dominant as the Boilermakers were in Mackey Arena, they were conversely terrible outside of the venue.
6. Michigan Wolverines | Last Season: 19-12 (10-10 B1G)
Year 1 of the Juwan Howard era in Ann Arbor was a resounding success, in my opinion. Despite having to replace Ignas Brazdeikis, Charles Matthews, and Jordan Poole, as well as the highly successful John Beilein, the Wolverines were nationally ranked throughout the majority of the year. Poised floor general Zavier Simpson was a huge part of this success as he led an efficient offensive unit that turned the ball over the 11th-lowest rate in the country (15.3%). Jon Teske was similarly effective on both ends of the floor as he anchored a Top 30 defense with the 97th-best individual block rate nationally.
Simpson and Teske both graduated this offseason, though, leaving Coach Howard with two massive holes to fill in the rotation. On the bright side, the Wolverines are bringing back three double-digit scorers. This includes steady bucket-getter Isaiah Livers (hopefully completely healthy), as well as the criminally underrated off-guard Eli Brooks. These two will reprise their full-time starting jobs and they immediately give the Wolverines some proven firepower offensively.
Additionally, Franz Wagner will be returning for his sophomore year. The 6-foot-9 wing averaged 10.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game last season. Wagner only shot 31.1% from distance last season despite being known for his smooth shot from distance. If he can raise that efficiency while remaining excellent inside the arc (61.0% on 2PA), he will emerge as Michigan’s top scoring option. The German wing is an excellent self-creator and can get it done at all three levels.
Even with Livers and Wagner as presumed stars this season, the problem of replacing Simpson/Teske remains. Simpson was the consummate point guard for the Wolverines and replicating his superb playmaking will be essentially impossible. Coach Howard will have to adjust his offensive scheme without his pick-and-roll maestro, but there are a few players ready to step up.
Brooks appears to be the most logical option considering his experience with the program, but expect Columbia grad transfer Mike Smith to see his fair share running the offense as well. Smith averaged 22.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game last season with the Lions. Incoming freshman Zeb Jackson likely won’t be a primary ball-handler but he is another solid backcourt option. The 6-foot-5 combo guard feels like a “plug-and-play” fit that makes positive plays regardless of role.
In the frontcourt, Brandon Johns Jr. will reprise a solid role at the “4” while Austin Davis and incoming five-star freshman Hunter Dickinson will fight for Teske’s starting spot. Davis is the more experienced player as he is entering his fifth year with the program. He is a solid rebounder and shot 69.3% from the field in 10.7 minutes per game last season.
Dickinson, though, is a huge presence at 7-foot-1 with a versatile skillset. He is a strong low-post option, can face-up out to mid-range, passes well for his size, and eats up space in the paint defensively. Dickinson was extremely consistent throughout his high school and AAU career. I expect he will be a big-time contributor from Day 1 in college. Fellow newcomers Chaundee Brown (if he receives a waiver) and Terrance Williams could also help in the frontcourt.
Michigan will have no shortage of talent, as well as positional size, this season. Losing Simpson and Teske shouldn’t be overlooked, but I am a really big fan of this roster. Coach Howard put together a strong first season in 2019-20 and this year should be a strong encore performance.
5. Rutgers Scarlet Knights | Last Season: 20-11 (11-9 B1G)
Let’s talk about Steve Pikiell for a second. Prior to his hiring at Rutgers, the program was mired in a long stretch of struggles. The Scarlet Knights had not made an NCAA Tournament appearance since 1990-91 and posted an average KenPom finish of 142.6 in the 15 years before Pikiell’s arrival. And while I understand that Rutgers still hasn’t officially reached the Big Dance under Coach Pikiell, the 2019-20 team was a lock. They were featured in all 97 projected fields on the Bracket Matrix with an average seed of 9.23. COVID-19 ended a great season for the program.
Even without the postseason, though, Coach Pikiell’s progress should inspire confidence that Rutgers might be rising. The Scarlet Knights have improved across the board in every recent campaign and a strong returning core sets them up to be a possible Top 25 team in 2020-21. They bring back offensive leaders, an underrated defensive anchor, and solid depth.
Considering Rutgers ranked sixth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, the return of interior anchor Myles Johnson is exceptionally important. The 6-foot-11 big man was a dominant force on the defensive end as a sophomore, exhibiting a 7.6% block rate and ranking high in rebounding rate on both ends of the floor. He also contributed solidly as a scorer at 7.8 points per game on 60.2% shooting from the field. Johnson was an underrated star for Rutgers last year.
Offensively, look no further than returning leading scorers Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. from last season. The senior Baker is well-known for his bucket-getting in the clutch and is also a solid creator for others. Harper, on the other hand, was a breakout star as he dropped in 12.1 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Rutgers’ slow pace and defensive dominance led to lower offensive numbers but Baker and Harper can score.
The Scarlet Knights are also returning plenty of pieces from their supporting cast. Montez Mathis and Caleb McConnell, most notably, both started their fair share of games last season and should reprise big roles. Paul Mulcahy and Jacob Young are also solid depth pieces that can supply ~20 minutes per game.
Lastly, incoming freshman Cliff Omoruyi should fill an instant role in the frontcourt. The No. 48 overall recruit will likely come off the bench but can help fill Shaq Carter’s spot in the rotation. Omoruyi brings a well-built 6-foot-10 frame to the court and should be a defensive terror. It is easy to see how he can fit with this roster.
Rutgers was a very strong team a season ago and has the pieces to build on that success. The Scarlet Knights should receive many votes in the AP preseason Top 25 poll…and deservedly so. Similar to Purdue, though, they will need to sort out issues of playing without home-court advantage. They ranked 320th nationally in away-from-home performance last year.
– Tier 1 –
4. Iowa Hawkeyes | Last Season: 20-11 (11-9 B1G)
Iowa was a Top 25 team throughout last season and is bringing back just about everyone from that roster. Most importantly, preseason National Player of the Year frontrunner Luka Garza will be back in Iowa City. Garza is clearly one of the best players in the country and he made that clear last season while averaging 23.9 efficient points (.542/.358/.651), 9.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game. His return single-handedly raises the expectations for the Hawkeyes.
He will also be surrounded by the majority of his same supporting cast from last season. Joe Wieskamp is the most notable as the possible #2 star this season while CJ Fredrick, Connor McCaffery, and Joe Toussaint will also be back after solid seasons. Furthermore, the Hawkeyes will be getting back both Jordan Bohannon and Jack Nunge after both missed most of last season due to injuries. Bohannon was a big-time player before his injury and is an underrated returner.
Iowa is loaded offensively, to put it simply. That is no secret and it’s reasonable to think that the Hawkeyes could own the nation’s best offense in 2020-21. But will they be able to stop anyone? That is the real question that Coach McCaffery and Co. will need to answer. Without significant improvement on that end, it’s hard to imagine the Hawkeyes living up to lofty preseason expectations.
After all, how much better can their offense really be than it was last season? Iowa already ranked fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency and there isn’t that much room for improvement as a result. For the Hawkeyes to become a title contender, they will need to drastically improve on what was barely a Top 100 defense. For reference, only eight Top 10 teams in the entire KenPom era (19 seasons) have finished with defenses outside of the Top 50.
While returning a ton of talent is a great thing, their roster does not inspire confidence in projecting substantial defensive improvements. I would love to be proved wrong and see the Hawkeyes breakthrough as a definite Top 10 team, but I’m not quite as optimistic as others. We will have to wait and see. Their offense will make them very dangerous regardless, but I’m not 100% sold.
3. Wisconsin Badgers | Last Season: 20-11 (14-6 B1G)
Wisconsin ended last season on a tear, winning eight straight to secure a share of the Big Ten title. The team’s impressive finish came after losing four of their previous six games to fall toward the bubble (they were 13-10 at the time). As a result of the strong finish, Greg Gard received the Big Ten Coach of the Year award. Now, looking ahead to this coming year, the Badgers are set to face sky-high expectations with four returning starters and increased depth thanks to a strong incoming recruiting class.
I am, though, a tad lower on the Badgers than many others for this campaign. I have already written about my concerns regarding Wisconsin, but I will summarize by saying that I don’t believe their incredibly hot 3-point shooting to end last season is sustainable enough to warrant being a preseason national title contender. For a quick overview, here is how each of Wisconsin’s main shooters’ career percentages vs. their final eight games of last season:
The fact is that Wisconsin was unexpectedly *elite* from distance to end that campaign. The Badgers shot 41.0% over their final eight games on a very high volume of 26.3 attempts per game. They hit 33.0% over the previous 23 contents (13-10 record). It’s reasonable to expect that they will return to shooting in the mid-30s in 2020-21. That wouldn’t be a bad outcome, though.
Even if the Badgers return to a normal 3P% level, they will still be a very good team. I still have them ranked safely in my preseason Top 25 (No. 11) and they should be a lock to reach the NCAA Tournament for the 22nd time in 23 years. Coach Gard has a great group to work with this year and the program is built on consistency. They will have a full season of the Potter/Reuvers duo this time around, and their veteran backcourt is still intact with Trice/Davison. Aleem Ford will fill out their projected all-senior starting lineup.
Their depth is a bit of a wildcard considering underclassmen will fill most reserve roles. Rising sophomore Tyler Wahl is a prototypical “glue guy” and freshmen will have their opportunities to crack the rotation. Johnny Davis figures to be one of the primary backcourt reserves while Ben Carlson should spell Potter/Reuvers on occasion. Wisconsin’s recruiting class is one of the program’s best-ever on paper and will be the “future” in Madison.
2. Michigan State Spartans | Last Season: 22-9 (14-6 B1G)
Michigan State was unsurprisingly excellent last season, winning 20+ games and a share of the Big Ten regular-season title. This kind of success has become the norm under Tom Izzo and the fanbase is expecting similar results in 2020-21. Replacing stars Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman will be nearly impossible, but there is plenty of returning talent on this roster and the program is also bringing in a trio of solid newcomers. Even though there isn’t an obvious “go-to” leader on paper, the Spartans are balanced, talented, and deep.
Rocket Watts is perhaps the most important returner as he has massive star potential heading into his sophomore year. The 6-foot-2 guard put together a solid campaign a year ago but was particularly excellent down the stretch. He averaged 17.8 points per game over MSU’s final four contests and flashed his potential stardom during that stretch, albeit in a small sample size. If he starts connecting from three at a better rate (28.1% as a FR), he can be their star.
It also helps that Watts will be joined in the backcourt by senior Joshua Langford. The 6-foot-5 guard missed all of last season due to injury but averaged 15.0 points as Winston’s running mate during the 2018-19 season. His return will hopefully give the Spartans another potent scorer as well as a poised leader in big moments if he can return to close to his prior form. Well-built incoming freshman AJ Hoggard should also see his fair share of minutes in the backcourt.
Coach Izzo will look to fill his wing/forward spots with rising juniors that are all breakout candidates. Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown both showed flashes of excellence last season and Joey Hauser (Marquette transfer) could be a star after sitting out last season. Hauser can be a legitimate small-ball “4” with great floor-spacing ability. With those three, as well as sophomore Malik Hall, there should be no shortage of offensive firepower on the wing.
Replacing Tillman at the “5”, though, will be very difficult. There are simply not many players that can replicate his production as a scorer (13.7 points on 55.0% shooting), rebounder (10.3 boards per game), and defender (3.3 steals+blocks). He was everywhere on the court. To counteract his loss, Michigan State will likely turn to a committee of returners Marcus Bingham and Thomas Kithier to go with four-star freshman Mady Sissoko. At the very least, the Spartans will have options to fill this void.
On the whole, Michigan State might struggle early on in 2020-21 to adjust to playing without Winston. He was an all-time great for the program over four years and will not be easily forgotten, let alone replaced. But, as Coach Izzo teams tend to do, I think the Spartans will gain momentum as the season goes on before eventually emerging as a favorite to make a deep postseason run.
1. Illinois Fighting Illinois | Last Season: 21-10 (13-7 B1G)
Illinois easily experienced the best offseason of any program in the nation. With Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn both returning to Champaign, the Fighting Illini immediately skyrocketed into the preseason national title conversation. To summarize this optimism, they boast two proven stars, a solid supporting cast, and are bringing in a highly-regarded recruiting class as well. This is clearly head coach Brad Underwood‘s best roster and expectations are high.
Illinois was quite balanced last season with the 38th best offense and 35th-best defense by adjusted efficiency measures. With most of their core returning, it is reasonable to expect similar results this time around. Dosunmu and Cockburn are the stars, but Giorgi Bezhanishvili is a strong big man option while Da’Monte Williams could be poised to fill Andres Feliz’s role as a small-ball 4. The team is not without weaknesses, though.
In fact, the big key for the Illini this season will be how well they connect from 3-point range. Inefficiency from beyond the arc was already one of Illinois’ biggest issues last season as they shot 30.3% (310th nationally) on a low number of attempts but the program then lost Alan Griffin (41.6 percent) to transfer this offseason. Without him, Illinois will need to turn a few newcomers to hopefully solve its perimeter shooting problem.
While 3-point woes cannot be solved by just one addition, I am high on Adam Miller‘s potential. The 6-foot-3 freshman out of Morgan Park is highly-regard for his three-level shot-making and he should emerge as a legitimate floor-spacer right away for the Illini. Many talented freshmen are joining the Big Ten this season but Miller is on my shortlist for being the most impactful. (Andre Curbelo and Coleman Hawkins could be fellow impact freshmen as well. Curbelo is a highly-touted lead guard while Hawkins is as underrated as any recruit nationally).
Trent Frazier returning to his prior form from distance would also greatly impact Illinois’ offensive efficiency. The returning senior guard shot just 30.9% from three as a junior after connecting on 40.6% of those attempts during the prior campaign – both on high volume. Add in newcomers Jacob Gradison (Holy Cross) and Austin Hutcherson (DIII) to the mix as fellow shooters and there are clear improvements in terms of shooting personnel this year.
With more adequate spacing, Illinois’ offense could take a big jump in 2020-21. I am optimistic about that possibility and it could lead to the Illini emerging as a national title contender.
Lukas Harkins is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com and covers the nation with rankings, bracketology, analysis, and recruiting breakdowns. He is currently a Rockin’ 25 voter and is credentialed media for Butler. He previously worked as one of the site experts at Busting Brackets. Harkins graduated from Butler University in 2019 and majored in Healthcare and Business. Originally from Wisconsin.