The 2020-21 season is finally upon us. After months of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, we are just a few days away from teams across the country tipping off for the first time since March. While the season is starting a bit later than normal (and under unforeseen circumstances with several games being without fans), college basketball is still college basketball.
And as long as college hoops are being played, the Big Ten will be consistently mentioned among the best conferences in America. Even after losing a ton of talent from last year, the conference is still loaded with stars. Players like Luka Garza, Ayo Dosunmu, and Kofi Cockburn (among others) all had opportunities to head to the NBA this offseason but elected to return to school.
Illinois, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Iowa are the headlining teams for the Big Ten heading into this year. All four are ranked in the AP preseason Top 25 and are considered to be possible contenders for the national title. There is also plenty of depth in the league behind them.
Now, as the season approaches quickly, let’s take a deep dive into the Big Ten. This preview will include team-by-team breakdowns, projected rankings, key questions, stars to watch, and awards predictions.
14. nebraska cornhuskers
Last season: 7-25 (2-18 Conf); No. 180 in DPI
Head coach: Fred Hoiberg (2nd year with school)
Key returners: Thorir Thorbjarnson, Yvan Ouedraogo
Notable newcomers: Trey McGowens, Dalano Banton, Teddy Allen
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. Additionally, Dalano Banton should be a welcome addition to the backcourt. 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 Conf); No. 154 in DPI
Head coach: Chris Collins (8th year with school)
Key returners: Boo Buie, Miller Kopp, Ryan Young
Notable newcomers: Chase Audige, Ty Berry, Matt Nicholson
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 record. 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.