College basketball: Can Michigan State rise to the top of the Big Ten? Here's 14 conference predictions
The Big Ten is still searching for the first NCAA title since 2000, but played for it last April when Michigan lost to Villanova.
While it’s premature to predict if there is another title chaser in the mix (few, if any, had Michigan as that team as late as January), the Big Ten should be much deeper this season than the four bids that made the NCAAs last season.
Some key experience is gone, but the overall balance is back. Programs like Nebraska and Penn State also learned last year that the key to earning a spot in the tournament is to win early. If these two teams had strung together more consistent wins throughout the entirety of the season, perhaps the Big Ten could have had five or six schools represented in the NCAA tournament.
Here are 14 storylines to follow in the Big Ten:
1. How soon before Marcus Bingham becomes a star? The Spartans bring back Nick Ward inside to give Tom Izzo a necessary anchor in the post. But Bingham could be the bust-out stud, much like Jaren Jackson Jr. was a year ago. The 6-11 freshman can do a bit of everything and will be tested early and often yet again. The Spartans have a brutal slate of games against Kansas in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis, UCLA in Las Vegas (and then either North Carolina or Texas), at Florida and at Louisville in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Once Bingham becomes a major factor, then the Spartans will have a frontcourt that will be tough to matchup with in March.
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2. What can Jordan Poole do for an encore? Poole will forever be in Michigan/NCAA tournament lore for his game-winning 3-point shot to beat Houston. That is a lifelong memory. But for Poole to have a complete career at Michigan, he will have to be much more of a consistent impact player. He’s got his chance this season. Charles Matthews will take the brunt of the leadership and attention at times, but Poole can still shine. He had 10 games with 10 or more points, and he should be able to put up those kinds of numbers every game this year. He has the potential to average double than the six points per game he put up last season. He made 37 percent of his 3s, and with Duncan Robinson gone, he will need to make a bit more. He had his moments when he made five 3s against Indiana. And while 40 of his 75 baskets were on 3s, driving to the hoop will open up even more shots for him. He’s playing for one of the best developmental coaches of all time. So this should be a breakthrough season.
3. How much of a head start will Nebraska have toward a bid prior to the Big Ten schedule? A ton. The Huskers whiffed on multiple chances to build a strong resume last season, banking on a fourth-place, 13-Big Ten win season to push them across the finish line. It didn’t happen. Nebraska won’t waste the opportunities this season. The Huskers are arguably the most experienced team returning to the Big Ten. The schedule isn’t daunting, and is rather more than manageable. Seton Hall is beatable early, especially at home, when the Pirates come for the Gavitt Games. The two games at the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City should be Nebraska wins against Missouri State and then either USC or Texas Tech. Beating Clemson on the road in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge will be the most crucial non-conference game and a win there would be significant for March. And a neutral-site game against Oklahoma State in Sioux Falls, S.D., could prove pivotal, too. I’ll go out and say Nebraska goes 4-1 at the worst in these five key games.
4. What are the chances Carsen Edwards is the national player of the year? Well, he’s got to get Big Ten accolades first. And that will come with plenty of competition from Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ and possibly Indiana’s Juwan Morgan. But he can do it. Edwards will have the ball in his hands a ton. He will be the focal point for Purdue. And while the Boilermakers did lose a lot of talent from last season, they still have enough left around Edwards to be an NCAA tournament team. He’s that good and could have a Kemba Walker-like season for the Boilermakers, leading Purdue past its expectations. Edwards should be an all-American and in the mix for all national player of the year awards. Book it.
5. How will Romeo Langford handle the massive expectations at Indiana? Langford’s choice of Indiana was a happening in the state. But let’s not make him a savior, he doesn’t need to be one for the team to be successful. Indiana wasn’t that far off last season from making the NCAA tournament, and putting undue pressure on him to take the Hoosiers to the Final Four wouldn’t be right. Juwan Morgan is back, and he could be the Big Ten player of the year. Langford will be counted on to produce. No doubt. But he doesn’t have to be dominant. It took months for Indiana’s players to buy in defensively. That’s what Archie Miller has been coveting from the Hoosiers since he arrived. Everyone knows Langford can score. If he is all-in defensively for Miller, then the length of his stay can be a home run.
6. How will Brad Davison, Kobe King and D’Mitrik Trice all mesh for Wisconsin? King and Trice missed most of last season, elevating Davison into a starring role on the perimeter. Davison, meanwhile, had to play the majority of the season with a shoulder injury that ultimately needed surgery in the offseason. Given this, and the return of these three players, the season actually should go swimmingly well. King and Trice are both talented enough to have a major impact on this team at both ends. But they aren’t as vocal as Davison, whose role will continue to grow. But the leadership, even from a sophomore, won’t be an issue. He covets being the voice of this team. Even Ethan Happ, who has a chance to be national player of the year, let alone Big Ten player of the year, doesn’t love being the vocal one. If the Badgers are healthy then there is no reason why they can’t be back in the NCAA tournament to start another near-two-decade streak.
7. What are the chances Minnesota will be back to form? Pretty good. The Gophers were decimated by injuries and the suspension of Reggie Lynch. The season went completely sideways after being a legitimate top 15 team in November. Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino showed great patience in getting through a season that had so many expectations but ended with a thud. The Gophers have one of the best two-way players in Jordan Murphy. Amir Coffey and Eric Curry are back. Dupree McBrayer is returning. Nate Mason’s eligibility is over, and he will be a huge absence. But having one full spring and summer of getting healthy and re-setting this team gives everyone hope that the Gophers will be back in the mix for a bid to the NCAA tournament.
8. How soon will Bruno Fernando be a household name? It should come sooner rather than later. Fernando declared for the NBA draft but then came back to Maryland where he should shine. Maryland coach Mark Turgeon has been raving about Fernando’s development, especially on the offensive end. He’s becoming much more than a rim protector and a ferocious dunker. The 1-2 punch of Fernando inside and Anthony Cowan on the outside should always keep Maryland in the mix, regardless of the opponent. This Maryland team will miss Kevin Huerter tremendously, especially his ability to disrupt an opponent with stop-and-pop, pull-up transition 3s. But few teams will have the force of Fernando inside, making him a difficult matchup.
9. How close is Tyler Cook to being a star? Well, he should be for Iowa this coming season and be the reason that they are in the mix for the postseason. Cook was a double-figure scorer 44 times in his career, and. he should be in double figures every game this season. He’s going to have the ball in his hands quite a bit, and with good reason. He can make things happen for the Hawkeyes. Peter Jok was the offensive juggernaut for the Hawkeyes two seasons ago. Cook should be ready to elevate even more as a junior and mirror Jok. The Hawkeyes issue during the past season has been inconsistency on the defensive end. There should be enough buy in from Iowa to mute that this season. At least that’s the hope going into this season.
10. What are the chances Penn State could have one of the best frontcourts in the Big Ten? Well, the combination of Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins gives the Nittany Lions a chance. Sure, replacing Tony Carr is going to be a massive undertaking. But the Nittany Lions will be just as difficult an opposing matchup up front. The momentum of the NIT title for Penn State cannot be understated. The contract extension for Pat Chambers is also a huge plus. This program needs consistency. And while losing a star in Carr hurts, it doesn’t mean that there is any reason to think the program will fade away. The prediction is simply a number to climb up from, not to settle for, and Penn State will be a tough opponent, regardless of venue because the talent is certainly still plentiful.
11. Who will be the vocal leaders at Ohio State? Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate, as well as Andrew Dakich, held that role last season. They are all gone. C.J. Jackson may be the guy this season after talking to him two weeks ago. He’s got the right attitude and is all in with Chris Holtmann. The Buckeyes are on a European trip and roles are being defined while they are overseas. And while who is producing to replace the production of Bates-Diop and Tate will be a hot topic, Holtmann shouldn’t have to worry about whose voice he will hear. Jackson should be his extension on the floor. He’s ready for the role.
12. What will Illinois look like next season? Check out my conversations with Brad Underwood in my podcast last week. Listen to him and you will hear how the Illini will be one of the hardest working, disruptive teams. Underwood is intense but also has a tremendous track record of success. He will get this program turned around. He will get buy-in. And he has a star in Trent Frazier. That will help on the offensive end. Underwood is a student of analytics, and his players are well aware they won’t get in the game unless they are all in on how they will contribute per possession.
13. What will Northwestern 2.0 look like this season? The Wildcats had a historic run two seasons ago to their first-ever NCAA tournament. Last season, the combination of handling success, injuries, and playing off campus at Allstate Arena near O’Hare, created a disappointing season. There is a sense of a re-start in Evanston. The new Welsh Ryan Arena should be a destination. And Chris Collins now has his second biggest challenge — to get the Wildcats back to the NCAA tournament. I have no doubt that Collins can get it done sooner than later.
14. How will Rutgers capitalize on the momentum from the Big Ten tournament at Madison Square Garden? Compare Rutgers’ fans and St. John’s the week later in the Big East tournament, and it wasn’t close. Now, it could be the timing of the games (night vs. day) and the novelty of having Rutgers at MSG. Still, Rutgers created a buzz that the Big Ten tournament needed. Steve Pikiell has this program heading in the right direction. I know, picking them last doesn’t make it seem like they do, but there’s no reason to believe the Scarlet Knights won’t make a jump next season.
NCAA bound: Michigan State, Michigan, Nebraska, Purdue, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota.
On the bubble: Maryland, Iowa, Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois.
Here's our summer Big Ten power rankings:
- Michigan State
- Penn State
- Ohio State
Our picks for the All-Big Ten first team:
Carsen Edwards, Purdue
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
James Palmer Jr., Nebraska
Charles Matthews, Michigan
Juwan Morgan, Indiana