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Who is Northwestern basketball’s biggest competition for the Big Ten title?

Breaking down the three other Big Ten teams in the preseason polls.

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NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

The headline here is misleading — I don’t think Northwestern is going to win the Big Ten this year. The purpose of this article is to take a look at the top tier of the conference as the season approaches. Characterizing the cream of the crop in the Big Ten is a difficult task in its own right — at least seven teams, including Northwestern, have a credible claim at the top tier. But, excluding the No. 19/20 Wildcats, only three other conference foes are ranked in the preseason AP and Coaches polls. Let’s take a look at those three in some detail.

Michigan State Spartans

Preseason AP/Coaches polls rank: 2/2

Preseason KenPom rank: 10

2016/17 record: 20-15, 10-8 Big Ten

Any discussion about Michigan State basketball is going to start with forward Miles Bridges. Following an outstanding season across the board, Bridges spurned the NBA Draft to return for his sophomore season in East Lansing. Sports Illustrated has Bridges projected to be the National Player of the Year, and the preseason Big Ten media poll pegged Bridges as the unanimous conference player of the year. Bridges is joined in East Lansing by the remainder of his 2016 classmates that made up Michigan State’s highly-regarded recruiting group: guards Cassius Winston and Josh Langford and forward Nick Ward. Throw in 2017 five-star big man Jaren Jackson Jr., who put up 14 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 (yes, 8) blocks in an exhibition win last week, and the Spartans clearly do not want for talent. Whether or not the group will gel on the floor remains to be seen, but Tom Izzo’s squad is head and shoulders ahead of the rest of the Big Ten in terms of pedigree and is one of the favorites to compete for a national title this season.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Preseason AP/Coaches polls rank: 15/15

Preseason KenPom rank: 36

2016/17 record: 24-10, 11-7

Much like Northwestern, all eyes will be on Minnesota to take the next step following a successful season. The Golden Gophers increased their win total by 16 games in 2016-17, but a disappointing loss to Middle Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament threw a wet blanket over the season. With four returning starters, how will they continue to build? Central to Minnesota’s ceiling in 2017-18 will be the development of wing Amir Coffey. During his freshman season, Coffey put up 12.3 points per game en route to picking up All-Freshman team honors. If Coffey can develop into a knockdown three-point shooter, there’s a good chance he becomes an All-Big Ten player like the media projected, and Minnesota can replicate its success from last season. Nate Mason is Bryant McIntosh’s primary competition for the role of top Big Ten point guard, and Reggie Lynch and Jordan Murphy anchor a solid frontcourt. Expectations are higher for the Golden Gophers — can they exceed them again?

Purdue Boilermakers

Preseason AP/Coaches polls rank: 20/21

Preseason KenPom rank: 17

2016/17 record: 27-8, 14-4

Losing the Big Ten Player of the Year is a cause for significant concern, but Purdue has the pieces (almost everyone else is back) to weather Caleb Swanigan’s departure to the NBA and potentially defend its crown. Stepping into the void will be Isaac Haas, a 7-foot-2, 290-pound mountain of a center who averaged 12.6 points and 5 rebounds per game. Haas has trouble staying on the court because of fouls, and the senior played only 19.5 minutes per game last season. However, Matt Haarms could prove to be a viable backup. At 7-foot-3, the redshirt freshman has range beyond the arc and put up 21 points in a scrimmage this month. Rounding out the frontcourt is Vince Edwards, who has developed into one of the best stretch fours in the country. Carsen Edwards, P.J. Thompson, and Dakota Mathias highlight a sharpshooting backcourt. Expect Evanston native Nojel Eastern to figure into the mix during his freshman year. Purdue may not have the talent of Michigan State, but another Big Ten title is not out of the question for the Boilermakers.

The second tier (AP vote-receivers)

Wisconsin (31 in KenPom)

Michigan (32)

Maryland (41)

Stay on the lookout for a full preseason Big Ten Power Rankings later this week.