Constructing Big Ten basketball power rankings in mid-April isn’t exactly a science. The NBA Draft is weeks away and many transfers are incomplete. Players like Indiana’s Thomas Bryant and Michigan’s D.J. Wilson have yet to make up their mind about whether to go pro or not and likely won’t do so until late May, making forecasting their team’s fortunes for next season difficult.
Because of the uncertainty regarding the NBA Draft and the transfer markets, I opted to separate the Big Ten into three tiers. The rankings assigned within the tiers are fluid, but I see Tier One as the primary conference championship contenders. Tier Two represents the middle class. Tier Three is the basement. Let’s do it.
1. Michigan State Spartans (20-15, 10-8 Big Ten)
Hindered by injury and a brutal non-conference schedule, the Spartans stumbled to a 10-8 record in Big Ten play and a second round exit in the NCAA Tournament. For the second straight year, expectations will be high for Tom Izzo’s young squad. Freshman of the Year Miles Bridges eschewed the draft for his sophomore season in East Lansing, and he will be joined by fellow freshmen standouts Nick Ward and Joshua Langford. Another premier recruit class will bolster the Spartans, led by power forward Jaren Jackson, the conference’s only five-star recruit according to 247Sports.com. To put it simply, Michigan State has more talent than almost any other school in the Big Ten. Development, coaching, and better luck could mean a Big Ten title.
2. Minnesota Golden Gophers (24-10, 11-7)
Richard Pitino engineered an incredible turnaround in 2016-17 as the Golden Gophers finished fourth in the conference and earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament after winning just eight games the previous year. The challenge will be building on that success. Minnesota returns four starters, highlighted by Nate Mason, an all-Big Ten selection and perhaps the best returning point guard in the league. The Golden Gophers’ defense is anchored by Defensive Player of the Year Reggie Lynch, who swatted 3.5 shots per game last year. Four star point guard Isaiah Washington headlines the 2017 recruiting class and should see immediate playing time as Mason’s backup. Minnesota will be deep and experienced, setting the stage for another successful year.
3. Purdue Boilermakers (27-8, 14-4)
The reigning Big Ten champions, Purdue’s ability to repeat will be characterized by the draft decisions of Vince Edwards and Isaac Haas. The frontcourt duo has the ability to replace Big Ten Player of the Year Caleb Swanigan in the post with Edwards’ range out to the three point line and Haas’ incredible size. Should Edwards sign with an agent and go pro, incoming freshman Nojel Eastern has the ability to slide in as a small-ball four. Backcourt starters P.J. Thompson and Carsen Edwards return, as does sharpshooter Dakota Mathias. Swanigan’s role in the Boilermaker’s success last season cannot be overstated, but the groundwork for another competitive Big Ten season is there.
4. Northwestern Wildcats (24-12, 10-8)
Did you know Northwestern actually did make the NCAA Tournament for the first time? Amazing, right? The Wildcats will reload, return four starters including seniors-to-be Scottie Lindsey and Bryant McIntosh, both of whom earned all-conference honors last season. Sanjay Lumpkin is the biggest loss, but head coach Chris Collins will hope Vic Law evolves into Northwestern’s newest defensive stopper. Aaron Falzon and Rapolas Ivanauskas both return from injury to bolster the Wildcats’ wing depth. Returning all but two rotation players, the team will have to deal with expectations for the first time in while, and the hope in Evanston is that this team did not peak too early.
5. Wisconsin Badgers (27-10, 12-6)
Given all the talent Wisconsin loses this offseason, it’s hard to justify placing the Badgers in the conference’s top tier aside for one reason: It’s Wisconsin. Imagining Wisconsin in the bottom half of the conference is difficult, probably because it hasn’t happened since 1998. The Badgers lose four starters to graduation and Jordan Hill transferring, but they still have Ethan Happ, an All-Big Ten First Team selection and the favorite for Player of the Year next year. Four-star big man Nathan Reuvers highlights a top-25 recruiting class, while D’Mitrik Trice and Khalil Iverson will be expected to expand their roles in the backcourt. Depth will certainly be an issue in Madison next year, but it’s hard to count the Badgers out.
*6. Michigan Wolverines (26-12, 10-8)
(*A Tier One team depending on how the draft goes.)
The darlings of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, John Beilein’s Michigan program has lots of momentum but a hazy outlook for the 2017-18 season. Forwards Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson declared for the NBA Draft but did not sign agents. If they return, Michigan will have a shot at the Big Ten title. If not, the Wolverines will have lost four starters and 68.8 percent of their scoring. Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews and former three-star forward Austin Davis return from redshirt seasons to join a solid recruiting class and rotation players Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rakhman and Duncan Robinson. However, don’t expect a return to the second weekend of the tournament without the help of Wagner and Wilson.
7. Indiana Hoosiers (18-16, 7-11)
After early wins over Kansas and North Carolina, Indiana tumbled to the lower-third of the Big Ten, costing Tom Crean his job and college basketball fans hundreds of memes with his departure. Indiana’s fortunes will likely be decided by whether Robert Johnson, James Blackmon, and Thomas Bryant join OG Anunoby in declaring for the NBA Draft. The trio, which represented 53% of IU’s scoring in 2016-17, all declared for the draft but opted against signing agents, giving them until May 24 to make a final decision.
Bryant is the likeliest to go pro, at least according to DraftExpress, but the jury is still out for Blackmon and Johnson. Whatever the case, new head coach Archie Miller retained all of Indiana’s strong recruiting class, and four-star forwards Justin Smith and Clifton Moore should get some early run if Bryant and Johnson opt for the draft. Indiana’s prospects for 2017-18 will be bolstered by several experienced returners in Josh Newkirk, De’Ron Davis and Juwan Morgan. If even one of Johnson or Blackmon returns, Indiana could vault into the upper echelon of the Big Ten once again.
8. Maryland Terrapins (24-9, 12-6)
Maryland will need to fill a Melo Trimble-sized hole in the program, as the junior chose to forego his final year of eligibility and enter the NBA Draft. With junior Jaylen Brantley deciding to transfer, Maryland will be considerably younger next season. That’s not to say they will be inexperienced, however. Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter, and Justin Jackson all return as second-year starters having combined for 40 percent of Maryland’s scoring during their freshman season. Michal Cekovsky and Ivan Bender bring depth to the frontcourt, replacing departed senior Damonte Dodd. Immediately eligible Duke graduate transfer Sean Obi will also help fill the void left by Dodd. This team could be competitive right away, but it could also be mediocre.
9. Iowa Hawkeyes (19-15, 10-8)
Iowa missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013, but 2017 will be remembered as a critical rebuilding year. Aside from All Big-Ten First Team selection Peter Jok, the Hawkeyes started four freshmen by the end of the season, all of whom will reprise their roles in 2017-18. Point guard Jordan Bohannon had three consecutive double-doubles to end the season and improved throughout the year. Bohannon and forward Tyler Cook were both named to the All-Big Ten Freshman team. Also returning is redshirt junior Nick Baer, who earned Sixth Man of the Year honors. With Jok the only major loss, Iowa has the potential to rise in the Big Ten standings if its young talents continue to mesh. However, Iowa could also be terrible. We shall see.
10. Ohio State Buckeyes (17-15, 7-11)
With expectations low after a poor 2016-17 season, Ohio State could surprise some people this winter. The Buckeyes scuffled to their worst season of the Thad Matta era, capped by an embarrassing loss to Rutgers in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. Ohio State loses Marc Loving to graduation and Trevor Thompson to the NBA draft, but will be bolstered by the return of forward Keita Bates-Diop, who played in only nine games in 2016-17 before being sidelined by a leg injury.
Adding to the frontcourt depth will be Derek Funderburk, a former four-star recruit coming off his redshirt year, and Kaleb Wesson, the number seven center in the class of 2017. James Daniel, a graduate transfer from Howard who led the nation in scoring in 2015-16, listed both Ohio State and Michigan in his final four schools. In the backcourt, Jae’Sean Tate, JaQuan Lyle and Kam Williams will provide scoring and grit, whatever that means.
11. Illinois Fighting Illini (20-15, 8-10)
After a loss in the regular season finale cost Illinois a chance at the NCAA Tournament and head coach John Groce his job, it’s time for the program to rebuild. The Fighting Illini lose their top three scorers to graduation, including All-Big Ten Second Team selection Malcolm Hill. Juniors Jalen Coleman-Lands and Leroy Black will need to step up and provide leadership for a young team. After Groce was fired, four-star center Jeremiah Tilson, a consensus top-50 player, asked for a release from his commitment, followed quickly by fellow Illinois recruit Javon Pickett. New coach Brad Underwood still has four-star point guard Trent Frazier in his initial recruiting class, but convincing Tilmon and Pickett to stay onboard will be crucial to the continuity of the program. Otherwise, expect Illinois to pursue transfers like former Cal guard Charlie Moore to round out its class.
12. Penn State Nittany Lions (15-18, 6-12)
While the team limped to a 15-18 record, Penn State has to be encouraged by the play of its three freshman starters in Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, and Mike Watkins. Carr and Stevens combined for over 25 points per game while Watkins posted nearly three blocks per contest. With a year of experience under their belt, the triumvirate of sophomores will look to lead a young team that lacks depth, with only one commit for the class of 2017. Payton Banks, Isaiah Washington and Terrence Samuel have all transferred, leaving Pat Chambers scrambling for players before the season starts.
13. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (15-18, 3-15)
Rutgers loses second-leading scorer Nigel Johnson to Virginia as well as Jonathan Laurent. Guard Corey Sanders and forward Deshawn Freeman bring some veteran leadership and offense for the Scarlet Knights. However, Rutgers will need to find frontcourt minutes amongst an inexperienced group that includes former three-star recruit Issa Thiam. Rutgers will look back at 2016-17 as a successful year, as it neared .500 and earned three Big Ten wins, but the second-worst recruiting class in the Big Ten does not look great. But the Rutger is not last, because we still have NEBRASKETBALLLLL!
14. Nebraska Cornhuskers (12-18, 6-11)
Nebraska’s offseason has been nothing short of disastrous, as the Cornhuskers have lost four scholarship players to transfer in addition to seeing leading scorer Tai Webster graduate. The losses of Ed Morrow, a former four-star prospect, and Michael Jacobsen will hurt the most, as both players averaged over 23 minutes a game last season and were due for an extended role.
The scoring burden will fall predominantly on junior Glynn Watson Jr, who put up 13 points per game last year, but a host of unproven players will be thrown into larger roles. Head coach Tim Miles will need to scour the transfer market for bodies to add to a recruiting class that features only one player in three-star shooting guard Nana Akenten. The lack of continuity and talent will make Miles’s job a tough one in Lincoln next season.