Sure, we may be in the thick of football season. The NBA in-season tournament is underway. And yeah, the Texas Rangers just won their first ever World Series title. But who cares about any of that? College basketball is officially back!
All jokes aside, it’s an exciting time to be a fan of any sport, but in particular college hoops. With Boo Buie and co. recently dominating in their exhibition match against McKendree, Northwestern fans are eager to watch the Wildcats run it back this year after a historic season that culminated in a trip to the second round of March Madness. Although NU fans have a lot to be excited about, so do most teams in the Big Ten. Zach Edey, the 2023 Big Ten Player of the Year, is back for another season at Purdue, while Michigan State boasts a recruiting class headlined by five-star Xavier Booker.
In its final season before the introduction of four west-coast teams, the Big Ten seeks to prove to the rest of the world that it can pull through when it matters. Last year, despite sending eight teams to March Madness, only Michigan State escaped the second round, just to lose in the Sweet 16. In fact, it’s now been over two decades since the Spartans won the national title with Tom Izzo. Most current Northwestern students weren’t even born yet!
Despite recent failures, many Big Ten teams are optimistic that this is the year that they will finally shock the world. While that claim has more validity for some teams than others, it will surely be a fun season for all fans. Here are this year’s Preseason B1G Men’s Basketball Power Rankings:
1. Purdue Boilermakers
The Boilermakers are sitting pretty at the top of the Big Ten for another year with big man Zach Edey opting to return for his fourth season. The consensus first-team All-American is certainly the headliner for Purdue, but he’s far from the only guy making Purdue such a formidable opponent. Sophomores Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer look to build off their impressive first years, while senior Mason Gillis aims to leave it all on the court in what could potentially be his final season with the program.
The Boilermakers should have no problem cruising through the regular season and earning a high seed in March Madness. The real question is whether they can overcome their historic postseason struggles — most notoriously last year’s painful loss to 16-seed Fairleigh-Dickinson. If Purdue can get out of its own way when it truly matters, there’s no reason why they can’t cut down the ropes come March.
2. Michigan State Spartans
While Purdue is the clear-cut favorite to win the Big Ten this year, Michigan State is not far behind. Returning four of five starters (including AJ Hoggard, Jaden Akins and Tyson Walker) from last year’s Sweet 16 run under eventual Hall-of-Fame coach Tom Izzo is not a shabby start. Add on to that a freshman recruiting class featuring three top-50 prospects, and the Spartans are looking outright dangerous.
Xavier Booker, the five-star center from Indianapolis, should look to make an immediate impact, while four-star point guard Jeremy Fears could also play a pivotal role as a backup guard under the mentorship of Hoggard and Walker. Last year, the Spartans were good, but very streaky in their play. This year, they look poised to be great, but that will only happen if they can overcome the inconsistencies that plagued them last year.
3. Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois is destined for big things this season after Terrence Shannon Jr. and Coleman Hawkins both announced their returns. Shannon Jr., who made the First Team All Big Ten in 2023, is unquestionably one of the best players in the conference, averaging 17.2 points per game last season. Hawkins, meanwhile, will be a force to be reckoned with on the defensive side of the ball.
In addition, Illinois brought in a decent transfer and freshman class headlined by former Oregon forward Quincy Guerrier and freshman Amani Hansberry. Sophomore Ty Rodgers also looks to make a big leap forward in a possible starting role after a lackluster first season with the Illini. Illinois clearly has the talent necessary to cause a major disturbance in March. The question is, will they mesh well?
4. Maryland Terrapins
Kevin Willard’s first season as Maryland's head coach exceeded expectations. His squad went 22-13, earned a bid to March Madness, and advanced to the second round before getting bounced by Alabama. This year, Willard looks to build on that successful first season, and all signs are pointing to him being able to do just that.
Jahmir Young, the All-Big Ten point guard from last season, will be back, along with Julian Reese, one of the best big men in the conference. Maryland also landed guard Deshawn Harris-Smith, one of the top-30 freshmen recruits, and Indiana transfer Jordan Geronimo could play a significant role if he can avoid the injury bug. Retention of their key players plus some solid acquisitions puts Maryland in a great spot to run it back under Willard after an exciting 2022-2023.
5. Northwestern Wildcats
Could I be overhyping Northwestern just a little bit? Maybe. However, the Wildcats are certainly capable of repeating their successes from last year, which included a trip to the second round of March Madness, almost culminating in a win over UCLA. With Boo Buie returning for one last dance, Northwestern gets back its leading scorer and one of the best guards in the Big Ten. Getting big man Matthew Nicholson back is equally as important, while Ty Berry and Brooks Barnhizer also look to be key contributors. The Wildcats also hauled in a good transfer class that includes Princeton’s Ryan Langborg and Liberty’s Blake Preston.
Losing Chase Audige will undoubtedly hurt the Wildcats, and his impact on defense will be challenging to replace. However, if Northwestern can mimic his production with the guys they have now, they look poised to match, or even eclipse, the level of success they enjoyed last year.
6. Indiana Hoosiers
Indiana was handed two tough blows when Trayce Jackson-Davis and Jalen Hood-Schifino both declared for the NBA draft. However, the Hoosiers are still in a position to win big and make a tournament run. Getting Xavier Johnson back from injury is huge, and five-star freshman Mackenzie Mgbako checks out to be a huge problem for opponents. Between those players and Oregon big man transfer Kel’el Ware, Indiana’s defense should be one of the most lockdown units in college basketball. The offense could suffer a bit without two of its key contributors from last year. However, even if Indiana regresses slightly, they should still be a team to watch come March.
7. Wisconsin Badgers
After a strong start last year that included winning its first three conference games, everything went downhill for Wisconsin. The Badgers finished 20-15 and won three games in the NIT, but at the end of the day, the goal was March Madness, and they failed at that. Fortunately, they are in a good position to reach that goal this year. Wisconsin returns all five of its starters from last season, meaning it can hit the ground running. However, the starters will simply need to play better than they did last year.
Tyler Wahl and Chucky Hepburn put up underwhelming numbers, which was a critical reason that the Badgers failed to live up to expectations. Any chance of a Wisconsin bounce-back season hinges on the two of them returning to form.
8. Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State was a weird team last year. They finished the regular season 16-19, including a 5-15 record against Big Ten opponents. Yet, largely under the leadership and talent of Brice Sensabaugh, the Buckeyes defeated Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan State during the Big Ten tournament before falling to Purdue in the semifinals. Ohio State is without Sensabaugh this season, so all signs point to further regression. Or do they?
Boasting one of the youngest rosters in college basketball, Ohio State has the potential to break into the conversation with some of the upper-tier B1G teams. Forward Zed Key, center Felix Okpara, and guard Roddy Gayle Jr. will spearhead the Buckeyes’ redemption tour in their sophomore campaigns. If they can build off their first years and overcome the growing pains from last season, Ohio State could be a dark horse team to watch.
9. Iowa Hawkeyes
Defense has never been Iowa’s strong suit. The Hawkeyes had an abysmal defensive efficiency last year, and the forecast is not looking bright for this season. Where Iowa has always thrived has been its offense. More specifically, it has always seemed to have one powerhouse scorer to lead the way. First it was Luka Garza. Then came Keegan Murray, and then his twin brother, Kris. This year, there’s not one clear-cut man Iowa can rely on to consistently score 20 points.
Fortunately, the Hawkeyes have a few guys who could combine to give them the offensive spark they need to compete for a tournament bid. Veteran Peyton Sandfort is one of the more accurate shooters in the sport, while Tony Perkins has big-game potential akin to Garza and the Murray twins. Additionally, Valparaiso transfer Ben Krikke looks to contribute to the offensive effort with his reliable jumper. Iowa has the offensive pieces necessary to win games. If they falter, however, Hawkeye fans are in for a brutal few months.
10. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Losing Caleb McConnell is a tough blow for Rutgers, whose defense flourished under his leadership. However, with big man Cliff Omoruyi and forward Mawot Mag both returning for another year, the defense should not regress too much. Last season, Omoruyi nearly averaged 10 rebounds each night to complement his 2.1 blocks per game. Meanwhile, Mag averaged 5.3 rebounds and a steal per game. The duo was crucial to the Scarlet Knights’ defensive prowess last year, and they look to build on that success this season.
The offense does not look to put up scary numbers, but it can certainly be efficient enough to help Rutgers exceed expectations. Guard Derek Simpson is a potential breakout candidate for the team, while transfer guard Noah Fernandes put up 13 points per game last season for UMass. There are definitely some injury concerns for Rutgers, and it remains to be seen how its squad will gel together. However, if the offense can play at an above-average level, the elite defense is more than enough to make Rutgers a team to watch come March.
11. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan had a tough offseason. In fact, tough may be understating just how awful it was for the Wolverines. Losing freshman starters Jett Howard and Kobe Bufkin hurt, but that was to be expected. The devastating blow for Michigan was when Hunter Dickinson, the Wolverines’ starting center of three years, decided to put his name in the transfer portal, ultimately landing with Kansas. Michigan almost had a solid addition in UNC guard Caleb Love, but due to an admissions issue involving the transfer of credits, Love was forced to back out, ending up with Arizona instead.
However, despite the drama-filled offseason, there is still a path to success for the Wolverines. They will just need everybody to be fantastic. Sophomore guard Dug McDaniel and forward Olivier Nkamhoua, who Michigan acquired in the transfer portal from Tennessee, will need to be at the top of their games in order to lead the Wolverines’ young roster back to March Madness. Otherwise, things could get really ugly really quickly.
12. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Despite the low placement on these rankings, the Cornhuskers aren’t necessarily a bad team. The Big Ten is simply a loaded conference, and somebody has to be towards the bottom. That being said, it’s very possible that Nebraska outperforms expectations and puts up a respectable season. This season, they will be led by guard Keisei Tominaga, who put up monster numbers to end last year’s campaign.
Unfortunately, much of his help left in the offseason, so he’ll have to rely on a new crop of guys to help him and Nebraska shock the world. Bradley transfer Rienk Mast and Charlotte transfer Brice Williams look to round out Nebraska’s big three for the year. The trio has major potential, but things could trend downward if they lack chemistry, so Nebraska fans better hope they mesh well.
13. Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State suffered a massive blow this offseason when head coach Micah Shrewsberry departed the program for Notre Dame. However, they found a solid replacement in Mike Rhoades from VCU. Rhoades was adept at developing defenses at VCU, and Penn State’s defensive unit should look good under his supervision.
Perhaps the biggest perk that comes with hiring Rhoades, though, is that coming with him from VCU is point guard Ace Baldwin. Last year’s A-10 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year will immediately assume a leadership role on the team, and a player like him is capable of carrying a team to new heights. Unfortunately, the rest of Penn State’s roster lacks depth, and despite having a guy like Baldwin, it is likely that Rhoades’s first year with the program will be a rebuilding campaign.
14. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Minnesota finished at the very bottom of the Big Ten last season, going 9-22 overall and an abysmal 2-17 against in-conference opponents. The Gophers did go out and make some additions in the offseason, such as Howard’s Elijah Hawkins and Pepperdine’s Mike Mitchell Jr. They also have a possible breakout candidate in forward Dawson Garcia, who averaged over 15 points per game last season. However, it is unlikely that any of these players will move the needle for Minnesota, especially given the vast amount of talent across the conference. Barring a crazy miracle, expect Minnesota to remain among the bottom-feeders of the Big Ten this year.