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College Basketball Preview 2020-21: Big Ten

Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois

The cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament last March left the college basketball world in a state of limbo for the past eight months. However, with the NBA Draft in the books and the 2020-21 college basketball campaign set to tip off tomorrow, it appears that the sport is finally back in action. It won't be easy getting a season off the ground, or keep it going, but the hope is that the season will be able to finish off this time around. With this in mind, I focus my attention on the start of the Big Ten, perhaps the most balanced and deep conference in college basketball.

1. Iowa Hawkeyes

Key Returnees: F Luka Garza, G Jordan Bohannon, G/F Joe Wieskamp, G Joe Toussaint

At the top of the league there appears to be a three-way race between Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes are probably the smartest pick to take the conference, primarily because of the return of forward Luka Garza. Garza was a Wooden Award frontrunner throughout the 2019-20 season, and he won the Big Ten's Player of the Year award. Although the big man isn't flashy, he's proven to be highly productive against a wide range of defenders. The good news is that his supporting cast is rock-solid as well, as Joe Wieskamp, Jordan Bohannon, and Joe Toussaint all return. Wieskamp is the high-scoring wing every Final Four contender every team needs, while Bohannon and Toussaint lead an experienced and deep backcourt. The Hawkeyes are also hopeful two players who missed nearly all of last season step up alongside Garza up front. Redshirt freshman Patrick McCaffrey, Fran's son, has high-level talent but appeared in just two games in his first year on campus. Joining him will be lengthy forward Jack Nunge, who has essentially missed both of the last two seasons due to injury. 

Postseason Prediction: Elite Eight

2. Illinois Fighting Illini

Key Returnees: G/F Ayo Dosunmu, F/C Kofi Cockburn, G Trent Frazier

Brad Underwood's rebuild in Champaign continues apace, as the Illini finished fourth in the conference a season ago. Their ceiling appears even higher heading into '20-'21, as Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn's decision to return likely raises their ceiling into a Top 10 team. Dosunmu is one of the most exciting players anywhere in college basketball, an explosive scorer that doesn't shy away from clutch moments. Cockburn was a little bit raw as a true freshman last season, but the seven-footer was still highly productive, putting up 13.3 PPG and 8.8 RPG. Those two will path the way for the Illini, but they also have plenty of help. Guard Trent Frazier can be extremely streaky but he's a three-year starter ready to finish off his Illinois career in a big way. In addition to Frazier, forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Division III transfer Austin Hutcherson should contribute. Don't be surprised if this Illinois squad is their best since the 2005 Final Four edition; they really are that talented, and Underwood has proven himself as one of the best in the Big Ten.

Postseason Prediction: Elite Eight

3. Wisconsin Badgers

Key Returnees: G Brad Davison, F Micah Potter, F Nate Reuvers, G D'Mitrik Trice

After a 6-6 straight to Big Ten play last year, Wisconsin won their final eight games to win a share of the league title. They'll be tough again in 2020-21, with one of the most experienced lineups in the conference. Guard Brad Davison has been highly controversial but highly effective, while D'Mitrik Trice was terrific down the stretch a year ago. The frontcourt might be even better, with former Ohio State transfer Micah Potter and junior Nate Reuvers. Expect senior Aleem Ford and sophomore Tyler Wahl to also play an increased role up front. Wahl didn't put up great shooting numbers in his first season in Madison, but he was a high energy guy that proved to be tremendous defensively. All in all, it's a fairly typical Badger team top-to-bottom. They might not be the most talented, but they play hard and are well-coached. If Reuvers and Potter can prove to be one of the better combos in the Big Ten, it wouldn't be shocking if they once again take at least a share of the league title.

Postseason Prediction: Sweet 16

4. Michigan State Spartans

Key Returnees: G Rocket Watts, F Malik Hall, G/F Aaron Henry, G/F Josh Langford

Michigan State loses two program staples in point guard Cassius Winston and big man Xavier Tillman, but Tom Izzo has proven he can reload as well as anybody in the league. Winston is obviously a major loss, as he was a four-year contributor and the floor general, while averaging nearly six assists per game for the Spartans. However, MSU is hopeful that sophomore Rocket Watts can take over PG duties, with likely some help from junior Foster Loyer. Backcourt depth is a slight concern beyond Watts and Loyer, without any other major contributor back in the fold. Names like Jack Hoiberg (yes, Fred's son) and newcomer A.J. Hoggard are likely to see hefty minutes. While that's a concern, it could be offset by the experience back on the wings and in the frontcourt. Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown have proven to be high quality wing weapons, and they could have further help in the form of Joshua Langford. Langford has dealt with injuries each of the last two seasons, but is one of the best in the Big Ten when fully healthy. If he's able to contribute, this Michigan State team becomes significantly tougher. The frontcourt should also be in good hands, as sophomore Malik Hall showed flashes last year and Marquette transfer Joey Hauser should contribute.

Postseason Prediction: Sweet 16

5. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Key Returnees: G Geo Baker, C Myles Johnson, G/F Ron Harper Jr.

If not for the cancelled NCAA Tournament, Rutgers would've made their first appearance in the Big Dance since 1991. The good news is that they might be even better this season, with most of last year's core back in the fold. Guards Geo Baker and Jacob Young were inconsistent at times last year but still impact players who could carry the offense. The same could be said about wing Ron Harper Jr., who led the team in scoring a year ago, averaging 12.1 PPG. Up front, center Myles Johnson will act as the primary rim protector but don't be surprised if highly touted recruit Cliff Omoruyi sees plenty of minutes. Rutgers will once again be a very strong defensive team, one that plays a scrappy brand of basketball that works very well in the Big Ten. They ranked eighth in the nation in opponent field goal percentage a season ago and with most of that core back, they should be stout once again.

Postseason Prediction: NCAA Second Round

6. Michigan Wolverines

Key Returnees: F Isaiah Livers, G/F Franz Wagner, G Eli Brooks, F Brandon Johns Jr.

Michigan's first season in the post-John Beilein era was one of incredible highs and massive lows. After winning the Battle 4 Atlantis in November, the Wolverines rose to No. 4 in the nation. However, a brutal January dropped them out of the Top 25 completely, before they once again got hot towards the end of the season. Head coach Juwan Howard will hope for more consistency in 2020-21, but losing court general Zavier Simpson will not make it easier. In addition to Simpson, David DeJulius transferred, leaving UM relatively thin at point guard. That leaves an opportunity for true freshman Zeb Jackson to come in right away and make an impact. Joining Jackson in the backcourt will be sophomore Franz Wagner, as well as senior Eli Brooks. The frontcourt has a little bit more depth, and they also have a potential breakout candidate in Isaiah Livers. Livers is already an established piece of this lineup but now that he's completely healthy, he looks to be the go-to guy offensively. He'll be aided up front by fellow veteran Brandon Johns Jr., as well as freshman Hunter Dickinson.

Postseason Prediction: NCAA Second Round

7. Ohio State Buckeyes

Key Returnees: G C.J. Walker, G/F Duane Washington, F E.J. Liddell, F Kyle Young

The Buckeyes saw a bunch of roster turnover this past off-season, watching star Kaleb Wesson leave a year early for the NBA, as well as the transfers of Luther Muhammed and D.J. Carton. There's still enough pieces in place to be an NCAA Tournament squad, thanks in large part to the returns of C.J. Walker, E.J. Liddell and glue guy Kyle Young. There's also an influx of talent in the form of former Harvard center Seth Towns and Bucknell transplant Jimmy Sotos. Towns has the talent to be a real force under the rim, but it will be fascinating to see how he transitions from the Ivy League to the physical, relentless Big Ten. Sotos is going to be immediately be one of the top shooters on this Buckeye roster, and a skilled distributor. Despite being ranked No. 23 in the preseason poll, don't be surprised if Chris Holtmann once again surpasses expectations. In his three years with Ohio State he's made the NCAA Tournament's Second Round, and he probably would have made it again last season if the event hadn't been cancelled.

Postseason Prediction: NCAA Second Round

8. Indiana Hoosiers

Key Returnees: F Trayce Jackson-Davis, G Rob Phinisee, G Al Durham, C Joey Brunk

Entering his fourth season in Bloomington, Archie Miller may have his best Hoosier team yet. That is assuming Indiana is able to stay healthy, which has been the team's primary kryptonite over three largely underwhelming seasons under Miller. This roster has a good mix of talent, led by potential All-Big Ten talent Trayce Jackson-Davis. Jackson-Davis put up solid numbers a season ago and was part of the conference's All-Freshman Team but he could be even better. Rumor out of Bloomington is that he's bulked up and looks more confident heading into the new campaign. He'll need to form an imposing duo with center Joey Brunk if IU wants to compete with all the great big men the conference can throw at you. The backcourt isn't very high on star power but has a number of solid contributors, namely senior Al Durham. Overall, there's much more experience and depth than past Miller Indiana teams, which obviously bodes well. It still might be a tough task for this team to climb into the upper echelon of the league, but Miller's first NCAA Tournament appearance with this program should be on the horizon.

Postseason Prediction: NCAA First Round

9. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Key Returnees: G Marcus Carr, G/F Gabe Kalscheur, G/F Tre Williams, F/C Eric Curry

Despite losing star big man Daniel Oturu early to the NBA Draft, Minnesota came out of the off-season as winners. Guard Marcus Carr removed his name from the NBA early entry list and opted to come back for his junior season, likely asserting himself as one of the top returning guards in the league. In addition, Richard Pitino landed a number of big name transfers, including Drake's Liam Robbins and Utah's Both Gach. Robbins is one of the best shot-blockers anywhere in college basketball and fits a major need now that Oturu is gone, while Gach is a Minnesota native who started 25 games last year for the Utes. The Gophers are also hopeful that sophomore Isaiah Ihnen and senior Eric Curry are able to help replicate Oturu's impact. Ihnen was incredibly raw as a true freshman last season but made major strides by the end of the year, while Curry's promising career has been absolutely derailed by injuries. With so many fresh faces, the pressure is on for Pitino to quickly gel this group together. If not, it seems highly likely it will be the end of the road for the 38-year old, who is currently 127-108 with the program.

Postseason Prediction: NCAA First Round

10. Purdue Boilermakers

Key Returnees: F Aaron Wheeler, F/C Trevion Williams, G Sasha Stefanovic

Purdue will be among the most interesting teams in the Big Ten this winter. They were hit hard over the off-season by graduation and transfers, losing long-time contributors Nojel Eastern and Matt Haarms. With that being said, head coach Matt Painter remains one of the best in the conference and he's proven he can work his magic time and time again in West Lafayette. There's still enough to keep this team dangerous, namely forwards Aaron Wheeler and Trevion Williams. Williams is really an interesting case; his career took off last season, but he also got in his own way too often. Purdue is hopeful he is in better shape, as he got outworked by elite bigs too often a year ago. The backcourt is really thin, and will lean heavily on one of the few remaining veterans, Sasha Stefanovic. Stefanovic is a Painter guard to the tee as a sharpshooter and good decision-maker, but how does he handle more of the offense being run through him? The Boilermakers are almost inevitably poised to take a step back, but it also wouldn't be shocking if this No. 10 ranking ends up being far too low.

Postseason Prediction: NCAA First Round

11. Maryland Terrapins

Key Returnees: G Eric Ayala, G Darryl Morsell, G Aaron Wiggins, C Chol Marial

Maryland is another team that could be poised to take a step back, possibly a pretty major one after winning a share of the Big Ten Title last spring. They lose their best two players, lead guard Anthony Cowan and bruising big man Jalen Smith. Cowan ran the Terrapin offense for four years in College Park, while Smith was so impressive as a sophomore he rose to be a Top 10 NBA Draft selection. Their departures mean that head coach Mark Turgeon will be forced to lean on a core of Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell, and Aaron Wiggins. It's a rock-solid trio that will keep Maryland very competitive, but it's short on a real go-to guy. Maryland is also really going to struggle up front without Smith. 7'2" center Chol Marial flashed as a freshman last year but he's still so incredibly raw, while Galin Smith (no relation to Jalen) is more of a complementary piece than leading one. Turgeon should still have the Terrapins fighting, but this team could really struggle in such a balanced and tough league. I don't expect a complete disaster, but slipping out of the NCAA Tournament seems like a real possibility.

Postseason Prediction: NIT

12. Penn State Nittany Lions

Key Returnees: G Izaiah Brockington, G Jamari Wheeler, G Myreon Jones

The hopes for a successful Penn State basketball season took a hit when Pat Chambers abruptly resigned around a month ago after past insensitive comments surfaced. That leaves interim head coach Jim Ferry forced to pick up the pieces in the midst of a global pandemic, with a roster that was already poised to take a slight step back with Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins departing. Ferry still does have an intriguing backcourt, spearheaded by guards Myreon Jones and Izaiah Brockington. However, the big problem will be a frontcourt that struggled last season, even with Watkins in the fold. Sophomore Seth Lundy and senior John Harrar are really the only two experienced options, and neither strike much fear into opposing teams. The Nittany Lions may still be interesting if this backcourt can keep things close, but any chances of an NCAA Tournament berth lean on the frontcourt undergoing some magical transition.

Postseason Prediction: NIT 

13. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Key Returnees: G/F Thorir Thorbjarnarson

It was unsurprisingly a brutal debut campaign for Fred Hoiberg, as Nebraska went 7-25 overall and was dead last in the Big Ten at 2-18. There's significant turnover on the roster heading into 2020-21, with a host of transfers looking to make an impact. That list includes Pitt transfer Trey McGowens, West Virginia transfer Teddy Allen, and Western Illinois transfer Kobe Webster. That group will join one of the few holdovers from the Tim Miles era: Icelandic guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson. Thorbjarnarson played in all 31 contests for Nebraska last season and while he isn't your prototypical go-to guy, he was fairly productive. Beyond him, the lack of proven experience is an obvious concern. Hoiberg has always leaned into the transfer market heavily, all the way back to his Iowa State days. But, to expect that strategy to work wonders in Year Two in a brutally tough Big Ten is unrealistic. The 'Huskers may be more interesting than last year's group, but don't expect any postseason berth just yet.

Postseason Prediction: None

14. Northwestern Wildcats

Key Returnees: F Miller Kopp, F Pete Nance, C Ryan Young

Head coach Chris Collins has done a great job getting Northwestern to some respectability in the Big Ten but as he looks ahead to the 2020-21 campaign, he could be staring his fourth straight year without a postseason berth. This roster does have some interesting pieces, namely forwards Miller Kopp and Pete Nance. Kopp started all 31 last year for the Wildcats and averaged 13.1 PPG while shooting nearly 40 percent from three. There isn't anything particularly flashy about his game, but he's a player to keep an eye on as a contributor. Nance and center Ryan Young are at least serviceable up front, but the backcourt lacks much playmaking potential. Guard Pat Spencer was their top weapon in the backcourt last fall, as a former star lacrosse player who spent his final collegiate eligibility with Northwestern. His departure means that guys like Boo Buie and junior Ryan Greer are going to have to step up. This Wildcats team will still play hard under Collins, but there just isn't enough there to warrant them much higher than the 14 ranking.

Postseason Prediction: None

All-Big Ten Team

First Team

G Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois

G Marcus Carr, Minnesota

F Ron Harper Jr., Rutgers

F Micah Potter, Wisconsin

F/C Luka Garza, Iowa

Second Team

G C.J. Walker, Ohio State

G Joe Wieskamp, Iowa

F Aaron Henry, Michigan State

F Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana

F/C Kofi Cockburn, Illinois

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