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College Basketball Preview 2021-22: Big Ten

Hunter Dickinson, Michigan

In a lot of ways, 2020-21 was a banner year for the Big Ten in basketball. The league was the most consistently strong in the sport, with nine teams playing in the NCAA Tournament and four teams earning either a No.1 or No. 2 seed. However, the conference's continued March issues stirred up once again, with only Michigan lasting into the Tournament's second weekend. This leaves the Big Ten with somewhat of a chip on its shoulder as we push into the 2021-22 campaign, eager to bring home their first National Title since Michigan State in 2000. There will be plenty of contenders to end the league's March woes, but the lack of a clear top team means that we should have another thrilling, chaotic campaign in the Midwest.

1. Michigan Wolverines 23-5 in 2020-21 (Elite Eight)

2020-21 Review: In just his second season at the helm in Ann Arbor, Juwan Howard delivered a powerful statement about Michigan's basketball program. The Wolverines were consistently the best team in the nation's best conference, finishing up with a 14-3 conference mark, even as they dealt with injuries and a lengthy COVID pause. They went into March as a No. 1 seed and came agonizingly close to another Final Four appearance before faltering against the flaming hot UCLA Bruins. Even with several notable pieces off to the NBA, Howard's work on the recruiting trail and his improved situational coaching mean Michigan enters this winter as the league's prohibitive favorite.

Backcourt: Tiny point guard Mike Smith proved to be a key pickup for Howard and the Michigan staff last season, as the Columbia transfer paced the offense with nine points and 5.3 assists per game. He proved to be the type of intelligent, effective ball handler that has made the Wolverines such a tough out throughout much of the last decade. His absence will undoubtedly be felt, but Michigan does have reinforcements waiting in the wings. For one, veteran Eli Brooks was a massive returnee after he averaged 9.5 PPG and 3.1 APG last year. He likely won't operate as the team's primary ball handler, but is a combo guard who can shoot and distribute. Most importantly, his leadership will be huge for a team that brings in numerous young freshmen expected to play large roles. Additionally, sophomore Zeb Jackson is a holdover from last season, while newcomers Frankie Collins and DeVante' Jones are expected to see major minutes. Jackson flashed potential as a freshman in a weird year, but he needs to become a better shooter to see his role expand. Jones was a prolific scorer at Coastal Carolina who may need some time to adjust to the rugged Big Ten, while Collins could start right away as a freshman. Collins is a maestro in the pick-and-roll, which pairs nicely with the versatile bigs Michigan can offer.

Frontcourt: While Brooks was a key returnee, none was more important for Michigan this off-season than Hunter Dickinson. Dickinson flirted with the NBA but instead opted to come back for his sophomore season. The 7'1" big is a relentless finisher around the rim, with a decent mid range shot and solid defensive fundamentals. He has the ceiling to be one of the best players anywhere in college basketball this season, and is a clear All-American possibility. The other two "veterans" in the Wolverine frontcourt are Brandon Johns Jr. and sophomore Terrance Williams II. Johns didn't play a large role last season but had a moment in the NCAA Tournament, while Williams is an asset who can defend multiple positions and crash the boards. Of course, Howard and staff also have a few big name newcomers up front as well, including five-star prospects Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate. Houston is a 6'8" forward who could eventually grow into the team's primary scoring threat, and Diabate is an elite rebounder. Overall, there's significantly more depth in this frontcourt than last season, which became problem when Dickinson got into foul trouble.

Overview: Howard has done a masterful job building a roster that perfectly fits modern college basketball. There's a nice blend of veterans, freshmen, and transfers pulled together, with shooters, rebounders, and defenders. With Dickinson and Brooks leading the charge this is a second weekend team no matter what, but the freshmen will determine UM's ceiling. If they're able to adjust quickly and decisively, this is a Final Four squad with serious National Title potential.

Postseason Prediction: Final Four

2. Purdue Boilermakers 18-10 in 2020-21 (First Round)

2020-21 Review: 2020-21 was supposed to be a rebuilding year in West Lafayette, but head coach Matt Painter continues to prove the doubters wrong. His Boilermakers struggled in the non-conference but then went on to win 13 games in the Big Ten and earn a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Of course, they ended up falling short in the Big Dance, upset by North Texas in the first round. That should serve as an excellent motivator for a team that now brings back nearly everyone.

Backcourt: When sharpshooting Sasha Stefanovic was forced to miss time due to COVID, Jaden Ivey stepped into the starting lineup and proved to be an electrifying force. Ivey started the final 12 games of last season and finished with 14.8 points and 1.1 steals per game, while hitting numerous clutch shots along the way. Ivey now enters this season as one of the Big Ten's brightest stars, although he'll have to show he can be more efficient, after his shooting splits looked very much like a freshman's in '20-'21. Joining Ivey is a healthy and ready to go Stefanovic, who is a career 40% three-point shooter and moves extremely well without the ball. Then, there's sophomore Brandon Newman and senior Eric Hunter Jr., who will handle point guard duties. Those four give Purdue a quartet of proven guards with different strengths. There may not be a single Big Ten team with a backcourt able to counter that.

Frontcourt: Painter got a major win during the off-season when powerful senior big Trevion Williams announced he was returning for one more season. At 6'10", 265 pounds, Williams is an absolute load for any opposing Big Ten big to handle, and he's worked on his conditioning to be able to contribute deeper into games. After notching eleven double-doubles last season, he could be a Big Ten Player of the Year frontrunner. Alongside him is gigantic Zach Edey, the latest in a long line of Purdue seven-footers. Despite being inexperienced last year, Edey was extremely efficient and a real force in the low post. That pair could be the best post combo Purdue has had since Robbie Hummel and JaJuan Johnson were fully healthy. Don't forget about sophomore Mason Gillis either, as the undersized forward still proved to be a plus defender and effective rebounder. Lastly, freshman Caleb Furst arrives after leading his high school, Blackhawk Christian, to a state title. Furst won Indiana Mr. Basketball last year and can play either the four or five at the collegiate level.

Overview: This could be a special season for the Purdue Boilermakers. Not only is a bunch of proven starting experience returning, there's obvious star power with Williams and Ivey. The key for Purdue, like many other Big Ten schools, will be proving they can do it come March. While Painter delivered an Elite Eight with Carsen Edwards in 2019, the Boilermakers have also become accustomed to disappointment in the Big Dance. This is a group that can undoubtedly change that, and a potential first Final Four since 1980 seems to be in play.

Postseason Prediction: Elite Eight

3. Ohio State Buckeyes 21-10 in 2020-21 (First Round)

2020-21 Review: This past season, an explosive offense helped guide Ohio State to their fourth consecutive season of at least 20 wins. However, when it mattered most, that explosive offense sputtered, with the Buckeyes upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against 15-seed Oral Roberts. It put a damper on a season that was generally a massive success for Chris Holtmann and company, as the Buckeyes won 21 games total and finished fifth in the Big Ten at 12-8.

Backcourt: The departure of high-scoring guard Duane Washington Jr. leaves the Buckeyes with some rebuilding to do in their backcourt. Washington was the type of player that you could leave in iso and he would drop 20-plus points without breaking a sweat. There's nobody like that on this year's roster, but still some options. Wings Justice Sueing and Justin Ahrens proved to play big roles on last year's team and should be counted on heavily again. Sueing handled the ball quite a bit in 2020-21 and averaged 10.7 PPG, while Ahrens is a sharpshooter who nearly exclusively shoots threes. The questions in the backcourt lie with a pair of unproven, but talented, holdovers, plus the addition of Penn State transfer Jamari Wheeler. Bucknell transfer Jimmy Sotos and sophomore Meechie Johnson Jr. are the holdovers, both hoping to play major roles. Sotos was not healthy at all last year but can really stroke it, while Johnson left high school a year early and is essentially a true freshman. Wheeler is a nice pickup as an elite defender who has ample Big Ten experience, but he was incredibly streaky as a shooter while at PSU.

Frontcourt: Junior E.J. Liddell rivals Hunter Dickinson and Trevion Williams as one of the best returnees in the league, at any position. Liddell always plays bigger than his 6'7" frame, and he showed an improved shooting touch last season. He will now operate as Ohio State's chief scoring option, with Washington now gone. Returning along with Liddell is glue guy Kyle Young and former Harvard transplant Seth Towns. Young has dealt with countless injuries during his OSU career but is possibly the most important cog on the entire team, while Towns was rock-solid in his first season at the Big Ten level. Holtmann also brought in another in-conference transfer in Indiana's Joey Brunk. Brunk was a solid scoring option for Indiana in 2019-2020, but missed all of last season with a back injury. He likely won't start, but should provide quality minutes on this frontline.

Overview: Holtmann has built a consistent winner here in Columbus, and the Buckeyes will be an incredibly tough out in the conference once more. Washington's a major loss, but Ohio State should be able to spread out the scoring a little more this season, which will help them when the shooting just isn't there. That may actually end up improving the offense in the end, especially with more depth in this lineup than last year. There's a slight drop-off between OSU and the top two in the conference, but this still looks like a second weekend team.

Postseason Prediction: Sweet 16

4. Illinois Fighting Illini 24-7 in 2020-21 (Second Round)

2020-21 Review: Illinois put together the best season the program has experienced since 2005, earning a No. 1 seed and finishing second in the Big Ten with a 16-4 league record. But much the two teams preceding them on this list, a disappointing early March exit cast a shadow over an otherwise productive campaign. The Illini were dispatched by interstate rival Loyola-Chicago in the second round, and then watched as stars Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn tested the NBA waters. Cockburn's late reversal not only to return to school but not transfer elsewhere ensured that there would still be plenty of hype entering 2021-22.

Backcourt: Dosunmu was the heart and soul of the Illinois offense a year ago, averaging over 20 points per game and five assists. He's the rare type of player that makes everybody else on the team better, while putting up extremely productive numbers. With all that being said, the Illini backcourt is not dearth of potential, even with Dosunmu now in the NBA. Second-year guard Andre Curbelo came on in a big way in 2020-21 and could be among the best in the Big Ten this season. He's a crafty, smooth lead guard who is an incredibly gifted passer for his age. He's still looking to become a more effective scorer, but Illinois doesn't need him to drop 15-20 a night to be successful. Curbelo's the likely breakout candidate on the team (if he hasn't broken out already), but Trent Frazier is the real leader. Frazier returns for his "super senior" year after taking advantage of the extra COVID year, providing proven leadership with a nice shooting touch. Along with that pair is another veteran, Da'Monte Williams, a strong shooter who can defend multiple positions. Combined, the trio may not have the superstar ability of Dosunmu, but it's certainly a good enough core to keep Illinois in Big Ten Title contention.

Frontcourt: The decision by Cockburn to return to Champaign was a real shocker. He looked like he'd land somewhere in the NBA Draft but after deciding to return to school, he looked like he might transfer. Instead, his return gives the Illini a dominant interior force who dwarfs most Big Ten bigs. Cockburn is a monster around the rim and a force on the glass, but Illinois would like to see him grow his offensive game (as would the NBA for that matter). If he can become a better mid range shooter or improve at the line, that would go a long way for this Illinois offense. There's not a bunch of experience in the frontcourt beyond Cockburn, but Coleman Hawkins is expected to step up after seeing a healthy dosage of minutes as a freshman, while Florida transfer Omar Payne was a big get. Payne's got a game very similar to Cockburn's, but he's a better shot-blocker. Having him as a backup will be particularly important, as Cockburn is still foul prone.

Overview: Even though last spring's loss to Loyola Chicago was a heartbreaker, there is no denying how great of a job head coach Brad Underwood has done with Illinois. It's unlikely this year's team will be able to reach the heights of last year's now that Dosunmu is gone, but Curbelo, Frazier, and Cockburn are an awfully good starting point. Although the team might not be as strong overall, a better path in the NCAA Tournament could provide a second weekend appearance.

Postseason Prediction: Sweet 16

5. Michigan State Spartans 15-13 in 2020-21 (First Four)

2020-21 Review: It was an uncharacteristic year in East Lansing last winter, as Michigan State needed a strong second half of Big Ten play just to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. They did, managing to avoid their first NCAA Tournament miss since 1997, but came up just short against UCLA, a team that would go on to the Final Four themselves. Losing to such a hot team helps make the loss easier, but it's clear that Tom Izzo is planning for a redemptive 2021-22 season after the team finished sub-.500 in the league for the first time since the early 1990s.

Backcourt: It was painfully clear how much Michigan State missed Cassius Winston last season, as they lacked a true point guard able to run the show. Neither Rocket Watts nor Foster Loyer fit the position the way Izzo likes, which resulted in the offense looking out-of-sync all season long, finishing 12th in the conference in scoring. Izzo hopes he has a quick fix in the form of Northeastern transfer Tyson Walker, who will see big minutes right away. Walker is a smart, heady point guard who also happens to be one of the best defensive players at his position anywhere in the NCAA. He'll be a massive addition, but it's somewhat unclear who will join him in the Spartan backcourt, as both Watts and Loyer transferred. Sophomore A.J. Hoggard should see an expanded role, but it's primarily a bunch of newcomers surrounding him. Sweet-shooting guard Max Christie was a huge get for Izzo and staff and will help to space the floor, while Pierre Brooks II was Michigan's Mr. Basketball. This is an unproven group, but it seems to fit what Izzo wants to do more than last year's edition.

Frontcourt: The Spartans are very deep along their frontcourt, but it will be interesting to see which pieces emerge as the real go-to options. Former Marquette transfer Joey Hauser had an up-and-down first season in East Lansing. He was dominant early on, but was benched during Big Ten play and will need to regain his confidence this winter. Senior Gabe Brown has flashed serious upside and is versatile enough to help in a lot of ways, but he's been seriously inconsistent. Then there's Malik Hall, Mady Sissoko, Julius Marble and Marcus Bingham Jr., all pieces who have talent, but haven't put it all together. Hall in particular looks like the closest to being a proven commodity, but he's slightly undersized and has had a difficult time adjusting to the physicality of the Big Ten. Don't be shocked if Sissoko starts to emerge from the pack, as the former big-time recruit has obvious upside, but was simply too raw to make an impact a season ago.

Overview: Even though this Michigan State team still has question marks, a bounce-back season from the Spartans seems likely. Izzo is too good of a coach, and this program is too strong to have another year near the bottom of the conference standings. With that being said, the backcourt absolutely needs to identify their starters early, and Christie will have to make an immediate impact. That's a lot to put on a young group, but not having to deal with as many COVID restrictions as last year should be a major benefit.

Postseason Prediction: Second Round

6. Indiana Hoosiers 12-15 in 2020-21 (No Postseason)

2020-21 Review: Few coaches in recent college basketball memory have been as sure things as Archie Miller at Indiana. Miller came over after a highly successful run at Dayton, and was supposed to restore the downtrodden Hoosiers to Big Ten glory. There always seemed to be some type of disconnect between the talent Miller was able to bring in and the actual results on the court and after four straight seasons without an NCAA Tournament bid, Indiana let him go. While the Hoosiers did finish 12-15 overall and tenth in the league, Miller does leave behind a full cupboard for new hire Mike Woodson.

Backcourt: Junior guard Rob Phinisee leads a backcourt with some familiar names and a big name newcomer in Pitt transfer Xavier Johnson. Phinsee won't lead Indiana in scoring, but his ability to control the offense and distribute the ball makes him the most important Hoosier on the court. Johnson will operate as the go-to scorer after tallying 14.2 PPG for the Panthers. With that being said, Johnson is a much better passer than most give him credit for, which should allow others in this backcourt to get involved. That includes names such as sophomore Khristian Lander and freshman Tamar Bates. Lander flashed potential a season ago, while Bates is a former Texas commit who moved on after Shaka Smart left. Additionally, UT-Martin transfer Parker Stewart provides valuable shooting prowess and can guard multiple positions at 6'5". 

Frontcourt: Trayce Jackson-Davis' decision to return to Bloomington was a major win for Woodson. Jackson-Davis is one of the best do-it-all players in the conference, as he can bang down low but has also flashed improved shooting ability. He averaged 19.1 PPG and nine boards per game last season and should be even more impactful this winter. Also back in the fold are veterans Race Thompson and Michael Durr, who played big minutes on last year's squad. Thompson flirted with transferring but instead opted to play for Woodson, while Durr is a behemoth down low who is looking to grow his offensive game. As crucial as that trio will be for Indiana's fortunes in 2021-22, the player to watch may be Miller Kopp, a Northwestern transplant. Kopp has an extremely impressive and varied offensive game and can really shoot the ball, despite being 6'7". He'll play a major role on this team this season and should hopefully open up more opportunities for Jackson-Davis and company down low due to his floor-spacing capabilities.

Overview: Woodson was a fairly surprising hire at the time, but his ability to bring back Jackson-Davis and the rest of this core, while adding Kopp, was impressive. There will still be growing pains as the Hoosiers transition to a new system, but this team was way more talented than a 12-15 last year. They are a good bet to break their NCAA Tournament drought, as they haven't played in the Big Dance since 2016.

Postseason Prediction: Second Round

7. Maryland Terrapins 17-14 in 2020-21 (Second Round)

2020-21 Review: The Terrapins began the 2020-21 Big Ten schedule slow, but rebounded to put together a solid 9-11 mark in the nation's toughest league. They pulled off somewhat of a surprising upset over UConn in the first round, but couldn't keep up with Alabama a few days later. In general, the season was a perfect encapsulation of Maryland basketball over the past half-decade; there was plenty to like, but it left fans wanting more, as the program has won a lot in the regular season but is still searching for its first second weekend NCAA trip since 2016.

Backcourt: The backcourt loses two key pieces in guards Aaron Wiggins and Darryl Morsell, who combined for over 23 points per game last season. However, head coach Mark Turgeon brings back a proven lead guard in Eric Ayala, and added numerous supporting pieces. Ayala appears on the cusp of true superstardom after leading the team in scoring last season. He's a crafty, intelligent playmaker who shot the ball extremely well down the stretch in 2020-21. It wouldn't be surprising at all if he managed First Team All-Big Ten this year. Ayala will be supported by Rhode Island transfer Fatts Russell and Hakim Hart, who played big minutes down the stretch last year. Russell was a regular contributor at Rhode Island and one of the biggest transfers in the league this off-season, while Hart can really pass the ball. Utah transfer Ian Martinez may also be counted on to play important minutes after taking the journey cross-country.

Frontcourt: Maryland didn't quite have the inside presence on last year's team they have in past iterations, although Donta Scott did emerge as a reliable contributor in Big Ten play. The good news is that Scott is back and ready to go, while Turgeon also brought on Georgetown transfer Qudus Wahab. Wahab is a double-double machine with good touch around the rim who is a natural center, with Scott operating as a power forward. Depth is a slight concern beyond that pair, with a host of transfers likely to see major minutes right away. Elon transfer Simon Wright can shoot the ball and play quality defense and Arizona State transfer Pavlo Dziuba was a pretty high-profile recruit. Turgeon was creative with how he handled the minutes in this frontcourt last season and he'll likely have to be again in '21-'22.

Overview: Since coming over from the ACC, Maryland has been one of the conference's most consistent contenders, but they're still searching for their true breakthrough under Turgeon. This team might be able to do it if the transfers acclimate quickly, but there's just not a ton of proven commodities beyond Ayala and Wahab. Another NCAA trip is very likely, but doing something when they get there has been the big challenge for the Terps.

Postseason Prediction: First Round

8. Rutgers Scarlet Knights 16-12 in 2020-21 (Second Round)

2020-21 Review: Rutgers made their first NCAA Tournament appearance in nearly three decades last March after going .500 in the Big Ten, earning themselves a 10 seed. They managed to topple Clemson in the first round and had future Final Four participant Houston on the ropes the entire way before a heartbreaking choke job that showed head man Steve Pikiell there's still work to be done. Even so, Pikiell continues to build the Scarlet Knights into a formidable foe in the loaded Big Ten and has another potential Tournament team on his hands in 2021-22.

Backcourt: Even though losing the tandem of Jacob Young and Montez Mathis hurts, Rutgers should still have one of the better backcourts in the Big Ten. Veterans Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker have proven they can lead the offense and Baker has improved as a passer throughout his Scarlet Knight career. They're joined by junior Caleb McConnell and sophomore Paul Mulcahy. McConnell saw his role expand at the end of last season and could play starters' minutes in 2021-22, while Mulcahy was a solid bench option a year ago and can really shoot the ball. 

Frontcourt: The frontcourt remains mostly intact but the lone absence is a significant one: seven-footer Myles Johnson left for UCLA. Johnson was fairly limited on the offensive end, but he was a key defender in the heart of the paint, averaging 2.4 BPG. The expectation is that the loss of Johnson will lead to an increased role in second-year freshman Cliff Omoruyi. Omoruyi was a high-profile recruit, but he didn't see the type of playing time some had expected a season ago. He's bulked up to try and handle the physical Big Ten, but there's still a ways to go. Joining Omoruyi will be a pair of transfers in Ralph Agee, who hails from San Jose State, and LSU's Aundre Hyatt. Hyatt is a special player, a 6'6" combo forward who can guard multiple positions but also offers a 7'4" wingspan. Another name to watch is Jaden Jones, who graduated early last year and played in four games, but was unable to make much of an impact.

Overview: The Scarlet Knights had one of their best teams in program history last winter, but there's still work to be done to challenge for the top of the Big Ten. Losing Johnson really hurts their frontcourt, which will be a difficult in a conference loaded with elite bigs, but Harper and Baker give them a fighting chance. After going .500 in the league last season, a slight slip down the conference standings may be in store, but another NCAA Tournament trek is likely.                  

Postseason Prediction: First Round

9. Iowa Hawkeyes 22-9 in 2020-21 (Second Round)

2020-21 Review: It's not often at a place like Iowa you have one of college basketball's brightest stars, but the Hawkeyes had just that in Luka Garza. Garza was a dominant force all season long, averaging over 24 PPG and nearly nine boards per game en route to National Player of the Year honors. Despite his impressive play, however, the Hawkeyes never seemed to reach their full potential. They finished third in the Big Ten and earned a two seed, but were thumped by Oregon in the second round. With Garza now officially gone, a new era begins for Fran McCaffery in Iowa City.

Backcourt: Long-term backcourt piece Jordan Bohannon chose to use another year of eligibility to help try and guide the Hawkeyes back to the postseason. Bohannon will never be an All-Conference guard, but he's a solid distributor and decent shooter who knows the league inside and out. He will play a crucial leadership role on this young team. Joining Bohannon in the backcourt is junior Joe Toussaint and Connor McCaffery. Toussaint will assume point guard duties full-time, while McCaffery is the type of intelligent, skilled ball-handler and defender that any college basketball team would love to have. With that being said, Iowa is very thin in the backcourt beyond that trio. Sophomore Ahron Ulis may be in store for a larger role, but there's nothing proven beyond him.

Frontcourt: Obviously, replacing a figure like Garza is a tall order. McCaffery is hopeful that a combination of newcomers and potential breakout candidates can somehow find a way to replicate Garza's impressive production. Sophomore Keegan Murray appears to be the most likely breakout possibility; he was incredibly productive as a freshman and has proven he can score and defend in this league. If he can become a better shooter, he has talent to be the top scoring threat on this roster. In addition, Patrick McCaffery, Fran's son, is expected to play a larger role. McCaffery is still limited in some aspects of his game, but he's a long and athletic forward who oozes with potential. Finally, there's two newcomers, Riley Mulvey and Filip Rebraca, who will play a role. Rebraca proved to be a quality scoring option during his time at North Dakota and knows how to play high-major basketball.

Overview: Although losing Garza and Joe Wieskamp will undoubtedly cause a rebuilding season in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes could still be interesting. Bohannon, Murray, Toussaint, and both McCafferys give the roster experience and potential, even if there's not yet an identifiable star. However, the lack of depth and proven scoring pieces likely mean it's an NIT year for the Hawkeyes.

Postseason Prediction: NIT

10. Wisconsin Badgers 18-13 in 2020-21 (Second Round)

2020-21 Review: A veteran-laden team was supposed to deliver a potential special season in Madison, but the Badgers instead stuck near the middle-of-the-pack for much of the season. They finished 18-13 overall and 10-10 in the league, tying with several others for sixth place. A short-lived NCAA Tournament berth saw them lose handily to the eventual National Champion Baylor Bears. The on-court results were merely okay, but the bigger story might be the off-the-court drama. A tense, players-only meeting that included several veterans airing their grievances about the program appears to show deeper problems for the program as they prepare for Greg Gard's seventh year.

Backcourt: Few players anywhere in college basketball are as controversial Brad Davison. Davison has proven to be a solid Big Ten guard, but he's also had a variety of instances of him playing dirty basketball. Even so, he was able to come back for one more year due to the NCAA's COVID eligibility rules, meaning Wisconsin has a proven veteran leading the way, even if he has a love-hate relationship with most Badger fans. There's a chance that the other starter in the backcourt will be freshman Chucky Hepburn, who could run the show as the point guard. Hepburn is a level-headed, intelligent player who should be able to quickly adjust to the speed of the college game. Joining those two is Jonathan Davis, who is a real breakout possibility. He already is the team's No. 2 returning scorer, but even more is expected after the way he finished 2020-21.

Frontcourt: The frontcourt was hit particularly hard by losses, as Micah Potter, Nate Reuvers, and Aleem Ford all left. That leaves Gard and staff scrambling to help new blood acclimate to large roles quickly, namely guys like Ben Carlson, Steven Crowl, and freshman Matthew Mors. Neither Carlson nor Crowl saw much playing time last season but could now start, while Mors was the three-time Player of the Year in South Dakota. Sophomore Tyler Wahl does provide much-needed experience on the wing, and he had a strong second half in '21-'22. He's especially important as a versatile player who can score in a wide variety of ways. Beyond that, there's simply not much here, with the exception being Cincinnati grad transfer Chris Vogt. This could be the thinnest backcourt in recent Badger history.

Overview: There's a sense of pressure surrounding Gard and the entire program as they embark on 2021-22. All the roster turnover means that there will be plenty of new faces, although having a few familiar ones, such as Davison, Davis, and Wahl will be a major help. There's not just enough returning to expect another NCAA Tournament trip, especially considering how many good frontcourts there are currently in the Big Ten.

Postseason Prediction: NIT

11. Northwestern Wildcats 9-15 in 2020-21 (No Postseason)

2020-21 Review: The Wildcats were one of the surprises of the early 2020-21 Big Ten season, winning their first three league games, which included upsetting then-No. 4 Michigan State and No. 23 Ohio State. It turns out the early success wouldn't carry through, as Northwestern lost their next 13 games before finishing up strong, with three consecutive wins to end the regular season. A 6-13 league record left them 12th in the Big Ten, but there was enough progress for the Wildcats to start thinking about a return to the NCAA Tournament in 2021-22.

Backcourt: The Wildcats are loaded with experience in the backcourt, with two of their top scorers, Boo Buie and Chase Audige, leading the charge. The pair has to learn to be more consistent but when they're on, they form one of the best guard combos in the Big Ten. Audige in particular has All-League talent and is a tough matchup for opposing defenders at 6'5" with speed. Reliable guard Ryan Greer is also back and will see minutes off the bench. Greer isn't much of a scorer, but he's an elite defender who puts in high quality minutes. Beyond that trio, a host of freshmen will compete for minutes, namely Casey Simmons and Julian Roper II. Roper in particular is a name to watch, as the high-flying Michigan product can play multiple guard spots and rebounds incredibly well for his position.

Frontcourt: The only loss for Northwestern in the frontcourt is a notable one, as Miller Kopp transferred to Indiana after averaging 11.3 PPG in 2020-21. His shooting touch will be sorely missed for a team that needs to space the floor better, but there's still loads of talent in the frontcourt. Junior Pete Nance continues to grow into his own, as an explosive forward who can shoot the ball. Much like Audige and Buie, consistency has been an issue for the veteran, but he's a real menace for opponents when he's playing well. Nance will be flanked up front by sophomores Ryan Young and Robbie Beran, who put up solid numbers a season ago. Young's a crafty player around the rim, but he has a long way to go to match some of the other elite bigs in conference, while Beran is a factor on the glass. Add in Farleigh Dickinson transfer Elyjah Williams, who is a prototypical stretch four, and the Wildcats will be the deepest they've been in years in the frontcourt.

Overview: Chris Collins succeeded in his main mission when taking over Northwestern basketball: delivering an NCAA Tournament berth for the first time in program history. Since then, Collins has learned trying to create a consistent winner in the Big Ten can be just as hard. However, the Wildcats showed real fight and toughness last year, even if the 13-game losing streak was tough to watch. With a ton back and a decent crop of freshmen, this could be a sneaky Northwestern team that could play themselves into Tournament consideration.

Postseason Prediction: NIT

12. Penn State Nittany Lions 11-14 in 2020-21 (No Postseason)

2020-21 Review: On top of all the difficulties COVID-19 presented last season, Penn State also had to deal with coaching turnover, as head man Pat Chambers was fired mere weeks before the season. The Nittany Lions handled it about as well as you could ask, as they fought to a 7-12 record in the toughest conference in America. Interim coach Jim Ferry was not retained and took over at UMBC, which meant PSU turned to Purdue assistant Micah Shrewsberry to take over the program. Shrewsberry has a decent amount of experience back, but will have work to do as he tries to guide the Nittany Lions to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in over a decade.

Backcourt: There will be a learning curve for the backcourt as Izaiah Brockington, Myreon Jones, and Jamari Wheeler all move on. Juniors Myles Dread and Sam Sessoms should now be in for larger roles after primarily coming off the bench a year ago. Dread remains one of the best shooters in the league, while Sessoms is a scrappy, rock-solid combo guard. Beyond that, Shrewsberry and staff will have to lean on a group of newcomers. Jaheam Cornwall comes over from Gardner-Webb after putting together an All-Conference season, while Jalen Pickett arrives from Siena. Pickett isn't quite the scorer Cornwall is, but offers plenty as a quality defender and tremendous rebounder.

Frontcourt: After flirting with the idea of transferring, Seth Lundy decided to come back for another year in State College. It's a huge returnee for the Nittany Lions, as Lundy averaged 10.1 PPG last year and proved he could have scoring outbursts regularly. He'll undoubtedly become PSU's top scoring option this season, especially with Brockington and Jones gone. Senior forward John Harrar is a beast on the glass and a real leader in the locker room who will play a pivotal role for this team. Additionally, little-used second-year forward Caleb Dorsey is back in town. Dorsey wasn't able to crack the starting lineup last season, but has the potential to be a complete offensive player. There's reinforcements coming in through the portal here, as well. Greg Lee arrives after an All-MAC season with Western Michigan, while JUCO transfer Jevonnie Scott could help out at any number of positions. 

Overview: Penn State's basketball program has been stuck in a frustrating spot for most of the last decade. Rarely have they ever bottomed-out, but they haven't been a serious NCAA Tournament threat for some time. The hope is that Shrewsberry will provide much-needed stability, while also increasing their upside in the long-term. His first team likely will take some scrapes and bruises with so many big names gone, but Lundy, Harrar and company will keep them in the fight. 

Postseason Prediction: None

13. Nebraska Cornhuskers 7-20 in 2020-21 (No Postseason)

2020-21 Review: Fred Hoiberg's second team in Lincoln wasn't a ton better than his first, as Nebraska floundered in the cellar of the Big Ten once again. They went 7-20 overall and 3-16 but at least showed more offensive spark than the 2019-2020 team and were in more games. Hoiberg is now hoping that his third team can be the one that really gets the program off-the-ground. The roster flipped completely for the third straight off-season, meaning there will be a host of new faces leading the offense.

Backcourt: Trey McGowens proved to be a key pickup for Hoiberg last season, as the former Pitt Panther averaged 10.7 PPG and 3.9 RPG. He's the top returning scorer on the roster and if he can find his jumper again, he could be one of the more underrated players in the conference. However, his real value may have been as a recruiter, as he obviously played a huge role in getting his brother, Bryce, to sign with the Cornhuskers. Bryce is the highest-rated recruit in school history and steps on to campus with a crazy amount of fanfare. He'll undoubtedly see major minutes right away, with Nebraska likely to feed him the ball early and often. Arizona State transfer Alonzo Verge Jr. was one of the top scorers in the Pac-12 before his decision to transfer, upping the talent level in Lincoln a step further. Both Verge and McGowens may start right away, but senior Kobe Webster did play well down the stretch and will fight to retain his starting gig.

Frontcourt: The 'Husker frontcourt is an interesting collection of players with vastly different strengths. Junior Lat Mayen is incredibly streaky from three-point range but is extremely effective when he's on his game. Tennessee transfer Derrick Walker arrived from the SEC and proved to be a plus-defender with some offensive abilities. Second-year freshman Eduardo Andre is a giant at 6'10" with a mind-boggling 7'5" wingspan. He has the tools to be an elite shot-blocker, but needs to add weight to survive the Big Ten. Newcomer Wilhelm Breidenbach comes in with plenty of hype as a Top 100 recruit, but tore knee cartilage last spring. It's unclear when he'll be back completely at full-go, but he has impressed in practice so far.

Overview: Nebraska knew that Hoiberg would need some time to get the program back to competitiveness, and his first two years gave been brutal. The hope is that the always-important Year 3 will finally start to yield some results. With McGowens and Verge both arriving and numerous returnees, the 'Huskers have the tools to be an interesting team. They likely still won't be a postseason team, but could get themselves out of the cellar of the league.

Postseason Prediction: None

14. Minnesota Golden Gophers 14-15 in 2020-21 (No Postseason)

2020-21 Review: 2020-21 was a story of two seasons for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. There was the 9-1 start that included wins over Iowa and Michigan State. There was also the horrifying finish, with the Gophers losing ten of their final 12 regular season games, including losses to Northwestern and Nebraska. The steep fall during the season's second half led AD Mark Coyle to finally move on from head coach Richard Pitino after nearly a decade in charge in Minneapolis. New head man Ben Johnson has never been a head coach and watched as his roster underwent historical levels of turnover over the off-season.

Backcourt: The only familiar name in the Minnesota backcourt is Payton Willis, who played one season with the Gophers before a quick pit stop at College of Charleston. Willis started 25 games for the Gophers in 2019-20 and proved to be a solid scorer who can shoot the ball. After playing more a support role the last time he was here, Willis will have the green light early and often this season. Beyond him, it is anybody's guess who will see the vast majority of the minutes in the Gopher backcourt. A trio of transfers come in from the low-major ranks, all with different skill sets. William & Mary product Luke Loewe led his team in scoring and has a craft offensive game, Lafayette transfer Eylijah Stephens gets to the rim and shoots well at the stripe, and Sean Sutherlin had his moments at New Hampshire but struggled with injury. There's also Abdoulaye Thiam, whose only career experience came at Indian River Junior College. Thiam shot the ball well last season, but obviously the JUCO ranks are quite different than the Big Ten.

Frontcourt: There's slightly more experience in the Minnesota frontcourt, but that's a relative statement. Long-time big Eric Curry graduated and looked to be gone, but instead decided to return for one final year. Curry has proven to be a productive big when healthy, but injuries have been an unfortunate theme of his career. If he can't stay healthy, the Gophers don't have a ton of options on this front line. George Washington transfer Jamison Battle was a major get for Johnson and this staff, as he was an All-Atlantic 10 player last winter. He immediately becomes one of the major scoring threats on this roster, and his previous background with Johnson will really help. Beyond those two, there's a whole bunch of questions. Division II All-American Parker Fox is a Minnesota native who made the decision to come home, but he's expected to miss the entire season. Isaiah Ihnen, a former Top 100 recruit who flashed some potential under Pitino, was also expected to play an important role but will also miss the season. That likely means former Stephen F. Austin transfer Charlie Daniels, freshman Treyton Thompson, and Division II transfer Danny Ogele will vie for other minutes. Even if this front-line is able to stay healthy, this is pretty clearly the worst frontcourt in the league.

Overview: Even in a year where the transfer portal was overflowing, perhaps no team in college basketball experienced as much roster turnover as the Gophers. They watched key names like Marcus Carr, Gabe Kalscheur and Liam Robbins head elsewhere and the few that remained on the roster, such as Ihnen, are not healthy. Consider this crazy stat: last March, Minnesota's 12 healthy players attended 12 different schools at five different levels (DI, DII, DIII, NJCAA and high school). It would be absolute miracle if this team was competitive in Johnson's debut campaign. In fact, the reality is that this could challenge as one of the worst teams in Gopher school history.

Postseason Prediction: None

All-Big Ten Teams

First Team

G Andre Curbelo, Illinois

G Eric Ayala, Maryland

F Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana

F Hunter Dickinson, Michigan

F/C Kofi Cockburn, Illinois

Second Team

G Jaden Ivey, Purdue

G Ron Harper Jr., Rutgers

F Caleb Houstan, Michigan

F E.J. Liddell, Ohio State

F/C Trevion Williams, Purdue


G Bryce McGowens, Nebraska

G Max Christie, Michigan State

F Caleb Houstan, Michigan

F Caleb Furst, Purdue

F/C Moussa Diabate, Michigan

Conference Superlatives

Player of the Year: Hunter Dickinson, Michigan

Coach of the Year: Matt Painter, Purdue

Freshman of the Year: Caleb Houstan, Michigan

Transfer of the Year: Alonzo Verge Jr., Nebraska

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