I will be breaking down who I deem to be the most important to each B1G team’s overall success for this upcoming college basketball season. The order of team’s in this list are based on my projected conference standings from worst to best.
After losing leading scorers Andrew White and Shavon Shields, Nebraska is losing a majority of its scoring. That leaves Nebraska’s leading returning scorer as Senior guard Tai Webster who averaged 10 ppg last year and shot the ball at an impressive 47% clip. I think Webster could have a sneaky good year while I expect Nebraska to replace Rutgers as bottom dwellers in the Big Ten. Lack of scoring options and no real threat down low will cause the Huskers to struggle this year.
A program that is looking to gain some momentum under first year coach Steve Pikiell, Rutgers is going to rely on the play of Sophomore guard Corey Sanders. Last year as a Freshman, Sanders led Rutgers in scoring with 15.9 ppg to go along with 4.3 apg and 1.8 spg. He was the lone bright spot for a dismal Rutgers team that went 1-17 in Big Ten play last year. Look for Sanders to improve his efficiency with a better offensive system in place and don’t be surprised if he ends up leading the B1G in scoring. This young and inexperienced Rutgers squad will go as Sanders go this year. If he has a big year, look for Rutgers to no longer be the bottom dwellers in the Big Ten in 2016-2017.
Let’s face it, Richard Pitino may be sitting on the hottest seat in the Big Ten (next to John Groce). He desperately needs to show Gopher nation that the program is trending in the right direction. Pitino will put his trust in his most experienced player, Junior point guard Nate Mason to rally the troops and put together a more productive season than last year. This crafty, quick guard will not only be leaned on to run the offense but also to set the tone on defense. He needs to put guys like 4-star Freshman Amir Coffey and sophomore wing Jordan Murphy in position to score and inspire his teammates to get key stops down the stretch in games – something they didn’t do at all last year. I still expect Minnesota to be in the bottom tier of the Big Ten, as the fire under Richard Pitino will continue to burn.
Over the past few seasons, there probably hasn’t been a more injury-plagued team in the nation than Illinois. Last year, the Illini saw several of the top players go down with injury, leaving the roster depleted. One of the lone few bright spots, however, was Malcolm Hill. Averaging 18.1 ppg and 6.6 rpg, Hill boasted a very solid individual statistical season in an otherwise forgetful year for Illinois. He is a guy that did it all last year, and for John Groce’s sake, he can produce at the same rate this year while improving his three-point shooting. When the Illini need a bucket or a defensive stop, Hill will be THE GUY all year. I expect Malcolm Hill to have a monster year and save Groce’s job for at least one more year. However, I do not expect the Illini to be a serious contender for an NCAA tournament berth.
This one is a clear no-brainer for me here. After losing four Seniors last year to graduation, Peter Jok is the only returning starter for the Hawkeyes. I expect Iowa to struggle quite a bit this year. On the other hand, Peter Jok is poised to have an insanely high usage rate which should lead him to have a monster statistical year. It would not be surprising to see Jok put up close to 20 points a game and lead the B1G in scoring this year. His prowess from long range combined with his length on defense could cause some headaches for opposing players. Losing a combined 46 points from the lineup will ultimately mean a rebuilding year for Iowa, but surely expect to hear Peter Jok’s name as an All-Big Ten First Team selection at the end of the year.
The Wildcats are coming off a 20-12 season with an 8-10 B1G record while losing Seniors Tre Demps and Alex Olah. They showed flashes of potential throughout the year, but there is a big burning question in Evanston: Will this finally be the year that Northwestern makes the NCAA Tournament? This will all depend how much Bryant McIntosh progresses from last year. For this upcoming season, Head Coach Chris Collins will give full reigns of the offense to his Junior point guard. McIntosh showed flashes of being a solid point guard in the Big Ten. He was second in the Big Ten last year with close to 7 assists per game. His scoring ability was there as well as he averaged around 14 ppg. The one thing he needs to improve, in my opinion, is his consistency from beyond-the-arc. This will open the floor to allow McIntosh to create more for his teammates. I expect McIntosh to build on his strong Sophomore year and be a Second Team All-Big Ten member.
- Penn State
Pat Chambers and the Nittany Lions have been extremely close to breaking through to the middle tier of the Big Ten. This is the year I expect this to happen in Happy Valley. However, I expect them to be led not by their leading returning scorer Shep Garner, but by Freshman point guard Tony Carr. The highest ranked recruit Pat Chambers has brought in, Carr has a ton of hype surrounding him as this season gets underway. At 6’3” Carr has fantastic size for a point guard. He possesses great vision and is crafty when attacking the lane. His length could allow him to be disruptive on the defensive side of the ball as well. Tony Carr gives PSU a true point guard to run the offense and put his teammates in position to succeed; the type of player they haven’t had since Tim Frazier. I expect him to have a great season and put the Nittany Lions in the race for a potential appearance in the Big Dance.
- Ohio State
After losing multiple players to transfer after last year and not bringing in a particularly good recruiting class, most people might expect the Buckeyes to struggle throughout this upcoming season. Ohio State returns their top five leading scorers and has a pretty solid starting five. They will lack some depth this year but I think they have the potential to be one of the top offensive teams in the B1G this year. The first player I think of when I hear Ohio State basketball is JaQuan Lyle. He struggled a bit with his efficiency and field goal numbers last season. When looking at his averages last year, (11.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg, and 4.2 apg) Lyle was an absolute do-it-all, stat sheet stuffer type of player. If he can improve his shooting (39.7% field goals and 25.2% from long range) I think JaQuan Lyle can make some noise in not only the B1G, but across the country.
I want to like this Michigan team with guys like Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton Jr., Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and Duncan Robinson, but I just don’t think their frontcourt can consistently produce/hang with other of the more prominent frontcourts in the B1G. The player that stands out most to me is Senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr. He averaged 11.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.5 apg, and 1.8 spg. That’s what I call filling up the box score. The knock on Walton, however, was his efficiency shooting the ball (37.7% from the field). This is his Senior year, and I expect him to step up and be “The Guy” for the Wolverines. His versatility, leadership, and experience will be key for Michigan this year as they look to build on a solid end to last season. Don’t sleep on this high scoring backcourt for the Wolverines this year. Oh, and Kam Chatman traveled.
After losing 4 starters, I really am not too high on the Terps this year. Some analysts have them ranked in the top 25 which I’m confused on why. What we do know about Maryland is it returns its best player, preseason All-American Melo Trimble. He is clearly the most important player on his team, as he is the only current starter to play significant minutes with Maryland in the past. Coming off a season where he put up 14.8 ppg and 4.9 apg, but 2.6 TO/game, Trimble wasn’t too efficient last year. For Maryland to have any chance at contending for the Big Ten title, Trimble must take better care of the basketball and improving his consistency from long range. Overall, I don’t expect Maryland to be in contention for the B1G and (HOT TAKE) wouldn’t be surprised if they missed the NCAA Tournament.
After losing in the round of 64 for the second consecutive season, Purdue is hopeful that Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas can fill the shoes of AJ Hammons in the post. Yet, I do not think either of these two, or Purdue’s heralded point guard savior Carsen Edwards, are the most important player for the Boilers to be successful. My pick here is do-it-all, versatile forward Vince Edwards. Last season, Edwards impressed me with his 45% from the floor and 40% from behind the arc. I believe him to be Purdue’s best option on the offensive end and potentially take over as Purdue’s best defender with his length. An increase from 11 ppg to somewhere in the mid-teens is very possible. I deem Purdue to potentially be competitive for a Big Ten Championship, but I think it will depend heavily on whether Vince Edwards steps forward and takes that leadership role in West Lafayette.
- Michigan State
With all the hype surrounding Tom Izzo’s most heralded recruiting class perhaps in his entire tenure at Michigan State and the departures of Seniors Denzel Valentine, Brynn Forbes, and Matt Costello, many college basketball followers don’t know exactly what to make of the Spartans this year. Many expect Freshman Miles Bridges to be the best player on that team; and while he just might be the most talented, I do not see him being the most important to the success of MSU. I see West Virginia transfer Eron Harris making the biggest impact on this young Spartan squad. At West Virginia, he was known to be a prolific scorer (averaged 17 ppg his last year in Morgantown). Although he struggled last year on the offensive end at times, I expect him to be a big-time scorer this year. Add that to his exceptional defensive ability we saw at the end of last year, and he could be one of the top two-way players in the Big Ten this year.
Being the die-hard Hoosier that I am, this was a tough one for me to pick. Up until last week, I really felt that Robert Johnson stepping up as a primary ball handler would be most important for IU. Then, I realized that its clearly OG Anunoby. Breakout star from the end of last regular season, carrying into the NCAA tournament where he notably shut down Jamal Murray of Kentucky. OG’s unbelievable athleticism, length, and strength allow him to dominate on defense and on the boards. We saw flashes of Anunoby’s 3 point shot last year where in a small sample size he shot 44% from deep. Seeing him this year in the first two exhibitions making 7 out of 11 shots from deep, I think I am ready to buy in on him being a legitimate threat from outside. Him being a threat from outside will allow the Indiana offense to have tremendous space; something that Tom Crean loves to see from his offense. Overall, I expect OG to be a force on both ends of the floor all season long. If you haven’t heard of him yet, be prepared because he is about to take the NCAA by storm…
While there is much hype surrounding preseason Big-Ten Player of the Year Nigel Hayes, I don’t think he is either Wisconsin’s best nor most important player. Remember the guy who hit the corner three to game Xavier in the round of 32? Yeah, that guy is Bronson Koenig, and he is also the most vital player to the Badgers’ success. Koenig, now a Senior, has a ton of valuable experience running the offense, specifically when his Wisconsin team made the National Championship in 2014. He has handled the ball in big games and has made shots in crunch time. Koenig did indeed struggle a bit last year in the regular season, but Wisconsin returns every single player from their rotation from last year. They are poised for a massive season, and I’m all aboard the Bronson Koenig hype train. Look for Koenig to up his shooting percentage along with his assists per game, and he is primed for an All-Big Ten year and a Big Ten Championship. Wisconsin is my official preseason pick to win the Big Ten this year.