The Big Ten routinely can puff out its chest as the deepest conference in college basketball. But the conference enters the 2020-21 season suffering from a 20-year national championship drought.
Tom Izzo led Michigan State to the 2000 national championship. Maryland won the 2002 title as a member of the ACC.
Since 2000, six Big Ten teams have come one step away from a title win, falling in the NCAA Championship Game: Indiana (2002), Illinois (2005), Ohio State (2007), Michigan State (2009), Michigan (2013 and 2018), Wisconsin (2015).
Next season, the Big Ten features multiple teams who seem capable of a run at a national championship, strengthened further by some of the conference’s top stars withdrawing from the NBA Draft and returning to college for one more season.
Iowa (No. 5), Illinois (No. 6), Wisconsin (No. 10) and Michigan State (No. 11) all rank inside the top-11 of the CBS Sports latest 25 And 1 rankings.
Big Ten Player of the Year Luka Garza returns to Iowa as the national player of the year favorite. All-Big Ten First Team guard Ayo Dosunmu and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Kofi Cockburn give Illinois its best roster in at least 15 years. Wisconsin returns almost everyone from a team that surprisingly won a share of the Big Ten Championship last year. And while Michigan State lost stars Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, the Spartans still feature one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the league and are led by a Hall of Fame coach.
“This league may be better this year,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “I think it’s very realistic, I like to throw Rutgers in that mix, with what they’ve got back. I think you could see a Michigan team that is very talented. But I think you’ve got five, six teams at the top that are all good enough to win a national championship. I think the league gets better. I love the fact that it was great last year. We’ll see what continues to happen with COVID as we move forward, but I think it’s going to be a year where we can see a positive test or two during the season and it’s a team that has depth that ultimately can win. Maryland is going to be very good. You just go right on down the list, and so I think the league will be better.”
So who is the favorite in the Big Ten? 247Sports polled 14 Big Ten reporters for their predicted conference order of finish.
Here are some findings that stuck out:
- Four different teams earned first-place votes: Iowa (5), Illinois (4), Wisconsin (4) and Michigan State (1).
- The top two teams (Iowa and Illinois) were separated by just three total points.
- There were clear tiers with the top-four being separated by an average rank difference of just 1.6 points. Then the second tier of four teams was separated by an average rank difference of just 0.7 points. Three of those teams (Nos. 6-8) were separated by a total of just three overall vote points. The difference between 9th and 10th was two total points, the difference between 11th and 12th was just four total points and the difference between 13th and 14th was just four total points.
- Ohio State had the widest range of vote differences. One writer picked Ohio State to finish second, while two others picked the Buckeyes to finish ninth.
High vote: 13th | Low vote: 14th | Average rank: 13.6
Last year’s record: 7-25 overall (2-18 Big Ten)
Key losses: F Kevin Cross (7.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg), G Cam Mack (12.0 ppg, 6.4 apg), G Dachon Burke Jr. (12.2 ppg), G Haanif Cheatham (13.1 ppg), G Jervay Green (8.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg), G Matej Kavas (5.3 ppg),
Key returners: F Thorir Thorbjarnarson (8.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg), F Yvan Ouedraogo (5.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg), F Akol Arop (1.0 ppg), Shamiel Stevenson (transfer), Dalano Banto (transfer), Derrick Walker (transfer)
Key additions: Teddy Allen (No. 5 JUCO), Eduardo Andre (No. 205 composite), Trevor Lakes (Division-II transfer), Lat Mayen (No. 19 JUCO), Trey McGowens (Pitt transfer), Kobe Webster (Western Illinois transfer), Elijah Wood (No. 412 composite)
Comment: After a disappointing first season under Fred Hoiberg, Nebraska basketball has retooled its roster again with a mix of transfers and high school players. Nebraska also adds the trio of Stevenson, Banton and Walker, who sat out last season as transfers. This group fits more of what Hoiberg would like to do offensively, and the additions of Allen on the wing, plus Mayen out of the junior college ranks will pay off immediately for the Big Red. One big question is whether McGowens, who started two seasons at Pitt, will be immediately eligible. If so, the Huskers could have the talent to surprise some teams in the Big Ten.
— Michael Bruntz, Husker 247
High vote: 12th | Low vote: 14th | Average rank: 13.3
Last year’s record: 8-22 overall (3-17 Big Ten)
Key losses: Pat Spencer (10.4 ppg, 3.9 arg)
Key returners: Miller Kopp (13.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg), Boo Buie (10.3 ppg, 2.4 apg), Ryan Young (9.0 rpg, 6.1 apg), Pete Nance (8.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg), Anthony Gaines (5.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg), Robbie Beran (5.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg)
Key additions: G Ty Berry (No. 141 composite), C Matt Nicholson (No. 292 composite)
Comment: Chris Collins led Northwestern’s to its greatest season in program history in 2016-17, leading the Wildcats to a fifth-place Big Ten finish, their first NCAA Tournament appearance and first NCAA Tournament win. But that great season is starting to seem like. A distant memory. Northwestern is 13-45 during Big Ten play the last three seasons and again has fallen to the lowest tier in the conference. The Wildcats will return a lot of experience next season and have a skilled group, especially in the front court, so Northwestern should be more competitive. But the Wildcats aren’t as physical or as athletic as most Big Ten teams and likely need Boo Buie and freshman Ty Berry to step up as playmaking guards to take a significant step forward in the standings.
High vote: 10th | Low vote: 14th | Average rank: 11.6
Last year’s record: 21-10 overall (11-9 Big Ten)
Key losses: F Lamar Stevens (17.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg); F Mike Watkins (9.7 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 66 blocks); G Curtis Jones Jr. (6.2 ppg)
Key returners: G Myreon Jones (13.3 ppg, 40% on 3-pointers); G Myles Dread (8.6 ppg, 65 3-pointers); G Jamari Wheeler (99 assists, 48 steals); G Izaiah Brockington (8.1 ppg); F John Harrar (4.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg); F Seth Lundy (5.3 ppg, 39% on 3-pointers).
Key additions: G Caleb Dorsey (No. 425 composite), G DJ Gordon (No. 353 composite), G Dallion Johnson (6-3, 175), F Abdou Tisimbila (No. 319 composite). Transfer: Samuel Sessoms (Binghamton transfer, sit out)
Comment: Penn State was poised to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance of the Patrick Chambers’ era last winter before the season abruptly ended. Getting back to that level in 2020-21 figures to be a challenge following the graduation of forward Lamar Stevens, who is arguably the best player in school history. The Nittany Lions return five players with significant starting experience from 2019-20 and six athletes who averaged more than 17 minutes per game in the Big Ten, so experience is not an issue. PSU also has elite defenders at guard in veterans Jamari Wheeler and Izaiah Brockington, and remains extremely athletic overall. But guard Myreon Jones was the only player other than Stevens who averaged in double figures in scoring last season, so it is anyone’s guess who — if anyone — will emerge as a consistent offensive threat.
— Mark Brennan, Lions247 With Fight On State
High vote: 10th | Low vote: 12th | Average rank: 11.4
Last year’s record: 15-16 overall (8-12 Big Ten)
Key losses: C Daniel Oturu (20.1 ppg, 11.3 rpg), GPayton Willis (9.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg), F Alihan Demir (7.1pt, 5.0 rpg)
Key returners: G Marcus Carr (15.7 ppg, 6.8 apg, 5.3 rpg), G Gabe Kalscheur (11.6 ppg), F Isaiah Ihnen, G Tre’ Williams, F Jarvis Omersa, F Eric Curry
Key additions: G Jamal Mashburn (No. 129 composite), F Martice Mitchell (No. 150 composite), Brandon Johnson (Western Michigan transfer), Liam Robbins (Drake transfer), Both Gach (Utah transfer)
Comment: So much of Minnesota’s 2020-21 season depends on the waiver requests of Liam Robbins and Both Gach. Richard Pitino’s spring transfer haul of Gach, Johnson and Robbins likely netted them three future starters (plus rave reviews from the transfer rankings). The question is, will they all start during the 2020-21 season? Gach is almost a certainty to receive a waiver considering he transferred back to his home state school which is 90 minutes from his hometown of Austin, Minnesota. Both’s mother has been going through some medical issues, and Both wanted to be closer to home during the pandemic, so his waiver request seems likely to be approved. The Robbins’ waiver announcement should come this week, and it’s a total uncertainty, although word is the Gophers are cautiously optimistic. Robbins is considered the best low-post transfer in the country by many so if he starts in the middle, Minnesota has a chance to be a deep team for the first time in many years. Add in an All-Big Ten honored point guard in Marcus Carr and one of the best shooters/defenders in the league in Gabe Kalascheur, along with the youth of the program, and you have a nice team. However, if the waiver requests are denied, Richard Pitino’s team could be facing an uphill battle.
— Ryan James, Gopher Illustrated
High vote: 8th | Low vote: 11th | Average rank: 9.4
Last year’s record: 16-15 overall (9-11 Big Ten)
Key Losses: C Matt Haarms (8.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg), G/F Nojel Eastern (4.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg), F/C Evan Boudreaux (5.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and G Jaahad Proctor (9.0 ppg)
Key Returners: F/C Trevion Williams (11.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg), F Aaron Wheeler (3.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg), G Eric Hunter Jr. (10.6 ppg), Sasha Stefanovic (9.1 ppg), Brandon Newman, Mason Gillis, Isaiah Thompson (5.6 ppg), Emmanuel Dowuona
Key Additions: G Jaden Ivey (No. 81 composite), G Ethan Morton (No. 94 composite), C Zach Edey (No. 429 composite)
Comment: This team will go as big man Trevion Williams goes. A dominating presence in the middle, Williams will have a deep roster to provide support. Eric Hunter Jr., and Sahsa Stefanovic will need to take another step up, while a collection of freshmen and redshirt freshmen must become early contributors for Matt Painter’s squad.
— Michael McCammon, Boiler Sports Report
High vote: 6th | Low vote: 11th | Average rank: 9.2
Last year’s record: 24-7 overall (14-6 Big Ten)
Key losses: G Anthony Cowan (16.3 ppg, 4.7 apg), F/C Jalen Smith (15.5 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 2.4 bpg)
Key returners: G Darryl Morsell (8.5 ppg), G Aaron Wiggins (10.4 ppg), F Donta Scott (5.9 ppg, 3.6 apg), G Eric Ayala (8.5 ppg)
Key additions: Aquan Smart (No. 406 composite)
Comment: It looks like a potential rebuilding year for the Terps, who lost their two all-conference performers after tying for a piece of the Big Ten title. The core at the 2-4 positions is solid, highlighted by NBA prospect Aaron Wiggins and glue-guy Darryl Morsell, but there are questions at the point and at the five. Maryland has some good pieces but needs a lot of things to go right to finish in the top tier of the conference.
— Jeff Ermann, Inside MD Sports
High vote: 3rd | Low vote: 10th | Average rank: 6.8
Last year’s record: 20-12 (9-11 Big Ten)
Key losses: Devonte Green (10.8 ppg), Justin Smith (10.4 ppg)
Key returners: Trayce Jackson-Davis (13.5 ppg), Aljami Durham (9.8 ppg), Rob Phinisee (7.3 ppg), Joey Brunk (6.8 ppg), Race Thompson
Key additions: Khristian Lander (No. 27 composite), G/F Jordan Geronimo (No. 96 composite), G Anthony Leal (No. 144 composite) and Trey Galloway (No. 145 composite)
Comment: Indiana took a step in the right direction last year and was in position to break an NCAA tournament drought. The addition of Lander is huge for the backcourt but he’s a 17-year old freshman, so expectations may need to be tempered. Justin Smith was one of three starters who scored primarily in the post, so his unexpected departure might bring more balance or better spacing on offense. Shooting will be a question mark again but it helps to have a clear go-to-guy in Jackson-Davis.
— Mike Pegram, Peegs.com
High vote: 5th | Low vote: 9th | Average rank: 6.6
Last year’s record: 20-11 overall (11-9 Big Ten)
Key losses: F Akwasi Yeboah (9.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg)
Key returners: G Ron Harper Jr. (12.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg), G Geo Baker (10.9 ppg, 3.5 apg), G Jacob Young (8.5 ppg), C Myles Johnson (7.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg), G Montez Mathis (7.4 ppg)
Key additions: C Cliff Omoruyi (No. 48 composite), SF Mawot Mag (No. 198 composite)
Comment: Rutgers was on the verge of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991 when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down college basketball. The good news is the team returns its core players and has also added four-star center Cliff Omoruyi, who finished as the No. 48-ranked prospect in 247Sports Composite class of 2020. Rutgers was more gritty than flash and expect much of the same this season as the team will rely on tough defense and its length across the roster. Rutgers also had the nation’s best home record at 18-1 as the RAC has suddenly become one of the toughest places to play in all of college hoops.
— Bobby Deren, Scarlet Nation
High vote: 2nd | Low vote: 9th | Average rank: 6.5
Last year’s record: 21-10 overall (11-9 Big Ten)
Key losses: C Kaleb Wesson (14.0 ppg, 9.3 rpg0 F Andre Wesson (9.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg), G D.J. Carton (10.4 ppg, 3.0 apg), F Alonzo Gaffney, G Luther Muhammad (7.0 ppg)
Key returners: G Duane Washington Jr. (11.5 ppg), G C.J. Walker (8.7 ppg, 3.5 apg), F Kyle Young (7.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg), F E.J. Liddell (6.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg), F Justin Ahrens (2.9 ppg), C Ibrahima Diallo, G Musa Jallow (missed 2019-20 due to injury).
Key additions: G-F Eugene Brown III (No. 134 composite), F Zed Key (No. 142 composite), F Seth Towns (Harvard transfer), F Justice Sueing (Cal transfer), G Abel Porter (Utah State transfer), G Jimmy Sotos (Bucknell transfer); must sit out this season).
Comment: Ohio State will look a lot different in 2020-21 with the departure of top scorer and rebounder Kaleb Wesson, who left after three seasons to pursue the professional ranks. Washington moves into a highlight role at the two guard. Towns and Sueing each have double-digit scoring potential at the three, provided they are healthy. Young and Liddell figure to handle much of the work inside. But if Diallo and/or Key can help out it would be huge. Defense has been key for Ohio State under Chris Holtmann. This new group needs to embrace that mantra for this team to excel.
— Steve Helwagen, Bucknuts
High vote: 4th | Low vote: 9th | Average rank: 6.1
Last year’s record: 19-12 overall (10-10 Big Ten)
Key losses: Zavier Simpson (12.9 ppg, 7.9 apg), Jon Teske (11.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg), David DeJulius (7.0 ppg)
Key returners: Isaiah Livers (12.9 ppg), Franz Wagner (11.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg), Eli Brooks (10.6 ppg, 3.7 apg), Brandon Johns Jr. (6.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg)
Key additions: G Mike Smith (Columbia transfer), C Hunter Dickinson (No. 42 composite), G Zeb Jackson (No. 87 composite), Terrance Williams (No. 92 composite), Chaundee Brown (Wake Forest transfer)
Comment: While Michigan’s losses — the Wolverines lost Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske, were spurned by two five-star recruits and lost three reserve players to transfer — grabbed most of the headlines, the Wolverines quietly have an experienced, well-rounded team returning. Isaiah Livers (14.6 ppg before injuries began to add up; 12.9 ppg overall) and Franz Wagner (13.2 ppg after January 1) could both be All-Big Ten-caliber players if they stay healthy. Eli Brooks (10.6 ppg) and Columbia transfer Mike Smith (22.8 ppg) should alleviate a backcourt trying to replace Zavier Simpson. Top-50 center Hunter Dickinson headlines a 2020 recruiting class that ranked first in the Big Ten in the 247Sports Composite. The remaining roster question is if transfer Chaundee Brown (12.1 ppg for Wake Forest in 2019-20) will be ruled immediately eligible. Michigan is optimistic he will be, which would give the Wolverines another experienced (he would be the fifth senior on scholarship) scoring boost (and fifth 2019-20 double-digit scorer) on a rather intriguing, versatile roster.
— Zach Shaw, Michigan Insider
High vote: 1st | Low vote: 6th | Average rank: 3.6
Last year’s record: 22-9 overall (14-6 Big Ten)
Key losses: G Cassius Winston (18.6 ppg, 5.9 apg), F/C Xavier Tillman (13.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg), F Kyle Ahrens (3.6 ppg)
Key returners: G Aaron Henry (10.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg), G Rocket Watts (9.0 ppg), G/F Gabe Brown (6.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg), G Joshua Langford (injured), F Malik Hall (4.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg), C Marcus Bingham Jr. (3.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg)
Key additions: F Joey Hauser (Marquette transfer), C Mady Sissoko (No. 40 composite), G AJ Hoggard (No. 74 composite)
Comment: Now that the NBA decisions are settled and Michigan State has some roster clarity, the question turns to replacing Cassius Winston. Point guard is the only position that’s a glaring unknown right now, and the Spartans’ ceiling will be determined by what they get out of that position. Center is a slight concern, but there’s so many guys competing for minutes with different skill sets that they should be able to figure that spot out, even if it’s by committee. Sophomore Rocket Watts appears to be the most likely candidate to get the first shot at point guard, which will be new for him at this level. He’s got some tools that make him an interesting option there, but it’ll take some adjusting as he’s an aggressive bucket-getter by nature. Say he’s the answer in the starting five, then MSU needs a backup to emerge. The Spartans are expecting (and hoping) shooting guard Joshua Langford will be able to return and contribute as a fifth-year senior after missing the past season and a half with foot injuries. They’ll also unveil Marquette transfer Joey Hauser, who sat out last season, and most expect he’ll make an immediate splash after impressing behind the scenes last year. After being so reliant on Winston on one end of the floor and Tillman on the other the past two years, this season will be about second- and third-year guys taking on leading roles for the first time. At this point, I think it’s fair to expect MSU to be a top-tier Big Ten team, an outside challenger for the league title, and a group that at least makes the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
— Stephen Brooks, Spartan Tailgate
High vote: 1st | Low vote: 6th | Average rank: 2.8
Last year’s record: 21-10 (14-6 Big Ten)
Key Losses: Brevin Pritzl (8.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg)
Key Returners: Micah Potter (10.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg), D’Mitrik Trice (9.8 ppg, 4.2 apg), Nate Reuvers (13.3 ppg, 1.9 bpg), Brad Davison (9.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg), Aleem Ford (8.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg)
Key Additions: Johnny Davis (No. 151 composite), Ben Carlson (No. 98 composite), Lorne Bowman (No. 181 composite)
Comment: Wisconsin ended the 2019-20 season as one of the hottest teams in the country. After starting the conference season with a 6-6 record in Big Ten play, the Badgers ripped off eight-straight wins to steal a share of the title. Greg Gard and company did this with just seven full scholarship players. UW figures to be a much deeper team in 2020-21. Aside from Pritzl, UW gets everything back this season and also adds one of its best recruiting classes in program history with likely at least two players — Ben Carlson and Johnny Davis — that should get consistent minutes as true freshmen.
— Evan Flood, Badger 247
High vote: 1st | Low vote: 4th | Average rank: 2.2
Last year’s record: 21-10 (13-7 Big Ten)
Key losses: Andrés Feliz (11.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg), Alan Griffin (8.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg)
Key returners: Ayo Dosunmu (16.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg), Kofi Cockburn (13.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg), Trent Frazier (9.1 ppg), Giorgi Bezhanishvili (6.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Da’Monte Williams (2.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg)
Key additions: G Adam Miller (No. 33 composite), G Andre Curbelo (No. 44 composite), F Coleman Hawkins (No. 154 composite), G/F Jacob Grandison (Holy Cross transfer), Austin Hutcherson (Division-III transfer)
Comment: The Illini will likely be a preseason top-10 team for the first time since 2004-05 with Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn returning to school. Dosunmu will be in the All-American conversation and Cockburn should take another step forward after his Big Ten Freshman of the Year campaign. Brad Underwood has an embarrassment of riches in the backcourt with Dosunmu, seniors Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams, top-50 freshmen Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller, and talented sit-out transfer Austin Hutcherson. This is a team with depth, experience and an ability to play both ends. The Illini must shoot the three better than a year ago and they could use a bounce-back year out of Giorgi Bezhanishvili. They will also be challenged with handling sky-high expectations and having newcomers settle into their roles. If Underwood can get the pieces to mesh, this could be a season to remember in Champaign.
— Derek Piper, Illini Inquirer
High vote: 1st | Low vote: 4th | Average rank: 2.0
Last year’s record: 20-1 (11-9 Big Ten)
Key losses: Ryan Kriener (7.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg), Bakari Evelyn (3.7 ppg), Cordell Pemsl (2.8 ppg)
Key returners: Luke Garza (23.9 ppg, 9.8 rpg), Joe Wieskamp (14.0 ppg), CJ Fredrick (10. ppg), Joe Toussaint (6.5 ppg), Connor McCaffery (6.2 ppg)
Key additions: Jordan Bohannon (medical redshirt), Jack Nunge (injured), Patrick McCaffery (medical redshirt)
Comment: Expectations are as high as they’ve ever been in Iowa City. They essentially return seven starters (Bohannon, Garza, Wieskamp, Nunge, Fredrick, Toussaint, McCaffery) and have one of the most veteran groups in the Big Ten in the country. The Hawkeyes are poised to have one of the most dangerous and versatile offenses in the country, especially with the preseason national player of the year in Luka Garza. When you combine the school’s all-time leading three-point shooter (Bohannon), conference’s best three-point shooter (Fredrick), nation’s leading assist-to-turnover ratio (Connor McCaffery) and an all-conference wing (Wieskamp), you get a dynamic offense. Of course, Iowa’s success will be determined by its defense, but with a veteran group that has guards capable of defending at a high level (Joe Toussaint and Fredrick), they have potential to be decent enough to win the conference.
— David Eickholt, Hawkeye Insider