- Ky McKeon
Note: Predicted conference standings may not line up exactly with our Top 40 rankings; this is because Top 40 were ranked via consensus voting, while individual conference ranks are up to the specific writer.
Player of the Year: Miles Bridges, So., Michigan State
Coach of the Year: Brad Underwood, Illinois
Newcomer of the Year: Mark Alstork, R Sr., Illinois
Freshman of the Year: Jaren Jackson, Fr., Michigan State
1. Michigan State
See full preview here: #4 in our Top 40 countdown
See full preview here: #16 in our Top 40 countdown
See full preview here: #23 in our Top 40 countdown
See full preview here: #24 in our Top 40 countdown
See full preview here: #28 in our Top 40 countdown
See full preview here: #38 in our Top 40 countdown
Key Returners: Michael Finke, Leron Black, Te’Jon Lucas
Key Losses: Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, Jalen Coleman-Lands, Tracy Abrams
Key Newcomers: Mark Alstork, Mark Smith, Da’Monte Williams, Trent Frazier, Greg Eboigbodin, Matic Vesel
Postseason Projection: 11 seed - NIT
Outlook: After a disappointing five years that yielded one NCAA Tournament appearance, the John Groce era at Illinois has come to an end. Under Groce, the Illini never finished higher than 8th in the Big Ten, a shocking statistic when considering the relatively rich program history. This offseason, the athletic department took an enormous step in the right direction in solving the recent basketball impotency with the home run hire of former Oklahoma State head coach Brad Underwood. Underwood’s decision to leave OSU came as a surprise to many considering his recent turnaround of the Cowboy program, and now he aims to achieve the same success in Champaign. Underwood has never missed an NCAA Tourney in his coaching career; Illinois hasn’t been to the Big Dance since 2013 – something’s got to give.
“Turnover” is the name of the game this season for the Illini roster. The Illini return only four consistent rotation players from a year ago and add an impact transfer to go along with a few key freshmen. Likewise, to go along with the major personnel overhaul, Illinois’s style of play will look completely different this season. Whereas Groce’s Illini teams favored a methodical half-court attack, Underwood’s squads are known for their up-tempo style that features relentless transition play. I wrote extensively about Oklahoma State’s offense last season, which ranked #1 in the country per KenPom. Though we shouldn’t expect the Illini to put up top five national offensive numbers this season, they have the personnel to succeed in Underwood’s system.
Wright State grad transfer Mark Alstork will be the key for Illinois this season. He’ll fill the “Jawun Evans” or “Thomas Walkup” role that Underwood has had at his disposal each year. Alstork was Wright State’s everything offensively last season, bringing the ball up and using the 7th highest percentage of his team’s possessions in the country. The Raiders ran Alstork off pick and rolls and gave him free reign for isolation opportunities, often leading to inefficient choices such as pull-up threes. With Te’Jon Lucas, a rising sophomore point guard, returning, Alstork won’t be pigeon holed as the de facto ball handler this year, which could help improve his efficiency numbers. Lucas started the final 15 games of his freshman campaign, putting up impressive assist numbers as the Illini lead guard. Without Malcolm Hill, Alstork is going to have to be a scoring machine, which will be achieved better (and more efficiently) through playing off the ball.
Underwood likes to spread the floor in the half-court, which often results in a 4-out, 1-in look on offense. Illinois is very thin in the frontcourt, especially considering their two primary bigs, Michael Finke and Leron Black, aren’t huge post-up threats. Finke, the tallest player on the roster, likes stepping out past the three-point line where he hit 40.9% of his tries last season. This should work perfectly in Underwood’s system considering how he likes to use his big man as a catalyst to the offense by catching high post or top of the key. Finke’s shooting ability will draw his (presumably large) defender out to the perimeter, spacing the floor for his teammates to maneuver more freely. Black, too, can step out behind the arc a bit, but he’s more comfortable in the 15’-18’ range. Newcomer Greg Eboigbodin looks to be more in the form of a traditional big man – the 6’9” Nigerian has a 7’3” wing span and is known for his rim protection ability. He should carve out a role immediately with the dearth of talent up front, as could Slovenian import Matic Vesel.
Illinois will be heavily reliant on a couple newcomers at the guard slots with the graduation and transfer of Tracy Abrams and Jalen Coleman-Lands, respectively. Mark Smith, Da’Monte Williams, and Trent Frazier are all 4-star recruits capable of making an impact on the Illini rotation. Smith is the one to watch out for in particular; he has uncommon size for a point guard his age at 6’4” 215 pounds giving him excellent strength and explosiveness. A starting backcourt of Smith, Alstork, and Lucas essentially puts three ball handlers on the court at the same time, which will be extremely fun to watch in the fast-paced Underwood system.
The Illini have an interesting breakout candidate in Kipper Nichols, the likely starting four. Nichols shot 44% from downtown during his freshman season and many expect him to be a major x-factor for the Illini offense this season. He was a severe liability defensively in his limited time, but there’s no denying his offensive potential.
Bottom Line: Illinois is one of the harder teams to predict this offseason. The amount of team turnover from a 20-win squad would suggest a down year, but the dramatic upgrade in coaching coupled with the influx of some serious talent makes the Illini a super-sleeper to mix it up in the middle of the Big Ten and fight for a spot on the Bubble come March.
Key Returners: Ethan Happ, D’Mitrik Trice, Khalil Iverson
Key Losses: Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Vitto Brown, Zak Showalter
Key Newcomers: Nate Reuvers, Kobe King, Brad Davison, Aleem Ford (redshirt)
Postseason Projection: 11 seed - NIT
Outlook: Wisconsin finds itself in very unfamiliar territory this season as it heads into 2017-18 with perhaps its most uncertain roster makeup in the last 20 years. 20 years is a significant number given the fact that if the Badgers punch a ticket to the Big Dance this season, it would be their 20th consecutive Tourney appearance. The departures of Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter, and Vitto Brown leaves a gaping hole in production and an opportunity for former role players and young guns to stake their claim on precious up-for-grabs minutes. Greg Gard has proven to be cut from the same cloth as Bo Ryan with his willingness to continue the famous Swing offense and focus on bringing in the right players that fit within the Badger system. This season will be his most challenging as a head coach yet.
The one problem the Badgers don’t have this season is knowing who their alpha dog in the clubhouse is. Ethan Happ returns for his junior season after being named a 3rd Team All-American this past season, leading the Badgers to yet another top three conference finish. There may not be another player in the country that impacts more parts of the game for his team than Ethan Happ does for Wisconsin. On offense, Happ dominates the post using an array of, to put it frankly, simple moves. He’s one of the best rebounders in the country, led the Big Ten in steal rate last season, ranked 8th in block rate, and dished out assists at the 12th best rate in the conference. It’s also worth mentioning that Happ had one of the biggest points per possession impact on his team’s defense last season per Hoop Lens that I’ve come across: with Happ on the floor, Wisconsin allowed 0.90ppp; with Happ off the floor, Wisconsin allowed 1.07ppp.
His ridiculously awful 50% free-throw percentage is almost comical when compared to his overall high-level comprehension of the game. With the insanely high rate at which he gets to the foul line, that is one area Wisconsin needs Happ to button-down in order to be successful.
Happ will be in an unfamiliar situation this season as the clear focus of the Wisconsin attack. Without Hayes or Koenig drawing attention off the talented forward, it will be interesting to see how teams go about defending him and if that affects his impact on offense. However, Wisconsin’s dedication to the Swing offense will likely alleviate some of this pressure as defenders will get cooked if they find themselves out of position worrying too much about Happ in the half court.
While Gard’s rotation is more or less unknown at the moment, it’s pretty safe to say D’Mitrik Trice will be taking up the point guard reigns in his sophomore season. Trice rarely played without either Koenig or Showalter on the floor with him, meaning he saw substantial time playing off the ball in more of a passive role. Now with those two out of Madison, Trice will take over primary ball handling duties, a role in which he should be capable of succeeding.
Trice will be supported in his point duties by incoming freshman Brad Davison and returning sophomore Brevin Pritzl. Davison, a 4-star recruit, looks to be your classic Badger buzz cut guard; he’s a hard-nosed ball handler that possesses fundamental passing ability and exceptional court vision. Pritzl is much better off the ball with his shooting ability and likely starts the season alongside Trice. Despite his 23.8% three-point shooting clip, Nigel Hayes once said that Pritzl is “the best shooter in the country”, so that must make Badger fans feel warm and fuzzy inside.
Aside from Trice, returning wing Khalil Iverson appears to be the only other “surefire” starter – at least when the season starts. Iverson has proven to be a valuable slasher and good rebounder for his position in his limited playing time. He also projects to be one of the better Badger defenders, able to guard multiple positions with his athleticism. Kobe King, an incoming 4-star freshman, is guy I really like to develop into a steady contributor for the Badgers; he is very athletic and, like Iverson, can guard several positions on the floor. I wouldn’t be surprised if he carved out consistent playing time as the season progresses.
The frontcourt situation is a mystery outside of Happ. Alex Illikainen, Charlie Thomas, Aleem Ford, Andy Van Vliet and Nate Reuvers all have legitimate shots at significant playing time. Illikainen probably has the inside track to starting alongside Happ, but it isn’t a strong hold by any stretch of the imagination. So far in his career, Illikainen has not proven to be good rebounder, rim protector, or consistent finisher, three things Wisconsin values in a big.
My money is on Reuvers, Wisconsin’s highest rated recruit from the class of 2017, earning the lion’s share of the minutes by season end. Reuvers is in the same mold as Frank Kaminsky, a tall forward that can stretch the floor past the three-point line and alter shots on the other end. Reuvers's shooting ability is a huge asset to have in the Swing offense, where he should see plenty of open looks catching the ball at the top of the key on the reversal. Aleem Ford is the other guy to watch out for. Ford redshirted last season (ala Ethan Happ back in 2014-15) and is primed to contribute this year. At 6’8” with a lanky build, Ford is really more of a small forward than a power forward but likely will see time alongside Happ at the 4, as Gard likes to throw Happ down at the 5 in a lot of his lineups.
Bottom Line: This will be a challenging year for Wisconsin. With so much turnover from last season’s senior laden squad, Gard must find production from unproven places. I trust the coaching and the system to mold Wisconsin into a competitive ball club this season; the question will be can they overcome a suddenly ruthless middle of the Big Ten.
Key Returners: Tyler Cook, Cordell Pemsl, Jordan Bohannon, Nicholas Baer, Isaiah Moss, Ahmad Wagner, Dom Uhl
Key Losses: Peter Jok
Key Newcomers: Luke Garza
Postseason Projection: NIT
Outlook: Over the past four or five seasons, Iowa has always had a surefire “go-to” scorer, a guy that is the undisputed alpha dog and leader of the offense. Last season, it was Peter Jok, before him it was Jarrod Uthoff, and prior to that Aaron White, who took the mantle from Roy Devyn Marble after 2014. This year, Fran McCaffery’s squad seems considerably more balanced as the main pieces are all fairly early in their careers. McCaffery has usually been good about adjusting his style to his personnel, instilling an attack that plays at a high tempo and works the ball to get open looks, but without a built-in safety valve he’ll face an unfamiliar challenge (at least in recent history).
McCaffery has himself a nice sophomore class in Tyler Cook, Jordan Bohannon, and Cordell Pemsl. Each received substantial playing time in their freshman seasons and exceeded preseason expectations. Cook and Bohannon were named to the Big Ten All-Freshmen squad while Pemsl proved his worth on both the offensive and defensive ends, ranking in the conference top 20 in offensive rebounding percentage, block percentage, and field goal percentage.
Bohannon is an ideal table setter for Iowa’s offense, a pass first point guard with a deadly jump shot. He’s liable to gun from just about anywhere on the floor and set an Iowa freshman record for three-pointers made last season. Bohannon’s quickness is perfect for what McCaffery’s teams try to do – get out in transition, particularly off opponent scores where they ranked 10th nationally in initial FG attempts within 10 seconds following an opponent make.
Cook and Pemsl are the big bodies down low. Both forwards have good footwork, and Cook in particular is excellent at winning position on the block. Last year, Cook tended to force shots once being fed in the post; he needs to use his shooters more this year by being a willing passer out of the paint. Pemsl is an outstanding finisher at the rim, putting in 73.9% of his attempts near there, many of which came as the result of offensive rebounding.
The player I’m most interested in watching on this roster is Nicholas Baer, the reigning Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year. Without Jok, Iowa needs a competent wing scorer to propel the offense; Baer can be that guy. He won’t average Jok-level points per game, but Baer could absolutely break out in a big way with his shooting ability (39.7% from deep). And he’s not just a scorer; this might shock some, but on an advanced statistical basis, Baer was actually Iowa’s best all-around defender in 2016-17 – the Hawkeyes allowed .09ppp less with Baer on the court. The redshirt junior led Iowa in both steals and blocks last season and was the ONLY player in the Big Ten to rank in the top ten in both steals (5th) and blocks (10th) per game.
Iowa has several nice supporting options in Isaiah Moss, Dom Uhl, and Ahmad Wagner. Moss adds value to the squad with his defensive ability; he plays the top of McCaffery’s funky 1-2-2 three-quarter court zone, a source of turnovers to spark transition opportunities, and at 6’5” is capable of guarding 1 through 3.
After a promising sophomore campaign, Uhl really fell off the map last season. He’s proven in the past that he can knock down perimeter jumpers, which may be his ticket back into the lineup with the wing position suddenly lacking prominence. Wagner is a steady two-way player; he offers a semblance of rim protection on the defensive end and has shown a vast improvement in his passing / distributing ability on offense. Though he often received less minutes than Pemsl and Baer last season, McCaffery appeared to like his unselfishness in the starting five.
The guard spots will be bolstered by a couple juniors in Brady Ellingson and Christian Williams. Ellingson is the best shooter on the roster, shooting a scorching 47.1% from deep last year (and 100% from the free throw line). McCaffery teams historically don’t attempt many threes, but Ellingson gives them an intriguing option off the pine to space the floor. Williams is a big combo guard that will be asked to handle the rock a little bit in Bohannon’s stead.
With nearly the entire roster returning, Iowa only brings in two true freshman. Luke Garza, a 6’11” 4-star center, could see some time in the crowded frontcourt off the bench. He’s more versatile than Iowa’s post-bound bigs, able to stretch out the defense to 15-18 feet, and put up some eye-popping stats during the Hawkeyes' overseas trip.
Bottom Line: The middle of the Big Ten is an absolute clusterf*ck. Iowa represents yet another team chock full of talent that could conceivably make a run at an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The key for McCaffery will be finding a go-to scorer on offense he can count on in crunch time.
10. Penn State
Key Returners: Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, Shep Garner, Mike Watkins, Josh Reaves
Key Losses: Payton Banks
Key Newcomers: Satchel Pierce, Jamari Wheeler, John Harrar
Postseason Projection: NIT
Outlook: It’s been a rough six seasons for the Penn State basketball program under Head Coach Pat Chambers, not that the Nittany Lions, a “football school” by trade, boast a robust basketball history. But this season offers a ray of hope with the return of nearly every significant piece from a competitive, albeit young, 2016-17 squad. Last year, PSU had only one senior in its rotation and was led by a talented crop of freshmen who now look poised to bring the school into the at-large bid conversation. With Shep Garner returning to play the all-important “senior leader” role, the Nittany Lions are certainly a dark horse (or dark cat?) to be reckoned with in the Big Ten.
The PSU sophomore class triumvirate of Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, and Mike Watkins is a tremendous young core for Chambers to build around. Carr is one of the highest ranked recruits to ever come to PSU, ranking 42nd on ESPN’s Top 100 list in the class of 2016. He immediately made his presence known, leading the team in minutes, scoring, and assists on his way to earning All-Freshman Team Big Ten honors. Penn State runs a lot of ball screens for Carr to create off of in the middle of the floor; he’s very skilled with the ball and is able to get pretty much wherever he wants in the lane, but he had a real issue with forcing tough turnarounds and off-balance jumpers over bigger defenders. Carr proved he can make the right plays and distribute effectively, as evidenced by his impressive assist-to-turnover ratio, but reigning in the wild shots would do a lot to improve PSU’s overall offensive success. As a team, Penn State ranked 309th in 2PFG% and 306th in eFG% last season.
Stevens contributed to that shooting inefficiency, connecting on only 43.8% of his shots inside the arc. He’s tough player to defend, though, with his ability to post up with his 6’7” frame, drive past slower defenders, or knock down the outside shot. As he matures, the shot selection should improve.
Watkins was one of the best rebounders in the Big Ten last season, ranking 6th in OR% and 2nd in DR%. He was a lone bright spot of efficiency for the Lions on the offensive end and also ranked 8th in the country in block percentage on the defensive side of the ball. His two-way ability to dominate on both ends makes him PSU’s most valuable player – also his KenPom comparable players list (aka past players that put up similar advanced stats to Watkins’s 2017 campaign) include Steven Adams, Tyrus Thomas, JaMychal Green and Tarik Black; not a bad group.
Shep Garner and Josh Reaves will round out the starting five and represent the upperclassmen leaders on the squad. Garner appeared to embrace his new off-the-ball role with Carr taking over primary ball handling duties and improved his finishing numbers – particularly in transition – and decision making. Garner was moved to the bench for the last two games of the season, a trend that may continue this year if Chambers prefers to start a big lineup. Rest assured though, the senior guard will still see plenty of court time – he recently scored 24 points off the bench (8 three-pointers) in Penn State’s off-season contest in the Bahamas.
Reaves is the Lions’ best perimeter defender, ranking 11th in the country in steal percentage last season. His perimeter D plus Watkins’s interior presence vaulted Penn State to its rank as one of the Big Ten’s fiercest defensive units in 2016-17. Offensively, Reaves won’t offer much, but with Carr, Garner, and Stevens taking the lion’s share of the offense, PSU doesn’t need another guy who needs the ball in his hands on the floor.
Chambers likely won’t dip too deep into his bench this season, but PSU has a few key reserves that should serve admirably off the pine in supporting roles. Newcomer Satchel Pierce, a Virginia Tech import, has already started to make his mark on the program, recording a double-double in the Nittany Lions’ first international offseason game. At 7-foot Pierce could slide in for or play alongside Watkins in the frontcourt, allowing Chambers to go big with Stevens shifting to more of a wing spot. Julian Moore, the team’s only other senior besides Garner, should also see some time off the bench at the forward spot. In the backcourt, Jamari Wheeler, a 3-star prospect out of Florida, will look to earn some time as the team’s backup point guard. Wheeler has all the makings of a consistent contributor down the road for this program with his impressive speed in the open floor and excellent ball handling ability.
Bottom Line: Penn State has a fighter’s chance to be in the bubble conversation near the end of the year, which is way more than you can say about this program in recent years past. They’ll have to do some work in conference play this season with their Downy soft non-conference slate, but PSU should be right in the thick of what’s shaping up to be a blood bath middle of the Big Ten.
Key Returners: Josh Newkirk, Robert Johnson, Juwan Morgan
Key Losses: Thomas Bryant, James Blackmon, OG Anunoby
Key Newcomers: Race Thompson, Justin Smith, Aljami Durham
***Editor's Note: Race Thompson will be redshirting this season***
Postseason Projection: NIT - None
Outlook: Let us pour one out to the immortal Tom Crean, a man famous for his meme-able facial expressions, son-smooching tendencies, and perhaps under-appreciated basketball acumen. You will be sorely missed. With Crean’s exit comes a new age at Indiana; Archie Miller steps in as the 29th coach in Hoosier history and brings with him a hope for a return to glory. Miller’s hire is a bit polarizing across Indiana fandom, with some acknowledging his potential as an excellent coach while others dwell on the fact the athletic department failed (or didn’t try) to land a bigger name. I sit in the pro-Miller camp; his Dayton squads were always solid on both sides of the ball and he really appeared to maximize his teams’ potential, a sign of a good coach. The pressure will be on immediately for Miller with a fan base that expects winning coupled with the loss of the three best players on the roster.
Miller’s motion offenses at Dayton involved a heavy dose of screening, particularly ball screens where an emphasis was placed on finding the roll man, as well as variations including back screening the roll man. Dayton was never the biggest team, but they usually had versatile forwards that were able to move well off the ball, which boosted their pick-and-roll efficiency. Defensively, those same versatile forwards anchored a fundamental man-to-man defense that focused on closing out on outside shooters, protecting the rim, and boxing out. At Indiana, Miller will have one big at his disposal that can fit into his preferred mold, and another to fill the more traditional role of a 5-man. Juwan Morgan has a real opportunity this season to break out and become a dynamic scorer up front for the Hoosiers. His post footwork is excellent and his ability to step out and shoot or penetrate past slower defenders makes him a versatile presence on offense. De’Ron Davis is a much more paint bound player, a back to the basket low post scorer who uses his strength to get what he wants around the rim. Together, Morgan and Davis make up perhaps the best offensive rebounding duo in the Big Ten.
Unfortunately for Miller, Indiana’s returning guard crop leaves much to be desired, at least offensively. Josh Newkirk, Devonte Green, and Curtis Jones are all rough options at the lead guard spot, each of whom sported brutally awful assist-to-turnover ratios last season. Green has the most potential for a rebound year with his excellent defensive and shooting ability; the rising sophomore was arguably Indiana’s best perimeter defender last year and led the team in 3P% (43.6%). Newkirk, too, can defend at a high level, but his questionable decision-making in late game scenarios led to Hoosier heartache in numerous games last season.
We’re going to see plenty of Robert Johnson this year as he moves into a playmaker role on offense, a seemingly high ask for a guy that has often been the second or third banana for his whole career. However, Johnson wasn’t shy taking his shots last season and scorched the nets to the tune of a .535/.370/.755 shooting slash. Big Shot Bob was excellent spotting up from deep last season and showed ability to break down his man off the dribble with high success, but his transition decision-making (scored only 0.789ppp on transition opportunities) must improve to make IU a true Tourney contender.
Returning support is thin, but Indiana hopes Collin Hartman can return to form after a season-long injury hiatus. When healthy, Hartman has the potential to be IU’s best shooter and his size makes him a tough matchup on the wing. Freddie McSwain is a physical specimen but his on-court performance last season left many scratching their head at Crean’s decision to give him court time. Here are Indiana’s team stats when McSwain was on the court versus off the court last year (per Hoop Lens):
Zach McRoberts was serviceable in a limited role, but he isn’t the answer Indiana is hoping for in a reserve forward. Hartman’s return should limit McBob’s time this season.
The great Hoosier hope lies in Archie’s freshmen and future recruiting classes. Miller has done an admirable job thus far landing prospects, some of which should help this season’s squad immediately. Race Thompson, a brawny 4-star power forward, should find ample time in a reserve frontcourt role. He has good size and handling ability and is able to finish strong at the rim. Justin Smith, an ESPN Top 100 wing, could end up starting for this team at some point during the season; he has tremendous athletic ability and a good-looking outside jumper. Indiana’s dearth of athletic, big wings gives Smith the opportunity to shine in his inaugural season. Yet another 4-star prospect, Aljami (Al) Durham, will bolster the guard depth, but it’s hard to see him earning too much court time given the number of bodies Miller has at the two guard spots.
Bottom Line: The success of the Hoosiers this season rests on the shoulders of Archie Miller. The roster has some nice pieces, but there isn’t a true go-to player or crunch time “bail you out” type of guy. Miller has a nice track record of developing talent and building bodies into functioning teams, but Indiana is a whole different level than the friendly confines of Dayton. I believe Indiana will once again be a powerful program under the tutelage of Miller – I’m just not convinced that will happen this year.
12. Ohio State
Key Returners: Jae’Sean Tate, Keita Bates-Diop, C.J. Jackson
Key Losses: Marc Loving, JaQuan Lyle, Trevor Thompson
Key Newcomers: Kaleb Wesson, Musa Jallow, Kyle Young
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Ohio State made headlines this offseason with the firing of longtime coach Thad Matta in June. Not only was the firing itself surprising, the timing was also a head scratcher. Many thought the late firing would cause detriment to a good Ohio State recruiting class, which would intensify the already dicey offseason in Columbus with the unexpected departure of star player JaQuan Lyle. Not to mention hiring a worthy replacement for Matta seemed highly unlikely at that juncture. But the allure of Ohio State proved to be a powerful force, as the Buckeyes landed not just a good replacement – they landed an outstanding replacement. Chris Holtmann, the former Butler front man, inherits an Ohio State team coming off two consecutive years of missing the NCAA Tournament, a rarity in the post-2000 era. He now faces the daunting challenge of rebuilding a former basketball power amongst immense pressure from the fan base and Buckeye head honchos.
The Buckeyes severely underachieved the last two seasons by just about every metric. KenPom’s rankings shows it best: in 2015-16, Ohio State began the season ranked #39 and finished #76; in 2016-17, Ohio State began the season ranked #13 and finished #73. A main source of OSU’s trouble on both ends was ball handling and the three-point line. On offense, Buckeye ball handlers had issues dealing with pressure and teams were able to focus on penetration as OSU really only had two major three-point shooting threats. On defense, the lack of perimeter pressure allowed opposing guards to get whatever they wanted out of offensive sets and three-point shooters were constantly given open looks.
Holtmann’s Butler squad last year ran a very spread out, jump shot reliant offense that featured heavy ball screen sets and relied on ball movement via the pass. Matta’s Buckeye squad meanwhile ran a much more rim-focused, dribble attack that tended to result in lane clogging due to the lack of shooters and Lyle’s preference to bully defenders to the rim. These styles likely relate more to the respective personnel versus actual set-in-stone coaching tendencies, but it will be interesting to see how Holtmann adapts.
With Marc Loving gone, shooting is going to come at an even higher premium this season for the Buckeyes. Kam Williams is really the only respectable outside shooter on the roster, though Keita Bates-Diop and C.J. Jackson are willing pullers (but shoot sub-35%). The offense likely revolves around Jae’Sean Tate, a bruising 6’4” wide-body forward who attacks the basket like a freight train. Tate prefers to work right around the 15-18 foot range, squaring up his body to the rim and making a choice to either take a jumper or penetrate. His jump shooting leaves something to be desired (shot 33% on 2-point jumpers), but his finishing ability at the rim is elite (71.8%). Holtmann could use Tate as sort of a point forward in the half court; a guy that can have the ball in his hands and make competent decisions to benefit the teammates around him.
Williams is mostly a spot-up shooter and likely maintains that role this season, but I’d really like to see Bates-Diop expand his impact on the game. A leg injury limited KBD to only nine games a season ago, but he should be good to go for 2017-18. Bates-Diop has the requisite athleticism and good-enough shooting ability to be a versatile threat on offense. It would put a great deal of stress on opposing units if Bates-Diop were able to score at a high level to complement Tate. He’s also very valuable on the defensive end where the Buckeyes struggled last year.
Jackson is the only true point guard on the Buckeyes roster, so he will be given a lot of responsibility conducting the offense. He performed well last season playing alone without Lyle on the floor and will be given a long leash to alleviate some of the would-be pressure. OSU lost a key PG recruit in Braxton Beverly with the Matta firing, so they’ll be putting all their eggs in the Jackson basket.
Holtmann has done a nice job on the recruiting end. He was able to keep ESPN Top 100 center Kaleb Wesson and brought over another ESPN Top 100 frontcourt player in Kyle Young. To top it off, Holtmann secured the commitment of Musa Jallow, a 4-star class of 2018 small forward that reclassified this offseason.
Wesson likely starts at center right away for Holtmann’s squad given the lack of depth. He’s a load inside at 6’9” 316 pounds and should be an effective rebounder and space eater for the Buckeyes. Young will also be an immediate contributor with his capacity to play both the 3 and 4 spots. He also adds a much-needed shooting presence to the lineup. Jallow is the player I’m most excited about. He is a superbly athletic 2-guard that can get to the rim and rise up over defenders. He has the build, confidence, and ball handling ability to be successful as a freshman in the Big Ten.
Bottom Line: Holtmann could lead OSU to a surprise conference run of competitiveness this season, but I think the Buckeyes are still a year or two out from a return to the Big Dance. There’s too much returning Big Ten talent this season to rank the Buckeyes any higher than 10th, but Holtmann will eventually bring this program back to prominence.
Key Returners: Glynn Watson, Evan Taylor, Jack McVeigh
Key Losses: Tai Webster, Michael Jacobson, Ed Morrow
Key Newcomers: Thomas Allen, Isaac Copeland, James Palmer
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Nebraska turned some heads last season with their 3-0 Big Ten conference start, knocking off Indiana and Maryland on the road before beating Iowa in double OT in Lincoln. Tim Miles’s squad was surprisingly competitive all season, losing four games by less than 5 points and falling in overtime in another. Tai Webster was the Cornhuskers’ heart and soul last year, earning Big Ten honors and ranking 4th in the conference in scoring, but now Nebrasketball faces a significant challenge with his graduation. Miles has a good portion of his rotation returning this season, as well as a couple intriguing new pieces, but the competitiveness of the Big Ten will likely prove too much to overcome.
The Cornhuskers likely go as Glynn Watson goes this season. Watson turned in a dynamite, albeit a bit inconsistent, sophomore season highlighted by a 34-point (7/8 from three) effort against Iowa in that aforementioned double OT affair. The 6’0” combo guard had trouble finishing over the trees in the paint, but he was a man on fire from behind the arc, pouring in 40% of his 120 attempts. With Webster gone, Watson has the talent and wherewithal to score nearly 20 points per game this season; he’s one of the fastest players I’ve seen on the floor which allows him to push effectively in transition, especially off his own steals (ranked 7th in the Big Ten in steal percentage). Watson will also look to score off the pick-n-roll, a play type the Huskers fervently put to use – Nebraska ranked 4th in the country in number of pick-n-rolls ran in 2016-17 per Synergy.
Watson will have point guard duties locked down while senior Evan Taylor and 4-star freshman Thomas Allen will vie for time at the 2-guard slot. Anton Gill should also see some run. Taylor leaves a lot to be desired on both ends of the floor, but he had his moments, especially in the latter half of the year. Like Watson and Webster, Taylor exceled in the pick-n-roll and will earn plenty of opportunities to increase his scoring role this year. Allen is in the same mold as Watson, a high-scoring combo guard that should be able to carve out a spot in the rotation immediately. With the lack of point guard depth, Allen will be relied upon to act as a secondary ball handler in Watson’s stead.
Miles will have some good options at the wing with Jack McVeigh returning for his junior year, James Palmer coming over from Miami, and Isaac Copeland, a former Georgetown Hoya, newly eligible for the entire season. McVeigh is mostly a spot-up shooter on offense and doesn’t offer much from a rebounding perspective, but his length bothers shooters on the other end, and he turned in one of the better all-around defensive years for the Huskers last season. Palmer was used in a reserve role for the Hurricanes in 2015-16, but he’ll take on more responsibility with the Huskers. The 6’6” wing will provide shooting defensive versatility off the pine. Copeland should step right into the starting lineup right away and will assume a go-to scoring role on offense alongside Watson. He averaged 11 and 5 for Georgetown as a sophomore and should alleviate the pressure lying on Watson’s shoulders.
Frontcourt time will be split between center Jordy Tshimanga, Winthrop grad transfer Duby Okeke, and rising sophomore Isaiah Roby. Tshimanga had real issues staying on the court last season, oftentimes finding himself in foul trouble. When he does play, he’s one of the best rebounders in the conference and doubles as a competent rim protector on defense. Likewise, Okeke will provide plenty of rebounding on both ends while representing the Huskers’ best shot-blocking presence. It’s unclear how much time Okeke will see, given that he also suffers from “hacking limbs” syndrome, but he’ll form a formidable platoon with Tshimanga at center. Roby struggled to adjust to D1 ball during his freshman campaign, but he too can provide much needed boarding and blocking. None of these three are offensive threats, but Miles will likely go with a three-guard lineup most of the time, sliding McVeigh or Copeland into the 4-spot.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Icelandic import Thorir Thorbjarnarson. “Thor”, as he’s usually called, played for the U20 Iceland squad this past year and could contribute eventually for the Huskers as a shooting wing off the pine. Fun fact: his brother’s name is Loki, which is both appropriate and awesome.
Bottom Line: Nebraska is one of those teams that is sure to notch a few big time wins this season while also losing many head scratchers (much like last year’s squad). While I like Watson and the boost Copeland will provide, there’s too much uncertainty and inconsistency on the roster to predict the Huskers finishing any higher than 12th in the Big Ten.
Key Returners: Corey Sanders, DeShawn Freeman, Mike Williams
Key Losses: Nigel Johnson, C.J. Gettys
Key Newcomers: Geo Baker, Myles Johnson, Souf Mensah
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Steve Piekell, formerly of Stony Brook, did well in his first season at the helm of Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights got off to an 11-1 start thanks to a ridiculously soft non-conference schedule (similar to this season) and then were fairly competitive in Big Ten play, at least compared to years prior. Pikiell is working to create an identity at Rutgers and build a lasting team culture, something the Scarlet Knights haven’t had in a long time. His teams crush the offensive glass hard and play very tough, high-pressure defense that forces steals and funnels opposing players into the lane to be met by shot blockers. This will likely be another basement year in the Big Ten for Rutgers, but Piekell has the program moving in the right direction. He’s created some momentum on the recruiting trail, particularly for next season that may make Rutgers a more serious competitor down the road.
Corey Sanders is the “stud” of the squad. He returns to Piscataway after flirting with the NBA Draft, making the wise decision to return. Sanders was extremely inefficient his sophomore year, posting a sub 90 offensive rating, mainly due to the fact he’s allowed to gun with no consequences. He’s one of the main reasons Rutgers was one of the most inefficient offenses in the country. No team scored a higher amount of baskets off two-pointers; they shot and made very little threes and weren’t great at drawing fouls to get to the charity stripe. So many times, the Scarlet Knights just relied on Sanders to bail them out of a possession, usually starting as a pick-n-roll where Sanders would dribble around and force a tough runner, step back three, or inefficient pull-up. Granted, Sanders didn’t have a lot of help scoring-wise last season, which severely limited his options, but he still needs to be better this year than his shooting slash of .407/.269/.622 in 2016-17.
Mike Williams is a steady off-guard and probably the best rebounding guard in the conference. He can’t really shoot, but lets it fly anyway. His provides a strong locker room presence as one of the team captains. Deshawn Freeman is the other Scarlet Knight captain and one of the best rebounders in the Big Ten, especially offensively. Freeman likes to work from the top of the key off ball reversals where he can use his size to take smaller defenders off the bounce or in the post where he can muscle up easy drop steps with his wide shoulders. His main source of scoring comes from offensive put-backs; Freeman ranked 7th in the Big Ten in offensive rebounding last season.
The starting center spot will likely be manned by senior Candido Sa of Portugal. Sa is still pretty raw offensively, but he could develop into a good shot blocker this season with more minutes. Sa averaged 3 blocks per game in the first four contests last season, then promptly fell off as his minutes dwindled. Eugene Omoruyi will play a frontcourt reserve role; he’s a tough rebounder and defender at 6’6”, which fits Pikiell’s preferred mold perfectly. Omoruyi earned 11 starts last year, so he should see plenty of time alongside Sa, or even Freeman if Pikiell goes small inside.
Omoruryi and Sa will compete with Shaquille Doorson, an injury prone 7-footer and Myles Johnson, a 3-star recruit. Johnson could be a good player in a few years for Pikell; he has a huge lower body and a soft touch in the paint.
Issa Thiam has big-time potential, but he’s still a rail at 6’9” 190 pounds. Thiam likes shooting the three ball more than anything else, so he’s basically stuck on the wing until he gets stronger. He’s still very young and put in a few impressive games late in the conference season. I could see Thiam develop into one of Rutgers’ better shooters this year.
Youth is an underlying motif for Pikiell’s crew this season. Geo Baker, a 3-star recruit, is a really nice looking freshman combo guard. He has good size at 6’4” and has shooting chops, unlike most of the Knight roster. Word is Baker has looked polished in the offseason, hinting that he likely starts next to Sanders at the start of the season. Souf Mensah, a junior JUCO product, will play the backup point guard role. He’s a strong, stout guard that uses his strength to create space on drives. His maturity will be important in the upbringing of Baker and the shiny new recruits coming to Piscataway next season.
Bottom Line: It would be reckless to predict Rutgers finishing higher than last or next to last in the Big Ten this year. But, I love what Pikiell has done so far up in New Jersey and hope it continues. Pikiell hopes to eventually bring the Scarlet Knights back to the Big Dance for the first time since 1991; I think he gets it done in 2 or 3 years.