Despite not having a national championship representative for the last 14 seasons (Michigan State in 2000; Maryland was in ACC in 2002), the Big Ten, year in and year out, remains one of the powerhouses in college basketball. Always having a handful of teams in the top 25, along with at least one team seemingly always in the top 10 is expected.
Last season, the Big Ten almost put three teams into the Final Four, with Michigan and Michigan State losing in the Elite Eight, unable to join conference foe Wisconsin. This season will see a far less powerful Big Ten than we’ve seen in recent years, due primarily to players either graduating or making the leap to play professionally.
According to Rivals.com, the Big Ten has netted five of the top 30 best recruiting classes for 2014, so do expect to see younger teams that will make for interesting competition among the conference, but probably not produce many national contenders.
Let’s take a look at the top five teams in the preseason in the Big Ten:
1. Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin is one of those teams that usually doesn’t bring in the high profile recruits nor headlines any top recruiting classes. Head coach Bo Ryan is great at developing talent that usually passes under the radar.
Wisconsin never has the best athletes, highest jumpers, or quickest guards, but instead has guys who know how to play disciplined, at the right pace, and how to be coached. Although losing senior guard Ben Brust will hurt due to his leadership and scoring, he is all the Badgers lost.
Three double-digit scorers return, including star 7-footer Frank Kaminsky, who really powered the Badgers run to last season’s Final Four. One of the two recruits they did bring in, Ethan Happ, is your typical Wisconsin Badger: 6’8″ power forward that wasn’t touted very highly, but can rebound, handle, and shoot from distance, which is exactly the kind of player Bo Ryan loves.
The pieces are in place for the Badgers to be the favorites in the Big Ten and make a deep run into March.
2. Maryland Terrapins
Yes, the team that hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament the last two seasons actually should easily place among the top five in a down Big Ten year. That is the best initiation you could have for a new team that was struggling before.
Maryland is returning four players who scored in double digits from a season ago, and head coach Mark Turgeon went on a recruiting frenzy by signing a top 10 class according to Rivals, which isn’t necessarily a byproduct of joining the Big Ten, the ACC is a pretty darn good conference itself. Bringing in two great guards, a wing with range, and two bigs with ability has forced some players to transfer in search of playing time and opportunity.
The only player leaving that really hurts the Terrapins rotation is the big combo guard Nick Faust, who was almost a double-digit scorer himself. Still, Maryland should be able to take advantage of a transitioning conference and be able to settle in very nicely.
3. Iowa Hawkeyes
Any time a team loses undeniably its best player (Roy Devyn Marble), you would expect them to regress from a year before. However in a year where the league expects to be weaker, Iowa is returning enough firepower to compete at the top of the league.
Their recruiting class is hardly anything to harp on, but the biggest key will be Iowa’s maturity. The Hawkeyes lost nine of 11 games decided by six points or less, and that absolutely put a damper on how good Iowa actually was, and they still made the field of 68 in March.
Much will be expected from senior forward Aaron White, as he was the only other double digit scorer besides Marble. They have a great coach and experienced players, they will win those close games against a weaker conference come this season.
4. Michigan State Spartans
This could be a little high for a team that will experience a major overhaul. Adreian Payne and Gary Harris have been drafted, senior guard Keith Appling also has graduated and moved on to the pros, and two other players have transferred.
The three players they lost leaves a big leadership hole for Tom Izzo, as more than 43 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists per game will have to be replaced by the younger players on the team. The two seniors that will be relied heavily upon will be Brandon Dawson and Travis Trice, but also look for Denzel Valentine, the junior point-forward, to really take over as the featured player.
Matt Costello, Gavin Schilling and Kenny Kaminski will be the main contributors on the post, and while they’re still raw, each have shown flashes to contribute on the boards, defensively and on the perimeter. Michigan State also has a top 30 recruiting class, headlined by miniature point guard Lourawls Narin.
What he doesn’t have in size, he surely makes up for in quickness and speed. If Narin doesn’t start, he will definitely still get a bulk of the minutes as a ball handler.
Due to the team’s youth and lack of experience, the Spartans will have to develop ways to score throughout the season, but always expect an edgy, tough and defensive minded team that will hang its hat on the glass.
5. Minnesota Golden Gophers
The Gophers first season under Richard Pitino was a partial success. While they were competitive in a pretty good Big Ten, they did fail to make the NCAA tournament field.
Not a great, but solid, recruiting class should give Minnesota a solid rotation to build on last year’s success. In a year where there aren’t a lot of great teams, Minnesota should be able to make the tourney as an at large this season.