Breaking Down Big Ten Basketball

With recruiting classes all but finalized and the NBA early entree date having come and gone it seemed as good a time as any to forecast the next season of Big Ten basketball and examine where the Buckeyes might fit.

Exactly a month has passed since Duke cut down the nets in Indianapolis as national champions. The list of underclassmen declaring for the NBA Draft has been finalized. All but four of Scout’s top 100 2015 recruits have made their college decision.

It seemed like as good a time as any to take a look at what Big Ten basketball will look like next season and where the Buckeyes will fit in. Ohio State finished a disappointing sixth in the conference last season, matching the lowest mark under Matta, though it was the first season that the league boasted 14 teams.

Ohio State losses its top two scorers from last season, including the best shooting guard in the country in D’Angelo Russell. Nearly all of the assists from last season are gone too. All of the Buckeyes who logged center minutes have exhausted their eligibility, though that could be addition by subtraction if things break right for the Scarlet and Gray.

Still, the Buckeyes have the second-highest ranked recruiting class in the conference with the 11th-ranked group of 2015 recruits headed to Columbus next season. They remain in the running for Seton Hall fifth-year transfer Sterling Gibbs as the playmaking point guard is visiting Ohio State tomorrow.

With so many unknowns surrounding the program it is hard to say where the Buckeyes will finish in a crowded Big Ten next year, but the expectation remains a Top 5 conference finish and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Is it foolish to break down a league more than seven months before Big Ten play begins? Perhaps. But we’ve been without college basketball for a month now and for me that’s too long. With that in mind I take a look at all 14 Big Ten teams breaking the squads into tiers.

Tier 1: The Also Rans

  • Rutgers
  • Penn State
  • Nebraska
With all due respect to the Scarlet Knights, Nittany Lions and Cornhuskers, these three teams brought up the rear in the Big Ten standings last season and things won’t get better as each squad losses its top scorer in Myles Mack, D.J. Newbill and Terran Petteway, respectively. Let’s not waste any time on this tier.

Tier 2: The Tough Outs

  • Iowa
  • Northwestern
  • Minnesota
  • Illinois
Playing these teams won’t be easy next season, but don’t expect any of them to challenge for a Top 4 finish in the league.

The Hawkeyes finished in a three-way tie for third in the league last season, but big pieces are on the way out. Iowa losses two of its top three scorers from last season in addition to the team’s leader rebounds. Replacing do-everything first-team All-Big Ten selection Aaron White will be difficult, but the Hawkeyes style of play and contributions from Jarrof Uthoff and Mike Gesell will allow them to slog their way out of the Big Ten basement. Both of those players would have to take big leaps for Iowa to outperform this tier.

Northwestern was frisky at times last season and Chris Collins will have the majority of the team back next season. Tre Demps, Alex Olah and Bryant McIntosh form a nice core, but with the Wildcats it’s a believe-it-when-I-see-it situation.

For whatever reason, the Golden Gophers seem to perform better when little is expected of them. Minnesota entered last year with high hopes but finished 6-12 in conference play. With the departures of Andre Hollins, Maurice Walker and Deandre Mathieu the expectations will be low in Minneapolis. The Gophers will surely remain a tough out at home, but it will be up to Carlos Morris (11.1 points per game last season) to make them more than that.

Illinois losses its top scorer in Rayvonte Rice and top rebounded in Nnanna Egwu, but the Illini return Malcolm Hill (14.4 ppg and 4.8 rebounds per game last season) and welcome the No. 19 recruiting class in the country after a 9-9 league finish last season. Hill will be the clear team leader as a junior and the three incoming four-star prospects will surely help, but Illinois seems a year away.

Tier 3: Fringe Contenders

  • Purdue
  • Ohio State
  • Wisconsin
  • Michigan
The teams in this group all have talent and solid-to-great coaching, but all have question marks. The Boilermakers need to find a point guard. The Buckeyes will be extremely young, Gibbs or no Gibbs. Caris LeVert’s health will determine how high the Wolverines can climb. The defending national runners-up will have to replace national player of the year Frank Kaminsky and stud wing Sam Dekker, but Badgers coach Bo Ryan isn’t in the business of finishing outside the league’s Top 4.

How these teams shake out could easily come down to the schedule. Wisconsin has a tough row to hoe with Maryland, Indiana, Purdue and Michigan State on the schedule twice. Purdue could also struggle with a pair of meetings against Maryland, Wisconsin and Michigan to go along with a road contest with Indiana. The Buckeyes get the Terrapins and Spartans twice with road trips to Purdue, Indiana and Wisconsin. Michigan, it appears, got the best scheduling breaks in this tier with the Spartans and Hoosiers on the schedule for just one home game each, though the Wolverines get Maryland and Purdue twice.

That slight scheduling advantage combined with the return of LeVert makes Michigan the safest bet to outperform this grouping and the Wolverines could find themselves contending for the league title. Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. developed in Levert’s absence and any chemistry issues in working the talented junior back in to the rotation should be sorted out by league play.

It’s hard to ever count out Wisconsin, but replacing 65.7 percent of the Badgers scoring from last year will be a tall order. Purdue returns A.J. Hammons and Rapheal Davis – a dominant defensive pairing – but lack a clear replacement for the steady hand of point guard Jon Octeus.

For reasons largely known to the readers of this site, the Buckeyes may have more question marks than any team in the league. All veteran leadership has left campus and D’Angelo Russell’s wisely elected to enter the NBA Draft after one of the best seasons in program history. If the recruiting class lives up to the No. 11 billing and players like Jae’Sean Tate, Marc Loving and Keita Bates-Diop make strides Ohio State could push for a top four finish. If they don’t this could be a tier too high. Thad Matta alone earns them a spot as a fringe contender for me.

Tier 4: The Elite

  • Indiana
  • Michigan State
  • Maryland
All three of these teams benefitted greatly from players delaying their NBA dreams. Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell, Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine and Maryland’s Melo Trimble and Jake Layman all could have elected to go pro but returned to campus, elevating these teams a cut above the rest of the league.

While Valentine – likely the top wing in the conference next season – and Tom Izzo may have been enough to elevate the Spartans into this category, the No. 8 recruiting class in the country puts them solidly in this tier. Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Tum Tum Nairn will combine with 5-star center Caleb Swanigan nicely and make the Spartans a force yet again. While Swanigan was a late and somewhat surprising commitment for the Spartans, seeing them near the top of the Big Ten standings yet again is far from shocking.

The pieces are there for Indiana. The Hoosiers have two of the top three returning scorers in the league in Ferrell and James Blackmon Jr. and the top returning rebounder in Troy Williams. Ferrell is also the top returner in assists. The big question for Indiana, unsurprisingly, is coaching. If Tom Crean can’t get at least a Top 3 finish out of this group he needs to go.

In their first year in the conference the Terrapins proved to be the second-best regular season team in the Big Ten and Mark Turgeon’s bunch could be better in year two. Trimble will battle Ferrell for title of best Big Ten point guard while Layman needs to become more assertive with the departure of Dez Wells (15.1 ppg). Add in five-star center Diamond Stone, the No. 6 player in the 2015 class, and Terrapins could be one of the best teams in the nation.

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