By: Joey Bonadonna
College basketball is back! After an exciting offseason of changes for many programs across the country, this season is poised to be one of the best in recent memory. With this in mind, I took the time to dive into the Big Ten and take a look at all 14 Men’s Basketball teams. In the process, I put together pre-season rankings that will more than certainly be 100% accurate (with a note of sarcasm) when the regular season comes to an end in March.
14: Nebraska (14th in polls) – The Cornhuskers are coming off of a 10-win season, where they finished tied for last in the Big Ten with a 4-16 conference record. They did come into the Kohl Center last season and knocked off the Badgers in the last home game of the season in a one-point victory. However, that win proved to say more about Wisconsin’s lack of depth in 2021-22 rather than any positives to take away about the Huskers. The reality is simple: Nebraska was and is not good. While they had a massive influx of scoring behind Bryce McGowens last season, their defense was a sieve. They had the worst point differential margin in the Big Ten with an average of -5.3, one of three teams with a negative number in that category. But this season, the Huskers lose McGowens and Alonzo Verge Jr., meaning 4th-year head coach Fred Hoiberg will have to rely heavily on his transfers, among the likes of forwards Sam Griesel and Juwan Gary to find success in the Big Ten this season. While Griesel and Gary provide a little bit of hope with their experience at NDSU and Alabama respectively, the guard play and shooting leave a lot to be desired for any team to compete, especially in a Power 6 conference like the Big Ten.
13: Northwestern (13th in polls) – The Wildcats put up a 7-13 season in the Big Ten last year, finishing just one game below .500 overall at 15-16. Similar to Nebraska, the Northwestern offense was able to put up a good amount of points, but their defense struggled mightily to keep the Cats in games. Chicago’s Big Ten team hasn’t come close to the Big Dance since their near upset of Gonzaga in the second round in 2017 and it looks like that will continue this season. Forward Pete Nance, who was a highlight of last year’s team has transferred to North Carolina, leading to senior Boo Buie, who averaged 14 points per game last season, having to take command of this year’s squad. While Chris Collins is Chicagoland basketball “royalty,” he has struggled to get the big-name talent from a major basketball hotspot since taking the job in 2013. His seat might get progressively warmer if the Wildcats continue to struggle this season. Other underclassmen such as Julian Roper and Casey Simmons will have to improve to help the Wildcats create a better future for the program in Evanston.
12: Maryland (10th in polls) – The Terrapins last year were a tough team but simply could not stack up enough wins when it mattered. They had a few statement victories against teams like Florida, Virginia Tech, Illinois and Ohio State, but really could not get much more than that. This season, Fatts Russell and Eric Ayala are both gone, leaving Donta Scott as the only real remaining threat from last year’s starting lineup. There’s also a new man in charge as former Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard made the switch this summer. While Willard had a solid career with the Pirates, I expect it will take a little bit of time for him to adjust to life in College Park and the Big Ten. He does bring in a few transfers, like junior Jahari Long from Seton Hall and an experienced guard in Don Carey from Georgetown, but time will tell if this new-look Terps team will be able to succeed in a competitive Big Ten.
11: Minnesota (12th in polls) – Minnesota is going to be a team that will contend in the near future. I really like what Ben Johnson is starting to do to keep great Twin Cities talent in Minnesota (except for at Lakeville North, that’s Greg Gard territory) as well as collecting out of state recruits as well. However, that’s the future. This list is now and the Gophers right now lives and dies by the play of Jamison Battle. Battle is great, but he’s not good enough to carry this team to contend in the Big Ten. There are some other solid players on this squad like freshman Braeden Carrington and former Marquette/UNC big man Dawson Garcia. I expect Carrington and Garcia to be great pieces for the Gophers in 2023 and beyond. Maybe they can contribute this season. But that remains wishful thinking in my eyes. Watch out for Gophers in a year or two to emerge as a contender, but not this year.
10: Penn State (11th in polls) – The exact opposite of the bottom two teams on the list, Penn State has an exceptional defense while not being able to buy a basket. However, there is reason to believe this could get changed around shortly. John Harrar, the lone all-Big Ten nominee for the Nittany Lions a season ago, is no longer in Happy Valley, but head coach Micah Shrewsberry has a solid crew returning for year 2. The two leading scorers from last year’s squad, Seth Lundy and Jalen Pickett, are among those with experience from last year. After a period of uninspiring recruiting classes for Penn State, the class of 2022 brings a few interesting prospects to the program, headlined by four-star big Kebba Njie, who will likely have to fill a gap in the rotation left by Harrar’s departure. This squad saw a respectable end to their season when they upset Ohio State in the second round of the Big Ten tournament. Penn State has quite a few pieces they can build a program around but the question will be if their youth can contribute sooner than later.
9: Rutgers (8th in polls)- The Scarlet Knights were a team you did not want to play in Piscataway last season. However, on the road or on a neutral court? Your odds increased exponentially. Rutgers went a combined 4-11 away from the RAC (or Jersey Mike’s Arena now, I guess?) which proved deadly when it came to March when they lost to Iowa in the Big Ten tournament and to Notre Dame in the First Four. However, winning away from home is hardly the first concern of this year’s team. While the Knights retain big man Cliff Omoruyi, they lose their big-time guards in Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. with not much experience in scoring behind them. Even though Rutgers was a very solid team last year, I’m not as high on them as the polls are and I expect to see a bit of regression.
8: Iowa (7th in polls)- This may seem low for the Hawkeyes because they always seem to contend under Fran McCaffery (despite being my least-favorite Big Ten head coach, yes, even behind a certain man in Ann Arbor) but they lost a LOT of production from their team last season. Keegan Murray was simply awesome last season for Iowa and I’m not as high on Kris Murray. The Hawkeyes also lose their second leading scorer in Jordan Bohanon and I also can’t be convinced that Patrick McCaffery would not be on this team if his father wasn’t the head coach. Am I mostly kidding with that last take? Yes. But this team is going to miss Keegan Murray a lot more than anticipated. I still think the Hawkeyes can contend but I struggle to put them ahead of the teams I have in the top seven (one of them is likely because of bias).
7: Ohio State (6th in polls) – The Buckeyes were a 20-win team a year ago, but struggled down the stretch, going 2-5 in their last seven games of the season. Coming into this year, they lose Big Ten Freshman of the Year Malaki Branham, as well as E.J. Liddell, to the NBA Draft. There is not much experience left as only four players remain from last year’s squad, but junior forward Zed Key, who averaged 7.8ppg and 5.6rpg in 2021-22, may take a step up offensively. An interesting freshman to keep eyes on is 4-star big man Felix Okpara. Okpara was part of a top 10 class for Chris Holtmann and may be asked to fill a spot in the starting lineup fairly early on in the season. There is certainly talent in Columbus but the question will be if the team gels together after being largely picked over and being replaced with many transfers and freshmen.
6: Michigan State (4th in polls) – The Spartans are… there, I guess? The polls have them at #4 in the conference, but I do not see them going that high. But, never count Tom Izzo out. They certainly lost a lot of talent from last season but Joey Hauser, Tyson Walker and Malik Hall are still around. There’s also some solid freshmen coming in with Tre Holloman and Jaxon Kohler. Personally, I am extremely high on Holloman on making an impact soon for the Spartans. He did absolutely everything in his prep career in Minnesota and I think he will do just the same when it is his time to run the point in East Lansing. This MSU team is not a threat to win the conference in my opinion, but they certainly can make the tournament and have the guys on the roster to put together some really solid wins.
5: Purdue (5th in polls) – The Boilermakers might have lost a lot of their production from last year, including the sensational Jaden Ivey, but they still have Zach Edey, which for those who are unfamiliar with his game, imagine if Frankenstein’s monster played college basketball. I got to see him play live last year in the Round of 32 in Milwaukee against Texas and you don’t realize how big he actually is until you see him in the flesh. You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him. But once you contain him, what else is there in West Lafayette? There is not much experience at guard, which might be their downfall this season. Matt Painter always finds success with his squads in the regular season and last year, they were a really fun team to watch. However, once March rolls around, things tend to fall apart. The major question is if Edey can manage being the centerpiece of a team for an entire season.
4: Wisconsin (9th in polls) – Ah, here are our beloved Badgers. The defending Big Ten champions once again find themselves underrated by the media and the rest of the college basketball world in the preseason polls. Looking at the departures, Johnny Davis and Brad Davison are obviously huge holes to fill in the starting lineup. Look no further than Chucky Hepburn. While Hepburn’s shooting ability (a conference-winner against Purdue aside) remains to be developed, I believe he can be the catalyst for this Wisconsin offense this season, as well as being a fantastic defensive guard. Early takeaways from camp seem to read that the Badgers have improved their shooting, which was a key factor in their early exit from the tournament last season. However, if guys like Tyler Wahl and Steven Crowl continue to progress and newcomers in Max Klesmit and Connor Essegian provide a boost in perimeter shooting, this team has the capability of winning a lot of games in this conference. The Badgers will have some tough competition, having to play a tough Dayton team and potentially a defending national champion in Kansas, but I definitely think this team can make the tournament again. Expecting another Big Ten championship might be too good to be true, but this team can easily find success again this season.
3: Michigan (3rd in polls) – I regrettably report that the Wolverines did make the Sweet 16 last season, despite all thought to be being lost after their loss to Wisconsin earlier this calendar year. If you do not recall, Michigan head coach Juwan Howard physically assaulted a man on the Kohl Center floor and still got all of the glory in March. In all seriousness, Michigan was a very talented team last year, and they’ll continue to be talented as long as Hunter Dickinson is on the floor. He is everything you want in a center in today’s game. While Michigan still loses a lot of their scoring from last season, they put together a solid freshman class that includes Juwan’s son, Jett Howard, who was a top-50 player in the country in the class of 2022. The Wolverines also bring in former Duke Blue Devil Joey Baker, who could play a decent role off the bench for the squad this season. Regardless of the supporting cast, Michigan will be in play for the conference title with a player of the caliber of Dickinson.
2: Indiana (1st in polls) – The Hoosiers are the consensus pick for the conference title. They originally were for me too. However, after playing devil’s advocate with myself, I knocked them down to number two. Trayce Jackson-Davis is fantastic and will likely be one of the best players in the country this season. He’s a great defender and has a nose for getting to the rim with ease. They also retain Xavier Johnson, Miller Kopp and Race Thompson, as well as putting together an amazing recruiting class. Mike Woodson has a great group of players to work with So, what’s my knock? Well, Indiana wasn’t great last year. They were below .500 in conference play and were one of the last four in the tournament. Despite winning in Dayton, they got trounced by nearly 30 in the first round by St. Mary’s. Yes, that was last year, but this is a story I’ve seen before with getting hung up on an entire roster returning for the next season (see the 2020-21 Wisconsin Badgers). They are also seeing an EXTREMELY difficult schedule having to play Arizona, North Carolina and Kansas before the calendar even turns over. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very good Hoosiers squad and will probably make me eat my words once March rolls around. But, I like the number one team even more.
1: Illinois (2nd in polls) – What a year for the Illini! They (seemingly) are going to Indianapolis in the Big Ten Championship for football and they are top dogs in Joey Bonadonna’s Big Ten preseason power rankings. Is it possible that I am picking them just to be different from the rest of the media? Yes. But this is a fantastic Illinois team. Exit Kofi Cockburn, enter Matthew Mayer as the face of this program. Mayer is a pickup that no one is talking about, mostly because of another transfer in Terrence Shannon Jr., but I think he is going to be the best player to come out of the transfer portal this summer. Another player to watch is freshman Skyy Clark, one of the best point guards in the class of 2022. Brad Underwood has done a great job to keep talent flowing through Champaign and this year’s Illini are going to be a great example of that.