Two-horse race atop the conference . . . but then what? (Full Big Ten Men’s Basketball Preview)

By: Joey Bonadonna

The United Center ahead of the first round of the 2023 Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament in Chicago, where Purdue would eventually go on to capture the tournament title. This year’s tournament will be held in Minneapolis at the Target Center. (Photo by Anthony Winker / WSUM Sports)

After a crazy Big Ten men’s basketball season a year ago and getting a grand total of zero (0) picks correct in the standings, I am back and have returned to the drawing board in hopes of selecting a perfect 14/14 in 2023-24.

As we stand at the start of the season, there are so many questions to be answered. Will Wisconsin get back into the NCAA tournament? Can Northwestern repeat the magic they had last year? Will Michigan State or Purdue claim the Big Ten title? Or is there a mystery team that finds their way to the top of the table?

I’ll do my best to answer all of these and predict the future as we take a look at my Big Ten men’s basketball preseason rankings compared to the preseason poll from The Athletic.

14. Minnesota (14th in preseason poll)

Last year, I said the Gophers lived and died by the play of Jamison Battle. Well, despite his best efforts, they still died a horrible death in the 2022-23 season and finished last in the Big Ten, going just 2-17 in conference play. Now, Battle is off to Ohio State and the promise that Minnesota once had has quickly vanished. They have a little bit of hope with preseason All-Big Ten honoree Dawson Garcia, who was 10th in the conference last season in points per game with 15.3, but they need him to stay healthy if they even want to compete in games this year.

Another player I mentioned last year, Braeden Carrington, was also oft-injured last season. He will need to take a step up and become a more consistent scorer as he’ll likely see starter’s minutes going into his sophomore season. Pharrel Payne and Joshua Ola-Joseph also highlight the returners for the Golden Gophers.

There’s no doubt that Minnesota has been hit with the injury bug in head coach Ben Johnson’s first two seasons at the helm in Dinkytown, but I’ll need to see that they can stay healthy (among other things) before I believe in this group to get out of the basement of the standings.

13. Penn State (13th in preseason poll)

Penn State ended up being a fun team to watch last season. They nearly knocked off Purdue in the Big Ten championship, won an NCAA tournament game and ultimately fell to Texas in the Round of 32. They were so fun that Micah Shrewsberry got a shiny new contract at Notre Dame and most of their production moved onto the next level. Great story, right? Not for Nittany Lions fans.

Seth Lundy and Jalen Pickett are both off to the NBA, and Kebba Njie followed Shrewsberry to South Bend. Enter Mike Rhoades, who has won the Atlantic 10 twice in six years, but has his work cut out for him trying to keep this Penn State program afloat. He’ll have a little help, bringing 2023 A10 Player of the Year Ace Baldwin Jr. with him from VCU. Baldwin will likely be one of the best impact transfers in the Big Ten, but there’s just not a lot else around him. Talented sophomore Kanye Clary returns to State College and Puff Johnson and Qudus Wahab bring some extensive experience playing high major basketball. Still, outside of Baldwin, I’m not as moved by this team in Year One of the Rhoades era.

12. Rutgers (10th in preseason poll)

Rutgers is at an interesting point in their program outlook. They just came off a year where they missed the NCAA Tournament despite being ranked in February. They also lose some of their most prolific scorers in Paul Mulcahy and Cam Spencer. Next year, they’ll welcome in a likely top-five recruiting class.

This season, however, they sit in limbo. Clifford Omoruyi returns and should be an all-B1G performer again, but who else fills in the cast around him? Aundre Hyatt appeared in all 34 games for the Scarlet Knights but only started in half. He is the second highest returning scorer behind Omoruyi at 8.8 points per game. Mawot Mag tore his ACL in February but is working his way back and will likely be a big factor upon his return.

The struggle for this team is going to be replacing its shooting. They have a lot of great players at the rim but their backcourt play has a few questions. UMass transfer Noah Fernandes, who averaged 13.4 points per game on 48% shooting for the Minutemen, is a great step in the right direction. At B1G Media Days, head coach Steve Pikiell said that Fernandes “will handle the ball a great deal” for Rutgers this year.

In the grand scheme of things though, in terms of roster construction, the Scarlet Knights are basically treating this as a gap year ahead of their big class of 2024. Therefore, I expect to see them playing in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.

11. Michigan (11th in preseason poll)

Michigan was bad last year and I’m still sickened that Wisconsin lost to them in Ann Arbor. Now, their two best players are out the door and the top-end talent of this roster just does not look good. No more Hunter Dickinson or Jett Howard around for head coach Juwan Howard to fall back on. Dug McDaniel and Terrance Williams II are the only real returners back for this squad and they don’t necessarily spark a lot of confidence.

However, Juwan brought in a few impact transfers out of the SEC that make this team look a little better. Olivier Nkamhoua started all 36 games for a Tennessee squad that made the Sweet Sixteen in March and should provide great defense and solid scoring for Michigan. I am interested to see his fit with Howard’s scheme and lineup, as this lineup gets a lot smaller with the departure of Dickinson but Nkamhoua is still an extremely capable player for what will be expected of him.

The other transfer enters the backcourt as Nimari Burnett leaves Alabama as a grad student. I think he plugs pretty well next to McDaniel in the starting lineup and fills a big need while Jaelin Llewellyn works his way back from a knee injury that cut his season short last December.

Overall though, I don’t see these transfers being enough to overcome the loss of Dickinson and Howard and I’m still not confident in what a starting lineup looks like in what could be a tough season for the Wolverines.

10. Iowa (9th in preseason poll)

Iowa is in a very similar situation to Michigan right now in terms of lost production, but I think they’re in a better position than the Wolverines to start the season.

The Hawkeyes lose Kris Murray, as well as Filip Rebraca and Connor McCaffery, a big loss across their entire frontcourt. They also lost Ahron Ulis to Nebraska. However, there’s still some promise with what’s returning, as well as an exciting recruiting class with some decent expectations. Payton Sandfort highlights the returners, coming off a season where he averaged double digits in points per game off the bench en route to Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year. He’s an extremely productive shooter who has shown the capability to haul in rebounds at the 3 spot. He should plug into the void that Murray leaves. Tony Perkins started all 32 games for the Hawkeyes a season ago at point guard and is the highest returning scorer. His efficiency in directing the offense could see improvement, but he makes up for it by being a plucky defender, averaging over a steal a game a season ago. Ben Krikke transfers from Valparaiso and led the Missouri Valley in scoring last year. He should be an improvement over the departing McCaffery at the 4.

The question remains at the 5, where it looks like there could be an unproven commodity starting in Iowa City. True freshman Owen Freeman from Moline, Illinois emerged as a candidate to take that spot after he was a double-double machine on their foreign tour. In August, Jon Rothstein told us to “Remember The Name” so I will “Buy Stock Now.” Still, relying on an underrated freshman to handle the centers that the Big Ten boasts is a huge ask. I think Iowa does take a step back and will hope to be a bubble team when March rolls around.

9. Ohio State (7th in preseason poll)

Ohio State was projected to be a middle of the pack team last year, but fell all the way down to 13th, only winning five Big Ten games. On top of this, they lost their star player Brice Sensabaugh to the NBA Draft. So why are they back up to the middle of the pack again?

In my opinion, Minnesota transfer Jamison Battle fills exactly what this team needs. One of the most senior players in the Big Ten, he should bring an influx of scoring and late-game confidence to this Buckeyes squad. Sophomore Bruce Thornton should be primed for a breakout season after starting all 35 games as a freshman and averaging double digits in scoring. He was also named a captain for the squad this season. Zed Key is another guy who is expected to have a big season after having his 2022-23 campaign cut short due to a shoulder injury. His threat for a double-double on the glass will be a dangerous piece to have on the glass. Ohio State also pulled in another very talented recruiting class with another Minneapolis native Taison Chatman leading the charge of a top-ten class according to 247Sports.

Chris Holtmann’s seat is as hot as it’s ever been and there’s major pressure to produce this year in Columbus. I think the addition of Battle can push this team forward even with the loss of Sensabaugh. They’ll be plucky enough to win some big games, but the nine spot is more than fair despite the media selecting them a few spots higher and others having them a lot higher than that.

Watch for this team to make a tournament push if they can avoid a cold streak like they did last year.

8. Nebraska (12th in preseason poll)

Nebrasketball. Things that the Sickos Committee can only dream of seeing on a basketball floor.

Believe it or not, this team finished .500 last year. They return a lot of production and bring in some exciting players out of the portal. Dare I say I like the makeup of this team? I can definitely see this team giving people fits just like they did last season.

Fan-favorite and All-B1G preseason honoree Keisei Tominaga returns for his final year of eligibility. They call him the “Japanese Steph Curry” for a reason; this guy can shoot the lights out of a gym. Last season, Tominaga shot 40.3% from deep. Juwan Gary, who got injured last season after transferring from Alabama, will return and is expected to provide much more defensive stability to this lineup.

Fred Hoiberg also dipped into the portal and got a few impact transfers in Rienk Mast (Bradley), Brice Williams (Charlotte) and Ahron Ulis (Iowa). Mast led Bradley in scoring a season ago and Williams provides great athleticism at the wing. The adjustment to high major basketball will be important, but both should help Nebraska improve tremendously. Ulis was a regular starter for Iowa last season and is a tremendous passer at the point. I’m interested to see how he factors into Hoiberg’s plans, if he is eligible.

Nebraska’s starting five is not all that bad on paper, but questions remain with seeing all of these players be one-trick ponies. There are some other pieces they can try and run out in the early stages too like New Mexico transfer Josiah Allick and Jamarques Lawrence.

If they can pull together a cohesive starting unit, don’t be surprised to see this team be this year’s Cinderella out of the Big Ten. 

7. Indiana (6th in preseason poll)

The Hoosiers will enter this season with a lot of familiar faces gone like Trayce Jackson-Davis and Jalen Hood-Schifino but the talent at the top will still be there for Mike Woodson’s squad.

True freshman Mackenzie Mgbako is the most talented newcomer in the Big Ten and enters the season as the odds-on favorite to win Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Xavier Johnson returns from a season-ending injury from a year ago and will add contrasting experience to Mgbako. Having a sixth-year point guard is going to be a massive boost for this starting lineup.

The really intriguing player for the Hoosiers for me this season is Oregon transfer Kel’el Ware. The former 5-star seven-footer transfers into Bloomington looking to boost his draft stock after only starting four games for the Ducks last season. After so many years of having “smaller” post players, Indiana has a new toy to play with in Ware.

There’s no doubt that there is talent and experience for the Hoosiers this year. My concern will be with their depth. There have been too many times in this conference you see super talented teams not quite hit their stride until late.

I think Indiana will be a good team this year and has a chance to put together a special run in March, but I think they’ll struggle at the midpoint of the season which will dig them a deep hole which will be hard to come out on top of in terms of the Big Ten standings.

6. Northwestern (8th in preseason poll)

I am very high on Northwestern making another dark horse run at a Big Ten title this year.

Boo Buie is back for another year in Evanston after testing the waters in the draft process and will be at the forefront of what Northwestern does this year. However, Chase Audige stayed in the draft and head coach Chris Collins will have to replace his production. Look no further than Ty Berry. Northwestern went 11-3 in games where Berry scored in double figures. For the Wildcats to repeat their success, they’ll need him to step up into an increased role.

Brooks Barnhizer is another breakout candidate in Evanston as he was an extremely effective scorer when he received starter’s minutes. Watch for March Madness hero and Princeton transfer Ryan Langborg to help round out a small ball lineup.

Despite the loss of Audige and Robbie Beran, the Wildcats return some major pieces from a team that won a tournament game a season ago and should push to make it back again next March. I am curious to see how their depth serves them, especially in the frontcourt, but this team still has some exciting players to watch.

5. Wisconsin (5th in preseason poll)

The Badgers are primed for a return to the NCAA Tournament and have the most returning production in the country by most metrics. Wisconsin has not missed consecutive tournaments since 1996 and barring a disaster, I don’t expect that streak to end this season.

Greg Gard’s seat may be hot for some but this is a good team that is deep enough to hold down the fort in the event of any injuries. Tyler Wahl is back and fully healthy after suffering an ankle injury that changed the momentum of both his and the Badgers’ season last year (11-2 before he got hurt). Connor Essegian is coming off of a record-breaking freshman season and could be primed for a breakout season.

However, the man everyone is talking about in Madison is St. John’s transfer AJ Storr, who adds much needed athleticism at the wing and another plus shooter in the lineup. With Storr, the Badgers have the capability to run their offense much quicker in transition. Add in guys like Chucky Hepburn and Steven Crowl, who had an added emphasis in offseason training, there’s a lot of potential with this group.

This team has been very prone to having cold spells in the past which could impact their ability to win a Big Ten title and go deep in the tournament, but if they can improve their efficiency at the rim and remain a sound defensive team, this team has the pieces to have some fun this year.

4. Illinois (4th in preseason poll)

The Illini surprised me with their win over Kansas, and I considered putting them at three, but I was quickly brought down to Earth when I was reminded it was just an exhibition. I still really like the makeup of this team, and if Brad Underwood can put together a solid coaching performance, Illinois might finally make a run this year.

A lot of familiar faces are gone from Champaign but a good chunk of the returning production is back. Terrence Shannon is back for his second year with the program and is one of the most senior guards not just in the conference, but the country. He heads a very deep backcourt group including guys like Ty Rodgers and Sencire Harris who both could be primed for breakout sophomore seasons. Another interesting guard pickup is Southern Illinois transfer Marcus Domask who averaged 16.7 points per game for the Salukis last season.

The frontcourt has two really intriguing players with Coleman Hawkins and Dain Dainja. Hawkins was a sparkplug for the Illini offense in 2022-23 and showed the ability to stuff the stat sheet in every category. Dainja came along in the lineup later on last season and was extremely efficient at the rim and was a phenomenal shot blocker.

This squad is filled with a lot of good basketball players who aren’t going to necessarily “out-athlete” you every night, but they have all shown they’re capable of winning games on a consistent basis.

3. Maryland (3rd in preseason poll)

The Terrapins enter Year Two of the Kevin Willard era and it’s gotten off to a quicker start than I expected at this time last year. Putting this team at 12th was probably one of my biggest misses and I’m not making that mistake again this year.

This team plays an exciting and balanced brand of basketball and boasts one of the toughest home court environments in the Big Ten in College Park. Jahmir Young, Julian Reese and Donta Scott return from a squad that won an NCAA Tournament game last season. Young and Reese both received preseason All-Big Ten honors and Scott was not too far off the pace. All three averaged double figures in scoring and should see increased roles in 2023-24.

The X-factor for the Terps, however, will be true freshman guard DeShawn Harris-Smith. The DMV native was a high four-star recruit out of high school and looks to immediately plug into the starting lineup alongside the veterans already in place. The other spot is also expected to be filled by another freshman in top-75 recruit Jamie Kaiser. I was high on Kaiser as Wisconsin was close to landing his services in this past recruiting cycle, but alas, I’ll have to watch him in another Big Ten team’s uniform.

This team is talented and deep and I think they’ll have the opportunity to push through into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

2. Purdue (1st in preseason poll)

The age-old question in the Big Ten this year: Purdue or Michigan State?

I have the Boilers at two but it has gotten closer in the recent weeks. College basketball’s Frankenstein’s monster Zach Edey is back after testing the draft waters and a majority of the other producers from last year have returned as well. Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer both make up a sophomore-tandem backcourt after very productive freshman seasons. Those three alone should leave you in a good position for contending for a Big Ten title.

Matt Painter’s squads have always been consistent regular season performers, but unfortunately, the agonizing finishes in the NCAA Tournament have been consistent occurrences every year. Many are drawing comparisons with this team to Virginia who went on to win the national title after falling to a 16-seed the year before. I think that would be wishful thinking, but it’s certainly possible.

There’s not a whole lot more that needs to be said with this squad. They have championship goals, both in the conference and on the national scene, and there won’t be a lot of teams in the country that can slow them down. Unfortunately, one of them does in fact lie in front of them in their own conference.

1. Michigan State (2nd in preseason poll)

The winner of the 2023-24 Joey Bonadonna’s Big Ten preseason power rankings are the Michigan State Spartans!

I look at this roster and see one of the most deeply talented groups in the country, with both experienced players and a huge freshman class. Coen Carr went viral for his free throw line dunks at the team’s open practice at the Breslin Center. Yeah, that guy is probably coming off the bench for Sparty.

Tom Izzo has one of the most championship-ready units he’s had in his storied tenure and that’s obviously saying a lot. Tyson Walker, AJ Hoggard, Malik Hall and Mady Sissoko are all returning starters from a team that was one play away from going to the Elite Eight. Carr, Jeremy Fears and Xavier Booker are just the top of the talented true freshman class.

There could be a lot of hardware heading to East Lansing this year and this team has an opportunity to end the Big Ten national title drought next March in Phoenix.