Predicting the 2014-15 Big Ten College Basketball Standings
In continuing our summer series of major college basketball conference projections for the 2014-15 season, this Friday we're diving into the Big Ten.
The Big Ten has long been regarded as one of the best conferences in the country, but it has been quite some time since it produced a national champion. Since Michigan State cut down the nets in 2000, Connecticut has won three titles and Duke, North Carolina and Florida have each won two, but the Big Ten is 0-of-14.
Wisconsin will be the primary team looking to break that streak this season. Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State could all be candidates as well.
In the never-ending world of conference realignment, the Big Ten adds Maryland and Rutgers this season, but neither is as likely as Minnesota or Nebraska to actually represent the conference in the NCAA tournament.
In ranking the teams from No. 1 through No. 14, we looked at outgoing players, incoming freshmen, D-I transfers, JUCO transfers, redshirts and projected starting fives. For better or worse, no stone was left unturned.
We look forward to your civilized disagreements about the order in which these teams will finish.
14. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
The boys from New Jersey haven't finished a season .500 or better since 2005-06, and that certainly won't be changing this season.
They moved from the Big East to the American Conference last summer, and now they move to the Big Ten. After losing five key players from a 12-21 team and gaining nothing much in return, Rutgers might be lucky to lose a conference game by less than 10 points.
13. Northwestern Wildcats
Chris Collins' crew has a pair of quality incoming players, but replacing Drew Crawford is just going to be too much. The Wildcats were one of the lowest-scoring teams in the entire country, and now they have to play without their leading scorer? Good luck.
12. Penn State Nittany Lions
They surprised a lot of people by winning six conference games last season, but the Nittany Lions should be headed back to the bottom of the standings after Tim Frazier's departure. They do still have D.J. Newbill, but it takes more than one player to win in this conference.
11. Purdue Boilermakers
A.J. Hammons is one of the best centers in the conference (country?), but Purdue has more questions than answers with Terone Johnson and Ronnie Johnson both leaving town.
If Bryson Scott and Kendall Stephens make a leap as sophomores who figure to both start in the backcourt, maybe the Boilermakers can sneak into the NCAA tournament discussion. Until that happens, though, a third straight sub-.500 season seems to be the more likely result.
10. Maryland Terrapins
2013-14 Record: 17-15 (9-9 in ACC)
Key Players Leaving: Seth Allen, Shaquille Cleare, Nick Faust, Charles Mitchell, Roddy Peters
Key Incoming Players: Romelo Trimble, Dion Wiley, Trayvon Reed, Michal Cekovsky, Richaud Pack
Projected Starting Five: Trimble, Dez Wells, Jake Layman, Evan Smotrycz, Reed
Maryland has one of the most impressive incoming classes in the country, headlined by Trimble.
Unfortunately, the Terrapins also have one of the more talented outgoing groups of players—all of which elected to transfer. There doesn't appear to be any sort of public rift between the players and head coach Mark Turgeon, but it's alarming when five players who definitely would have been a key part of the rotation all volunteer to skip town.
Regardless, the Terrapins should at least be moderately competitive in their first year in the Big Ten. For all that they lost, they're still bringing back three of their four leading scorers from last season. And if either Reed (7'1") or Cekovsky (7'0") can make an immediate impact as freshmen, they might be as strong of a rebounding team as they were during the days of Alex Len.
The big question for Turgeon's team, though, is who plays point guard? Trimble and Wells are most likely to start in the backcourt, but each is much more of a shooter than a passer.
Truly, that was one of Maryland's biggest problems last season. Allen, Faust and Peters all spent time as the de facto point guard, but no one really owned the position, resulting in a lack of court leadership and an inability to win close games—Maryland went 2-6 in games decided either by one possession or in overtime.
Should Trimble come in and immediately commit to being the team's primary point guard, the Terrapins could finish in the top half of the Big Ten standings in their inaugural season.
9. Indiana Hoosiers
2013-14 Record: 17-15 (7-11 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Noah Vonleh, Will Sheehey, Evan Gordon, Austin Etherington, Jeremy Hollowell
Key Incoming Players: James Blackmon Jr., Robert Johnson
Projected Starting Five: Yogi Ferrell, Blackmon, Stanford Robinson, Troy Williams, Devin Davis
In the last six seasons under Tom Crean's tutelage, the Hoosiers have ranged from being one of the worst major-conference teams in the country, with a 6-25 season, to being the favorite to win the national championship during a 29-7 season.
Despite that nearly limitless span of potential outcomes, a repeat of last season would seem to be the most likely result this season.
Between Ferrell, Blackmon and Johnson, the Hoosiers might be one of the better three-point shooting teams in the country. This backcourt should be a lot of fun to watch.
But there's really no telling what to expect from their frontcourt.
The shame of the matter is that they could have Etherington and Howell as juniors and Vonleh and Luke Fischer as sophomores, but they're all gone—Vonleh leaving early for the NBA and the other three electing to transfer.
As a result, Indiana will likely need to start a pair of 6'7" small forwards at power forward and center, unless Jeremiah April or Tim Priller comes in and drastically exceeds expectations as a freshman. I suppose the Hoosiers could go with 6'9" Hanner Mosquera-Perea or 7'0" Peter Jurkin on occasion, but neither has shown much promise through his first two years with the Hoosiers.
So the question becomes: Can Indiana be good enough behind the arc to make up for the lack of second-chance opportunities it will have?
The Hoosiers will certainly win some games solely because they catch fire from three-point range. But on nights when that stroke isn't there in abundance, they'll really struggle to grind out wins in this conference.
8. Illinois Fighting Illini
2013-14 Record: 20-15 (7-11 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Jon Ekey, Joseph Bertrand
Key Incoming Players: Aaron Cosby, Ahmad Starks, Leron Black
Projected Starting Five: Tracy Abrams, Cosby, Rayvonte Rice, Black, Nnanna Egwu
Illinois' prospects for the 2014-15 season took a bit of a hit when Western Michigan transfer Darius Paul was suspended for the year before subsequently transferring to JUCO Lamar State.
The Illini should still be in great shape for a return trip to the NCAA tournament, though.
Paul may be out, but they're still adding two key transfer guards in Cosby and Starks, as well as a highly rated freshman power forward in Black. Throw in the return of leading scorers Abrams and Rice and leading rebounder and shot-blocker Egwu and Illinois has a rotation that can do some damage.
Despite the 15 losses last season, the Illini did show serious promise.
They started the season 14-2—albeit, against a pathetic strength of schedule—and went 6-3, with wins over Michigan State, Iowa and Nebraska between Feb. 9 and March 13 to wiggle their way into the bubble conversation. Unfortunately, they lost eight consecutive games in between those portions of the season.
Unlike a team such as Northwestern or Penn State, they only need to marginally improve their product in order to significantly increase their stock. Cosby and Black might not make any All-Big Ten teams, but they'll have a better chance than Bertrand or Ekey ever did.
Other potential X-factors not listed above are Austin Colbert (6'9") and Maverick Morgan (6'10"). Both played sparingly last season as freshmen, but Illinois will need to get some production out of their reserve big men. The Illini have guards for days, but serviceable backups for Black and Egwu could be the difference between NIT and NCAA.
7. Iowa Hawkeyes
2013-14 Record: 20-13 (9-9 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Roy Devyn Marble, Zach McCabe, Melsahn Basabe
Key Incoming Players: Trey Dickerson
Projected Starting Five: Dickerson, Mike Gesell, Aaron White, Jarrod Uthoff, Adam Woodbury
Unlike the previous two teams on this list, Iowa figures to be just fine in the frontcourt, but it may struggle considerably with its guard play after losing Marble's 17.0 PPG, 3.6 APG and 1.8 SPG.
How the Hawkeyes do this season really comes down to JUCO transfer Dickerson.
Dickerson averaged 19.8 points and 5.7 assists per game last season. 247Sports has him rated as the best point guard making the move from JUCO to D-I (provided we count Kadeem Allen as a shooting guard).
But if he doesn't pan out, what's plan B for Fran McCaffery? Move Gesell to point and make Josh Oglesby the primary shooting guard? Something even less promising than that?
Iowa is due for some good fortune, though.
From Dec. 4 through the end of last season, the Hawkeyes were 0-8 in games decided either by six or fewer points or in overtime. That's just cruel. And yet, they managed to go 9-9 in the Big Ten and make the NCAA tournament.
So yes, they may be losing Marble, but they still have White, Uthoff and a lot of promise with Dickerson. Iowa will still be a talented team and should be able to return to the NCAA tournament with something resembling average luck in close games.
6. Nebraska Cornhuskers
2013-14 Record: 19-13 (11-7 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Ray Gallegos, Deverell Biggs
Key Incoming Players: Moses Ayegba
Projected Starting Five: Benny Parker, Terran Petteway, Shavon Shields, Leslee Smith, Walter Pitchford
One of the biggest surprise stories of the 2013-14 season could be back for another run this year.
Pay no mind to the "key" players the Cornhuskers are losing. Biggs played his last game with the team on Jan. 23, and they went 10-4 after he left. And Gallegos was little more than a three-point specialist who wasn't very special (33.5 percent last season).
Petteway and Shields (and head coach Tim Miles) were the heart and soul of Nebraska, and they'll all be back in November.
Petteway may well have just been getting started, too. He made first team All-Big Ten, despite averaging 2.8 turnovers per game and shooting just 32.7 percent from three-point range—the latter of which was much better before he shot 23.4 percent (15-of-64) over the last 12 games of the season. Improve in both categories and he'll make a serious run at B1G POY.
But can the supporting cast do enough to help him carry the load?
Pitchford and Parker are far from household names, but that's almost entirely due to the somewhat limited playing time that they received at a school hardly renowned for its basketball prowess. Both are very good and plenty capable of being starters in the Big Ten.
It's that fifth spot in the starting rotation that has us concerned.
Smith played just 18 minutes per game last season and did just as much damage with turnovers as he did good with blocks and rebounds. David Rivers wasn't any more valuable, and Ayegba was anything but worth mentioning during his three seasons at Georgetown.
Tai Webster might ultimately get that starting spot, which is really saying something, since he shot 30.4 percent from the field last year.
If the Cornhuskers can get that figured out, though, they'll be one of the teams to beat.
5. Minnesota Golden Gophers
2013-14 Record: 25-13 (8-10 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Austin Hollins, Malik Smith, Maverick Ahanmisi
Key Incoming Players: Carlos Morris
Projected Starting Five: Deandre Mathieu, Andre Hollins, Morris, Maurice Walker, Elliott Eliason
In each conference thus far in the series, there has been one team that was exceptionally difficult to place. In the ACC, it was Miami. Baylor was the puzzling team in the Big 12, and Oregon was tough to forecast in the Pac-12.
Add Minnesota to that list of conundrums, as the Golden Gophers could realistically finish anywhere between second and ninth place in the Big Ten.
If you think Mathieu is going to be one of the better point guards in the country this season, you're undoubtedly a little higher on Minnesota than this. Conversely, if you've never heard of Morris or are concerned about the JUCO transfer's ability to immediately deliver, you're likely worried enough about Minnesota's depth to assume they'll miss the tournament again.
So let's try to meet somewhere in the middle, shall we?
In a conference overrun with lackluster big men, Eliason (5.0 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.9 BPG) should probably be considered an above-average center. At worst, he's a quality shot-blocker and rebounder who occasionally gets buckets.
And truth be told, those averages are nothing close to what he was doing over the first two months of the season. Take out the game against New Orleans in which he only played four minutes and Eliason was putting up 7.2 PPG and 8.7 RPG through Jan. 16. He just hopelessly disappeared after that—as did Minnesota's tournament dreams.
If he remains consistently effective throughout the season, Minnesota will be tough to beat.
One other key player will be Joey King. Whether the 6'9" forward starts ahead of Walker or comes off the bench, he's the versatile type of stretch 4 whom coaches like Mike Krzyzewski and Fred Hoiberg adore.
Extra playing time for him, with Hollins and Smith out of the picture, should be a good thing for a team looking to parlay an NIT title into an NCAA berth.
4. Michigan Wolverines
2013-14 Record: 28-9 (15-3 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Mitch McGary, Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Jordan Morgan, Jon Horford
Key Incoming Players: Kameron Chatman
Projected Starting Five: Derrick Walton Jr., Zak Irvin, Caris LeVert, Chatman, Mark Donnal
Michigan's guards are phenomenal.
With three out of Walton, Irvin, LeVert and Spike Albrecht on the court pretty much at all times for the Wolverines, John Beilein could play Tweedledee and Tweedledum in the post and still win some games.
But we're naturally concerned about the fact that neither Chatman nor Donnal has played a college game in his life.
They'll also have Ricky Doyle (6'9") and D.J. Wilson (6'8") in the mix as freshmen, but neither has been particularly highly rated by scouts.
It's a shame, too, because like Indiana, Michigan could have had one heck of a formidable frontcourt. Horford transferred to Florida, and McGary left for the NBA after failing a drug test. If Michigan had both of those guys for the 2014-15 season, it would be one of the favorites to win the national championship.
Instead, the Wolverines are left to rely on a redshirt freshman and a true freshman to get the job done.
If we've learned anything over the past few seasons, it's that you never doubt Beilein's coaching ability. Having said that, losing five key players while only gaining one marquee recruit may be his toughest job to date.
They'll make the tournament, but there will be points throughout the season where that bid appears to be in jeopardy.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes
2013-14 Record: 25-10 (10-8 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross, Amedeo Della Valle, Lenzelle Smith Jr.
Key Incoming Players: D'Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop, Jae'Sean Tate, Anthony Lee, Kam Williams
Projected Starting Five: Shannon Scott, Russell, Sam Thompson, Lee, Amir Williams
As has been the trend over the past three years, Ohio State will need to figure out how to get buckets without its leading scorer from the previous season.
And actually, the Buckeyes are losing their three leading scorers from last year.
So how are they expected to finish top three in the Big Ten?
For starters, they're still in great hands with Scott at point guard. Scott's assist rate, turnover rate, steal rate and shooting percentages were almost identical to those which Craft delivered last season. The only real difference is that Craft played about 30 percent more minutes than Scott.
It shouldn't be long before Dan Dakich falls in love with him.
They also get Thompson back and might finally be able to make him a focal point of the offensive attack. Thompson has been good for at least a half-dozen mind-blowing dunks per year, but he has struggled to ever get into a rhythm while playing second fiddle to Ross and Deshaun Thomas.
But more important than the returning players are the ones that are new to town.
Lee averaged 13.6 PPG and 8.6 RPG last year for Temple in just 31.1 minutes per game. He should give Thad Matta the type of low-post presence that he has really been lacking since Jared Sullinger left two years ago.
Russell might be the best shooting guard among all 2014 recruits, and Tate and Bates-Diop are both considered top 10 small forwards. Kam Williams isn't technically a new player—he redshirted last year as a freshman—but he'll get some quality minutes as a combo guard who figures to back up both Scott and Russell.
The only position at which the Buckeyes aren't particularly solid is center, but the combined forces of Amir Williams and Trey McDonald are plenty capable of getting the job done.
2. Michigan State Spartans
2013-14 Record: 29-9 (12-6 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, Keith Appling, Russell Byrd
Key Incoming Players: Lourawls Nairn
Projected Starting Five: Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine, Branden Dawson, Kenny Kaminski, Matt Costello
Despite losing three starters—two of which were first-round draft picks on Thursday night—the Spartans are going to be much better than many people seem to believe.
First and foremost, they still have Tom Izzo.
One of the best coaches of the past 20 years, Izzo has led Michigan State to 17 consecutive NCAA tournaments. In 15 of the past 17 seasons, the Spartans were ranked in the top 10 at some point during the year. Appling, Harris and Payne were good, but they were only responsible for a couple of those seasons.
And because those three players and Dawson combined to miss 20 games last season, reserves such as Trice, Kaminski and Costello got playing time they wouldn't otherwise have received, preparing them for starting jobs this year.
With those extra minutes, Trice posted an O-rating of 115.8, according to KenPom.com (subscription required). Costello's O-rating was 120.7 and Kaminski's was a staggering 137.4.
Harris received all the national attention as a great three-point shooter, but he only made 35.2 percent of his triples last year. Trice made 43.4 percent. Kaminski connected 49.4 percent of the time.
In addition to those one-time backups, the Spartans also bring back Dawson and Valentine.
Dawson is an outstanding player who may well average a double-double. Valentine and Trice should do a nice job of mirroring what Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright did this past season for Connecticut—both playing above-average defense, shooting three-pointers and sharing the assist load.
As long as they do a better job of avoiding the injury bug this season, don't be surprised to see Michigan State back in the AP's top 10 once again.
1. Wisconsin Badgers
2013-14 Record: 30-8 (12-6 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Ben Brust
Key Incoming Players: Riley Dearring
Projected Starting Five: Traevon Jackson, Bronson Koenig, Josh Gasser, Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky
This one is a no-doubter.
Everyone who's anyone will have Wisconsin ranked in the top five in the country at the start of next season.
Losing Brust is a bummer, but the Badgers still have one of the best seven-man rotations a coach could ask for. In addition to that starting five, Bo Ryan will once again have Nigel Hayes and Duje Dukan coming off the bench. He'll also have Dearring in the mix after the shooting guard redshirted as a freshman.
Within an hour of their Final Four loss to Kentucky, ESPN's Jeff Goodman broke the news that Dekker and Kaminsky would be returning for another season. The Badgers have been one of the title favorites ever since.
This wasn't simply a team that got hot at the right time during the tournament. Save for a cold spell during the latter half of January, Wisconsin was one of the best teams in the nation last season.
Now, the Badgers are one year older, one year wiser and playing with a chip on their shoulders after coming so close to a championship in April.
Only two times in the past 15 years has a team survived the rigors of the Big Ten schedule with less than two conference losses. Ohio State went 15-1 with Mike Conley and Greg Oden in 2006-07 before losing in the national championship to Florida. Illinois went 15-1 with Luther Head, Deron Williams and Dee Brown in 2004-05 before losing the title game to North Carolina.
Wisconsin will be the third team to join that club this season. And perhaps this team will have better luck in the final game of the season than its predecessors did.
Previous projections in this series:
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.