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The 2020-21 Big Ten Men’s Basketball Preview

Last year, the Big Ten had three teams share the regular season conference title. Here’s what to expect from this season.

Michigan v Maryland

The 2020-21 college basketball season is well underway after being delayed several weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As teams manage to work through cancellations and schedule changes, they also begin to wrap up nonconference play, with the Big Ten slate set to start Dec. 13 which is quickly approaching.

Here’s what to expect from the 14 teams in the conference this season.

The Favorites

1. Iowa Hawkeyes (AP No. 3, as of Dec. 7)
4-0 record (as of Dec. 9)

2019-20 record: 20-11 (11-9 Big Ten)
Conference finish: T-Fifth
Head Coach: Fran McCaffery (11th season)
Returning starters: C Luka Garza, G Joe Wieskamp, G/F Connor McCaffery, G CJ Fredrick
Big Ten regular season odds: +270*

With the 2019-20 Big Ten Player of the Year in Luka Garza returning to Iowa City, the Hawkeyes already have an advantage. Garza is arguably the best player in the country and was named an unanimous Preseason AP All-American. But for Iowa, the supporting cast around Garza is what makes it a national championship contender.

Joe Wieskamp, likely a future pro, Connor McCaffery and CJ Fredrick are all returning to the Hawkeyes’ starting lineup this season. In addition, Jordan Bohannon is returning from hip surgery after he suffered a season-ending injury last year. Bohannon holds the record for most three-pointers made in Iowa’s program history, and the redshirt senior has the most Division I games played during his career, among active players.

With this makeup of stellar deadeye shooters and the best big man in the nation, Iowa has one of the most dominant inside-outside offenses in the NCAA. Opposing defenses usually don’t have a recipe to stop Garza inside, to begin with, and with the way Bohannon, Wieskamp and Fredrick shoot the ball, opponents will have their hands full when trying to stop a team that can score the ball every which way.

2. Illinois Fighting Illini (AP No. 6, as of Dec. 7)
4-1 record (as of Dec. 9)

2019-20 record: 21-10 (13-7 Big Ten)
Conference finish: Fourth
Head Coach: Brad Underwood (4th season)
Returning starters: G Ayo Dosunmu, C Kofi Cockburn, G Da’Monte Williams, G Trent Frazier
Big Ten regular season odds: +330*

Illinois returns its two best players from 2019-20 in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, who both tested the NBA Draft waters. Dosunmu, a First Team All-Big Ten player a year ago, is arguably one of the best guards in the country this season and was named a Preseason AP All-American. Cockburn, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year, is one of the most ferocious big men in the nation at 7’0, 285 pounds. Experienced senior guards Da’Monte Williams and Trent Frazier also return to the Fighting Illini.

The rich got richer when four-star guards Adam Miller, the No. 33 overall player in the class, and Andre Curbelo, the No. 8 point guard and No. 44 overall player in the class, committed to Illinois. With the star studded duo of Dosunmu and Cockburn, complemented by Williams, Frazier, Miller, Curbelo and 2019-20 starter Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who will likely come off the bench this season, Illinois could be one of the deepest and most skilled teams in the nation.

Illinois can score the ball at will from inside and outside, but its defense is what is most impressive, with Dosunmu — one of the best defending guards in the country — at the top and Cockburn protecting the rim and rebounding. With this formula, the Fighting Illini are built for March.

The Contenders

3. Michigan State Spartans (AP No. 4, as of Dec. 7)
5-0 record (as of Dec. 9)

2019-20 record: 22-9 (14-6 Big Ten)
Conference finish: T-First
Head Coach: Tom Izzo (25th season)
Returning starters: F Aaron Henry, G Rocket Watts, F Gabe Brown
Big Ten regular season odds: +450*

Tom Izzo’s squad took home a share of the Big Ten regular season title last season, but will have a tough task of replacing point guard Cassius Winston and forward Xavier Tillman Sr., who both got drafted in the 2020 NBA Draft.

Winston, now of the Washington Wizards, finished his four-year career at Michigan State as the Big Ten’s all-time assist leader, with 890 in his career, and he finished 22nd all-time in the conference in scoring. Tillman, now of the Memphis Grizzlies, was the 2019-20 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

Izzo now looks to guys like junior Aaron Henry, who is likely a future pro, along with sophomore Rocket Watts, redshirt junior Joey Hauser and graduate student Joshua Langford, who missed the final 17 games of the 2018-19 season and the entire 2019-20 season with injury. Langford will provide experience at the point guard position this season as he returns from those injuries. Hauser, the transfer from Marquette, sat out the 2019-20 season due to NCAA transfer rules, but will be a huge piece this year, as he can score and rebound the ball at an elite level in the Spartans’ front court.

Though the talent isn’t as high as recent years, under the tutelage of Izzo, Michigan State seems to never miss a beat. With a core of Henry, Watts, Hauser, Langford and Thomas Kithier, and a supporting cast with tons of depth, the Spartans should be right back in the thick of things with a chance to win the conference for the fourth straight season.

4. Wisconsin Badgers (AP No. 13, as of Dec. 7)
4-1 record (as of Dec. 9)

2019-20 record: 21-10 (14-6 Big Ten)
Conference finish: T-First
Head Coach: Greg Gard (6th season)
Returning starters: F Nate Reuvers, G D’Mitrik Trice, G Brad Davison, F Micah Potter, F Aleem Ford
Big Ten regular season odds: +330*

Wisconsin is the only team in the conference to return all five starters from last season. Another advantage for the Badgers is that all five of those players from last year’s Co-Big Ten regular season champions are now seniors, with exponential experience.

The Badgers have one of the most balanced offensive attacks in the Big Ten with a ball handler and passer in D’Mitrik Trice, shooters in Brad Davison and Micah Potter, and a big man who can stretch the floor in Nate Reuvers. Aleem Ford, now a redshirt senior, provides great length and defense in the frontcourt for the Badgers as well.

Greg Gard’s roster not only returned its top players from last year, but it continues to have depth come off the bench. The Badgers, four games into the 2020-21 season, have seven players averaging over 20.0 minutes per game. Gard’s ability to go seven men deep and have consistent production gives Wisconsin a chance to win the conference and make a deep run in March.

Middle of the Pack

5. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (AP No. 21, as of Dec. 7)
4-0 record (as of Dec. 9)

2019-20 record: 20-11 (11-9 Big Ten)
Conference finish: T-Fifth
Head Coach: Steve Pikiell (5th season)
Returning starters: G Geo Baker, G/F Ron Harper Jr., G Montez Mathis, F Caleb McConnell, C Myles Johnson
Big Ten regular season odds: N/A*

The Scarlet Knights return seven of their eight leading scorers from last season’s roster, a team that won 20 games for the first time in nearly two decades. Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. return as the dynamic duo in Piscataway, New Jersey.

Rutgers continues to have a stifling defense, as it was top-10 in the nation in efficient defense last year. Through four games this season, the Scarlet Knights have conceded an average of just 65.8 points per game, which is very similar to last season’s total 62.6 points per game. If the Scarlet Knights are able to improve offensively, which it should considering seven of the top eight scorers from last year are returning, and they are able to continue their swarming defensive ways, then they could be a team that makes noise this season.

6. Ohio State Buckeyes (AP No. 22, as of Dec 7.)
4-0 record (as of Dec. 9)

2019-20 record: 21-10 (11-9 Big Ten)
Conference finish: T-Fifth
Head Coach: Chris Holtmann (4th season)
Returning starters: G CJ Walker, G E.J. Lidell, F Kyle Young, G Duane Washington Jr.
Big Ten regular season odds: +1300*

The Buckeyes are bringing in just about as much talent as it lost after last season. Kaleb Wesson signed with the Golden State Warriors as an undrafted free agent, Andre Wesson graduated, D.J. Carton transferred to Marquette after stepping away from the Ohio State program last year, and Luther Muhammad transferred to Arizona State.

Chris Holtmann went to the transfer portal to replace several talented players. He landed forward Seth Towns from Harvard, forward Justice Sueing from California and guard Abel Porter from Utah State.

With the addition of Towns, Sueing, Porter, freshman center Zed Key — the No. 22 overall center in the class — and Eugene Brown III — the No. 22 overall shooting guard in the class — into the returning group of redshirt senior CJ Walker, sophomore E.J. Lidell, junior Duane Washington and senior Kyle Young, Holtmann is looking at a roster that could easily outperform its expectations. If the highly-touted newcomers mesh well with the proven returners, Ohio State could remain in the AP Top 25.

7. Michigan Wolverines
5-0 record (as of Dec. 9)

2019-20 record: 10-10 (19-12 Big Ten)
Conference finish: Ninth
Head Coach: Juwan Howard (2nd season)
Returning starters: F Isaiah Livers, G Franz Wagner, G Eli Brooks
Big Ten regular season odds: +1500*

Michigan knew it was going to lose seniors Zavier Simpson, who was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team, and Jon Teske after last season. It was also in danger of losing two more players in last year’s leading scorer Isaiah Livers and guard Franz Wagner, who both tested the NBA Draft waters. Livers elected to return for his senior season in Ann Arbor and Wagner decided to come back for his sophomore season, ultimately keeping Michigan out of the hole that it was headed for had they remained in the draft.

Just after his first season as head coach, Juwan Howard welcomed the No. 14 recruiting class in the country, headlined by four-star 7’2 center Hunter Dickinson, four-star forward Terrance Williams and four-star guard Zeb Jackson. Howard has shown early on that he’s a solid recruiter, as he also brought in Columbia transfer Mike Smith and Wake Forest transfer Chaundee Brown Jr.

There are several questions that still revolve around this team, but Livers’ return is a solid foundation to work around.

8. Indiana Hoosiers
3-2 record (as of Dec. 9)

2019-20 record: 20-12 (9-11 Big Ten)
Conference finish: T-11th
Head Coach: Archie Miller (4th season)
Returning starters: F Trayce Jackson-Davis, G Al Durham, G Rob Phinisee, F Race Thompson
Big Ten regular season odds: +1200*

With four returning starters, headlined by 2019-20 All-Big Ten Freshman Team forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana has an extremely talented roster.

Archie Miller brought in the No. 15 recruiting class in the country, including five-star point guard Khristian Lander — the No. 6 overall point guard in his class — in addition to four-star forward Jordan Geronimo. The freshmen have been slow to burst onto the scene early on this season, but they could develop extremely well throughout the year under the schooling of veterans Al Durham, Rob Phinisee, Race Thompson and Joey Brunk.

If Jackson-Davis, a 2020-21 Preseason All-Big Ten honoree, makes a sophomore jump this year, he has a shot to go pro after the season. With the talent that he brings to the Hoosiers’ frontcourt, accompanied by experienced players, Indiana will compete in the middle of the Big Ten.

9. Maryland Terrapins
4-1 record (as of Dec. 9)

2019-20 record: 24-7 (14-6 Big Ten)
Conference finish: T-First
Head Coach: Mark Turgeon (10th season)
Returning starters: G Darryl Morsell, G Eric Ayala, F Donta Scott, G Aaron Wiggins (2019-20 Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year)
Big Ten regular season odds: +5000*

The Terps lost their two top players after last season’s Big Ten regular season title run in Anthony Cowan Jr. — one of the best players in program history — and Jalen Smith, who was drafted 10th overall by the Phoenix Suns in the 2020 NBA Draft.

Cowan, who finished his Maryland career seventh on the all-time scoring list, and Smith started a combined 129 games over the last two seasons and they also combined to average 31.8 points per game last year. Cowan was also one of just two players in Big Ten history with at least 1,800 points, 500 rebounds and 500 assists, which is seemingly irreplaceable.

As the Terps enter somewhat of a rebuilding year, they will still likely compete in the middle of the Big Ten standings. With the return of senior guard Darryl Morsell, junior guards Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins, and sophomore forward Donta Scott, Maryland has a solid core.

With the addition of Boston College transfer Jairus Hamilton and Alabama transfer Galin Smith, this team has a lot more depth than it originally thought. At least four players scored in double-figures in the first four games of the 2020-21 season, proving that Maryland doesn’t have a star to rely on this season, though that has helped it so far.

Coming into the season, the narrative was that the offense would rely heavily on Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala and Darryl Morsell, but the first four games showed that anyone can score on any night. If the depth scoring continues for the Terps, opposing defenses will have a tough time scouting their offense, which will give them an advantage. However, an abysmal performance in a 67-51 defeat to Clemson Wednesday night was not a good sign, leaving a lot of questions to be answered

10. Purdue Boilermakers
3-2 record (as of Dec. 9)

2019-20 record: 16-15 (9-11 Big Ten)
Conference finish: T-11th
Head Coach: Matt Painter (16th season)
Returning starters: F Trevion Williams, G Eric Hunter Jr., G Sasha Stefanovic
Big Ten regular season odds: +3000*

Despite losing its best defender Nojel Eastern, who transferred to Michigan and days later transferred to Howard University, Purdue returns its top three scorers from last season. Most notably, junior forward Trevion Williams, who was an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention last season, is expected to take a massive jump and was a member of the Preseason All-Big Ten Team this year.

Purdue lost its 7-foot-3 big man Matt Haarms after he transferred to BYU this past summer, but Matt Painter and his staff replaced Haarms with an even taller center in 7-foot-4 freshman Zach Edey. Purdue is one of the best schools in the conference at developing big men ,and if the Canadian native can make a big impact early on, Purdue has a shot to overachieve expectations this season.

11. Minnesota Golden Gophers
5-0 record (as of Dec. 9)

2019-20 record: 15-16 (8-12 Big Ten)
Conference finish: 12th
Head Coach: Richard Pitino (7th season)
Returning starters: G Marcus Carr, G Gabe Kalcheur
Big Ten regular season odds: +5000*

Minnesota was extremely competitive last season, despite its record, losing seven games within five or fewer points. Daniel Oturu, Minnesota’s leading scorer last season, is off to the NBA with the Los Angeles Clippers, leaving the Golden Gophers very limited in the front court.

However, Minnesota returns its two best guards in Marcus Carr, a member of the Preseason All-Big Ten Team, and Gabe Kalcheur. Carr and Kalcheur will carry a massive load this season in Minneapolis. Sophomore forward Isaiah Ihnen will take on a big role with Oturu’s departure and the addition of Both Gach, the Utah transfer, is a significant add for Richard Pitino’s squad.

12. Penn State Nittany Lions
3-1 record (as of Dec. 9)

2019-20 record: 21-10 (11-9 Big Ten)
Conference finish: T-Fifth
Interim Head Coach: Jim Ferry (1st season)
Returning starters: G Myreon Jones, G Myles Dread, G Jamari Wheeler
Big Ten regular season odds: +10000*

Penn State had a major bounceback season last year and would have been an NCAA Tournament team, led by Lamar Stevens, who finished fifth all-time in scoring and recently signed a two-way deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers after going undrafted. Center Mike Watkins also graduated, but the Nittany Lions return guards Myreon Jones and Myles Dread who will look to lead this year.

Six total players are returning in Jim Ferry’s first season as the interim head coach after Pat Chambers abruptly resigned this summer amid comments he was accused of making towards a former player.

The Basement

13. Northwestern Wildcats
2-1 record (as of Dec. 9)

2019-20 record: 8-23 (3-17 Big Ten)
Conference finish: 14th
Head Coach: Chris Collins (8th season)
Returning starters: F Miller Kopp, F Pete Nance, F Robbie Beran, G Boo Buie
Big Ten regular season odds: +10000*

The Wildcats have five of its six top scorers returning for the 2020-21 season, but the team went 8-23 last year and lost 14 of its last 17 games. The Wildcats could be slightly more competitive this year with more experience and just being a year older.

Last season, Northwestern had the least experienced roster in the Big Ten, according to KenPom. So, Chris Collins’ squad with a year more of experience could improve from last year’s abysmal finish.

14. Nebraska Cornhuskers
3-2 record (as of Dec. 9)

2019-20 record: 7-25 (2-18 Big Ten)
Conference finish: 13th
Head Coach: Fred Hoiberg (2nd season)
Returning starters: F Thorir Thorbjarnarson
Big Ten regular season odds: +10000*

Nebraska finished last season worse than Northwestern did, losing its last 17 games of the year. The Cornhuskers’ three leading scorers from 2019-20 all departed, with Haanif Cheatham graduating, Dachon Burke Jr. stepping away from the program and Cam Mack transferring to Prairie View A&M. Nebraska led the country in the rate at which its shots were blocked last year.

The only bright spots for Fred Hoiberg’s squad is the addition of several transfers. Pittsburgh transfer Trey McGowens was ruled immediately eligible and will start in the backcourt. Teddy Allen, Dalano Banton, Derrick Walker and Shamiel Stevenson also transferred into the program, giving Nebraska an entirely new-look roster.

Awards Predictions

Player of the Year: Luka Garza, senior center, Iowa
Lila: Luka Garza, senior center, Iowa
Wes: Luka Garza, senior center, Iowa
Henry: Luka Garza, senior center, Iowa
Mike: Luka Garza, senior center, Iowa

Freshman of the Year: Hunter Dickinson, center, Michigan
Lila: Zach Edey, center, Purdue
Wes: Hunter Dickinson, center, Michigan
Henry: Adam Miller, guard, Illinois
Mike: Adam Miller, guard, Illinois

Defensive Player of the Year: Ayo Dosunmu, junior guard, Illinois
Lila: E.J. Liddell, sophomore forward, Ohio State
Wes: Ayo Dosunmu, junior guard, Illinois
Henry: Ayo Dosunmu, junior guard, Illinois
Mike: Trayce Jackson-Davis, sophomore forward, Indiana

Sixth Man of the Year: Giorgi Bezhanishvili, junior forward, Illinois
Lila: Giorgi Bezhanishvili, junior forward, Illinois
Wes: Giorgi Bezhanishvili, junior forward, Illinois
Henry: Giorgi Bezhanishvili, junior forward, Illinois
Mike: Patrick McCafferey, redshirt freshman forward, Iowa

Coach of the Year: Fran McCaffery, Iowa
Lila: Brad Underwood, Illinois
Wes: Tom Izzo, Michigan State
Henry: Tom Izzo, Michigan State
Mike: Brad Underwood, Illinois

First Team All-Big Ten:

  • Ayo Dosonmu, junior guard, Illinois (unanimous)
  • Joe Wieskamp, junior guard, Iowa
  • Trayce Jackson-Davis, sophomore forward, Indiana
  • Nate Reuvers, senior forward, Wisconsin
  • Luka Garza, senior center, Iowa (unanimous)

Second Team All-Big Ten:

  • Marcus Carr, junior guard, Minnesota
  • Geo Baker, senior guard, Rutgers
  • Aaron Henry, junior forward, Michigan State
  • Trevion Williams, junior forward, Purdue
  • Kofi Cockburn, sophomore center, Illinois

*all odds via SportsBettingDime.