Welcome back, college basketball. It's been awhile – not just since last season, but since the Maryland Terrapins had a team quite this good. The Terps enter their second year in the Big Ten ranked No. 3 nationally, their highest ranking since their national championship in 2002. They have a lot going for them, but their league is no cakewalk. In fact, the Big Ten could turn out to be college basketball's most brutal league, top to bottom.
Here's an introduction, with 100 words or so on every team vying with Maryland to take the Big Ten – and also Penn State, Nebraska and Rutgers.
The Badgers are back again, in Bo Ryan's 15th and maybe final season as head coach. After running to the Final Four last year with a devastatingly efficient offense, the Badgers lost a ton: National player of the year Frank Kaminsky, tournament darling Sam Dekker and sharpshooting guard Josh Gasser are all gone, as is savvy reserve Duje Dukan.. That's tough. But forward Nigel Hayes is still here, and he's one of the best players in the country. So is last season's breakout point guard, Bronson Koenig. How Ryan fits a bunch of new pieces around those two will determine how high the Badgers can climb, but anyone who discounts them based on what they lost hasn't been paying much attention for 14 years.
Jan. 9 vs. Maryland
Feb. 13 at Maryland
If you like guard play, you'll like Indiana. But that's been true for awhile. What Indiana didn't have last season was length, and Tom Crean remedied that by bringing on five-star big man Thomas Bryant. He'll supplement national player-of-the-year candidate Yogi Ferrell, brilliant sophomore James Blackmon Jr. and a couple of other really nice players in guard Robert Johnson and hyper-athletic forward Troy Williams. The Hoosiers have plenty of shooting and scoring ability, and they'll be deadly if their defense comes along.
March 5 or March 6 vs. Maryland
The Wolverines were down last year, but don't expect them to stay down any longer. Last year's Michigan team, more than anything, was unfortunate. Star guard Caris Levert missed almost the entire season with injury, point guard Derrick Walton Jr. was in and out of the lineup, and John Beilein didn't have immediate reinforcements for NBA-bound stars Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas. The Wolverines have more seasoning now, didn't lose much in the offseason and have plenty of new and ready-to-break-out talent. They'll be a tough out.
Jan. 12 vs. Maryland
Feb. 21 at Maryland
Tom Izzo's teams are commonly defined by what they do in March, but this one should be strong all year long. The Spartans lose scoring guard Travis Trice, but they've still got a ton. Swingman Denzel Valentine is a first-team all-conference contender, big men Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling get rebounds, guard Bryn Forbes is really efficient and Izzo's recruiting class is a top-20 group despite five-star center Caleb Swanigan defecting late in his recruitment to Purdue. There are never easy games against Michigan State, and there will be none this year.
Jan. 23 vs. Maryland
Despite thrashing Maryland for a second season in a row, the Buckeyes weren't great last year. They had superstar point guard D'Angelo Russell and a lot of athleticism, but they underachieved their true skill level pretty badly. Russell and seniors Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson are gone, but there's still a good bit in place here – and even more coming. Forward Jae'Sean Tate led the league in shooting percentage last year, wing Marc Loving shot an absurd 46 percent on 3-pointers and coach Thad Matta has assembled a great incoming class.
Jan. 16 at Maryland
Jan. 31 vs. Maryland
Purdue, this year, is going to be quite a science experiment. The Boilermakers have three towering, blue-chip centers in A.J. Hammons, Isaac Haas and the aforementioned Caleb Swanigan. So there will be no rebounds against this team and probably plenty of post offense, giving the Boilers a pretty high floor. This is a definite NCAA Tournament team and probably one that should stick in the top 25 for much of the year. But what to make of the guards? There aren't many of them. The athletic Jon Octeus is gone, and Rapheal Davis is a dominant defender but not a team-carrier on offense.
Feb 6 at. Maryland
Feb. 27 vs. Maryland
The Hawkeyes lose all-everything star Aaron White, but this is still probably a good team. In addition to serial eye-poker Adam Woodbury, the Hawkeyes return senior forward Jared Uthoff in their frontcourt, and they'll probably find enough guard play between Mike Gesell and a few depth options from last year to be competitive. I don't think they're great, but Fran McCaffery's teams always find ways to score points. With a good defensive frontcourt, they'll be fine.
Jan. 28 at Maryland
The Wildcats still haven't made an NCAA Tournament under Chris Collins, but he's been building up something pretty good. They nearly beat Maryland last year before the Terps mounted a preposterous comeback, and sophomore point guard Bryant McIntosh is a real building block. Losing breakout candidate Vic Law for the season isn't great, however, and the Cats are going to struggle to beat many of the league's non-bottom feeders. Still, they could sneak into the tournament at the end of the year. The arrow here is pointing upward.
Jan. 2 vs. Maryland
Jan. 19 at Maryland
The Gophers might wind up being good, but I'm not banking on that. Despite Richard Pitino being seemingly a pretty good coach, they lose interior anchor Maurice Walker, top guard Andre Hollins and minutes-eater DeAndre Mathieu. This team struggled a lot last year despite high expectations and isn't adding any likely immediate difference-makers.
Feb. 18 vs. Maryland
The Illini lose a big-time scorer in Ray Rice – no, not that one – but still have a couple of high-upside players with experience under their belt. Maryland fans might remember forward Malcolm Hill, who shined against the Terps in an Illinois win last season while Rice sat out with an injury. Guard Kendrick Nunn is another, but he's out for awhile. It's been a long time since Bruce Weber coached Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head on one of the best teams of this century, but the Illini are probably good enough not to sit in the basement of the Big Ten and maybe even do better than that.
March 3 at Maryland
Nebraska was good a few years ago, but the Huskers were bad last year and will probably be bad this year, too. Shavon Shields is a really good scorer, but they've lost offensive engine Terran Petteway and were just so bad on offense last season, clocking in at No. 285 nationally in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency. This team shot 28 percent on threes last year, which is ridiculous, and it's hard to see where Nebraska turns into anything more than mediocre right away.
Feb. 3 vs. Maryland
Good times are on the way for Penn State, believe it or not. The Nittany Lions have more or less always been putrid at basketball, but coach Pat Chambers has slowly but surely built up a strong prospect pipeline. The Lions have a couple of watchable players this season, but they probably won't really come on for another year or two, when a cadre of four-star commits starts to mature and make an impact. For now, they've lost their entire offense in the form of guard D.J. Newbill, leaving Brandon Taylor and Shep Garner with a bunch of offensive slack to pick up. Shep Garner, another potential contributor, went the Jon Graham route and transferred away from Happy Valley.
Dec. 30 at Maryland
Probably best to not.
Jan. 6 at Maryland
Projected Order of Finish:
4. Michigan State
6. Ohio State
12. Penn State
All-Big Ten Picks
|Guard||Denzel Valentine||Michigan State|
|Guard||James Blackmon Jr.||Indiana|
As always, these predictions are 100 percent scientific.
Enjoy the season, everyone.