It’s the first season of the new-look, 14-team, East Coast-infused Big Ten as Maryland and Rutgers join the league in 2014-15. The Big Ten is even switching its postseason tournament to Washington D.C. in 2017 as the Terps switch from the ACC and Rutgers leaves after one season in the American Athletic Conference.
Those new transplants shouldn’t have much of an impact — in the college basketball world at least — this season as Maryland and head coach Mark Turgeon deal with the fallout of some major transfer losses while Rutgers and second-year head coach Eddie Jordan are still rebuilding from the scandal involving former head coach Mike Rice.
Back at the top, however, is Wisconsin.
Bo Ryan’s team is coming off of a Final Four appearance last season even though the Badgers didn’t win the Big Ten regular season or tournament title. Wisconsin is rated as the No. 4 team in CBT’s Way-Too-Early 2014-15 Top 25 and they only lose starter Ben Brust. Center Frank Kaminsky returns as one of the premier inside-outside threats in the country and sophomore wing Sam Dekker and a slew of experienced guards return as well.
Although Big Ten regular season champion Michigan made the Elite Eight and lost to Kentucky, they lost three sophomores to the 2014 NBA Draft as Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary all departed for the professional ranks. The Wolverines still return plenty of talent on the perimeter in point guard Derrick Walton Jr., sophomore All-American candidate Caris LeVert and freshman Zak Irvin.
After being considered a national title contender in 2013-14, Michigan State also takes a step down after losing Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Gary Harris (NBA Draft). Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson return to the Spartans and both are tough enough and talented enough to lead Tom Izzo’s bunch back to the NCAA Tournament.
Iowa, Ohio State and Nebraska all faltered in the Round of 64 but could emerge as top-three candidates in the Big Ten this season thanks to Michigan and Michigan State’s losses.
Iowa losses Roy Devyn Marble but they were one of the deepest teams in the country last season and should withstand the senior’s loss as long as Aaron White makes a mini-leap as a go-to player. Nebraska returns Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Terran Petteway and the Huskers proved last season that they’ll have one of the most difficult homecourt advantages in the conference. Ohio State losses senior guard Aaron Craft and main scoring threat LaQuinton Ross, but they welcome Temple transfer Anthony Lee in the post while also adding the Big Ten’s best recruiting class.
A young Illinois team could also make a leap this season while Minnesota should be more accustomed to Richard Pitino’s uptempo style in year two after a run in the NIT.
Wisconsin: Bo Ryan’s team is incredibly versatile and with Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminsky returning, the Badgers are once again a Final Four candidate. Wisconsin can grind out games at a slower tempo pace or put up triple digits thanks to its versatility and rising-junior wing Sam Dekker also returns while experienced guards Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson return. Last year’s freshmen Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig should also improve while reserve forward Duje Dukan also returns to provide interior depth.
Nebraska: After a surprising run to the 2014 NCAA Tournament, the Huskers return one of the Big Ten’s top 1-2 punches in Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields. Forwards Walter Pitchford, David Rivers and Leslee Smith and guard Tai Webster also return after all four players averaged 15-plus minutes a game last season. Nebraska went 15-1 at the brand-new Pinnacle Bank Arena last season and own one of the best homecourt advantages in the country.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes lose leading scorer Roy Devyn Marble, but he was the only player on last year’s team to average over 30 minutes a game and Iowa returns seven players that averaged at least 11 minutes a game last season. Iowa also adds touted junior college point guard Trey Dickerson, who is very quick off-the-dribble and should give Hawkeye shooters even more room to operate.
Michigan: Michigan has had two great seasons in a row, but they’re bound to take a small step back in 2014-15 as the sophomore trio of Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary all depart for the NBA Draft. Jon Horford also transferring to Florida leaves the Wolverines with a glaring lack of interior depth, but John Beilein is one coach who isn’t afraid to go small and stretch the floor from all five positions. Caris LeVert will be asked to be a go-to guy and Zak Irvin will be asked the make a big leap as well after showing signs of strong play during his freshman year.
Michigan State: Much like the in-state rival Wolverines, the Spartans have had some great seasons in recent years, but losing senior leaders Keith Appling and Adreian Payne and sophomore shooting guard Gary Harris hurts Michigan State immensely. Still, if you saw how Tom Izzo’s ballclub responded to a litany of injuries last season, you’ll know that this group won’t back down, the question will be whether Denzel Valentine or Branden Dawson are ready to lead. Junior point guard Travis Trice was serviceable as Appling’s backup last season but can he handle more minutes?
Indiana: The Hoosiers took some big losses in the offseason as freshman post Noah Vonleh turned pro and Jeremy Hollowell (Georgia State) and Austin Etherington (Butler) transferred out of the program. The big question remains whether talented sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell is disciplined enough to make Indiana a winning team. The Hoosiers led the Big Ten in turnovers last season and often looked sloppy, even late in the season.
FIVE NEW FACES
Anthony Lee, Ohio State: Ohio State didn’t have consistent post play on offense last season and the addition of graduate transfer Anthony Lee should help the Buckeyes quite a bit. Lee averaged 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game last season for Temple and the 6-foot-9 senior should give Thad Matta’s team some production and balance they lacked on the interior.
D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State: Russell is the No. 18 player in Rivals.com’s 2014 national rankings and the smooth-shooting McDonald’s All-American should immediately give Ohio State more punch on the perimeter. The Buckeyes struggled to shoot the ball from distance last season and the 6-foot-5 lefty shooting guard instantly makes them better in that category.
Melo Trimble, Maryland: The No. 39 in Rivals.com’s 2014 national rankings, Trimble is a McDonald’s All-American who will be given the ball and expected to score immediately in College Park. With the Terrapins losing starting point guard Seth Allen, Trimble should handle the ball quite a bit and he’s a strong scorer from all three levels on the floor who can really get going with the pull-up jumper. The big question for Trimble remains his ability to be a true point guard and how he’ll distribute the basketball.
James Blackmon Jr., Indiana: Blackmon is a guard who can get buckets in a hurry and the shooting guard and McDonald’s All-American will be asked to help alleviate the backcourt pressure on point guard Yogi Ferrell. The No. 22 player in Rivals.com’s national rankings, Blackmon committed to in-state Indiana before playing a game in high school before decommitting and recommitting during his high school career. There will be a lot of pressure on Blackmon Jr., to produce from day one.
Victor Law, Northwestern: You could make the case for Michigan incoming freshman wing Kameron Chatman for this spot, but with Derrick Walton Jr., Caris LeVert and Zak Irvin all returning, he’ll likely come off the bench. Enter Law, one of Northwestern’s most important recruits of all time. Chris Collins pulled together a solid 2014 recruiting haul and Law kicked things off with a commitment on the Fourth of July in 2013. The Chicago native was the No. 103 player in the 2014 class and a four-star prospect according to Rivals.com and should start from day one as the Wildcats lacked the kind of talent and athleticism that the freshman should bring to Evanston next season.
Way Too Early Power Rankings
3. Michigan State
6. Ohio State
13. Penn State