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Big Ten Preview: Can Maryland give the Big Ten a national championship?

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big Ten.

The Big Ten put both Wisconsin and Michigan State into the Final Four last season, but the league is still searching for its first national championship since 2000. One of the conference’s newest teams gives the Big Ten a decent chance at a title while the rest of the league is littered with question marks after the departure of so many established players.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Maryland is a legitimate national title contender: Mark Turgeon’s ballclub surprised many last season with a run into the national top 10 and a return to the NCAA tournament. This year, the Terrapins are deeper and even more talented. Established veterans like guard Melo Trimble and forward Jake Layman return, but it’s a group of talented newcomers that gives Maryland an extra gear this season. McDonald’s All-American Diamond Stone and Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter form an all-new frontcourt while Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon gives Maryland another option for Trimble to find. The Maryland bench is also nothing to scoff at as center Damonte Dodd was a starter last season and sophomores Michal Cekovsky, Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens had flashes of solid play.

2. It’s a boom-or-bust year for Indiana: The pressure is on Indiana to have a big season as the Hoosiers kept Yogi Ferrell, Troy Williams and James Blackmon Jr. on the roster. The return of those three players coupled with the addition of high-motor McDonald’s All-American big man Thomas Bryant has Indiana fans clamoring for a deep NCAA tournament run. Nobody is doubting the talent and offensive abilities of Indiana, but defense will continue to be the major question this season for the Hoosiers. The perimeter defense was very porous last season and they have to hope Bryant can protect the rim.

3. Michigan State returns plenty of talent from last season: Michigan State turned an up-and-down regular season into a Final Four run and they’ll actually be a deeper team this season after a litany of bench injuries last season. The real challenge comes in replacing the play of senior starters Travis Trice and Branden Dawson. If Tum Tum Nairn (or someone else) can step up and run the point and McDonald’s All-American Deyonta Davis can replace some of Dawson’s production then Michigan State has even more perimeter weapons this season with West Virginia transfer Eron Harris and freshman Matt McQuaid being eligible. Free-throw shooting will also be something to monitor. The Spartans were a horrid 63 percent from the line last season.

4. The Big Ten added a lot of talented newcomers who could immediately change the conference race: How do replace the loss of Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky and the conference’s top five scorers? By bringing in a bevy of All-American freshmen big men and some impact transfers. The Big Ten is filled with difference-making newcomers who could really change things. Already mentioned above are newcomers like Diamond Stone, Robert Carter, Rasheed Sulaimon (Maryland), Thomas Bryant (Indiana), Deyonta Davis and Eron Harris (Michigan State) but even more guys could make an impact. Purdue kept McDonald’s All-American power forward Caleb Swanigan in Indiana after he previously committed to Michigan State while Illinois (Jalen Coleman-Lands) and Ohio State (JaQuan Lyle) brought in some playmaking guards capable of contributing this season.

5. Purdue has its most talented roster since the Robbie Hummel era while Wisconsin is littered with questions: Purdue quickly turned things around last season after a sluggish start in non-conference play and head coach Matt Painter has his most talented roster since the Robbie Hummel era. It will be nearly impossible to replace everything Jon Octeus brought to the table last season, but the Boilers recruited very well to fit needs as they brought in the bruising Swanigan to compliment centers A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas as well as an in-state floor spacer in guard Ryan Cline. If graduate transfer Johnny Hill can help offset the loss of Octeus at guard, Purdue is deeper and has more shooting than last season’s NCAA tournament team.

On the other hand, Wisconsin lost a bevy of talent this offseason. Kaminsky graduated. Sam Dekker went pro. Trae Jackson and Josh Gasser finished their eligibility. Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes are left, but that’s it … outside of Bo Ryan. Bo has had success in situations like this before; remember, before Kaminsky was an all-american he was a sophomore that played 10 minutes a night. I never bet against the Badgers, but there are a lot of questions that need to be answered this season.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Nigel Hayes (AP Photo)
Nigel Hayes (AP Photo)

COACH’S TAKE:

  • Favorite: “Maryland made a major leap last season and now they add that talented group of incoming players for this season. They’re deep and won a lot of close games last season, so they already have a lot going for them.”
  • Sleeper:
    • “Iowa is intriguing to me. Nobody seems to be talking about them.”
    • “Ohio State is really young, but they have a lot of talent. Thad has won with young and talented teams before.”
  • Best player: “Melo is cold-blooded. He just gets this confidence about him late in games and it seems to carry over to his teammates.”
  • Most underrated player:
    • “No one knew how good Bronson Koenig was until Traevon Jackson got hurt last year. I knew Jackson getting hurt would help Wisconsin. Koenig was better than Jackson to begin with but Bo plays veterans.”
    • “Jake Layman is talented. Doesn’t get the notoriety of Trimble and some of those other guys but he’s a tough cover.”

PRESEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Melo Trimble, Maryland

As an incoming McDonald’s All-American last season, Trimble was expected to start and contribute immediately, but few could have predicted the All-American caliber year the 6-foot-3 guard put together. Trimble scored, distributed, and most importantly, gave Maryland one of the game’s best closers with his icy demeanor and 86 percent mark from the charity stripe. If Trimble makes an expected leap as a perimeter defender and overall floor leader, he could be in for a huge season and the Terps are counting on him to lead them to glory. Now that Trimble has some legitimate post scoring threats, his assist-to-turnover ratio should improve and it will also open things up for him as a shooter.

THE REST OF THE BIG TEN FIRST TEAM:

  • Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: The in-state product has a chance to cement his legacy at Indiana with one final run and he’s the Big Ten’s returning leader in both points and assists from last season. With the amount of shooters Indiana has, Ferrell will get in the paint on a lot of drives this season.
  • Caris LeVert, Michigan: Although he was a bit up-and-down before his season-ending leg injury last season, LeVert is still one of the league’s best all-around players. Now healthy, the senior is noted for his scoring acumen but he also had five or more assists in seven of 18 games last season.
  • Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: A jack-of-all-trades wing, the senior can get it done in a number of ways on the floor. With plenty of talented shooters around him this season Valentine can go to work as a scorer or find plenty of assist opportunities if the Spartans space the floor well. If fantasy college basketball was more of a thing, Valentine would be a player to covet.
  • Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin: When he isn’t putting on spelling bees and messing with media stenographers, the 6-foot-8 junior can spray shots from all over the floor while displaying some of the best footwork of any big man in the nation.  The big-game experience of two Final Four runs should help Hayes become this team’s leader.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • James Blackmon Jr. and Troy Williams, Indiana
  • Jake Layman, Maryland
  • A.J. Hammons, Purdue
  • Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa
  • Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin

BREAKOUT STAR: Nate Mason, Minnesota

Mason was an unheralded, three-star recruit when he signed with the Golden Gophers out of Arlington Day in Florida, but the freshman turned in an impressive inaugural season in the Twin Cities, averaging 9.8 points and 2.8 assists. With Andre Hollins and Dre Mathieu moving on, this will be Mason’s back court to anchor. Don’t be surprised to see him develop into an all-Big Ten caliber guard before he’s done playing.

Tom Crean (AP Photo)
Tom Crean (AP Photo)

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Indiana’s Tom Crean led my list of “Coaches on the Hot Seat” this preseason, but with the recent thumb injury to starting guard Kendrick Nunn, even more pressure is on Illinois head coach John Groce to have a good season with an injury-riddled roster.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Maryland gives the Big Ten a credible title contender and don’t be surprised if a handful of other teams advance to the second weekend and beyond.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: How truly wide open most of the Big Ten is entering this season. While it was easy for me to slot Maryland at No. 1 and Rutgers at No. 14, the rest of the conference’s preseason order was up for heavy debate. That should make for a fun season in which a lot of new faces will impact the conference race.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • 11/17, Georgetown at Maryland
  • 11/17, Michigan State vs. Kansas
  • 12/1, Maryland at North Carolina
  • 12/2, Indiana at Duke
  • 12/22, Purdue vs. Vanderbilt

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BTNBrentYarina

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Maryland: Many believed that Maryland’s top-10 national ranking last season was largely in-part to some lucky finishes. This is the year for the Terps to prove their winning ways weren’t a fluke.
2. Michigan State: If Michigan State continues its free-throw shooting and is able to replace Trice and Dawson, there are plenty of playmakers and perimeter shooters on the roster to form a dangerous roster.
3. Indiana: Indiana returned most of its top players, but its bench is also better this season as graduate transfer big man Max Bielfeldt came over from Michigan. Bielfeldt, senior shooter Nick Zeisloft and junior forward Collin Hartman are all upperclassmen and give the Hoosiers a bit more versatility off the bench than last season.
4. Purdue: Purdue has arguably the deepest frontcourt in the country now that Swanigan is aboard and it’ll be intriguing to see how their interior offense looks this season. While 3-point shooting and turnovers was a bit of a struggle for Purdue last season, the hope is that Kendall Stephens, Dakota Mathias and Cline will have even more room to let it fly now that more post scoring is in the equation.
5. Wisconsin: Wisconsin has never finished worse than tied for fourth during the Big Ten regular season under Bo Ryan, so this feels like the perfect spot for the “rebuilding” Badgers. No, this team is not nearly as talented as the memorable back-to-back Final Four teams, but Hayes and Koenig are back and Ryan has a way of having his players immediately ready to play. Wisconsin won’t beat themselves, that’s for sure. Redshirt freshman Ethan Happ has drawn solid reviews this fall.
6. Michigan: Finally healthy, John Beilein’s team is still very dangerous as long as the core nucleus stays on the floor and the big men are up to par. Derrick Walton Jr., Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert were all recovering from various injuries this offseason and Zak Irvin is also back. That core four is still lethal on the offensive end and the Wolverines added some bigger floor spacers in transfer Duncan Robinson and German freshman Moritz Wagner.
7. Ohio State: College basketball will miss the creative flair that D’Angelo Russell brought to the game but the Buckeyes brought in talented guard JaQuan Lyle to help replace him. This will be a very young team for Thad Matta as most of the roster is made up of freshmen and sophomores. The versatility of the frontcourt could be key as Marc Loving, Virginia Tech transfer Trevor Thompson, Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate all bring unique skills.
8. Iowa: It’ll be interesting to watch old and new mesh in Iowa City as the Hawkeyes bring back four starters and surround them with mostly newcomers. Iowa’s returning backcourt of senior point guard Mike Gesell and Peter Jok and Anthony Clemmons can be counted on but returning frontcourt starters like Jarrod Uthoff and Adam Woodbury face additional pressure now that Aaron White and Gabriel Olaseni are gone.
9. Illinois: Illinois is undoubtedly talented, but they’ve been smoked by the injury bug under Groce as they’ll begin this season shorthanded. Point guard Tracy Abrams is once again done for the year while talented guards Jalen Coleman-Lands and Kendrick Nunn are battling injuries that could force them to miss time. Graduate transfers could be huge for Illinois as they brought in center Mike Thorne and point guard Khalid Lewis to provide immediate assistance.
10. Northwestern: Northwestern is one of the Big Ten’s most intriguing teams after a bevy of close losses and returning all of last season’s roster minus one player. Tre Demps and Bryant McIntosh are a formidable backcourt while senior center Alex Olah has developed into on of the league’s better big men. The question comes with the next step for the rest of the team as sophomores like Vic Law and Scottie Lindsay will be expected to take positive steps this season.
11. Minnesota: There are plenty of questions surrounding Minnesota this season outside returning starters like Nate Mason, Joey King and Carlos Morris. The Golden Gophers are going to rely on a lot of unproven players to provide scoring while the defense has to get better after finishing 13th in scoring defense in the league last season.
12. Penn State: I’m a firm believer in head coach Pat Chambers after watching Penn State run through a wall for him at last year’s Big Ten tournament. He just has to bring in the proper talent to compete with the big dogs of the Big Ten. Sophomore Shep Garner had a solid inaugural Big Ten campaign and senior Brandon Taylor is back as well. A lot of young talent is on the roster at Penn State and a potential top-10 recruiting class looms
13. Nebraska: Nebraska had a disastrous campaign last season and there isn’t much talent back from that team. Senior Shavon Shields could have a monster year, but he’s the only proven returning player for the Huskers. Freshmen like Edward Morrow Jr. and Glynn Watson could be expected to contribute immediately along with Kansas transfer Andrew White.
14. Rutgers: Eddie Jordan’s team will certainly have more length and athleticism but they’re going to lean heavily on the talented duo of newcomers Corey Sanders and junior college forward Deshawn Freeman. Outside of Sanders, Freeman and senior guard Bishop Daniels, Rutgers doesn’t have a lot of proven Big Ten talents.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.