Big Ten Conference Preview: Michigan State and Wisconsin fight for the top spot

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big Ten conference.

The Big Ten will look much different this season but it will still have many of the same teams near the top of the standings. Wisconsin returns pretty much their whole Sweet 16 team while Michigan State will try to counter with a lot of talented freshmen. Purdue and Indiana will also be firmly in the Big Ten picture and Maryland gets Melo Trimble back.

It should be an interesting year of turnover in the league that could leave it wide open.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Maryland guard Melo Trimble (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)
Maryland guard Melo Trimble (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. The league lost a ton of talent and experience: A lot of familiar players left the Big Ten from last year including Denzel Valentine, Caris LeVert, A.J. Hammons, Yogi Ferrell, four starters at Maryland and Jarrod Uthoff. So the conference will have a lot of new faces leading the charge this year and it could be a rare season in the Big Ten in which it’s the underclassmen that shine the brightest.

2. Wisconsin returns an entire team that went to the Sweet 16: The Badgers shook off a rough start and then-interim coach Greg Gard rallied a tough and experienced roster to the Sweet 16. The entire roster is back as seniors Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are joined by redshirt sophomore Ethan Happ and a slew of quality role players. Now with Gard as a stable coach and a confident, experienced roster, the Badgers are hoping for a Big Ten title and tourney run.

3. Michigan State will rely on potential one-and-done freshmen: Many of Tom Izzo’s best teams at Michigan State have relied on experienced upperclassmen leading the way. That likely won’t be the case in 2016-17. Although the Spartans are still a major contender for the Big Ten title, they’ll rely a lot on five-star freshmen like Miles Bridges and Josh Langford. Four-star point guard Cassius Winston and four-star forward Nick Ward could be key pieces as well.

4. Melo Trimble has a new lineup to work with at Maryland: Junior point guard Melo Trimble will be dealing with an entirely new lineup again this season as Maryland will have four new starters with the amount of talent that departed last spring. Senior center Damonte Dodd is a former starter, so he should fit right in, but the Terps need more from juniors Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens. A talented freshmen class could be a key difference.

5. Indiana’s roster will have a lot of changes, namely no Yogi: Things are going to look a little different in Bloomington next season now that senior point guard Yogi Ferrell has exhausted his eligibility. Troy Williams is also gone, along with valuable reserves Max Bielfeldt and Nick Zeisloft. It leaves Indiana with a number of question marks. At point guard, Pitt transfer Josh Newkirk will get minutes, but he wasn’t a spotlight player for the Panthers and is coming off of a knee surgery. James Blackmon Jr. also has to improve defensively and dealt with his own knee issues last season.

PRESEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Thomas Bryant, Indiana

The sophomore big man could have easily been a first-round pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, but he’s back to work on his shooting, defense and consistency. Leading the Big Ten in field goal percentage at 68 percent last season, Bryant is a load to handle on the interior. He can also knock down threes and he plays as hard as anyone in the country, but Bryant needs to be more impactful on the defensive end. If he figures out how to help defend high ball screens, Indiana could ride him a long way.

THE REST OF THE BIG TEN FIRST TEAM:

  • Melo Trimble, Maryland: Trimble’s play dipped as a sophomore, but he’s still a potential All-American who isn’t afraid to take and make the big shot.
  • Peter Jok, Iowa: The senior guard should take a ton of shots and put up crazy numbers this season after averaging 16.1 points and 3.5 rebounds as a junior.
  • Malcolm Hill, Illinois: Hill put up numbers all over the board as a junior as he averaged 18.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. He’s one of the most under-appreciated players nationally.
  • Ethan Happ, Wisconsin: Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes have a higher profile, but Happ is a potential double-double machine and very good defender. Wisconsin always had good bigs.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Miles Bridges, Michigan State
  • Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin
  • James Blackmon Jr., Indiana
  • Vince Edwards, Purdue
  • Derrick Walton, Michigan

BREAKOUT STAR: Indiana wing O.G. Anunoby has a chance to be a major contributor this season and he might be one of the best pro prospects in the Big Ten. The 6-foot-8 sophomore will see a lot of minutes in replacing Troy Williams as he can defend multiple spots on the floor.  If Anunoby shoots it anywhere near 44 percent from three-point range like he did as a freshman, he could be a major contributor on both ends.

Indiana's OG Anunoby (3) dunks in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against the Michigan in the quarterfinals at the Big Ten Conference tournament, Friday, March 11, 2016, in Indianapolis. Michigan won 72-69. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Indiana’s OG Anunoby (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Things haven’t gone very well for Richard Pitino at Minnesota since a promising first season. Transfers, off-the-court issues and a 2-16 record last season has the Golden Gophers fanbase getting restless. If things don’t turn around this season, Pitino could be searching for a new job.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : The Big Ten wasn’t deep with NCAA tournament teams and doesn’t have the firepower to produce a serious title contender.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Seeing how good Wisconsin can be with a full Sweet 16 roster returning and their coach in place for the entire season.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Nov. 14, Purdue vs. Villanova
  • Nov. 15, Michigan State vs. Kentucky
  • Nov. 29, Wisconsin vs. Syracuse
  • Nov. 29, Michigan State at Duke
  • Nov. 30, North Carolina vs. Indiana

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @B1GMBBall

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Michigan State: This isn’t the typical senior-laden Tom Izzo team but he has perhaps the most talented freshman class he’s ever had. Eron Harris returns and could be a big scorer while five-star freshmen like Miles Bridges and Josh Langford take over.
2. Wisconsin: The Badgers return everyone from a Sweet 16 as they’re loaded with toughness and experience. Considering Nigel Hayes was very inefficient last season, Wisconsin could have room to grow as they add some redshirts like guard Brevin Pritzl and stretch forward Andy Van Vliet.
3. Purdue: Losing A.J. Hammons in the middle is going to be hard to replace, but the Boilers still have a loaded frontcourt that returns Isaac Haas, Caleb Swanigan, Vince Edwards and Basil Smotherman. Point guard play and perimeter shooting will once again be a huge key. Is Spike Albrecht healthy enough to provide anything in either category?
4. Indiana: Replacing Yogi Ferrell, Troy Williams and some key rotation players will be tough, but the Hoosiers bring back Thomas Bryant and O.G. Anunoby and have a lot of firepower on the perimeter with James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson. The key will be point guard play.
5. Michigan: Battling injuries the past few seasons, Michigan is relying on seniors Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin to lead again. The development of junior forward Duncan Robinson and the team’s role players is key to another NCAA tournament run.
6. Maryland: Things will look very different from last season but point guard Melo Trimble does have talent around him. Big men Damonte Dodd and Michal Cekovsky are experienced and Jared Nickens and Dion Wiley should help. The talented freshmen class could be the difference.
7. Ohio State: Transfers dominated the headlines for the Buckeyes in the offseason headlines by lots of talent is back. Marc Loving, Jae’Sean Tate, JaQuan Lyle and Keita Bates-Diop are all capable of breakout seasons.
8. Illinois: Illinois is hoping to stay healthy and make a run that could save head coach John Groce’s job. Point guard Tracy Abrams gives leadership while Malcolm Hill gets help from guard Jalen Coleman-Lands and center Mike Thorne Jr.
9. Northwestern: The Wildcats continue trying to build towards the NCAA tournament as point guard Bryant McIntosh has some talent around him. Sophomore Vic Law returns from injury along with forwards Aaron Falzon and Derek Pardon.
10. Penn State: Exciting times could be ahead for the Nittany Lions as they return the talented backcourt of juniors Shep Garner and Payton Banks and get a great recruiting class. Watch out for UConn transfer guard Terrence Samuel.
11. Iowa: The Hawkeyes will mostly be rebuilding and ride senior Peter Jok as far as they can. Nobody else returning to the team averaged more than six points per game as Iowa needs to find new impact players.
12. Minnesota: Transfers and freshmen are the key to a Golden Gophers team that needs to show progress. Center Reggie Lynch, forward Davonte Fitzgerald and guard Akeem Springs will all help, as will in-state wing Amir Coffey.
13. Nebraska: Losing Andrew White hurt as the Huskers need to find a new go-to scorer. Tim Miles could be on the hot seat with another bad season as senior guard Tai Webster needs help.
14. Rutgers: New coach Steve Pikiell has some talented guards in sophomore Corey Sanders and junior Mike Williams. If junior forward Deshawn Freeman returns well from injury, this team might be way better.

Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes (10) drives on Ohio State's Jae'Sean Tate (1) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, in Madison, Wis. Hayes had a team-high 21 points in Wisconsin's 79-68 win. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)
Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes drives on Ohio State’s Jae’Sean Tate (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

No. 1 South Carolina wins 28th straight 87-69 over ‘Cats

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Dawn Staley’s pleased South Carolina had made its once-lopsided series with UConn more competitive the past few years.

She hopes her top-ranked team can accomplish another milestone when the teams meet for a top-five showdown on Sunday.

“It still stands true that we haven’t won up there,” Staley said.

Aliyah Boston had 14 points and 14 rebounds as South Carolina prepared for the top-five showdown with an 87-69 victory over Kentucky on Thursday night.

The Gamecocks (10-0 Southeastern Conference) improved to 22-0 and won their 28th straight, a run that included a 64-49 victory over the Huskies in Minneapolis last April to win the national championship.

Staley had lost her first seven games as South Carolina coach against UConn. The Gamecocks have won three of the past four matchups since.

“This particular class committed to each other,” Staley said. “When you have that type of commitment and you just want to win, you find yourself winning some games that you haven’t won before.”

Against Kentucky, reigning AP player of the year Boston extended her school mark with her 75th career double-double and moved within 11 of the SEC record of 86 games with a double-double held by LSU great Sylvia Fowles.

Things weren’t perfect for South Carolina, which fell behind early, then had its 15-point halftime lead cut to 54-48 midway through the third quarter.

Still, its dominant inside game – South Carolina outscored the Wildcats 62-14 in the paint – was more than enough to shut down Kentucky (10-12, 2-8), the last team to defeat the defending national champions at the SEC Tournament last March.

The Wildcats went on top 16-15 after a pair of baskets by Adebola Adeyeye.

That’s when South Carolina, fueled by its bench, took control with a 17-2 run. Ashlyn Watkins had three inside shots and Kamilla Cardoso scored four points during the surge.

The Wildcats used a 13-4 burst to start the third quarter to give South Carolina a few uncomfortable moments. But the Gamecocks got going once more with an 11-0 run to extend their margin.

Cardoso, the 6-foot-7 reserve, had 14 points and five of South Carolina’s 14 blocks. Defensive ace Brea Beal had 10 including both of the Gamecocks’ 3-pointers.

Beal thought the team held together well to blunt Kentucky’s runs and regain control. “I think it’s our mental aspect of the game and us believing in each other,” she said.

Robyn Benton had 24 points to lead Kentucky, which has lost three of its past four games.

Wildcats coach Kyra Elzy said South Carolina is difficult to match up with because of its deep bench. “They have depth after depth after depth,” she said. “They keep coming.”

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats are the not the same team that featured two-time SEC player of the year Rhyne Howard the past few seasons. They have 10 newcomers – and six freshmen – who are still learning how to play against the SEC’s top teams like South Carolina.

South Carolina: Forgive the Gamecocks if their focus wasn’t fully on this one at first with a big week ahead. In an eight-game span, South Carolina will face No. 5 UConn and No. 3 LSU, a pair of high-profile games could expose any flaw – or show how powerful the Gamecocks are in chasing a second straight NCAA crown.

UCONN KARMA

South Carolina has opened 22-0 twice under coach Dawn Staley, in 2014-15 and the following year. Both runs ended against UConn. Next up for Gamecocks are the Huskies, although South Carolina has won three of the past four games over UConn including last April’s 64-49 victory to win the NCAA Tournament title.

UP NEXT

Kentucky returns home to face Alabama on Feb. 9.

South Carolina heads to No. 5 UConn on Sunday.

Miles, Citron lead No. 9 Irish past Boston College 72-59

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BOSTON — Olivia Miles and Sonia Citron had already scored 10 straight points to put away Boston College when they turned their attention to other things.

“I told Sonia I needed two more assists for the double-double. And she was like, `All right, I’ve got you,”‘ Miles said after helping No. 9 Notre Dame beat BC 72-59 on Thursday night.

“That’s just kind of our communication on the court,” said Miles, who found Citron for baskets on the next two Irish possessions to complete a 14-0 run – with all 14 points from Miles and Citron. “We just really play off each other really well.

Miles scored 22 points with 10 assists and eight rebounds, and Citron scored 23 for the Irish (18-2, 9-1 Atlantic Coast Conference).

Maria Gakdeng scored 16 points, T’Yana Todd had 13 and Andrea Daly scored 10 with eight rebounds for BC (14-11, 4-8). The Irish beat BC at home 85-48 on New Year’s Day but hadn’t won in Chestnut Hill since 2019.

“This is such a tough place to play,” said Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey, whose team faces No. 16 Duke next. “We’ll celebrate it until about 12:30, and then we’ve got film. Tomorrow we start focusing on Duke.”

BC came within five points, 55-50, before the Irish ran off 14 points in a row – nine by Citron, and five by Miles. That put an end to what had been a back-and-forth game in which the Irish opened big leads and then frittered them away.

“I always feel like we’re close,” BC coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee said. “They’re young; I think consistency comes with experience.

“I think it’s a big improvement from the first time we played Notre Dame,” she said. “I still want to see more, and I want to see us grow up as fast as humanly possible because I think we do have a dangerous team when we going well.”

Notre Dame led by 11 in the first quarter and held a 38-30 lead with two minutes gone in the third. BC scored 13 of the next 18 points, capitalizing on back-to-back Irish turnovers to tie it 43-all with three minutes left in the quarter.

But Natalija Marshall put back the rebound of her own miss, Miles drove to the basket, Maddy Westbeld added a pair of baskets and then Miles stole the ball and found Citron on the fast break to make it 53-43.

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame bounced back from their first league loss of the season, a 69-65 defeat at North Carolina State on Sunday. Now they face No. 16 Duke.

The Eagles, who beat Pittsburgh on Sunday to snap a five-game losing streak, were looking for their second victory over a Top 25 team this season, having also beaten then-No. 10 N.C. State on Jan. 5.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: Hosts No. 16 Duke on Sunday.

Boston College: Visits Syracuse on Sunday.

No. 16 Xavier beats No. 17 Providence 85-83 in OT thriller

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CINCINNATI — Jack Nunge had 23 points and 14 rebounds as No. 16 Xavier held off No. 17 Providence 85-83 in an overtime thriller Wednesday night.

Colby Jones and Souley Boum each scored 20 for the Musketeers, who won a first-place showdown in the Big East without injured forward Zach Freemantle.

Noah Locke had 22 points and Ed Croswell added 21 for Providence (17-6, 9-3), which had beaten Xavier three straight times.

A layup by Boum put the Musketeers (18-5, 10-2) ahead 82-79 with 51 seconds remaining in overtime. A turnover by the Musketeers led to a layup by Devin Carter that cut Xavier’s lead to one with 24 seconds left.

Boum hit one of two free throws, and Jared Bynum’s 3-point attempt from the left corner rimmed out at the buzzer as the Musketeers held on.

Xavier played its first game without Freemantle, the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. He is expected to miss four weeks with a left foot injury, the same foot that required surgery in 2021.

Jerome Hunter, who has excelled off the bench for the Musketeers, made his first start of the season and scored nine points with eight rebounds. Xavier had used the same starting lineup in each of its previous 11 Big East games.

Things started well for the Musketeers. who went on a 12-1 run to build a 25-11 lead.

With Boum on the bench with two fouls, the Musketeers didn’t have a field goal in the final 4:18 of the first half and the Friars pulled to 39-35 at halftime.

Providence outscored Xavier 8-2 to start the second half and took its first lead, 43-41, with 17:41 left.

There was a frantic finish to the second half, with Adam Kunkel’s 3-pointer putting Xavier ahead 76-73 with 55 seconds left. But then Bynum banked in a tying 3 and Boum missed two long shots to send the game to overtime.

BIG PICTURE

Providence: The Friars, who won their first Big East regular-season title last year, entered the night tied atop the conference standings with Xavier and No. 14 Marquette, which hosted Villanova later. Providence was picked fifth in the preseason.

Xavier: Hunter, who averages 14 minutes, left with three minutes remaining in OT with an apparent cramp in his right leg. With Freemantle out, Hunter played 36 minutes.

UP NEXT

Providence: Hosts last-place Georgetown on Wednesday.

Xavier: Will host St. John’s on Saturday.

Florida upends No. 2 Tennessee 67-54 behind Colin Castleton

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Colin Castleton had 20 points and nine rebounds, Kyle Lofton added 14 points and Florida used a 13-0 run late in the second half to upend No. 2 Tennessee 67-54 on Wednesday night.

The Volunteers, playing with their highest ranking in four years, lost for the first time in five games. They had won nine of 10.

Tennessee (18-4, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) looked like it had taken control midway through the second half. They outscored Florida by 10 points in the early going to take a six-point lead.

But the Gators (13-9, 6-3) stormed back behind Castleton, who scored 11 of 14 points as Florida rallied. The senior had a dunk, two free throws, a three-point play, a layup and a short jumper – essentially putting the team on his back down the stretch.

Myreon Jones and Will Richard chipped in nine points apiece for the Gators.

Zakai Ziegler led the Vols with 15 points on 6-of-19 shooting. Olivier Nkamhoua added 11 points and nine rebounds for the vistors, who also got 11 points and eight boards from Vescovi Santiago.

Florida led 27-21 at halftime, just the fifth time the Volunteers has trailed at the break this season. Tennessee rallied to win three of the previous four.

The Gators were red hot to start, making six of their first eight shots – including all three from 3-point range – while building a 17-4 advantage. But they quickly cooled against the nation’s best defense, missing nine of their next 11 as Tennessee made cut it to 22-21.

The Vols had it going coming out of the locker room, with Ziegler getting into the paint and making things happen. But it was short-lived – thanks mostly to Castleton.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Tennessee surely will drop a few spots in next week’s AP Top 25 college basketball poll.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers gave up 10 points in the opening four minutes of the games, a rare sluggish start for the nation’s best defense. Tennessee had held four of its first eight SEC opponents scoreless at the first media timeout, roughly the first four minutes of games. It was a sign of things to come.

Florida: The Gators have been resilient much of the season, and this was arguably the most impressive comeback of the season for coach Todd Golden’s team. The Gators squandered a 13-point lead early and a six-point advantage in the second half. But they rallied when it mattered.

IN THE HOUSE

Football coach Billy Napier watched the game from a few rows behind Florida’s bench alongside his two sons and receiver Ricky Pearsall. Former Florida tennis star Ben Shelton, the NCAA singles champion in 2022, also was in attendance. So was former Gators and NFL quarterback Doug Johnson.

UP NEXT

Tennessee hosts No. 25 Auburn and former coach Bruce Pearl on Saturday.

Florida plays at Kentucky on Saturday. The Gators have lost seven of eight in the series.

No. 8 Kansas avenges earlier loss to No. 7 Kansas State, 90-78

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Jalen Wilson had 20 points, Kevin McCullar Jr. added 16 points and 13 rebounds, and No. 8 Kansas avenged a loss to Kansas State just a couple of weeks ago with a 90-78 victory over the seventh-ranked Wildcats.

Dajuan Harris Jr. scored 18 for the Jayhawks (18-4, 6-3 Big 12), who built a 12-point halftime lead before coasting to their 17th straight home win over the Wildcats in the 10th matchup of top-10 teams in series history.

Kansas has rebounded nicely from a rare three-game skid that included the overtime loss to Kansas State, and made sure to avoid taking back-to-back losses in its storied home for the first time since the 1988-89 season.

Markquis Nowell scored 23 points and Keyontae Johnson had 22 to lead the Wildcats (18-4, 6-3), who were trying for their first regular-season sweep of their biggest rival in four decades. Nae’Qwan Tomlin added 11 points and David N’Guessan had 10.

In their first meeting on Jan. 17, the Wildcats raced to a big early lead and controlled the game until late in the second half, when the Jayhawks forced overtime — only for Kansas State to win on Johnson’s alley-oop dunk.

It was the Jayhawks who controlled the rematch.

They used a 16-7 run in the first half that included a technical foul on Kansas State coach Jerome Tang to build a 32-19 lead. And when Johnson answered with eight straight points for the Wildcats, and the lead was eventually trimmed to four, the reigning national champs pulled away again down the stretch.

It was 37-32 when Wilson hit back-to-back 3-pointers and Zach Clemence added one of his own. And by the time Wilson made two foul shots with about 10 seconds left, Kansas had built a 49-37 lead that it took to the break.

The Wildcats briefly got within six in the second half before the Jayhawks stretched their lead to as many as 16.

OFFICIATING OOPS

Johnson had to sit with two fouls just 2 1/2 minutes into the game. Only problem? The crew of John Higgins, Kip Kissinger and Marques Pettigrew gave one to the wrong player. By the time they corrected their mistake, the Wildcats’ leading scorer had unnecessarily ridden the bench for several minutes.

SELLOUT … AND THEN SOME

For the first time in more than 15 years, more Kansas students redeemed tickets than there was space available inside Allen Fieldhouse. The overflow had to watch the game on screens in the adjacent Horejsi Family Athletics Center, where the Jayhawks play volleyball games. Those students also got refunds and concessions vouchers.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas State’s three losses in league play have been to ranked teams on the road: TCU, Iowa State and Kansas. And with a more forgiving second half to the Big 12 schedule, the Wildcats remain firmly in the conference title hunt.

Kansas got its mojo back with its win over Kentucky last weekend. This victory over another bunch of Wildcats was crucial because the road doesn’t get any easier for the Jayhawks, who are in the midst of three straight games against teams ranked 13th or better.

UP NEXT

Kansas State returns home for another top-10 showdown Saturday against No. 10 Texas.

Kansas hits the road for the third time in four games against No. 13 Iowa State on Saturday.