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)