Big Ten Conference Preview: This is Michigan State’s league to lose

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big Ten.

The Big Ten is going to be a fascinating league to watch this season as they have a national title contender in Michigan State and a few teams near the top of the standings who aren’t usually this strong.

Still hoping for a first national championship since 2000, the Big Ten has some unfamiliar faces near the top of the preseason standings.

Minnesota and Northwestern are both among the league’s elite teams after returning nearly full rosters from NCAA tournament teams from last season.

Most of the rest of the league, however, remains a mystery as new head coaches and rosters of new players are a common theme for the league.


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Miles Bridges (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Michigan State returns almost everyone (including Miles Bridges) and is poised for a title run

Last year saw an up-and-down season from a young-and-depleted Michigan State team that still overachieved and managed to make the NCAA tournament despite starting an abundance of freshmen. This year, with nearly everyone back besides for Eron Harris and Alvin Ellis III, the Spartans are poised for a potential national championship run.

The return of Miles Bridges for his sophomore season was the key to Michigan State being in this current position. The 6-foot-7 Bridges is the consensus Preseason National Player of the Year after a monster freshman season. A lottery pick had he gone into the 2017 NBA Draft, Bridges will likely have dozens of ridiculous plays this season as he remains one of the most exciting players college basketball has seen over the last five seasons.

While Bridges returning was a big key for Sparty’s potential title hopes, Michigan State also returns plenty of solid talent around him. Fellow sophomores Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Nick Ward are all back as each of them could take a leap after promising freshman seasons. Langford, in particular, could be poised for a breakout year on the wing now that he is fully healthy. Ward has a chance to be one of the Big Ten’s better bigs and Winston should be more equipped to handling a full time point guard role.

Besides the promising sophomore core, the Spartans are loaded with experienced veteran role players who will play a big part. Senior point guard Tum Tum Nairn should command a healthy amount of minutes in the backcourt as he is one of the more battle-tested lead guards in the nation. Matt McQuaid, a junior shooter, is also back and fully healthy after a down sophomore season.

Michigan State also received a huge lift on the interior as senior Gavin Schilling, a former starter, returns from a season-ending injury while former UNLV transfer Ben Carter was granted an additional year of eligibility by the NCAA. McDonald’s All-American Jaren Jackson Jr. is another huge boost to the Spartans’ frontcourt rotation as he is a potential lottery pick who can space the floor at 6-foot-11.

The Spartans have depth, experience, talent and star power but they’ll have to get more consistent point-guard play to truly reach their ceiling. If Nairn can become a more reliable perimeter shooter and Winston steps up his play then expect Michigan State to be among the nation’s elite this season.

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Nate Mason  (Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

2. Minnesota, Northwestern remain near the top after returning most of their rosters 

Michigan State is the clear favorite in the Big Ten but a solid second tier of teams sits right behind them in the Big Ten pecking order this season.

After a breakout season that saw 24 wins and an NCAA tournament appearance, Minnesota has a chance to take another step forward since they only lose senior Akeem Springs off of last year’s team. All-league point guard Nate Mason is back for his senior season to lead the charge for the Gophers as he is flanked by solid contributors at multiple spots on the floor. Juniors Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer are both returning double-figure scorers while sophomore Amir Coffey could have a huge season if he takes an additional step from a positive freshman season. Shot-blocking menace Reggie Lynch is also back in the middle after setting a school record for blocks and earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Northwestern is also hoping to take a step forward as most of the core from last season’s Round of 32 squad is back. After finally making the Big Dance for the first time in 2017, expectations are sky-high for the Wildcats. Senior Bryant McIntosh is back handling the point for the Wildcats as the four-year starter is one of the most experienced players in the nation. If McIntosh can regain his perimeter shooting touch then he could finish out a storied career in memorable fashion. Senior shooting guard Scottie Lindsey is also back as he’s one of the Big Ten’s better scorers while junior forward Vic Law is a strong two-way player who provides good athleticism in the frontcourt. Dererk Pardon, a junior big man, could also factor more into the offense this season as his skill level continues to grow.

The major question for both of these teams is how they will deal with being the hunted? Just one year ago, Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino was essentially coaching for his job and Northwestern was still the only power conference school to never make the NCAA Tournament. But after last season’s success, these two teams aren’t sneaking up on anybody anymore.

Both Minnesota and Northwestern have the depth and talent to be consistent top-25 teams all season, but how will they handle this new pressure?

Vince Edwards (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

3. Purdue remains a contender despite the loss of Caleb Swanigan

“Biggie” Swanigan is the most irreplaceable player in the Big Ten. A double-double machine during his sophomore season, the All-American big man has moved on to the NBA after being a dominant force in college basketball last season. Purdue just won’t be the same without him.

But even with Swanigan leaving early for the NBA, Purdue is still in a very strong position to be one of the Big Ten’s best teams. Most of the rest of the roster returns. The frontcourt of seniors Isaac Haas and Vincent Edwards are both very productive and efficient and they are surrounded by plenty of high-caliber shooters. P.J. Thompson and Dakota Mathias are both seniors who have plenty of experience in big-game situations. Junior Ryan Cline is another perimeter threat that the Boilermakers can bring off the bench,

The key for Purdue is going to be the play of sophomore guard Carsen Edwards. A talented shotmaker who can be reckless at times, Edwards has the ability to make a huge impact if he can be more efficient. If Edwards becomes a guard who can create shots for himself and others on a consistent basis then Purdue should still be in strong position to win a few games in the NCAA tournament.

4. Maryland, Michigan and Wisconsin have question marks after valuable losses

Gutted with losses to the NBA Draft, some of the Big Ten’s familiar faces have to replace go-to players with new faces this season. And, unlike Purdue replacing Caleb Swanigan, these teams have plenty of holes to fix.

The past three seasons, Maryland relied heavily on point guard Melo Trimble’s clutch play and ability to create offense. Without Trimble, who left for the the NBA, head coach Mark Turgeon will count on a trio of sophomores this season. Point guard Anthony Cowan assumes the lead-guard responsibilities from Trimble for the Terps after playing plenty off the ball last season. Shooting guard Kevin Huerter is a noted perimeter scorer who is coming off of an appearance this summer for the USA Basketball U19 team. Forward Justin Jackson could be the difference in Maryland being a contender or a normal team. The 6-foot-7 Jackson showed that he could be one of the Big Ten’s best players last season during certain games but he also faltered down the stretch and has to complete a full season of being a productive player. If Maryland gets strong production from the sophomores, they have enough depth at other positions to still be among the league’s best teams.

After peaking at the right time last season, Michigan has to replace point guard Derrick Walton Jr. and big man D.J. Wilson. Walton is going to be tough to replace but Michigan is hoping that a combination of graduate transfer Jaaron Simmons and sophomore Zavier Simpson can do the trick. Simmons has been one of the MAC’s best players the past few seasons and Simpson is a former top-100 recruit, so there is reason to be cautiously optimistic that the Wolverines will still get solid guard play. Replacing Wilson might be harder. While junior forward Mo Wagner is back as one of the league’s more unique offensive threats, Wilson’s defensive presence will surely be missed by the Wolverines.

And what do we make of Wisconsin? Head coach Greg Gard inherited an experienced and talented roster from predecessor Bo Ryan. Unfortunately, Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown all exhausted their eligibilities as Ethan Happ is the team’s only returning double-figure scorer. This is a huge test for the Badgers and Gard. It was always a minimum expectation of Bo Ryan and Wisconsin to at least make the NCAA tournament, regardless of who was on the roster. The Badgers are the only team in the country to make the Sweet 16 six of the last seven seasons. If Gard can make it work and bring Wisconsin back to the NCAAs then he’s definitely the heir apparent to his former boss. But Wisconsin will have to clear up an uncertain backcourt situation while playing a lot of unproven big men along with Happ.

5. There are new coaches to watch at Illinois, Indiana and Ohio State

Some of the classic Big Ten programs are going to have new coaches at the helm this season.

Taking over at Illinois, former Oklahoma State head coach Brad Underwood has had a tremendous amount of success at Stephen F. Austin and with the Cowboys as he led both programs to NCAA tournament appearances in his first year on the job. That is unlikely to happen at Illinois this season but Underwood’s track record gives them a puncher’s chance. Replacing senior scorer Malcolm Hill will be next to impossible but the Illini have some strong young pieces like freshman guards Mark Smith and Trent Frazier.

Indiana finally made a move to replace Tom Crean as former Dayton head coach Archie Miller is the new architect. The Hoosiers don’t have a lot of proven returning players but Miller is also a coach who is used to doing more with less. Remember, Miller once took Dayton to the NCAA Tournament with six scholarship players at the start of a conference season, so he’s done some ridiculous coaching in the past. Senior guard Robert Johnson will be expected to score at a high level and Miller has already made a positive impression on the recruiting trail with his first two groups.

Things get slightly tougher at Ohio State as Chris Holtmann replaced Thad Matta in the middle of June. The Buckeyes have some solid veterans in Jae’Sean Tate, Kam Williams and Keita Bates-Diop but most of the rest of the roster has been gutted following Matta’s departure. Thankfully for the Buckeyes, Holtmann has already landed plenty of positive recruits for next season, and it wouldn’t surprise many people if Ohio State exceeded expectations with its current roster.


Brad Underwood (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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PRESEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Miles Bridges, Michigan State

Just enjoy this while it lasts. Bypassing a potential spot in the NBA Draft lottery, the explosive 6-foot-7 Bridges gets a chance to play more on the wing this season now that Michigan State is healthy on the interior. If Bridges can prove that he’s just as talented playing on the wing, then he could elevate into a top three pick.

THE REST OF THE BIG TEN FIRST TEAM:

  • Ethan Happ, Wisconsin: The redshirt junior big man is hoping to expand his range after being strictly an interior scorer his first two seasons. Happ remains one of the league’s best defenders and rebounders.
  • Nate Mason, Minnesota: Outstanding during his junior season (15.2 pts, 5.0 ast, 3.6 reb) if Mason can improve his 37 percent shooting then he’ll be one of the nation’s best floor generals.
  • Vincent Edwards, Purdue: Overshadowed by Caleb Swanigan the past two years, this senior forward could have a breakout year after quietly putting up 12.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game last season.
  • Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern: Poised to shatter the Northwestern career assists record, the senior point guard could have a huge year if his perimeter jumper returns to form.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Moritz Wagner, Michigan
  • Justin Jackson, Maryland
  • Tyler Cook, Iowa
  • Vic Law, Northwestern
  • Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State

BREAKOUT STARJustin Jackson, Maryland

Maryland needs to find a new go-to player now that Melo Trimble has moved on to the pros and this 6-foot-7 sophomore could be in line for a lot more production. Capable of playing on the wing or as a stretch-4, Jackson put up some monster double-doubles as a freshman in the middle of Big Ten play last season, but his play faltered down the stretch. If Jackson can become more consistent on the offensive end, he also should be a menace on the defensive end while contributing on the glass. A big year for Jackson could mean a huge leap up NBA Draft boards.

Justin Jackson (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Tim Miles, Nebraska

At one point a few seasons ago, Nebraska looked like it was on the verge of becoming a perennial postseason contender. Nebraska made the NCAA tournament in 2013-14, Miles was the Big Ten Coach of the Year and the Huskers had the tremendous home-court advantage at the sold-out Pinnacle Bank Arena. While the Nebraska fanbase is still one of best in the nation, the Huskers have struggled to three consecutive losing seasons as they have finished 11th or 12th in the Big Ten the past three seasons. With many predicting Nebraska to once again be among the Big Ten’s worst teams this preseason, can Miles win enough to keep his job safe?

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

Michigan State has a great chance to be the Big Ten’s first national champion since 2000.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT

I’m most excited to get another year of Miles Bridges. This wasn’t supposed to happen. And now that the lottery pick is back for his sophomore season, I’m expecting some ridiculous dunks for a fun-to-watch national title contender.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • 11/13, Minnesota at Providence
  • 11/14, Michigan State vs. Duke, Champions Classic (Chicago)
  • 11/28, Louisville at Purdue, ACC-Big Ten Challenge
  • 11/29, Miami at Minnesota, ACC-Big Ten Challenge
  • 11/30, Notre Dame at Michigan State, ACC-Big Ten Challenge

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigTenNetwork

POWER RANKINGS

1. Michigan State: The Spartans have it all as they are clearly the class of the Big Ten. Having a Player of the Year favorite, a lot of depth and talent is a major plus for Michigan State but they also have the pressure of trying to win the national title this season.
2. Purdue: Losing Caleb Swanigan will hurt but this Boilermaker team is still capable of winning a lot of games. The key could be the play of sophomore guard Carsen Edwards. If Edwards can improve his shot selection and run a more efficient offense then he brings a new offensive dimension for Purdue.
3. Minnesota: Returning nearly everyone from last season’s surprise NCAA Tournament team, the Gophers have strong guard play (Nate Mason), capable wing scorers (Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer) and an experienced rim protector (Reggie Lynch). If this team can add some quality depth at guard then they don’t have many holes and could be in line for a Sweet 16 run.
4. Northwestern: Now that Northwestern has finally made the Big Dance, they can focus on returning and advancing even further. The core of Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law and Dererk Pardon are all back while the Wildcat bench should be improved over last season.
5. Michigan: Head coach John Beilein has plenty of weapons, but he also returns only two players who started more than three games for the Wolverines last season. Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews could be a big difference as he’s the type of two-way wing that Michigan needs right away.
6. Maryland: Melo Trimble is finally gone. But Mark Turgeon has a strong sophomore class and an intriguing group of upperclass vets. If big man Michal Cekovsky and guard Dion Wiley can stay healthy and productive then Maryland can finish much higher than this.
7. Wisconsin: This season’s Badgers will be a major test to see if Greg Gard can make Wisconsin a perennial NCAA Tournament contender like Bo Ryan did. Having Ethan Happ back helps, but Gard is going to have questions at almost every other position. Point guard play could be critical for Wisconsin.
8. Iowa: Replacing Peter Jok is going to be difficult but the Hawkeyes still return nine players who averaged at lease 12 minutes per game last season. Somebody has to step up and replace Jok’s scoring, but Iowa has the depth and experience to make it back to the NCAA Tournament.
9. Illinois: The frontcourt features loads of questions and the backcourt is young but Illinois is not going to be an easy out this season. The key will be junior forwards Leron Black and Michael Finke. If both can be productive then the Illini have a chance to surprise.
10. Indiana: Robert Johnson is the team’s only known threat but there are plenty of former top-100 recruits on the roster. Junior forward Juwan Morgan has shown some positive flashes while senior point guard Josh Newkirk has seen plenty of minutes during his college career.
11. Penn State: There is plenty of young talent to get excited about at Penn State but they need to make a leap up the league standings this season. Guards Tony Carr and Shep Garner can both score while forward Lamar Stevens had a very productive freshman season. If Penn State can improve in tight games, they could be a surprise.
12. Ohio State: The Chris Holtmann era begins with a depleted roster and the hope that upperclass leaders can still be effective. Although the Buckeyes are down a few scholarship players, senior guards Jae’Sean Tate and Kam Williams and junior forward Keita Bates-Diop are all capable Big Ten players.
13. Nebraska: The Huskers have hovered near the bottom of the Big Ten standings the past three years and this year looks no different. Junior point guard Glynn Watson Jr. is a promising returner but most of the rest of Nebraska’s roster features inconsistent veterans and unproven young players.
14. Rutgers: Steve Pikiell did a great job of improving the Rutgers defense in year one but a massive talent overhaul is still necessary. The backcourt tandem of Corey Sanders and Mike Williams is solid while senior forward Deshawn Freeman is a double-double threat. The rest of the roster has major questions marks.