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Big East Conference Preview: Villanova looks to hold off challengers

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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 East Conference.

Since the Big East’s reconfiguration in 2013, Villanova has served as the standard bearer with four straight regular season titles, two Big East tournament titles and a national title in 2016.

Jay Wright’s team has enough talent and experience to extend the streak to five, but the 2017-18 campaign sets up as one in which there are multiple teams poised to challenge the Wildcats.

Seton Hall, Xavier and maybe even Providence have the goods to push the Wildcats this season.

With the middle of the pack getting stronger and two head coaching changes, one of which being a Big East legend returning to his alma mater, this should be a fun year in the Big East.

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Villanova looks to replace three starters and remain atop the conference: With the end of the 2016-17 season came the end of three collegiate careers, with Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds all out of eligibility. All three provided key intangibles for Villanova, with Hart and Jenkins also being two of the team’s top three scorers from a season ago. The question: how will the Wildcats account for those losses, with regards to both production and leadership?

There will be some adjustments to make, but simply put the pieces are there for Villanova to remain atop the Big East. Jalen Brunson, one of the nation’s best point guards, is back for his junior season as are wing Mikal Bridges and forward Eric Paschall. Sophomore guard Donte DiVencenzo, who earned a spot on the Big East’s All-Freshman team and was also the Big 5 Newcomer of the Year, is back for his sophomore season, and Phil Booth is healthy after sitting out most of last season with a knee injury.

Add in freshmen Omari Spellman and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree inside, and Jermaine Samuels Jr. on the wing, and Villanova will not lack for talent. And in Spellman, who sat out last season, they have a big who can get them points on the block on a consistent basis. For that reason this team will be different from last year’s group, which may make the Wildcats even tougher to defend.

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Khadeen Carrington (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

2. Seton Hall, Xavier and Providence are all worthy challengers: Due to its track record and combination of returnees and newcomers, Villanova has earned the right to be preseason favorites. But this season may provide the best group of challengers to the throne since the reconfiguration of the Big East.

Xavier brings back an experienced group led by an All-America candidate in senior forward Trevon Bluiett, and the experience gained by Quentin Goodin as a result of Edmond Sumner’s injury could pay off for the sophomore in 2017-18. Add in a talented freshman class led by wing Paul Scruggs, and grad transfer Kerem Kanter, and it would not be a surprise if Chris Mack’s Musketeers won the Big East.

A similar argument could be made for Seton Hall, as Kevin Willard has a squad led by four tough, talented seniors. Angel Delgado is the nation’s best rebounder, a big man who was near automatic when it came to racking up double-doubles last season. Wing Desi Rodriguez can get hot offensively on a moment’s notice, and forward Ismael Sanogo deserves more respect nationally for his abilities as a defender. The key for the Pirates: how Khadeen Carrington, a talented guard who can make plays off the bounce as well as hit perimeter shots, adjusts to the shift to the point. If he handles it well, Seton Hall can be a major factor.

As for Providence, Ed Cooley has a senior point guard in Kyron Cartwright to trust with the offense. Cartwright averaged nearly seven assists per game last season, and that number could be even higher given the improvements made by the other options on the roster. Rodney Bullock has the potential to be an all-conference player if he becomes more efficient offensively, and forward Alpha Diallo appears poised to take a significant step forward. Makai Ashton-Langford is one of the key pieces in a good recruiting class, but the key may be the health of senior big man Emmitt Holt.

Holt’s been dealing with an abdominal issue during the preseason, and if he’s limited even more will be asked of freshmen Nate Watson and Dajour Dickens.

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Khyri Thomas (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

3. The conference’s “midsection” should be improved: Given the fact that seven teams reached the NCAA tournament last season, this may feel like a weird thing to read. But with the combination of newcomers and returnees at many of the Big East schools that populated the middle portion of the standings last season, those matchups are going to be even tougher this season.

Creighton welcomes back guards Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas, and they’ll add a transfer at the point in former Syracuse guard Kaleb Joseph. The key for Joseph will be to regain the confidence that he seemingly lost during his two seasons at Syracuse, but the combination of sitting out a year and being in a system that gives guys the freedom to make plays should help.

Marquette, which won 19 games and reached the NCAA tournament last season, has a very good perimeter tandem in Andrew Rowsey and Markus Howard, with the latter being one of the best shooters in the country as a freshman. The question mark for the Golden Eagles is how productive their big men will be, with SMU transfer Harry Froling set to join the likes of junior Matt Heldt and freshman Theo John in December.

Butler will be led by senior forward Kelan Martin, sophomore guard Kamar Baldwin and a new head coach in LaVall Jordan (more on the Bulldogs below), and St. John’s may be the ultimate “wild card.” Guards Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett Jr. return, and the additions of transfers Marvin Clark II and Justin Simon will help immensely. If the pieces mesh, Chris Mullin has a roster that could turn heads in the Big East.

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Kamar Baldwin (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

4. LaVall Jordan looks to build upon the “Butler Way”: While the Brad Stevens era was critical with regards to the growth of the Butler basketball program, which reached the national title game two consecutive years and moved from the Horizon League to the Big East, the “Butler Way” began well before that point. Among those who played a role in the success is LaVall Jordan, who played on three NCAA tournament teams between 1998 and 2001 for Barry Collier and Thad Matta.

After brief stay at Milwaukee that was preceded by a six-year stint on John Beilein’s staff at Michigan, Jordan has returned to his alma mater to fill the vacancy left by Chris Holtmann’s move to Ohio State. Jordan won’t be operating with an empty cupboard either, as Kelan Martin (16.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Kamar Baldwin (10.1, 3.7) return from a team that won 25 games a season ago. Butler did lose three starters from that team, most notably forward Andrew Chrabascz, but do not expect this program to simply fall off of a cliff.

5. Patrick Ewing, arguably the most important player in Big East history, makes his return to Georgetown: To say that Ewing was “arguably” the most important player in league history may be an understatement; as the crown jewel of a 1981 class that included the likes of Chris Mullin (St. John’s) and Villanova’s “Expansion Crew,” Ewing helped usher in an era of dominance for the Big East in the 1980’s. The Georgetown teams he led were both feared and respected, and with his return to The Hilltop as head coach the goal is the bring back those glory years.

Ewing, in his first head coaching job after spending well over a decade as an assistant in the NBA, has some talent to work with inside as Marcus Derrickson (8.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Jesse Govan (10.1, 5.0) both return. But there are a lot of holes to fill on this roster, especially on the perimeter with the losses of Rodney Pryor and L.J. Peak. Look for freshman wing JaMarko Pickett to get plenty of opportunities in his debut season, one that could be difficult for the Hoyas once they begin conference play.

Angel Delgado (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

PRESEASON BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Angel Delgado, Seton Hall

Only one player in college basketball (Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan) had more double-doubles than Delgado last season. The senior big man averaged 15.2 points, 13.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game last season, shooting 54.3 percent from the field. On a team expected to contend in the Big East, Delgado will once again be a focal point for the Pirates. And if he can improve on the turnover count (3.0 tpg last season) Delgado will be even tougher to slow down.

THE REST OF THE BIG EAST FIRST TEAM

  • Jalen Brunson, Villanova: One of the best point guards in college basketball, Brunson will have more leadership responsibilities on his plate in 2017-18.
  • Marcus Foster, Creighton: Foster’s first season in a Creighton uniform was a productive one, as he averaged 18.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game.
  • Trevon Blueitt, Xavier: Bluiett should be heard from with regards to both Big East Player of the Year and All-America honors. Last season he averaged 18.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game.
  • Rodney Bullock, Providence: Butler’s Kelan Martin would be a solid choice here as well, but if he can be a more efficient player offensively Bullock will have a good shot at a first team spot as well.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Kelan Martin, Butler
  • Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall
  • Omari Spellman and Mikal Bridges, Villanova
  • Marcus LoVett Jr. and Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s
  • Khyri Thomas, Creighton

BREAKOUT STAR: Donte DiVincenzo, Villanova

DiVincenzo is the biggest reason that I’m not that worried about Villanova trying to replace Josh Hart this season. I don’t know that he turns into the player Hart was this year, but he’s already proven that he had the ability to be an explosive scorer – he reached double-figures 14 times and scored at least 19 points four times coming off the bench – and he has the kind of toughness and defensive intelligence that he fit in with Villanova seamlessly on that end of the floor as well.

The only real concern about having DiVincenzo on this list is how good Villanova will be. They’re quite deep on the perimeter and return Phil Booth from injury. He could end up being a much-improved player with a markedly better season and end up with numbers that don’t look all that dissimilar from this season’s.

Donte DiVincenzo (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Chris Mullin, St. John’s

With John Thompson III being replaced at Georgetown during the spring, there really isn’t a coach in the Big East that’s truly on the proverbial hot seat. The pick here is Mullin, whose teams have improved in the win column in each of the last two seasons. So why Mullin? Because with the talent on this season’s roster, expecting the Red Storm to at the very least challenge for an NCAA tournament berth would be reasonable.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

Four teams have credible hopes of reaching the Final Four.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT

the impact that Justin Simon and Marvin Clark II can have for St. John’s. The Red Storm can be an NCAA tournament team this year.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • November 13, Minnesota at Providence
  • November 22-24, Villanova at Paradise Jam
  • November 28, Baylor at Xavier
  • December 3, Seton Hall at Louisville
  • December 5, Gonzaga vs. Villanova (in New York City)

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigEastTourney

POWER RANKINGS

1. Villanova: The Wildcats are once again favored to win the Big East, thanks to the combination of newcomers and returnees. The return of Phil Booth, and the additions of Omari Spellman and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, will certainly help matters for Jay Wright’s team.
2. Seton Hall: With four senior starters, the Pirates are one of the most experienced teams in college basketball. And if new point guard Khadeen Carrington can balance scoring with getting other guys the ball in good spots, look out.
3. Xavier: Trevon Bluiett will once again lead the way, with J.P. Macura being another senior capable of making an impact on a game. If the talented recruiting class, led by Paul Scruggs, is ready and Quentin Goodin takes another step forward the Musketeers can win the league.
4. Providence: In Kyron Cartwright the Friars have a special point guard. He’s surrounded with talented offensive option, including Rodney Bullock, and the arrival of Makai Ashton-Langford should give Cartwright the occasional respite. The Friars will certainly be head from this season as they look to make a 5th straight NCAA tournament appearance.
5. Creighton: In Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas the Bluejays have one of the top perimeter tandems in the country, much less the Big East. If Kaleb Joseph is ready to run the show at the point, Creighton is capable of contending.
6. Marquette: With Andrew Rowsey and Markus Howard among the returnees, it’s known that Steve Wojciechowski’s team can put points on the board. But can they be more effective defensively? If so, the Golden Eagles should make a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
7. St. John’s: The Red Storm are the “wild card” in this race. With the additions of Justin Simon and Marvin Clark II, St. John’s has the talent needed to make waves in the Big East race. But will this be a cohesive unit when the games truly matter?
8. Butler: LaVall Jordan has some talent to work with in his first season leading his alma mater, including guard Kamar Baldwin and forward Kelan Martin. What may make things more difficult for Butler are the loss of three starters and the improvements made by other teams in the league.
9. DePaul: Will the Blue Demons escape the Big East cellar for the second time in the last three seasons? Yes, thanks to the return of Eli Cain and the additions of Austin Grandstaff and Max Strus.
10. Georgetown: Patrick Ewing’s return as head coach will be a difficult one, given the strength of the Big East and his team’s lack of perimeter shooters. That being said, having Jesse Govan and Marcus Derrickson back in the front court should help matters.

CBT Podcast: Penny Hardaway and the Big Ten Preview

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Rob Dauster was joined by Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway for the latest episode of the College Basketball Talk podcast. Afterwards, Scott Phillips jumped onto the pod to walk through a full breakdown of every team in the Big Ten. Does Michigan State have the NBA-level talent to win a title? Can Maryland live up to their lofty expectations? There are new eras at Michigan, Purdue and Wisconsin to discuss. Who is best set up for success? Ohio State and Illinois are trending up, Iowa and Minnesota are trending down, and the Mayor is back!

Here is the full rundown:

OPEN: Penny Hardaway

15:45: Big Ten overview

20:05: Illinois

26:55: Indiana

31:30: Iowa

35:45: Maryland

40:25: Michigan

45:30: Michigan State

51:35: Minnesota

54:40: Nebraska

57:15: Northwestern

59:20: Ohio State

1:03:30: Penn State

1:07:45: Purdue

1:13:45: Rutgers

1:17:00: Wisconsin

Big Ten Season Preview: Power Rankings, Preseason Awards and Michigan State’s title run?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2019-20 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big Ten.



The Big Ten had another strong season last year as Michigan State made the Final Four and the league went an outstanding 7-1 in the first round.

With the Spartans falling short of the national title, however, the Big Ten is still seeking its first championship in men’s basketball since Michigan State won in 2000.

Despite the Big Ten’s outstanding depth, coaching and overall talent year to year the league’s lack of a title is a major stain on them as the ACC has multiple champions this past decade and other leagues like the Big East develop juggernauts like Villanova.

But there’s a huge title contender and preseason Player of the Year favorite returning to East Lansing this season to lead another deep year in the Big Ten.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Michigan State is the favorite and Cassius Winston the Preseason Player of the Year

After last season’s Final Four appearance and the return of Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston, the Spartans are being projected by many to win the national championship this season. Michigan State has plenty of help for its senior point guard and Preseason Player of the Year favorite.

Senior shooting guard Joshua Langford returns from injury as a double-figure scorer. Junior big man Xavier Tillman was one of the most improved bigs in the country down the stretch last season. And the sophomore class led by Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, Thomas Kithier and Foster Loyer should be ready for larger assignments as well.

Michigan State has perimeter pop and experience to go along with tough and talented big men. This team’s ceiling might be the major question mark entering November. There isn’t really a clear-cut pro on this Michigan State roster and national champions generally require a McDonald’s All-American — something this roster lacks. In a season with not a lot of clear title contenders, however, Michigan State’s previous Final Four run and overall talent makes them a team to really like at the end of the season.

2. Maryland is another major threat to win a league (and national) title

Expectations are massive for Maryland this season as a Round of 32 team returns everyone except for big man Bruno Fernando. The Terps are armed with an all-league floor general in Anthony Cowan Jr., a potential lottery pick in sophomore big man Jalen Smith and talented guards and wings like Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell, Aaron Wiggins and Serrel Smith.

But Mark Turgeon teams have had a tough time breaking through in the past when the preseason expectations have been high. And there’s reasons to be cautious about this team when it comes to the overall national picture. Cowan has been the same player the past two seasons. Smith has to help offset Fernando’s massive presence. And Maryland has to improve its shaky perimeter shooting and unproven frontcourt depth.

This is also a program that had a top 31 offense AND defense on KenPom last season and enough balance is in place to offset a bad game from a star player. In a strange season with not a lot of clear-cut favorites, Maryland is a sleeper team to watch in both the Big Ten race and the national landscape.

(Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

3. Michigan replaced John Beilein with Juwan Howard

The end of the John Beilein era happened swiftly this offseason with the veteran head coach taking the Cleveland Cavaliers job. Fab Five alum and NBA veteran Juwan Howard takes over the Wolverines after a lengthy playing career and sizable stint as an NBA assistant the last half decade.

While Michigan will have to replace three double-figure scorers in Iggy Brazdeikis, Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews the program has some familiar faces returning in Howard’s first season. Point guard Zavier Simpson returns along with center Jon Teske and junior Isaiah Livers will be expected to take a major leap in scoring. A talented sophomore class is also something to track with this Wolverines team along with freshman forward Franz Wagner — the little brother of Mo.

Howard is a first-time head coach in his first year at the college level taking over a semi-veteran team trying to find its go-to scoring. It’ll be a strange season at times in Ann Arbor. But as long as Michigan adheres to its strong defensive identity instilled by former assistant coach Luke Yaklich over the past several years, they should have the talent to remain in the top 25 conversation and compete for an NCAA bid. And if things don’t go as planned this season, Michigan fans can at least have some peace knowing that Howard has been very active with top five-star talents on the recruiting trail for the Class of 2020.

4. Depth remains a major strength of the Big Ten

Following last season’s massive first-round tournament success, the Big Ten has a lot to live up to. And although a lot of key players return to veteran teams, the league also lost a lot of successful players to graduation and the pros.

Even with all of the losses, the Big Ten should remain one of the deepest conferences in college basketball this season. Michigan State and Maryland look like legitimate preseason top-10 teams while Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan should all make top-25 cases at some point. And the middle of the pack has a lot of fascinating teams including Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana to keep tabs on as the Big Ten once again tries to get eight teams into the field.

The Big Ten might not be as top-to-bottom deep as last season. There is still the chance this league has a lot of teams playing in March though as coaching and talent continues to remain at a solid level.

5. Fred Hoiberg takes over at Nebraska

The only other new coach in the Big Ten this offseason is Nebraska hiring Fred Hoiberg to replace Tim Miles. After a disappointing NBA stint with the Chicago Bulls, Hoiberg’s presence on the sidelines is a major coup for the Huskers.

Hoiberg isn’t expected to make major waves with an entirely new roster of 11 new scholarship players this season. During Hoiberg’s time at Iowa State, however, he took the Cyclones to four NCAA tournament appearances in five seasons as he quickly turned over the roster using transfers and unique recruiting methods.

That could be a perfect recipe for Nebraska as the Huskers have invested a lot into Hoiberg and his previous family connections to the program. The Huskers don’t have a great natural recruiting base but a rabid fanbase at Pinnacle Bank Arena could still get some very good teams if Hoiberg is able to get a few good transfers. In a league filled with good and successful coaches, Nebraska is hoping Hoiberg’s return to the college game will go smoothly.

(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

PRESEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State

The reigning Big Ten Player of the Year is easily the most important individual player in the country. During a terrific junior season, the 6-foot-1 Winston helped lead an injury-depleted Spartans team to the Final Four as he was incredible down the stretch last season.

Averaging 18.8 points, 7.5 assists and 3.0 rebounds per game, Winston shoots efficiently from all over the floor (46% FG, 39.8% 3PT, 84% FT) while also making things much easier on his teammates. Winston seems to have an innate ability of getting everyone else touches as he has look-ahead vision and half-court savvy. Michigan State is banking on its first national title in 20 years as Winston will be the big reason why this team reaches its ultimate ceiling.

THE REST OF THE BIG TEN FIRST TEAM

  • LAMAR STEVENS, Penn State: The 6-foot-8 Stevens continued to put up prolific numbers (19.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg) despite not a lot of help around him last season.
  • ANTHONY COWAN Jr., Maryland: Senior point guard has tons of experience and puts up steady production across the board (15.6 ppg, 4.4 apg, 3.7 rpg).
  • KALEB WESSON, Ohio State: Conference’s best post scorer (14.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg) is an underrated passer who could improve as a rim protector this season.
  • JALEN SMITH, Maryland: Potential first-round pick skipped NBA Draft process to return for sophomore season after showing signs of possible greatness as a freshman (11.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg).

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • AYO DOSUNMU, Illinois
  • ZAVIER SIMPSON, Michigan
  • XAVIER TILLMAN, Michigan State
  • LUKA GARZA, Iowa
  • BRAD DAVISON, Wisconsin

BREAKOUT STAR: Joe Wieskamp, Iowa

Wieskamp is going to have a lot fall on his shoulders as a sophomore. With the departures of Tyler Cook (pros) and Isaiah Moss (Kansas) along with the uncertain injury future of Jordan Bohannon this season, Wieskamp is going to be expected to be a secondary ball handler, knock down shots and do more off the dribble. While Iowa’s offense is still going to pound it inside to players like Luka Garza, Wieskamp’s 42 percent three-point shooting and fearless approach to scoring gives him a chance to make a major leap as a sophomore.

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COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Pat Chambers, Penn State

Entering his ninth season at Penn State, Pat Chambers is still looking for his first NCAA tournament appearance. And given the issues facing the Nittany Lions outside of Lamar Stevens this season, making the Big Dance doesn’t appear likely entering the season. Chambers had a window with the Stevens/Tony Carr class when the program won an NIT in 2017. But Carr’s decision to go pro put Penn State back below .500 as they were only 14-18 last season despite a monster junior campaign from Stevens. If the Nittany Lions don’t improve dramatically this season then the program could opt for a new leader.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The Big Ten isn’t as deep as last year’s ridiculous first-round showing but there will be plenty of damage done to the field among the eight teams that get in.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

Juwan Howard’s stint on the sidelines in Ann Arbor should bring a lot of excitement to Michigan basketball. I’m anxious to see how the Wolverines play and what Howard is able to do inheriting Beilein’s program.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Nov. 5, Michigan State vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic)
  • Dec. 3, Michigan State vs. Duke
  • Dec. 4, Purdue vs. Virginia
  • Dec. 19, Maryland at Seton Hall
  • Dec. 21, Ohio State vs. Kentucky (Las Vegas)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. MICHIGAN STATE: On the road to a potential title, Michigan State will have a tenacious schedule to grind through. Tests against Duke and Kentucky as well as a road game at Seton Hall and the Maui Invitational highlights the Spartans’ non-conference schedule as the preseason top team will get a lot of tests early. That could play a big factor in Winston, Langford and company gaining a No. 1 seed in March that ultimately gets them to another Final Four. The defending Big Ten champions will see all sorts of challenges in 2019-20 as all eyes will be on them this season.

2. MARYLAND: Maryland should be relatively similar to last season. The perimeter group stays the same while Smith gets most of the touches that previously went inside to Fernando. Frontcourt minutes will be something to watch for with the Terps as they figure out their rotation early this season. Forward Ricky Lindo Jr. could factor in while freshmen Makhi and Makhel Mitchell could also earn minutes. If Maryland knocks down perimeter shots and plays small, they could be a fascinating team.

3. OHIO STATE: Ahead of schedule last season, Chris Holtmann’s crew made it to the Round of 32 behind big man Kaleb Wesson and a solid roster of young players. Andre Wesson returns to play with his brother in the Buckeye frontcourt while sophomores Luther Muhammad, Duane Washington Jr. and Justin Ahrens all return. And Ohio State has the Big Ten’s top freshman class coming in along with Florida State point guard transfer C.J. Walker. Five-star point guard D.J. Carton and Walker should swallow the lead guard minutes while lanky wing Alonzo Gaffney and bouncy forward E.J. Liddell could earn immediate minutes. Wesson should have many more weapons around him this season as Ohio State could take a leap into the NCAA tournament’s second weekend.

4. PURDUE: Things will feel very different in West Lafayette this season without Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline. Matt Painter did a great job designing his offense to put those two guards in motion for numerous three-point bombs. Now without those two, Purdue could go back to an interior-based attack like the Caleb Swanigan/Isaac Haas teams. Big men Matt Haarms and Trevion Williams are among the Big Ten’s best interior players while junior guard Nojel Eastern can handle the ball and defend up to four spots. The development of the sophomore group of Aaron Wheeler, Eric Hunter Jr. and Sasha Stefanovic will have an impact in how good Purdue is post-Edwards. Painter should switch up how his team plays and they have the pieces to be good defensively. How good the new-look offense is could determine Purdue’s season.

5. MICHIGAN: Finding offensive production to replace Brazdeikis, Poole and Matthews will be the key to Michigan’s ceiling this season. With Simpson, Teske and a team of veteran role guys, the Wolverines’ defense should still be very good. But making sure that the team’s offense finds easy buckets in Howard’s first year will be a subplot to watch. Seeing what kind of offense Howard brings with him will be something else to watch for. Livers should take a step forward and Eli Brooks should help more as well. If one of the sophomores in Brandon Johns Jr., Colin Castleton, Adrien Nunez or David DeJulius can step up it’ll be huge.

6. ILLINOIS: Starving for an NCAA tournament appearance, this could be the year Illinois breaks its streak since 2013. The perimeter of sophomore Ayo Dosunmu and junior Trent Frazier is among the league’s best while promising sophomore forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili gets some help in the form of four-star freshman center Kofi Cockburn. The Illini need to improve their shaky perimeter shooting (34 percent). Getting better overall defensively is another chief concern. Role players like Alan Griffin, Da’Monte Williams and Andres Feliz will need to ideally make some shots as well. But the Illinois backcourt has big-time talent and the frontcourt has multiple scoring options as well. Head coach Brad Underwood finally has some depth and experience after overhauling the roster and should have an intriguing potential tournament team.

7. IOWA: Rotational depth should not be an issue for the Hawkeyes. Figuring out major holes in the lineup will be te thing to watch for when it comes to Iowa. Big man Luka Garza and sophomore shooter Joe Wieskamp are promising double-figure scorers. The Hawkeyes have frontcourt depth (Cordell Pemsl, Ryan Kriener, Jack Nunge) and two McCaffery sons with talented pedigrees. But does this team get enough consistent stops to be a tournament team? How will the point guard play be? This will be a fascinating season at Iowa as the Hawkeyes have some talent and experience but a lot of question marks without Tyler Cook, Isaiah Moss or potentially Jordan Bohannon.

8. WISCONSIN: It will feel strange watching the Badgers play without frontcourt pillar Ethan Happ. One of the Big Ten’s most prolific players of all time moving on means Wisconsin will build its offense around a perimeter-oriented attack more like a traditional Badger version of the Swing offense. D’Mitrik Trice, Brad Davison, Brevin Pritzl and Kobe King are all experienced guards who will be counted on to produce offense. There’s also a tendency for the Badgers to develop big men as junior Nate Reuvers is expected to make a leap. The transfer addition of big man Micah Potter after first semester could really help. The Badgers are likely on the borderline of the Big Ten’s top half and will be an intriguing team to watch in terms of the NCAA tournament.

9. INDIANA: Figuring out where Indiana stands is one of the Big Ten’s many questions in the middle of the pack. Archie Miller has a solid core back but lacks star power and end-of-shot-clock shooters with the loss of Romeo Langford and Juwan Morgan. Following up on a disappointing season, the Hoosiers have to hope the experienced backcourt of Devonte Green, Rob Phinisee and Al Durham steps up while Justin Smith, Da’Ron Davis and Joey Brunk bring experience to the front court. Indiana Mr. Basketball Trayce Jackson-Davis is another main ingredient to Indiana’s success this season but it seems like the Hoosiers could be destined for the NIT with the lack of go-to player.

10. PENN STATE: The Nittany Lions started Big Ten season 0-10 last year before closing out 7-3. So which team will we see this season with many of the same pieces returning? Senior forward Lamar Stevens is a player to build around but big man Mike Watkins and grad transfer guard Curtis Jones Jr. have been inconsistent. Sophomore Myles Dread is intriguing but not much else about this roster is a sure thing.

11. MINNESOTA: Losing Amir Coffey along with Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer really hurt the Golden Gophers this season as a young roster attempts to find its footing. The development of the sophomore class will be the key to this season’s ceiling as shooter Gabe Kalscheur and big man Daniel Oturu both return along with the addition of transfer guard Marcus Carr. Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis should add additional shooting but not much else is known about a very young rotation. The season-ending injury to forward Eric Curry hurts Minnesota.

12. RUTGERS: Talent and depth continues to improve under Steve Pikiell but the transfer of forward Eugene Omoruyi gutted this team’s outlook. A young perimeter core featuring point guard Geo Baker, Montez Mathis, Ron Harper Jr. and transfer guard Jacob Young should compete with most in the Big Ten. Frontcourt depth is a major concern as an unproven group will have to handle many tough assignments. The good news for the Scarlet Knights is that most of the roster is scheduled to return again next season. So an additional step above 14-17 and making the postseason would be a step in the right direction.

13. NORTHWESTERN: Major questions still linger at Northwestern as the program has never found a point guard to follow Bryant McIntosh’s departure two seasons ago. The Wildcats have some enticing shooting options on the wing with A.J. Turner and Miller Kopp along with some young forwards that could develop in Pete Nance and Robbie Beran. Former lacrosse star Pat Spencer becoming a one-year basketball graduate transfer is one of the most fun stories to follow in college hoops this season. But it’s hard to envision Northwestern competing for much in the Big Ten following last season’s last-place finish and losing Vic Law, Dererk Pardon and Ryan Taylor.

14. NEBRASKA: Fred Hoiberg’s tenure begins with only two returning players from last year’s roster (Thorir Thorbjarnarson and transfer Dachon Burke Jr.) and 11 new scholarship players. The Huskers are essentially an entirely new team than the previous Tim Miles era. Hoiberg and his staff deserve credit for getting so many new faces so quickly. French freshman forward Yves Ouedraogo and junior college point guard Cam Mack are two newcomers to watch.

Mid-Majors that will crash the dance in March

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It’s always fun to root for the little guy.

When March Madness rolls around next spring, there will be a number of conferences with one bid to cheer for against bigger, power conference opponents. What makes this year’s mid-major crop particularly intriguing is the number of returning NCAA tournament teams who have almost full teams coming back.

In an era where smaller schools are getting hit harder with transfers each offseason, seeing NCAA tournament teams like Liberty, Vermont, New Mexico State, Colgate and North Dakota State stay together should be a fun storyline to follow as they are some of a handful of mid-major teams to keep tabs on this season.

A programming note: We did not include schools from the Atlantic 10 or the Mountain West while Saint Mary’s and BYU were left off the list as well. It’s not that those programs aren’t good or worth talking about, but at this point I think we all know schools like VCU and Utah State are going to be pretty good. 



LIBERTY (Atlantic Sun)

Making the Round of 32 and knocking out Mississippi State last season, Liberty has another chance to do damage in the NCAA tournament with four returning starters. Two fifth-year seniors have a chance to earn Atlantic Sun Player of the Year honors as wing Caleb Homesley and forward Scottie James are standout players. Homesley lit up the Bulldogs for 30 in the first-round NCAA upset while James is a three-year starter and double-double threat. Senior guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz and junior guard Elijah Cuffee both started every game and logged heavy minutes for a 29-win team last season as the Flames have a ton of returning talent and experience. With six neutral site games and road games at Vanderbilt and LSU, Liberty will also test themselves in non-conference play.

VERMONT (America East)

Putting a scare into Florida State in the first round last season, Vermont could easily win multiple games in the NCAA tournament with many key players returning. Once America East Player of the Year Anthony Lamb pulled his name out of the NBA Draft the senior became the league’s best returning player. The last three years, the Catamounts are a ridiculous 45-3 in the America East with 83 overall wins. This could be the season they finally break through. Lamb will have significant help on the interior with grad transfer big man Daniel Giddens. The former four-star recruit spent time at Ohio State and Alabama and adds instant experience and credibility inside that the Catamounts lacked.

Junior Stef Smith is another returning double-figure scorer to keep tabs on, and, of course, there are two more Duncans still at Vermont after Ernie Duncan moved on from a prolific four-year career. Robin Duncan was an All-Rookie Team selection in the conference while Everett Duncan is a noted floor spacer with some starts in his career. Vermont has early road tests at St. Bonaventure, St. John’s, Virginia, Yale and Cincinnati.

NEW MEXICO STATE (WAC)

Before Auburn made a surprising Final Four run last season they were nearly ousted by the Aggies in the first round in a one-point game. Although New Mexico State loses experienced rebounding ace Eli Chuha from that group, they return 10 of their 13 rotation players — including eight seniors. A deep and balanced team coming off of a 30-win season, New Mexico State has continued to dominate the WAC under head coach Chris Jans. Terrell Brown and AJ Harris are the top scorers to return as they form a great backcourt along with productive forward Ivan Aurrecoechea and WAC Tournament MVP Trevelin Queen. With a top 40 offense on KenPom, this group gets it done a number of different ways on offense while wearing you down with the deepest rotation in the country (per KenPom) last season.

HARVARD (Ivy)

The Ivy League’s most experienced team combines the conference’s top recruiting class to form a very dangerous team. The Crimson have two Ivy Player of the Year candidates in point guard Bryce Aiken and forward Seth Towns — who missed all of last season due to injury. Aiken is capable of scoring outbursts on any night while having Towns back will be huge for Harvard’s frontcourt. Even without Towns playing last season, Harvard managed an NIT appearance and win over Georgetown. Now, all five starters from last season, Towns and a recruiting class led by four-star forward Chris Ledlum have their sights set on an Ivy title and possibly more. Head coach Tommy Amaker has had plenty of talented teams at Harvard but this group will have some of the highest expectations in recent years.

COLGATE (Patriot)

For only the third time in program history, Colgate made the NCAA tournament last season. Expectations are sky high this season after the Raiders gave Tennessee a solid game in the first round with four starters coming back. Patriot League Player of the Year Rapolas Ivanauskas returns as the solid-shooting forward is skilled and capable of big games. Dynamic point guard Jordan Burns is also back as he can get hot from the perimeter while also being a very good distributor. Senior forward Will Rayman also returns along with reigning Patriot Rookie of the Year Tucker Richardson at guard. The Raiders have star power from multiple spots and veteran shot makers at multiple positions. If Colgate plugs its hole from center and finds some bench pop they could roll through the Patriot once again.

WESTERN KENTUCKY (Conference USA)

Rick Stansbury could finally have the talent to take Western Kentucky back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013. With the return of potential All-American big man Charles Bassey, the Hilltoppers have four starters back as Taveion Hollingsworth, Josh Anderson and Jared Savage are three double-figure scorers around Bassey. Perimeter shooting, a major weakness for Western Kentucky a season ago, should also be improved with the addition of IUPUI transfer Camron Justice. Replacing Lamonte Bearden at point guard will be key to the Hilltoppers’ ceiling. If Lipscomb transfer Kenny Cooper is cleared right away by the NCAA then he’d help a ton while talented four-star freshman Jordan Rawls could also be called on. After falling in the Conference USA Tournament title game in back-to-back seasons, this could be the Western Kentucky team that makes a run.

NORTH DAKOTA STATE (Summit)

Winning a First Four battle against NC Central before losing to Duke in the NCAA tournament, the Bison return all five starters and most of a deep rotation from a 19-win team. A team that is designed to space the floor at multiple spots and limit turnovers, North Dakota State doesn’t have any individual star but they should be one of the deepest mid-major teams in the country. Senior guards Vinnie Shahid and Tyson Ward are the team’s leading scorers while vital role players return throughout the roster. As long as the Bison are knocking down three-pointers and improve on their No. 292 KenPom defense from last season and they’ll be in good position to make it back to the Dance.

EAST TENNESSEE STATE (SoCon)

Coming off of a 24-win campaign, the Bucs have six key players coming back as the return of double-double forward Jeromy Rodriguez was huge. A program that has averaged 25 wins per season in four years under head coach Steve Forbes, East Tennessee State has two very strong shooters in elite bench scorer Tray Boyd III and junior guard Patrick Good. All-conference guard Bo Hodges is also back for the Bucs along with emerging sophomore guard Daivien Williamson. For a program that is consistently competing for the the postseason, this could be the most talented team Forbes has had during his time with the Bucs.

BUFFALO (MAC)

Head coach Nate Oats (Alabama) and five seniors moved on from the Bulls but there is still plenty of talent back for a program looking to make the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in six seasons. Veteran coach Jim Whitesell takes over after four years as an Oats assistant. The former Loyola coach has returning talent at his disposal. Two starting guards return in junior Jayvon Graves and senior Davonta Jordan as they form a strong defensive backcourt who should score more. Sophomores Jeenathan Williams and Ronaldo Segu are also expected to contribute more with Williams being a potential breakout star. Transfers will also help as wing Gabe Grant (Houston) and guard Antwain Johnson (Middle Tennessee) are both eligible after sitting out last season. New pieces have to fit together under a new coach but Oats didn’t leave the roster bare when he left for the SEC. There is still plenty of talent for Buffalo to have another strong season.

BRADLEY (MVC)

Surprisingly winning the Missouri Valley tournament and giving Final Four team Michigan State a tough first-round matchup, the Braves return their three top scorers. Senior guard and first-team All-Valley guard Darrell Brown has nearly 100 starts under his belt as he’s a tough-minded two-way leader. Junior forward Elijah Childs, a third-team all-conference player, also showed flurries of elite play in becoming one of the league’s most improved players last season. And senior sharpshooter Nate Kennel can knock down shots from nearly anywhere on the floor. The Braves lose three vital senior glue guys but figure to replace those minutes with emerging sophomore Ja’Shon Henry and two bigs in Koch Bar and Ari Boya. LSU transfer guard Danya Kingsby is also a potential perimeter option to run alongside Brown.

Bulked up, Jack Nunge aims to bolster Iowa after redshirting

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IOWA CITY, Iowa — In an era when many college basketball players want to speed up their careers in hopes of going pro, Iowa’s Jack Nunge took an unusual step back last season.

The sophomore redshirted for the Hawkeyes, and they hope that will help him blossom into an impact post player this winter.

The 6-foot-11 Nunge, who started 14 games as a freshman in 2017-18, took the next season off partly because Iowa wanted to balance out its frontcourt depth for the next few seasons and partly so he could bulk up. Nunge’s work behind the scenes — along with the expected loss of star forward Tyler Cook to the NBA — should put him in position to compete for significant minutes this season.

Iowa (23-12 in 2018-19), which is coming off its fourth NCAA tournament appearance in six seasons, opens on Nov. 8 against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville.

“I just thought it was the best decision for me, my skill development and to get to, ultimately, where I want to be,” Nunge said Wednesday during the team’s annual media day. “I got a lot stronger. I got to work on my game a lot.”

Nunge undoubtedly could have helped the Hawkeyes a season ago. He and the coaching staff instead bet that Nunge — one of a staggering seven forwards on Iowa’s roster in 2018-19 — would best help the program moving forward by redshirting.

Nunge had a promising freshman season, ranking second on the team with 25 blocked shots, fourth with 21 steals and fifth with 5.7 points a game. He said he has put on between 10-15 pounds since last playing.

“Physically, he is in a completely different place, especially as it relates to his ability to do things in the post,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “He was always a good post player, but he was on the thin side. He’s not on the thin side anymore. He’s finishing plays. Defensively, he’s always had tremendous defensive instincts, so now you have a bigger body to combat talented players in this league.”

How the Hawkeyes use Nunge in nonconference play will be one of their more interesting story lines ahead of Big Ten play.

Nunge is now listed at 245 pounds, but he also has a surprisingly strong shot for a guy his size, shooting 40% on 3s and 80% from the line in earning Mr. Basketball finalist honors as a prep senior in Indiana.

Those numbers dipped to 33.3% from beyond the arc and 75.5% from the line as a college freshman, but Nunge’s potential as a big man who can stretch the floor and create space for All-Big Ten honorable mention Luka Garza, emerging scorer Joe Wieskamp and others remains intriguing.

“Being a mismatch guy,” Nunge said when asked about his role. “Taking somebody who may not be as good on defense on the outside, or posting up a smaller guy down below.”

Nunge won’t be guaranteed a starting spot, with Ryan Kriener and Cordell Pemsl also competing for frontcourt minutes. Nunge might have an inside track at playing alongside Garza quite a bit at power forward.

“He’s a great shooter. Tremendous shooter. Really stretches the floor well,” Garza said. “He’s really comfortable on the block now as opposed to earlier in his career.”

Oregon freshman Dante ruled ineligible

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Oregon’s freshman N’Faly Dante will be ineligible to play until at least Dec. 14th.

The five-star freshman released a statement to Shams Charania of Stadium on Tuesday morning indicating that he will will not be allowed to play during the first six weeks of the season.

“On December 14, 2019, I plan to enroll and play college basketball with the University of Oregon,” Dante’s statement read. “I have completed my academic requirements and am currently waiting for the NCAA eligibility process to finalize.

“Every prospective student athletes that purchases an NCAA Eligibility Center ID, regardless of their gender or origin, should be entitled to a timely and transparent process that’s in line with the student’s targeted enrollment date.”

Dante is one of eight newcomers to the Oregon program this season. The Ducks are a preseason top 25 team, currently sitting 12th in the NBC Sports Top 25. Dante is their highest-rated freshmen, but with UNLV grad transfer Shakur Juiston in Eugene, Dante was not necessarily going to be a starter from day one.