College basketball: The biggest question for every team in the Big Ten this year
The Big Ten will be full of storylines this season as three programs have new head coaches, conference play begins with two Big Ten games for each team in early December, and the conference might be home to both the preseason No. 1 team and the favorite for National Player of the Year.
Here is the biggest question for every team in the Big Ten, listed alphabetically by school name.
2016-17 record: 20-15 (8-10)
Question: Can new coach Brad Underwood keep his streak alive and lead Illinois back to the NCAA tournament?
Illinois hired Brad Underwood from Oklahoma State during the offseason and he arrived in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, with a streak of taking his team to the NCAA tournament in the first year of both of his previous Division I stops. In his four years as a DI head coach, he has made four NCAA tournament appearances.
The Fighting Illini haven't made the Big Dance since 2013 and their top three scorers last season graduated.
2016-17 record: 18-16 (7-11)
Question: What will Indiana look like with a new head coach and without a clearly defined star?
Archie Miller may have been the best coaching hire of the offseason and while he did an admirable job retaining the bulk of the Hoosiers' roster and their incoming freshman class, James Blackmon Jr., Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby all moved on to the professional ranks. The Hoosier faithful will pay close attention to how Miller preaches defense and ball security to a team that finished last in the Big Ten in points allowed and turnovers committed during conference play last season.
Senior guard Robert Johnson is the team's leading returning scorer at 12.8 points per game but he has largely existed as a second- or third-scoring option in his career. Indiana has been one of the higher-scoring programs over the past few seasons but points might be harder to come by in Bloomington this season – for the home and road team.
2016-17 record: 19-15 (10-8)
Question: Can Iowa's promising sophomore class mitigate the loss of Peter Jok?
Jok led the Big Ten in scoring last season at 19.9 points per game and was among the top 3-point shooters in the conference. He was the only Hawkeyes senior who saw significant playing time, meaning the bulk of Iowa's roster returns this season. But he's as big of an individual loss as any player in the Big Ten.
The Hawkeyes had a talented seven-player freshman class last season that included 6-9 forward Tyler Cook (12.3 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game), point guard Jordan Bohannon (10.9 points per game, 5.1 assists per game) and 6-8 forward Cordell Pemsl (8.9 points per game, 5.0 rebounds per game). Will Iowa's young players mature fast enough to finish in the top half of the conference and stay in NCAA tournament contention?
2016-17 record: 24-9 (12-6)
Question: What can Maryland's sophomore trio of Justin Jackson, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter accomplish in the first year of the post-Melo Trimble era?
Similar to Iowa and Jok, Maryland must replace the All-Big Ten production of Melo Trimble, and the Terrapins' sophomore class is the best place to start. Jackson, Cowan and Huerter averaged almost a combined 30 points per game as freshmen. Jackson shot a ridiculous 43.8 percent from behind the arc on 105 attempts, while grabbing six rebounds per game, making him a breakout candidate in the Big Ten for the 2017-18 season.
2016-17 record: 26-12 (10-8)
Question: Can Michigan's new-look backcourt pick up where the Wolverines left off during the last two months of the 2016-17 season?
Something clicked for Michigan in early February. After losing six of 10 to start their Big Ten schedule, the Wolverines ended the season by winning 12 of their final 15 games, with a shot in the final seconds against Oregon to advance to the Elite Eight. Senior guards Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin were big reasons why Michigan picked up steam late in the season.
With senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman as the only experienced returning ball-handler, transfers Jaaron Simmons (Ohio) and Charles Matthews (Kentucky) could immediately assume major roles in Michigan's backcourt. Will sophomore guards Zavier Simpson and Ibi Watson step into bigger roles after playing limited minutes last season, or will freshmen Jordan Poole and Eli Brooks leapfrog them in the team's rotation? The Wolverines have a talented backcourt, at least on paper, but it may take time for coach John Beilein to figure out how the pieces fit together.
2016-17 record: 20-15 (10-8)
Question: Can the Spartans win the national championship?
It's unfair to label this season as "national title or bust" for Michigan State, but it wouldn't be the craziest thing if that was the attitude in East Lansing. The Spartans have one of the top National Player of the Year candidates in sophomore Miles Bridges, who will look to build on a freshman campaign in which he averaged 16.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.5 blocks per game while shooting 55 pecent on twos and 38.9 percent on threes.
Michigan State has a rotation that might go more than 10 players deep with a combination of size, shooting, versatility and experience. This team could be playing in San Antonio in April.
2016-17 record: 24-10 (11-7)
Question: Can the Gophers stay in the Big Ten's upper echelon?
Richard Pitino's first four years at Minnesota were as follows: 25-13 (8-10), 18-15 (6-12), 8-23 (2-16), 24-10 (11-7). Last season was the only time in the last four that the Gophers have finished with a conference record above .500 and they ultimately earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Now, with the return of All-Big Ten First Team point guard Nate Mason, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Reggie Lynch and versatile 6-8 guard Amir Coffey, can Minnesota develop the consistency and stability to stay in the top tier of the conference? Minnesota's 16-win improvement and NCAA tournament appearance last season was a significant step in the right direction but its 2016-17 season should be the norm, not the outlier.
2016-17 record: 12-19 (6-12)
Question: Can the Huskers return to their 2013-14 form?
Let's rewind the clocks and look back at the spring of 2014. After starting the season 8-8, Nebraska shifted to fifth gear and won 11 of its final 14 games of the regular season to finish fourth in the Big Ten. However, the Huskers are 14 games below .500 in the last three seasons, leaving 2014 as a fond, but distant, memory.
With four seniors and five juniors on Nebraska's roster, experience shouldn't be an issue. The Huskers got big news in September when Georgetown transfer Isaac Copeland, a 6-9 forward who averaged 11.1 points and 5.4 rebounds as a sophomore, was granted immediate eligibility after receiving a medical redshirt for last season. Copeland and junior guard Glynn Watson Jr., who averaged 13.0 points, 2.6 assists and 1.6 steals per game last season, should give Nebraska a solid inside-out punch.
2016-17 record: 24-12 (10-8)
Question: Can Northwestern win at least one game in the NCAA tournament?
Last season was historic for Northwestern as the Wildcats made their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance. With the team's top five scorers returning, including All-Big Ten honorees Bryant McIntosh (second team), Scottie Lindsey (third team) and Vic Law (All-Defensive Team), the question shouldn't be if Northwestern can get back to the tournament, but rather, how far can the Wildcats advance once they're there?
A late-season slide that saw Northwestern go 3-6 during the final five weeks of the regular season last spring took some of the wind out of the team's sails but this is a group that should compete for a top-four finish in the Big Ten and a two-round bye in the conference tournament. Perhaps the only potential cause for concern is how the Wildcats (and their home fans) adjust to their temporary home of Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois, while Welsh-Ryan Arena undergoes renovations.
2016-17 record: 17-15 (7-11)
Question: What will the Buckeyes look like in Year 1 of the Chris Holtmann era?
When a new coach is hired, there is almost always going to be a learning curve for the players as they digest and implement the new offensive and defensive schemes, and curiosity, if not tempered short-term expectations, from the fan base. So what will Ohio State, who hired former Butler coach Chris Holtmann on June 9 – about as late of a coaching hire as you'll see in college basketball, look like on the court this season?
Senior forward Jae'Sean Tate, a 6-4 bruiser who plays bigger than his height, is a cornerstone to build around after he averaged a team-high 14.3 points and 6.4 rebounds last season. Forward Keita Bates-Diop (9.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and guard Kam Williams (9.4 ppg) have experienced the rigors of the Big Ten but the Buckeyes will have to replace the production of their second-, third- and fourth-leading scorers from a year ago. There are four freshmen and a pair of transfers. Will this be a rebuilding year for OSU or can the team piece together a capable rotation that allows the Buckeyes to exceed expectations?
2016-17 record: 15-18 (6-12)
Question: Can Penn State finish in the top half of the conference?
It's something the Nittany Lions haven't accomplished since 2011: A finish in the top half of the Big Ten standings. In the last six seasons, Penn State has finished 11th, 12th, 10th, 13th, 10th and 12th. Over that same period of time, the Big Ten has averaged just shy of seven NCAA tournament bids (6.7) annually. So if the Nittany Lions can finish seventh or better, there's a good chance they'll wind up playing in March.
An unofficial media poll conducted by The Athletic resulted in Penn State being picked 10th and college basketball advanced stats guru Ken Pomeroy has the Nittany Lions ranked seventh among Big Ten teams entering the season, so they're likely somewhere in the middle of the conference with teams like Indiana, Iowa and Maryland. A favorable Big Ten schedule (only one game against Michigan State, Purdue and Minnesota) and the return of five of Penn State's top six scorers indicates the Nittany Lions could see improvement this year.
2016-17 record: 27-8 (14-4)
Question: Can Purdue defend its Big Ten title?
A Big Ten team hasn't won back-to-back outright regular season titles since Ohio State in 2006-07. Purdue won the conference by two games last season and will attempt to defend its title with the majority of its key rotation players. Yes, the loss of Caleb Swanigan is a big one in both stature and production (18.5 ppg, 12.5 rpg) but the Boilermakers' next six leading scorers return.
Purdue has a preseason All-Big Ten player in senior forward Vince Edwards (12.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.2 apg), a wealth of 3-point shooters, a promising young guard in Carsen Edwards and five players who are 6-9 or taller, most notably 7-2 center Isaac Haas. The consensus nationally seems to be that Michigan State is the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten, but Purdue might be the Spartans' biggest threat.
2016-17 record: 15-18 (3-15)
Question: Can Rutgers take a step forward in the Big Ten?
Since joining the Big Ten in 2014, Rutgers has finished last in the conference each year. There have been flashes of hope, albeit brief ones – a 67-62 win over then-No. 4 Wisconsin in 2015, the emergence of freshman guard Corey Sanders during the 2015-16 season – but nothing more.
You have to be able to walk before you can run, so the Scarlet Knights need to aim for incremental progress. Last season's ninth, 10th and 11th-place teams in the Big Ten (Illinois, Ohio State, Indiana) each hired new coaches in the offseason, so this could be a season for Rutgers to take advantage of the conference's flux in leadership, steal a few wins and climb up the standings.
2016-17 record: 27-10 (12-6)
Question: Can Wisconsin continue its Big Ten and NCAA tournament excellence despite heavy personnel losses?
To be fair to Wisconsin, the Badgers have survived significant roster turnover in the past without suffering a significant dropoff in results. For example: After losing to Duke in the 2015 national championship game, they lost five of their top seven scorers, then proceeded to go 22-13 to finish third in the Big Ten and advance to the Sweet 16 despite having a coaching change midseason.
Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown are gone, but forward Ethan Happ, one of three unanimous selections to the preseason All-Big Ten Team, returns, as do a host of rotation players. You've been able to pencil in Wisconsin for a top-four finish in the Big Ten for the past decade and a half due to the program's style of play and player development, so doubt the Badgers at your own peril.
Andy Wittry has written for SI.com, Sporting News, the Indianapolis Star, Louisville Courier-Journal and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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