While it is still early for a look at Big Ten basketball in 2021-22, we now have a decent idea of each squad’s expectations as the deadline to decide on the NBA draft has passed.
The Big Ten shouldn’t be billed as the powerhouse conference it was last preseason, but there is still national championship potential at the top. After a surprise season for Purdue in which they finished fourth in the conference, the Boilermakers return nearly all of their production from a year ago and should be leading the pack.
Reigning Big Ten regular season champion Michigan retools with one of the top classes in all of college basketball and the return of rising sophomore Hunter Dickinson. For others, the star power is gone from a year ago. Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin are all in limbo after losing key production to graduation, the NBA, and the transfer portal.
Here is an early look at the Big Ten power rankings heading into next season:
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2020-21 record: 6-14 (14-15), 13th in the Big Ten Minnesota is firmly in rebuild mode as the Ben Johnson area begins in the Twin Cities. Marcus Carr withdrew from the NBA draft but is likely transferring away from the program and nine other players from last year’s roster entered the transfer portal following Richard Pitino’s exit. It’s an uphill battle for the Gophers with a nearly entirely new roster and coaching staff.
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2020-21 record: 6-13 (9-15), 12th in the Big Ten Northwestern basketball sitting at the top of the Big Ten after a thrilling home win over Ohio State propelled them to 3-0 in the conference happened just seven months ago. It feels like decades in the past. The Wildcats came back down to earth after scorching shooting early in Big Ten play, and Chris Collins’ team finished just 3-14 in their final 17 conference matchups. How many years does Collins have left to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten and keep his job? Not many. Losing second-leading scorer Miller Kopp to Indiana adds to the woes. The Wildcats do return key contributors in Chase Audige, Boo Buie, and others but their ceiling doesn’t feel high enough for a top ten conference finish.
12: Penn State
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2020-21 record: 7-12 (11-14), 11th in the Big Ten The Nittany Lions are the second team on this list starting a new era in 2021-22. Micah Shrewsberry takes over as head coach of a roster that returns enough talent to have a chance on a nightly basis. Losing leading scorer Myreon Jones to Florida will have to be filled by Seth Lundy and Sam Sessoms taking their next steps offensively. A newcomer in Siena transfer Jalen Pickett will be in the rotation and providing offense from day one. Senior John Harrar also returns as James Franklin has somehow not figured out how to recruit him to play tight end. In all, this group could struggle for offense in long stretches, but has enough to get to seven or eight conference wins.
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2020-21 record: 3-16 (7-20), 14th in the Big Ten You shouldn’t be surprised at the fact that Fred Hoiberg has once again overhauled much of the Nebraska roster. In year three of the Hoiberg experiment, however, he has his most talented team yet in Lincoln. Five-star 2021 talent Bryce McGowens will be the name to watch alongside his brother Trey. 6-foot-9 forward Lat Mayen showed flashes last season, and will likely have to take a step forward on both ends for the Huskers to make a surprise tournament run. Given the amount of turnover alongside some notable talent, this Huskers team is arguably the most unpredictable in the conference headed into 2021-22. Any finishing seed from 7-14 wouldn’t surprise me.
2020-21 record: 10-10 (18-13), 6th in the Big Ten Remember the script of experience from last year? Flip it on its head for this rendition of Wisconsin basketball. Brad Davison is the lone senior returning from last year as the Badgers will rely on heavy minutes and production from underclassmen. Jonathan Davis will likely be the focal point offensively alongside Davison, and should see his usage skyrocket compared to a year ago. First-year players in Chucky Hepburn and Lorne Bowman stepping forward as consistent ball-handlers could be the difference between a trip to the NCAA Tournament or no ticket to the dance next season.
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2020-21 record: 16-4 (24-7), 6th in the Big Ten Yes, I meant the asterisk. Here is the most speculative ranking in the bunch. Star big man Kofi Cockburn is the reason for the uncertainty as he is in the transfer portal but not necessarily gone just yet. This ranking reflects Illinois if Cockburn decides to leave. Losing Ayo Dosunmu to the NBA and Cockburn to a different program takes away one of the best duos in the country from a year ago. There is a lot to like at the guard position in Andre Curbelo, Trent Frazier, and Da’Monte Williams, but the Fighting Illini would be relying on a monster leap from Florida transfer Omar Payne to vault into the Big Ten’s top tier. With Cockburn back, it’s fair to have Illinois as a top-6 team in the conference.
Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.
2020-21 record: 14-6 (22-9), 3rd in the Big Ten The losses, as with Illinois, are massive in Luka Garza, Joe Wieskamp, and CJ Fredrick. The returners, however, make Iowa a borderline NCAA Tournament team that I think likely gets in. Jordan Bohannon returns for a sixth season as a Hawkeye on a team where he will be asked to take more of the load offensively. Keegan Murray flashed well as a freshman and should be in line for a sophomore leap as a starter. For me, it comes down to the other guards in Joe Toussaint and Connor McCaffrey. If they can each comfortably step into more usage then the Hawkeyes will be dancing again.
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2020-21 record: 10-10 (16-12), 7th in the Big Ten Ron Harper Jr. is back alongside Geo Baker for a Rutgers team that should make the NCAA Tournament. There is a glaring hole in the middle left by Myles Johnson’s transfer to UCLA. Harper Jr. is talented enough to win a few Big Ten games on his own, and Baker will need to improve his efficiency and stay healthy in order for Rutgers to stay on the right side of the bubble. Losing their third scorer in Jacob Young to Oregon leaves room for another guard to step up offensively. The x-factor, however, will be sophomore Cliff Omoruyi in the middle filling Johnson’s role.
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2020-21 record: 7-12 (12-15), 10th in the Big Ten The Mike Woodson era has arrived in Bloomington, and it’s been a productive first offseason for the former NBA head coach. Trayce Jackson-Davis staying a Hoosier was at the top of the list of early accomplishments as Indiana returns arguably the Big Ten’s best player heading into next season. Scoring and shooting on the perimeter were major weaknesses a year ago, and adding Pitt transfer Xavier Johnson and sharpshooter Miller Kopp from Northwestern helps to address those problems. Can Khristian Lander show his five-star potential in year two at point guard? Consistency at that position is still a question for Woodson to answer.
5: Michigan State
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2020-21 record: 9-11 (15-13), 9th in the Big Ten After a down year in East Lansing, Tom Izzo’s team has reloaded for 2021-22. Tyson Walker is at the head of that retooling as the Spartans landed one of the top transfers in the country. The Northeastern transfer immediately brings scoring and lead guard ability to Michigan State. Losing Aaron Henry is no small matter, but the Spartans are good enough to be a safe NCAA Tournament team without him. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham bring experience on the interior and Joey Hauser will look to improve upon an up and down first season with Sparty. The difference maker could be Max Christie, a five-star SG ready to come in and provide buckets on day one.
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2020-21 record: 9-11 (17-14), 8th in the Big Ten It was a busy offseason for the Terrapins in the portal, with both major additions and significant losses. The biggest loss came with Darryl Morsell, the heart and soul of last year, deciding to transfer to Marquette. Nevertheless, Mark Turgeon and crew pulled in a phenomenal transfer duo in Fatts Russell (Rhode Island) and Qudus Wahab (Georgetown) who could easily combine for 30-plus points on many nights in the Big Ten. Eric Ayala and Donta Scott are two returners who played major roles in a pleasantly surprising Maryland NCAA Tournament berth last year. This team is once again built to be in March, this time with a much higher seed line than 10.
3: Ohio State
Illinois Fighting Illini guard Ayo Dosunmu (11) scores a basket against Ohio State Buckeyes forward E.J. Liddell (32) during the first half of their game at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio on March 6, 2021.
2020-21 record: 12-8 (21-10), 5th in the Big Ten This preseason ranking is all about the man in the picture above deciding to return to school. After undergoing the NBA draft process, E.J. Liddell is back for the Buckeyes. Liddell blossomed in a breakout year two averaging 16.2 points, 6,7 rebounds, and shooting nearly 34% from deep. With Liddell alongside Kyle Young, the Buckeyes have a top-three front court in the conference. The emergence of Harvard transfer Seth Towns as a reliable scorer could take the Buckeyes deep in the NCAA Tournament, but with Justice Sueing, Young, and Liddell all back, it’s hard to see them anywhere lower than five in the Big Ten when it’s all said and done. The additions of Jamari Wheeler (Penn State) and Joey Brunk (Indiana) in the transfer portal are two guys who will immediately find rotation minutes. Keep an eye out for freshman guard Malaki Branham, the top player in the state of Ohio, to make an early impact.
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While last year was a surprising run to a Big Ten regular season title for Michigan, this Wolverines team won’t be catching anyone by surprise. The young talent level is the highest in the conference as Michigan brings in the number one overall 2021 class in the country per 247Sports. Leading that class is five-star Caleb Houstan, who is listed at forward but is more of a positionless do-it-all scorer and playmaker at 6-foot-8. Moussa Diabate is another freshman big with solid on-ball skills and high-level potential on the defensive end. Pair it all with Hunter Dickinson returning as a sophomore and senior Eli Brooks, and the Wolverines have one of the most talented rosters in college basketball. The x-factor will likely be transfer DeVante’ Jones (Coastal Carolina). The 6-foot-1 point guard tore up the Sun Belt last year to the tune of 19.1 points per game, and his skill set can certainly translate to the Big Ten similarly to Mike Smith’s transition a year ago for the Wolverines.
Purdue guard Jaden Ivey (23) goes up for a shot against Wisconsin forward Micah Potter (11) during the second half of an NCAA men’s basketball game, Tuesday, March 2, 2021 at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette.
2020-21 record: 13-6 (18-10), 4th in the Big Ten This could be FIBA recency bias or it could be spot on, but Purdue starts our power rankings off at the top. The Boilermakers return their core from a year ago in Jaden Ivey, Trevion Williams, Eric Hunter Jr., and Sasha Stefanovic on a team that landed a 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The key here is Ivey’s leap, which absolutely looks to be coming in year two. He showed out at the FIBA U19 World Cup in helping Team USA win it all and came on strong at the end of last year in his freshman season. The talent is there to be one of the leading scorers in the conference, and to have Williams and 7-footer Zach Edey alongside him will only open things up for solid looks from three. If Ivey becomes one of college basketball’s breakout superstars, this Purdue team is national championship good.
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