The Big Ten had a dominant men’s basketball season in the 2019-20 and was arguably the strongest conference all around. Before March Madness was canceled, due to Covid-19, the conference was looking at sending nine or 10 teams to have a chance at the national title.
With many star players returning for another year, including Luka Garza, Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cockburn, Isaiah Livers, Marcus Carr and Aaron Henry, the Big Ten will once again be a juggernaut, and possibly even more talented than last year.
According to Fred McCaffery, head coach for the Iowa Hawkeyes, he believes the Big Ten could place 11 or even 12 teams in the 2021 NCAA Tournament and possibly surpass the Big East’s 2011 record of sending 11 teams to the tournament.
“One of the exciting things is how incredibly difficult the Big Ten is going to be,” McCaffery said. “You look at the teams top to bottom, everybody is good. It was the same thing last year. We would have had at least 10 teams in (March Madness Tournament). We will have at least 10, maybe more, this year. I think that’s what you sign up for. That’s what the challenge is.”
According to NBC’s preseason top 25, six of the 14 big ten teams rank 21 or higher. NBC’s updated top 25 rankings come after the NCAA deadline for underclassmen to withdraw from the 2020 NBA draft, providing a fresh look at the best teams with their set roster for the year.
Representing the Big Ten, Iowa (no. 5), Illinois (no. 6), Wisconsin (no. 10), Michigan State (no. 11), Ohio State (no. 17) and Rutgers (no. 21) all show early signs of contenders for a 2021 national championship.
Here, is a look at each of these top Big Ten teams for their the 2020-21 season.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Record(2019-20): 20-11, 11-9 Big Ten
Significant Returning Players- Ron Harper Jr., Geo Baker, Caleb McConnell, Myles Johnson, Montez Mathis
Incoming Players- Cliff Omoruyi
Behind the Iowa Hawkeyes, the Scarlet Knights are second in terms of returning players with experience. The team will be getting back seven of their eight top scorers from last season, in addition to ESPN top 100 Cliff Omoruyi.
Including guards Ron Harper Jr. (12.1 ppg) and Geo Baker (10.9 ppg), Rutgers will structure around the team’s experience in scoring. These returnees averaged 50.4 of the team’s 65 points per game in the 2019-20 season. Coach Steve Pikiell will be equipped for another year with a team that is relatively the same and would’ve made March Madness last year, if not canceled.
They added a top 10 center in the class of 2020, Cliff Omoruyi to the mix as well. The freshman boosts the team’s scoring and talent capacity even more. The 6-foot-11, 245-pound big man posted 14.2 points, 11.5 rebounds and 5.4 blocks per game while shooting 57 percent from the field as a senior in high school. Omoruyi will provide much-needed height for the team and play behind junior Myles Johnson.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Record(2019-20): 21-10, 11-9 Big Ten
Significant Returning Players- Kaleb and Andre Wesson and Luther Muhhamoud
Incoming Players- Justice Sueing and Seth Towns
Although Ohio State will be without some key players from last season, Kaleb and Andre Wesson and Luther Muhhamoud, they’ll still have lots of talent on the floor. CJ Walker, Duane Washington and Kyle Young are all back after starting at least 15 games, as well as E.J. Liddell, a vital part of the bench in the 2019-20 season. Two transfers will also be joining the team, Justice Sueing and Seth Towns, who are both scoring machines.
The three starting returnees will combine as an experienced nucleus for the team; however, they’ll have to step up their roles this season. Walker, as a sophomore, averaged 8.7 points and 3.1 rebounds to go along with a team-high 107 assists and 40 steals. As the starting guard next year, it’ll be key for Walker to be the core of Ohio’s playmaking. Along with Walker in the backcourt, will be Washington, who will have to take more weight on the scoring side of the team’s offense. Washington ranked second on the team with 11.5 points per game last year and a solid 39.3 percent from three.
Due to Kaleb Wesson, the top scorer for Ohio, entering the NBA, Ohio State is in need of multiple scoring targets, besides just Washington. The two new transfers will fill in these gaps perfectly.
Justice Sueing (14.3 ppg at California) and Seth Towns (16.0 ppg at Harvard) will add depth to the Buckeyes scoring capabilities and diversify the team’s options.
Michigan State Spartans
Record(2019-20): 22-9, 14-6 Big Ten
Significant Returning Players- Aaron Henry, Rocket Watts, Gabe Brown, Marcus Bingham Jr., Joshua Langford, Malik Hall
Incoming Players- A.J. Hoggard, Mady Sissoko
Michigan State takes some heavy hits, losing a star guard and a star big with the departures of Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman. However, Coach Tom Izzo isn’t short on options. The team has multiple returning starters, in addition to a healthy Joshua Langford and Marquette transfer Joey Hauser. On top of that, two ESPN 100 prospects, A.J. Hoggard and Mady Sissoko, are deepening the team’s talent.
With guards Rocket Watts and Langford, the team will have a dangerous backcourt, who have experience and know how to shoot the ball. Both will have to play a large role on the scoring end, and they’ve shown they can do so. Co-captain Langford averaged 15 points in his 2018-19 season and Watts averaged nine points per game his freshman year.
Adding Hauser to the mix, the pick-and-roll game for Michigan State may be a very effective strategy for the team. Playing the pick and pop game can set up easy 3-point opportunities if defenders sink to help off the switch. Since Hauser shot 42 percent from three his freshman season, this can be easy buckets for the Spartans.
Ultimately, Michigan State’s ceiling will be determined by the leaps returning players like Aaron Henry, Watts, Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham make. Under the coaching of experienced Tom Izzo, this talented team has a bright future.
Record(2019-20): 21-10, 14-6 Big Ten
Significant Returning Players: Nate Reuvers, D’Mitrik Trice, Aleem Ford, Brad Davison, Micah Potter(transfer from Ohio State)
Incoming Players: Ben Carlson, Lorne Bowman, Steven Crowl, Jordan Davis, Justin Taphorn
The Wisconsin Badgers have all four juniors returning to the starting line-up: point guard D’Mitrik Trice (9.8 ppg), shooting guard Brad Davison ( 9.9 ppg), small forward Aleem Ford (8.6 ppg) and power forward Nate Reuvers (13.1 ppg). Then add 21-game starter, center Micah Potter (10.1 ppg), it looks like nothing but a stacked starting five for coach Greg Gard’s rotation. Keep in mind they took home the Big Ten regular-season title.
Despite losing double-figure scorer Kobe King in January of the 2019-20 season, the Badgers were able to win their last eight games of the season. This was mostly due to the team’s perimeter shooting and Micah Potter. Wisconsin shot 41 percent from 3-point range over that span, ranking No. 11 nationally, and Potter was dominant at times late in the season. He had 18 points against Rutgers and Michigan, and 14 in the final game against Indiana.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Record(2019-20): 21-10, 13-7 Big Ten
Significant Returning players: Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Da’Monte Williams
Incoming players: Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo
Illinois received great news when Dosunmu and Cockburn withdrew from the draft. Getting both back makes them one of the top teams in the Big Ten this year. In addition to three more Illinois returnees, who’ve started at least 22 games last season, the Illini have the experience and talent to be a national championship team. The additions of ESPN 100 guards Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo are the cherry on top.
The Dosunmu/Cockburn combination may be the most threatening duo in college basketball this year. During his sophomore campaign, Dosunmu led Illinois with 16.6 points and 3.3 assists per game. He was crowned media and AP first-team All-Big Ten and Illinois Athlete of the Year. Dosunmu will be joined by 7-foot center Kofi Cockburn, who will be a force in the paint for the team. Cockburn averaged 13.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game during his Big Ten Freshman of the Year campaign.
Joining Dosunmu in the backcourt will be Adam Miller, the no. 17 best player in the class of 2020. As a two-way 6-foot-3 guard, Miller uses his size and athletic ability to attack the basket and score in the paint. With his long arms and lateral quickness, Miller will also strengthen the team on the defensive side of things.
The x-factor for The Fighting Illini’s 2020 season is their offensive consistency. The team shot just 30.9 percent from three last year, ranking at 297thnationally. They also shot 50.3 percent inside the arc, ranking at 155th nationally.
Record(2019-20): 20-11, 11-9 Big Ten
Significant Returning players- Luka Garza, Joe Wieskamp, Connor McCaffery, CJ Frederick, Joe Toussaint, Jordan Bohannon, Jack Nunge
Incoming Players: Ahron Ulis, Tony Perkins, Kris Murray, Keegan Murray
This is the best roster coach Fran McCaffery has had since taking the Iowa job before the 2010-11 season. Although the Hawkeyes won’t be having many new players to bolster the rotation, the talent on this team will be heightened to new levels—championship-caliber levels. Iowa Basketball, who led the Big Ten in scoring last season, will return five on-and-off starters from last year, including Big Ten Player of the Year, Luka Garza.
Iowa’s offense will once again run through 6-foot-11 senior Garza in the paint. Garza averaged just under 24 points and almost 10 rebounds last season, solidifying a name for himself as one of the best big men in all of college basketball.
The team will also get back Jordan Bohannon, a senior who played just 10 games last season because of a hip injury. Bohannon averaged double-digit scoring his first three seasons and has become Iowa’s all-time leader in made 3-pointers, establishing himself as one of the deadliest shooters in the Big Ten. He’ll be playing an imperative role on the team in helping Garza spread the defense.
A major deciding factor for how the Hawkeyes will play this season will be their defense. They were 12th among 14 Big Ten teams in defensive efficiency last season, allowing at least one point per possession in 10 of their final 14 games.
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