May 25th (otherwise known as Orthodox Star Wars Day) has come and gone and we know who is leaving and who is staying in the NBA Draft. A lot of teams (Maryland, Purdue, Wisconsin) got some really good news. Others... not so much. Maryland got back Melo Trimble, but lost Diamond Stone and Robert Carter. Indiana lost Troy Williams and gained James "I've never met a bad shot I didn't take" Blackmon. Rutgers got back Corey Sanders, but is, tragically, still Rutgers.
Overall the league is going to be very, very good once again, but that is to be expected because it happens every year. Late May is the time for wild speculation, so let's rank the Big Ten this early.
Your Title Contenders:
1. Wisconsin Badgers - If you're looking for consistency the Badgers have it. They lost exactly one player: senior walk-on Jordan Smith who scored all of 4 points in nine minutes. Nigel Hayes pulled out of the draft and with Ethan Happ and Bronson Koenig the Badgers have a dynamite roster to come in to 2016-17. They finished the year red hot too, going from 9-9 and nowhere near the NCAA Tournament to 22-13 and the Sweet 16.
2. Michigan State Spartans - Sparty lost a lot. In fact, they lost four of their top five scorers with Deyonta Davis staying in the draft. The No. 4 national recruiting class, and the fact they are coached by Tom Izzo, will ease a lot of those losses. Miles Bridges and Joshua Langford are both top 20 freshmen and guys like Lourawls Nairn Jr. at the point and Eron Harris in the backcourt will help them adjust very well.
3. Purdue Boilermakers - Yeah, I got sucked back in. The announcement that Caleb Swanigan will return gives Purdue the best starting frontcourt in America. Isaac Haas, Vince Edwards, and Swanigan could all very easily go pro after next season if the Boilermakers reach their full potential. If anything, I think this team might end up being better. I love Rapheal Davis as a guy that gave us everything he had, but when he was a ghost offensively Purdue struggled a lot. I think Purdue sacrifices his defense for improved offensive flow, and the loss of A.J. Hammons means Purdue gets a little more creative offensively away from "We're going to pound it into the 7-footer. Stop us".
Of course, I am still a Purdue fan, My guard will always be up even if the last two early NCAA exits didn't happen. Purdue has held a multiple possession lead inside the last media timeout in each of the last two NCAA tournaments. If Purdue can get improved guard play (it should) this can be a really special team. If not... well, we saw what happened.
4. Indiana Hoosiers - Now I want to pump the brakes on the Hoosier hype just a little. Indiana had a great season with a well-earned Big Ten title and Sweet 16 appearance. Losing the enigmatic Troy Williams hurts, but losing a Fear of God point guard in Yogi Ferrell hurts even more. Thomas Bryant is a great building block and James Blackmon returning from injury is huge (if he decides to have an interest in playing any defense), but Ferrell was the point guard that drove this team. To borrow from Bill Simmons when he talked about the Steve Nash Suns, Indiana was a high-tech race car built specifically for Ferrell to drive, and only he could drive it. I want to see how well Indiana plays without Ferrell first.
5. Maryland Terrapins - The Terps were hit the hardest by the early departures, but Trimble's return will give them a Big Ten POTY type of player. They get some pretty good freshmen coming in as well as Dion Wiley back from injury, so this will be a team that can play with anyone. In all honestly, this entire top five is pretty close and I can see any of them winning the Big Ten.
Possible NCAA Tournament Teams
6. Iowa Hawkeyes - Early on it looked like Iowa was going to break a 37 year Big Ten title drought. Their early sweeps of Purdue and Michigan State made it look like they could coast tot the title, but after losing at Indiana they stumbled to a 2-5 finish in their last seven before losing to Illinois in Indianapolis. Gone is all Big Ten player Jarrod Uthoff, as well as all-B1G thug Adam Woodbury and Mike Gesell as a solid point. Peter Jok and Dom Uhl will make this team tough to play, but will it be enough to get them back to the tournament?
7. Michigan Wolverines - We know what they are going to do. They are going to shoot a ton of threes and hope they go in. they lose Caris LeVert, but since he played just 11 minutes in all of 2016 they had already lost him and made the NCAA Tournament. Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. can score, while Duncan Robinson is one of the Big Ten's best "Never Leave the White Guy Open" guys. This will be a team that can beat anyone if it is hot from three, but it has absolutely no post presence.
8. Northwestern Wildcats - Is this the year it happens, or does God continue to hate Northwestern basketball? Northwestern won 20 games and was 8-10 in Big Ten play. Yeah, many of those wins came against Sister of the Poor & Blind because of a ridiculously easy non-conference schedule, but 20 wins at Northwestern is like 35 elsewhere. Losing Tre Demps and Alex Olah hurts, but Bryant McIntosh is one of the best point guards in the conference. There is some decent size coming in recruiting too.
9. Ohio State Buckeyes - It seems very weird to have Ohio State down here, but the Buckeyes almost pulled a reverse Northwestern. They got a nice non-conference win over Kentucky, but beat absolutely no one of consequence during their 11 Big Ten wins. The best was Iowa, which came during their swoon. Everyone is back, however, so if another year of experience is critical they still should be good enough to make the tournament.
Long Road Ahead
10. Penn State Nittany Lions - Pat Chambers has a good recruiting class and Shep Garner looks like another Talor Battle/Tim Frazier/D.J. Newbill type at guard (the Talor Battle Memorial Penn State Guard That Can Win A Game By Himself Award, or TBMPSGTCWAGBHA). It is still Penn State though. They're going to need a year to really compete, though they will upset a ranked team that falls asleep in the Bryce Jordan Mausoleum because they always do.
11. Nebraska Cornhuskers - The good news is that Andrew White III pulled out of the draft. Tai Webster returning should also help. The bad news is there is not a lot else. Nebraska and Penn state are always going to face an uphill climb compared to the rest of the league, cresting with the occasional NCAA appearance. This is not a year for a crest.
12. Illinois Fighting Illini - They lost Kendrick Nunn, but got Mike Thorne back. Those just about even things out. Malcolm Hill and Jalen Coleman-Lands give them some good guards, but this team was pretty much awful for most of 2015-16 and "Let's just run it back" is not a great strategy.
13. Rutgers Scarlet Knights - What? Rutgers not in last? Well, Corey Sanders could play on any team in the league. With a new coach you have to operate under the assumption that last season was as bad as it can get. Getting Deshawn Freeman back from injury should help too. They have to be better simply because they can't be worse.
14. Minnesota Golden Gophers - Rutgers gets the bump to 13th mostly because Minnesota has had things about as bad as possible since the season ended. They were 8-23 with a loss to Rutgers. Their starting center is suspended indefinitely due to a criminal sexual conduct charge. Three players were already suspended (and one transferred) after a sex video incident. Richard Pitino (who apparently can't run sex scandals as well as his dad) would give Morgan Burke a heart attack after spending double his travel budget. The phrase "shitshow" is thrown around a lot these days. Minnesota is a shitshow.