The Fall sports, from college football to the NFL, have been bizarre. Covid outbreaks, schedule adjustments and the need for endless flexibility. There's little doubt, bubbles will be burst far before Greg Gumbel has the chance to announce the bracket - if there is such a selection show this year.
Preseason predictions are less relevant than ever before. The sports landscape is secondary to those of national health and safety. We may see dramatic interruptions, and depending on how or when those interrupt, different teams will rise or fall as a result.
Nonetheless, we push forward. Our conference previews will look at only the six power conferences throughout the NCAA: ACC, Big East, SEC, Big Ten, Big Twelve and Pac-12. Our second-to-last stop comes with the league's second-best conference in our opinion: the Big Ten.
A loaded group of heavy-hitters and traditional powerhouses, there are a couple programs in resurgence that could make this the deepest league in America. Bluebloods like Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin figure to be dangerous as always. Programs like Iowa, Illinois and Rutgers are coming off their most successful years in a long time and return most of their talent.
Still, there's room for movement. The Spartans saw two amazing starters depart in Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman. Maryland isn't likely to repeat their reign at the top, and changes in State College could shake up the Nittany Lions. Second-year head coach Fred Hoiberg is ready to put his stamp on things, while the in-state rivals of Purdue and Indiana are two teams that can't be overlooked.
14. Northwestern Wildcats - 3-17 last year. Projection: 3-17
It's just a really, really tough place to win. Northwestern was so young last year, so it isn't inconceivable natural maturation brings them another victory or two. But a big step forward doesn't really seem in the cards when the league is so stacked near the top. Boo Buie looks like he belongs on a Big Ten floor, and freshman guard Ty Berry could earn some early minutes. I'd expect the Wildcats to embrace a two-point guard system for talent purposes alone.
13. Penn State Nittany Lions - 11-9 last year. Projection: 5-15
Things are changing in State College. Pat Chambers is gone, as are the two players who made their identity and brought them on the brink of the NCAA Tournament. Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins were strong, stingy defenders. What is Penn State's identity moving forward?
Penn State is also thin at the two most important positions: point guard and center. Without consistency at either spot, Myreon Jones will be asked to do far too much. Regardless of what happened with Chambers, this team was in for a return to the basement. The crazy state of the program currently only ensures that free fall.
12. Nebraska Cornhuskers - 2-18 last year. Projection: 5-15
Fred Hoiberg captured magic at Iowa State through his great understanding of fit for system, great luck on the transfer portal and recruitment of versatility. His teams loved to play fast and chuck a lot of treys. Since he left Ames five years ago, the rest of the country caught onto all those concepts, making it much more challenging for him to quickly turn a program around. Everyone knew the chamber was empty last year, though his first attempt at a reload should bring modest improvements. Their only real returner is sharpshooter Thorir Thorbjarnasson (8.8 points).
It's a brand new team in Omaha, built through the transfer portal. Pitt transfer Trey McGowens (11.5 points per game) should start, as should Western Illinois transfer Kobe Webster (17.1 points). These additions should carry the scoring mantle, though its the other pieces who are really Hoiberg-esque players. Dalano Banton is a 6'9" handler, point-wing transfer from Western Kentucky; Fred loves big guards and unique guys. There's NBA potential there. Eduardo Andre is big and tough as a freshman in the middle. Shamiel Stevenson (another Pitt transfer) can be a stretch-4. If Hoiberg is going to "Hoiberg-ize" this team, he needs shooting, size and impacts from the JuCo guys. They should win a few more games this year with talent upgrades alone.
11. Minnesota Golden Gophers - 8-12 last year. Projection: 8-12
Richard Pitino may have saved his job when Utah transfer Both Gach was granted immediate eligibility to play. Gach provides toughness they'll need to make up for the departure of Daniel Oturu, the anchor of their offense. I'm of the frame of mind that Minnesota will be just fine without their black hole up front, and Marcus Carr will run the show very capably.
They're heavily-reliant on transfers, like seven-footer Liam Robbins from Drake. Once again, the Gophers struck out on elite in-state talent. 6'2" freshman Jamal Mashburn Jr. is the only exciting name in this class, and unless Pitino coaches his ass off with a balanced but uninspiring group or turns it around on the recruiting trail, the Gophers are hitting their ceiling at 8 wins or so in the Big Ten. This team will go as far as Carr takes them on offense and Robbins can hold his own against the league's top bigs. Its make-or-break time for little Pitino.
10. Purdue Boilermakers - 9-11 last year. Projection: 10-10
I like this three-man crop of freshmen in Ethan Morton, Jaden Ivey and (redshirt) Mason Gillis as much as any incoming class in-league. Matt Painter should be commended for the overall talent. It's fit, returners and scraping-together of frontcourt depth after Matt Haarms and Nojel Eastern transferred out.
Morton is a 6'6" point wing, and Ivey a 6'4" scoring point guard. The two will need to coexist, but so much burden is put on Sasha Stefanovic and Eric Hunter Jr. to knock down shots. I'm not expecting any of the incomers to be strong shooters. As for the frontcourt, Gillis earning rotation minutes would be a good thing for the Boilermakers. It eases the burden of Aaron Wheeler, who disappointed in an expanded role last year. Trevion Williams needs to follow up a strong sophomore year (11.6 points, 7.5 rebounds), but the Boilermakers are not intimidating on the interior and don't protect the rim very well. Painter's teams will be tough guarding the ball and run their screen-heavy motion built around Stefanovic. But no team's success hinges more upon freshmen than theirs, so I'm a little sheepish on seeing them vault too high.
9. Ohio State Buckeyes - 11-9 last year. Projection: 11-9
I'm never one to bet against Chris Holtmann. He's one of the most underrated coaches in the country, both in terms of the offensive acumen he possesses and the structure with which he runs a practice. There's no denying the Buckeyes lost a fair bit of production, though. Kaleb Wesson, Andre Wesson and Luther Muhammad are all losses to be felt on both ends. Still, Holtmann's ability to generate open shots for his guys and limit transition scoring will be enough to steal Ohio State some victories.
There's not a shortage of talent, either. CJ Walker should step into the lead scoring role; he's a capable lefty point guard who is a very good point of attack defender. Duane Washington can shoot, and backup Justin Ahearns is a specialty sniper off the bench. Up front, the defensive versatility comes from EJ Liddell and Kyle Young, both of whom are tough yet undersized. For the defense to really thrive, Cal transfer Justice Sueing will need to be a great option on the wing. Two key cogs who sat out last year (Musa Jallow and Seth Towns from Harvard) would add much-needed depth. Last year's Buckeyes piqued national interest early before flaming out late. I'd expect this year's iteration to have the opposite approach.
8. Rutgers Scarlet Knights - 11-9 last year. Projection: 11-9
You can't help but root for these guys. What Steve Pikiell has done on the recruiting trail is pretty god damn amazing. The Scarlet Knights have one of the best scoring tandems in-league with Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. Baker is the true point guard who heads into his senior year hungry to prove he can propel this team back to the NCAA's. Harper, the team's leading scorer, is a rugged undersized 4 that has NBA potential. Add local 6'10" freshman Cliff Omoruyi to the mix and these are the three most talented players to practice in the RAC since Quincy Douby.
Omoruyi's path to minutes may be blocked initially with defensive stalwart Myles Johnson protecting the rim. He was the real key for Rutgers last year and, if he and Omoruyi both live up to their potential, the Scarlet Knights will be dominant at the 5. Length is the name of the game at the 2 and 3, where they hope Montez Mathis can combine with Harper to bring a bruising presence to the court. Rutgers won 20 games last year and there's great reason for optimism. It still feels like they're one more piece, and a few more buckets, away from breaking the glass ceiling into the next tier.
7. Maryland Terrapins - 14-6 last year. Projection: 11-9
No team in the Big Ten lost more than Maryland did, with Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith anchoring the book ends of a team that rose atop the conference. It may sound like only a three-game reduction in wins is overly optimistic considering those losses, but the Terps still have a decent amount of offensive firepower. Aaron Wiggins (10.4 points) and Eric Ayala (8.5 points) were taking smaller roles next to the talented departed duo and are ready for the next step. Both juniors, it's not like Mark Turgeon's team is all of a sudden super young and devoid of experience.
The reason for optimism here is around the impacts some of their freshmen can make. Marcus Dockery is a smooth-scoring lefty point that can bump Ayala to the 2, while Arnaud Revaz is an important cog in a thin frontcourt. The immediate eligibility of Boston College transfer Jairus Hamilton gives Maryland depth at the 4. This team is still pretty sturdy, so long as they can figure out consistent production from the 5-spot. 6'9" Alabama transfer Galin Scott may be undersized, but he needs to be able to man the position against the league's best.
6. Wisconsin Badgers - 14-6 last year. Projection: 12-8
The Badgers shocked everyone with their late-season ascent on the top of the conference, which earned Greg Gard Coach of the Year honors. A two-game setback isn't a massive deal, but it does feel a bit like the recalibration to their mean and, unfortunately, is enough to bump them outside the top-four. With five seniors expected to start, its all-or-nothing time in Madison.
The Badgers are huge and skilled in the frontcourt. Gard starts three seniors over 6'8" -- Aleem Ford, Nate Reuvers and Micah Potter. Reuvers is the best of the group, and they'll bank on the collective experience and skill of all three to shoulder the load on both ends. Brad Davison is the pesky combo, and D'Mitrik Trice has been given more leash to create out of the PNR than most Wisconsin guards have been. Learning behind this group are five freshmen who will be ready to take the torch next year. 6'9" Ben Carlson is the only one who might have an impact out of the gates; 6'4" Johnny Davis may be the most important for immediate development, though. Wisconsin feels one guard short, and while the rest of the league's top talent takes sophomore-to-junior leaps, I worry there's not much toothpaste to squeeze out of the tube for the Badgers. Much of that will depend on Davis and Carlson... if they look like they belong on the floor in big games, the Badgers will be worthy of their top-ten preseason ranking.
5. Michigan Wolverines - 10-10 last year. Projection: 12-8
With Juwan Howard finally figuring out recruiting, the Wolverines of 2021-22 fame could be a top-five team in the nation. They'll need to piece together a promising, steady improvement with their current roster to make that a reality. Losing two polished, nationally-undervalued guys in Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske really, really hurts. Freshman big Hunter Dickinson, their top recruit, could and should step in for Teske to man the middle. He's a tantalizing seven-footer who all of a sudden joins a conference lacking elite bigs. His facilitating from the frontcourt and stretch shooting makes the Wolverines a unique offensive group.
Michigan's strength right now is in their size. Franz Wagner (6'9", 11.6 points) and Isaiah Livers (6'7", 12.9 points) are a unique wing tandem that can shoot, facilitate and defend. I'd expect the Wolverines to lean into playing big, putting them at the 2 and 3, while senior Eli Brooks (10.6 points) gets his one chance to run the show. Howard brought in two other transfers who can help the Wolverines if they decide to play smaller: 5'11" Mike Smith from Columbia can flat-out score it, while 6'5" Chaundree Brown from Wake Forest already belongs on the floor. Teams with a good 4-man could give the Wolverines fits, though I'm liking what Howard is building here and think this will be a really strong offensive group.
4. Iowa Hawkeyes - 11-9 last year. Projection: 13-7
A trendy favorite to win the league, Iowa only comes in sixth because they don't have a ton around Luka Garza. A frontrunner for National POY, Garza endured the conference stocked with NBA-caliber bigs to produce elite numbers. With more than half that crop of opponents gone, he may be unrivaled down low. But to expect an uptick in usage or numbers after an already-efficient campaign is a little baffling to me. I'm not sure how much more this guy can do to put the team on his back.
Iowa's next step as a team would depend on Joe Wieskamp stepping up as the verified Robin to Garza's Bruce Wayne. Wieskamp is really the guy that matters most here. He needs to continue to shoot at a high clip (as does CJ Fredrick) to properly space around Garza. Wieskamp needs to be the guy who creates with the ball in his hands. Elite bigs like Garza aren't easy to get the ball to in crunch time. If Wieskamp can be the guy, the Hawkeyes could be a true national contender.
It's a team that fits so well, though. An elite post and three great shooters (point guard Jordan Bohannon is so underrated) are always great combos. What worries me is their lack of perimeter depth, the injury history of Bohannon and how I don't love many of their freshmen. Most teams that go to the tournament need a contribution from at least one youngster. The only hope there is Ahron Ulis, a 6'2" point guard that would move Bohannon to an off-ball role.
3. Indiana Hoosiers - 9-11 last year. Projection: 13-7
Here's my one surprise pick: buy stock down in Bloomington. Frankly, the Hoosiers are too talented and too deep not to make an ascent. Trayce Jackson-Davis is the man in the middle, a 6'9" pogo stick hybrid 4 or 5. He and Race Thompson are super athletic up front. That's aided by the strength of their freshman class (the league's best and deepest) at the guard spot. Rob Phinisse will start at the point, but some combination of 6'2" Khristian Landers (odds leader for newcomer of the year), 6'5' Anthony Leal and 6''4" sophomore Armaan Franklin will share the floor with him. All four can coexist.
I'd love to see Archie Miller commit to playing small. That allows the team's talent to shine through, TJD to play in space more and the coach to pick up tempo defensively, which he longs to do. The linchpin to that might be freshman Trey Galloway, a 6'6" do-it-all who has reportedly impressed early in Assembly Hall. Add freshman Jordan Geronimo, a human lob-catcher, to the up-tempo 4 and the Hoosiers could see four first-years play legitimate minutes.
They'll need to make shots, though. Grad transfer Justin Smith left the program as their best sniper, which hurts. The best solution: commit to Eric Hunter at the 4 more often and blitz teams in guard-heavy, pressing, up-tempo lineups. If the Hoosiers embrace their collective depth and let the young guns ride, this could be a really fun team with top-15 promise. They have to space the floor around TJD.
2. Michigan State Spartans - 14-6 last year. Projection: 13-7
Don't overlook the Spartans. It's easy to focus on how much they lost, on the future with Emoni Bates coming next year, or on Tom Izzo contracting Covid and the distractions that might cause. Michigan State teams don't rebuild or re-tool, they just find a way. Aaron Henry's return bolsters their wing depth and gives them likely the best wing defender in-league. He's a physical specimen who can play the 3 or the 4, the linchpin of versatility for them.
Josh Langford, who scored 15 per game two years ago, is back and will help deal with the scoring void. Joey Hauser, transfer from Marquette, was a massive get for this program and should fill Tillman's post admirably. Izzo's offensive sets will pick up the slack for their lack of a creator. Rocket Watts can be a scoring punch instead of PNR creator (I'm a huge Watts fan), while freshman guard AJ Hoggard could really turn heads if he earns minutes.. The versatility created by Hauser's offensive prowess is massive and makes the guards' jobs much easier.
Izzo teams are stingy defensively, and at the 5, there's a combination of players ready to step forward. 6'11" junior Marcus Bingham is most likely to start, and the collective length on the wings should ease what's asked of him defensively. There's always more talent in East Lansing than we all think, so I'm done betting against the Spartans.
1. Illinois Fighting Illini - 11-9 last year. Projection: 13-7
I'm going out on a limb here, but the Illini strike me as a national title darkhorse. They have an imposing rim protector in Kofi Cockbrun, a seven-footer who averaged 13.3 points and 8.8 rebounds as a freshman last year. Ayo Dosunmu (16.6 points) is the leading scorer and a really physically-gifted combo-wing. The combined athleticism of the two makes it tough to think the Illini will be outside the top-three defensively in the Big Ten. Their commitment to a pack-line approach last year is what spurred their rise, and the easing off of pressure has alleviated concerns about their depth.
Brad Underwood will handle the offense from there. Great pace in their sets, awesome movement and a hybrid of his 2-3 high sets into spread pick-and-roll make them incredibly difficult to take away from a scouting perspective. They run their stuff like clockwork, and with 6'2" point guard Trent Frazier running the show on that end, they'll be in full command of their playbook. I love both freshmen in the backcourt here; 6'3" Adam Miller can really score, while 6'1" Andre Curbelo is feisty as all hell. Those are two sneaky NBA prospects who found their way to Champaign, giving the Illini four of the better players in the conference.
The one area that hurts most is the transfer of Alan Griffin. The Illini need a 4-man, and without it this ranking will be overly optimistic. 6'6" wings Jacob Grandison (from Holy Cross) and Austin Hutcherson (from Division III Wesleyan, shoutout Joe Reilly) could play early, though its difficult to imagine either defending the 4. If Underwood can find ways to remedy the 4, this Illini team doesn't have a hole or a missing link that would hold them back.
This is an amazingly deep conference. We predict NINE teams to win between 11 and 13 games, so the margin for error really isn't that large for anyone. The rankings reflect upside and confidence as much as anything else, but I will say this: it's entirely possible the season ends with six Big Ten teams ranked, and no teams ranked in the top-ten.