Tuesday, April 07, 2015

2015-16 Preview: Big Ten

Big Ten Conference

The story of the Big Ten this past season, of course, was a dominant Wisconsin team. Bo Ryan has always been great at developing under-recruited talent, but he finally had multiple future NBA players with experience at the same time, and took his team past Kentucky and into an excruciating loss in the national title game. And yes, Duke got at least a half dozen terrible referee calls in their favor in the second half, but Wisconsin had a chance to take the game out of the reach of the refs and just couldn't hit their shots. Once a game is that close, a missed shot here or a missed block/charge call there can determine the title.

But of course, after Wisconsin there was a significant drop off in the Big Ten. Michigan State had a miraculous Final Four run driven by lucky three-point shooting differentials, but realistically the Big Ten didn't have a second top ten quality teams like the ACC or Big 12 (which both had around four teams that were better than the Big Ten's second best best). But there are a lot of reasons to believe that the Big Ten will be deeper and stronger next season. Other than Wisconsin and Iowa, every team in the Big Ten has reason to believe they'll be better next season. They won't all end up actually being better in the end, but I do think as a whole the league will be stronger.

Wisconsin's magical 2014-15 season is going to lead into something of a rebuilding 2015-16 season, though Bo Ryan teams are always competitive near the top of the league even in rebuilding. Frank Kaminsky, the best player in the nation, graduates, as do Josh Gasser, Traevon Jackson and Duje Dukan. Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes are both potential NBA defections, and for the sake of this preview I'm going to assume Dekker leaves but Hayes stays. If so, the Badgers would return an excellent inside-outside combo in point guard Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes, but not much else. In the backcourt, they'd return Zak Showalter, a former walk-on who came on strong late in the season. Their next best returner is probably Jordan Hill, who played sparingly as a true freshman in 2013-14 and took a redshirt season for development in 2014-15. They also add a very nice backcourt piece in Brevin Pritzl (Scout: 14 SG, Rivals: 79). In the front court, the only returner who got non-garbage minutes was 6'8" Vitto Brown. They also add 6'9" Ethan Happ, a hyped 2014 recruit who took a redshirt season in 2014-15. They also add 6'9" Alex Illikainen (Scout: 26 PF, Rivals: 132) and 6'8" power forward Charlie Thomas.

Wisconsin is going to be a tough team to project for next season. They lose (assuming Sam Dekker goes pro) five key players from what was a seven man rotation for much of the season. But at the same time, a guy like Ethan Happ would have played significant minutes if Wisconsin's front line wasn't absurdly good this past season. Throw in the "Bo Ryan always figures it out" logic (he's never finished worse than tied for fourth place in the Big Ten in 14 seasons), and you have to believe that with a talented and deep incoming recruiting class that Wisconsin will be back as something like a borderline Top 25 team again. And with no seniors, and assuming Nigel Hayes comes back for his senior season, they could be awfully good yet again in 2016-17.

Michigan State had yet another magical run to the Final Four under Tom Izzo. This was a team that didn't have much talent at the start of the season, but saw big improvements from Travis Trice as well as significant contributions from newcomers Bryn Forbes and Lourawls Nairn, particularly late in the season. The Spartans lose a couple of starters to graduation in Travis Trice and Branden Dawson, but return the rest of their regular rotation. The backcourt will feature both Nairn and Forbes, as well as Eron Harris (17.2 ppg as a sophomore at West Virginia in 2013-14) and Matt McQuaid (Scout: 24 SG, Rivals: 73). On the wing they return Denzel Valentine and Marvin Clark, another freshman who came on strong late in the second. The front court was undersized and loses its best rebounder, but they do return Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling, as well as Deyonta Davis (Scout: 5 PF, Rivals: 24). On paper, it's a more talented team than this past season. They will be heavily dependent on a big contribution from the true freshman Davis, though. They have one scholarship available, in case Izzo wants to go after one more big this summer.

Maryland was #TeamGoodLuck this past season, going 12-1 in games decided by six points or fewer. It's why they finished the season rated in the 30s in the computers while being considered a top ten team by most of the media. And it's also why they'll be overrated to start next season. They should be very good... I'm just saying that they probably won't be quite as good as projected preseason. So who leaves? Dez Wells is the key loss, along with Richaud Pack and two bench pieces. They should be particularly loaded in the front court next season, where Jake Layman, Jared Nickens, Damonte Dodd, Michael Cekovsky and Jon Graham return after providing significant minutes this past season. They also have two significant additions: 6'9" Robert Carter (11.4 ppg and 8.4 rpg as a sophomore at Georgia Tech in 2013-14) and 6'10" Diamond Stone (Scout: 2 C, Rivals: 6), who is a potential one-and-done player. The backcourt is a little more uncertain, though getting Melo Trimble back for another season means they'll have at least one premier playmaker. Dion Wiley played well off the bench as a true freshman and could start next season. Jaylen Brantley (a Juco transfer) is the other scholarship backcourt player. You have to believe that Mark Turgeon will go out and get at least one more perimeter player this summer.

For much of the season, Ohio State was the second highest rated team in the Big Ten in the computers, though they faded a little bit down the stretch and ran into Arizona playing at their absolute best in the Round of 32. D'Angelo Russell is assumed to be a one-and-done, though, and Ohio State also loses Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, Amir Williams, and Trey McDonald to graduation. Aside from Marc Loving, the other Buckeyes returners were all freshmen this past season. Of the bunch, shooting guards Jae'Sean Tate and Kam Williams, along with 6'7" Keita Bates-Diop, all showed significant promise. They also add 6'9" David Bell, a 2014 recruit who took a redshirt season. A more significant addition is 6'11" Trevor Thompson, who averaged 5.0 ppg and 4.7 rpg as a freshman at Virginia Tech in 2013-14. 6'5" JaQuan Lyle, a former blue chip recruit at Oregon who failed to qualify academically there, is another key addition. Thad Matta also has another big time recruiting class coming on board, headed by Austin Grandstaff (Scout: 13 SG, Rivals: 42), Daniel Giddens (Scout: 14 C, Rivals: 44), Mickey Mitchell (Scout: 20 SF, Rivals: 93) and AJ Harris (Scout: 9 PG, Rivals: 104). So this Ohio State team will be very different and very young, but also very talented. The question is how long it takes Matta to figure out his lineups and to get the team to work well together.

Indiana fans continue to not enjoy the Tom Crean experience. The sideline antics and constant recruit over-signing would be more palatable if he was winning, but in seven seasons he's won just four NCAA Tournament games. But this Indiana team had no seniors on it, and while Yogi Ferrell and Troy Williams will both consider the NBA Draft, I think they'll both come back next season. With a solid recruiting class, Indiana should be significantly better next season. Their one blue chip recruit incoming is Thomas Bryant (Scout: 9 C, Rivals: 37). So far, Stanford Robinson and Max Hoetzel have announced they'll leave via transfer, and at least one more player has to go. Assuming Ferrell and Williams return, that gives Indiana two proven stars. James Blackmon was inconsistent as a freshman, but he's a massive talent. Nick Zeisloft and Collin Hartman both are sharpshooters as well. Their one glaring gap this past season was interior size, and Thomas Bryant will plug that hole. So this will be a very talented Indiana team, if Crean can keep all of his top players on board.

Iowa is hit hard by graduations, losing Aaron White, Josh Oglesby and Gabriel Olaseni. The Hawkeyes do return four starters: point guard Mike Gesell, shooting guard Peter Jok, Jarrod Uthoff and 7'1" Adam Woodbury, as well as Anthony Clemens off the bench. But as for depth, that's hard to find. Fran McCaffery already has five players signed for next season, but none is particularly highly rated. It will be interesting to see how many of those players are productive as true freshmen.

Purdue is the seventh and final NCAA Tournament team that I need to discuss in the Big Ten. Jon Octeus is the only graduating regular, though Bryson Scott is leaving via transfer and AJ Hammons is considering the NBA Draft. Hammons is a 50/50 decision on the draft at the time of this post, and his decision will be crucial for Purdue next season. For the sake of this preview I will assume that he stays, which means that if he does decide to leave that Purdue will slide down my next bracket projection. But with Hammons back, they'd return eight of their top nine minute earners, including Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Raphael Davis, shooting guard Kendall Stephens and the very talented 6'7" Vince Edwards. 7-footer Isaac Haas also showed flashes of being a good prospect as a true freshman off the bench. Their top rated incoming recruit is shooting guard Ryan Cline (Rivals: 149), but their one big need for next season is point guard. PJ Thompson was not particularly effective there as a true freshman, but he might be the best option. 2015 recruit Grant Weatherford is also possible.

The one Big Ten team to end up in the NIT was Illinois. The Illini season started with promise (they were in the Top 25 polls in early December), but it fell apart in Big Ten play. Things ended ugly, with an 18 point loss in the Big Ten tourney opener and then a 21 point loss to Alabama in the NIT. They lose a trio of starters to graduation: Rayvonte Rice, Ahmad Starks and Nnanna Egwu. That said, they should get back Tracy Abrams, who averaged 10.7 ppg and 3.2 apg as a junior in 2013-14 but missed the 2014-15 season with an injury. They also return shooting guard Kendrick Nunn and wing Malcolm Hill, along with a solid backup point guard in Jaylon Tate. Throw in the additions of Jalen Coleman-Lands (Scout: 11 SG, Rivals: 39) and 6'4" Aaron Jordan (Scout: 22 SF, Rivals: 86) and Illinois should have a talented backcourt. The front court will be unproven, though. Star 2014 recruit Leron Black showed promise off the bench this past season, as did Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert, but none played more than 15 minutes per game this past season. A starter next season might be 6'8" Darius Paul, who averaged 10.4 ppg and 5.7 rpg as a freshman at Western Michigan in 2012-13 and then went the Juco route before transferring back to Illinois. 6'7" DJ Williams (Scout: 10 SF, Rivals: 63) is their one front court high school recruit.

If there's a Big Ten team that missed the NCAA Tournament this past season but is likely to get back it's a Michigan team that had brutal luck this past season with both Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton being lost for the season with injuries in mid-January. But late in the season, this young Michigan team did show a lot of progress, and they should return their entire starting lineup. LeVert will consider the NBA Draft, but I think he'll choose to return for his senior season. With LeVert and Walton back, the Michigan backcourt suddenly becomes very strong and deep, as they also return Spike Albrecht with the talented freshman duo of Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman. The front court returns the established Zak Irvin and Ricky Doyle, and also got good minutes off the bench this past season from freshman Mark Donnal. 6'7" Kameron Chatman struggled as a true freshman, but is a good prospect for the future. They will also get back 6'8" 2014 recruit DJ Wilson, who took a redshirt season, and add 6'9" 2015 recruit Moritz Wagner.

That covers every team with a reasonable chance to make the NCAA Tournament next season, so let's break down the full Big Ten from top to bottom:

1. Michigan State - Eron Harris provides Michigan State with a big perimeter scoring threat, and the development of Lourawls Nairn gives the Spartans a lot of hope for the future of their point guard position. The front court is a little thin, but Tom Izzo tends to always figure out a way to have a physical and good rebuilding front line.
2. Maryland - The Terps have a ridiculous amount of size, but loss of Dez Wells puts a ton of pressure on Melo Trimble to carry the team by himself on the perimeter. Maryland should be improved next season, but not dramatically enough to justify the Top 5 rankings they're going to get in the human polls preseason.
3. Indiana - Thomas Bryant fills a massive hole for an Indiana team that desperately needed interior defense and rebounding. They should again be one of the most explosive offenses in the country.
4. Purdue - Assuming AJ Hammons returns, Purdue has a chance to challenge for the Big Ten title next season.
5. Wisconsin - I can't drop the Badgers any lower than this, particularly since they should have at least two guys with a chance for first team All-Big Ten in Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig. This will be a very young team by Bo Ryan standards, however.
6. Michigan - Assuming Caris LeVert returns, the Wolverines should be back to the NCAA Tournament.
7. Ohio State - The Buckeyes are the Big Ten team with the highest variance for next season. They return very little production, but have a ridiculous recruiting class coming on board. Depending on how those recruits turn out, they could contend for a Big Ten title or end up struggling to reach the NIT.
8. Illinois - If Tracy Abrams is back to where he was before his injury, the Illini have a real chance to be improved next season.
9. Iowa - The Hawkeyes should have a talented starting lineup, but seem likely to have almost zero roster depth.
10. Northwestern - Returning their entire starting lineup, Northwestern should definitely be improved next season. But they need another front court player to step up aside from Alex Olah to handle some of the massive front lines in the Big Ten.
11. Minnesota - Richard Pitino has a deep recruiting class coming in, but no stars to replace three key losses (Deandre Mathieu, Mo Walker and Andre Hollins)
12. Penn State - Pat Chambers has what is probably his strongest recruiting class at Penn State, led by Mike Watkins (Scout: 24 C, Rivals: 120) and Josh Reaves (Scout: 21 SF, Rivals: 130). But DJ Newbill was their do-everything player and he's gone, so it's hard to see how the Nittany Lions could be significantly improved next season.
13. Nebraska - This past season was an absolute mess for Nebraska, and while David Rivers is their only key graduation they are going to lose Walter Pitchford and Tarin Smith, and could lose Terran Petteway to the draft as well. They do add 6'7" Andrew White from Kansas and have a deep recruiting class, so this Cornhuskers team is going to look very different next season, which could be good news for Nebraska fans.
14. Rutgers - With Myles Mack, Kadeem Jack and Junior Etou leaving, it's actually possible Rutgers will be even worse next season, though they have a solid recruiting class and a couple of spots left available. They seem almost a lock for last place again.


Anonymous said...

What difference does it make to your rankings now that Swanigan committed to Michigan St.

Jeff said...

Well, I already had them as the Big Ten favorite. But depending what happens to the other top teams, the Spartans could move up to a projected 1 seed.

Anonymous said...

I think you did a pretty good job considering how early you posted your predictions.

And obviously you keep up with roster changes that have occurred, and are aware that even at this late date things will still change. Maryland, for example, still has some open spots.

So, when you reassess in the future may I suggest you take another look at Iowa. Many folks expected a down year in 2014/15 after Iowa saw Devyn Marble enter the NBA and three other forwards either graduate or depart (Meyer, McCabe, Basabe.)

Yet Iowa improved from 9-9 in the league to 12-6.

Heading into the 2015/16 season the loss of White, Olaseni and Oglesby may seem like much to overcome. But keep in mind of the seven players in two years that I've mentioned, only one, Oglesby, was ranked in the top 150. And he was a reserve last season.

In other words, Coach McCaffery has shown a remarkable talent for locating productive players, even NBA level talent players, that are under-ranked in high school.

Iowa has seven new bodies. Juco Dale Jones, redshirt freshman Ellingson, and five true freshmen. It is likely two or three will surprise as is so often the case.

Dropping from a tie for third in the league to ninth? I can see a drop sans some experience, but not that far. Some coaches in the league get more ranked talent on a regular basis yet also fail to capitalize on it.

I suspect it will be another year where Iowa finishes higher than most predictions. My suggestion, consider historical results and you'll be hard pressed to put Iowa much lower than seventh.

Thanks, for a good read.

Jeff said...

The reason the media was down on Iowa before 2014/15 was because of their horrible luck in close games in 2013/14. In my Big Ten 2014/15 preview, I actually had Iowa projected to finish 4th in the Big Ten. I knew that they would be underrated to start this past season for the same reason Maryland will be overrated to start next season.

Keep in mind that I expect the Big Ten to be significantly stronger next season than this past season. Even though I have Iowa 9th, I have them on the tourney bubble. Also, I wouldn't fixate on them having finished third this past season, since they were only a single game away from finishing sixth.