College Basketball Primer: What You Need To Know About The Big Ten This Season

Today we continue our preview of college basketball’s major conferences with a look at the Big Ten. The Big Ten could very well be the second deepest conference in college basketball this year. While it may lack some of the flash of the ACC, it has plenty of quality and could be the second most represented conference in the Big Dance.

Teams You Need To Know

Wisconsin

Wisconsin has quietly been one of the best programs in the country over the past decade and a half. This year, the Badgers will look to extend their run of top four Big Ten finishes to 15. In the past three seasons, they have been to the Final Four twice, including a title game appearance in 2015, and made the Sweet 16 last year even after Bo Ryan's early season retirement.

The Badgers return all five starters from a season ago along with their top 10 leaders in minutes played. Depth and experience will be the main strength for Wisconsin as it looks to capture the Big Ten crown.

The most important of those returning players is Nigel Hayes. Hayes flirted with the NBA after putting up 15.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and three assists per game as a junior. He enters 2016-17 as Wisconsin’s go-to player and a leading candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year.

Hayes will get help from a myriad of players, including Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter and Ethan Happ. Happ averaged 12.4 points and 7.9 rebounds while Koenig chipped in 13.1 points and was the team’s leading three-point shooter. Showalter added 7.5 points to go along with excellent defense and energy, the type of hard work the team expects from him again this season.

The Badgers could use someone to step up as a secondary three-point threat, and perhaps Hayes fills that role. He shot 39.6 percent from three as a sophomore before seeing that number drop to 29.3 percent last year. Should Hayes find his stroke, Wisconsin’s offense gains another dimension.

It’s hard to find something not to like about Wisconsin, and the experience, depth and balance could make the Badgers dangerous in March.

Purdue

The Boilermakers have an opportunity to finish among the Big Ten’s elite in 2016-17 as they look to earn a third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. They enter the season ranked 15 in both preseason polls.

Purdue has one of the most formidable frontcourts in the country this season. Vincent Edwards and Caleb Swanigan decided to return to school after testing the NBA waters. Both were double-figure scorers last season and also the team’s top two rebounders. Their returns, combined with 7-2 center Isaac Haas, gives the Boilermakers a front line that will be tough to handle.

A pair of newcomers add intrigue to the Purdue backcourt. Michigan transfer Spike Albrecht brings experience to the point guard position along with a 40 percent mark from three. Freshman Carsen Edwards is a prolific scorer who averaged over 25 points per game in his senior year of high school. They join returning players P.J. Thompson, Ryan Cline and Dakota Mathias. As a group, they could be lethal from deep, and if they get it going they will make Purdue tough to deal with when combined with the daunting frontcourt.

Purdue will have plenty of opportunity to prove itself. The Boildermakers have out-of-conference games against Villanova, Louisville and Notre Dame, and in conference, they get Indiana and Michigan State twice. Should the Boilermakers survive the gauntlet and finish near the top of the conference, they will be in line to get the program's first NCAA Tournament win since 2012.

Indiana

The Hoosiers enter the season with high expectations, ranked in the top 12 in both preseason polls, and have designs on winning the Big Ten title.

Replacing Yogi Ferrell will be a challenge, and Pitt transfer Josh Newkirk will look to fill the void. James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson will be key as well. Both played major minutes last season and shot over 44 percent from three-point range, a major strength for Indiana, and freshman Curtis Jones is expected to be a deep threat as well. The Hoosiers also bring in freshman Devonte Green, younger brother of San Antonio Spurs guard/forward Danny Green.

Sophomore Thomas Bryant anchors the frontcourt for Indiana. The 6-10 center averaged 11.9 points and 5.8 assists last season while shooting 68 percent from the field, garnering talk as a late first-round draft selection, but he showed no interest in leaving Indiana just yet. The 6-7 Juwan Morgan and 6-8 OG Anunoby showed the ability to step out beyond the arc to go along with Blackmon, Johnson and Jones, shooting 46 percent and 45 percent respectively from three. Anunoby is a gifted athlete who can get to the rim and be disruptive on the defensive end. His progression in an increased role could be key in Indiana’s ultimate success.

Indiana possesses great balance, has a legitimate anchor in the post, athleticism on the wing and a plethora of options from deep. The Hoosiers should be right in the mix at the top of the conference.

Michigan State

A discussion of Big Ten basketball is never complete without mentioning Tom Izzo and his Spartans. Michigan State enters the season ranked 12 in the AP poll and 9 in the coaches poll. Those numbers might be a little high for the current crop of Spartans, but the college basketball world has learned to never overlook a Tom Izzo coached team.

The 2016-17 version of the Spartans doesn’t look like a traditional MSU squad. This team doesn’t return a single double-figure scorer from a year ago and will rely heavily on contributions from freshmen. The Spartans also have some serious injury concerns, so there are a lot of question marks with this group.

Both 6-9 senior Gavin Schilling and 6-9 graduate transfer Ben Carter suffered significant knee injuries, and neither has a timetable for return. The Spartans will be forced to rely heavily on youth in the frontcourt as a result. Former walk-on Kenny Goins and freshman Nick Ward will be forced into major minutes and have to learn at breakneck speed if the Spartans are to be legitimate contenders by the time conference play comes around.

Luckily for Michigan State, there are two incoming McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster: 6-7 Miles Bridges is super athletic and can jump out of the building, while 6-5 Joshua Langford has tight handles and can get to the rim at will. He is also a willing passer. Cassius Winston also appears ready to contribute as a freshman, pushing the youth movement in East Lansing.

Senior Eron Harris is highest scoring returning player for the Spartans after averaging 9.8 points last season, and while that's not eye-popping, his 44 percent three-point shooting is.

Michigan State has more questions than it's used to. With so many freshmen contributors, it could be a work in progress early in the season, particularly on the defensive end. The injuries further complicate matters, and it could take some time for the Spartans to hit their stride. Despite the questions, there is talent in place. While there could be some hiccups early on, the Spartans could play their way to the level of those preseason rankings and could be a scary matchup in March.

The Best Of The Rest: Michigan, Maryland, Ohio State

Players To Watch

Malcolm Hill, Illinois

Hill is a prolific scorer who can hurt the opposition in several ways. He can get to the basket and finish at the rim as well as step out and hit a three. At 6-6, he can post up smaller players and do damage from the mid-range. He averaged 18.1 points and 6.6 rebounds last season and is an All-Conference candidate. He will be key for the Illini as they look to end a three-season NCAA Tournament drought.

Penn State’s Recruiting Class

Head coach Pat Chambers brings in arguably the best recruiting class in Penn State history. Chambers has been able to break into the basketball-rich vein of Philadelphia, as he brings in three players from Roman Catholic High School. Tony Carr gives the Nittany Lions a true point guard, Lamar Stevens is an athletic specimen who can produce from either forward spot and Nazeer Bostick is a strong wing who brings defensive toughness. Mike Watkins is another Philadelphia kid who redshirted last season. At 6-9, he brings athleticism, a developing mid-range game and runs the floor well. Watkins is relatively new to basketball but possesses a high potential for growth as he refines his game.

Keep an eye on this group’s development as Penn State looks to move from a perennial Big Ten bottom-feeder to a consistent contender.

Prediction

Regular-Season Champion: Wisconsin

It's hard to argue with the depth and experience of the Badgers. They return basically their entire roster from last season's Sweet 16 team. With Nigel Hayes leading the way and a plethora of experienced role players around him, Wisconsin will take the regular0season crown.

Player Of The Year: Malcolm Hill

We're going out on a limb a little bit with this one. Nigel Hayes will be the consensus preseason favorite for this award. Unlike the ACC, where it's basically Grayson Allen and then everyone else, the Big Ten doesn't have anyone leaps and bounds ahead of the pack. Guys like Thomas Bryant and Melo Trimble will be in the discussion, but we'll go with Hill. His stats were mentioned above, and he enters the season as the focal point for a program that has a chip on its shoulder. The Illini could put it all together, and with Hill leading the way, he gets our nod for Player of the Year.

Overview

Overall, the Big Ten looks strong in 2016-17. Wisconsin and Purdue are legit, while Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Maryland have potential. We know to never count out Michigan State, regardless of the questions the team may have. The conference could be home to a few surprise teams as well (check back later for more on that). It will be another solid season of basketball in the Big Ten, and the conference should be well-represented in March.

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