2020-21 College Basketball Preview: Big Ten has its share of contenders, but they’ll have to survive the sport’s deepest conference first

The last time that March Madness crowned a Big Ten team as champion, I had not even been born. Now, I’m covering the league. Sure, they’ve been close — Michigan as runner-up in 2018, Wisconsin in 2015 and Michigan State in 2009 — but no Big Ten squad has taken it all the way since the Spartans in the 2000 tourney.

2020 promised as ample an opportunity as ever for the conference to end its drought, with six schools making it to the final AP Top 25 poll and two others on the tourney bubble, but the coronavirus pandemic dealt those hopes a swift and fatal blow. In 2020-21, the conference known primarily for its football prowess should dominate the college basketball landscape once again with transcendent talents, astounding depth and no shortage of headlines to track.

The Big Ten’s top tier figures to have some turnover a year after Michigan State, Maryland and Wisconsin split the regular season crown. With the Spartans’ Cassius Winston and the Terrapins’ Jalen Smith now in the NBA, the path is open for a trio of 2019 powers to make the jump to title contender.

In Iowa City, Iowa, Madison, Wisc., and Champaign, Ill., it’s all about the duos. The Hawkeyes return Big Ten Player of the Year and First Team All American Luka Garza (23.9 ppg, 9.8 rpg), a worth-the-price-of-admission-type talent, in their frontcourt along with junior Joe Wieskamp (14.0 ppg) at the guard spot, and with a lineup that didn’t suffer heavily in the personnel department, Iowa should improve on its 11-9 conference mark. Illinois figures to continue its rise to the national spotlight behind its guard-center combination of Ayo Dosunmu (16.6 ppg) and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Kofi Cockburn, two NBA talents who have returned to build off their 2019-20 successes and haunt their in-state rivals to the north. Wisconsin isn’t as reliant on big names as their fellow frontrunners, instead returning a senior-laden lineup headlined by stretch 5 Nate Reuvers (13.1 ppg). Each of those three squads, ranked 5, 8 and 7 in the season’s opening AP Top 25 poll respectively, has the track record and talent to look the part of tourney lock-ins heading into the season, though it would be no surprise for another team to jump up into frontrunner status. 

The middle class of the Big Ten is a jumble, mixing Final Four hopefuls hit hard by Father Time and a couple hopeful upstarts seeking to eke out a couple more wins and an at-large bid. Penn State and Rutgers, two annual basketball afterthoughts, were the stories of the 2019-20 season and looked to make it to March for the first time in decades (2011 for Penn State, 1991 for Rutgers) before getting robbed by COVID. The Nittany Lions will likely fall back to Earth after parting ways with longtime coach Patrick Chambers, but their New Jersey neighbors have good reason to be optimistic going forward. The Scarlet Knights finished 11-9 in the rugged Big Ten behind Coach of the Year Steve Pikiell and return three starters, including guard Geo Baker (10.9 ppg, 3.5 apg). Traditional powers Michigan, Purdue and Ohio State have conference title aspirations every year and figure to rebound from turbulent 2019-20 campaigns, while Maryland and Michigan State look to weather the losses of their All-Conference contributors. Minnesota and Indiana could figure into the middle tier or slide out of contention, but will not be easy outs in any contest. 

And, of course, the part of the Big Ten food chain that is dear to my heart, the bottom feeders. They know who they are — 3-17 Northwestern and 2-18 Nebraska. I saw a lot of NU basketball last year and the endings followed a familiar script. The Cats didn’t do anything well, ranking last in the conference in points scored and 12th in points allowed, and only ranked above Nebraska in the final standings by virtue of sweeping their two meetings. The Cornhuskers reverted to using football players to fill out their roster, and perhaps the best takeaway is that the roster turnover will put new guys in Nebraska uniforms for second-year coach Fred Hoiberg. There’s a path to contention — cellar dwellers Penn State and Rutgers charted a path out of the dumps — and it’s all about internal development for either squad to finish off games. Keep an eye on two youngsters on these teams, Northwestern floor general Boo Buie (27 points vs. Michigan State) and Nebraska big Yvan Ouedraogo (6.3 rpg, sixth among Big Ten returners), as keys for their teams taking the next step. 

The Big Ten’s national title drought is alive and well, but maybe the lack of a national favorite isn’t the worst thing for the conference. The Big Ten cannibalized itself in 2019-20, with the three regular season champions only racking up 14 of 20 conference wins and the Boilermakers, ranked tenth in the conference, only four wins behind them. Any team can win on any given night — the lowly Wildcats beat a ranked team in March, for starters — and each game has national consequences. The challenges of playing amid a global pandemic will make a brutal slate even more grueling for the 14 Big Ten squads, but if the sport of college basketball can make it across the finish line, there’s a good chance that a representative of college basketball’s best, deepest conference will be there.

Big Ten Conference Predictions

  1. Iowa Hawkeyes
  2. Wisconsin Badgers
  3. Ohio State Buckeyes
  4. Illinois Fighting Illini
  5. Michigan Wolverines
  6. Michigan State Spartans
  7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
  8. Purdue Boilermakers
  9. Maryland Terrapins
  10. Indiana Hoosiers
  11. Northwestern Wildcats
  12. Minnesota Golden Gophers
  13. Penn State Nittany Lions
  14. Nebraska Cornhuskers

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