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2015-16 Michigan Basketball Preview: Big Ten Pretenders

Want to know the Big Ten basketball teams that won't be contending for a conference championship this season? We run them down for you.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

PreviouslyThe MulliganPosition Preview: The GuardsPosition Preview: The WingsPosition Preview: The Big MenBig Ten Preview: Top 15 Players

We continue Maize n Brew's 2015-16 basketball preview by projecting how each Big Ten team will perform this season to get an idea about how Michigan will stack up against the rest of the conference. This will be broken down into two parts. Today, we'll run down who will be the Big Ten pretenders. Tomorrow, we'll look at the Big Ten contenders. Teams will be listed in alphabetical order as predictions will be revealed on Thursday.

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Illinois

2014-15 Record: 19-14 (9-9 Big Ten)
2014-15 KenPom Rank: 69
Key Departures: Rayvonte Rice, Ahmad Starks, Nnanna Egwu, Aaron Cosby
Incoming Freshmen: Jalen Coleman-Lands, D.J. Williams, Aaron Jordan
Eligible Transfers: Khalid Lewis, Mike Thorne, Jr., Alex Austin

In each of its first three seasons under John Groce, Illinois flirted with the bubble, earning a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament despite an 8-10 Big Ten record in 2012-13 before settling for the NIT in 2013-14 and 2014-15. This season shouldn't be different. Not only have the Illini lost several key contributors including their best player in Rayvonte Rice, who averaged 16.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game and was one of the most efficient high-usage players in the country, several of their current players are injured. Point guard Tracy Abrams tore his ACL and will miss the season, sharpshooter Kendrick Nunn will miss most of the non-conference slate with a torn ligament in his thumb, undersized but ferocious power forward Leron Black will miss the first few weeks with a torn meniscus, and star freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands slowly is working his way back from a stress fracture in his leg that forced him to sit out 12 weeks in the summer. Being a walking zombie is not how a team that must fill some big holes wants to start the season.

However, it's not all bad news for Illinois. Malcolm Hill should step in for Rice without a hitch. When Rice missed nine Big Ten games with a fractured hand, Hill proved he could handle the load as a team's No. 1 option, scoring from all over the floor and displaying a lethal mid-range jumper. Illinois will need Hill, whom I think is one of the Big Ten's 10 best players, to keep the ship from sinking while its injured players work their way back to full health. Also, Coleman-Lands, who was a top-40 recruit in the 2015 class, will provide an instant offensive boost as he owns a terrific outside shot and solid handles. Plus, incoming graduate transfers Mike Thorne, Jr., and Khalid Lewis will contribute.

But there are just too many obstacles to overcome for Illinois to be an upper-tier Big Ten team. It will take time to return to full strength, and Illinois doesn't have much of a front-court presence. Illinois will rely heavily on the 6-foot-11 Thorne, who averaged 10.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game for Charlotte last season, but this will be a new level of competition for him. Plus, Illinois' guards don't attack the rim often, registering one of the worst free-throw rates in basketball last year. Maybe that will change this year, but the odds are the Illini will be perimeter-oriented and undersized. And, other than Hill and Coleman-Lands, there isn't enough talent there to post a winning Big Ten record.

Minnesota

2014-15 Record: 18-15 (6-12 Big Ten)
2014-15 KenPom Rank: 58
Key Departures: Andre Hollins, Deandre Mathieu, Maurice Walker, Elliott Eliason
Incoming Freshmen: Kevin Dorsey, Dupree McBrayer, Jordan Murphy, Jarvis Johnson, Ahmad Gilbert
Eligible Transfers: N/A

Minnesota wasn't as bad as its 6-12 Big Ten record last season would suggest -- being 3-8 in conference games decided by six points or fewer is horribly unlucky -- but it won't matter much this season. This will be a transition year for Minnesota as the Gophers lose arguably their three best players -- Andre Hollins (13.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.7 APG), Maurice Walker (11.8 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 1.3 BPG), and Deandre Mathieu (8.6 PPG, 4.3 APG, 2.7 RPG, 1.9 SPG) -- and backup center Elliott Eliason. It would be one thing if Minnesota was replacing its starting backcourt and two best centers with experienced, talented players, but that doesn't appear to be the case. The Gophers will be very young, expecting as many as eight scholarship underclassmen to contribute this year, and their incoming recruiting class was ranked only 11th in the conference despite containing five members.

Sophomore Nate Mason will be Minnesota's best player after a promising freshman campaign. He's a solid distributor, can take care of the basketball, and can step back to knock down some threes. Plus, he has active hands on the defensive end, posting the best steal rate in the Big Ten thanks to Richard Pitino's pressure system. However, he will lead what is a very thin backcourt. The starter alongside Mason will be true freshman point guard Kevin Dorsey. He just made the cut as a four-star prospect, and he isn't expected to be an immediate star. And true freshman Dupree McBrayer, who was a three-star recruit, should be the first guard off the bench. That's not ideal for Minnesota.

The Gophers have average wings in Carlos Morris -- a volume scorer and great on-ball defender -- and Joey King -- a three-point sniper that does little else -- but the front court is a mystery. Bakary Konate, who averaged only 8.9 minutes per game last season, likely will be the starting center. His size at 6-foot-11 and athleticism will help him score around the rim and be the only decent rebounder on the team, but he's still very raw and hasn't learned how to defend without fouling. And there's little depth behind Konate.

This all adds up to what should be a season full of growing pains. Big Ten wins will be few and far between, but it will provide Minnesota fans a glimpse at the foundation that Pitino is attempting to build. However, if the signs of such a foundation don't appear, those same fans will wonder why Minnesota extended Pitino's contract through 2020-21.

Nebraska

2014-15 Record: 13-18 (5-13 Big Ten)
2014-15 KenPom Rank: 133
Key Departures: Terran Petteway, Walter Pitchford, David Rivers, Leslee Smith, Tarin Smith
Incoming Freshman: Glynn Watson, Ed Morrow, Michal Jacobson, Jack McVeigh, Bakari Evelyn
Eligible Transfers: Andrew White III

One season after #Nebrasketball won the nation's heart with a second-half surge to a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten and the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998, the Huskers were one of the nation's biggest disappointments. They sputtered to a 13-18 record, which included losses to the likes of Incarnate Word and Hawaii, and weren't competitive in the Big Ten. It wasn't difficult to pinpoint Nebraska's problems. Even with a top-25 defense, you won't win many games when you can't put the orange melon in the net. The Huskers were No. 285 in adjusted offensive efficiency because they lacked an outside threat. All defenses needed to do was pack the paint and allow Terran Petteway to hog the ball and jack up shots as his teammates stood around and watched.

This will be a much different team, even if the results aren't different. Petteway is gone, as are other key contributors in Walter Pitchford, David Rivers, Leslee Smith, and Tarin Smith. Accordingly, Nebraska's starting lineup likely will comprise of Shavon Shields, who averaged 15.4 points and 6.0 rebounds per game but couldn't hit a three for the life of him, and four new faces. Two new faces likely will be true freshmen: point guard Glynn Watson and power forward Ed Morrow, both of whom were four-stars. Watson is a smooth playmaker, and Morrow is a pogo stick that Tim Miles will have to play in a thin front court, unless Miles slides Shields down to the 4. The third new face will be Kansas transfer Andrew White III, who was a top-50 prospect in his class and can fire it from deep. And the fourth new face should be sophomore Andrew Hammond, who played a grand total of 36 minutes last season, because he's the only center on the roster.

This fresh lineup may not be the same defensive force that last season's was, but Miles hopes that the improvement offensively will more than compensate because the Huskers will have at least one outside shooter (White) that can space the floor and maybe make things easier for Shields inside the arc. However, Shields is the only proven commodity -- an inefficient one at that -- and Nebraska is banking on players that have little to no college basketball experience to play big minutes, particularly in the front court. It's difficult to foresee that this Nebraska team will attain consistent success. The Huskers may spring a few upsets, but they'll be stuck in the bottom of the Big Ten standings.

Northwestern

2014-15 Record: 15-17 (6-12 Big Ten)
2014-15 KenPom Rank: 118
Key Departures: JerShon Cobb, Dave Sobolewski
Incoming Freshmen: Aaron Falzon, Jordan Ash, Derek Pardon
Eligible Transfers: Joey Van Zegeren

A team that's never qualified for the NCAA Tournament can't be a Big Ten contender. It's that simple. However, will this be the season when the Wildcats finally hurl aside the gorilla on their back? It could be. Northwestern essentially returns its starting five from a team that displayed some promise last season after enduring a brutal 10-game losing streak. Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps make up a very solid backcourt. Both shoot well from downtown, while McIntosh is one of the Big Ten's best distributors and Demps can finish at the rim when he penetrates. Former top-100 recruit Vic Law should develop on the wing as a sophomore after his freshman season saw him ineffective inside the arc and as a passer. Standing at seven feet, Alex Olah will be one of the better big men in the Big Ten, scoring around the hoop, rebounding the ball on both ends, and protecting the rim. Plus, the addition of sharpshooting forward Aaron Falzon and Virginia Tech transfer Joey Van Zegeren will solidify the front court. It's crazy, but Northwestern has talent.

But -- and, when it come to Northwestern, there's always a "but" -- the Wildcats have glaring issues. First, offensively, the team has no interior presence other than Olah and is too sloppy with the ball. Turnovers should be better now that McIntosh is a sophomore, but can anyone drive into the lane and create offense regularly? Second, the defense suffered last season despite Olah being the centerpiece of an excellent two-point defense because the guards and wings were too passive on the perimeter. Not only did opponents launch uncontested threes whenever they pleased, Northwestern had one of the lowest steal rates. The Wildcats must be more aggressive and funnel dribblers into the waiting arms of Olah. And, third, a lackluster non-conference schedule and strong Big Ten opposition may prevent Northwestern from dancing. The Wildcats have the talent to be a 9-9 Big Ten team, but they probably need 11 conference wins because it's likely that NU will be 11-2 with no top-100 wins after the non-conference season. That won't be enough to impress the selection committee, and the drought will persist for one more season.

Ohio State

2014-15 Record: 24-11 (11-7 Big Ten)
2014-15 KenPom Rank: 21
Key Departures: D'Angelo Russell, Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, Amir Williams, Trey McDonald, Anthony Lee
Incoming Freshman: JaQuan Lyle, Daniel Giddens, Austin Grandstaff, A.J. Harris, Mickey Mitchell
Eligible Transfers: Trevor Thompson

Ohio State is one of the most difficult Big Ten teams to peg this year. The Buckeyes have suffered an inordinate amount of attrition this offseason, losing six key contributors. One was D'Angelo Russell, who was one of the best all-around players in the nation that carried Ohio State to the NCAA Tournament before the Los Angeles Lakers took him with the second pick of the 2015 NBA Draft. Two were Sam Thompson and Shannon Scott, who were experienced veterans that blossomed as seniors. And three were Amir Williams, Trey McDonald, and Anthony Lee, who were a triumvirate of centers that consumed all the minutes at that spot. Replacing them is an unenviable task for most.

However, thanks to Thad Matta's recruiting prowess, Ohio State is one of the few that can survive this type of turnover. In addition to some young talent that was on the roster last season, Matta reeled in five prospects in his 2015 recruiting class, four of which were ranked in the top 100 and all of which were four-stars. So there'll be talent on this team.

The problem, though, is no one knows how that talent will mesh or what to expect given that Marc Loving -- a junior -- will be the only contributing upperclassman. Can true freshman JaQuan Lyle be Ohio State's No. 1 scorer even though he's not as much of a guaranteed star as Russell was? What will the Buckeyes' rotation be at the wing? Can Jae'Sean Tate, as an undersized power forward that is a vicious rebounder, shot-blocker, defender, and interior scorer, remain on the track to be Branden Dawson 2.0? And how will Virginia Tech transfer Trevor Thompson and true freshman Daniel Giddens man the center position? There are just so many questions that need to be answered this year.

A team with this many questions and this much inexperience is prone to inconsistency. There'll be times when the Buckeyes look like a juggernaut, and there'll be times when they look like, well, a gaggle of underclassmen. With this much talent, Ohio State can still make the NCAA Tournament in a rebuilding year. But a Big Ten contender? Unlikely.

Penn State

2014-15 Record: 18-16 (4-14 Big Ten)
2014-15 KenPom Rank: 82
Key Departures: D.J. Newbill, Geno Thorpe, Ross Travis
Incoming Freshmen: Josh Reaves, Mike Watkins, Deividas Zemgulis
Eligible Transfers: N/A

It wasn't a surprise that Penn State's inflated record popped once PSU entered Big Ten play last season. Penn State went 12-1 in the non-conference, but only one of those wins deserved any respect (George Washington) and many of them involved last-second escapes against terrible competition. This is why the Lions remained a fringe top-100 team on KenPom despite their shiny record, and I tried to warn Penn State fans about what was coming. They didn't heed my warning, though. So they were left frustrated and disappointed when Penn State had two separate six-game losing streaks in the Big Ten season and finished with an awful conference record -- just like it had many times before.

And now Penn State no longer has D.J. Newbill, who put the entire team on his back all season. Not only did he average a Big Ten-leading 20.7 points as well as 4.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists, he was extremely efficient (108.9) despite being used on almost one-third of PSU's possessions. Newbill could score from anywhere and created offense for others while keeping turnovers to a minimum. He was one of the Big Ten's best, and I wish he could have received any support from his teammates. Newbill deserved that as a senior.

With Newbill gone, there is a crater in Penn State's roster, and the Lions have no one to fill it. Guard Geno Thorpe could have helped, but he opted to transfer to South Florida. Sophomore point guard Shep Garner could be a solid player, but he struggled to score from spots on the floor that weren't the right wing or corner. And no one else on this roster could shoot well from the outside or be a playmaker for others. Often, the most likely thing that would happen when the ball was in their hands was a missed shot off the iron or a turnover. Penn State does have some promising talent entering in the form of shooting guard Josh Reaves and power forward Mike Watkins, both of whom are four-stars, but they're on the lower end of the four-star spectrum. Don't expect them to come out guns blazing as freshmen. Penn State should be solid defensively in the front court with Brandon Taylor, Jordan Dickerson, and Julian Moore, but this team will struggle to put points on the board night in and night out. It'll be ugly, just like PSU's Big Ten record.

Rutgers

2014-15 Record: 10-22 (2-16 Big Ten)
2014-15 KenPom Rank: 215
Key Departures: Myles Mack, Kadeem Jack, Junior Etou, Malick Kone
Incoming Freshmen: Corey Sanders, Jonathan Laurent, Justin Goode
Eligible Transfers: Deshawn Freeman, Omari Grier

I'm going to keep this brief because in-depth analysis is not needed to explain why Rutgers will be the heavy anchor on what will be a very strong Big Ten basketball league. Rutgers went 10-22 last season, which included losses to Saint Peters and St. Francis (PA) and a win over Wisconsin that will forever confound the human brain. Rutgers loses its three best players in Myles Mack, Kadeem Jack, and Junior Etou. Rutgers did add a top-100 freshman in Corey Sanders that could be good down the road, but the Knights are relying upon contributions from multiple JUCO transfers. Rutgers is ranked No. 223 in KenPom's projections, which is 56 spots below the second-worst P5 school (Missouri).

Rutgers is bad, and you should feel bad if you ever thought otherwise.

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Tomorrow, we'll run down the Big Ten teams that will be contenders this season.