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2015-16 Michigan Basketball Preview: Big Ten Contenders

Want to know the Big Ten basketball teams that will be contending for a conference championship this season? We run them down for you.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

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

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 was broken down into two parts. Two days ago, we ran down who will be the Big Ten pretenders. Today, we look at the Big Ten contenders. Teams will be listed in alphabetical order as predictions will be revealed later today.



2014-15 Record: 20-14 (9-9 Big Ten)
2014-15 KenPom Rank: 53
Key Departures: Hanner Mosquera-Perea, Stanford Robinson, Emmitt Holt, Max Hoetzel, Devin Davis 
Incoming Freshmen: Thomas Bryant, Juwan Morgan, O.G. Anunoby, Harrison Niego
Eligible Transfers: Max Bielfeldt

Despite having no seniors on the roster last season, there was a large exodus of Hoosiers in the spring and summer. Some, like Stanford Robinson and Max Hoetzel, transferred to other schools, while others, like Hanner Mosquera-Perea, Emmitt Holt, and Devin Davis, were dismissed from the program for offenses such as possession of marijuana and underage possession of alcohol. Maybe these players transferred of their own free will, and maybe Tom Crean wants to become a strict disciplinarian. Or maybe Crean needed room for his talented four-member 2015 recruiting class. I'll let you decide which one.

Notwithstanding this turnover, Indiana returns the core of its roster from a team that finished seventh in the Big Ten. Led by Yogi Ferrell, Indiana will have one of the nation's best offenses once again this season. Ferrell is a jitterbug point guard that uses his quickness and speed to get to any spot on the floor to create his own shot, particularly on the perimeter, and dish to open teammates. And he has numerous weapons around him. James Blackmon, Jr. averaged 15.7 points as a freshman thanks to his sweet shooting from the wings, Troy Williams is an athletic freak that can reach for any pass that's in the vicinity of the rim and throw it down, and the bench is stocked with three-point snipers.

The real question will be if Indiana can "D" up. The Hoosiers were awful on that end last season, finishing 214th in adjusted defensive efficiency. They lacked the perimeter defenders to contain dribble penetration -- Blackmon was a sieve -- and the size down low to protect the rim. Indiana's tallest player was 6-foot-9 Mosquera-Perea, and, when he missed a stretch of Big Ten games, IU's starting center became 6-foot-6 Collin Hartman. This is why Indiana was last in the conference in two-point defense. Ceding layups was routine, and IU's inability to get stops led to its demise in the Big Ten race.

Defensively, Indiana is pinning its hopes on stud true freshman center Thomas Bryant. He stands at 6-foot-10 and may be a first-round selection in next summer's NBA Draft. Bryant has a great physical profile, an incredible wingspan (7'5"), and the motor to be the rim protector that IU needs. If he can carry that load, Indiana will be in excellent shape.


2014-15 Record: 22-12 (12-6 Big Ten)
2014-15 KenPom Rank: 19
Key Departures: Aaron White, Gabriel Olaseni, Josh Oglesby
Incoming Freshmen: Brandon Hutton, Isaiah Moss, Andrew Fleming, Ahmad Wagner, Christian Williams
Eligible Transfers: Dale Jones

Iowa has improved in each of Fran McCaffery's five seasons as coach, progressing from sub-.500 team to NIT participant to NIT finalist to First Four member to winning its first NCAA Tournament game since 2001. This trend may end this season, though, as the Hawkeyes must replace Aaron White, who averaged 16.4 points and 7.3 rebounds and, because of his proclivity to score inside and at the free-throw line, had the second-best offense rating among players with a usage rate above 20 percent. Not in the Big Ten. In the country. White is irreplaceable and will be missed greatly this season, as will Gabriel Olaseni -- a 6-foot-10 center who finished well and patrolled the paint with authority.

However, the Hawkeyes have the pieces in place to overcome these departures thanks to what should be the most experienced starting lineup in the Big Ten. Iowa is projected to start four seniors and a junior, which is not common in a landscape full of one-and-dones and transfers. Forward Jarrod Uthoff will take on the task of filling in for White and becoming Iowa's go-to scorer. Averaging 12.4 points and 6.4 boards last season, Uthoff was often overlooked and should be one of 10 best players in the Big Ten due to his outside shooting, rebounding, and shot-blocking prowess. And, alongside him, Uthoff has Mike Gesell, who's a great distributor and thrives in big moments, and Adam Woodbury, a 7-foot-1 center that dominates the boards but needs to be more of a defensive presence.

The question will be if someone can be a Robin to Uthoff's Batman. Uthoff cannot be the only one Hawkeye capable of scoring -- and Uthoff has his own faults, like not getting into the lane enough -- but there are no proven secondary scorers. White and Olaseni were Iowa's two best interior scorers, and, other than Uthoff and shooting guard Anthony Clemmons, there isn't much three-point shooting on this roster. If Uthoff can receive some help on the offensive end, Iowa is more than capable of contending for a Big Ten championship and improving for the sixth straight year under McCaffery's tutelage.

Though, an exhibition loss to Division II program Augustana was a bit ominous.


2014-15 Record: 28-7 (14-4 Big Ten)
2014-15 KenPom Rank: 32
Key Departures: Dez Wells, Richaud Pack, Evan Smotrycz, Jon Graham
Incoming Freshmen: Diamond Stone
Eligible Transfers: Robert Carter, Rasheed Sulaimon, Jaylen Brantley

Maryland is one of the most fascinating teams. Expectations for the Terrapins are sky high after they surprised folks with a 28-7 (14-4 Big Ten) season and added three impact players in Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter, Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon, and future one-and-done center Diamond Stone. With the talent and depth that Maryland has, it's no surprise most experts have the Terps as a top-five team and Big Ten favorite.

However, Maryland is fascinating because they were the subject of a heated debate between traditionalists and advanced-stat advocates. Maryland won lots of games, even winning some big ones like its only matchup vs. Wisconsin, but how the Terrapins won those games was concerning. They had a habit of eking out close victories, posting a 12-1 record in games decided by six points or fewer. Traditionalists would attribute that to the clutch play of the Terrapins -- that they were able to find ways to win because that's what good teams do. Advanced-stat advocates would attribute it to an unbelievable and unsustainable amount of good fortune -- Maryland was second in KenPom's Luck stat.

So just how good is Maryland this season? Odds are that the Terrapins still are an elite team. Point guard Melo Trimble exceeded all expectations as a freshman last season and should be the favorite to win Big Ten Player of the Year. Sulaimon or Jared Nickens will start at shooting guard with both able to connect from long range, though Nickens may be the better option because he won't be a ball-stopper like Sulaimon can. And Maryland will be flushed with talent in the front court. Jake Layman's efficiency and versatility is under-appreciated, and he can play either the 3 or 4. Carter will be a bruiser at the 4, bullying opponents on both ends of the floor. And Stone will be a special player at center.

Maryland won't post the near-spotless record in close games that it did last season. The difference, though, is this team is good enough that close games shouldn't be necessary.


2014-15 Record: 16-16 (8-10 Big Ten)
2014-15 KenPom Rank: 75
Key Departures: Max Bielfeldt
Incoming Freshmen: Moritz Wagner
Eligible Transfers: Duncan Robinson

After back-to-back Elite Eights, expectations still were high in Ann Arbor last season, during which a return trip to the Sweet 16 seemed more than possible. But injuries derailed Michigan's season just a few weeks in. Most think the injuries took their toll in January when both Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton, Jr. were sidelined for the season with a fractured foot and sprained toe, respectively. However, the injuries impacted Michigan in its fifth game vs. Villanova, when Walton initially hurt his toe. He never was the same player after that, and, as his health deteriorated, it left LeVert all alone in trying to carry the Wolverines. It was too much to ask, and Michigan sputtered to a 16-16 year.

This season is a chance for redemption. Michigan returns its entire roster from last year -- save Max Bielfeldt, who transferred to Indiana -- and adds weapons in sharpshooter Duncan Robinson and stretch forward Moritz Wagner. Plus, not only are LeVert and Walton back to full strength, multiple Wolverines, such as Zak Irvin, Spike Albrecht, and Aubrey Dawkins, demonstrated substantial improvement in their absence towards the end of last year. Assuming that those players can regain that form this season, Michigan will be stocked with talented depth at point guard and on the wings, which means lots of three-point shooting, spacing, and playmaking for another efficient John Beilein offense.

The concerns for this Michigan outfit are the same as for most Beilein teams. Will Michigan have a legitimate interior presence? Michigan has candidates in Ricky Doyle, Mark Donnal, D.J. Wilson, and Wagner, but not many sure-fire answers. The Wolverines don't need a big that can score with his back to the basket. They need a big that can set solid screens in the pick and roll, rebound the ball, and be a force defensively. And, also, can Michigan stay healthy? Yes, LeVert and Walton are back, but Irvin and Albrecht each had to have offseason surgery. Neither is 100 percent yet, though each should be soon.

Michigan State

2014-15 Record: 27-12 (12-6 Big Ten)
2014-15 KenPom Rank: 15
Key Departures: Travis Trice, Branden Dawson
Incoming Freshmen: Deyonta Davis, Matthew McQuaid, Kyle Ahrens
Eligible Transfers: Eron Harris

Last season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Michigan State. Instead, it ended with the Spartans' 13th trip to the Sweet 16 and seventh appearance in the Final Four in the past 18 seasons. Typical Tom Izzo. This season, they'll be vying to make their way back, and it wouldn't be a surprise this time because they'll be one of the Big Ten's best.

Though Travis Trice and Branden Dawson are gone, Michigan State still is deep with talent, which means Izzo will be able to test a variety of combinations. The one stalwart of the starting lineup will be Denzel Valentine, who had a breakout junior season by averaging 14.5 points, 6.3 boards, and 4.3 assists. His versatility -- he can score inside and out, run the offense, crash the glass, and defend -- permits him to flourish whether he plays the point or on the wings. And that puts Izzo in a dilemma. Does he want to start Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn, who was a liability on the floor last season, at point, which would keep sniper Bryn Forbes or all-around scorer Eron Harris on the bench? Or would he rather start both Forbes and Harris and have Valentine run the point? To me, the latter is the best option and would space the floor for a deadly three-point shooting team.

Things aren't settled in the front court either. Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling should consume most of the minutes at center, and both fit the same mold: 6-foot-9 bodies that finish well inside five feet, hit the boards, block shots, and commit lots of fouls. Costello is a bit more well-rounded and has more of an interior presence, so he should be the starter. But power forward is a giant question mark. The Spartans could go with Marvin Clark, Javon Bess, or heralded freshman Deyonta Davis. There are so many options.

We may not know how Izzo plans to set his rotation, but we do know that it'll be tough for him to screw up with the talent the Spartans have. Plus, it's Izzo. He's transformed Michigan State into one of the most consistent and most reliable programs in the nation. And we know that means the Spartans will be feared by many once March rolls around.


2014-15 Record: 21-13 (12-6 Big Ten)
2014-15 KenPom Rank: 48
Key Departures: Jon Octeus
Incoming Freshmen: Caleb Swanigan, Ryan Cline, Grant Weatherford
Eligible Transfers: Johnny Hill

If you watch basketball to watch high-scoring games with free-flowing offenses, don't watch Purdue. That's a compliment and an insult. It's a compliment because Purdue will be a fierce defensive team. Last season, the Boilermakers didn't force enough turnovers, hacked too many players, and allowed too many second chances, but it doesn't really matter if the offense still can't score. Purdue was second in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency because they were stingy on the perimeter and inside. The length of wings such as Raphael Davis -- the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year -- Kendall Stephens, and Vincent Edwards made three-point tries and dribble penetration a chore. And, when offenses did enter the paint, they had to challenge one of the twin towers -- A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas -- who often swatted their shots into the seats. All of these players return, and the Boilermakers add five-star, 6-foot-9 power forward Caleb Swanigan, who will allow Edwards to move up to the 3. Good luck scoring on Purdue.

But it's an insult because it won't be pretty when Purdue has the ball either. Last season, offensively, the Boilermakers relied on put-backs and marching to the free-throw line. This isn't a surprise when a team has two seven-foot centers, and it should be the same this season with Swanigan in the fold. But Purdue has glaring holes on the perimeter. Kendall Stephens is the only respectable three-point threat, and the Boilermakers don't have a point guard that can run an offense cleanly without coughing up the ball. There's little question that defenses will sag off the arc and force Purdue to beat them from the outside. Unless Stephens can let it rain or Edwards makes the leap, that'll be a problem.


2014-15 Record: 36-4 (16-2 Big Ten)
2014-15 KenPom Rank: 3
Key Departures: Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Josh Gasser, Traevon Jackson, Duje Dukan
Incoming Freshmen: Brevin Pritzl, Alex Illikainen, Charlie Thomas, Khalil Iverson, Andy Van Vliet
Eligible Transfers: N/A

Unless you've been tucked away under a boulder all summer, you've probably heard at least 25 times that Wisconsin has finished no worse than fourth place in the Big Ten in the 14 seasons that Bo Ryan has been the head coach. This is has been mentioned so many times not just because it's an incredible feat of excellence and consistency but also because that streak is in serious jeopardy this season. The Badgers lost three starters and two key contributors from a team that was just minutes away from winning the national championship. Oh, and did I forget to mention that two of those departed starters are Frank Kaminsky, who was the consensus National Player of the Year, and Sam Dekker?

This year's team has Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, and no other players that have significant experience. Hayes and Koenig are very good players -- I have both in my top 15 -- but there are questions about how they'll perform without Kaminsky and Dekker drawing most of the defense's attention. It seems likely that Hayes will be fine, as he was one of the most efficient and well-rounded players in the Big Ten. Plus, that he transitioned from a freshman that didn't launch a single three into a sophomore that drilled 40 percent of his triples speaks to his ability to develop and score from any spot on the floor. Koenig is more of an uncertainty because his role was to spread the floor and knock down threes last season. Can he create for others and score inside? We'll see.

So who will be the three other starters for Wisconsin? The best guesses are Zak Showalter at shooting guard, Ethan Happ at small forward, and Vitto Brown at center. And here's where Wisconsin's issues begin to shine brightly. In his limited time on the floor, Showalter has made only 4-of-24 threes (16.7 pct.), and he's being asked to replace Josh Gasser, who drilled 42.1 percent of his shots from downtown after his freshman season. Brown will be Wisconsin's 6-foot-8 center because the Badgers lost out on Wisconsin native Diamond Stone to Maryland. Brown is a good rebounder, but, when the ball is in his hands, trouble is abound because he doesn't convert around the hoop and fumbles the ball often. This leaves Happ, who's a redshirt freshman, as Wisconsin's best hope to have a breakout season. He was Kaminsky's sparring partner in practice so to speak, and reports raved about him. So maybe he's the answer. But, if he's not, then the Badgers are relying on a gaggle of unheralded true freshman to pick up the slack.

If most teams had this roster entering the season, we would be projecting a bottom-half-of-the-Big-Ten finish. No question. But, because this is Ryan's team, we're giving them the benefit of the doubt and calling them a contender. Will they be? I lean towards no. But, if I have learned anything while watching Big Ten hoops, it's not to bet against Ryan.


This afternoon, we'll unveil our Big Ten superlatives and predictions for this season.