clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2015-16 Michigan Basketball Preview: Top 15 Players in the Big Ten

Who will be the best 15 basketball players in the Big Ten? We rank 'em.

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

PreviouslyThe MulliganPosition Preview: The GuardsPosition Preview: The WingsPosition Preview: The Big Men

Last week, Maize n Brew's 2015-16 basketball preview focused on the Michigan team and what the Wolverines have at each position. This week, we'll focus on how Michigan stacks up against the rest of the Big Ten. Before we dive into how each Big Ten team should perform this year, we highlight who will be the best Big Ten players. Our Top 15:


Just Missed the Cut: Alex Olah (NW), Caleb Swanigan (PU), Derrick Walton (MICH)

15. Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin (PG | Junior)

2014-15 Stats: 40 GP | 28.8 MPG | 8.7 PPG | 2.5 APG | 1.8 RPG | 42.4 2P% | 40.5 3P%

Bronson Koenig was Wisconsin's backup point guard for the first 16 games last season until an injury to Traevon Jackson thrust Koenig into the starting lineup. And, with that move, the Badgers' offense exploded, posting efficiency numbers that hadn't been seen in the KenPom era. Koenig was a much better fit than Jackson because Koenig was an superb outside shooter and didn't dominate the ball, deferring to Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, and Nigel Hayes. This year, though, Koenig will be asked to take on a much bigger role with Kaminsky, Dekker, and other key contributors no longer in Madison. This additional responsiblity shouldn't be too much for Koenig as he played well in the pick and roll. But can he be a better distributor? Can he create his own shot? We'll see.

14. Zak Irvin, Michigan (SF | Junior)

2014-15 Stats: 32 GP | 36.3 MPG | 14.3 PPG | 4.8 RPG | 1.5 APG | 44.5 2P% | 35.1 3P%

As Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton went down with season-ending injuries, Zak Irvin was having an up-and-down sophomore campaign. Irvin hadn't shown an ability to be a creator, and his three-point stroke -- his bread and butter -- wasn't consistent. However, a flip switched in Michigan's final 12 games, when he averaged 15.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game. Not only had he increased his presence on the glass, Irvin began to attack off the dribble, particularly on pick and rolls, to score around the rim and kick out passes to open shooters on the perimeter. That's the player that Irvin should be again this season. The question, though, is how much will a back injury that required surgery in the offseason hinder him as he tries to recover and get back in shape for the season.

13. James Blackmon, Jr., Indiana (SG / SF | Sophomore)

2014-15 Stats: 33 GP | 30.0 MPG | 15.7 PPG | 5.3 RPG | 1.5 APG | 45.0 2P% | 38.7 3P%

James Blackmon, Jr. is the bizarro version of Aaron Craft -- an excellent jump-shooter and putrid perimeter defender. As a freshman, Blackmon was ninth in per-game scoring average (15.7) and eighth in offensive efficiency among those with a usage rate of at least 20 percent (114.3) in the Big Ten. Many of his points came on outside jumpers as he flashed a sweet stroke, and he took good care of the basketball when it was in his hands. Defensively, Blackmon was an above average rebounder, but everything else was rough. He really struggled to contain dribble penetration and ceded too many layups behind him. It will be interesting to see how much he's improved in this area as a sophomore.

12. Eron Harris, Michigan State (SG / SF | Junior)

2013-14 Stats: 33 GP | 31.4 MPG | 17.2 PPG | 3.5 RPG | 1.6 APG | 45.4 2P% | 42.2 3P%

Eron Harris sat out last season due to NCAA rules after he transferred from West Virginia to Michigan State, but he'll step right in and be one of the Spartans' leaders this season. Though he can light it up from behind the arc (42.2 3P%) on the catch and off the bounce, Harris is an all-around scorer and posted the fourth-highest scoring average (17.2) in the Big 12 in 2013-14. He didn't do much of anything else for the Mountaineers as his rebounding and assist rates were sub-par. However, there's little doubt that Tom Izzo will change Harris' rebounding habits, and the Spartans don't need Harris to transition into a distributor because Denzel Valentine should handle most of that responsibility.

11. Troy Williams, Indiana (SF / PF | Junior)

2014-15 Stats: 32 GP | 27.6 MPG | 13.1 PPG | 7.4 RPG | 2.0 APG | 54.4 2P% | 46.2 3P%

Troy Williams' athleticism cannot be disputed. The man can jump out of the building and tear down your rim when he finally crashes back down to earth. It is this athleticism that permits him to be a freak on both ends of the court. On offense, he's one of the best finishers around the bucket and had the 13th-best offensive rebounding rate (9.5) in the Big Ten. On defense, he had a rebounding rate of 21.7 percent, which is the best among returning Big Ten players. This season, the question will be how much polish he adds to his game. Though he made 6-of-13 threes last year, he's not much of an outside shooter and isn't a great ball-handler. Will he be a more complete player? Or will he continue to pad his scoring thanks to the penetration and dishing from point guard Yogi Ferrell?

10. Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa (SF | Senior)

2014-15 Stats: 34 GP | 34.3 MPG | 12.4 PPG | 6.4 RPG | 1.7 APG | 46.8 2P% | 37.2 3P%

Jarrod Uthoff often was overlooked last season with the spotlight on the uber-efficient Aaron White when it shined on Iowa City. However, Uthoff is very talented in his own right, and that was never more evident than during conference play when he had the ninth-best offensive rating (122.0), seventh-best three-point percentage (40.7), sixth-best turnover rate (8.9), and eighth-best block rate (6.4). He's also an above average defensive rebounder. White has graduated, so Iowa is asking Uthoff to become the Hawkeyes' next leader and guide a team that returns much of its roster. If Uthoff can continue to do what he's done and become more aggressive around the rim, he'll be a tough player to stop.

9. Malcolm Hill, Illinois (SG / SF | Junior)

2014-15 Stats: 33 GP | 30.6 MPG | 14.4 PPG | 4.8 RPG | 1.3 APG | 46.7 2P% | 38.9 3P%

I'm higher on Malcolm Hill than most. When Rayvonte Rice went down with a broken hand last season, I thought the Illini were in deep trouble. However, in the next nine games without Rice, Illinois went 6-3 because Hill embraced the role as the Illini's top performer and averaged 17.7 points and 5.0 rebounds per game in that span. And not only was Hill pouring in shots, he was efficient, too, posting a 50.3 eFG% in those nine games. It was incredible stretch that demonstrated Hill could score anywhere on the floor -- he's lethal from mid-range -- and get to the free-throw line. With Rice gone and multiple Illini already out with injuries, Illinois will need Hill to tap into that form once again.

8. Jake Layman, Maryland (PF | Senior)

2014-15 Stats: 35 GP | 30.1 MPG | 12.5 PPG | 5.8 RPG | 1.4 APG | 53.0 2P% | 37.8 3P%

Jake Layman was one of the most improved and underappreciated players in the Big Ten last season. It may not have seemed that way because there was little disparity in his per-game numbers between his sophomore and junior years, but Layman was a more efficient and versatile scorer. Not only did he develop a midrange jumper, he became more aggressive and attacked the rim with more frequency, doing so by taking bigger defenders off the bounce or posting up smaller ones. As a result, his two-point shooting and free-throw rates soared. Layman will be a fantastic third option for Maryland, and, with center Diamond Stone on board, Layman will thrive in his natural spot at the 4.

7. Diamond Stone, Maryland (C | Freshman)

2014-15 Stats: McDonald's HS All-American | No. 6 in 2015 247Sports Composite

Last season, Maryland was a good team that overachieved with 28-7 overall and 14-4 Big Ten records, but the Terps could have been better if they had a more consistent presence at center. Enter: Diamond Stone, a 6-foot-11 McDonald's All-American that should spend one season in College Park before he receives a fat paycheck from the NBA the following summer. Stone will have a major impact on both ends of the floor. Offensively, he can score with his back to the basket thanks to a nice left hook, soft touch, and great footwork. Also, he can extend out and drain the 15-footer. Defensively, Stone corrals missed shots and uses his 7-foot-3 wingspan to protect the rim. Add in that he has shed 21 pounds to drop down to 249 pounds and get in shape, and Stone could be a monster.

6. A.J. Hammons, Purdue (C | Senior)

2014-15 Stats: 34 GP | 24.3 MPG | 12.0 PPG | 6.6 RPG | 2.8 BPG | 55.3 2P% | 0.0 3P%

A.J. Hammons was an enigma his first two years in West Lafayette, but it all came together for him as a junior. There was no better defensive big man in the Big Ten than Hammons. His block rate (12.3 pct.) was 11th nationally and more than two points higher than the next Big Ten defender on the list. Hammons had done this before, but the difference was that he was more disciplined, which was why Purdue had the best two-point defense in the conference. He also was a monster on the boards, ranking fourth and seventh in offensive and defensive rebounding rate in the Big Ten, respectively, and a superb finisher around the rim (76 pct.). And, with Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan by his side, Hammons will anchor one of the nation's most formidable front courts this season.

5. Caris LeVert, Michigan (SG | Senior)

2014-15 Stats: 18 GP | 35.8 MPG | 14.9 PPG | 4.9 RPG | 3.7 APG | 42.6 2P% | 38.4 3P%

Caris LeVert's first foray as Michigan's Batman didn't go as anticipated. Before he was sidelined with a foot fracture, LeVert led the team in points (14.9), rebounds (4.9), assists (3.7), and steals (1.8), but his efficency plummeted from 111.7 as a sophomore to 101.1 as a junior. This wasn't a surprise as he was forced to put the offense on his back as his teammates struggled with injuries or couldn't keep up their end of the bargain. However, in LeVert's absence, Zak Irvin, Spike Albrecht, and Aubrey Dawkins experienced major improvement, and Derrick Walton, Jr. will be at full strength this season. LeVert should have more help and resemble the form that put him in the first round on draft boards.

4. Denzel Valentine, Michigan State (PG / SG | Senior)

2014-15 Stats: 39 GP | 33.2 MPG | 14.5 PPG | 6.3 RPG | 4.3 APG | 47.5 2P% | 41.6 3P%

Some Michigan fans will be upset that Denzel Valentine is in this spot ahead of Caris LeVert, but the truth is that the season Valentine had last year was better than any LeVert has had -- even LeVert's sophomore campaign. Valentine was a key leader on a team that went to the Final Four and finished 15th in KenPom in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. That's because Valentine took on a variety of roles. He ranked in the top 15 in the Big Ten in three-point shooting (sixth), assist rate (eighth), and defensive rebounding rate (15th). Though he's still good for the one head-scratching turnover each game, Valentine's versatility and efficiency make him one of the Big Ten's best players.

3. Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin (SF / PF | Junior)

2014-15 Stats: 40 GP | 33.0 MPG | 12.4 PPG | 6.2 RPG | 2.0 APG | 54.1 2P% | 39.6 3P%

When Nigel Hayes wasn't being a nightmare for stenographers last season, he was a member of a lethal three-headed attack at Wisconsin that shattered efficiency records. Hayes was the third option behind Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, but he was quite the third option to have. Don't let his modest per-game scoring average fool you. He posted an offensive rating of 122.1, which was the fifth-best in the Big Ten among those with a usage rate above 20 percent, and developed into a 40-percent three-point shooter after not launching a single three as a freshman. Hayes can do it all: rebound, pass, defend on the perimeter and in the post. The question is if he can do it as the top option.

2. Yogi Ferrell, Indiana (PG | Senior)

2014-15 Stats: 34 GP | 34.9 MPG | 16.3 PPG | 4.9 APG | 3.2 RPG | 46.0 2P% | 41.6 3P%

Yogi Ferrell decided to put aside his NBA aspirations for one more season and, in doing so, he returns as the Big Ten's best offensive player. No returning Big Ten player with a usage rate higher than 20 percent had a better offensive rating than Ferrell (124.3). Not only was Ferrell able to use his quickness to get to any spot on the floor and create his own shot off the dribble -- only 58.5 percent of his made threes were assisted -- he used it to get open looks for his teammates as well. Accordingly, he guided one of the best offenses in the nation and should do the same this season. But Ferrell couldn't grab the top spot on this list because basketball is played on two ends, and his defense is meh.

1.  Melo Trimble, Maryland (PG | Sophomore)

2014-15 Stats: 35 GP | 33.5 MPG | 16.2 PPG | 3.9 RPG | 3.0 APG | 46.8 2P% | 41.2 3P%

Even as the No. 31 prospect in the 2014 class, Melo Trimble exceeded all expectations as a freshman. He proved he could handle a huge chunk of the offense (24.8 usg%) and be one of the more efficient players in the Big Ten (116.5 ORtg). This was thanks to his ability to drain threes from the right side of the arc and draw contact when he drove to the tin. His free-throw rate (FTA / FGA) was 71 percent, which was second in the Big Ten. And, this year, he should be even better with another year of development, which should lower his turnovers, and a better supporting cast -- he'll run a deadly pick and roll with new big Diamond Stone. He's the early favorite to win Big Ten Player of the Year.


The next two days, we'll examine which Big Ten teams are pretenders and contenders.