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Tiering out the Big Ten’s men’s basketball teams

Where does Michigan fall within the rest of the conference?

Illinois v Michigan Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

To actually rank the Big Ten men’s basketball teams 1-through-14 would be a needless exercise in splitting hairs and a massive waste of time.

This is a conference that, at the moment sports shut down eight months ago, would have most likely placed 10 teams in the NCAA Tournament. Seven teams finished with a conference record within one game of .500. Eight were ranked between 22nd and 34th in KenPom. 12 won at least eight conference games.

With so little separating so many teams in the Big Ten, it seems like a far more effective strategy to rank them in tiers rather than individually. Better to leave the finer sorting process to the on-court action itself.

(Note: the order in which these teams are listed within their tiers is completely random.)

Tier 4: Nah

Nebraska: Where to start? They were always going to have a hard time winning even double-digit games last season, with a new head coach and just two returning players. But it’s not going to get any easier in Fred Hoiberg’s second season, with a ridiculously deep Big Ten awaiting a Cornhusker team that lost its three leading scorers from last season — Haanif Cheatham, Dachon Burke Jr. and Cam Mack.

Nebraska finished 2-18 in conference play and 7-25 overall, and I really have no idea how this team gets much better. The only major contributors from last year’s team returning are guard Thorir Thorbjarnason (8.8 ppg on 45/37/78 shooting splits) and forward Yvan Ouedraogo, who showed promise as a 6-foot-9, 260-pound 17-year-old playing Big Ten basketball. Transfers Trey McGowens (11.6 ppg in two years at Pitt) and Kobe Webster (16.7 ppg in three years at Western Illinois) will help out. Shamiel Stevenson is eligible after sitting out last season after transferring from Pitt. The Huskers also have a freshman guard named Elijah Wood, which I just thought I should mention.

That’s just not enough to compete with the rest of the conference, with the exception of Northwestern. While they’re in the same tier, I’d rate the Wildcats a tick above Nebraska, because the few pieces they do have are known commodities who have already produced in the Big Ten. That kind of experience and chemistry will be crucial in a COVID-19-affected season where teams haven’t had quite the normal time to get acclimated.

Northwestern: Miller Kopp, a 6-foot-7 junior wing, should once again play a big scoring role for Chris Collins’ bunch. He shot nearly 40 percent from three on over five attempts per game last year, averaging 13 points per game. Boo Buie mixed in scoring potential (10.3 ppg) with inefficiency typical of a freshman guard starting for a terrible team. Top-100 recruit Robbie Beran showed stretch-4 potential a year ago, knocking down 39 percent of his treys. Ryan Young was a typical Big Ten bruiser inside, scoring 9 ppg on 53 percent shooting with zero range.

A couple wild cards on the Wildcats’ roster: Pete Nance, the son of former Cavaliers star Larry Nance, who hasn’t quite materialized into a 6-foot-10 matchup nightmare yet. At one point, Nance was Northwestern’s highest-ranked recruit of all time, but a 90.9 offensive rating as a sophomore falls well short of that potential. Chase Audige, who sat out last season after transferring from William & Mary, might start in the backcourt alongside Buie.

Tier 3: A puncher’s chance

Minnesota: Nebraska and Northwestern were the only two bad teams in the Big Ten last season, but Minnesota was a somewhat clear 12th out of 14. The Golden Gophers were the only non-Husker or Wildcat team to finish with an overall record below .500. That being said, basketball is a strange game: the 2018-19 Minnesota team that made the NCAA Tournament and won a game there was, in many respects, worse than last year’s group.

The 2018-19 Gophers were built around twin bruisers Jordan Murphy and Daniel Oturu and slasher Amir Coffey, which helps explain why they were 343rd in the nation in 3-pointer to 2-pointer ratio. Last season, they were 96th, and their KenPom offensive efficiency ranking went up from 52 to 30. As a team, they went from 46th in KenPom to 27th — a figure that can partly be explained by the Big Ten’s depth, but nonetheless.

Oturu was an absolute monster as Minnesota’s focal point last year, averaging 20 and 11 on 56/35/70 shooting, but he’s with the Clippers now. That means the reins will fall fully into the hands of senior point guard Marcus Carr, who averaged 15.4 points, 6.5 assists and 5.3 rebounds a year ago. He’s an All-Big Ten First Team candidate. On the wings, Gabe Kalscheur (37 percent career 3-point shooter on 6 attempts per game) and Utah transfer Both Gach (10.7 ppg) will make Carr’s job easier. If 7-footer Liam Robbins (14 and 7 at Drake in 2018-19) and Brandon Johnson (15 and 8 at Western Michigan) can provide a solid post presence, and everything else goes right, Minnesota has as good a chance as any to move up a tier.

Penn State: It’s unfortunate we never got to see Lamar Stevens in the NCAA Tournament. As a senior, the 6-foot-8 forward proved he wasn’t just taking advantage of a dearth of talent around him to put up gaudy numbers. He averaged 17.6 points and 6.9 rebounds per game and had Penn State positioned for its first March Madness appearance since 2011. This season, the Nittany Lions’ potential success hinges almost entirely on how well they replace him.

Myreon Jones put up an offensive rating of 113 last season as PSU’s second option, averaging 13 points per contest and shooting 40 percent from behind the arc. He’ll have to assume the mantle of go-to-guy for the Nittany Lions to have a hope of competing for a postseason bid. But there are a few pieces around Jones: defensive ace Jamari Wheeler led the Big Ten in steals with 1.5 per game in 2020, and Myles Dread (8.6 ppg) and Izaiah Brockington (8.1 ppg) have the talent to take steps forward as well. Binghamton transfer Sam Sessoms, who led the America East in scoring last year with 19.4 points per game, recently received a waiver to play immediately.

Penn State’s backcourt looks strong, but the frontcourt without Stevens and Mike Watkins (7.6 rebounds, 2.2 blocks per game) will determine its ceiling. Seth Lundy, who put up a 116 offensive rating as a freshman, is an undersized (6-foot-6) but skilled option at the ‘4’. John Harrar is a more traditional big who averaged 4.3 points and 4.6 rebounds last year.

Maryland likely fancied itself a legitimate Final Four contender last season, but the two biggest reasons why have graduated (Anthony Cowan) or are in the NBA (Jalen Smith). Cowan was the Terrapins’ metronome for the last three seasons, having averaged 16.3 points and 4.7 assists per game as a senior, while Smith averaged a double-double with 2.4 blocks per game and 37 percent shooting from deep, ultimately making good on his lottery-pick potential.

The rest of Maryland’s starting lineup is back, but the Terrapins have historically relied on star power: there’s a clear dichotomy between their go-to guys and role players. They’ll have to hope Aaron Wiggins, Darryl Morsell, Eric Ayala and Donta Scott change that. Wiggins was their third-leading scorer in 2020 (10.4 ppg), but his 3-point percentage plummeted from 41.3 to 31.7. For a player who very likely will be Maryland’s No. 1 option, that’s troubling. Ayala’s 3-point percentage dropped as well, from 40 to 27. Morsell averaged 8.5 points per game but makes his name on defense — he held Markus Howard to 1-of-12 shooting last December — while Scott averaged 5.9 points and 3.6 rebounds as a freshman forward. Alabama grad transfer Galin Smith and Boston College transfer Jairus Hamilton, who recently got a waiver, should help out the front court too.

There will be plenty of shots and rebounds to go around, but right now, Maryland is a team of proven role players who haven’t proven more than that. That’s why it’s on the outside of Tier 2 looking in. Wiggins and Ayala could have something to say about that if they return to their 2018-19 forms, though.

Tier 2: March Madness? ... March Madness.

If the NCAA Tournament does happen this season, these next five teams should find themselves on pretty solid footing to get there when the regular season’s all said and done.

Michigan: With Juwan Howard bringing in the top recruiting class in the Big Ten in his first cycle, Michigan might have more upside than the other teams in its tier. For now, the Wolverines are merely an interesting team with a few holes to fill, none bigger than the one at point guard. Zavier Simpson’s impact went far beyond his 12.9 points, 7.9 assists (his assist rate of 43.5 ranked fourth in the country) and 4.5 rebounds. The 7-foot-1 Jon Teske leaves a more physically massive hole in the middle of Michigan’s defense. David DeJulius, once presumed Simpson’s heir apparent, transferred to Cincinnati.

The hope is that Franz Wagner makes The Leap from silky-smooth but skinny freshman wing into legit star in 2020-21. He might just do it. Wagner averaged 13.8 ppg on 36 percent shooting from downtown over his last nine games, after an injured wrist caused him to miss the beginning of the season and struggle early. He’s the most skilled scorer on the team, and could be right up there with the Big Ten’s best. Isaiah Livers maintained his high level of efficiency by averaging 13 points per game on 44/40/95 shooting splits in his first season as a true focal point as well. Eli Brooks was a tad inconsistent, but stepped up as a perimeter threat to average 10.6 points.

Wild cards for the Wolverines include Wagner’s development, freshmen Hunter Dickinson, Terrance Williams and Zeb Jackson, and the athletic Brandon Johns Jr. (6.0 ppg), who looked much more comfortable as a sophomore. Point guard will be a question mark, but there’s potential if Mike Smith’s scoring at Columbia (22.5 ppg) even somewhat translates to high-major ball. Last year’s emergence of Austin Davis (4.9 ppg on 69 percent shooting) gives Michigan a punch inside. Chaundee Brown (12.1 points and 6.5 rebounds at Wake Forest last year) and his physical game will fit nicely somewhere. Howard has a clearly talented team, but we’ll have to wait to see how it comes together.

Rutgers: The COVID-19 pandemic ripped away Rutgers’ first March Madness bid since 1991. But the Scarlet Knights, who ranked No. 6 in defensive efficiency last season, will run it back with seven of their nine main rotation players. They won’t be fun to watch, but I doubt a team hoping for its first NCAA Tournament bid in 30 years will care.

Ron Harper Jr., a skilled 245-pound swingman, led Rutgers in scoring at 12.5 points per game on an 111.2 offensive rating. As a junior, he seems right on the cusp of a real breakout year. 6-foot-11, 255-pound Myles Johnson doesn’t have the name recognition of a Luka Garza, Nate Reuvers or Trevion Williams, but he can shut any of them down on defense. His block rate of 7.6 percent ranked 60th in the nation last season, to go along with 8 points and 8 rebounds per game.

Johnson and Harper epitomize what you’re going to get with this Rutgers team: they’re big, they’re physical, and they have no qualms about mucking things up. The Scarlet Knights also have some backcourt skill with Jacob Young (8.5 ppg), Montez Mathis (7.4 ppg), Caleb McConnell (6.7 ppg) and Paul Mulcahy (3.7 ppg), and an ideal tough-shot maker in senior point guard Geo Baker (10.9 ppg, 3.5 apg). 6-foot-10 big man Cliff Omoruyi, one of the highest-rated recruits in Rutgers history, fits right in with Steve Pikiell’s system. The Scarlet Knights will need to improve on their 31 percent 3-point shooting if they want to get past the first weekend, but that’s an issue they can deal with later. For now, the vibes are good in Piscataway.

Purdue: Advanced stats loved Purdue in 2019-20. The Boilermakers were ranked 24th in KenPom despite finishing just 16-15 (their Luck rating, for what it’s worth, was 341 out of 353). The good news is that after a hard-luck season, they have a roster capable of turning those underlying numbers into wins.

It starts with junior Trevion Williams, massive at 6-foot-9 and 270 pounds and highly efficient — 11.6 points and 7.5 rebounds in just 22 minutes per game. His offensive rebounding rate ranked fifth in the country, and he even led the team in assist rate at 17.6 percent. He’s good enough to be the centerpiece of everything Purdue does. With Williams seemingly in position to give his best Caleb Swanigan impression, the Boilermakers have a capable cadre of role players surrounding their Preseason All-Big Ten post, even after inflatable car dealership tube man Matt Haarms transferred to BYU.

Eric Hunter Jr. made a solid leap as a sophomore to become Purdue’s second-leading scorer (10.6 ppg), doing so on solid efficiency. Sasha Stefanovic fits the Dakota Mathias/Ryan Cline archetype — three-quarters of his shots came from downtown, where he hit at a 38 percent clip. Aaron Wheeler, another junior, didn’t make a similar leap last season, but the lengthy 6-foot-9 wing still has time to break out. Brandon Newman, Ethan Morton and Jaden Ivey are all former Top-100 recruits. Matt Painter usually finds a way to get the most out of his teams, and should he do the same this year, a No. 7 seed or higher is a reasonable goal.

Ohio State’s first order of business in 2020-21 is figuring out how to replace Kaleb Wesson. Wesson (14.0 ppg, 9.3 rpg) was a load at 6-foot-9 and 270 pounds, and also hit over 40 percent of his treys on over three attempts per game. He also helped run the offense from the post, ranking second on the team in assists, while blocking shots and getting to the line. Physically and talent-wise, he was a worthy centerpiece of a Buckeye team that, while inconsistent, was slated for a seed in the 4-6 range back in March.

It isn’t just Wesson, though. Ohio State lost guards Luther Muhammad, who transferred to Arizona State, DJ Carton, who after stepping away from the program for mental health reasons announced he was transferring to Marquette, and Andre Wesson, who graduated. But the Buckeyes do have experience in the backcourt in junior Duane Washington (11.5 ppg) and senior CJ Walker (8.7 ppg, 3.5 apg). Sophomore E.J. Liddell, a former Top-50 recruit, is a powerful player at 6-foot-7, 240 pounds who might be able to provide a reasonable Wesson impersonation.

Ohio State will also be aided by Harvard grad transfer Seth Towns, the 2017-18 Ivy League Player of the Year (16.0 ppg, 44 percent from deep), and Cal transfer Justice Sueing (14.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.7 spg) on the wings. Towns hasn’t played since 2018 due to injuries, and the athletic Sueing didn’t practice during his sit-out season due to a foot injury. The Buckeyes’ upside might come down to how well they acclimate. Towns and Sueing might be their two most talented players. They’ve got a few more questions than most other teams in this section, but it’s hard to bet against Chris Holtmann.

Indiana: The Hoosiers disappointed in 2018-19, falling to the NIT in Romeo Langford’s only season and Juwan Morgan’s final one. Last year, Indiana bounced back behind the play of star freshman Trayce Jackson-Davis, putting itself in line for Archie Miller’s first NCAA Tournament bid in Bloomington. Jackson-Davis is back for his sophomore season, giving the Hoosiers a strong starting point as they look to return to the Big Dance.

While he has no range (he didn’t take a 3-pointer all season), Jackson-Davis averaged 13.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, and was a force on the defensive end with 1.8 blocks per game as well. With the 6-foot-11 Joey Brunk (6.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg in under 20 mpg) returning, Indiana has a paint duo that can hold its own against any in the Big Ten. Junior guard Rob Phinisee (7.3 ppg, 3.4 apg) is a dependable hand at point guard, and senior guard Aljami Durham (9.8 ppg) was efficient from all three levels as the Hoosiers’ fourth option.

Athletic forward Justin Smith (10.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and senior guard Devonte Green (10.8 ppg, 2.0 3-pointers per game) are big losses, but a strong four-man recruiting class will help replenish the Hoosiers’ roster. Five-star Khristian Lander, the crown jewel, should be a contender for conference Freshman of the Year. Overall, the Hoosiers aren’t stacked in any area, but they don’t appear particularly weak at any one spot (sans outside shooting, which at times is optional in the Big Ten). That’s a recipe for a seed somewhere between 7 and 10.

Tier 1: The contenders

Michigan State is ranked 13th in the Preseason AP Top 25, behind Top 10 teams Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois. But to state the obvious: never, ever count out a Tom Izzo-coached team. Even one that has to replace Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman.

The Spartans had all the pieces lined up for a Final Four run in Winston’s final season, and damn it if he didn’t deserve to get that chance. He put up another sterling stat line of 18.6 points, 5.9 assists and a 43.2 percent 3-point percentage as a senior. Tillman, meanwhile, had a monster junior season (13.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 3.0 apg, 2.1 bpg) en route to becoming a Memphis Grizzly a couple weeks ago.

While Michigan State can certainly reload, it’s going to look very, very different without Winston’s pick-and-roll mastery or Tillman’s defensive prowess in the middle. Sophomore Rocket Watts (9.0 ppg last season) seems most likely to start at point guard, and while he doesn’t have much in common with the legend he’s replacing, his track record of scoring fits his nickname. Joshua Langford (15.0 ppg, 40 percent from deep in 2018-19) and his ball-dominant style wasn’t always the greatest fit next to Winston, and he hasn’t played in nearly two years due to a foot injury, but the fifth-year senior will provide a proven scoring option. Stocky swingman Aaron Henry should be able to boost his scoring average from 10.0 as he moves into a more featured role as a junior. So, too, should the 6-foot-7 Gabe Brown (6.8 ppg).

Marquette Joey Hauser, at 6-foot-9 and with a 42.5 percent 3-point stroke (2018-19 stats), has real matchup-nightmare potential. Top-40 recruit Mady Sissoko and returners Malik Hall, Thomas Kithier, Marcus Bingham and Julius Marble shouldn’t be counted out as contributors in the post. Even without two of the five best players in the conference from last season, the Spartans should be really, really good once again.

Wisconsin wasn’t supposed to be that good last season. Not after graduating Ethan Happ (17.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 4.5 apg), who had a hand in basically everything the Badgers did in his final seasons. But Greg Gard found a way, and despite Kobe King (10.0 ppg) leaving the team midway through last season, Wisconsin went 14-6 in league play and tied for the regular-season crown. Other than King, Brevin Pritzl (8.0 ppg) is the lone major departure, meaning that while the Badgers may not have the glittering star power of Illinois or Iowa, they have enough experience and talent to be right in it at the end.

Would Wisconsin be Wisconsin without a skilled, sharp-shooting offensive big leading the way? 6-foot-11 senior Nate Reuvers did everything expected of him once he stepped into the featured role vacated by Happ last year, leading the team with 13.1 points per game and hitting 34 percent from beyond the arc. Reuvers isn’t just a stretch big: he’s a legitimately stout post defender who put up a block rate of 7.5 last season, ranking fifth in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, former Ohio State big man Micah Potter was an immediate impact player once he became eligible — especially in the pick and roll — averaging 10.1 points and 6.2 rebounds while knocking down 45 percent of his treys.

Would Wisconsin be Wisconsin without a “scrappy” do-it-all guard who seems like he’s been around forever? Brad Davison, after averaging 9.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and an uncountable number of charges per game as a junior, is back as the Badgers’ walking cliche. He’ll share a backcourt with point guard D’Mitrik Trice, who averaged 9.8 points and 4.2 assists per game. On the wing, Aleem Ford is long (6-foot-8) and can also stroke it (8.6 ppg, 34 percent from deep). Wisconsin will look for Tyler Wahl, Ben Carlson and Trevor Anderson to become reliable bench options à la Pritzl.

This is a classic Badger team: five senior starters, all of whom can shoot and defend and generally make your life living hell. If they’re on top when it’s all said and done, it wouldn’t be nearly as surprising as it was last year.

Illinois: Ayo Dosunmu was supposed to do a lot of things when he signed with the Fighting Illini: score a ton of points, restore Illinois to glory, rebuild the Chicago recruiting pipeline, etc. Maybe Dosunmu hasn’t done everything expected of him quite yet, but he hasn’t disappointed in the slightest. The lightning-quick slasher scored 16.6 points per game last year in leading the Illini to 21 wins and a fourth-place Big Ten finish, and optimism in Champaign is through the roof on the eve of his junior season.

Trent Frazier’s numbers fell off a cliff last season (41 percent shooting down to 32 percent, 13.7 ppg to 9.1), but as the clear Option No. 2 on the perimeter, he’ll be able to focus more on efficiency rather than scoring volume as a senior. Illinois has a few more weapons than it did during Frazier’s freshman and sophomore seasons. For one, there’s Chicago freshman Adam Miller, the 29th-ranked recruit in the country. He averaged 29 and 27 ppg his junior and senior seasons at Morgan Park H.S., and his deep shooting range should pair nicely with Dosunmu. Andre Curbelo, a four-star point guard from Long Island, could be in line for a key role as a freshman too.

With sharpshooting wing Alan Griffin headed to Syracuse, the Illini have brought in two transfers of their own to fill the void. 6-foot-6 Jacob Grandison averaged 13.9 ppg and shot 37 percent from 3 at Holy Cross. 6-foot-6 Austin Hutcherson sat out last year after transferring from Division III Wesleyan, where he led the NESCAC in scoring and 3-pointers made. Is Hutcherson the next Duncan Robinson? Probably not, but the Illini have a few shooting options, even though it might not be their biggest strength.

That would be, quite literally, 7-foot, 290-pound Kofi Cockburn (13.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 1.4 bpg as a freshman), who proved he’s more than just an enormous human being last season. Cockburn can anchor Illinois at both ends of the court. His presence almost singlehandedly allowed Brad Underwood to switch up his normal high-pressure (but high-foul) defense into a slower-paced (and more effective) scheme that funneled things towards Cockburn, and turned the Illini into the 11th-best offensive rebounding team in the nation last year. Don’t forget about versatile Georgian big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili, either. This team is, quite simply, stacked.

Iowa under Fran McCaffery is known for offense, offense and offense (and fading down the stretch). The Hawkeyes normally can’t defend a lick, which caps their ceiling when it gets down to the nitty-gritty. This year? All of the above still appears true. But Iowa has so many weapons it may not really matter.

The Hawkeyes’ most potent weapon is, obviously, their first-team All-American, Big Ten POY and runner-up for National Player of the Year. Skilled big man Luka Garza returns to Iowa City following a junior season where he averaged 23.9 ppg and 9.8 rpg on ridiculously high usage and efficiency (31.2 usage rate, 59.4 true shooting percentage). Garza isn’t the quickest or most athletic, but all he does is score from everywhere.

All of the Hawkeyes’ usual suspects are back too. Sharpshooting junior Joe Wieskamp (14.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg) is a terrific second option on the wing. Redshirt sophomore CJ Frederick might be the conference’s best pure shooter, having knocked down 46 percent of his triples last year. Connor McCaffery, who started all 31 games last year, is a player that defies easy characterization: at 6-foot-5, he’s not really a point guard, but he led the team with 4.0 assists per game (and just 0.9 turnovers to boot, leading the NCAA in assist-to-turnover ratio). Joe Toussaint, New York’s Mr. Basketball runner-up in 2019, acquitted himself well as a freshman point guard, averaging 6.5 points and 2.9 assists per game. Jack Nunge is coming off a torn ACL, but he’s a 6-foot-11 forward who can stretch the floor and take pressure off Garza.

“Wild card” is an odd descriptor for a fifth-year senior point guard, but that’s what Jordan Bohannon is for Iowa. Bohannon wasn’t fully recovered from offseason hip surgery last year, playing just 10 games before shutting it down to take a medical redshirt. His stats from last year (8.8 ppg, 29.8 shooting percentage) almost don’t matter. If healthy, Bohannon is one of the best shooters in the country: he hit 41.6 percent from deep as a freshman, 43.0 as a sophomore and 38.3 as a junior.

Even if he never fully recovers his pre-surgery form, it’s never a bad thing to have a hand as steady as Bohannon guiding the ship. But as always, Iowa’s fate will be determined by its defense — specifically, whether it can play any at all. In past years, that meant the difference between a 7-seed and an NIT berth. This year, it might mean the difference between Round of 32 and Final Four.