Big Ten expert picks 2019-20: Cassius Winston has Michigan State an overwhelming preseason favorite

It's been two decades since a team from the Big Ten Conference staked its claim as a national champion in men's basketball. The last time —the 1999-2000 season — Michigan State and an up-and-coming coach named Tom Izzo went 32-7 and defeated Florida to earn the program's second NCAA Tournament title.

Other Big Ten programs have tried — and come up short time and again — in their pursuit to do what the Spartans accomplished in 2000. In the years since, North Carolina, Duke and UConn have won the championship three times, Florida and Villanova have won it twice, and Kentucky, Kansas, Syracuse, Maryland, Louisville and Virginia make up the rest. (Louisville, meanwhile, has checked an even more rare milestone than all the preceding programs: it won a title and has already had the NCAA vacate said title! Feel old yet?)

Seven times during that span, a team from the Big Ten nearly ended the drought but instead finished as the national runner-up — three of those seven times it was either Michigan or Michigan State that came up short.

As we charge ahead to the upcoming season, though, a storybook narrative has emerged. Michigan State, with returning starting point guard Cassius Winston and most of his supporting cast, is almost assuredly in line to be preseason No. 1 for the first time in its proud history. The conference's best shot to end that long-running national title drought rides on the shoulders of Spartans.

At least that's how our experts see it this year. In our preview of the league, each of our experts tabbed Michigan State, the betting favorite to win it all this season, to win the Big Ten Conference this season. And to have the best player. And the best coach. As for the rest of the league, here's how we see things shaking out.

Preseason Player of Year: Cassius Winston, Michigan State

Our Candid Coaches series this summer should have been a spoiler alert here on this pick. 50% of the more than 100 coaches we polled voted Cassius Winston would be the best player in college basketball this season; 100% of our staff believes he'll be the best in the Big Ten. The reigning Big Ten Player of the Year averaged 18.8 points and 7.5 assists in guiding MSU to the Final Four last season, and he'll be armed with the opportunity to do what only one Michigan State player, Mateen Cleaves, has accomplished before: repeating as the league's Player of the Year.

Preseason Coach of the Year: Tom Izzo, Michigan State

Three times in his career, Tom Izzo has won this award. If the season plays out on the court as it looks like it will on paper, he'll add a fourth, joining the likes of only Bob Knight, Gene Keady, Bo Ryan and Matt Painter among those who have been named Big Ten Coach of the Year at least four times. Izzo will have to navigate his team through an exceedingly difficult non-conference schedule that includes a season-opener against Kentucky at Madison Square Garden, a road game against Seton Hall, and the Maui Invitational that has a field of Kansas, Virginia Tech, Georgia, UCLA, BYU, Dayton and Chaminade in it. If Izzo can successfully manuever that landmine-of-a-slate and get to league play without MSU developing any warts, he'll be on the fast track to being the top coach in the Big Ten for the fourth time.

Preseason Freshman of the Year: Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana

The field of freshmen flooding the league this season is stunning. Ohio State's EJ Liddell and DJ Carton; Michigan State's Rocket Watts; Illini big man Kofi Cockburn. They're all going to make an indelible impact on their respective teams this season. But our staff is in on Indiana freshman Trayce Jackson-Davis making the biggest, most immediate impact in his debut college season. A 6-foot-9 McDonald's All-American, Jackson-Davis should be a seamless addition to help offset the loss of Juwan Morgan. He gives the Hoosiers a versatile, modern-day big man with athleticism to run the floor and ball skills to do ... just about everything. He's one of only two incoming freshmen for IU -- a youthful shot in the arm for an experienced and underrated Hoosiers team.

Big Ten predicted order of finish

1
The Spartans are the betting favorites to win the NCAA Tournament. We're banking on that to at least amount to a conference championship. While they lost several valuable contributors from last season's Final Four club -- including big men Nick Ward and Kenny Goins -- they bring back Winston, Joshua Langford (who was injured most of last season but brilliant when healthy), Kyle AhrensAaron Henry, and the most underrated big man in the league: Xavier Tillman. The amalgamation of talent in East Lansing, Michigan, is off the charts.

2


If not for an acrobatic last-second finish at the rim for Tremont Waters to give LSU the late go-ahead score in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, Maryland may have advanced to the Sweet 16 -- and with juice to go even further. Now, Mark Turgeon returns all but one starter and fields the most complete team he's had since his arrival in College Park, Maryland. Turgeon's been remarkably consistent, having won at least 23 games in five of his eight seasons, but now the expectations for him to convert consistency to championship caliber winning are on. With veteran point guard Anthony Cowan in tow and sophomore Jalen Smith putting the NBA on hold for a run at a conference title, Maryland has as high a ceiling as any team in the league.
3
Your annual college basketball caution: underrate Matt Painter and Purdue at your own risk. A year after the Boilermakers won 30 games and lost four of their top five leading scorers, Painter smartly rejiggered his entire system to revolve around his best player: Carsen Edwards. The result was a 26-win season and a run to the Elite Eight. This season, Painter is replacing only three starters -- including the aforementioned Edwards -- and brings back big men Matt Haarms and Trevion Williams along with Nojel EasternAaron Wheeler and others. If you don't trust the star power in those names, trust the system; Painter has won at least 21 games in all but two of his last 13 seasons in West Lafayette, Indiana.
4
Bringing in the top-ranked recruiting class in the Big Ten, Ohio State has an intriguing blend of youthful, spry talent to mix with a veteran-laden bunch that won 20 games last season. And about those 20 wins: that's a step back for Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann, who has won at least 21 games in every season but his first two -- 2011 and 2012 at Gardner-Webb. Bet on the Buckeyes and junior big man Kaleb Wesson to course-correct to the winning side of Holtmann's history of coaching.
5
The conference's biggest wild card lies in the hands of coach Brad Underwood in Champaign, Illinois. The Illini have the weapons to be dangerous, but can they go from a 12-win team last season to a conference title contender? The buzz this offseason surrounding sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu doesn't make this scenario seems farfetched. He averaged 24 points per game on the Illini's trip to Italy earlier this summer and seems primed to be the Big Ten's breakout star in his second season. Making the Illini's resurgence even more likely is Dosunmu, the team's leading scorer a season ago, has the other three top scorers from last season coming back.
6
After enjoying a Perry Ellis-like run, the Ethan Happ era at Wisconsin has now concluded. Coach Greg Gard must now retool his offense with the luxury of doing so with familiar personnel. D'Mitrik TriceBrad Davison and Nate Reuvers are all in line to take on bigger roles. With 3-point shooting and guard play now Wisconsin's biggest strength, we could see a more modernized offense than ever under Gard.
7
Straight out of the Holy Cow That Came Out of Nowhere file, Michigan coach John Beilein left this summer when he -- shockingly -- made a leap to the NBA to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was fitting for a summer of upheaval that also included the NBA departures of Ignas Brazdeikis, Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews -- the team's top scorers. In to save the day is new coach, and Michigan Man, Juwan Howard, a Fab Five member who was hired to succeed Beilein.
8
Archie Miller made an incremental jump in the win column from his first to second year at IU, but 19 wins and an NIT appearance is underwhelming any way you slice it at Indiana. Between all the injuries the team suffered, perhaps he gets a hall pass. No such exception will be given this year though. IU has the most talented incoming freshman in Trayce Jackson-Davis to add to a nucleus of Devonte GreenAl DurhamJustin Smith and Rob Phinisee. While the loss of lottery pick Romeo Langford is, indeed, a big one, his supporting cast last season should all be prepared to take on bigger roles.
9
Winning the NIT in 2018 provided momentum for last season, which quickly faded. The Nittany Lions opened Big Ten play 0-10. It was not pretty, but it wasn't exactly ugly, either; the margin of defeat in those games on average was 8.4 points, which included four two-possession games and a 9-point overtime loss. If there was luck floating around, it steered clear of Penn State. Luck might not be needed this season, however. Penn State brings back All-Big Ten forward Lamar Stevens after he considered jumping to the NBA and guard Myles Dread, who should be in for a breakout.
10
Fran McCaffery's coaching acumen will be put to the test this season after he lost leading scorer Tyler Cook to the NBA and could be without third-leading scorer, Jordan Bohannon, who underwent offseason hip surgery. With Cook gone and no definitive return for Bohannon, who is considering a medical redshirt, he'll turn the team over to junior Luka Garza and sophomore Joe Wieskamp -- both of whom were fabulous in complementary roles last season.
11
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino may want to kick his first practice of the season off with a meet-and-greet. The Gophers have seven new players (four traditional signees, one graduate transfer and two traditional players) -- a flood of talent that could help Pitino stave off the loss of six of his top eight scorers last season. The inside-out combo of Gabe Kalscheur and Daniel Oturu was great last season behind Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy, and should only improve in leading roles.
12
If not for the offseason transfer of leading scorer Eugene Omoruyi, Rutgers might just have found itself in a great spot. Without him, coach Steve Pikiell is adapting on the fly and has options, particularly in the backcourt. All-Big Ten honorable mention performe Geo Baker should slot in as the team's No. 1 option while Montez Mathis and incoming freshman Paul Mulcahy should also figure in prominently.
13
Let's not sugarcoat it: Northwestern was bad last season. It finished 14th (out of 14) in the Big Ten regular season. And this season may not be much better. This Wildcats team has talent, but remains young and inexperienced. A second consecutive last-place finish in the league may not be out of reach although Fred Hoiberg's squad may have something to say about that.
14
Tabbing Fred Hoiberg to coach the Huskers just months after his Bulls firing was a stroke of genius by Nebraska brass. But expecting him to win big right away, like he did in the golden days at Iowa State, is folly. He's replacing -- check this -- the team's top nine scorers (!) from last season. It's going to take some time for Hoiberg to build Nebraska into the monster he did at Iowa State.

Big Ten expert picks

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