It's hard to believe that seven months ago last week, the Big Ten -- like eventually every major college basketball conference -- was packing up its postseason play early over fears of Covid-19 spread. A promising season ended too soon for too many. And that was especially true for the Big Ten, which was having a banner year before things screeched to a halt.
On the whole, the conference rated as the top league in America last season, according to KenPom's metrics. It had six teams inside the top-25 of the AP poll. Four were inside the top-20. One team, preseason No. 1 Michigan State, was hitting its stride like Tom Izzo's teams tend to do. The Big Ten's national title drought of 19 years and counting looked as if it may end shy of the two-decade mark, yet fate had other plans.
But this year might really be the year it ends. Iowa returns preseason national player of the year favorite Luka Garza to a championship caliber Iowa team. Illinois is getting back Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn to a similarly great roster. And Wisconsin, quietly, is lurking in the shadows as a real threat. The Badgers won their final eight games to end the season, captured a share of the regular-season conference title and returns their top five leading scorers. All three teams are in the top 10 of the CBS Sports Top 25 and One. Handicapping how this race unfolds will be a doozy.
But handicap it, we have. Our team of hoops experts has put pen to paper on their preseason predictions for the Big Ten below.
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Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year
Luka Garza, Iowa
The reigning Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award winner is our consensus Big Ten preseason POY. He's the top returning scorer among all players in the major seven college basketball conferences, and he's coming off a breakout junior season in which he averaged 23.9 points, 9.8 boards and 1.8 blocks per game -- all ranking in the top two statistically in each category among returning players in the conference. He's the best and most productive player in the country on an Iowa team that should be considered championship quality.
Big Ten Preseason Coach of he Year
Brad Underwood, Illinois
No awards are won or lost in the offseason, but let's give Brad Underwood his due: He lured both Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn back to Champaign to run it back in 2020. Not an easy ask considering the Illini didn't even win the league last season. (Though, to be fair, they were mighty close.) With Dosunmu and Cockburn back, Underwood has on his hands the best and most talented Illinois team in well over a decade. We're expecting the win-loss column to reflect that. As he enters season No. 4 with the program, he's got a diverse roster with savvy veterans and sharp youngsters who could easily make this season one of the program's best.
Big Ten Preseason Freshman of the Year
Khristian Lander, Indiana
Khristian Lander just turned 18 years old two months ago. The former five-star recruit reclassified from the 2021 class to 2020, and despite his youth, figures to make an instant impact as a rookie in Bloomington. He averaged 21 points and 6 boards per game at Evansville's Francis Joseph Reitz high school last season while developing into a multi-faceted lead guard with sharp handles, a smooth stroke and speed for days. IU returns starting guards Rob Phinisee and Al Durham but with Lander's pedigree and production, the Hoosiers will have no choice but to find a way how to feature him in their backcourt.
Big Ten predicted order of finish
|There's a lot to like about the Illini. The return of Dosunmu, Kockburn and Trent Frazier. The addition of Chicago native and top-40 national recruit Adam Miller. By and large, the bones of a team that won 21 games and finished with five wins in its last six games returns in 2020, establishing them as our preseason pick to win the league. Illinois might not quite have the star power to match Iowa and Luka Garza, but its roster is deep, experienced and talented.|
|When Luka Garza pulled out of the NBA Draft and returned to school, he made Iowa an instant contender in the Big Ten and beyond. But he's not the only reason we're high on the Hawkeyes. He returns to join an Iowa core that brings back seven of its eight leading scorers from a season ago. Among them is Jordan Bohannon, whose season was cut short due to injury. This team rated fifth nationally in adjusted offense last season and should be on pace to produce similarly with as much as it returns. (And with an expected step forward -- which seems impossible! -- for Luka Garza.)|
|Wisconsin reeled off wins in eight of its final games to capture a share of the Big Ten regular-season crown, and it returns the top five scorers from that final-game roster. Momentum should continue. The Badgers leaned on Micah Potter and Nate Reuvers to carry them to the crown, and it should be more of the same as they enter the season a known commodity as one of the most balanced basketball squads in the league.|
|Sit back, grab your popcorn and watch Tom Izzo go to work this season as he replaces -- rather, as he attempts to replace -- all-conference producers Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman. Not an easy job. Don't feel too bad for him though, because he's got Aaron Henry, Rocket Watts and most of the remaining roster at his disposal. And keep an eye on Josh Langford, whose last two seasons have been derailed with injury and kept from view one of Sparty's smartest and most talented players.|
|Ohio State brings back just about as much as it lost, but Chris Holtmann has taken to the transfer route to replenish his roster. Stepping in to fill voids are Harvard transfer Seth Towns, Cal transfer Justice Sueing, and Utah State transfer Abel Porter. Adding them to a returning core of E.J. Liddell and Duane Washington makes for an unproven, if not intriguing, roster that could outperform our prognostication if they mesh properly. Ton of highly-touted recruits in the mix here that could help take things to a new level for the Buckeyes.|
|Rutgers won 20 games last season -- its most in a season in nearly two decades -- and coach Steve Pikiell returns seven of his top eight leading scorers from that club. A 20-11 record isn't overwhelmingly great, but it's success for the Scarlet Knights, and they have continuity on their side. With Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. returning, this team has the goods to improve on offense and try to match its top-10 nationally efficient defense from a season ago.|
|Check IU's roster, and tell me how this team doesn't finish in the top half of the league. There's too much talent for Archie Miller to not get there. The Hoosiers return Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson from their starting front line as well as Rob Phinisee and Al Durham from their backcourt, with the lone departing starter, Justin Smith, grad transferring out. Expect Trayce Jackson-Davis to again be the focus of this unit -- and expect a step forward for the second-year star.|
|Borderline top-25 team here, which underscores just how deep this league is this season. Purdue returns its top three scorers -- most notably big man Trevion Williams, who is ready for a star-turn in West Lafayette. He's the anchor of a defense that rated just outside the top-10 nationally in efficiency last season and could be the foundation of this team's success in 2020.|
|Michigan coach Juwan Howard is replacing the heart of the team's interior and exterior, Jon Teske and Zavier Simpson, but he's got leading scorer Isaiah Livers to help soften the blow after he punted on the opportunity to stay in the NBA Draft. Livers is one of only four returning players for Howard in Year Two, with his most daunting task yet in replacing Simpson at point guard made more difficult with David DeJulius, the expected replacement, transferring out. There's more questions than answers surrounding this team but building around Livers gives the Wolverines an advantage from occupying the cellar-dwellar territory.|
|Richard Pitino's third losing season since he took over the Golden Gophers was a tumultuous one. They went 15-16 and lost a whopping seven games by five or fewer points. Of course, there's a fine line between being competitive and winning, but Minnesota was right there all season. Now Pitino, who loses leading scorer Daniel Oturu, gets two of his top three players back in Marcus Carr and Gabe Kalscheur in an effort to get past that hump. This team'll be thin on the front line without Oturu, so look for sophomore Isaiah Ihnen to step into a more prominent role in his second season.|
|After winning a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship, Mark Turgeon and Co. are in for a rebuilding year as they look to replace Jalen Smith and Anthony Cowan, who made a combined 129 starts the last two seasons for the Terps. It'll be a committee effort to replace them, split between Aaron Wiggins, Darryl Morsell and Eric Ayala, who all played big roles last season. Wiggins should slot into a starring role on offense but the ball-handling duties -- and who will man the paint in Smith's absence -- leave us with some unanswered questions.|
|Two of the team's top three scorers are gone for Penn State, but Myreon Jones and Myles Dread comprise what looks to be a revamped backcourt loaded with talent in University Park. These two were part of a team that had some good moments -- and some bad moments -- but overall a 21-10 campaign was a huge bounceback from a 14-win season a year ago. They should be able to build off that with two vital pieces back in the mix and six returning players back from a season ago.|
|Fred Hoiberg's debut season at the helm of Nebraska's program went about as poorly as possible. The Huskers went 7-25 and lost their final 17 (!) games to end the season. In the process, the only statistical category they led the country in was ... the rate in which their shots were blocked. But there's hope. Pitt transfer Trey McGowens is eligible immediately and should slot in as a starter in the backcourt. And then there's transfers Teddy Allen, Dalano Banton, Derrick Walker and Shamiel Stevenson. Hoiberg and Nebraska's struggles last season could lead to successes this season with enough fresh blood to infuse this program with a higher level of talent.|
|There's good news and there's bad news if you're Northwestern. The good news is that five of the team's top six scorers from last year's squad are returning. There should be some sense of continuity. The bad news is that the brunt of the returning roster finished 8-23 on the season and lost 14 of its last 16 games. This was the least-experienced team in the Big Ten a season ago according to KenPom's metrics, so if there's optimism, it's that a year older and wiser makes the Wildcats more competitive.|