The Big Ten Conference this season looks like it'll be in the running as one of the best in college basketball. It's a league stuffed with stars as the likes of Kofi Cockburn, Hunter Dickinson and Trayce Jackson-Davis return, and a number of programs bring back either experience or breakout candidates -- or both -- after success in 2021-22.
Purdue tops our preseason poll of CBS Sports college basketball experts as the top dog in the league entering the 2021-22 campaign because of its blend of potential, star power, talent and coaching acumen. Led by sophomore star Jaden Ivey and big man Trevion Williams, the Boilermakers went 18-10 last season but are positioned under coach Matt Painter to build off of a strong finish to last season after winning its final five regular-season games.
It's no gimme, though, and while it's hard to predict how the season may unfold, one thing seems certain: the Big Ten will be a battle fought to the end. Reigning regular-season champ Michigan comes in at No. 2 in our preseason voting after adding two five-stars to the roster this offseason, and Ohio State -- with maybe the best building block in the league in E.J. Liddell -- comes in at No. 3. On down our preseason rankings is Illinois, Maryland and Michigan State.
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Yes, Michigan State is the sixth-best team in the league in our preseason Big Ten poll. That's how you know the league is loaded.
Our CBS Sports college basketball experts are here to provide their picks and predictions for the Big Ten ahead of the 2021 season. Check them all out below.
CBS Sports Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year
Kofi Cockburn, Illinois
The Illinois team that earned a No. 1 seed a season ago lost star guard Ayo Dosunmu, but Kofi Cockburn returns as the foundation for an Illinois team set to reload under Brad Underwood and staff. The 7-foot big man last season was the only player in the NCAA to average 15+ points and 9+ rebounds while shooting at least 60% from the field, ranked third nationally with 16 double-doubles and led the country in dunks with 78. As one of only two Illini players who averaged double figures last season he figures to be fed the ball frequently this season and his efficiency and volume are among the many reasons we like him entering the season as the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year.
CBS Sports Big Ten Preseason Coach of the Year
Matt Painter, Purdue
With Purdue atop our preseason poll, it's only fitting that we tab its fearless leader as the preseason Coach of the Year. Matt Painter's perennially one of the most underrated coaches in the country -- he's 337-174 at Purdue in a league that has been littered with elite coaches -- and this season he has arguably one of the best 1-2-3 punches in the country with Jaden Ivey, Zach Edey and Trevion Williams running the show. None of the three were top-75 recruits in high school yet all three could be all-conference performers this season. What Painter's done with the program developing talent and sustaining success consistency is impressive already and he's in line to be rewarded for his efforts with a team capable of winning it all.
CBS Sports Big Ten Preseason Freshman of the Year
Caleb Houstan, Michigan
There's only one top-10 recruit from the 2021 cycle joining the Big Ten this season, and that one -- Caleb Houstan -- gets our preseason nod as the Freshman of the Year. Houstan, a 6-foot-8 forward, was the No. 10 recruit in his class and the No. 3 player at his position. The Montverde Academy product averaged 13.6 points and made 38.6% of his 3-pointers last season on a team with star Jalen Duren, and he joins a Wolverines team that's likely to feature him next to Hunter Dickinson in the frontcourt as a high-end stretch-four.
CBS Sports Big Ten predicted order of finish
The consensus order as voted by our experts. How they voted is below.
|Trevion Williams is a bona fide stud and Jaden Ivey and Zach Edey are breakout stars in waiting. This Purdue team took some lumps last season as one of the youngest and most inexperienced in college hoops but the returning nucleus is good enough to be considered one of the best Painter's ever had.|
|Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner are gone but leading scorer Hunter Dickinson and sidekick Eli Brooks lead this retooled Michigan team as they look to repeat as Big Ten regular-season champs for the first time in more than three decades. Juwan Howard's proven himself as one of the best coaches in college hoops and he's recruited the No. 2 incoming recruiting class to bolster a roster that won't be as old as last year's but won't lack for talent.|
|Chris Holtmann's won at least 20 games in each season in Columbus and this season he returns a pair of double-digit scorers in E.J. Liddell and Justice Sueing to build around. This team should be old, cohesive and plenty capable of challenging for the Big Ten crown. Got to give Holtmann some credit for the job he's done with the Buckeyes.|
|Illinois is going to get a lot of love -- rightfully so -- because of Kofi Cockburn's return. But the potential of this team rests largely on the shoulders of its backcourt led by sophomore Andre Curbelo, senior Trent Frazier and transfer Alfonso Plummer. No combination of players can make up for the loss of Ayo Dosunmu but this team, inside and out, is NCAA Tournament quality with a bullet and should be playing with purpose after just missing out on a regular-season Big Ten title a season ago.|
|Like many teams -- and maybe more than most -- Maryland is betting heavily on fresh blood acquired via the transfer portal. The return of Eric Ayala and Donta Scott gives this team needed stability but the introduction of Rhode Island transfer Fatts Russell, Georgetown transfer Qudus Wahab and Utah transfer Ian Martinez (among other newcomers) should keep this team in the mix as a borderline top-25 club all season long.|
|This marks the first in a decade that Michigan State and Tom Izzo will enter the season unranked -- the last time ending with Sparty earning a No. 1 seed behind senior star Draymond Green. But this season feels different. MSU is coming off its worst regular-season finish as a program since the 1992-1993 campaign last season. The addition of freshman Max Christie and transfer Tyson Walker combined with the steadying presence of Izzo should keep this team competitive but it doesn't have the horses to be a vintage Izzo-coached club like we've come to expect over the years.|
|Indiana went the NBA route to replace Archie Miller, tabbing former Hoosier and ex-NBA coach Mike Woodson to run the program. Time will tell if that was the right decision but in the here and now, he walks into a good situation with Trayce Jackson-Davis returning and a trio of transfers in Michael Durr, Xavier Johnson and Miller Kopp set to contribute. It may take time to build the program back to its potential in Bloomington but this should be an above .500 team given its experience.|
|Last season was a roller coaster for Rutgers with plenty of highs and lows but a big core of the team returning -- led by Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker -- should give Steve Pikiell a chance to take the program to consecutive NCAA Tournaments for the first time since 1976. The Scarlet Knights are coming off a 16-12 campaign and while they lost some big pieces, namely Jacob Young, Myles Johnson and Montez Mathis, they have recruited and developed well enough to hold steady as a potential top-half-of-the-Big Ten team.|
|Wisconsin finished with its second-lowest win total under Greg Gard last season and lost its top two scorers (D'Mitrik Trice and Micah Potter) this offseason. Worse yet, gone also are Nate Reuvers and Aleem Ford. So for those keeping track at home: Four of its top five scorers are no longer on the roster. Brad Davison is back to provide some experience and stability but Gard is tasked with replacing a huge chunk of last season's production in a conference chock-full of experienced producers. Not a good recipe.|
|Not only does Iowa have to replace Naismith Player of the Year Luka Garza, but also Joe Wieskamp, CJ Fredrick and Jack Nunge. Tough ask for Fran McCaffery. Keegan Murray is slated for a bigger role after a promising freshman campaign and Jordan Bohannon's experience should at least help but, a season after earning a No. 2 seed and winning 22 games, it may be tough sledding in Iowa City.|
|Northwestern lost 14 of its final 17 games to close the 2020-21 season. That's the bad news. The good news is that six of its top seven scorers are back in the fold. So after being one of the most inexperienced teams in the Big Ten last season it brings back most of its roster and should have continuity under Chris Collins this season.|
|Coming off a league-worst 3-16 conference record and a 7-20 season, Nebraska and Fred Hoiberg have talent on the way to potentially improve. Five-star freshman Bryce McGowens is one reason for optimism as he teams up with his brother, Trey, in Cornhusker country. The addition of transfer Alonzo Verge Jr. should add a needed punch of scoring in the backcourt to boot. If this team is anything it should be more fun than recent iterations.|
|Micah Shrewsberry took the job at Penn State that may be the toughest in the Big Ten. The losses of leading scorer Myreon Jones and second-leading scorer Izaiah Brockington should only make things more challenging. The Nittany Lions have a fun batch of vets in Myles Dread, Seth Lundy and John Harrar who have all shown promise, but this is still an uphill climb for a team that went 11-14 overall last season.|
|Minnesota lost eight of its last nine games to end the season by an average margin of 12 points. Now in the post-Richard Pitino era, the hope is that Ben Johnson, once an assistant with the Golden Gophers who was hired away from Xavier, can help right the ship. The team lost its top seven scorers and is adding seven transfers, though, so this is a full-blown rebuild.|
Most overrated team: Ohio State
I put Ohio State at No. 4 on my own ballot and they came in at No. 3 on our total tally so I'm splitting hairs here, but it's possible -- likely, even -- that we're not fully appreciating the loss of Duane Washington Jr. and over-appreciating the return of E.J. Liddell. Washington Jr. was nails in big moments for OSU last season and he is one of two upperclassmen, along with CJ Walker, who is no longer on the roster. That's a good amount of experience and production to replace. Of the top five teams in our poll, the Buckeyes seem the most liable to finish below our projections.
Most underrated team: Michigan State
Again, the hairs are being split -- I ranked Michigan State at No. 5 and they finished at No. 6 in our voting. I get why, too. Sparty had its worst season in nearly three decades, its star recruit wasn't a top-10 player and its star transfer, Tyson Walker, hasn't played at the power level. All fair points. I'm just not sure I'm ready to say Tom Izzo won't have a top-five team in the Big Ten. Call me crazy. Maybe he won't, but the history of Tom Izzo suggests we're probably not appreciating his magic touch quite enough.