There will be surprises. That's my takeaway on the Big Ten. Expect some things to happen that go against instinct. Illinois is probably too overlooked right now. It wouldn't shock me if Ohio State played its way to a 4 seed after missing the NCAAs last season. Michigan State is a mystery team right now, due to injuries, but should be fascinating and pretty cut-out by the time we get to February.

The bottom of the league -- teams like Northwestern, Penn State, Nebraska and Minnesota -- should show intermittent signs of improvement. Minnesota has the best chance to pop from its 8-23 2015-16 record. Realistically, eight NCAA Tournament bids seems the most optimistic outlook for the Big Ten this season -- a number that will likely only be matched by the ACC.

Below you'll find everything you need to know about the Big Ten this season, including our predictions for conference player of the year, freshman of the year and coach of the year, all-conference teams, as well as our predicted order of finish and a scouting report including strengths and weaknesses, X-factors and projected win total for each team.

Indiana's Thomas Bryant is poised for a breakout season. USATSI

Player of the Year

Thomas Bryant, Indiana

Bryant will be asked to help carry an Indiana team that's going to have a lot of offensively gifted talent around him (James Blackmon, Jr. and OG Anunoby, most notably). He'll almost certainly post more than the 11.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game he posted last season as a freshman. The Hoosiers' man in the middle is a force, and given that we're slotting IU as the champion of this league (spoiler alert!), it makes sense to pick the player we expect to have the most impact and value to that team as our player of the year. That's Bryant.

Freshman of the Year

Miles Bridges, Michigan State

Bridges, with all kinds of the wow-factor, will be one of the three or four most entertaining freshmen in the country. He should be a highlight machine and a huge part of what the Spartans do all the same. Bridges is capable of playing as a big, hybrid guard, a wing, a small forward and a power forward. He'll likely play all four for MSU by the time we get to league play. This one-and-done prospect leads the best freshman class of Tom Izzo's career.

Coach of the Year

Greg Gard, Wisconsin

Gard begins his first full season as coach of Wisconsin. Yep, it hasn't yet been a year since Bo Ryan retired, mid-season, and gave the controls to Gard. The Badgers have the best combination of talent and experience in this season's Big Ten. Given how hard he's worked to get to this point, and how thin the difference between Indiana and Wisconsin should be this year, Gard is the pick.

All-Conference Team

G: Melo Trimble | Maryland | Junior

G: Malcolm Hill | Illinois | Senior

F: Nigel Hayes | Wisconsin | Senior

F: Caleb Swanigan | Purdue | Sophomore

C: Thomas Bryant | Indiana | Sophomore

Order of finish




Indiana has a chance to repeat as Big Ten champion. USATSI

Scouting reports

(Teams listed in consensus predicted order of finish)

1. Indiana Hoosiers

Strength: Pure, beautiful shooting offense

The Hoosiers were a 56.1-percent team from 2-point range last season and a 41.6-percent team from 3-ball range. Tom Crean's going to get James Blackmon Jr. back, which will amplify IU's efficiency and smooth offense. This can be the best team with the ball in the Big Ten.

Weakness: Too many turnovers

The inconvenient fact about Indiana's offense: it turned the ball over almost 20 percent of the time last season. That's got to be curbed. Yet, Yogi Ferrell is gone. Will we see IU get pressed a lot? I doubt it, but I'd love to see some teams try to push this team and disrupt its halfcourt offense. If the Hoosiers can't keep the turnovers down, they'll have a hard time winning the conference.

X-factor: An unbeatable environment in a renovated, classic arena

The new Assembly Hall looks terrific. When you're re-opening a building, it can bring a sense of renewed life, too. IU as a program does not need it, but I bet the fan base is a little louder and more confident this season. Knocking off a talented, offensively savvy Hoosiers club on its home floor is going to be a big ask for any opponent this season. Indiana did right by not knocking down Assembly Hall and building something new. This seems like the better option. Basketball-loving fanatics in that community agree.

Projected regular-season win total: 23

This could get tricky because four of IU's final six games are on the road, and that includes games at Purdue and Ohio State. Both will be tough asks. In non-conference, Indiana opens up with Kansas on Nov. 11 in an awesome game in Hawaii. That's a toss-up. It gets Fort Wayne -- a very good mid-major this season -- at Fort Wayne. UNC, Butler and Louisville are also in the mix. IU will be good but will take on losses, absolutely.

2. Wisconsin Badgers

Strength: Discipline

Wisconsin simply does not break. It plays an efficient offensive scheme, and Greg Gard will step in with a full preseason under his belt and be ready to keep the Badgers in the top four of the Big Ten. Bronson Koenig's set to have a great year.

Weakness: 3-point defense

Opponents made 37.4 percent of their threes against Bucky's man-to-man scheme last season. There is some thought that 3-point defense is not that controllable, but I think it's situational. If a team wants to dedicate itself to defending the 3 and not allowing opponents to get shots off, it's going to work. The Badgers can and will bring that number down this season -- or at least they better.

X-factor: Nigel Hayes the player vs. Nigel Hayes the outspoken activist

We're loving Nigel Hayes' Twitter feed. College sports needs a couple hundred more guys like him. I might not agree with all of his stances (and judging by Twitter, many people really wish he'd just say nothing), but it's good for college sports to have its athletes speaking out. I do wonder how, if or when Hayes' outspoken nature clashes with Wisconsin in general. I don't buy into the "distraction" talking point. That's lazy sportswriting and questioning. But it seems inevitable that Wisconsin's talent and Hayes' M.O. will come to a head as a national storyline. I'm interested to see how the team performs and what Hayes opts to do once college basketball gets a lot more attention after football season ends.

Projected regular-season win total: 21.

The Badgers have a nice test against Creighton, then fly to Maui (Georgetown, Oregon, UConn, UNC all in the mix) and will come home with Syracuse, Marquette and Oklahoma also awaiting. Rutgers, Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan are the home-and-homes for Wisconsin. Road games also include Illinois (I think the Illini will win this game), Purdue and Michigan State. Many opportunities, but hard to see Bucky losing fewer than six regular-season games

3. Michigan State Spartans

Strength: Mix of old and new

Michigan State has a great blend of old savvy dudes mixed with young freaky talents on its roster. Shooters, slashers, mashers, bashers, ballers, hoppers. I think it will be an inconsistent November, but they'll be very watchable. A much different MSU team from what Izzo's ever had.

Weakness: Denzel is done

Life without Denzel Valentine will be a challenge early on. Valentine is one of the five or so best players in program history. MSU will feel his absence once league play starts. Fortunately, the team's quartet of talented freshmen don't know what it's like to play with Valentine, so perhaps they pick up a good portion of the slack -- even if Izzo isn't one to give frosh a long leash.

X-factor: Izzo's immediate coaching impact on a great freshman class

As mentioned, it's the highest-rated freshman class in Izzo's tenure. Miles Bridges, Josh Langford, Cassius Winston and Nick Ward. If those four play up to their talent, and Izzo is able to connect with them right away, then MSU is going to go to a Final Four. I think Bridges is going to be a stud, and Langford's better than anyone realizes. Winston's a multi-year player, but he could become to MSU what Tyler Ulis was to Kentucky.

Projected regular-season win total: 23

Arizona, Kentucky, a loaded field in the Bahamas (Baylor, VCU, Louisville, Wichita State, Old Dominion, LSU) and at Duke. That's the non-conference. MSU will take on at least two losses -- at least -- before we get to Big Ten play. Then Tom Izzo's team gets Minnesota, Ohio State, Indiana, Nebraska, Michigan, Purdue, Illinois and Maryland on the road. The Penn State game will be held at the Palestra in Philly. This will be a good team that takes on some scars due to its youth.

4. Purdue Boilermakers

Strength: His name is Caleb Swanigan

Swanigan was efficient and necessary last year to Purdue earning a 5 seed. I think he can take a big step this year toward becoming one of the better players in the league and maybe even the country. The thing is, he's not going to be able to create his own offense, so...

Weakness: Swanigan's supporting cast

The weakness here is Purdue's guard play. It plagued the team last season. Now we wait to see if Matt Painter can get something meaningful out of guys not named Vince Edwards, Swanigan and Isaac Haas. P.J. Thompson was good in spurts last year but will have his load fattened considerably in 2016-17.

X-factor: Isaac Haas' growth and reliability

Haas is 7-foot-2 and needs to be twice as good as he's shown. A.J. Hammons is now gone. Purdue's backcourt situation -- hopefully -- gets better. But Haas wasn't a threat so much as he was a piece last season. When you're 280 pounds and taller than anyone else on the floor, you need to be a weapon on both ends. Haas' growth will be pivotal to Purdue's standing in the Big Ten.

Projected regular-season win total: 21

Villanova, at Louisville, neutral vs. Notre Dame. That's the trifecta of trickiness for Purdue. I think this team could be closer to a 7 seed than the 5 seed it was last year, but it's still a really good club. The league schedule doubles up on Iowa, Indiana, Michigan State and Penn State. At Ohio State and at Michigan are mixed in there, too. Man, the Big Ten is going to be a messy mess mess in the middle.

5. Maryland Terrapins

Strength: Free-throw shooting

Maryland's 76-percent clip was the best in the league last season. They'll be reliable from the charity stripe again. It's probably going to win Mark Turgeon's team a couple of games.

Weakness: Loss of interior presence

Diamond Stone, Jake Layman and Robert Carter are gone. Damonte Dodd is a good role player but isn't going to rise to the level of being a top 20 in the Big Ten. Ivan Bender, show us what ya got.

X-factor: Melo Trimble's confidence

He had a terrific freshman season, then failed to be a top-10 player in the country last year after a ton of hype. So how does Trimble show himself now, as a junior? Maryland's NCAA Tournament hopes fall on his decision-making. If he can be a true lead guard, a playmaker and a scorer, a disher and a swisher, the Terps will be fun and a dark horse Big Ten team. If Trimble's numbers from last year repeat (41 percent from the field, 32 percent from 3, nearly three turnovers per game), this will be a 16- or 17-win team.

Projected regular-season win total: 20

Georgetown, Pittsburgh and Oklahoma State are the only three non-conference teams that pose a threat on paper, and none of them are surefire NCAA Tournament teams. Maryland scheduled down this year. Mark Turgeon's going to try to up his win quota and hope that confidence carries over into the Big Ten slate. The Terps have to play Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Rutgers on the road.

Keita Bates-Diop could be a key player for Ohio State. USATSI

6. Ohio State Buckeyes

Strength: Program cleanse

Thad Matta cycled out a few guys, who transferred elsewhere. Hey, it's fine. Not every recruiting class works out. Now OSU should find its way back onto the right track. Matta's state of mind will be better and the locker room will be cozier this season. Plenty of upside with this team.

Weakness: 3-point shooting

Ohio State wasn't a threat to throw it up from 22 feet last season. I'm not sure it will crack the top 10 in the league in 3-point attempts this season, either. It lacks the personnel to beat teams from deep, but Matta's got to incorporate the deep ball more frequently.

X-factor: Keita Bates-Diop's motor. He's a tremendous athlete, a player already sculpted with a pro's body. But he's got to add confidence and desire. Ohio State's a bubble team in my mind already. If you tell me Bates-Diop is a Big Ten second-team player, I'm immediately thinking this group is going dancing. He doesn't realize yet how good he can be. Thad Matta has to get it out of him.

Projected regular-season win total: 21

At Virginia, home vs. UConn and vs. UCLA in Las Vegas for the CBS Sports Classic. Those are the dangers. Other than that, Ohio State should bulk up on sweets in the non-con. Then league play comes. The Buckeyes get two cracks at Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan State and Nebraska. Doesn't play at Indiana or Purdue this season. OSU should be in the NCAAs.

7. Michigan Wolverines

Strength: Reliability with the ball

John Beilein is a master tactician, and though I've never sat in on one of his practices, I get the sense he instills an old-school skillwork discipline with his team. I've seen too many West Virginia and Michigan guards be too steady with the ball and their passing to not believe these things aren't some of the most important aspects of Beilein's teachings.

Weakness: Star search

Caris LeVert is gone, and we've yet to see Michigan be really good without him over the past two years. Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman all have nice attributes, but I don't see any of them being a Big Ten "star." Ultimately, I want to see this Michigan team have confidence and play with a different aggressiveness than what it showed a lot of last season.

X-factor: Playing at a faster tempo, John Beilein's Wolverines averaged 66.5 possessions per game last season. Beilein has never pushed the tempo, but with his personnel, I wonder if he tries to force the action just a bit more this year. Let's say we get really crazy -- 68 possessions per game! Beilein hasn't had a team do that in 14 years (and that WVU team wasn't good). But it's a shorter shot clock now, and I have a hunch Walton and Abdur-Rahkman would get a burst with some push.

Projected regular-season win total: 17

Interesting slate. Marquette, then Pitt or SMU in NYC. At South Carolina. Home vs. sneaky Va. Tech. Home vs. Texas and at UCLA. The league slate includes road games against Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Indiana, Minnesota, Rutgers, Northwestern and Nebraska. Those last four games seem easy, but four of the final five are on the road. Michigan will lose at least one and probably two of them.

8. Illinois Fighting Illini

Strength: Transition offense

I expect Illinois to get out on the break plenty. It'll have the guards (Malcolm Hill is going to be a joy to watch this season) and should be pretty reliable from the line. It's been too long since we've all tuned into an Illinois game just wanting to be entertained. Illinois has the talent -- and some fun unknowns -- to make us curious.

Weakness: Can't swat a fly

Illinois didn't even block two shots per game last season. That should never be the case for a major-conference team recruiting from so many parts of the country. I wonder if this is something John Groce has been using practice time toward in the early weeks of the preseason. It's not just the actual blocks, of lack thereof, either. You at least need the threat of some rim protection to consistently hold down any part of the interior.

X-factor: Consistency and health

John Groce's program has been plagued by suspensions, injuries and defections. The administration has shown patience, as it should. This is Groce's fifth season and the program has never had a truly awful season, expectations considered, since he got there. Illinois might wind up being the surprise group in the Big Ten this season. If healthy, 20 wins is within range.

Projected regular-season win total: 18

A schedule with its challenges (but shamefully void of non-conference road games) means Illinois will have a chance to better its win total of 15 from last season. The Illini's road games in-conference: Maryland, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Penn State, Northwestern, Iowa, Nebraska and Rutgers. It gets easier the longer the season goes on. Illinois will make a charge in mid-February.

9. Iowa Hawkeyes

Strength: Keeping their hands to themselves

The Hawkeyes have been increasingly good the past three seasons at not fouling. Granted, it's also led to some entertaining games wherein defense could've been used more effectively. But still!

Weakness: Backcourt

Have to see what we'll get out of a really young corps of guards. It's probably going to be a long year in that respect for Iowa. On the other hand, it will allow Fran McCaffery to be as creative as he wants to be with scheme, I think.

X-factor: Playmaking by guards

The Hawkeyes are going to take a dip this season. Fran McCaffery's team loses Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons. Were they all-time program players? No, but they were reliable. I happened to think Gesell was a perfect fit for Fran's style. Iowa's been more reliable on offense than defense most of Fran's tenure ... and I'm not sure that's the case this year. Backcourt questions linger.

Projected regular-season win total: 16

Seton Hall, Virginia, Iowa State, UNI, Notre Dame ... all could be tricky for Iowa, which won't be as good this season. The schedule puts them on the road against Purdue, Nebraska, Northwestern, Illinois, Rutgers, Minnesota, Michigan State, Maryland and Wisconsin.

10. Northwestern Wildcats

Strength: Point guard play

Bryant McIntosh had a top-15 assist rate last season. Northwestern is making a big push for its playmaker this season, and it should. The offense should be methodical and precise. McIntosh could become a cult-like hero for NU fans.

Weakness: Interior defense

Seven-footer Alex Olah is gone, and this is a team that allowed opponents to score 46.3 percent of its points off 2-pointers last season. That indicates a lack of defense down low and in the mid-range. I don't believe Northwestern will be a tournament team ... yet again. Chris Collins needs a big recruiting class to finally break through the ceiling.

X-factor: Getting to the foul line

NU's foul shots accounted for just 28.4 percent of its attempts overall last season -- an unordinary low percentage for a team from a major conference. (The Wildcats ranked 338th overall.) The team shot 67 percent. Not desirable, but not putrid. Be aggressive, get to the line more often and get that free-throw percentage up to 70. Little wrinkles like this can turn two would-be losses into wins or vice-versa.

Projected regular-season win total: 15

Butler, Texas, Notre Dame/Colorado and Dayton are the toughest games prior to Big Ten play. Northwestern is going to struggle in many a Big Ten gym. Likely losses coming from this batch of road games: Penn State, Michigan State, Nebraska, Rutgers, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana. NU won 20 last year, but it's too tough a request to match that in 2016-17.

11. Penn State Nittany Lions

Strength: Tony Carr arrives

He's a four-star point guard prospect that will inject life into PSU's offense and give Pat Chambers a building block for the next three years. I'm higher on Penn State than most. I think Carr will be one of the five best freshmen in the conference.

Weakness: Foul discipline

Penn State smacks way too much. Chambers has to get his team to cut down on the hacks, lest it be under .500 in conference play. Teaching your team to defend without fouling is a season-long -- and sometimes seasons-long -- process.

X-factor: Finding offense faster in-possession

The Nittany Lions should be better this season. Pat Chambers has to inspire his group to run, to work its offense quickly and beat teams off the dribble. I watched only a handful of PSU games last year, but I jotted down in my ongoing doc of notes how this team would just dribble the ball forever. It was forced into bad shots late in the shot clock. Less of that.

Projected regular-season win total: 14

The team is going to be better than its record shows. Grand Canyon, Duke, Cinci/Rhode Island (one of the two), at George Washington, and Pitt. Then league play brings two games against Indiana and Purdue. Roadies at Wisconsin and Michigan.

12. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Strength: Resiliency

After enduring a 14-game losing streak last season, the players returning on this team at least have an idea of what the worst feels like. And they know they're not going to approach that this season. Obviously the Gophers didn't want to have to endure an 0-13 start to Big Ten play last year, but I bet it pays dividends this season.

Weakness: Offense as a whole.

Last year Richard Pitino's team took bad shots and didn't have the guys to hit 3-pointers with any regularity. I don't think the team will be as bad in those aspects this season. Remember, Minnesota has a stud in Amir Coffey coming in. He'll get a chance to prove himself immediately. It's been a long offseason for Pitino. Bring on the ball.

X-factor: Confidence and optimism within the program

Pitino probably realizes his team is capable of vaulting in the Big Ten standings this year, but it's still a rough-around-the-edges group, and he's going to be frustrated. It's vital for Minnesota to not bail on the process if the season goes badly in the first month. Pitino will have his challenges this year, but if he can keep the locker room, it sets up for a big year in 2017-18.

Projected regular-season win total: 14

The Gophers are going to rack up wins in the non-conference. Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Florida State (road game) are the toughest teams. FSU is the team I consider the best, by a good margin, of those three. Minnesota should get to at least nine non-con wins, then can it win five in the league? Absolutely. Winnable home opportunities: Maryland, Iowa, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska. Plus chances at Northwestern and Rutgers.

13. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Strength: Sticky fingers

Nebraska kept itself in a lot of games because it averaged 7.35 steals. Tim Miles' teams have always had a certain characteristic that made them tough to scout vs. actually play against. The Cornhuskers were flawed in a lot of ways, but they made up for their drawbacks last season to a certain degree by picking pockets often.

Weakness: No proven stars

Shavon Shields is gone and Andrew White had a falling out with the staff and transferred to Syracuse. This leaves Nebraska in a lurch. Who can be an all league-level player? Taj Webster will try to step in and be that guy.

X-factor: Playing good defense late in the shot clock

Nebraska was a 16-18 team last season, 6-12 in the Big Ten. According to, opponents held the ball 18.3 seconds into the shot clock. If opponents are doing that and you have a bad record, it means you're not capable of closing in the final seconds. If Nebraska can quarter opponents' field goal percentage with less than five seconds left on the clock, they'll without question gain more confidence. The rally and inspiration of hard defense and wilting an opponent is an infectious thing.

Projected regular-season win total: 16

Tim Miles did not do his team favors, but I love him for scheduling like this. Bravo, Tim. Dayton, Creighton, Kansas and UCLA are the toughies, and all of those are NCAA Tournament teams. NU will get some easy Ws in non-con, but the league is probably going to wear this team down. At Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Rutgers, Northwestern, Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan State and Minnesota. Nine road games. Nebraska likely to be 2-7 through that stretch.

14. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Strength: Coaching

It's early, but Steve Pikiell will make his mark in time. Go read up on what he did at Stony Brook. Rutgers will be out of the Big Ten cellar by 2018.

Weakness: You name it, it's there

This is a team in need of a rebuild that will not come quickly. The biggest thing to address right now is shot selection and helping your offense by anticipating second-chance opportunities. If Rutgers can play smart this season it will have a chance at winning 10 games. Hey, it won seven last season.

X-factor: A complete culture change

Rutgers is, again, probably going to be the worst major-conference team in America. But it has a new coach, one of the guys with the best reputations among people in coaching circles. Steve Pikiell. He took over a Stony Brook program once upon a when and got them going, and that team was in worse shape than what Rutgers is in now. It's going to take a half-decade, but Rutgers will get above .500 under Pikiell. That alone is worth the hire.

Projected regular-season win total: 8

I'm going to try to predict Rutgers' eight wins right now. At home vs. Drexel, at home vs. Niagara, at home vs. Hartford, at home vs. Morgan State, at home vs. Central Connecticut State, at home vs. Northwestern, at home vs. Nebraska and at home vs. Minnesota. There! I got to eight. Had to sweat a little. Eight wins would be one more than last season.