Big Ten offseason storylines: Experienced Wisconsin has Final Four potential
Led by seniors Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, the Badgers are the class of the Big Ten
The Big Ten has consistently been one of the top leagues in college basketball and this season should be no different.
Check out below as we breakdown five offseason storylines in the conference.
1. There's major separation after the top four teams
The one thing that's for sure in regards to the Big Ten heading into next season is that the four best teams in the league are Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan State, and Purdue.
After that, however, it is very much up for discussion.
The Badgers return five starters from last year's team that should have ultimately advanced to the Elite Eight before blowing a late lead against Notre Dame in the Sweet 16. Meanwhile, Indiana returns several key pieces from last season's squad that won the Big Ten regular season title.
Michigan State is always going to be Michigan State as long as Tom Izzo is on the sidelines and Purdue returns the conference's top front court in Vincent Edwards, Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas.
Expect all four of these teams to play the majority of next season with a ranking next to their names and be high seeds in the NCAA Tournament next March.
2. Wisconsin is again set up for a Final Four run
Greg Gard may be pulling the strings from the bench instead of Bo Ryan, but that doesn't negate the fact that the Badgers will enter next season with a team that has a legitimate chance to advance to the Final Four for the third time in four years.
Wisconsin returns nine players that averaged 9.4 minutes or more last season and adds two potential rotation pieces in redshirt freshmen Brevin Pritzl and Andy Van Vliet.
A year ago at this time, Ryan was doing everything he could to make sure Gard was in position to be his successor and now 12 months later the Badgers' program remains as healthy as any in the sport.
Gard's demeanor is different than Ryan's as he's more stoic than boisterous and his decision to re-install the swing offense in the middle of last season reiterated the belief he has in his mentor's initial system.
The first-year head coach led Wisconsin to impressive road wins last February at both Maryland and Iowa which were trumped by a thrilling Round of 32 triumph over Xavier in the NCAA Tournament.
The biggest reason to be bullish on the Badgers next season?
Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes -- two seniors that boast a, 11-3 career NCAA Tournament record and have all intentions of adding to that in 2017.
The Big Ten goes through the Kohl Center.
3. Eron Harris' time is now
Many of the early season headlines surrounding Michigan State will focus on the Spartans' elite recruiting class of Miles Bridges, Josh Langford, Cassius Winston and Nick Ward, but returning players in college basketball are always more than important than incoming ones.
No player on Michigan State's roster knows that more than Harris.
Just two years ago, the 6-foot-3 guard averaged 17.2 points and made 89 3-point shots for West Virginia before opting to transfer and ultimately head to the Big Ten.
Harris averaged 9.3 points last season for the Spartans, but only logged 20.9 minutes because he was playing behind two all-conference caliber wings in Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes.
With both of those players now gone, it's Harris' time to play like a fifth-year senior.
Izzo brings in four quality freshmen and also added another solid piece in UNLV grad transfer Ben Carter, but Harris has to be a consistent double-figure scorer if Michigan State is going to do what Michigan State is accustomed to doing on an annual basis: compete for a Big Ten title and a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
4. Penn State finally has a legitimate Big Ten roster
It hasn't been an easy five years for Pat Chambers in State College, but now he's finally in a position to compete with more ammo than he's ever had since becoming a head coach in the Big Ten.
Thanks to his relentless efforts on the recruiting trail, Chambers will welcome the best recruiting class in program history to campus this fall headlined by a trio of top-100 recruits in Philadelphia natives Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens along with Oak Hill Academy's Joe Hampton.
Redshirt freshman Mike Watkins is another newcomer that should have a major impact for Penn State next season while UConn transfer Terrence Samuel is a quality guard that played key minutes on the Huskies' team that won the 2014 national title.
Add three strong returnees in Shep Garner, Josh Reaves and Payton Banks who all averaged more than 23.8 minutes last season and Chambers has a legitimate Big Ten rotation.
Now comes the hard part: dealing with expectations and performing like a team that could finish in the middle of one of the elite conferences in college basketball.
5. Ohio State looks like a sleeper
It's a little weird to associate a word like that with the Buckeyes' program, but Thad Matta's squad is entering next season slightly off-the-radar.
That may be a good thing.
Ohio State returns its top-six scorers from last year's team that won 21 games and didn't have starting forward Jae'Sean Tate available after Feb. 20 due to a shoulder injury.
Tate, Marc Loving, Keita Bates-Diop, JaQuan Lyle, Kam Williams and Trevor Thompson give Matta the type of veteran nucleus he needs to bring the Buckeyes back among the Big Ten's elite while newcomers Micah Potter and C.J. Jackson figure to serve as capable role players in reserve.
Is Ohio State as good as Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan State, or Purdue?
No person can firmly make that statement in July based on last season, but here's something to remember: Matta has never won less than 20 games since he's been in Columbus and last year was his lowest win total since his inaugural campaign.
The Buckeyes are primed to bounce back.
This and That
- One Big Ten head coach told CBS Sports that Indiana's Robert Johnson could be the league's most underrated player. "He's a two-year starter that can play multiple positions," the coach said of the 6-3 Johnson, who averaged 8.1 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists last season. "Don't be surprised if he winds up playing a lot of point guard next season."
- I'm hearing the early surprise out of Maryland this summer has been Kevin Huerter's basketball IQ. The 6-5 freshman has yet to play a college game, but figures to be an immediate contributor for the Terps thanks to his overall feel. This may be the best first-year player in the Big Ten that nobody is talking about.
- One under-the-radar name to know in the Big Ten: Illinois wing Jalen Coleman-Lands. The 6-3 guard averaged 10.3 points last season as a freshman and is the likely candidate to replace Kendrick Nunn in the Illini's starting lineup. Coleman-Lands needs to become a better defender, but he can really shoot the basketball. The long range gunner made 87 3-point shots last season.
- Michigan went 12-3 last season with Caris LeVert in the lineup, but just 11-10 without him. The Wolverines return five starters from the team last March that nearly beat Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament's First Round.
- If Bryant McIntosh played for Duke instead of Northwestern then people would be regularly comparing him to Jon Scheyer. The 6-3 guard is a flat out stud. McIntosh averaged 13.8 points, 6.7 assists and 3.6 rebounds last season as a sophomore.
- Does John Groce think Illinois is an NCAA Tournament team in 2017? Find out the answer to that question and more on this week's edition of the #CollegeHoopsToday Podcast.
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