Yes, it is still November, but for the second year in a row and presumably from now on, Big Ten basketball is about to begin. Starting this weekend, teams will play two league games in early December before resuming pre-conference action. Teams will then pick things back up in late December on the conference’s more traditional schedule.
With the benefit of three weeks of the season under our belts, it is time to predict the 2018-19 Big Ten conference basketball race.
Predictions are of course more for entertainment than anything else — but one things seems clear. This year is going to be an absolute grind. When you see Rutgers go down to Miami and pull out a win, and Illinois give No. 1 Gonzaga a run for their money — you know nothing is going to come easy this year.
While we spent most of the summer and fall proclaiming that there is no clear leader this year, the first three weeks have drastically changed that opinion. Number two seems pretty clear as well. After that, the teams in spots 3 through 9 in our opinion are all pretty close and could all make a legitimate sleeper run at the title similar to Ohio State last year.
Here goes nothing:
1. Michigan (16-4): The Wolverines beat No. 11 North Carolina last night by 17 points — and that was their closest game all year, including a win over Villanova. John Beilein is doing an unbelievable job after losing key pieces from last year’s national runner-up team, and it starts with defense.
2. Michigan State (14-6): The Spartans are good once again, but they don’t have that wow factor like prior editions. With Joshua Langford emerging as a high volume scorer and Cassius Winston one of the top point guards in the country, Tom Izzo will have Michigan State in the hunt yet again.
3. Wisconsin (13-7): The Badgers will be back in the race with Ethan Happ returning for his 16th season in Madison. In all seriousness, this team is more about the supporting cast which includes Brad Davison and D’Mitrik Trice. If Wisconsin can stay healthy they will be a tough out.
4. Indiana (12-8): Struggling through early season injuries, this IU team hasn’t found its identity yet. After a slow start, Archie Miller rallied last year’s team to a 6th place finish, and this year’s squad is much deeper. The talent is there for a team that rounds into form in February, especially if Jerome Hunter can return.
5. Nebraska (12-8): With a solid returning core, the Cornhuskers will do enough this year to make the NCAA Tournament. Their starting five is as good as anyone in the conference, but it’s Tim Miles’ bench that gives you pause.
6. Iowa (12-8): So far so good on Fran McCaffery getting his guys to play a little defense. The Hawkeyes stand at 72nd in KenPom adjusted defense. With its top eight scorers returning, that should be enough to get this team in the upper half of the league and likely back in the NCAA Tournament.
7. Ohio State (12-8): Yes, we know about their No. 1 ranking in the “NET.” Frankly, that’s the NET’s problem. Yes, we know about their impressive early wins. We aren’t buying it. The season is a long grind, and while good, the Buckeyes aren’t that good. We just don’t see the offensive firepower. A 12-8 league finish would be a great job by Chris Holtmann.
8. Maryland (10-10): The Terps are really good at the top of their roster, but we don’t see the depth to withstand the rigors of the league. Nevertheless, Anthony Cowan, Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith will be a handful. Mark Turgeon looks to have a bubble team this year.
9. Purdue (9-11): We see Carsen Edwards and a bunch of role players. That won’t cut it in a league this deep. The Boilers don’t have that dominant offensive post presence that they have relied on in the past, and it is much easier to take away a guard and make someone else beat you.
10. Minnesota (9-11): A road loss at Boston College (the same BC that lost at home to IUPUI) sent up a major red flag. With Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey, the Gophers are talented enough to do damage. But this could be it for Richard Pitino if they don’t overachieve this year, as he appears to have lost out on a wealth of in-state 2019 recruiting talent.
11. Penn State (7-13): We know by now not to take a Pat Chambers team lightly. As we saw against Virginia Tech, the Lions will pull some league upsets. We just don’t see the depth to do it consistently, although Lamar Stevens and Josh Reaves are two of the best players in the league that no one is talking about. The status of Mike Watkins is a major question as well.
12. Northwestern (7-13): Ryan Taylor and Vic Law are going to be a lethal combination although both can be streaky. The question is who else will produce for Chris Collins? We don’t see the supporting cast in Evanston.
13. Rutgers (4-16): Okay, we’ll admit that win over Miami pulled them out of the cellar. But how about Michigan State and Wisconsin to open league play? Geo Baker is an emerging star, and Steve Pikiell’s teams always compete, but this is the best we can do for the Scarlet Knights.
14. Illinois (3-17): Led by Trent Frazier, Illinois is going to play hard every night, but the Illini lost a lot of talent off a bad team. Ayo Dosunmu is a special freshman, and Brad Underwood may one day turn things around, but it won’t be this year.
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