The Big Ten sure seems to a be top heavy conference this year, as Michigan State has a loaded recruiting class (possibly the best ever in the Tom Izzo era), Indiana returns key pieces like Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby, and Wisconsin has everyone back from last year’s Sweet 16 team.
Purdue should be solid with the presence of Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan up front, but they still have issues in the backcourt. Maryland returns Melo Trimble, but they also lost four starters off a team that didn’t win a game in the NCAA Tournament. Then there’s Iowa, who lost numerous key pieces, including front line anchors Jarrod Uthoff and Adam Woodbury.
So who are some teams that could possibly surprise us in the Big Ten? Who are some teams that could pull off some upsets in league play and possibly be more of a factor than one might think.
Here are three underrated Big Ten teams:
Penn State Nittany Lions
Pat Chambers’ squad finished at .500 (16-16) last season and only 10th in the Big Ten standings. They lost their leading scorer, Brandon Taylor, to graduation, however, they return a majority of their roster and add one of the best recruiting classes in the program’s recent history.
Shep Garner and Payton Banks, the team’s second and third leading scorers last season, are coming back to Happy Valley, while rising sophomores Josh Reaves and Isaiah Washington provide more depth in the backcourt. Penn State also has rising junior Julian Moore at the power forward position, and former UConn Huskie Terrence Samuel gives the squad an experienced veteran who has played on a National Championship team in the past.
While the returning players will be critical, the gem of this team will be their recruiting class. The Nittany Lions add three four-star recruits, point guard Tony Carr, power forward Joe Hampton, and small forward Lamar Stevens, and also reeled in a three-star small forward in Nazeer Bostick.
It’s going to take some time (especially in Big Ten play) for the freshman to adjust, but Penn State clearly has an upgrade in talent.
If Garner and Banks take massive jumps this offseason and Carr provides consistency at the point guard position, the Nittany Lions could finish much higher than 10th in the conference standings.
The talk of the offseason in Columbus was the multiple young building block players that decided to transfer out of Ohio State.
Daniel Giddens (Alabama), A.J. Harris (New Mexico State), Mickey Mitchell (UC Santa Barbara) put a dent into the Buckeyes’ depth. But on the positive side, Ohio State returns their top six scorers, including senior leader Marc Loving.
After a year of college basketball under his belt, JaQuan Lyle should be a much improved floor general. Jae’Sean Tate is returning from a season ending injury, but he is a relentless front court player who can help the Buckeyes score on the interior and control the glass on either end.
Kam Williams can provide a punch off the bench, while Keita Bates-Diop is one of the more overlooked players in the entire Big Ten Conference. Plus, Thad Matta brings in two four-star recruits, Micah Potter and Derek Funderburk, giving the team more depth and talent up front.
Regardless of the offseason departures, the Buckeyes will have excellent chemistry and should be a much better team with Tate in the lineup (as long as he’s fully healthy).
The Wolverines made the NCAA Tournament last year and nearly shocked the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the first round. But without their best player Caris LeVert, who was constantly injured during his college career, how will the Wolverines bounce back in 2016-17?
By using their dynamic backcourt.
Zak Irvin gives the team versatility, as he can play the two or three position, and can score from all three levels on the court. Derrick Walton Jr. is one of the best guards in terms of rebounding in the country, can lead a team, and is capable of knocking down open shots from perimeter.
Then there’s Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who was inconsistent at times last season, but showed flashes of brilliance at other times. He can score the ball and should be even better in his junior campaign.
Duncan Robinson is back and he certainly can shoot the rock, giving Michigan more spacing on the offensive end.
The Wolverines also added Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews, who should only make the team better during practice (he has to sit out next season due to the transfer rules). Matthews is a great on-ball defender due to his athleticism, size and length, so he could test his Wolverine teammates before they even get into game action.
The Wolverines do have their fair share of issues though and this is why they are being overlooked.
They lost Aubrey Dawkins, Big Ten Tournament hero Kameron Chatman and Ricky Doyle to transfer, which certainly is not good news for their depth or more importantly an already weak front court.
But Mark Donnal and D.J. Wilson are capable of shouldering a load, while Mortiz Wagner broke out in the NCAA Tournament.
Is that enough to hold up the painted area though?
Probably not enough to make them a true contender at the top of the Big Ten, but they should be in the mix to make the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan’s defense should be improved if Wagner continues to play well and the backcourt is so talented and deep that it can lead them to another berth in the Big Dance.
People may be overlooking the Wolverines because of the loss of LeVert, the departure of some transfers and the fact that they have been average since the loss of Trey Burke, but they are firmly in the mix for an opportunity to play in the postseason.