With the football team in its bye week, it’s time to sneak a peek ahead at basketball season, starting with our Roar Lions Roar preseason conference power rankings! For reference, in a preseason media poll conducted by The Columbus Dispatch and The Athletic, media members picked the Nittany Lions to finish tied for 12th with Northwestern this season.
Be sure to let me know where you’d rank Penn State within the Big Ten in the comments. We’re now less than a month away from the start of the 2021-22 season.
1. PURDUE - HC: Matt Painter (17th Season)
Key Returnees: G Jaden Ivey, G Brandon Newman, G Eric Hunter Jr., G Sasha Stefanovic, F Mason Gillis, C Trevion Williams, C Zach Edey
Top Newcomer: Trey Kaufman, Four-star forward, No. 1-ranked player in Indiana
Season Opener: vs. Bellarmine (Nov. 9)
This will be Matt Painter’s 17th season in charge of the Boilermakers, and only Tom Izzo has been tenured longer in the Big Ten among the 14 head coaches. Purdue just edges ahead of Michigan at No. 1 because of the amount of experience coming back from last season’s NCAA Tournament team for the Boilermakers. I mean look at that key returnees list. Trevion Williams and Jaden Ivey are First-Team All-Big Ten caliber players, and Zach Edey would be starting for 90% of teams in the country. It’s a terrific luxury for Painter to be able to use him off of the bench. The biggest loss of the offseason was Micah Shrewsberry, who did a lot of good work in the development of Trevion Williams (15.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg in 2020-21) and Edey (8.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 30 blocks) as an assistant under Painter.
2. MICHIGAN - HC: Juwan Howard (3rd Season)
Key Returnees: G Eli Brooks, F Brandon Johns Jr., C Hunter Dickinson
Top Newcomer: Caleb Houston, Five-star forward, No. 10-ranked player nationally
Season Opener: vs. Buffalo (Nov. 10)
Man, Juwan Howard has picked up where John Beilein left off in Ann Arbor...and then some. The Wolverines welcome the nation's No. 2-ranked recruiting class, highlighted by five-star forwards Caleb Houston and Moussa Diabate. Howard also added a further trio of four-star recruits and dynamic Coastal Carolina transfer DeVante’ Jones. Combine that with Conference Player of the Year candidate Hunter Dickinson and veterans Eli Brooks and Brandon Johns Jr., and you’ve got the recipe of a Big Ten title contender. How quickly all this talent can gel will be interesting to watch, but Michigan has all the pieces to improve on its Elite Eight finish a season ago. I'm also here for all the ongoing pettiness between the Wolverines and my third-ranked team in the power rankings.
Unrelated, there was a great segment from Andy Katz and the Big Ten Network with Howard and new Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry. The pair discussed coaching in the NBA, NIL, the strength of the Big Ten, and more. It's worth a watch and it's clear both coaches have a lot of respect for one another.
3. ILLINOIS - HC: Brad Underwood (5th Season)
Key Returnees: G Andre Curbelo, G Trent Frazier, F Da'Monte Williams, C Kofi Cockburn
Top Newcomer: G Alfonso Plummer, transfer from Utah
Season Opener: vs. Jackson State (Nov. 9)
Last season was special for the Illini in a lot of ways. Brad Underwood has done a terrific job in getting Illinois back into the top half of the Big Ten and it was easily their best campaign since the 2005 NCAA runner-up team. Still, a second-round exit at the hands of Loyola was a huge missed opportunity to get the Illini to their sixth Final Four. Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier, and Andre Curbelo are back. Ayo Dosumnu (NBA) and Adam Miller (LSU) are gone. Dosunmu was a player who bailed out the Illini when they needed a bucket in big moments. Can Curbelo take the next step and become that player? As noted above, the Illini have had a lot of back-and-forth beef with Michigan over not being recognized as regular-season co-champions last year. Wolverines center Hunter Dickinson continued the spat last week at media days, and long may it continue. This conference needs some good feuds.
Illinois fans are pretty annoying, Im not going to lie. Hunter Dickinson— Eamonn Brennan (@eamonnbrennan) October 7, 2021
4. OHIO STATE - HC: Chris Holtmann (5th Season)
Key Returnees: F Justice Sueing, F E.J. Liddell, C Kyle Young
Top Newcomer: G Jamari Wheeler, transfer from Penn State
Season Opener: vs. Akron (Nov. 9)
Like Illinois, Ohio State had dreams of a Final Four last season. And like Illinois, an early-round exit in the NCAA Tournament dashed those dreams. Leading scorer Duane Washington Jr. and floor general CJ Walker are gone, but a solid cast of veterans are back. Chris Holtmann was aggressive in the transfer portal, adding Joey Brunk (Indiana), Jamari Wheeler (Penn State), and Cedric Russell (Louisiana). Wheeler and Russell will be in line to replace Washington and Walker, and the former’s experience within the Big Ten gauntlet will be key. E.J. Liddell’s decision to come back for another season after testing the NBA waters was huge. The Buckeyes will look to avoid the late-season struggles that have plagued them seemingly every year of Holtmann’s tenure thus far.
5. MICHIGAN STATE - HC: Tom Izzo (27th Season)
Key Returnees: G AJ Hoggard, F Joey Hauser, F Gabe Brown, F Malik Hall
Top Newcomer: G Tyson Walker, transfer from Northeastern
Season Opener: Champions Classic vs. Kansas (Nov. 9)
Were last season’s struggles simply a down year during a weird COVID-altered season or are the Spartans trending in the wrong direction under Tom Izzo? This is by no means one of Izzo’s best teams, but Michigan State should be better than it was in 2020-21. The biggest reason is that the point guard problems seem to have been solved with the arrival of transfer Tyson Walker from Northeastern. The non-conference slate is pretty brutal on paper with matchups against Kansas and Butler, a trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis, and a meeting with Louisville in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
6. MARYLAND - HC: Mark Turgeon (11th Season)
Key Returnees: G Eric Ayala, G Marcus Dockery, F Donta Scott
Top Newcomer: G Fatts Russell, transfer from Rhode Island
Season Opener: vs.Quinnipiac (Nov. 9)
It seems like Maryland fans have wanted to fire Mark Turgeon every season for the past 11 years. Doesn’t look like they’re going to get their wish anytime soon with Turgeon signing a three-year extension back in March. The Terrapins coach has won a lot of games – 221 to be exact – and earned a share of the Big Ten title back in 2020. Maryland has only been to the Sweet 16 once in his tenure, though. This team can get back to that mark. Newcomer Fatts Russell (such a great name) and Eric Ayala form one of the better backcourt duos in the conference, and the Terrapins added Georgetown big man Qudus Wahab via transfer too.
7. INDIANA - HC: Mike Woodson (1st Season)
Key Returnees: G Rob Phinisee, G Trey Galloway, G Anthony Leal, F Race Thompson, F Trayce Jackson-Davis
Top Newcomer: G Xavier Johnson, transfer from Pitt
Season Opener: vs. Eastern Michigan (Nov. 9)
He’s not Brad Stevens, yet Mike Woodson might prove to be a great hire for Indiana. Of course, I thought the same was going to be true of Archie Miller, and well, that didn’t turn out so good. The Hoosiers will once again rely on Trayce Jackson-Davis to lead the way. Woodson also added some nice pieces in freshman guard Tamar Bates (No. 30-ranked player nationally) and transfers Xavier Johnson (Pitt) and Miller Kopp (Northwestern). Hoosier fans are starved for meaningful basketball in March after a few dreadful seasons under Miller. If Woodson can deliver that, he could gain a lot of goodwill from a fanbase that pretty openly wanted the program to go in another direction with its coaching search.
8. IOWA - HC: Fran McCaffery (12th Season)
Key Returnees: G Jordan Bohannon, G Connor McCaffery, F Patrick McCaffery, F Keegan Murray
Top Newcomer: C Filip Rebraca, transfer from North Dakota
Season Opener: vs. Longwood (Nov. 9)
No player in college basketball has bigger shoes to fill this season than Filip Rebraca. He replaces program legend Luka Garza, who is off to the NBA after setting all kinds of Hawkeye records. Rebraca arrives from North Dakota, where he averaged 16.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game last season. If he can put up numbers at least similar to those, Iowa will miss Garza just a little less. The Hawkeyes lost their top two scorers, but there's enough experience returning to make another run to the tournament. Shoutout to Jordan Bohannon too, who’s back for his 20th season of college basketball. This era’s Perry Ellis.
9. RUTGERS - HC: Steve Pickiell (6th Season)
Key Returnees: G Geo Baker, G Ron Harper Jr., G Caleb McConnell
Top Newcomer: F Aundre Hyatt, transfer from LSU
Season Opener: vs. Lehigh (Nov. 10)
Outside of Penn State and Minnesota, there might not have been a team hit harder by the transfer portal than Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights lost Myles Johnson, Jacob Young, Mamadou Doucoure, and Montez Mathis from a squad that helped the program to its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1991. Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. return after testing the NBA waters. A lot of what the Scarlet Knights do in 2021-22 will run through those two players.
10. PENN STATE - HC: Micah Shrewsberry (1st Season)
Key Returnees: G Sam Sessoms, G Myles Dread, F Seth Lundy, F John Harrar
Top Newcomer: G Jalen Pickett, transfer from Siena
Season Opener: vs. Youngstown State (Nov. 10)
Before somebody reads this and starts firing off on their keyboard to tell me I’m a homer, let me just say you can rank teams 10-14 in the Big Ten any way you’d like and I wouldn’t argue with you. I think Micah Shrewsberry is the perfect fit for this program and it seems as though his players have bought into what he preaches. His knack for player development and offensive ingenuity will get the best out of the likes of Sam Sessoms, Seth Lundy, and John Harrar. While the Nittany Lions lost Myreon Jones, Jamari Wheeler, and Izaiah Brockington to the transfer portal, they also brought in some impressive newcomers in Jalen Pickett and Greg Lee. Both already look like they’re Big Ten players from a physical standpoint.
11. NEBRASKA - HC: Fred Hoiberg (3rd Season)
Key Returnees: G Trey McGowens, G Kobe Webster, G Lat Mayen, F Derrick Walker
Top Newcomer: Bryce McGowens, Five-star shooting guard, No. 28-ranked player nationally
Season Opener: vs. Western Illinois (Nov. 9)
Is this the year the Cornhuskers take a step forward under Fred Hoiberg? A Top-20 recruiting class, Arizona State transfer Alonzo Verge Jr. and some talented returnees like Trey McGowens give Hoiberg his best roster since he took the job. At the very least, Nebraska will look to improve on back-to-back 14th place finishes the past two seasons.
12. WISCONSIN - HC: Greg Gard (7th Season)
Key Returnees: G Brad Davison, G Jonathan Davis, G Jordan Davis, F Tyler Wahl
Top Newcomer: C Chris Vogt, transfer from Cincinnati
Season Opener: St. Francis Brooklyn (Nov. 9)
It’s crazy how quickly things can change. A year after earning a share of the 2020 Big Ten regular-season title, Greg Gard is under pressure in Madison. The team’s senior leadership from last season was uh...less than pleased with Gard’s coaching, as made public earlier this offseason in leaked audio recordings. New Athletic Director Chris McIntosh has voiced his support for Gard, but you wonder if things head south for the Badgers, will McIntosh decide he wants to bring in his own guy to run the program. Only Brad Davison – yes, he’s back – returns from last season’s starting lineup.
13. NORTHWESTERN - HC: Chris Collins (9th Season)
Key Returnees: G Boo Buie, G Chase Audige, F Pete Nance, F Robbie Berran, C Ryan Young
Top Newcomer: F Elyjah Williams, transfer from Fairleigh Dickinson
Season Opener: vs. Eastern Illinois (Nov. 9)
That NCAA Tournament appearance in 2017 – the program’s first-ever tournament berth – seems like a lifetime ago. Since that season, Chris Collins and the Wildcats have finished below .500 in the Big Ten every year. A lot of players return from last season’s roster, but that’s a roster that lost 13-straight games at one point. Outside of Fairleigh Dickinson transfer Elyjah Williams, the Wildcats didn’t add many significant pieces via the transfer portal. They also lost Miller Kopp to Indiana. It’s going to be another long campaign in Evanston.
14. MINNESOTA - HC: Ben Johnson (1st Season)
Key Returnees: F Eric Curry
Top Newcomer: F Jamison Battle, transfer from George Washington
Season Opener: vs. Kansas City (Nov. 9)
Now to the bottom of the barrel. Of the three new head coaches in the Big Ten, Ben Johnson probably has the biggest rebuild on his hands. The roster is almost completely different than the one ex-coach Richard Pitino fielded in the team’s season-ending loss to Ohio State. Marcus Carr (19.4 ppg) is the biggest of those losses, as he’s moved on to Texas. Johnson is young and energetic with a bright future ahead of him as a coach. This season is going to be really rough, though.