G: Nate Mason, Minnesota
G: Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern
F: Miles Bridges, Michigan State
F: Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
F: Vincent Edwards, Purdue
1. Michigan State
When Miles Bridges (16.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg) announced he was staying, Michigan State went from a pretty good team right to national title contender. This team returns four of their starters from last year, and brings in an instant difference maker in McDonald’s All-American Jaren Jackson. The team had all the pieces last year, but injuries and a lack of cohesion led to what was unarguably a down year in 2016-17 for the Spartans, who went just 20-15. Assuming the injury bug doesn’t hit Tom Izzo’s team again, they should crush the win total from a season ago on the backs of the sophmore duo of Bridges and Nick Ward (13.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg).
Yes, Caleb Swanigan, the double-double machine, is gone, but Purdue brings back everybody else from the 27-8 Boilermaker team from last year. There is a ton of experience on this team, from Vincent Edwards (12.6 ppg, 3.2 apg) to 7’2″ center Issac Haas (12.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg), to three-point shooter Dakota Mathias (9.7 ppg, 3.8 apg). With that core sticking around for their senior year as well as sophomore Carsen Edwards (10.3 ppg, 1.8 apg) showing flashes as part of the USA Basketball U19 team, this team has a shot at another run to the second weekend in the NCAA Tournament.
Northwestern surprised a lot of people, including me by going 24-12 a season ago, Chris Collins returns four starters from that team, including all Big Ten candidate Bryant McIntosh (14.8 ppg, 5.2 apg) who carried the Cats to some of their big wins last year. Two other double-digit scorers return in Vic Law (12.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Scottie Lindsey (14.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg). A preseason ranking might be unusual in Evanston, but it isn’t undeserved, this team has the talent to compete with the best in the Big Ten, and after breaking the long drought last year, we will see if they can take it a step further in the tournament this year.
Richard Pitino’s squad is finally starting to get some national attention after going 24-10 last season. The Gophers bring back all five starters including Big Ten defensive player of the year Reggie Lynch (8.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg). The team’s leading scorer, Nate Mason (15.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg), also returns. Mason made my preseason All Big Ten team. If the team wants to take another step, Jordan Murphy (11.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg) is a good candidate to take that next step. Murphy is only 6’6″, but his rebounding numbers are incredible, and Murphy played solid inside defense as a sophomore last season.
The defending Big Ten Tournament champions come in at #5 on the list. They lose three of their top four scorers from last year, but under John Beilein, Michigan has always been dangerous. The only double-digit scorer returning is junior Moritz Wagner (12.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg), who could emerge as one of the league’s best players now that he steps out of the shadow of DJ Wilson and Derrick Walton. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (9.1 ppg, 2.8 ppg) was tremendous down the stretch last year, and he will be joined at the guard spot by Ohio transfer Jaaron Simmons who averaged 15.9 points per game and earned All MAC honors while with the Bobcats.
On paper, this could be the first time in 20 years the Badgers miss the NCAA tournament. Greg Gard has went 42-18 in his two years as the head coach, but this is the year his luck runs out. Just one starter returns from the 27-10 team that made the conference title game. Ethan Happ (14.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg) is that one returning starter, and he will be the centerpiece of this team. The rest of the starting five is hard to decipher, but it will probably include D’Mitrik Trice (5.6 ppg, 1.7 apg) who played bench minutes as a freshman. Wisconsin Mr. Basketball Kobe King could challenge for a key role at the two guard.