Big Ten basketball roundtable: Taking a look at the hottest topics of the 2021-22 season
A week from now, Big Ten basketball will be upon us. And that is a wonderful thing.
It’s a season of some change in the B1G with 3 new coaches on the scene. It’s also a season of high expectations with 5 Big Ten teams in the preseason Top 25 and 2 more knocking on the door as the highest vote-getters outside of the poll.
As the appointed hoops gurus at Saturday Tradition, Kyle Charters and I sat down (via computer) to discuss the hottest topics of the upcoming B1G season.
Alex: Is this the year a Big Ten team finally cuts down the nets at the national championship game?
Kyle: It’s long overdue, right?
Michigan State last won the NCAA Tournament way back in 2000, and although there have been challengers since — 7 times a Big Ten team has finished runner-up — none has been able to get a victory in the championship game. Is this the year?
Well, the Big Ten certainly has at least a couple good candidates in Michigan and Purdue, both of which are ranked in the top-10 to start the season. But more than a ranking, the Wolverines and the Boilermakers have the look, with multiple NBA-level players (Hunter Dickinson and Caleb Houstan for Michigan; and Jalen Ivey, Trevion Williams and Zach Edey for Purdue) who should be able to carry a team when it matters, in March.
Michigan, as a program, has at least been there before, which might give Juwan Howard’s group an edge, having recently played (but lost) in the championship game in 2018 and 2013, and they came within an eyelash of advancing to the Final Four last season. Purdue did the same back in 2019, but hasn’t been to a Final Four since 1979. Will that matter this March? Only time will tell.
It’s not impossible for another Big Ten team to make a run: Illinois has pieces, as does Ohio State, although guard play is a question for each. It’s hard to count out a Tom Izzo-coached team, but the Spartans have a ton of questions to start the year.
Kyle: Michigan or Purdue, which is the team to beat in the Big Ten?
Alex: Here’s a scorching take: I’m not even sure I’d put the Boilermakers at No. 2.
I know Illinois has a massive void to fill in replacing Ayo Dosunmu and most of Brad Underwood’s assistant coaches. But I think the Fighting Illini will find their new identity and hit their stride once conference play gets going. I also think the returners will have something to prove after getting bounced prematurely by Loyola in last year’s NCAA tournament.
That said, Michigan is the team to beat. The Wolverines lost a ton of talent from last year’s Elite 8 run, but by all accounts Caleb Houstan might be the best freshman to suit up at Crisler Center since, well, Juwan Howard and his freshman class. I like that Michigan has a good balance of veterans and talented newcomers.
Like the above teams, I certainly think Purdue is Final Four-capable. The excitement in West Lafayette is warranted. 1979 is a long time. Robbie Hummel’s redshirt freshman year, if I’m not mistaken.
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And I wouldn’t sleep on Ohio State. Chris Holtmann is the guy Indiana thought Archie Miller was.
All 4 of these teams might be good enough to break the Big Ten’s drought. But as we saw last season with Illinois, so much depends on the bracket. Get the wrong draw and you’re sunk.
Alex: We’ve established the favorites. Do you have a dark horse contender that could win the conference tournament, or even the regular-season title?
Kyle: The answer is Maryland.
Why? Well, we just don’t know enough about the Terrapins right now, other than that Mark Turgeon has brought in a bunch of pieces who have experienced success elsewhere. But how well — and perhaps more importantly how quickly — transfer guards Fatts Russell (Rhode Island) and Ian Martinez (Utah) and forwards Qudus Wahab (Georgetown), and Pavlo Dziuba (Arizona State) adapt to the Maryland program might have the greatest determination to whether the Terps can surprise in the Big Ten. It’d be a massive upset to knock off Michigan or Purdue or Illinois or maybe Ohio State from the top spot, but Maryland has the talent.
It helps too to have a shooting guard with the résumé of Eric Ayala, who returns after averaging 15.5 points last season, becoming one of the Big Ten’s most improved players. He was one of the main reasons why the Terps got into a midseason roll last season in the Big Ten.
Maybe it all comes together quickly for the Terrapins. Maybe not. But they would seem to have the talent to do some damage in the Big Ten, and if not win the league, they can certainly influence who does.
Kyle: The Big Ten has 3 new coaches — Mike Woodson at Indiana, Ben Johnson at Minnesota and Micah Shrewsberry at Penn State. What should we expect?
Alex: Woodson’s cupboard is the fullest thanks to Trayce Jackson-Davis, whom he talked into staying with the program for another season rather than going pro. If the Hoosiers exceed expectations, Woodson could be a coach of the year candidate. More likely, Jackson-Davis will be a player of the year candidate because he has less around him than guys like Hunter Dickinson, Kofi Cockburn and Jaden Ivey. He’ll put up big numbers.
I think Woodson gets IU into the tournament. And I’ll get a real chuckle if that means they have to play in Dayton for the First Four. Because that would make for some quality Archie Miller jokes.
Expectations will be considerably lower for Johnson and Shrewsberry.
For Johnson, I think winning off the (elevated) floor is going to matter the most. To have guys like Chet Holmgren and Jalen Suggs in your backyard and not even get a sniff is a major indictment of where Minnesota is at right now. None of the blue-chip recruits in Minnesota signed with the Gophers in the past 3 recruiting cycles. They’re in danger of the same thing happening with the 2022 class. And they’re the only D1 program in the state! Preposterous.
As for Shrewsberry, it’s just a win if anyone realizes he’s Penn State’s basketball coach. I think it was literally 2-3 years before I realized Ed DeChellis didn’t coach the Nittany Lions anymore. To be fair, I wasn’t covering the Big Ten at the time. But you get the idea.
Alex: I’m taking Trayce Jackson-Davis for B1G player of the year. Who you got?
Kyle: Man, it’s going to be a battle, without a bad answer. The question, of course, is which big man will come out on top in a list of great big men: Jackson-Davis, Hunter Dickinson, Trevion Williams, Zach Edey, EJ Liddell and the Big Ten’s preseason Player of the Year in Kofi Cockburn. Could a guard break in and spoil the show? Maybe Purdue’s Jaden Ivey, who is going to be one of the Big Ten’s most dynamic playmakers and a human highlight reel. Perhaps he wows and pulls off the upset.
But it’s hard to get away from the bigs. Considering he’s the best player on (potentially) the best team, the nod has to go to Dickinson, the Michigan Wolverines’ center. He can just do it all and do it all while making it look so easy. It’s impressive. He’s a wizard near the basket and has enough of a face-up game to make him a challenge for most defenders. And Dickinson is one of the best big-man passers in the Big Ten in the last decade.
If Purdue makes a Big Ten run, then maybe one of the trio of Boilermakers, but they could split the vote. And Cockburn is a good option, because he’s just such an imposing and dominant figure. But Dickinson is the most skilled of the bunch.
Kyle: The Big Ten always has a surprise bubble team. Who is it this year?
Alex: I’m gonna go with Northwestern.
For one, KenPom has the Cats projected to go 18-12 and 9-11 in the Big Ten. That’s a pretty classic “needs one or two wins in the Big Ten tournament to get in” resume. I also think the selection committee has a fondness for rewarding programs that make a big jump, and that’s what Northwestern would be doing here. The Wildcats haven’t finished above .500 since finally making their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 2017.
To me, the key to this season is point guard Boo Buie. With a name like that, everyone around you automatically gets better.
Alex: Which Big Ten coach comes into this season on the hottest seat? It’s certainly not as clear as last year.
Kyle: That’s a really good question. I don’t think there’s a coach, right now, who I would say is feeling heat. But most of us thought coaches would get a free pass in the COVID year and how did that work out for Archie Miller and Richard Pitino (and Jim Ferry, although his circumstance as the interim at Penn State was different)? Not great.
If forced to name somebody, I think it’s probably Chris Collins at Northwestern. Look, I understand expectations are what they are in Evanston, but aside from the brief periods of life at the beginning and end of the Big Ten season, Northwestern was sort of a dumpster fire, and that was with a veteran group that many thought would at least be able to consistently compete. Collins probably doesn’t need an NCAA bid to save himself — the Wildcats made it in 2017, but have flatlined since — but relevancy would be good, and too often last season they didn’t have that.
But outside of Northwestern, not sure who else would go on the list. Greg Gard seems to irk people at times, but enough to get ousted at Wisconsin? Fran McCaffery is as fiery as they come, so it’ll be interesting to see how he reacts to a rebuilding year.
Kyle: Are there a couple early-season non-conference games that you have circled?
For me, I like 2 that involve North Carolina — Purdue playing the Tar Heels at the Hall of Fame tip-off Nov. 20 and then Michigan traveling to Chapel Hill for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Dec. 1.
Or heck, the one right around the corner, with Michigan State playing Kansas at the Champions Classic in NYC next Tuesday, Nov. 9.
Alex: I love true home-and-homes so much more than the neutral-site games, so yeah — Michigan at UNC is definitely atop my list. However, I advise Chris Webber not to turn on his television for that game. Because that replay will be a thing.
My second-favorite game is a sleeper: Ohio State at Xavier on Nov. 18. You just know that’s going to be a rowdy atmosphere and fun as hell.