What each Big Ten team needs to improve next basketball season
Another college basketball season is in the books, and once again a Big Ten team was not cutting down the nets on Monday night.
That’s the way it’s been at the end of every NCAA Tournament since Michigan State won it all in 2000. So it goes without saying that every Big Ten team has room to improve next season.
Here is what each program needs to do in order to take a step forward next year, whether they’re stuck in the cellar or among the league’s elite.
Illinois: A point guard
With Trent Frazier graduating and Andre Curbelo exiting through the transfer portal, there is a very obvious need for point guards in Champaign.
The Illini may already have the pieces to replace shooting guard Alfonso Plummer in-house or within the incoming signing class, but point guard is still a puzzle.
Regardless of whether center Kofi Cockburn declares for the NBA Draft, somebody needs to run the backcourt.
Indiana: Shooters, plural
Indiana’s offense was painful to watch in Mike Woodson’s first season, without a single player stepping up to become a viable outside shooting threat.
The Hoosiers were 200th nationally in 3-point shooting and 233rd in free-throw shooting.
Woodson cooked up a heck of a defense, but Indiana needs to find guys who can score in a half-court set.
Iowa: Another star to blossom, again
Iowa’s first-round loss to Richmond remains the most inexplicable thing to happen in the 2022 NCAA Tournament. The Hawkeyes were clicking on every cylinder for the last 2 months of the season, then vanished against a very average team at the exact wrong time.
Last year, the Hawks had to figure out how to replace all-time leading scorer Luka Garza. Keegan Murray quickly provided that match.
Now, Keegan is headed to the NBA himself. And it’s likely that his twin brother Kris will be the one stepping up to keep Iowa moving forward.
Maryland: An identity
The Terrapins were a team without an identity in 2022 under Mark Turgeon and interim Danny Manning. Unless that identity was mediocre defense.
According to KenPom.com, Maryland was 185th nationally in effective field goal percentage on defense and 282nd in 3-point defense.
New coach Kevin Willard’s Seton Hall defense was ranked 20th in effective field goal percentage, which seems a good start. However, his Pirates were 304th against the 3 in 2021, so one can’t help but wonder if this was actually the best Maryland could do.
Michigan: Hunter Dickinson
If Hunter Dickinson forgoes the NBA Draft, there’s every reason to believe we will actually see the Michigan team that entered this season with the 2nd-best odds to win the NCAA Tournament.
The Wolverines finally jelled at the end of the season, and have a lot of promising pieces potentially returning. If Dickinson is among those pieces, you can pretty safely book a 6th consecutive Sweet 16 for Michigan.
Michigan State: An alpha dog
You rarely have to ask who the leader is at Michigan State. When guys like Mateen Cleaves, Draymond Green, Denzel Valentine, Cassius Winston run through the program over the years, that tends to make itself obvious.
It never did this season. The Spartans used 2 point guards equally. Their most talented player was senior Gabe Brown, who could vanish like David Copperfield at times.
But if Max Christie comes back after testing the NBA Draft process, he could become that guy. So could point guard AJ Hoggard, who made strides as a sophomore.
With a strong leader, the Spartans we’re used to seeing should be back next year.
Minnesota’s cupboard is so barren that Ben Johnson played 5 players against Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament. That’s it. As many guys as it takes to start a hamburger chain.
Johnson had by far the worst roster in the Big Ten thanks to predecessor Richard Pitino, whose greatest accomplishment is having a famous dad.
The Gophers need dudes. Dudes who can play. Dudes who can just allow you to run a full practice. Anything.
Nebraska: A full season of the last 4 games
The Cornhuskers were a sorry bunch most of the year, checking in at 1-16 in conference play with 3 games left in the regular season.
Then, some sort of switch flipped. Nebraska started playing defense. The Huskers closed out with road wins over Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin before getting edged out by Northwestern in a 71-69 Big Ten Tournament thriller.
The team that showed up the last 2 weeks was capable of beating anybody in the league. Nebraska is losing a huge piece in Alonzo Verge, but there is cause for optimism going into a make-or-break season for Fred Hoiberg.
Northwestern: Perimeter defenders
I’d argue no team in the B1G underachieved more than the Wildcats, who were 51st nationally in overall lineup experience coming into the season and couldn’t even reach the NIT.
It’s no mystery why that ended up being the case, however. Northwestern was abysmal defending 3-pointers, ranking 322nd nationally. This is especially troubling given that as recently as 2019, the Cats had the nation’s 8th-best defense against the 3.
The thinking in Evanston seems to be if Chris Collins could put a defense like that together before, he can do it again.
He better, or this program will go from second-fiddle to Loyola in its own city to 3rd-chair behind DePaul too.
Ohio State: Defensive toughness
There’s usually a trade-off in defensive philosophy — you can be tough in the full-court and create havoc, or you can crash the boards and own the glass.
Some teams — particularly those Ohio State teams coached by Thad Matta — have an effective mix of both.
This year, Ohio State went with neither.
The Buckeyes were 328th in turnover percentage and 206th in defensive rebounding percentage. As a result, a potential Big Ten title went “poof” down the stretch.
Simply put, these guys were soft. Somewhere, Aaron Craft sheds a tear. Ohio State needs to buck up.
Penn State: Talent to match toughness
The Nittany Lions were junkyard dogs in Micah Shrewsberry’s first season. They could give anybody in the Big Ten a game, and usually did.
This was one of the most enjoyable teams in the league to watch for that reason. Penn State was not a very talented roster, but you could tell the Lions liked playing with each other and playing for Shrewsberry.
So now that he’s got that formula down, it’s time to bring in some higher-echelon players. Recruiting to an offense that ranks 354th in adjusted tempo won’t be easy. But if Virginia and Villanova can make it work, so can Penn State.
Purdue: One heck of a transfer portal haul
Not to rub salt in the wounds of Purdue fans, but this was the year for the Boilers.
As presently constructed, there is no chance Purdue approaches what it did this season — which still fell short of a Big Ten regular-season title, Big Ten Tournament title and Final Four despite having the talent to do all of those things.
Jaden Ivey and Trevion Williams aren’t replaceable. And if Zach Edey jumps into the NBA Draft, yikes.
The Boilermakers haven’t been ones to delve into the transfer portal before, but Matt Painter signaled a willingness to do so after his Sweet 16 loss to Saint Peter’s. They’ll need veteran help to avoid a drop-off next year.
Rutgers: Just replace 2 legends
If you had to give me a team from New Jersey that was going to reach the Elite 8 this season, I would have gone all-in on Rutgers.
Alas. The Scarlet Knights had the roster, but the need to overcome early-season stumbles forced them to play in the First Four. There, they ended up on the wrong end of a double-overtime classic with Notre Dame that obviously could have gone either way.
So now Steve Pikiell has to replace 2 of his program’s most decorated players — Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr.
Rutgers has some nice pieces returning with Paul Mulcahy and Cliff Omoruyi, but they’ll need some help.
Wisconsin: Let Chucky cook
The Badgers will go as far as point guard Chucky Hepburn can carry them next season. That much was evident when the offense ran completely adrift after he was injured in their Second Round loss to Iowa State.
Greg Gard made his offense a little more uptempo to take advantage of Johnny Davis’ skills this year, and a similar approach seems appropriate for Hepburn.