As the countdown continues to the start of the 2021-22 college basketball season on Tuesday, an ESPN panel of experts has made predictions for all of the nation's top leagues. So far we've taken a look at Gonzaga and the best teams from the mid-major conferences (Atlantic 10, C-USA, Ivy, MAC, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, SoCon, Sun Belt and WCC), followed by Memphis, Houston and the AAC, the Villanova-dominated Big East, UCLA and the resurgent Pac-12 Conference, a Big 12 with a second straight national title in its sights, an SEC led by intriguing Kentucky and Duke and the always fascinating ACC. Our conference series concludes with the Big Ten.
The Big Ten demonstrated its top-to-bottom strength in a major was in 2020-21, sending nine teams to the NCAA tournament, including a pair of No. 1-seeds in the Michigan Wolverines and Illinois Fighting Illini, and the second-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes and eventual Wooden Award winner Luka Garza. None would reach the Final Four, with Michigan falling to No. 11-seed UCLA in the Elite Eight and Illinois and Iowa both getting bounced before the second weekend. Those setbacks helped prevent the Big Ten from being represented on the Final Four stage, and extended a drought of national championships for the conference that extends back to the Michigan State Spartans' win in 2000. The conference -- led again by another talented team at Michigan -- will have another golden opportunity to quiet its national critics this season.
ESPN's writing team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi sized up all the top teams and storylines in the league and made their predictions for the 15-team conference.
Big Ten 2021-22 superlatives
Player of the Year
Medcalf: Kofi Cockburn, Illinois
Borzello: Kofi Cockburn, Illinois
Gasaway: Kofi Cockburn, Illinois
Lunardi: Kofi Cockburn, Illinois
Newcomer of the Year
Big Ten 2021-22 writer roundtable
The Big Ten is still seeking its first national title since 2000, and Michigan (No. 6 in the preseason AP poll) would seem to be its top candidate to end the drought. Can you make a case for the Wolverines to cut down the nets in New Orleans? To reach the Final Four?
Medcalf: I think this Michigan team is better -- or at least, more talented -- than the one that had a chance to beat UCLA at the buzzer in a 51-49 Elite Eight loss last season with Isaiah Livers on the bench due to injury. The Final Four should be the expectation for this group and a national title should be its realistic goal. Michigan can end its drought (last national title was in 1989) and the Big Ten's (2000, Michigan State). Nothing seems impossible for this team.
With Hunter Dickinson on the floor last season, Michigan made 40% of its 3-point attempts while also holding opponents to just 88 points per 100 possessions, per hooplens.com. His return is what anchors the optimistic projections about this Wolverines team. If Howard can find a way to pair Dickinson with five-star recruit Moussa Diabate in the paint, then Michigan will have a frontcourt that can battle Gonzaga, Kansas and the other elite teams it might face if the Wolverines reach New Orleans. He also has another year with Eli Brooks, and ex-Coastal Carolina star DeVante' Jones (19.3 PPG last season) is coming, too. If you just stop there you'd have a Big Ten contender, but Caleb Houstan, a projected top-10 pick in the 2022 NBA draft per ESPN, could be the best player on the roster this season. Houstan gives the Wolverines a high-level star who can lead one of the most talented rosters in Michigan's post-Fab Five years.
Borzello: I have Purdue ranked higher than Michigan, so I should probably make the argument for the Boilermakers, but I don't think the Wolverines are far behind at all. I do have some questions about Juwan Howard's group, though. Last year they struck gold with Mike Smith as their graduate transfer point guard; players that transfer up from a mid- or low-major program to an elite program don't always work out, especially if they need to dramatically change roles. Smith bought in quickly. Will Jones do the same? He's arguably a better two-way player than Smith, but he won't be tasked with scoring as much as he was at Coastal Carolina and he'll have to adapt his game.
The other mild concern is defensive continuity, since Michigan lost three starters from a top-five defense -- but Howard added two high-level defenders in Jones and Diabate and the likes of Dickinson, Brooks and Brandon Johns Jr., are still around as anchors. If point guard and defense are sorted early in the season, then I can certainly see Michigan in the Final Four. Howard's two teams at Michigan have ranked No. 28 and No. 4 in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom, so the Wolverines' floor at that end is pretty high. At the other end, Houstan is a lottery pick caliber player who could become the team's go-to guy offensively very quickly. Houstan and Dickinson are going to cause nightmares for opposing defenses given their size and skill. Michigan's starting five and first couple guys off the bench are undoubtedly talented enough to win at least four games in the NCAA tournament.
Gasaway: Playing against Michigan promises to be a uniquely painful experience for opponents in 2022. This was the best defense in Big Ten play by a fair margin last year, and the Wolverines operate a bit like golden-era UConn did back in the day under Jim Calhoun. Juwan Howard's guys don't bother with trying to force turnovers because they know they can force misses. It's unnerving. UM also limits the number of 3s attempted by opponents.
Dickinson's a force of nature who may win Big Ten POY, Eli Brooks has hit 38% of his 3s over the past two seasons, and you may have heard about the No. 1-ranked recruiting class that Howard's brought to Ann Arbor. Does all of the above equal a national title? It very well could. If anyone's got a shot at denying Gonzaga it could be UM. In fact it's the Bulldogs and the Wolverines who carry the nation's longest current streaks of Sweet 16 appearances at six and four straight, respectively. Expect those streaks to reach seven and five straight in 2022.
Lunardi: The odds of any conference placing nine teams in a 68-team field -- five of them seeded one thru four -- and none reaching the Final Four are, well, embarrassing. Then again, so was the Big Ten's showing in the 2021 NCAA tournament. The Wolverines were the last team standing, and even their loss to UCLA in the Elite Eight left a sour taste. Is 2022 the year of redemption? For the league and for Michigan? We shall see. The pieces are certainly in place. The league is loaded at the top, deep and dangerous in the middle and the Wolverines are one of at least three Big Ten members with a chance to cut down the nets in April.
Juwan Howard has done a masterful job on all fronts, and it's not like he was succeeding a slouch. John Beilein was an excellent slouch who twice reached the NCAA title game. Howard can do the same -- or better -- with this group, but must first navigate a conference gauntlet that seems to wear on the league's best teams. I like Michigan's chances. A lot. Someone has to end the Big Ten futility streak. Eventually.
Elsewhere in the preseason top 25 are Purdue (No. 7), Illinois (No. 11), Ohio State (No. 17) and Maryland (No. 21). Which member of this quartet do you find the most intriguing, and which do you find the most overrated at this stage?
Borzello: Purdue is my pick to win the league, so I obviously find the Boilermakers the most intriguing. Much of it depends on two breakout candidates: Jaden Ivey and Zach Edey. Ivey is everyone's favorite blow-up name going into the season after averaging 14.8 points in his 12 starts last season, while Edey has been dominant in preseason practices and put up huge numbers with Canada at the FIBA U19 World Cup. Then there's All-American candidate Trevion Williams to anchor the interior and four other players who started at least 21 games also returning. Role allocation might be a bit more difficult for Matt Painter this season, but there's enough here to make a Final Four.
I have all four teams ranked right around where they are slotted in the preseason AP poll, but I do have some concerns about Ohio State and Maryland. The Buckeyes' defense last year was near the bottom of the Big Ten, and they also lost two of their primary producers on the offensive end with the departures of Duane Washington Jr. and CJ Walker. Chris Holtmann also needs to figure out the point guard situation. As for the Terrapins, much of the optimism revolves around the arrivals of transfers Fatts Russell (Rhode Island) and Qudus Wahab (Georgetown). Those two players will have to live up to expectations if Maryland is to be a top-20ish team. Maryland's offense was one of the worst in the Big Ten a year ago and Aaron Wiggins' decision to leave for the NBA won't help.
Gasaway: This is where I get to circle back to the first question and note that, as strong as Michigan appears, I'm not sure Purdue isn't right there with the Wolverines. I love Borzello's pick to win the league. You can wait a long time and not see a combination like what we think we'll get from Williams and Ivey. Williams has been a high-usage warrior since the Carsen Edwards days and Ivey spent the offseason starring alongside Chet Holmgren and Patrick Baldwin Jr. at the FIBA U19 World Cup. Plus, I believe Zach Edey can dunk without his feet leaving the floor. You don't want to play the Boilermakers.
Overrated is such a harsh term. Let us instead ask whether Maryland is perhaps a tad "under proven" at this point? This was the No. 11-ranked offense in Big Ten play last season, and that was with the since-departed Wiggins. The coaching staff rather surprisingly put a bright red light into effect on offensive rebounding efforts in 2020-21, and, in combination with an average turnover rate, it resulted in a really low volume of shot attempts. If that red light's on again in College Park this season, the Terrapins' shooting and defense will both have to be outstanding.
Lunardi: I'm most intrigued by Illinois, if only because Kofi Cockburn strikes me as someone who could easily break me in half if I wasn't. All kidding aside, the Illini have to be smarting from their 2021 second-round loss to Loyola Chicago. They were a popular -- and legitimate -- pick to win it all a year ago and, even with Ayo Dosunmu in the NBA, Illinois has more than enough to complete some unfinished business.
At the other end of things, Maryland for me falls into the category of "I'll believe it when I see it." Sure, the Terps have some excellent pieces. They always do. But in recent years the whole has rarely if ever been greater than the sum of the parts. Hence only one trip past the NCAA tournament's first weekend since 2003. That kind of mediocrity has become common in College Park. The 2021-22 team can flip the narrative, but will it?
Medcalf: I think Maryland is probably the most intriguing team in this mix. I'm a Fatts Russell (14.7 PPG, 4.5 APG) supporter. And he can do some good things next to Donta Scott and Eric Ayala. But he was also a 24% 3-point shooter a year ago, and the Terps, now without Wiggins and Jairus Hamilton, could use another shooter to stretch the floor. Plus, Big Ten defensive player of the year Darryl Morsell is gone to Marquette. Just feels like there is a lot of variance potential with this group, which is also just the standard with Maryland basketball.
And I guess I'd say Illinois might be slightly overrated, largely because I think Dosunmu was one of the two or three best players in college basketball last season. Illinois has a lot left with Cockburn and Trent Frazier returning, but I think you could make the case that they should be closer to top 15 than top 10. It's not egregious, though.
First-year coach Mike Woodson will look to restore Indiana to name-brand status this season. What are your early impressions of his efforts? What do you see as the Hoosiers' ceiling in 2021-22?
Lunardi: A surprising hire has been followed by even more surprising optimism in Bloomington. Mike Woodson, like Juwan Howard earlier, seems unfazed by the transition from the NBA to the college game. Recruiting is up, the roster is extremely promising and the overall feeling around the program is creating smiles for the first time in forever.
On the court, Woodson has every chance to end Indiana's inexplicable NCAA tournament drought. I expect it will happen immediately, with future seasons bringing about longer March (and April?) experiences. And no one is calling him -- or me! -- Oscar the Grouch.
Medcalf: Woodson has been impressive. He recruited Trayce Jackson-Davis back to Indiana and convinced him that another year with the Hoosiers could boost his draft stock. He also added some interesting names in the transfer portal (Xavier Johnson, Miller Kopp). And he's added a pair of Georgia-based recruits in his next two recruiting classes, tapping into his connections from his time as the Atlanta Hawks head coach. But here comes the real test. I think Indiana can slide into the NCAA tournament as a bubble team for the first time since 2016. We know what they'll get from Jackson-Davis. But if Race Thompson (9.1 PPG), the transfers and Tamar Bates, No. 25 recruit in the class, can complement Jackson-Davis, the Hoosiers have a shot to capture an at-large berth.
Gasaway: Yes, the Big Ten has its national title drought and uniformly horrific non-Michigan memories of the 2021 tournament. But say this for the league: Indiana being picked to finish seventh is a good news story for the Hoosiers. That's how deep the conference is, and that's how hopeful things appear at the dawn of the Woodson era in Bloomington.
Having an All-American-level star like Jackson-Davis helps, naturally, but he's a star on a team that even last year was better than what you typically see in a season that ends with firing the coach. This was an NCAA tournament team right up to the point when IU collapsed spectacularly and fatefully in the last 10 minutes at home against Michigan State. From that point on it was all downhill. Now it's a new season, Woodson's schmoozing with Bob Knight at practice and only Purdue and Northwestern return more experience from last year. The Hoosiers will dance in 2022.
Borzello: I've been surprised by how quickly Woodson has adapted to the college game. The actual on-court basketball coaching was never really the question for him, it was whether he could recruit at a high enough level to bring Indiana back into the national conversation. So far, he's done a good job. Johnson, Kopp, Parker Stewart and Michael Durr are four transfers good enough to contribute this season, and Bates was a heck of a spring signing. Woodson also already added two ESPN 100 prospects in the 2022 class. So the Hoosiers look good off the court.
This season, I think Indiana might be flying under the radar a little bit. In fact, the Hoosiers were my deep sleeper to be this year's Michigan or Alabama. Jackson-Davis is one of the most dominant players in college basketball, two other starters are back and we've mentioned all the complementary pieces Woodson added last spring.
Who's the Big Ten team not nearly enough people are talking about entering 2021-22?
Gasaway: Am I allowed to sing Ohio State's under-talked-about praises even though the Buckeyes are ranked a fairly lofty No. 17? This offense was better than those of the oh-so-talked-about likes of Michigan and Illinois in Big Ten play last season and in fact better than every team's except Iowa. E.J. Liddell would win Big Ten POY in a walk if the award were based on performance across the board. He scores from both sides of the arc, draws fouls, hits his free throws, rebounds, dishes assists and defends the rim. Justice Sueing is perfectly capable of taking over leading scorer responsibilities on any given night. Chris Holtmann's group belongs in the conversation along with the likes of UM, Purdue and the Illini.
Medcalf: How about Rutgers? If the 2020 NCAA tournament had not been canceled, Rutgers would be aiming for its third consecutive appearance. Yes, this team lost Jacob Young and other contributors from last year's team that reached the second round and squandered a double-digit lead in a loss to Houston in the second round. But the Scarlet Knights also return 73% of the offensive production from their first-round victory over Clemson. Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker are both back for a Rutgers team that could rise above the projections and get into the mix for a .500ish Big Ten record and an NCAA tournament berth.
Borzello: I agree with Myron that Rutgers is flying under the radar, but I also think Northwestern and -- dare I say -- Nebraska are sleepers entering the campaign. Northwestern looked like it was going to be an NCAA tournament team for about two months last season, beating Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State in consecutive games before losing its next 13 games. But all but one player (the aforementioned Indiana forward Kopp) returns to Evanston for another season.
Meanwhile, Nebraska has enough talent to push for a top-half finish in the league. That might not sound like a lot, but the Cornhuskers have finished 13th, 14th and 14th in the Big Ten the last three seasons. Bryce McGowens should be one of the league's best freshmen, Arizona State transfer Alonzo Verge Jr. is an elite-level scorer and Fred Hoiberg has plenty of pieces to surround those two perimeter players.
Lunardi: Still at least a year away, my eyes are also on Hoiberg at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers remain the only Power 5 program to never win an NCAA tournament game. That's never, as in N-E-V-E-R. The last Tim Miles team was on track to change that sad history, reaching the midpoint of the 2018-19 season at 13-4. Then big man Isaac Copeland got hurt and the whole thing fell apart, leading to a change in leadership and the arrival of Hoiberg. I believe Hoiberg, in due time, will get it done in Lincoln. And I'm a sucker for the journey of programs who are NCAA non-perennials fighting the fight to make it happen.
Big Ten 2021-22 predicted order of finish
4. Ohio State
6. Michigan State
13. Penn State