No time for a flowery introduction, we’ve got a lot of questions to get to!
Let’s start off with a wide angle look at the Big Ten. Who finished in the top-four this year, how many Big Ten teams make the NCAA Tournament and what place do you think Wisconsin finishes?
J.J.: Michigan, Purdue, Ohio State, Illinois (I didn’t order that but my personal prediction is Purdue takes home the regular season title) would be my four. I could see as many as ten Big Ten teams making the tournament, but it will probably be more like eight in reality. I see Wisconsin fitting in as a fun, young team that makes up for a lack of experience with energy and ending up right on the edge of the bubble in eighth place.
Belz: I think Michigan is the top team entering the season. Beyond the Wolverines, I think Purdue and Illinois, as well Ohio State will round out the top-four. I think there will be nine Big Ten teams that make the tournament this year, and the Badgers could be one of the fringe teams in the mix.
Drew: I think the top-four will be, in this order, Michigan, Purdue, Ohio State, and Maryland. The Big Ten should get eight teams in the tourney this year and I think that Wisconsin will finish ninth, giving us some exciting Bubble Watch games at the end of the season.
State your case for why you picked your specific conference champion?
J.J.: I’ll be unique and take Purdue (remember when I was the only B5Q writer who picked Baylor to win the NCAA tournament? This account remembers). I think Jaden Ivey breaks out and becomes a household name across the nation this year as he builds off a stellar rookie campaign, and I think fellow sophomore center Zach Edey takes noticeable steps forward as well. With those two young building blocks, a more experienced core filling out the lineup, and a talented freshman class integrating into the rotation, I think Purdue has it takes to top the Big Ten this year.
Belz: I’m with Drew, I think Michigan is the favorite and rightfully so. I think Illinois is a team that could make things interesting though given the fact that Kofi Cockburn matches up well against Hunter Dickinson, and the Fighting Illini have a lot of depth in the backcourt. I still think Michigan winds up winning it, but it could be closer than projected heading into the season.
Drew: It’s kind of boring to pick Michigan to win the Big Ten since everyone else in just about every other media outlet is doing the same thing, but there’s a reason for that. Michigan is going to be quite good this year! Hunter Dickinson is nearly unstoppable in the paint, although he will have many worthy challengers in the Big Ten, Juwan Howard has recruited at an extremely high level the past two years and the Wolverines will probably strike gold again with their transfer point guard (Devante’ Jones, Coastal Carolina). There are no real weaknesses on this roster and there are multiple players that can be the focal point on offense if someone is having an off night. Sounds like a team built for a deep tourney run to me.
Who wins B1G Player of the Year and why?
J.J.: Kofi Cockburn, Illinois. Concur with Belz’ opinion.
Belz: Kofi Cockburn, Illinois. He is really good, that’s why...
Drew: E.J. Liddell of Ohio State. I don’t like Cockburn and I do like Liddell. He reminds me of Jae’sean Tate WHOMST I love dearly.
Who wins B1G Freshman of the Year and why?
J.J.: Jaden Jones, Rutgers. He won’t start, but Steve Pikiell loves to rotate and Jones will see plenty of minutes from the jump. He was brought in as a mid year enrollee last season and looked sharp in the four games he saw time in. With Rutgers lacking an established third scoring option behind Ron Harper and Geo Baker, Jones will have a major opportunity to fill that void and fill up stat sheets.
Belz: I think it will be one of the two Michigan forwards. Both Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate are 5-star recruits with huge upside. One of them will emerge this year, and the fact that they are on a top-level team will only help their case.
Drew: Bryce McGowens of Nebraska. He isn’t the most talented freshman in the conference, that honor goes to Caleb Houstan at Michigan, but I think McGowens will have better stats and could lead the Huskers to a couple of upsets that get people talking.
Give me your one “biggest surprise team.” Can be in a positive or negative light.
J.J.: Penn State. New coach Micah Shrewsberry has been working tirelessly to improve a Nittany Lions team that struggled last season, and I think he’s pulled in some interesting pieces to help in his first year. Greg Lee and Jalen Pickett look to be shrewd mid-major pickups that can add some invaluable experience as well as serious minutes in State College.
A lot of Shrewsberry’s work has been off the court as well- trying to get the Penn State student body, which for better or for worse is notoriously football focused if the basketball team isn’t performing, ready for the season. And the early returns seem to be positive. If Shrewsberry can inspire big turnout for key matches, don’t be surprised if the Nittany Lions become a serious upset threat whenever they’re at home.
Belz: I don’t know how much of a surprise it will be, but I think Iowa will struggle this year. They are losing a ton of production from a year ago. I think they will go from being a two-seed in the NCAA Tournament a year ago, to being left out this season.
Drew: Northwestern! I think the Wildcats are going to be competing for an NCAA Tournament spot but, like Wisconsin, will come up just short. They return a bunch of players who have been playing together for years now, they have some high-end talent, like Pete Nance, ready to break out, and they brought in a good recruiting class that instantly raises the floor of the team. If they stink this year I’ll be shocked but also...not really that shocked since it is Northwestern men’s basketball.
Which coaches are on the hot seat entering the year? Do you think any coach will get fired this season?
J.J.: Chris Collins seems the obvious answer. Northwestern has been stuck in the same, not particularly impressive, gear for a few years now. His historic qualification for the 2016-17 NCAA tournament has bought him some good will, but the Cats have been consistent non-competitors in the conference since. Throw in some embarrassing non-conference losses (giving up Merrimack’s first ever division one win at home could have gone better), and Collins will likely need to show some distinct improvement from the recent mean this year to avoid firing.
Belz: I think it has to be Chris Collins. The past two seasons have been bad for Northwestern, and this is supposed to be a much improved team. If Collins doesn’t have them playing better this season, it could be his last given his under .500 record.
Drew: Depending on how things go, Mark Turgeon could be on the hot seat at Maryland, but I think the Terps are going to play quite well this season. Chris Collins at Northwestern if the Cats don’t improve on their six Big Ten wins from last year could have his seat getting warm. The two expected worst teams in the conference, Penn State and Minnesota, have first year coaches so unless something happens off the court I don’t think the Big Ten will be breaking in any new coaches next year.
Does a Big Ten team make the Final Four?
J.J.: Once again just to play The Balancer here, I’ll double down on my Purdue pick. But the field is probably the safer option.
Belz: No. History is against the Big Ten here. I think there are multiple teams that could do it, but I will go with the field.
Drew: I struggled with this one because the Big Ten has been so embarrassing in the Tournament recently, but I do think a B1G squad makes the Final Four this year. It will probably be Michigan, but I will listen intently to your argument if you think it’ll be Purdue.
If you had started training after Baylor beat Gonzaga, and that was all you did, could you have made the Minnesota men’s basketball team this year?
J.J.: I was always a decent defensive guy back in middle school and then high school intramural ball. Fun fact: I was once brought off the bench in a game I hadn’t played in at all previously specifically to play defense on a key possession. And my high school volleyball tape will show you I’m an extremely good bench hype guy. So, uh, maybe if I happened to add a couple inches to get to 6’3 and then forty pounds of muscle I’d have a shot at keeping the bench fired up?
Belz: Haha, maybe? The roster is pretty bleak up in the Twin Cities right now. I do think Ben Johnson will be able to recruit well in the coming years though.
Drew: The park by my house has double rims and I can pretty regularly make jumpers there while avoiding tripping over my kids who are drawing with chalk on the court so...yeah, I think I’d be in Minnesota’s rotation this year.