It’s hard to believe that seven months ago last week, the Big Ten — like eventually every major college basketball conference — was packing up its postseason play early over fears of Covid-19 spread. A promising season ended too soon for too many. And that was especially true for the Big Ten, which was having a banner year before things screeched to a halt.
On the whole, the conference rated as the top league in America last season, according to KenPom’s metrics. It had six teams inside the top-25 of the AP poll. Four were inside the top-20. One team, preseason No. 1 Michigan State, was hitting its stride like Tom Izzo’s teams tend to do. The Big Ten’s national title drought of 19 years and counting looked as if it may end shy of the two-decade mark, yet fate had other plans.
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But this year might really be the year it ends. Iowa returns preseason national player of the year favorite Luka Garza to a championship caliber Iowa team. Illinois is getting back Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn to a similarly great roster. And Wisconsin, quietly, is lurking in the shadows as a real threat. The Badgers won their final eight games to end the season, captured a share of the regular-season conference title and returns their top five leading scorers. All three teams are in the top 10 of the CBS Sports Top 25 and One. Handicapping how this race unfolds will be a doozy.
But handicap it, we have. Our team of hoops experts has put pen to paper on their preseason predictions for the Big Ten below.
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Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year Luka Garza, Iowa
The reigning Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award winner is our consensus Big Ten preseason POY. He’s the top returning scorer among all players in the major seven college basketball conferences, and he’s coming off a breakout junior season in which he averaged 23.9 points, 9.8 boards and 1.8 blocks per game — all ranking in the top two statistically in each category among returning players in the conference. He’s the best and most productive player in the country on an Iowa team that should be considered championship quality.
Big Ten Preseason Coach of he Year Brad Underwood, Illinois
No awards are won or lost in the offseason, but let’s give Brad Underwood his due: He lured both Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn back to Champaign to run it back in 2020. Not an easy ask considering the Illini didn’t even win the league last season. (Though, to be fair, they were mighty close.) With Dosunmu and Cockburn back, Underwood has on his hands the best and most talented Illinois team in well over a decade. We’re expecting the win-loss column to reflect that. As he enters season No. 4 with the program, he’s got a diverse roster with savvy veterans and sharp youngsters who could easily make this season one of the program’s best.
Big Ten Preseason Freshman of the Year Khristian Lander, Indiana
Khristian Lander just turned 18 years old two months ago. The former five-star recruit reclassified from the 2021 class to 2020, and despite his youth, figures to make an instant impact as a rookie in Bloomington. He averaged 21 points and 6 boards per game at Evansville’s Francis Joseph Reitz high school last season while developing into a multi-faceted lead guard with sharp handles, a smooth stroke and speed for days. IU returns starting guards Rob Phinisee and Al Durham but with Lander’s pedigree and production, the Hoosiers will have no choice but to find a way how to feature him in their backcourt.
Big Ten predicted order of finish Big Ten expert picks