When former Maryland center Jalen Smith went No. 10 in the 2020 NBA Draft and was followed by Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu at No. 33 and Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman at No. 35, it felt like the Big Ten was losing some its heft. After all, Michigan center Jon Teske, Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson and Penn State’s Mike Watkins were also moving on from college basketball after collectively helping carry the Big Ten to the front of the pack in the race for conference supremacy.
But as conference play reaches full swing this year, the big men in the Big Ten are enjoying another banner season. Led by Iowa star Luka Garza, who opted to spurn the draft and return for his senior season, the quality of the league’s front courts are the prevailing reason why the Big Ten again appears to be the nation’s best conference, even in today’s 3-point happy game.
“It’s really kind of different, because if you look at the way the game is going, be it on the professional level or even a lot in the college game, you’re seeing spacing and 3-point shooting,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said last week. “This league has still remained to have the dominant big man, which can be very, very effective as we’re seeing with a lot of these teams.”
Collins’ squad had the displeasure of playing Garza, Michigan star freshman center Hunter Dickinson and Illinois’ star sophomore center Kofi Cockburn in consecutive games spanning Dec. 29 to Jan. 7. The Wildcats dropped each game after their 3-0 start to league play, despite having a couple of quality 6-foot-10 players of their own in Pete Nance and Ryan Young.
“It’s very, very challenging,” Collins said. “Those are three of the best players in the country, let alone in the Big Ten. They’re big guys, they’re skilled and they’re good.”
Garza, Cockburn and Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis all could have reasonably been tempted to turn pro after solid 2019-20 seasons. All chose to return, and each have improved their numbers significantly so far this season. Throw in the addition of Dickinson, Drake transfer Liam Robbins at Minnesota and the emergence of players like E.J. Liddell at Ohio State and Donta Scott at Maryland, and it’s clear the conference bounced back just fine after losing a few big names to the draft and graduation.
Just ask Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, who is now trudging through the gauntlet without Smith, who averaged 15.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks for the Terrapins as a sophomore last season.
“It’s just not a good year to be small,” Turgeon told reporters earlier this month.
So who are the Big Ten’s best big men? Here is a ranking of the top 10 so far as the season nears the midway point with plenty still to sort out on the court in the nation’s toughest league.
1. Luka Garza, Iowa
Garza leads the country in scoring at 27.6 points per game and is the chief reason why the Hawkeyes are ranked No. 5 nationally. The Big Ten’s preseason player of the year surpassed 30 points six times in Iowa’s first 13 games while shooting an obscene 62.4% from the floor on 16.3 shots per game. After hitting a respectable 35.8% of his 3-pointers last season, Garza is hitting 48.9% this year as he continues to expand his game. His assists per game are up so far this season and he ranks fourth in the league in both blocks (1.8) and rebounds (8.6). Garza looks like more than just the best big man in the Big Ten. He looks like the best player in the country.
2. Hunter Dickinson, Michigan
If you’re looking for Garza’s successor as the Big Ten’s best big man and a potential future Naismith Player of the Year candidate, Dickinson is the guy. We’ll see how NBA front offices warm up to the star freshman over the coming months and how long he ends up staying at Michigan. But the same questions about defensive versatility and perimeter shooting that led Garza to become a four-year player at Iowa will surround Dickinson, who has far outplayed his No. 43 prospect ranking in the 247Sports Composite through 11 games. The 7-1 Maryland native is averaging 17.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks for an undefeated Wolverines team even after beginning the season outside the starting lineup. The NBA’s desire for nimble-footed big men who can guard multiple positions and knock down 3-pointers may be the best thing to ever happen to Michigan basketball, because it could mean the Wolverines get an elite talent like Dickinson for more than just a season.
3. Kofi Cockburn, Illinois
Cockburn flirted with the NBA Draft before wisely opting to return for his sophomore season. He’s yet to flash the expanded shooting range that will likely be a necessity of his transition to the next level, but he’s taken the skills he was good at during his freshman season and become great at them. He is now the conference’s leading rebounder at 10.1 boards per game and is converting a ridiculous 69.2% of his shots from the field. It takes an incredibly efficient player to average 17.3 points per game on just 10 shot attempts, especially when free-throw shooting is not a strength and 3-point shooting is not in the arsenal. That’s what Cockburn is doing as he’s shown flashes of dominance that, at times, rival Garza’s impact on the game.
4. Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana
Jackson-Davis was great as a freshman, but his production as a sophomore has been unbelievable. He would be No. 1 on a list of best big men in virtually any other conference, and it’s splitting hairs to rank him behind Cockburn and Dickinson. Ultimately, those guys get a slight edge in this exercise because of the quality of their teams. At 8-5, the Hoosiers are still trying to find their way, but they have won three of their last four entering Thursday’s game with Purdue thanks in large part to Jackson-Davis. The Indiana native averaged 20.3 points, 11 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in that four-game span. As a 6-9 center who has attempted zero 3-pointers in 45 career games, Jackson-Davis still has some work to do in order to polish his NBA Draft resume. Critics will say he’s undersized to play center at the next level and not versatile enough offensively to be a four. In the meantime, he’ll keep terrorizing the Big Ten as the driving force behind an Indiana team looking for a breakthrough.
Williams was the leading scorer for Purdue last season at 11.5 points per game, but it never felt like he was established as the go-to guy for a team that also featured 7-3 center Matt Haarms. With Haarms now at BYU and his 7-4 replacement Zach Edey playing fewer minutes than Haarms did, the paint is open for Williams. Now in his junior year, he ranks second in the conference behind Cockburn in rebounds per game at 9.5 and has upped his scoring average to 15 points per game. He’s also the leader in assists per game among the players on this list. Williams is not an elite rim protector and has yet to prove he can knock down the 3-pointer. But in conference full of old-school big guys, Williams is among the most physical of the bunch and can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the league.
6. Liam Robbins, Minnesota
Robbins could one day find himself closer to the top of a list like this if his remarkable ascension from overlooked, out-of-shape prep school prospect to Big Ten star continues on its current trajectory. The former reserve at Drake transferred in to Minnesota for this season with no sit-out year to develop and has shown flashes of brilliance while also taking his lumps. He’s the league leader in blocks at 2.6 per game and can shoot the 3-pointer better than everyone ahead of him on this list except Garza. But as evidenced by his combined 5-of-19 shooting performance in consecutive losses to Michigan and Iowa over Minnesota’s last two games, Robbins is still searching for consistency as he transitions from the Missouri Valley Conference to the nation’s toughest league.
7. Micah Potter/Nate Reuvers, Wisconsin
Both players are among the most capable 3-point shooters on this list, but neither is necessarily dominant on their own, so Wisconsin’s pair of veteran bigs get grouped together here as a tandem. Reuvers is a better shot blocker, while Potter is a better rebounder, at least in terms of statistical production. Either player would be among the best bigs on their own in any other conference. But in the brutal Big Ten, the Badgers are fortunate to have a duo of starting front-court players that are 6-10 (Potter) and 6-11 (Reuters) at their disposal to throw at the line of quality bigs they see on a game-in, game-out basis.
8. Donta Scott, Maryland
The 6-7 Maryland sophomore is far and away the most versatile player on this list and was considered a small forward by 247Sports during his time as a prospect in the 2019 recruiting class. But he’s embraced the role of bruiser for a Terrapins squad that is noticeably lean on the front line compared to many of their Big Ten peers. After serving as a role player on last year’s 24-7 (14-6 Big Ten) squad led by star center Jalen Smith and senior guard Anthony Cowan, Scott has more than doubled his scoring and rebounding averages while doing a little bit of everything. His 53.5% 3-point shooting mark on 3.3 attempts per game is unsustainable, but nonetheless a reflection on his vast improvement in multiple areas for a team that needed him to step up.
9. E.J. Liddell, Ohio State
Liddell has taken on a much bigger role for the Buckeyes this season after playing off the bench behind veteran front court players Kaleb and Andre Wesson last season. The former top-50 prospect is leading Ohio State in scoring and rebounding with 14 points and 6.4 boards per game. Though a bit undersized at 6-7, he is also blocking 1.5 shots per game. He is a different type of post player than most of the towering giants on this list, but with the fine-tuning of his outside shot, Liddell has the defensive versatility and grit to become one of the league’s top players over the next couple of seasons.
10. Joey Hauser, Michigan State
Hauser’s inclusion on this list is based on Michigan State coach Tom Izzo’s uncanny annual ability to morph his team into a national contender in the final month of a season, regardless of how bad things may have looked in January. As of now, Hauser’s lack of recent production is holding the Spartans back during a rocky beginning to Big Ten play. But the bet here is that Izzo will unlock the potential that the Marquette transfer has flashed and begin to extract more consistent contributions from him. Hauser is playing most of the minutes that the departed Xavier Tillman played last season but is a much different type of player. While Tillman was a shot blocker, post scorer and above-average passer for a big guy, Hauser shoots more 3-pointers than 2-pointers and is not a threat to block shots. It’s a transition for both sides that has featured moments of brilliance, like when Hauser scored 27 against Wisconsin on Christmas Day along with several recent uninspiring performances.