The start of the college basketball season is still about half a year away, but it's never too early to predict how the Big Ten will play out. The conference will once again be one of the strongest in the nation and there are about nine teams that have legitimate shots at the NCAA Tournament.
The rosters aren't all finalized yet, but here's the first edition of my 2015-16 Big Ten basketball power rankings:
Tier 4 (Very Bad)
14. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Maybe next year, Rutgers. But probably not.
13. Nebraska Cornhuskers
The Cornhuskers lose leading scorer Terran Petteway to the NBA Draft and junior big man Walter Pitchford followed suit for some inexplicable reason.
Nebraska will be very bad next year, but incoming freshmen Glynn Watson and Ed Morrow should provide Tim Miles a great foundation moving forward.
Tier 3 (Less Bad)
12. Penn State Nittany Lions
D.J. Newbill has graduated which means it's now up to [NAMELESS PLAYER] to lead the Nittany Lions to glory next season. He'll be helped, in part, by [NAMELESS PLAYER], who showed some flashes of potential during the second half of the conference schedule. Penn State's biggest question marks are [NAMELESS PLAYER] and [NAMELESS PLAYER]--they'll need to mature some more before the program is able to consistently succeed.
Penn State will not be very good.
11. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Here's what The Crimson Quarry had to say in their 2015-16 Big Ten Preview:
Gophers will be reaaaaaally young after losing Elliot Eliason, Andre Hollins, and Maurice Walker. It's not the year to be reaaaaaally young in the Big Ten.
I have nothing else to add.
10. Northwestern Wildcats
The masochist in me wanted to list the Wildcats ahead of Illinois, but they're not there yet. Not yet, anyway.
Chris Collins' squad intrigues me. Alex Olah and Bryant McIntosh quietly became one of the better guard/big man duos in the conference last season and they'll both be back--along with every other major contributor. I don't envision Northwestern making the NCAA Tournament, but the overall strength of the Big Ten should keep them in the bubble conversation as the season progresses.
Tier 2 (Tournament Potential)
9. Iowa Hawkeyes
I think Iowa will go as far as Adam Woodbury takes them. He's had his problems in the past, but the Hawkeyes are really going to need him on both ends of the court after Aaron White's departure. Regardless, Woodbury, Peter Jok, and Jarrod Uthoff is a respectable core of players so don't be surprised if Iowa sneaks into the postseason.
In my eyes, Illinois and Iowa are interchangeable right now. I'm almost expecting a matchup between the two teams in the No. 8 seed/No. 9 seed game in the Big Ten Tournament.
8. Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois will be better than last season--probably quite a bit better--but their record won't reflect that since several other teams in the conference have gotten considerably better.
The departures of Nnanna Egwu and Rayvonte Rice leave some pretty large voids, but the Illini will be more than equipped to make up most of the production. Malcolm Hill is primed for a huge junior campaign; he has an outside shot at First Team All-Conference, however I believe Second Team is well within his grasp. Leron Black, Darius Paul, Mike Thorne Jr., and Michael Finke will comprise a deeper, more offensive-minded frontcourt than we've seen in recent years.
Freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands will be the 'X-Factor'. The incoming guard is the best recruit of John Groce's tenure thus far and he'll be asked to come in and contribute immediately. Coleman could become an asset the Illini haven't seen in years if he's able to become a consistent scoring threat off the bench.
7. Ohio State Buckeyes
Finding replacements for D'Angelo Russell and Shannon Scott will be a tall task for Thad Matta, but the good news for the Buckeyes is that they may have the most talented roster in the Big Ten. The program is coming off of back-to-back No. 1 ranked recruiting class in the conference.
Incoming freshmen Jaquan Lyle, Daniel Giddens, and Austin Grandstaff should come in and make immediate impacts. When added on top of sophomores Jae'sean Tate (Second Team All-Conference candidate) and Keita Bates-Diop this core should be contending for a Big Ten title down the road.
6. Wisconsin Badgers
It feels strange slotting Wisconsin at No. 6. I guess that's what happens when you lose two irreplaceable pieces in Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, though. It'll be a 'rebuilding year' for Bo Ryan and the Badgers, but Nigel Hayes is back to improve on a sophomore campaign that saw him earn Third Team All-Conference honors.
Overall, Wisconsin shouldn't have a problem making the tournament if some of the younger players can step up around Hayes and Bronson Koenig.
5. Purdue Boilermakers
I'm so conflicted about Purdue. They've gotten better, but they weren't exactly that great a year ago despite their surprising finish in the Big Ten. It's a game of matchups and the Boilermakers' size caused problems for just about every team they faced.
That may not necessarily be the case this time around. A.J. Hammons, Isaac Haas, and Caleb Swanigan will give the Boilermakers one of the top frontcourts in the country, but the Big Ten has improved across the board in this area--and the teams who haven't improved will trot out smaller, quicker lineups.
Without getting into Purdue's backcourt issues--which are probably worse than Illinois'--this looks like a sure-fire NCAA Tournament team. I just don't see them finishing in the top four of the conference standings again.
Tier 1 (Big Ten Contenders)
4. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan probably won't win a Big Ten championship, but they'll still probably be pretty damn good.
Aubrey Dawkins, Zak Irvin, Spike Albrecht, Ricky Doyle, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and Kameron Chatman had no business going 8-10 in league play last season. But they did and each player showed improvements seemingly every game.
Now take that group and add a healthy Caris LeVert and a healthy Derrick Walton Jr. The Wolverines have question marks down low, but the return of two star players should allow them to make a run.
3. Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans may not be contending for a second straight Final Four, but it won't be long before they return. West Virginia transfer Eron Harris and five star forward Deyonta Davis will join returning starters Denzel Valentine and Lourawls Nairn Jr. to make one of the best lineups in the conference.
The only bad news for the Spartans is that they could've been even better. Tom Izzo originally received a commitment from Caleb Swanigan, but the five star recruit flipped to Purdue a few weeks ago.
2. Indiana Hoosiers
Tom Crean's ability to manipulate a roster is incredible. Sure, five players leaving a program in one offseason is alarming, but the nearly finished product is a team that can make a run at a Final Four.
Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon Jr. return to make the best backcourt in the conference. Plus there's Troy Williams, who developed into a fantastic No. 3 option on offense during his sophomore season. But Indiana's guards weren't the problem last season--it was the frontcourt. Crean fixed that. Incoming freshmen Thomas Bryant Jr. and Juwan Morgan should be able to fill the holes up front despite the dismissal of Hanner Mosquera-Perea a few weeks back.
Oh, and Tom Crean still has two open scholarships for 2015 and it's very possible that five star basketball player Thon Maker could join the Hoosiers in December. If that happens, Indiana would become a threat to win it all.
Tier 0 (NCAA Title Potential)
1. Maryland Terrapins
The Terps may not be as good as the Wisconsin team we saw last season, but they're clearly the top squad in the Big Ten.
Melo Trimble and Jake Layman are back and they'll be joined by five star center Diamond Stone and Duke transfer Rasheed Suliamon. Dez Wells will be missed, but Mark Turgeon's team shouldn't have a problem replacing the production.
Look for Maryland to begin the season as the No. 1 team in the nation.
Do you disagree with me? Guess what -- I don't care! But feel free to air your grievances below in the comments section anyway. Like I said above, I'll be updating this list in a few months once all the rosters have been finalized.