Top 10 Story Lines of the 2015-16 Season – #5: Action Packed Big Ten Race

This season, the Big Ten race will be one of the most exciting in all of college basketball, and James Blackmon, Jr. and the Indiana Hoosiers will be right in the thick of things come March.
This season, the Big Ten race will be one of the most exciting in all of college basketball, and James Blackmon, Jr. and the Indiana Hoosiers will be right in the thick of things come March.

The 2015-16 college basketball regular season officially gets under way on Friday, November 13th, with over 150 games across the college basketball landscape to finally satisfy our cravings for NCAA hoops.

This season promises to be one full of excitement mixed with a little bit of drama along the way. With so many great teams across the country, this season will be a wide open race towards Houston and the national championship.

Over the next few days, leading up to the day that the season starts, we will be taking a look at 10 of the top story lines for the upcoming season. While they all may not feature the biggest programs in the country, these are headlines that will be talked about over the course of the season and can alter several conference races down the stretch.

Story Line #5: The Race for the Title in the Big Ten!

Year after year, the race for the Big Ten title is one of the top conference races in the entire NCAA. With so many quality teams in the conference, it’s extremely tough to predict the winner year after year.

The 2015-16 season will be no different. The conference will have seven or eight teams in the conversation for an NCAA Tournament spot down the stretch this season. No Big Ten team has won the NCAA Championship since Michigan State cut down the nets back in 2000, but they’re hoping that this year is when the drought finally ends.

With so many talented teams in the conference this year, each equipped with their own star players, you could make the case for several teams to win the conference title. This is what makes the Big Ten so exciting, and one of the best conferences year in and year out.

Below are a few teams who could win the conference titles this season, and what they can bring to the table this year.

Maryland Terrapins

The Maryland Terrapins are one of the nation’s best teams coming into the season, and you can find them in the top five of almost any poll or rankings list on the internet. With Melo Trimble and Jake Layman opting to return for the 2015-16 season, the team got a big boost right off the hop. Add in the fact that Georgia Tech-transfer Robert Carter and Duke-transfer Rasheed Sulaimon are eligible this season, and the team brings in the highly-touted freshman Diamond Stone, and the Terrapins have the look of a team who could end the Big Ten’s title drought.

Their depth may be the one facet that takes them over the top this season and allows them to contend with the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, and the rest of the top contenders this season. On Tuesday, their depth took a big hit when it was announced that sophomore guard Dion Wiley will miss the entire season with a torn meniscus. A bigger emphasis will be put on the newcomers to adapt to the systems early if the Terrapins want to be a legitimate contender.

With the talent they have in place, the Maryland Terrapins are the team to beat in the Big Ten, and a legitimate contender for a spot in the Final Four.

Purdue Boilermakers

The 2015-16 edition of the Purdue Boilermakers were given a big gift in the off-season, in the form op top-10 recruit Caleb Swanigan. Initially, Swanigan committed to play for Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans. After reconsidering his options, he backed out of his commitment to the Spartans and committed to the Purdue Boilermakers.

With Swanigan in the fold, the Boilermakers now have one of the top front courts in the country. Alongside Swanigan, Purdue will have Isaac Haas and A.J. Hammons to wreak havoc on opposing defenses all year long. Despite the talent at the forward spots, the key to Purdue’s success this year will lie in the hands of UT-Arlington-transfer Johnny Hill. Hill gives the Boilermakers a reliable point guard who is capable of running the offense from the back end. Hill could be a big steal for Purdue on the transfer market this season, and he could be the reason for the team’s success this year.

Michigan State Spartans

When it comes to Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans, you can never rule them out when the calendar turns to March. In 2014-15, as a 7-seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Spartans made their 7th trip to the Final Four in the Izzo-era. Despite Branden Dawson and Travis Trice having graduated from the program, Michigan State could be even better this season than last. With Denzel Valentine back to lead the offense, and an emerging Lourawls Nairn assuming the full-time point guard duties this year, Michigan State is in good hands.

The Spartans’ offense gets a big boost this season with the addition of freshmen Matt McQuaid and Kyle Ahrens in the back court along with West Virginia-transfer Eron Harris being eligible to play. Incoming freshman forward Deyonta Davis will slide into the front court and assume the role that Dawson held last season. Davis is a high energy player who has the potential to be a star for the Spartans. As scary as it sounds, Michigan State looks better than they were last year, and they made it to the Final Four as a 7-seed.

Wisconsin Badgers

The Wisconsin Badgers were one Grayson Allen breakout game away from taking home the NCAA Tournament title last season, losing to Duke in the championship game. Heading into this season, Bo Ryan said that this would be his last year of coaching, but later said he would be open to the possibility of returning. So, get ready for a media circus wherever Wisconsin goes this season, just in case it really is Bo’s last go-round.

Frank Kaminsky, Josh Gasser, Sam Dekker, and Traevon Jackson are all gone from last year’s team, but Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are both back in Madison to lead the Badgers into action. Hayes is a top contender for the Big Ten Player of the Year award, as well as a possible candidate for the Wooden Award. In being the new focal point of the offense, Hayes will undoubtedly see double-teams on a frequent basis, and part of Wisconsin’s success will hinge on his ability to combat the added defensive pressure he will face and how well he can get his teammmates involved. Wisconsin is a longshot to win the conference title, but they know what it takes, and anything is possible in the Big Ten.

Indiana Hoosiers

You can make the case that no coaching chair has been hotter than that of Indiana’s Tom Crean over the past couple of seasons. After making the NCAA Tournament last season, his job became a bit more secure. But, the pressure is on Crean and the Hoosiers to win right now, and they have the talent in place to do just that in 2015-16. Star guards Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon, Jr. return to anchor the back court, but the play of their front court is the big question mark heading into the year.

Freshman center Thomas Bryant was the prize of the 2015 recruiting class for Tom Crean and company, and he was one of top recruits in the country. After some off-court issues in the off-season, Bryant looks ready to turn the page and leave a lasting impact for the Hoosiers. Joining him in the front court is Michigan-transfer Max Bielfeldt, who is eligible this season under the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule. In a move that you rarely see in the NCAA, Bielfeldt transferred to another team in the same conference, and it’s a move that could severely benefit Indiana. His experience and knowledge from playing in the Big Ten could be more valuable to the team than the statistics he puts up on a nightly basis.

Michigan Wolverines

The Michigan Wolverines are probably the biggest dark-horse in the conference race this season for a couple of reasons. The first is the team is likely still trying to erase the painful memories of losing to both N.J.I.T. and Eastern Michigan, on their home floor, in consecutive games. That would leave a bit of a sour taste in the mouth of any power conference team.

The second is that their stars are back from injury, and it’s unclear as to how well they will perform this season. Both Caris LeVert and Zak Irvin missed the end of the year in 2014-15 due to injuries, and that was likely a big reason in the Wolverines’ sub-par finish to the year. If LeVert and Irvin can put up big numbers and stay healthy, Michigan could be a sneaky pick this year in the Big Ten. But, they have a ton of good teams ahead of them contending for the title, so the road to the top will be a tough one for John Beilein’s crew.

– T.B.