As the countdown continues toward the start of the 2019-20 college basketball season on Nov. 5, ESPN.com's panel of experts is making its predictions. With the ACC, American, Big East, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC and mid-major picks on the record, our final conference look is at the Big Ten. Michigan State begins the season as the hunted in college basketball, but the Spartans will not have it easy in a top-heavy league.
In the 20th anniversary season of their most recent national championship (and the Big Ten's last title), the Michigan State Spartans are cast in the role of the hunted nationally. What's the biggest question you have about Tom Izzo's group entering this season?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I think it has to be health concerns, right? I understand that's a concern for any team. But Cassius Winston struggled with knee tendinitis late last season and overcame a minor hamstring issue prior to the start of the 2019-2020 season. Kyle Ahrens comes back after last season's leg injury. Joshua Langford is sidelined for months with another foot injury.
With Langford and Winston on the floor together last season, Michigan State made 56% of its shots inside the arc and 43% of its 3-pointers. MSU finished 11-2 with Langford and 21-5 without him last season, so this is still a team that's starting the season as one of the most promising groups in the country. If they can stay healthy, this could be a special season for the Spartans. Or maybe the potential centers on if they can get healthy.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: In my most recent power rankings, I wrote that the biggest concern was taking care of the ball and keeping opponents off the offensive glass, but with Langford out for at least the first two months of the season, I do worry about the Spartans finding consistent scoring. I'm aware that they were one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country last season and made it to the Final Four without prolific wing scorers, but someone is going to have to step up among the group of Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown and Ahrens.
Rocket Watts was a big-time scorer at the high school level. He could either give Cassius Winston a few possessions off the ball or play next to the Wooden Award favorite. It's a similar story down low, where Xavier Tillman is poised for a breakout season, but Izzo will need to find him help in the post -- both scoring the ball and on the glass. I think Michigan State will eventually figure things out offensively, but that's my biggest concern right now.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: I'm watching to see if the Spartans can continue to play outstanding interior defense with some combination of Tillman and other players to be named or found soon. Thomas Kithier? Marcus Bingham or Malik Hall? Izzo loves to throw a flock of bigs at the available minutes, of course, but the bottom line will have to be opponents missing 2s. Michigan State tends to give opponents the gift of a very low turnover rate, and that can work out fine defensively, as it did last season, so long as you force misses in the paint. Plus, as Jeff mentioned, MSU doesn't project to be anything special on the defensive glass, so the only remaining option is outstanding rim defense. I'll be keeping an eye on opponents' 2-point success rates.
Meanwhile, 66 miles southeast in Ann Arbor, the Juwan Howard era is set to begin at Michigan. What do you see as Howard's most significant short- and long-term challenges?
Borzello: I think there are two big challenges, and both are short-term and long-term.
One, Howard is going to need to keep the momentum of the John Beilein era rolling. This is a program that won 63 games the past two seasons, has been to the Sweet 16 three straight seasons and has two national title game appearances in the past seven seasons. Unlike Penny Hardaway, who had to rebuild Memphis, Howard is hoping the Wolverines don't miss a beat under him.
Secondly, the one advantage Howard might have over Beilein is his ability to attract elite-level high school talents -- and he is going to have to show that consistently. He has already landed five-star forward Isaiah Todd and has Michigan involved with five-star guards Joshua Christopher and Nimari Burnett, as well as top-40 prospects Moses Moody, Mark Williams and Hunter Dickinson.
Gasaway: Howard is catching Michigan at a moment when the roster's a bit on the inexperienced side (the Wolverines rank No. 11 in the Big Ten for returning possession-minutes this season), and, of course, the program itself is in flux in terms of identity.
Defensive guru Luke Yaklich went from being Beilein's assistant to taking the post as associate head coach under Shaka Smart at Texas. The good news for Howard is it's not like a defender such as Zavier Simpson, for example, is suddenly going to forget how to make life miserable for opposing guards. Still, a drop-off on defense, however slight, is the safe forecast here, which means Howard's challenge is to forge a new Michigan identity and style before his first crop of recruits arrives.
Medcalf: I think the short-term challenges come with leading a team for the first time and adjusting to the rigors of college basketball. At his first Big East media day, Patrick Ewing seemed to lament a recruiting trip he had to take that day. He hadn't experienced the media scrutiny, the recruiting trips and the booster meetings as a longtime NBA assistant. That will be an adjustment for Howard, who was an assistant with a strong Miami Heat franchise prior to this.
Then I think his name alone makes folks think he can duplicate Beilein's achievements, which isn't realistic. But fans don't always apply logic in these cases. Howard has the name. That's why he was hired. He isn't going to get a honeymoon to prove he can coach Division I basketball. How will he handle the pressure?
Indiana and Wisconsin have fan bases with high expectations who have been less than ecstatic about their teams' recent places on the national stage. Who makes the NCAA tournament from this duo: one, both or neither?
Gasaway: We will see the opposite of last season, and in 2020, it will be the Hoosiers who go dancing while the Badgers lurk in Bubble Watch well into March only to come up just short in the end.
IU can look much better than it did on offense a year ago if Miller can find a combination that posts an average number in 3-point accuracy. I expect that will indeed occur (I'll go out on a limb and say Damezi Anderson, for instance, will do better than the 23% he recorded as a freshman). Meanwhile, in other news, Trayce Jackson-Davis has already looked properly assertive and promising in the exhibition season.
As for the Badgers, on paper they have just as much experience coming back as Indiana, but the departure of Ethan Happ leaves arguably the most gaping one-player hole in all of Division I. Greg Gard has to replace his offense's primary distributor, its first option for scoring and the linchpin of an excellent interior defense (even though Happ was nothing special statistically as an individual shot-blocker). That could prove to be more easily described than done, especially on D, where Wisconsin was so strong last season.
Medcalf: I'll pick Wisconsin, but I'm not completely sold on the possibility. You have two coaches who must make improvements to avoid any hot-seat talk going into the 2020-21 seasons. A disastrous run could kick off those conversations this year for either coach. But I do think Wisconsin will put together a more versatile and efficient offense after losing Happ, a superstar college player with limited range.
The Badgers were predictable and, on offense, just bad last season: 1.00 points per possession with Happ on the floor (22.3% offensive rebounding rate, 0.97 points per possession without him). With D'Mitrik Trice, Brad Davison and Kobe King, Wisconsin will resemble a more versatile offense, anchored by a solid defense that helps Wisconsin squeeze into the field again.
Borzello: I'm not extremely high on either team heading into the season, but I think one ends up making it. Since I have Indiana one spot higher than Wisconsin in the predicted Big Ten pecking order, I'll lean toward the Hoosiers. It seems odd, considering that the Badgers had a 5-seed and won 23 games while Indiana didn't make the NCAA tournament and then lost its two best players, but I like the Hoosiers' talent a bit better than Wisconsin's heading into the season.
Trayce Jackson-Davis is a five-star big man, and Butler graduate transfer Joey Brunk has two years of eligibility left. Justin Smith, Robert Phinisee (assuming he's healthy) and Al Durham are all back as starters, and Devonte Green brings scoring pop. Archie Miller's team had massive problems shooting the ball last season, especially in January and February, but if it can improve in that area, I think Indiana can go dancing for the first time in Miller's tenure.
Maryland, Ohio State and Illinois are three Big Ten teams that are supposed to be on the ascent in 2019-20. Which of these teams are we not talking about enough, and which do you have the most concerns about?
Borzello: I think Illinois might be the answer to both questions. I have Maryland and Ohio State as preseason top-15 teams nationally, and I think both are second-weekend NCAA tournaments teams. The Terrapins have more talent, but Ohio State is deep, well-coached and versatile.
But let's get back to the Fighting Illini. We're not talking about Brad Underwood's team enough because they went 12-21 last season, finishing 7-13 in the Big Ten. I have the most concerns about Illinois ... mostly because they went 12-21 last season and are relying on many of the same pieces.
On the plus side, four starters are back, including budding star Ayo Dosunmu and Trent Frazier in the backcourt, and Giorgi Bezhanishvili up front. This is a team that beat Michigan State, Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio State last season and is a year older after ranking in the bottom 50 nationally in experience. Top-50 big man Kofi Cockburn should add some serious length and size down low. But again, they lost 21 games last season and don't bring in an elite recruiting class, so the returnees will have to make serious strides in 2019-20.
Medcalf: I think the Maryland bandwagon is a real thing. Jalen Smith blossomed into a young star down the stretch of last season. Last season, Maryland swept Ohio State and beat Minnesota and Purdue by nine points or more. In February and March, Maryland held its opponents to a 38.7% clip inside the arc with Anthony Cowan and Smith on the floor together. In a Big Ten with a multitude of programs seeking to replace stars, Maryland has the firepower to surpass expectations.
But I'm not buying the Illinois hype yet. Ayo Dosunmu is a pro, and he's backed by a team returning eight of its top-nine players. But this is also a group that, in Big Ten play, committed turnovers on nearly one-fifth of its possessions, played sub-100 defense all season and surrendered a 54.3% clip inside the arc to conference opponents. They have to take significant steps to change the trajectory of this program.
Gasaway: We're not talking enough about Maryland, which can win a Big Ten title outright if the Terrapins will allow themselves as many chances to score as they give opponents. Ironically, Michigan State plays a similarly imbalanced style and makes it work, but Mark Turgeon's guys took things to an extreme last season. When you give the ball away on 21% of your Big Ten possessions but force turnovers only 13% of the time, you're tilting the basketball court severely against your team. That's a concern, but at least the Terps have more or less everything else lined up and ready to go.
Conversely, Illinois is going to have to show that it can play half the sport, namely defense. In any ordinary season, the Illini would have ranked last in the league for 2-point defense in conference play. It just so happens that Iowa wrested that title away from Underwood's men in 2018-19, but the concern remains. When and if Illinois forces opponents to miss an occasional 2, it will be time to climb on the bandwagon with a rotation that brings back Dosunmu, Bezhanishvili and just about everyone else.
Big Ten 2019-20 predicted order of finish
Big Ten 2019-20 superlatives
Player of the Year
Medcalf: Cassius Winston, Michigan State
Borzello: Cassius Winston, Michigan State
Gasaway: Cassius Winston, Michigan State
Newcomer of the Year
Medcalf: Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana
Borzello: Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana
Gasaway: Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana