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Nebrasketball: Previewing the Big Ten Part 1 - The East

Syndication: HawkCentral Mark Emmert/Des Moines Register, Des Moines Register via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Nebraska Cornhuskers men’s basketball team begins exhibition play this Sunder against Chadron State. With the season officially kicking off against Maine in just 19 days, it’s basketball season already whether you like that fact or not. In light of this, here’s your part one preview of the Big Ten.

Even though there is no East/West divisional alignment in basketball, I’ve split this year’s preview up in that way merely for simplicity and the fact a 13-team preview in one article is far too long. It is also a brief preview on each team rather than the in-depth look we give ahead of each game given how many teams are being hit on at once. We hope you enjoy the Big Ten at a glance overview ahead of the season opener.


NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament - First Four Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Don’t look now, but the Rutgers Scarlet Knights are coming off back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. Even though RU got screwed by the selection committee putting the team into the First Round’s play-in game while giving Michigan an unfair pass into the field of 64 with a worse loss column, Rutgers is absolutely humming under Steve Pikiell.

However, the Scarlet Knights have now lost both of the key players, Ron Harper and Geo Baker, who have led a resurgence of basketball in Piscataway. As a result, this may be a season that sees a step backwards from the recent success. Expect to see Clifford Omoruyi and Caleb McConnell have to fill in more for Rutgers while Paul Mulcahy will also be called on to improve upon his breakout season last year.

Having said that, Rutgers did receive four votes in the preseason AP Poll released earlier this week and others are projecting the Scarlet Knights to make the tournament again this year. An early road test at Miami in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge along with visits from Wake Forest and Seton Hall in December should help give fans an indication if this team will still be a scrappy fighter you can’t overlook or not.

Nebraska will face Rutgers just once this season in a Valentine’s Day matchup in Piscataway.


COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 04 Indiana at Maryland Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Year one of the Kevin Willard era is about to begin in College Park. Maryland pulled out the checkbook for this hire in both coach salary and facilities upgrades and Willard has been making as much noise in the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) metro region recruiting wise as he can so far. Now it will be time for him to also show what he can do with a squad on the hardwood at XFINITY Center.

Maryland has in part turned to the transfer portal this year as Eric Ayala and Fatts Russell (a transfer for last season) are both gone. Graduate transfer Jahmir Young will be called upon to replace Russell while Donta Scott will be called on to continue his big improvement last season that saw him post 12.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, and 2.1 apg.

The Terps have big non-conference games against Louisville (road), Tennessee (neutral), and UCLA that should give a chance for fans to see what the team is made of. Nebraska will face off against Maryland twice this year, in College Park on Jan. 28 and in Lincoln on Feb. 19.

Penn State

2022 Big Ten Basketball Media Days Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Penn State is heading into year two of the Micah Shrewsberry era with a promising backcourt and questions in the front court. John Harrar and Greg Lee are gone and so is guard Sam Sessoms via the transfer portal. However, Dread is back and Evan Mahaffey is a promising freshman addition to the team.

Also back will be Seth Lundy on the wing. The 6-foot-6 Lundy led PSU in three-pointers last season with 64, while averaging 11.9 points and hitting 34.8 percent from deep. However, PSU has a lot of promising talent in the backcourt. This team should be able to shoot relatively well and the Nittany Lions last season were a stout defense and forced teams to play at a slow pace limiting scoring opportunities for opponents. That helped Penn State notch some quality home wins in State College and should help it do so again this year.

At the end of the day, though, this team is likely to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten this year. But it does seem to on the upswing with fresh talent for the longer term outlook. As for Nebraska, the Huskers will face the Nittany Lions twice. First is a road trip to University Park on Jan. 21 and a return visit to Lincoln on Feb. 5.

Ohio State

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Alie Skowronski/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Ohio State is replacing nine players on its roster this year. Among those are the three leading scorers for last season and the fifth highest scorer as well. That is going to be rough to pull off. While OSU adds a lot of promising pieces, youth (four of the five freshman were top-100 recruits) and fresh faces via the transfer portal will make it a tough ask to guarantee success matching that talent level.

To that end, a healthy Justice Sueing will be the key. He was hampered by injury last season, playing just two games before missing the rest of the season, but Ohio State will try to have him going back to full strength by the time Big Ten play comes around. Also important will be big man Zed Key down low as a reliable post scorer. He may see minutes start to go to freshman Felix Okpara later in the season, but regardless he should prove important throughout 2022-’23.

Huge pickups for Ohio State are also Oklahoma State transfer Isaac Likekele and West Virginia transfer Sean McNeil. Likekele has been described as a “linebacker at point guard” and has an imposing size on the defensive end for his position, checking in at at 6-foot-5. He also can rebound well for his position. McNeil will be a helpful scoring threat as he averaged 12.2 ppg for the Mountaineers last season in a tough Big 12 Conference.

Chris Holtmann has killed it on the recruiting trail during his tenure in Columbus. At some point he needs to start turning that recruiting success into equal success on the hardwood. He has yet to finish higher than third in the Big Ten and hasn’t made it out of the second round, yet he is heading into his sixth season at the helm. Holtmann is by no means lacking success. But he was hired to return OSU to the heights of the Thad Matta era.

After five years, he’s not really come that close. He’s like the Jim Harbaugh at Michigan pre-2021 issue. He’s too successful to fire, but he’s not really doing what he was hired for. One has to wonder whether Gene Smith may start to get some pressure from boosters if Holtmann has too difficult of a rebuilding year making so many new pieces fit together this year. Despite my criticism of expectations versus success, though, Holtmann’s squad does enter the season with 23 votes in the preseason AP Poll and potential to be in the upper half of the Big Ten this year. Winning it with such huge roster turnover would be a tough achievement, though.

As for the Buckeyes-Huskers, the teams face off just once this year. OSU comes to Lincoln on Jan. 18.


Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Juwan Howard critics might wonder what the Michigan head coach might do to top his past two seasons of antics that saw him make a death threat to one fellow Big Ten coach two seasons ago and slap an assistant coach last season. However, more important to Wolverines fans is how Howard will figure out a way to replace the 10 players gone from last season’s roster (our of five starters, six of the eight highest scorers for the team, and six of the eight players posting the most minutes played) which finished eighth in the Big Ten and somehow earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament despite a mediocre 17-14 record overall.

Clearly pollsters see something in the head coach entering his fourth season at the helm in Ann Arbor who claims a fraudulent 2021 Big Ten regular season title, though, because Michigan enters the season ranked No. 22 in the preseason AP Poll. Hunter Dickinson is probably a big part of that in addition to another great recruiting class. Star center Dickinson is back for a junior year after leading the Wolverines in ppg (18.6), rpg (8.6), field goal percentage (56.3), bpg (1.5) last season, and was second in mpg (32.3).

After Dickinson, the proven talent to compete in the Big Ten is lacking, though. There is a lot of potential, but it will mostly rely on freshmen and transfers. Terrance Williams II will likely complement Dickinson at the four as starter. Jett Howard will probably earn a starting position at the three as a freshman. Princeton transfer Jaelin Llewellyn and sophomore Kobe Bufkin will be the first at bat for point guard.

Overall, Michigan is hard to predict for how the team might finish the season. KenPom pegs the Wolverines at No. 26 in the preseason metrics, and the non-conference schedule should give some great indications early for how the team might do. A home matchup against Virginia, neutral site game against Kentucky in London, and a neutral site game against North Carolina will give a quality measuring stick.

As for the Huskers, just one game against Michigan in the regular season awaits. UNL travels to Ann Arbor on Feb. 8.

Michigan State

Big Ten Tournament - Quarterfinals - Michigan State v Wisconsin Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Michigan State enters the season unranked in the preseason AP Poll for the second straight season, but received 35 votes, sixth most in the poll. Take a look at the preseason poll then compare it to the schedule for MSU, you are looking at quite possibly the most brutal non-conference schedule college basketball fans will ever see from a Power Six program. I am not even using hyperbole when I say that to be clear.

Take a look for yourself if you don’t believe me and you will find the Spartans play at least four teams in the first five outings entering the season ranked with potential to face up to two more in the PK85 Tournament. Oh, and two of those teams are in the top four including a trip to San Diego Bay to take on No. 2 Gonzaga on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.

Unfortunately for Michigan State, that slate couldn’t have come in one of the worst years for the team being capable of competing in the gauntlet. With the departure of Marcus Bingham, Jr. and Julius Marble II, along with forward Gabe Brown, the front court is more shallow of talent than a kiddy pool of water. Also gone is shooting guard Max Christie.

What Michigan State does bring to the court this year is perhaps the most dynamic duo of point guards in the country with the complementary style of play AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker bring with their game. Plenty of talent remains on the wings in the backcourt, though Christie was a big loss.

Jaxon Kohler brings enormous promise as a four-star recruit to the power forward position and will likely be called on as well at center for minutes. Carson Cooper was also a late addition at center and was initially going to redshirt. The freshman is being pressed into service this season as a result of lacking bodies due to Tom Izzo’s stubborn refusal to use the transfer portal to fill out a roster with three open scholarships on it. Cooper was going to take a gap year to play at IMG Academy prior to the late interest from East Lansing.

MSU may just finally see its NCAA Tournament streak snapped as a result of that non-conference schedule and having a mere 10 scholarship players on the roster with an unproven and shallow front court. Nebraska will try to have an impact on that in two opportunities this season with a visit to East Lansing’s Breslin Center on Jan. 3 and a return visit Feb. 28 for the final regular season home game at Pinnacle Bank Arena.


Indiana v Saint Mary’s Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

No offense to the Indiana Hoosiers, but it is clearly a sign of how down the Big Ten is expected to be this year that IU is getting all the preseason love from pollsters and prognosticators. Indiana enters the season as the highest ranked Big Ten squad, clocking in at No. 13 in the preseason AP Poll. A team that features Trayce Jackson-Davis and then a lot of, well, warm bodies that participate in the sport of basketball is not the team that should get most folks excited.

Having said that, Indiana did get an off-season win in landing Miller Kopp in the transfer portal out of Evanston to the detriment of Northwestern. Still, a roster made up of Race Thompson, Jordan Geronimo, Tamar Bates, Trey Galloway, and Xavier Johnson does not a Big Ten title contender one normally make to most basketball enthusiasts.

The Huskers will get just one shot at the Hoosiers this year and it will come in Bloomington early. Nebraska plays at Indiana Dec. 7 to open Big Ten play for both teams this season.

That’s a wrap for the first part of the Big Ten preview. Check back soon for part two taking a look at the remaining teams.