The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team shared the 2019-20 Big Ten regular-season title with Maryland and Michigan State.
A group of beat reporters from around the conference believes there will be a new champion this season.
Illinois is the pick to win its first title in 16 years after receiving 16 of a possible 28 first-place votes. Iowa is predicted to finish second, followed by the Badgers and Michigan State.
UW returns four starters and almost its entire rotation from a team that finished 21-10 overall and won its final eight games of the regular season to finish at 14-6 in the Big Ten. That late run — and the share of the Badgers’ first title in five years — helped Greg Gard earn Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.
But that wasn’t enough to convince voters Gard and Co. will repeat.
UW received six first-place votes, seven votes for second place and eight for third place. Six writers picked the Badgers to finish fourth, and one even had them as low as fifth.
Illinois returns its top two players – junior guard Ayo Dosunmu and sophomore center Kofi Cockburn – from a team that finished 21-10 overall and 13-7 in the Big Ten, alone in fourth place and one game behind the co-champions.
The Fighting Illini haven’t won a Big Ten title since going 15-1 in the 2004-05 season.
Iowa, which went 11-9 in league play last season, returns Big Ten Player of the Year Luka Garza and several key complementary pieces, including junior forward Joe Wieskamp.
Garza was picked to repeat that honor, receiving 24 of 28 first-place votes from the Big Ten media. Dosunmu got the other four votes.
Those two were unanimous picks on the preseason All-Big Ten team and were joined by Indiana sophomore Trayce Jackson-Davis, Cockburn, Michigan sophomore wing Franz Wagner and UW senior forward Nate Reuvers. There are six players on the team because Cockburn, Wagner and Reuvers tied with 11 votes apiece.
Two other UW players, senior center Micah Potter and senior point guard D’Mitrik Trice, received one vote apiece for the preseason All-Big Ten team.
Illinois guard Adam Miller was the preseason Freshman of the Year with 12 votes, narrowly beating Indiana point guard Khristian Lander.
Big Ten predicted finish
(First-place votes in parentheses)
1, Illinois (16), 376 points
2, Iowa (6), 350
3, Wisconsin (6), 347
4, Michigan State, 323
5, Rutgers, 249
6, Michigan, 241
7, Ohio State, 229
8, Indiana, 212
9, Purdue, 179
10, Maryland, 141
11, Minnesota, 121
12, Penn State, 72
13, Nebraska, 54
14, Northwestern, 47
Jim Polzin's picks
Jim Polzin, the UW men’s basketball beat reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal, was one of 28 voters in the Big Ten media preseason poll.
Here are his picks for the Big Ten order of finish and individual awards:
1, Wisconsin – Call it a homer pick if you will, but I don’t think the Badgers’ title last season was a fluke. Some attributed their late-season run to a favorable schedule; perhaps, but I saw a team that was on a mission after a brutal year on and off the court and was brimming with confidence at the right time of the year. Considering how wacky this offseason was due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it helps to have a senior-laden team that didn’t need to build chemistry and is still hungry after not getting a postseason in 2019-20.
2, Illinois – Dosunmu and Cockburn are studs, and I expect Trent Frazier to be better than he was last season. The Illini struggled shooting the ball from the perimeter, but Miller and other newcomers should help in that area. This team has Final Four potential.
3, Michigan State – Yes, the Spartans lost cornerstones Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman. But there’s still a ton of talent on the roster, including Aaron Henry, Rocket Watts and newcomer Joey Hauser. Tom Izzo has won at least a share of three consecutive Big Ten titles; bottom line, it’s hard to predict a major dropoff from this program.
4, Iowa – Hawkeyes fans won’t be happy with this pick. I get it. Led by Garza, Wieskamp and the return of Jordan Bohannon from a hip injury, this team is loaded with offensive talent. But until this team proves it can play defense – and not implode under Fran McCaffery’s direction – it’s hard to believe they’ll end up on top after a 20-game Big Ten grind.
5, Rutgers – What Steve Pikiell has done in Piscataway is remarkable. Rutgers went 20-11 last season and would have played in the NCAA tournament. It returns several key pieces from that team, including point guard Geo Baker and forward Ron Harper Jr.
6, Michigan – The Wolverines have some dangerous players on the wing in Franz Wagner and Isaiah Livers, and freshman center Hunter Dickinson is a newcomer to watch. I’m curious to see how the Wolverines replace point guard Zavier Simpson and center Jon Teske.
7, Ohio State – The Buckeyes have a lot of talent, and Chris Holtmann is a good coach. But there are enough new pieces – including Harvard transfer Seth Towns, who hasn’t played in two seasons – to make me wonder how it’s all going to fit together after an unusual offseason.
8, Indiana – Archie Miller can recruit – Jackson-Davis and Lander are blue-chippers – but can he develop? Through three seasons, Miller is 55-43 overall and 26-32 in Big Ten play.
9, Purdue – The loss of Eric Hunter Jr. – out 6-8 weeks with a tibia fracture – hurts a team that is trying to bounce back from a 16-15 season. Trevion Williams needs to take a major step for this team to finish in the top half of the conference.
10, Minnesota – Point guard Marcus Carr is back, and a couple transfers will make an immediate impact. But the Golden Gophers were 15-16 overall and 8-12 in the Big Ten with Daniel Oturu in the lineup, so it’s hard to imagine a major improvement now that he’s gone.
11, Maryland – Point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and forward Jalen Smith are gone. Can the complementary pieces that helped the Terrapins earn a share of the title last season make sure Maryland doesn’t slip too far?
12, Penn State – The Nittany Lions lost five of their final six games to finish 11-9 in the Big Ten. Even still, they would have made the NCAA tournament for the first time in nearly a decade. It was going to be a rebuild post-Lamar Stevens anyway, but then Patrick Chambers lost his job last month.
13, Nebraska – The Cornhuskers lost their final 17 games last season and had another roster makeover. I’ll believe Fred Hoiberg’s system can work consistently in the Big Ten when I see it.
14, Northwestern – The Wildcats have some decent young pieces, including point guard Boo Buie. But Chris Collins’ crew isn’t old enough – or deep enough – to compete in a rugged Big Ten.
Preseason All-Big Ten team: Iowa senior center Luka Garza, Illinois junior guard Ayo Dosunmu, Indiana sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, Michigan sophomore wing Franz Wagner and Michigan State junior swingman Aaron Henry.
Player of the Year: Garza
Freshman of the Year: Khristian Lander, Indiana
6-1, 185, Guard
Bellevue, Neb. (West)
Hepburn was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Nebraska last season after helping Bellevue West go 21-3 and win the Class A state title. A two-time first-team all-state pick, Hepburn averaged 17.7 points, 6.1 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 3.1 steals as a junior. Off the court, Hepburn earned the HomeSchool Papillion TeenService Award and was a Special Olympics Volunteer Award winner.
UW coach Greg Gard: “Chucky is a proven winner. Our staff watched as he led his Bellevue West team to a state championship last winter. A true point guard, Chucky brings everything we look for at that position. He leads by example, always giving maximum effort on both ends of the floor. He has tremendous vision and feel for the game, combined with the ability to score from all three levels. As much as he is able to carry his team on offense, what makes Chucky a great fit here at Wisconsin is that his defense and toughness is where he hangs his hat. A leader and role model in the community and a motivated student, Chucky is the kind of person we are excited to add to our Badger Family. We’re excited to get to work with him and to help him reach his potential as a Badger in the years to come.”
6-9, 235, Forward
Schaumburg, Ill. (HS)
Hodges, who played in the same Illinois Wolves AAU program that produced former UW standout Frank Kaminsky, was named Mid-Suburban League West Player of the Year after helping Schaumburg go 25-7 and winning the MSL title while advancing to the regional finals. He averaged 15.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game to earn second-team Class 4A all-state honors in Illinois.
Gard: “Chris is an excellent addition to our program and member of another strong recruiting class. He impressed our staff immediately during our advanced camp and has continued to improve since. Chris has tremendous potential with his large frame and natural strength, paired with an eagerness to get better. He will immediately bring both physicality and tenacity to our program. Chris fits in well with the work ethic and culture that our program has established. He comes from a great family that has clearly taught him to value hard work and education first. We are excited to welcome both Chris and his family to the Badger Family.”
6-7, 220, Forward
Yankton, S.D. (HS)
Mors is the reigning back-to-back Gatorade Player of the Year in South Dakota and has been named all-state four times during a career that began when he played on the varsity in the seventh grade. He averaged 19.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game as a junior and enters his final season as South Dakota’s Class AA all-time leading scorer with 2,127 points.
Gard: “We are very excited to add Matthew to our program. He has challenged himself as a student-athlete year in and out to become as well rounded a competitor as possible, both on and off the court. As a state champion in basketball and a successful multi-sport athlete in Yankton, Matthew has gained valuable lessons that will help him become the best leader and player possible. On the court, he plays with a certain level of toughness and physicality that fits our style of play, specifically in the Big Ten. He has a versatile skill set that will allow him to be effective in the post, off the dribble and is a terrific shooter from outside. Matthew's skillset, combined with a championship mentally, has us excited to begin working with him. We're excited for Matthew to join our Badger Family and we can't wait to begin working with him to help him reach his goals as a Badger.”