College Basketball Preview: The Stacked Big Ten Conference Is Up for Grabs

James Blackmon Jr. and Indiana will have a tough time repeating in a loaded Big Ten. Who is their stiffest competition?

Similar to last season, the Big Ten conference is loaded with talented teams, which will make for an interesting race to the top throughout the season.

Last year, the Big Ten had a mostly disappointing presence in the NCAA Tournament. Despite sending seven teams to the Big Dance and having three advance to the Sweet 16, no teams made it to the Elite Eight.

Both Michigan State, a serious title contender, and Purdue were ousted in the first round by double-digit seeds. In the wake of last season, these teams remain loaded with talent and ready to take another run to the Final Four.

Team to Beat: Indiana Hoosiers

Last season's conference champion looks ready to defend their title despite the loss of first team All-Big Ten guard Yogi Ferrell.

The Indiana Hoosiers climbed through the ranks last season and surprised many to capture the Big Ten, and the experience of those that remain with the team will be important in their efforts to repeat.

Sophomore center Thomas Bryant will be key in their title defense. The big man averaged nearly 12 points and 6 rebounds per game on his way to claiming All-Big Ten Third Team and All-Freshman team honors last season.

Along with Bryant, the Hoosiers are returning junior guard James Blackmon, who was second on the team in scoring last season despite being limited with a season ending knee injury. Indiana has already jumped into the top 10 of the AP and Coaches poll with a huge non-conference win over Kansas in Honolulu.

Team on the Rise: Wisconsin Badgers

The early part of last season was very forgettable for the Wisconsin Badgers, as they worked through a 9-9 start and a coaching change.

From that point forward, the Badgers won 11 of 13 and managed to save their season with an NCAA Tournament bid. Wisconsin turned heads by reaching the Sweet 16, knocking off the 2 seed in the East Region, Xavier, on a Bronson Koenig buzzer beater.

The Badgers are returning all of their major contributors from last season, including Koenig, last season's Big Ten Freshman of the Year Ethan Happ, and this season's Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Nigel Hayes.

Wisconsin is a veteran squad ready to make a run for the Big Ten title this season and will likely be Indiana's stiffest competition to take the crown.

Team on the Decline: Iowa Hawkeyes

Iowa seemed destined for a better fate last season when they peaked in the AP polls at number three in the midst of six weeks within the top 10.

However, the Hawkeyes fell off late in the season, losing five of their last seven in the regular season, limping into the NCAA Tournament as a 7 seed and getting run off the court by eventual champion Villanova.

This season will be a tough one for Iowa after they lost four of their top five leading scorers, including All-Big Ten First Teamer Jarrod Uthoff. The only major contributor returning this season is Peter Jok, who averaged just over 16 points last year and will have to pick up even more of the load in a season that looks to be a reloading year for coach Fran McCaffery.

Player to Watch: Thomas Bryant

Indiana sophomore center Thomas Bryant opted to return to campus instead of entering the NBA draft following a very productive freshman year.

The Hoosiers did not need Bryant to be the alpha dog last season with Yogi Ferrell and Troy Williams doing much of the heavy lifting. Indiana knows what they have for the most part with James Blackmon, but Bryant can be primed for an absolute breakout season.

According to Gary Parrish on his CBS Sports Eye On College Basketball Podcast, Bryant worked in the offseason with the guards to improve upon parts of his game that would make the 6'10" center a matchup nightmare.

Already an All-Big Ten Third Team member last season, Bryant could be in the conversation for Big Ten Player of the Year, especially if the Hoosiers win the conference and are in the conversation for a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.