Jackson's return will put Terps in thick of Big Ten basketball race next season

Justin Jackson’s decision to return to Maryland for his sophomore year should put the Terps in solid contention in the Big Ten.

At least for second place behind Michigan State.

While most believe that the Spartans will be among the top teams in the country – with the return of Miles Bridges for his sophomore year, Michigan State could go into the season ranked No. 1 – how the rest of the conference plays out might largely depend on the decisions by those who had put their names into the NBA draft.

Though the Terps lose Melo Trimble, their top scorer for each of his three seasons, the rising sophomore trio of Jackson, Kevin Huerter and Anthony Cowan gives Mark Turgeon a pretty solid group from which to make up for Trimble’s absence as a scorer and playmaker. All three proved capable to be a go-to guy in spurts as freshmen, and they should continue to grow in that role next season.

Of the other schools that finished high in the standings last season, only Northwestern didn’t take any significant kind of hit, losing just senior role players Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathaniel Taphorn.

Michigan lost seniors Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. after the team’s Big Ten tournament championship and Sweet 16 NCAA tournament run. The Wolverines will have center Moe Wagner return for his junior year after the 6-foot-11 German flirted with the idea of turning pro, but found out Wednesday that rising senior forward D.J. Wilson was going to keep his name in the NBA draft.

Minnesota, which had one of the biggest turnarounds in the country last season, lost graduate transfer Akeem Springs, whose knee injury during the Big Ten tournament impacted the Gophers in their NCAA Round of 64 loss to Middle Tennesee. Still, Minnesota returns four starters, including leading scorer Nate Mason, and eight of its top nine players.    

Along with Northwestern, Purdue should have the most experienced team in the league, now that rising seniors Isaac Haas and Vince Edwards have gone back to West Lafayette. But the departure of Big Ten player of the year Caleb Swanigan, who kept his name in the draft, will certainly make it more difficult for the Boilermakers to get the kind of open looks they did last season on the perimeter.

Indiana was going to be in rebuilding mode regardless of who left and who stayed, given the change in coaches from Tom Crean to Archie Miller and the expected change in culture from a team that won by outscoring the competition to one that will focus more on the  defensive end. While some view the loss of Thomas Bryant and James Blackmon Jr. as addition by subtraction, Miller will still have to find scorers.

Wisconsin didn’t lose anyone through NBA early eligibility, but the graduation of seniors Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter will be a tremendous hit for the Badgers to overcome, at least in the short term. Teams will be able to double team redshirt junior center Ethan Happ all they want, a strategy that seemed to work at times late last season when Koenig was hurt and Hayes was in a shooting slump.

As for the rest of the Big Ten contenders, it seems that only Northwestern should be just as good, if not better than it was last season, especially if Scottie Lindsey can stay healthy.

The burden of never having made the NCAA tournament has finally lifted in Evanston and this senior-heavy team, led by Lindsey and point guard Bryant McIntosh, should keep the Wildcats in the hunt for another bid next season.

Which brings us back to the Terps.

Next season sort of sets up for Maryland in the Big Ten as it did for the Terps in their first season in 2014-15. Wisconsin was the dominant team that year and lost just twice, including once in College Park. There’s an argument to be made that Michigan State could be even stronger than the Badgers were, and that Maryland won’t be as good.

That Maryland team was led by Melo Trimble, then a freshman, as well as senior guard Dez Wells, with junior forward Jake Layman heading the supporting cast. Next season’s team will be led by the three sophomores, who might have an even better supporting cast with rising senior center Michal Cekovsky, as well incoming freshmen Bruno Fernando and Darryl Morsell (Mount St. Joseph’s).

The Terps finished second to Wisconsin in their first Big Ten season.

With Jackson’s return, don’t be surprised to see Maryland up there again.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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