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Daniel Wilco | NCAA.com | October 13, 2016

The Big Ten is crowded at the top

Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes was the only unanimous pick to the coaches' poll preseason All-Big Ten team.

The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.

As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.

Here’s our look at the Big Ten:

Recap

Last season was another banner year for the Big Ten. Seven of the conference’s 14 teams were selected to the NCAA tournament. Three of those teams — Indiana, Maryland and Wisconsin — advanced to the Sweet 16, which continued the Big Ten’s dominant streak of nine straight years the conference has sent multiple teams to the regional semifinals.

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The league also had a couple of individual standouts. Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine was named the AP and NABC National Player of the Year, while Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff earned Academic All-American of the Year honors.

Indiana finished on top during the regular season. The Hoosiers were 15-3 in the conference, earning the top seed in the Big Ten tournament, but would fall to Michigan in the quarterfinals and watch Michigan State take the tournament trophy. There were plenty of roster changes in the offseason, but this coming year doesn't seem like it will be any less hectic for the top teams in the league.

Best Player

This one is close. Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes was the only unanimous selection to the coaches’ poll preseason All-Big Ten team, and the senior was also chosen as the preseason Big Ten player of the year. Last season, Hayes averaged 15.7 points 3.0 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game, earning him first team All-Big Ten honors. Not to mention the Badger star has become famous for his hilarious antics off the court such as the time he messed with a press conference stenographer or when he interviewed Wisconsin students as “Nigel Burgundy.”

But over in College Park, Melo Trimble can’t be disregarded. The junior averaged 14.8 points, 4.9 assists and 1.3 steals per contest last year for a Maryland team that fell to Kentucky in the Sweet 16. During the Terrapins’ three-game tournament run, Trimble put up 20 points per game, and at the end of the year, he was tabbed an AP Honorable Mention All-American.

In his two years in College Park, the guard has led the Terps to back-to-back 27-win seasons for the first time in program history and became one of only two players in Maryland history to record 500 points in each of his first two seasons.

But where the two standouts differ the most is in their supporting casts. Maryland enters the season after losing four players who each averaged at least 11 points per game. The Terps will be reliant on Trimble to carry them, and that might not be the best recipe for a standout season. On the other side, Hayes’ Badgers are returning the most experienced team in the conference, which should give the senior plenty of support and room to shine, and in this writer's rankings, it gives him the edge for the best player in the Big Ten.

Best Team

It’s a good problem to have, but it’s a problem nonetheless: the Big Ten is crowded at the top. Last season, six of the conference’s teams ended the year in the top 25, with three landing in the top 12. This season, should see even more competition between the marquee schools. Michigan State brings in one of the best freshman classes in Big Ten history, and Indiana and Purdue bring back talented classes that each put together impressive 25-plus win seasons.

But above all, it’s Wisconsin that stands out, if only by a small margin. Among the four teams, Wisconsin certainly had the weakest regular season last year, but the Badgers return all five starters and every bench player who made a considerable contribution last season. Among those players of course are Hayes, senior guard Bronson Koenig and sophomore forward Ethan Happ — all of whom started every one of Wisconsin’s games last season.

Koenig is best remembered as the player who had one of the most memorable 20 seconds in Wisconsin basketball history when he hit a three-pointer to tie the game in the waning seconds against Xavier, then another moments later to win the game at the buzzer. But the guard also averaged 13.1 points and 2.4 assists while shooting 39 percent from beyond the arc on the year.

Happ, who was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season, averaged 12.4 points and 7.9 rebounds a game in his first collegiate year, but he truly shined in the postseason, where he put up 15.7 points and 9.3 boards per contest through the Badgers’ three-game run. Was it a sign of things to come? Coach Greg Gard hopes so. And if it is, Happ and the Badgers should end up on top of the Big Ten come March.

Sleeper Team

It’s hard to call any of the top four teams in the Big Ten a sleeper team, but that’s where we are. Indiana won their conference-record 22nd Big Ten championship last season, earning the No. 1 seed in the tournament, but lost to Michigan in their first game.

The Hoosiers’ foray into March Mardness was a mixed bag as well, as they knocked off No. 4 seed Kentucky before being blown out by eventual runner-ups North Carolina.

Indiana's James Blackmon Jr. was named to the coaches' poll preseason All-Big Ten team

But the offseason wasn’t unkind to them. Yes, they lost star point guard Yogi Ferrell — a blow that will be hard to overcome — but Thomas Bryant and James Blackmon, Jr. decided to stay, and Pittsburgh transfer Josh Newkirk chose to join. Add to that group Robert Johnson, a pair of highly-touted freshmen and a bigger role for OG Anunoby, and all of a sudden the Hoosiers’ lineup could be just as potent as last season. Should they be able to build up momentum into March, Indiana could prove a deep contender in the Big Ten.

Freshman to Watch

Stepping in to replace a four-year starter as a freshman is a daunting assignment. When that starter you’re replacing happens to be Denzel Valentine, the reigning Player of the Year? That makes the job a bit tougher. But it’s not impossible for Josh Langford.

Langford, a 6-5 guard out of Alabama’s Madison Academy, is just one part of Michigan State’s remarkable incoming class, but look for the true freshman to have a breakout year for the Spartans this season.

Coach Tom Izzo lost four players who averaged 7.5 points per game or more last season and will need his freshmen to make an immediate impact. Langford's size and versatility make him an early choice to lead that pack.