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Already brutal, Big Ten basketball will be even tougher and more competitive in 2020-21

Watch Now: Ayo Dosunmu makes ‘big picture’ decision (2:10)

When Iowa coach Fran McCaffery reflected on his team’s 2020-21 roster Sunday following the news that star big man Luka Garza will return for his senior season, he reached a conclusion that is seemingly incompatible with basketball.

“I’ve never had a team with seven starters returning, which sounds like a ridiculous statement,” McCaffery said. “But it happens to be the truth.” 

Iowa is returning last season’s starting five — headlined by Garza — and two veterans with prior starting experience in Jack Nunge and Jordan Bohannon, both of whom received medical redshirts after missing most of last season with injuries. So, yes, McCaffery can accurately say that he has seven returning starters on a team that sits at No. 5 in the CBS Sports Top 25 and 1 with the scheduled start date of the season only three months away.

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Returning seven players with starting experience and the early national player of the year favorite after a 20-win season would normally make a team the no-doubt preseason pick to win its conference. But confident as McCaffery may be in his team’s promise, he’s also sure that treachery lies ahead.

“One of the exciting things is how incredibly difficult the Big Ten is going to be,” McCaffery said. “You look at the teams top to bottom, everybody is good. It was the same thing last year. We would have had at least ten teams in (the NCAA Tournament). We will have at least ten, maybe more, this year. I think that’s what you sign up for. That’s what the challenge is.”

Nine of the 10 Big Ten teams that would have made the 2020 NCAA Tournament if it hadn’t been canceled return at least four players with significant starting experience, and no major conference in the country returns more of its top producers. It’s why McCaffery believes the Big Ten could place 11 or even 12 teams in the 2021 NCAA Tournament and put the Big East’s 2011 record of sending 11 teams to the tournament in jeopardy.

Five of the Big Ten’s top-20 scorers from the 2019-20 season faced decisions in the final days leading up to Monday’s NBA Draft withdrawal deadline. Garza, Marcus Carr from Minnesota and the Illinois star duo of Ayo Dosumnu and Kofi Cockburn each elected to return to school while Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman opted to stay in the draft.

The return rate of the league’s top players separated the already-elite Big Ten from its conference peers. In total, 10 of the league’s top-20 scorers from last season are expected to be back, with 13 of its top-20 rebounders and 12 of its top-20 distributors also returning.

By comparison, the Big East is set to return just four of its top-20 scorers and the SEC is returning just five. Of the sport’s top-seven conferences, only the AAC and Big 12 are returning as many of their top-20 scorers as the Big Ten.

“The Big Ten is going to be really, really good this year and it’s going to be fun to be a part of,” Garza said.

Here is the full breakdown of how many players with significant starting experience are returning in the Big Ten:

Note: Players with significant starting experience started at least 10 games last season or have at least 15 career starts with Big Ten teams.

Record: 24-7, 14-6 Big Ten

Players with significant starting experience: 4 (Aaron Wiggins, Darryl Morsell, Eric Ayala, Donta Scott)

The Terrapins lose their top two players in Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith, but they return four players who started 16 or more games last season.

Michigan State 

Record: 22-9, 14-6

Players with significant starting experience: 5 (Aaron Henry, Rocket Watts, Gabe Brown, Marcus Bingham Jr., Joshua Langford)

Similar to Maryland, Michigan State loses a star guard and a star big with the departures of Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman. But the Spartans have five projected returners with significant starting experience when oft-injured veteran guard Joshua Langford is factored in.

Record: 21-10, 14-6)

Players with significant starting experience: 5 (Nate Reuvers, D’Mitrik Trice, Aleem Ford, Brad Davison, Micah Potter*)

The only player with double-digit starts from last season not returning is Kobe King, who left the team mid-season. Wisconsin played its best basketball after he departed.

*Counted because he’s amassed 19 career starts between time at Wisconsin and Ohio State

Illinois 

Record: 21-10, 13-7)

Players with significant starting experience: 5 (Ayo Dosumnu, Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Da’Monte Williams)

The Illini received great news when Dosumnu and Cockburn withdrew from the draft. Getting both back should make Illinois one of the preseason favorites in the Big Ten.

Ohio State 

Record: 21-10, 11-9)

Players with significant starting experience: 3 (CJ Walker, Kyle Young, Duane Washington)

Among the teams that finished in the top half of the league last season, Ohio State returns the fewest players with significant starting experience.

Record: 21-10, 11-9)

Players with significant starting experience: 5 (Jamari Wheeler, Myron Jones, Myles Dread, Seth Lundy, John Harrar)

The Nittany Lions lose star forward Lamar Stevens but are bringing plenty of players with starting experience back from a team that ascended to No. 9 in the AP Top 25 at one point last season.

Iowa 

Record: 20-11, 11-9)

Players with significant starting experience: 7 (Luka Garza, Joe Wieskamp, Connor McCaffery, CJ Frederick, Joe Toussaint, Jordan Bohannon, Jack Nunge)

This is the best roster coach Fran McCaffery has had since taking the Iowa job before the 2010-11 season.

Record: 20-11, 11-9

Players with significant starting experience: 6 (Ron Harper Jr., Geo Baker, Caleb McConnell, Myles Johnson, Montez Mathis, Mamadou Doucoure)

When you count Doucoure, who started 29 games as a freshman in the 2017-18 season, the Scarlet Knights are projected to be second only to Iowa in terms of returning players with significant starting experience.

Record: 19-12, 10-10)

Players with significant starting experience: 4 (Eli Brooks, Franz Wagner, Isaiah Livers, Brandon Johns Jr.)

The Wolverines’ top two scorers have graduated, but four players with significant starting experience return to pair with a crop of new talent in coach Juwan Howard’s second season.

Record: 20-12, 10-10)

Players with significant starting experience: 4 (Trayce Jackson-Davis, Aljami Durham, Joey Brunk, Rob Phinisee)

Getting Jackson-Davis back for his sophomore year is huge for the Hoosiers, who are searching for a breakthrough in year four of coach Archie Miller’s tenure.

Record: 16-15, 9-11)

Players with significant starting experience: 3 (Trevion Williams, Eric Hunter Jr., Sasha Stefanovic)

The Boilermakers are losing some good role players, but three of their top four scorers from last season are returning.

Minnesota 

Record: 15-16, 8-12)

Players with significant starting experience: 2 (Marcus Carr, Gabe Kalscheur)

The Golden Gophers lose star big man Daniel Oturu but return their second and third-leading scorers in Carr and Kalscheur.

Record: 8-23, 3-17)

Players with significant starting experience: 6 (Miller Kopp, Ryan Young, Pete Nance, Robbie Beran, Boo Buie, Anthony Gaines)

Northwestern returns six of seven players who started at least 10 games last season and will hope that translates to some growth. The Wildcats have finished with fewer wins each season since making their first-ever NCAA Tournament berth in 2017.

Record: 7-25, 2-18

Players with significant starting experience: 2 (Yvan Ouedraogo, Thorir Thorbjarnarson)

Only a couple of starters are back, but that’s probably a good thing for second-year coach Fred Hoiberg, who is remaking a moribund roster.

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