With the official start of practice less than two months away, UM Hoops and Inside the Hall have again partnered to bring you a preseason breakdown of the top 25 players in the Big Ten for the 2015-2016 season.
Our selection process involved much deliberation to arrive at a list we hope will provide plenty of reaction and debate. The series will be broken into five parts and our fifth and final installment of players 5-1 is available below: (Previously: 25-21, 20-16, 15-11, 10-6)
5. Denzel Valentine, Michigan State (6-foot-5, guard, senior)
33.2 mpg, 14.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 4.3 apg, .9 spg, 55.7 eFG percentage
Unlike last season when Frank Kaminsky was the clear cut No. 1 choice on our list, the truth is the top five this season had its share of debates. Valentine was terrific as a junior and was the leader on a team that ended its season with a loss in the Final Four to eventual national champion Duke. He finished the season ranked in the top 10 in the conference in both 3-point percentage and assist rate.
He’s a multidimensional contributor that can take on a scoring role when needed, but is also a great distributor. With the graduation loss of Travis Trice, Valentine will now be the clear leader in a backcourt that also includes LouRawls Nairn, Eron Harris and Bryn Forbes. He’s easily the most versatile of that group. Tom Izzo will again count on Valentine to anchor the wing on a Spartan team that should compete for a top spot in the league standings.
4. Caris LeVert, Michigan (6-foot-6, wing, senior)
35.7 mpg, 14.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg. 3.5 apg, 1.9 spg, 47.8 eFG percentage
When Caris LeVert took the floor for Michigan last season, it was finally his turn. As a freshman, he played a supplemental role on Michigan’s 2013 Final Four team with Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Mitch McGary dominating the spotlight. As a sophomore, he was Robin to Nik Stauskas’ Batman. LeVert was great in both roles, but he never had a chance to be the focus of a Michigan offense.
He sat out last summer after undergoing surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot and then never seemed to find consistent success in 2014-15. He played in just 18 games before re-injuring his foot and the Wolverines were just 11-7 when he was healthy. Despite the ups and downs, LeVert led Michigan in virtual every statistic — minutes, points, rebounds, assists and steals – while he was healthy. Back for his senior year, LeVert is still regarded as one of the Big Ten’s top pro prospects and he should benefit more than anyone from his teammates’ improvements while he was injured last season.
3. Yogi Ferrell, Indiana (6-foot, guard, senior)
34.9 mpg, 16.3 ppg, 4.9 apg, 3.2 rpg, .7 spg, 53.9 eFG percentage
A first team All-Big Ten selection last season by the coaches and the media, Ferrell deserves legitimate consideration in the preseason debate for the league’s top player. Like Troy Williams and James Blackmon Jr., he considered jumping to the NBA in the offseason before ultimately deciding to return for his fourth and final season.
He carried Indiana offensively at times as a junior – while leading the conference in percentage of minutes played – and led the Hoosiers back to the NCAA tournament after the program missed the postseason altogether in 2013-2014. His effective field goal percentage and assist rates improved last season and his turnover rate went down, which is a major reason IU’s offense went from average in his sophomore year to elite last season. Now Ferrell will be tasked with leading a team that has significant expectations — perhaps even past the Sweet 16 for the first time in Tom Crean’s tenure in Bloomington.
2. Melo Trimble, Maryland (6-foot-2, guard, sophomore)
33.5 mpg, 16.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.0 apg, 53.4 eFG percentage
As the college game evolves, it’s becoming clear that one of the ultimate keys to success is an elite pick-and-roll player. The ball screen is everywhere these days and players like Trey Burke or D’Angelo Russell have demonstrated that it’s possible to completely dominate the college basketball world with the high ball screen. Melo Trimble was an elite ball screen player as a freshman and he should take the next step as a sophomore.
Only DJ Newbill and Terran Petteway scored more points (including passes) than Trimble in the ball screen game last year, according to Synergy Sports, meaning Trimble was actually more productive than players like Yogi Ferrell or D’Angelo Russell. Now with an extra year of experience, Trimble will be allowed to play with the conference’s best incoming big man in Diamond Stone. That luxury should be something equivalent to Trey Burke and Mitch McGary in the 2013 NCAA tournament and is one of the primary reasons why some publications have even picked Maryland as the country’s No. 1 team in the preseason.
1. Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin (6-foot-8, forward, junior)
33.0 mpg, 12.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.0 apg, .9 spg, 55.7 eFG percentage
Surprise? Maybe a little, but not as much when you dig into the numbers and just how much Hayes grew from his freshman to sophomore year. He’s the only player returning to the league this season from the KenPom All-Conference team last season. After not even attempting a 3-pointer as a freshman, Hayes made close to 40 percent as a sophomore (on 101 attempts).
At 6-foot-8, he’s an incredibly difficult matchup because he can score inside, outside and is excellent at drawing fouls and converting from the line. The Badgers lost plenty from last season’s national runner-up team, but Hayes opted to return for Bo Ryan’s (maybe) final season. He enters his junior campaign as Wisconsin’s best player and he’ll no longer be a sidekick to Frank Kaminsky or Sam Dekker. Given the growth he exhibited last offseason, look for another leap to be taken by Hayes.