INDIANAPOLIS – Before Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren introduced Michigan coach Juwan Howard to open Big Ten media days on Thursday, Warren was asked about how the league decided against awarding co-champions to both the Wolverines and Illinois last season.

The Illini finished with more conference victories at 16-4, but the Wolverines were 14-3 after playing three fewer games in the regular season because of COVID-19 issues and were declared the Big Ten champions.

"I feel we made the right decision collectively with all the athletic directors and conference staff," Warren said. "I love [the Illini] program. They've got a great team this year. … I'm looking forward to seeing them play."

Illinois and Michigan could again be battling for the Big Ten title this season after returning two of the league's top players in 7-footers Kofi Cockburn (Illini) and Hunter Dickinson (Wolverines), but it will be more than a two-team race for the top.

Purdue, Ohio State and Iowa rounded out the top five last season. The Hawkeyes will have a hard time staying in that upper tier following the graduation of two-time Big Ten Player of the Year Luka Garza. But the Buckeyes are back in contention with all-league forward E.J. Liddell also waiting on the NBA.

Purdue's overall talent and depth make it a popular new contender. Maryland, Rutgers and Michigan State are also looming as middle-of-the-pack teams from last season with potential to make a jump up.

"I love this league," Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. "The depth of the league, as we've mentioned a number of times, is really second to none. I think that's been established. I think you'll see this league continue to grow in its depth."

Howard was inspired by how his players fought through a difficult season with the virus to bring another championship banner to Michigan. After a Jan. 16 loss at the Gophers, the Wolverines strung together seven straight victories, including road wins at Purdue, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Indiana.

"Last season during the COVID year, how our team responded and how they all were connected and played for one another," Howard said, "it was beautiful. It was inspiring to watch. I learned a lot from that group."

Playing a full season during the pandemic projects to be easier this season with many teams 100% vaccinated. The last time the Big Ten had co-champions was during the 2019-20 season when Wisconsin, Maryland and Michigan State finished in a three-way tie for first place with 14-6 records.

Michigan won the regular season Big Ten championship outright last season, but Illinois won the conference tournament.

Cockburn, the media's choice for preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, has talked about wanting to be the best player on the best team in college basketball. With that comes expectations to lead Illinois to its first Big Ten regular-season crown since back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2005.

"I wouldn't be here right now if I didn't want to prove we could win a Big Ten championship," said Cockburn, who declared for the NBA draft. "If feel like now we're the team that's targeted. Teams will have to go through us now. It's a great feeling because it puts us on edge."

The Big Ten had 12 teams nationally ranked last season, which led to a league-best nine teams reaching the NCAA tournament. March Madness wasn't as successful for the conference, but Michigan advanced to the Elite Eight. Garza, Iowa's all-time leading scorer, was also named National Player of the Year.

That's a tough act to follow this season for the Big Ten, but the talent is there at the top again.

"It has become the expectation of our league to be great," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "It's not a league where it's always the same teams. Certainly, we have some teams that are really special. Other ones are really good, too."

Big Ten basketball media days

When: Thursday and Friday

Where: Gainbridge Fieldhouse, Indianapolis

TV: Big Ten Network

Gophers: Women's basketball coach Lindsay Whalen takes the podium Friday at 9:30 a.m., followed by men's basketball coach Ben Johnson at 9:40.

Online: Follow the Star Tribune's Marcus Fuller on Twitter @Marcus_R_Fuller for full coverage from Indianapolis.