Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: The Big Ten Conference was once again well represented on the national stage last season, as the Wisconsin Badgers reached their third Final Four in history.
Coach Bo Ryan's club, long regarded as a defensive juggernaut that did just enough at the offensive end to win significantly more games than it lost, turned the tables last season when it scored nearly 10 points more on average than it allowed. The Badgers are the odds-on favorite to win the Big Ten in 2014-15, as the team welcomes back four starters, including preseason conference Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky.
Challenges will surely be offered up by a slew of talented teams, including the always-dangerous Michigan State Spartans, who despite the loss of some key performers, have been retooled by one of the game's top recruiters in Tom Izzo, who is set to embark on his 20th year as the head man in East Lansing.
Ohio State also lost some quality players, but coach Thad Matta has done a nice job replenishing the roster as well, while the Nebraska Cornhuskers could be the real surprise of the college basketball season thanks to the return of one of the Big Ten's top all-around players, Terran Petteway.
Michigan is a team hoping to cash in on last season's near-miss at its second straight Final Four, but it too lost some crucial pieces to the puzzle. Conference newcomers Maryland and Rutgers will likely have very different seasons, as the Terrapins are probably better suited to compete right away after playing in the ultra-competitive ACC, while the Scarlet Knights struggled last season in the American Athletic Conference.
Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota could all notch some big wins and put themselves in contention, but the more likely scenario will see them finish in the middle of the pack, while Indiana, which is a shell of its former self after losing a couple of standout performers, struggles to keep pace with the league's elite.
All indications are that Penn State, Purdue, Northwestern and the aforementioned Scarlet Knights will be brining up the rear, although any of them is capable of pulling off an upset or two along the way.
PREDICTED CHAMPION: Wisconsin
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Wisconsin, 2. Michigan State, 3. Ohio State, 4. Nebraska, 5. Michigan, 6. Maryland, 7. Iowa, 8. Illinois, 9. Minnesota, 10. Indiana, 11. Penn State, 12. Purdue, 13. Northwestern, 14. Rutgers
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
WISCONSIN: With so many starters back from a team that came oh so close to playing for the national championship, it's little wonder the Badgers have the attention of not only those who follow the Big Ten, but the national pundits as well. Ryan, who ran out the same starting five in all 38 games last season, has the good fortune of coaching some extremely skilled players once again, notably Kaminsky, who averaged 13.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. The 7- foot senior also blocked 66 shots, making him a bona fide threat at both ends of the court. He will get help down low from San Dekker (12.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg), while Traevon Jackson (10.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 4.0 apg) and Josh Gasser (8.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg) work the floor from their spots in the backcourt. As mentioned, Wisconsin did a solid job putting points on the board last season (73.5 ppg), while still doing good work on defense (64 ppg). The Badgers, led by Gasser's 43.1 percent showing beyond the arc, drained 37.6 percent of their 3-point shots last season, and three of the returning starters, including Kaminsky shot at least 37 percent from distance. UW opens its Big Ten slate versus Penn State on New Year's Eve, and it should be battle-tested by then as the non- conference schedule features games against either Florida or Georgetown in the Bahamas, as well as a home clash with Duke in early December.
MICHIGAN STATE: Izzo must find replacements for former stars Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling, the trio accounting for 44.3 ppg last season, and while it may take a little while for the team to show its true colors, there is no denying the talent pool from which the legendary coach has the luxury of delving into. It all starts with seniors Branden Dawson and Travis Trice, and junior Denzel Valentine, each of whom contributed to last season's stellar 29-9 record (12-4 Big Ten). Dawson is the top returning scorer, as he hit 61.3 percent of his field goal attempts in netting 11.2 ppg, while also leading the club on the glass with 8.3 rpg. As for Valentine and Trice, they combined for 15.3 ppg, with the former also coming up with 6.0 caroms and 3.8 assists per contest. The Spartans, who if they reach the 2015 NCAA Tournament will tie the Big Ten record for consecutive trips to the Big Dance with 18 (Indiana, 1986-2003), won their fourth Big Ten Tournament title last March, and they have the talent and depth needed for a repeat performance. It's simply a matter of staying healthy, which they really weren't last season, and playing as a cohesive unit, which is something Izzo preaches to his players the moment they step on campus. MSU will face a few early tests, notably against Duke on Nov. 18, and the Orlando Classic over Thanksgiving features the likes of Georgia Tech, Marquette, Kansas and Tennessee. A bout with Notre Dame could also be rather telling.
OHIO STATE: The Buckeyes posted another successful run in 2013-14, going 25-10 overall, although eight of their losses came against conference foes. The team struggled at times at the offensive end (69.5 ppg), but certainly excelled on defense (59.8 ppg). LaQuinton Ross (15.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. (11.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg) were the only two double-digit scorers on the roster, but both are gone, as is the heart and soul of last year's club, Aaron Craft (9.8 ppg, 4.7 apg, 2.5 spg). That leaves Sam Thompson and Amir Williams as the only returning starters, but both averaged less than eight points per tilt, although the latter did some extra work by picking up 5.8 rpg. Shannon Scott is also back after handing out 119 assists, and he will serve as the primary point guard. Matta is relying on some fresh faces to contribute right away, as there is plenty of hype surrounding redshirt freshman Kam Williams and newcomer D'Angelo Russell, each of whom will try his best to fill the vacated shoes of OSU's former stars. Others expected to make an impact include transfers Anthony Lee (Temple) and Trevor Thompson (Virginia Tech), as well as youngsters David Bell and Keita Bates-Diop. The Buckeyes open the 2014-15 campaign with 13 of their first 15 games at home, with their toughest non- league bout being against Louisville on the road in early December.
NEBRASKA: Petteway is a star in the making, and coach Tim Miles couldn't be happier that the 6-foot-6 junior is back to lead the Cornhuskers to what those in Lincoln hope is the team's best showing since joining the Big Ten. Petteway led the team in scoring last season with 18.1 ppg, and he made nearly as many free throws (167) and his next closest teammate attempted (Shavon Shields, 179). Shields is back as well after netting 12.8 ppg and grabbing a team-high 5.8 rpg, but there aren't many others expected to really elevate their games enough to dim Petteway's star. One guy who could is former Florida Gator Walter Pitchford, who averaged 9.3 points and 4.7 boards per outing in his first season with the Huskers, all while shooting a team-best 41 percent from 3-point range. Nebraska was nearly dead even in scoring differential (+1.6) in 2013-14, and the team came out on the negative side of the ledger in rebounding (-1.9), as well as assists (-1.6). Miles is an energetic guy who has gotten his players and the student body to buy into his program. Now it's time to take the next step and get his team to climb into the upper half of the Big Ten, and there is simply no better player with whom to do that than Petteway. Nebraska opens the season with seven of its first nine games at home, and its toughest non-conference clashes should be against Florida State and Cincinnati.
MICHIGAN: With a slew of new players dotting the roster, John Beilein has his work cut out for him as he tries to coach up a Wolverines squad that won the 2013-14 Big Ten regular season championship, but lost to rival Michigan State in the conference tournament title tilt. Fortunately, Caris Levert is back after averaging 12.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. He will need to seriously up the ante this time around, as he tries to make up for the loss of both Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III, who combined for more than 30 points, seven boards and 4.5 helpers per contest. Stauskas in particular will be tough to replace as he was one of the best long-range shooters in the country (.442). Levert hit just shy of 41 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc, as did Derrick Walton, Jr. (7.9 ppg, 2.9 apg). Others the Wolverines will count on include Zak Irvin (6.7 ppg), Jordan Morgan (6.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Spike Albrecht (3.3 ppg, 2.0 apg). Newcomers to keep an eye on include wings Kameron Chatman and Aubrey Dawkins, as well as guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur- Rhakman. The Maize and Blue have several tough non-conference bouts on tap, as they will battle the likes of Oregon and either VCU or Villanova in Brooklyn before the end of November, and then take on Syracuse, Arizona and SMU in December.
MARYLAND: Mark Turgeon's seat in College Park is getting rather warm, as the Terrapins, in the eyes of many, haven't taken the steps necessary to be a major player on the national scene, in the three seasons he has been at the helm. Sure the team went 25-13 overall in 2012-13, but it failed to make the NCAA Tournament, instead participating in the NIT where it reached the semifinals. Maryland went 17-15 in its final season as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference (9-9), and if the Terps think they'll find greater success in their new league, they have another thing coming. It doesn't help that several key players left the program after last season. The one guy Turgeon is happy to have back however, is leading scorer Dez Wells (14.9 ppg). A 48.1 percent shooter who converted 81.7 percent of his free-throw attempts, grabbed 4.3 rpg and came up with 34 steals, Wells will be the focus of the offense, but he alone won't be able to keep the UM machine moving in the right direction. Several of the half dozen new faces dotting the roster will be asked to contribute right away, with the best of the bunch likely being guard Melo Trimble, an explosive scorer who should complement Wells nicely. Also in the mix should be North Carolina A&T transfer Richaud Pack, as he averaged 17.0 points and 4.6 caroms per contest during his final season with the Aggies. Maryland's first Big Ten test will come at mighty Michigan State on Dec. 30.
IOWA: Despite scoring a robust 81.5 ppg in 2013-14, the Hawkeyes were another middling Big Ten team, splitting their 18 conference clashes. Overall, Iowa won 20 games, marking the second straight year they reached or surpassed that figure, and coach Fran McCaffery has done a solid job since arriving in Iowa City back in 2010. The loss of standout guard Roy Devyn Marble (17.0 ppg, 3.6 apg) certainly hurts the Hawkeyes' chances of challenging the league's upper crust, but the return of 6-foot-9 senior Aaron White (12.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg) helps ease the pain. The squad also welcomes back returning starter Mike Gesell (7.8 ppg, 3.9 apg) and key reserve Jarrod Uthoff (7.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg), the latter of whom could slot into the starting rotation in an effort to help pick up the slack from 3-point land, where he was 42.5 percent accurate last season, the team hitting 35 percent of its long-range tries overall. Other key performers include seniors Josh Oglesby (6.6 ppg, .403 3-point FG percentage) and Gabriel Olaseni (6.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg), 7-foot-1 junior Adam Woodbury (5.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg), and former junior college Third-Team All-American Trey Dickerson (19.7 ppg, 5.7 apg). The Hawkeyes will play a slew of home games in the first two months of the season, and bouts with Texas, either Syracuse or California, North Carolina and Iowa State will tell McCaffery a lot with regard to how his team might perform once conference play rolls around.
ILLINOIS: Although they won 20 games, it was something of a down year for the Fighting Illini in 2013-14, at least with regard to offensive production, the team averaging only 64.2 ppg behind typical shooting efforts of 41.1 percent overall and 31.7 percent from beyond the arc. Illinois had just two players who averaged double figures in the scoring column, but only one of them will suit up this season. Rayvonte Rice (15.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.7 spg) can do nearly everything well, except shoot from long range (46-of-156, .295), and he should be the focal point of coach John Groce's game plan over the next several months. Tracy Abrams (10.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg) was expected to join his teammate in an effort to help the Illini fight their way up the Big Ten ladder, but he suffered a tear in the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in a preseason workout, ending his campaign before it began. He will redshirt this season and be back for his final year in 2015-16. Others to keep an eye on include 6-foot-11 senior Nnanna Egwu (6.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.1 bpg) and 6-foot-7 freshman Leron Black. Groce also brought in some players from other schools, notably Ahmad Starks (Oregon State) and Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall) to help round out the roster. The Illini open the season with four relatively easy home games, but a clash with either Baylor or Memphis on Thanksgiving weekend won't be easy, nor will tests versus Villanova, Oregon and Missouri.
MINNESOTA: Richard Pitino's first season in Minneapolis was certainly an exciting one, as the Golden Gophers won 25 games (second-most in school history) en route to the NIT Championship. The Golden Gophers closed out the 2013-14 campaign by winning five straight and seven of their final eight games, and Pitino is fortunate to have two of the team's three double-digit scorers back for another go. Seniors Andre Hollins (13.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.4 apg) and DeAndre Mathieu (12.0 ppg, 4.2 apg) will be the focal points of the offense, while Maurice Walker (7.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg), who needs to be healthy, and returning starter Elliott Eliason (5.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.9 bpg) hope to raise their overall level of play enough to be significant factors. Junior Joey King is another guy bigger things are expected from after last season, his first with the Gophers after transferring in from Drake, when he averaged 7.1 points and 2.7 rebounds per game. Additionally, Pitino hopes he has found some diamonds in the rough, as freshman Nate Mason is versatile enough to play both guards positions, while fellow rookies Josh Martin and Gaston Diedhiou hope to make an impact in the frontcourt sooner rather than later. The Gophers open the season against Pitino's dad, Rick, and the Louisville Cardinals, and the rest of the non-conference slate features tough games against St. John's, either Gonzaga or Georgia, and Wake Forest.
INDIANA: Whether his supporters want to admit it or not, Tom Crean's seat in Bloomington is getting warmer by the minute. A year after he led the Hoosiers to the Big Ten's regular-season title, Crean's crew underachieved in 2013-14 by going just 17-15, which included a 7-11 league ledger. Add to that the recent rash of off-the-court transgressions by some of his players, including the season-opening suspensions levied against three (sophomores Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson for failing drug tests, and freshman Emmitt Holt for his role in a vehicle accident that seriously injured teammate Devin Davis), and the cries for his ouster have become almost deafening. That said, all will be forgiven, for the most part, if the Hoosiers somehow find a way to challenge for the Big Ten title and make a solid postseason run. With former standouts Will Sheehy (11.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and Noah Vonleh (11.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg) now gone, the game plan isn't all that clear on how to go about doing that, but you can bet if Yogi Ferrell (17.3 ppg, 3.9 apg) has his way, it'll happen. Ferrell is one of the top offensive players in the conference, and he will be looking to up the ante even more after leading the team in both scoring and assists last season. A glaring lack of talent in the frontcourt could hurt their chances, but Crean is hopeful that guys like 6-foot-7 sophomore Troy Williams (7.3 ppg, 4.4 rgp), 6-foot-8 junior Hanner Mosquera-Perea (2.8 ppg, 2.1 rpg) come into their own quickly, while support on the outside could come from Illinois State transfer Nick Zeisloft or even freshmen James Blackmon, Jr. and Robert Johnson. IU's toughest early-season game are against SMU, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Butler and Georgetown, and the team will open Big Ten play against three of this year's favorites -- Nebraska, Michigan State, Ohio State.
PENN STATE: The Nittany Lions have long been an afterthought in the Big Ten, at least with regard to their efforts in men's basketball. Last season was no exception, as Patrick Chamber's club finished 16-18 overall, and lost twice as many conference games as it won (6-12). This despite having one of the best all-around players in the league in Tim Frazier (14.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 5.4 apg). The former star guard is gone now, leaving the team to his backcourt mate, D.J. Newbill. A solid player at both ends of the court, Newbill (17.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg) could see his averages climb even higher now that he is the team's primary option, but for Penn State to have any shot at even being respectable, help will need to come from some unlikely sources. Brandon Taylor (9.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg), Ross Travis (8.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg), John Johnson (6.7 ppg) and Donovon Jack (6.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 53 blocks) will surely need to elevate their respective games, and redshirt freshman Julian Moore could become a fan favorite with his hustle and athleticism. Even if the Lions have trouble scoring beyond what Newbill will surely get, tightening the reins on defense is crucial after the team allowed (70.2 ppg) nearly the same number of points as it scored (70.9 ppg) last season. While the non-conference part of PSU's 2014-15 schedule doesn't appear to be all that daunting, the fact that the team figures to lose more games than it wins means almost every game is a tough one.
PURDUE: Another guy whose time could be running out, Matt Painter has seen his Boilermakers steadily lose ground recently, the team winning fewer games each season over the past five years. The 2013-14 campaign was a rough one, particularly late when Purdue lost seven straight to close things out. In fact, the Boilermakers dropped 12 of their final 14 games to wind up at 15-17 overall and just 5-13 in conference. The loss of their top two scorers and assist men (brothers Terone and Ronnie Johnson) leaves many questions. Junior center A.J. Hammons is the one Painter will likely make the focal point of his game plan most nights, although the 7-footer will need to produce more than the 10.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game he did a season ago if he is going to take the next step toward possible superstardom. He is already a defensive force, having logged 96 blocks as a sophomore. Others expected to lend a hand include Kendall Stephens (8.0 ppg, team-best 64 3-pointers) and Rapheal Davis (6.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg), while Painter does his best to utilize the talents of sophomore Bryson Scott (6.2 ppg) or perhaps freshman P.J. Thompson to fill the void left by the defection of point guard Ronnie Johnson. Purdue's primary weakness last season was on defense, as foes generated nearly 72 ppg, something the Boilermakers need to address rather quickly as they seek an identity at the other end.
NORTHWESTERN: The Wildcats were as inept on offense as almost any team in the country last season, putting up a mere 59.5 ppg behind typical shooting efforts of .396 overall and .306 from beyond the arc. Fortunately, they played well enough at the defensive end (63.4 ppg) to allow them to win 14 games, six of which came in conference. Coach Chris Collins has his work cut out for him once again as the loss of his best player, Drew Crawford (15.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.2 apg), leaves a gaping hole on the roster. Backcourt mates JerShon Cobb (12.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Tre Demps (11.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.2 apg) will help soften the blow, as will 7-foot center Alex Olah (9.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.8 bpg). The wild card in whether NU resides near the Big Ten cellar once again or climbs a few rungs higher could be 6-foot-7 freshman Vic Law, a gifted athlete who surprised many by choosing to stay close to home and play for the Wildcats. Rebounding was a huge problem for Collins' club last season, as it was outworked on the boards by 4.5 rpg, so expect that to be an area the team focuses on from the outset. Northwestern should be able to ease into the season as it doesn't face a truly solid opponent until potentially facing back-to-back ACC foes in Virginia Tech (Cancun Challenge) and Georgia Tech.
RUTGERS: Like Maryland, Rutgers has also found a new home in the Big Ten after having previously resided in the Big East and American Athletic Conferences. The Scarlet Knights finished their first and only season as a member of the AAC with a 12-21 overall record, 5-13 against league foes, and coach Eddie Jordan is hoping his team's new digs will offer a sense of stability and help in the ultra-competitive recruiting wars. The return of Myles Mack (14.9 ppg, 4.3 apg) and Kadeem Jack (14.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg), last season's top two scorers, should provide some continuity, but when you consider the Scarlet Knights were trounced by Louisville (92-31) in the AAC Tournament to end their season, and time in the conference, additional support will certainly be needed. Jordan will turn to sophomore Junior Etou (5.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg), and hopefully former Iowa State Cyclone Kerwin Okoro and junior college transfer Bishop Daniels will make their presence felt early on. Rutgers was terrible on defense last season, yielding 76.2 ppg as foes drained 37.1 percent of their 3-point tries, an area the Knights must address if they're going to make their inaugural campaign in the Big Ten one that has at least a couple of positive storylines.