Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: The Big Ten is without question one of the top conferences in the country, sporting first-class institutions, Hall-of-Fame worthy coaches, and undeniable talent across all 12 teams that presently call the league home.
Year-in and year-out, the Big Ten produces its share of notable moments, and it sends more than a handful of teams to the postseason, each with dreams of becoming the next to represent the conference with honor on the way to a possible national championship.
The Big Ten had eight teams go to the postseason in 2013, seven of which were invited to the NCAA Tournament, and another that reached the NIT Final. Michigan played for the NCAA championship, Ohio State made it to the Elite Eight, and both Indiana and Michigan State found their way to the Sweet 16. All things considered, the league rivals the best the nation has to offer in terms of basketball excellence, and while the level of success achieved by last season's clubs may not be duplicated, the 2013-14 campaign promises to be another in a long line of impressive offerings by the Big Ten's best.
At first glance, Michigan State appears to be the class of the conference, but Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin aren't far off the pace, and you can be sure each will be taken to task by the others once conference play rolls around. Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota make up the best of the rest, while Northwestern, Penn State and Nebraska bring up the rear, although each has the ability to pull off an upset if the teams in the upper crust aren't careful.
Tom Izzo's Spartans are likely to be the team that garners a possible No. 1 seed in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, but it wouldn't be surprising to see the Big Ten send a slew of favorable seeds to the Big Dance once again.
PREDICTED CHAMPION: Michigan State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Michigan State, 2. Michigan, 3. Ohio State, 4. Wisconsin, 5. Indiana, 6. Iowa, 7. Illinois, 8. Purdue, 9. Minnesota, 10. Northwestern, 11. Penn State, 12. Nebraska
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
MICHIGAN STATE: Having won seven Big Ten titles and been to six Final Fours since Izzo took the reins, the Spartans are once again poised for greatness as they return the majority of last season's team that reached the Sweet 16. Led by guard Keith Appling (13.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.3 apg), Michigan State has its top three scorers back as backcourt mate Gary Harris (12.9 ppg, .411 3-point) and forward Adreian Payne (10.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 46 blocks) make up the core of what Spartans fans hope is another lengthy run in the month of March. MSU not only beats its opponents by scoring in droves, but by also corralling the majority of loose balls and playing some stifling defense. Last season, foes averaged just 59.1 ppg in hitting fewer than 40 percent of their field goal attempts, while also losing the rebounding battle by 7.5 caroms per contest. The key will be staying healthy and finding a suitable replacement for the one guy the team doesn't have back, former center Derrick Nix (9.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg). Michigan State is the unanimous choice to win the Big Ten this season, and no recruit who has made it to his senior year under Izzo hasn't played in a Final Four. Right now, it appears as if that trend has a very good chance of continuing.
MICHIGAN: John Beilein's Wolverines excelled in 2012-13, winning 31 games and coming up just short of the promised land when they lost to Louisville, 82-76, in the NCAA Championship Game. The team was stacked at multiple positions, but the loss of backcourt standouts Trey Burke (18.6 ppg, 6.7 apg) and Tim Hardaway, Jr. (14.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg) means guys like Glen Robinson III (11.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg), Nik Stauskas (11.0 ppg, .440 3-point FG percentage) and Mitch McGary (7.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg) are going to be thrust into the limelight and asked to lead by example this season. Beilein has brought in a couple of supremely talented newcomers in point guard Derrick Walton, Jr. (MI Gatorade Player of the Year) and shooting guard Zak Irvin (Indiana's Mr. Basketball) to help. Michigan was one of the better shooting teams (.484, .385 3-point) in the Big Ten last season, and it played well at the defensive end too, and that could be the key to another successful campaign as the club's top scorers take some time to get assimilated into the roles vacated by its former stars.
OHIO STATE: Thad Matta seemingly has the Buckeyes competing for the top spot in the Big Ten every year, but losing the league's leading scorer means someone else will have to be the "man" for this season's club to have a shot at keeping pace. Deshaun Thomas (19.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg) did it all for Ohio State in 2012-13, but the cupboard isn't completely bare in Columbus as Aaron Craft is one of the top guards in the conference, particularly at the defensive end, but he will need to up the ante this time around after averaging 10.0 ppg last season as a junior. Craft (172 assists) thrives on getting his teammates involved in the action, and it will be up to guys like Lenzelle Smith, Jr. (9.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and perhaps even Shannon Scott (4.9 ppg, 3.8 apg) to elevate their respective games in an attempt to help the Buckeyes achieve their goals. In the middle, it's time for the underachieving Amir Williams to step up, but while few question his natural ability, averages of only 3.5 points and 3.9 rebounds in 16.5 minutes per game last season suggest a lack of intensity. Sam Thompson (7.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg) is a solid role player, and Matta recruited some talented players who would need to come into form rather early for the Buckeyes to remain competitive in the race for the Big Ten title.
WISCONSIN: Relying on the team-first concept over the exploits of individual stars, Wisconsin consistently ranks as one of the top teams in the country, and for good reason. Coach Bo Ryan's club lacks identifiable star power, instead focusing on the collective effort of the slew of solid players. That's not to say there aren't guys with skill who proudly sport the Wisconsin name on their chest, but it's just not that way they prefer to conduct their business. The Badgers didn't have a player average more than Ben Brust's 11.1 ppg last season, but they won 23 games and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Yielding a mere 55.9 ppg on fewer than 40 percent field goal efficiency and 30 percent from beyond the arc, UW was a defensive juggernaut that frustrated a host of foes, including Big Ten rivals Indiana (twice), Michigan (twice) and Ohio State. The loss of Jared Berggren (11.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 2.1 bpg) and Ryan Evans (10.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg) leaves room in the middle, with the expectation that a guy like Sam Dekker (9.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg) could flourish, and for 7-foot junior Frank Kaminsky to really take off after putting up just 4.2 points and 1.8 rebounds per game in limited duty last season. Brust highlights the backcourt, and should get help from Josh Gasser who missed last season with a knee injury. Also figuring in the mix will be Traevon Jackson (6.9 ppg, team-highs of 99 assists and 35 steals).
INDIANA: The Hoosiers lost a ton from last season's squad that went 29-7, won the Big Ten title, and reached the regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament. Gone are former standouts Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls, and with them 66 percent of the team's scoring (78.6 ppg) and 60 percent of its rebounding (38.6 rpg). Senior forward Will Sheehy (9.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg) is Indiana's top returning scorer, and while he lacks the star power Indiana has had in the past, perhaps a guy like Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell can grab the mantle after turning in a freshman campaign in which he averaged 7.6 ppg while dishing out 4.1 apg. Coach Tom Crean did a nice job restocking the shelves, as the incoming class of freshmen are arguably the best in the conference. But with most rookies, it will take some time for them to get acclimated to the college game, particularly at the level the Hoosiers are used to playing. In the meantime, expect Indiana to ride Ferrell and Sheehy for all their worth, and hope that some unheralded guys rise to the occasion, particularly from long range and on the glass, areas in which the team really shined a season ago.
IOWA: The fourth year of coach Fran McCaffery's tenure could be the one that Hawkeyes fans have been waiting for, as their beloved squad appears to be on the verge of competing for a shot at the Big Ten title. Iowa returns the bulk of last season's team that went 25-13 and reached the NIT Championship Game, including senior Roy Devyn Marble. Expected to be the catalyst for a club that should be balanced and offer plenty of depth, Marble averaged 15.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game last season. Help will come in the form of junior forward Aaron White (12.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and sophomore guard Mike Gesell (8.7 ppg, 2.6 apg). Big things are also expected of Wisconsin transfer Jared Uthoff and 7-foot-1 sophomore Adam Woodbury (4.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg), the former of whom hasn't played in two years after redshirting and then sitting out last season per NCAA regulations. Iowa hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2006, but the prevailing thought is McCaffery has his best team yet, so it shouldn't surprise anyone if the Hawkeyes were able to end the drought.
ILLINOIS: The Fighting Illini put forth a solid season in John Groce's inaugural campaign, going 23-13 and winning a game in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, for them to come close to achieving that kind of success this season, suitable replacements must be found for former standouts Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, who combined for 28.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game in 2012-13. Tracy Abrams (10.6 ppg, 3.4 apg) is the team's top returning scorer, and he also serves as its primary playmaker. It will be up to guys like Joseph Bertrand (7.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and Nnanna Egwu (6.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 49 blocks) to elevate their respective games, and the influx of talented newcomers could help as well, although the recent NCAA denial of the hardship waiver submitted by Oregon State transfer Ahmad Starks means he will have to sit out this season. Transfers Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey both gained valuable experience from their previous stints at Missouri Valley Conference squads Illinois State and Drake, respectively, and they can expect to see significant playing time right away. The Illini are young, and it will be interesting to see how quickly they come together in the second year of Groce's tenure.
PURDUE: Since 2010, the win totals have been going south for coach Matt Painter's squad, culminating in last season's 16-18 record, which relegated it to the College Basketball Invitational where it fell to Santa Clara in the second round. There is talent on this year's club, notably the Johnson brothers, Terone and Ronnie, the former of whom averaged 13.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.9 apg last season. Ronnie scored 10.3 ppg and handed out 4.1 apg, but as the team's point guard he needs to play smarter and improve his shooting (.385 FG percentage, .167 3-point percentage). Sophomore A.J. Hammons (10.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg) will man the middle, and a guy like Cornel transfer Errick Peck should figure in the frontcourt rotation after putting up 9.7 points and 4.8 rebounds per game in his final year with the Big Red. Others to keep an eye on include Seattle transfer Sterling Carter and Fort Wayne native Bryson Scott, a star during his high school days who comes in as one of the more highly-touted backcourt performers in the country. For Purdue to get back over the 20-win mark this season, better defensive play will be paramount after it ranked 11th in the Big Ten in yielding 65.1 ppg a season ago.
MINNESOTA: The final year of Tubby Smith's tenure in Minneapolis started off like gangbusters, as the Golden Gophers won 15 of their first 16 games and were ranked as high as eighth in the country. But from there, the wheels came off and the team finished 21-13 and was bounced in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. It was determined that a change was needed, so in comes Richard Pitino, the 30-year-old son of legendary coach Rick Pitino. The younger Pitino served just one season as FIU's head coach, leading the Golden Panthers to an 18-14 record and a school-record 11 wins in Sun Belt Conference play. The fresh-faced mentor inherits a Minnesota squad that lost some key frontcourt performers in Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams, but welcomes back Andre and Austin Hollins, the backcourt duo combining for 25.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.0 assists per outing last season. There are major question marks in the paint, but if guys like Elliott Eliason, Mo Walker or Charles Buggs can stay healthy and put in all together, UM could surprise some folks. The reality however, is that the Gophers lack the overall talent and depth needed to make significant noise in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten, and that it will take a year or two for Pitino to effectively wield his magic.
NORTHWESTERN: Another team choosing to head in a new direction, the Wildcats said goodbye to long-time leader Bill Carmody and brought in the son of another named head coach in Chris Collins. The offspring of retired NBA coach Doug Collins, the former Duke assistant is embarking on his first head coaching gig, and like with several former Mike Krzyzewski underlings, expectations are sky high in Evanston as he attempts to lead the 'Cats back to respectability. Northwestern went just 13-19 last season, but the return of senior guard Drew Crawford (13.55 ppg, 4.6 rpg) offers Collins at least one player on which he will be able to rely, provided he is 100 percent after undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery last December. Talented junior JerShon Cobb is back after missing all of last season due to academics, and point guard Dave Sobolewski (9.8 ppg, 4.0 apg) will also play a valuable role. The frontcourt is where the Wildcats could struggle, although sophomore Alex Olah showed flashes as a rookie. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither will the reclamation project that is NU basketball. Patience will need to be exhibited by the administration and fan base, but this could very well be the start of something really good for a team that continues its quest for its first-ever NCAA Tournament bid.
PENN STATE: With two of the better guards in the conference calling Happy Valley home, the Nittany Lions could climb a few rungs up the Big Ten ladder this season. However, without much of an inside presence, third-year head coach Pat Chambers, if being honest, knows his team will need to overachieve for that to happen. Veteran Tim Frazier (16.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.8 apg) is a tremendous talent, but he played in only four games before suffering a season- ending Achilles injury in 2012-13. His return to the lineup is certainly welcomed for a team that went just 10-21 last season and has won a total of six Big Ten bouts over the last two years. Joining Frazier in the Penn State backcourt is junior D.J. Newbill, who stepped up admirably with his battery mate on the sidelines last season, averaging 16.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per contest. Chambers will rely on steady junior Ross Travis (7.4 rpg) to help clean the glass, but there isn't much talent or depth up front, at least not at first glance, which could provide an opportunity for freshmen Payton Banks and Julian Moore to gain some valuable playing time. When the dust settles, the Lions will likely finish below .500 once again, but it won't be for a lack of effort.
NEBRASKA: It's been 15 years since the Cornhuskers last made an NCAA Tournament appearance, and it's likely that dubious streak is going to continue as there is a glaring lack of talent and depth on this season's club. Coach Tim Miles has inspired his team to leave it all out on the court, but that's simply not good enough in a conference that boasts some of the very best teams in the country. Offensive production has been Nebraska's primary issue of late, as it averaged just 56.3 ppg last season on only 9.8 apg, the latter figure ranking as one of the worst in the nation. A near complete overhaul was needed and with that, roughly a half dozen new faces will dot the roster this season, led by 6-foot-10 Florida transfer Walter Pitchford and 6- foot-8 juco transfer Leslee Smith. In the backcourt, the expectation is that senior Ray Gallegos (12.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg, Big Ten-high 271 3-point attempts) will lead by example, sophomore Shavon Shields (8.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg) will continue his development, and that Texas Tech transfer Terran Petteway and New Zealand import Tai Webster can pay immediate dividends. Overall, NU will be hard-pressed to improve upon last season's 15 wins, but the hope among Husker backers is that Miles has a plan and their beloved squad is only another year or two away from turning the corner.