Big 10 Conference
The talk of the Big 10 is the so-called "Thad Five" which Thad Matta is bringing to Ohio State next year. The set of 4 high schoolers and a Juco transfer include a remarkable three McDonald's All-Americans, led by the best player in the nation - Greg Oden, and Daequan Cook. Only on a team like this could All-American Mike Conley go under the radar. Throw in David Lighty (Scouts: 9 SF, Rivals: 21) and Juco star Othello Hunter, and Ohio State has a remarkable pool of talent. Before Buckeye fans start figuring out where to place their Final Four banner, however, it's important to keep in mind that Ohio State is also decimated by graduations. Terence Dials, Je'Kel Foster, J.J. Sullinger and Matt Sylvester all graduate. So, if not for the outstanding recruiting class, Ohio State would be expected to have a precipitous drop out of the Top 25 next year. Instead, the team remains a question mark. They do return Ron Lewis and Jamar Butler (both double-digit scorers this past year), so they won't have an entirely freshman starting lineup. Basically, this team could finish almost anywhere in the Top 25 without being too much of a surprise. Although Thad Matta is too good of a coach for this team to not be a tough beat next year.
A top challenger to Ohio State in the Big 10 should be defending Big 10 Tournament champion, Iowa. The Hawkeyes lose several seniors, including Greg Brunner and Jeff Horner, but still return key pieces like Adam Haluska (14 ppg, 5 rpg). They also bring in two solid Juco players in Justin Johnson and Cyrus Tate who should fill in gaps in the lineup. Plus, the stinging defeat to Northwestern State in the 2006 NCAA Tournament should provide plenty of motivation for a Hawkeye team that will be fired up next year. They might not have as much talent as other teams, however, like Wisconsin. The Badgers got good news when Alando Tucker announced that he'd bring his 19 points per game back for one more year. The Badgers lose only one senior, in Ray Nixon, who was only a role player. Meanwhile, Wisconsin gets even better with an excellent recruiting class of Jason Bohannon (Scouts: 8 PG, Rivals: 22 PG), J.P. Gavinski (Scouts: 25 C, Rivals: 13 C) and Trevon Hughes (Scouts: 11 PG, Rivals: 16 PG). Expect Wisconsin to be vastly improved next year.
A final likely challenger for the Big 10 title will be Michigan, as the Wolverines return a lot of experienced talent. Their starting lineup will feature atleast three seniors next year - double-digit scorers Dion Harris, Courtney Sims and Lester Abram. The Wolverines also get a solid recruiting class, highlighted by DeShawn Sims (Scouts: 6 SF, Rivals: 12 SF). That said, while all of the aforementioned teams have good talent and coaching, none of them have the potential upside of the Buckeyes, who have to be the preseason favorites:
1. Ohio State - This team reminds a lot of people of the 2003 Orangemen. Of course, they could also turn out to be the 2006 Jayhawks, so nothing is assured for a team so young. This team will be successful if Greg Oden fulfills his promise and dominates inside. The only highlights we have of him are against high school competition, but he sure put on quite a show.
2. Wisconsin - The Badgers will be a very solid, experienced team. They don't have the upside of the Buckeyes, but have to be considered the first team in line should the Buckeyes implode due to a busted Thad Five.
3. Michigan - Tommy Amaker has struggled to fulfill the potential that Michigan saw in him when they signed him away from Coach K, but he'll get a good chance to redeem himself next year. His Wolverines will have the talent to make a run in the NCAA tournament if they play their cards right.
4. Indiana - Kelvin Sampsom might be the answer in Indiana, or he could be the next Mike Davis. Only time will tell. What is known is that Sampson will have a lot of talent to work with, especially if he can keep D.J. White and Robert Vaden from fleeing the scene with Mike Davis.
5. Iowa - The Hawkeyes have several starters left from this past year's team, but it's hard to see them finding anyone to replace Brunner, Horner and Erek Hansen. Expect the team to take a step back next year.
6. Michigan State - Maurice Ager and Paul Davis will be tough losses for Tom Izzo to bear - not to mention the size of Matt Trannon on the blocks. However, the Spartans have a good shot at getting another year out of Shannon Brown and bring in another solid recruiting class. You can't expect Tom Izzo to struggle too bad, he's just too good of a coach.
7. Illinois - Bruce Weber needs to prove that he can coach without Bill Self's players, and he'll get a good chance next year. It was clear in 2006 that the Illini had trouble beating anyone when Dee Brown wasn't playing well, and this team will be rough shape without him or James Augustine next year. Unless Bruce Weber is a better coach than BasketballPredictions thinks, the Illini will struggle to return to the NCAA Tournament in 2007.
8. Northwestern - There is a big gap between the top seven teams and the bottom four teams in the Big 10, and each of the four teams at the bottom loses a lot of its top players on top of it all. So it's pretty much a crap shoot at the bottom, and don't expect any of these final four teams to make an appearance in the NCAA tournament.
9. Penn State - Not hit quite as badly by graduation as some of the other teams at the bottom of the Big 10, but there's no reason to believe that they have the talent to compete near the top.
10. Purdue - They can't sit in last place all the time. At some point the post-Gene Keady era will have to improve.
11. Minnesota - Just way too many graduations. The entire core of a team will be gone that wasn't too great in the first place. Could be a long year for the Gophers.