Big Ten Conference
The most talented team in the Big Ten next year will probably be the same as the most talent this past year: Ohio State. Oden will go pro, and there's a good chance Conley will go also. And Ron Lewis and Ivan Harris are out of eligibility. But Daequan Cook and Jamar Butler wil be back. And Othello Hunter will be a real force on the inside with the increased playing time he should expect. David Lighty should also develop into an elite player, and that's before we get to the Top Ten recruiting class that Thad Matta has brought in yet again. Expect this team to still have an outstanding starting five even if Conley leaves. Don't, however, expect them to be as deep. The new freshman class won't be quite as good as last year's. They will have less overall experience. And not only will Oden be gone, but Conley was probably more important to this team than Oden was (even though he got approximately 1/1,000,000th the hype). So, don't expect another trip to the Finals. But this team has as good of a shot as anyone at winning the Big Ten.
Looking at the rest of this conference, there's no question that the Big 10 will be vastly improved. Many of the top players will return. No conference had a better crop of recruiting classes. And a slew of new, top-tier coaches have shown up to pull up the weakest links. One team that should be elite will be Indiana, on the back of their Top Ten recruiting class. DJ White should be back, along with Armon Bassett, AJ Ratliff and others. The real key will probably be Eric Gordon, who is first Indiana's greatest coup in years. Remember, the best local talent had escaped Indiana over the last five years, going all the way back to Sean May.
Meanwhile, declarations of Wisconsin's death are definitely premature. They lose the Big Ten player of the year, but I expect the team to be improved at every other position. Bo Ryan has built a very deep program, and has a slew of replacements. Kam Taylor will be easily replaced by increased playing time for Trevon Hughes and future-star Jason Bohannon. If Brian Butch can stay healthy he'll be an offensive force, to complement the defensive force of Greg Stiemsma. They don't have a sexy recruiting class, but Bo Ryan never gets sexy recruiting classes. As usual, expect no freshmen starters, but expect some of them to contribute off the bench. If Marcus Landry can fill some of the Alando Tucker role, this team could return to the Top 25. Hard to see them missing the whole Tournament.
A vastly improved team will be Michigan State. With everybody returning, this will again be one of the most ferocious defensive and rebounding teams. Between Goran Suton, Marquise Gray, Drew Naymick and Idong Ibok, that's a lot of fouls to throw around. Nobody outmuscles those guys. The only reason they struggled at times this past year was because their offense was completely nonexistent outside of Drew Neitzel. When he was on, they beat Wisconsin and almost took out North Carolina on a neutral floor. When he was off, they would go and score 50 points. Either Raymar Morgan, Travis Walton or Maurice Joseph has to emerge as Neitzel's sidekick - the guy who can take over games when Neitzel is on the bench or having a bad night. The Spartans also bring in two elite guards in a Top Ten recruiting class (PG Kalin Lucas and SG Chris Allen), so there will be even more options for points. If they can put together even an average offense, this team could win the whole Big Ten.
Another improved team will be Michigan, which adds a Top Ten recruiting class (I know it feels like half of the conference has one of those) and an excellent new coach in John Beilein. They lose their top four scorers, but it's not like those guys went to a Tournament anyway. Michigan will still have a lot of undeveloped talent - probably as much as West Virginia ever had. Beilein is good at getting more out of less, so he should have an excellent shot at getting this team back to its first Tournament since 1998 (that's not a typo).
The final big story in the Big Ten is Minnesota, under new coach Tubby Smith. I've read all about how hard Minnesota wooed Smith, but I still don't understand how they got him. He is one of the best coaches in the nation and will make this school better immediately. The state of Minnesota produces a lot of high school talent, but they just don't stay in state. In 2007 the three most talented recruits got stolen by Wisconsin, Marquette and Kansas. In the 2008 class, the two most talented recruits have already orally committed to Wisconsin. If Tubby can start to steal some of these kids back, and even put some kind of a fence around the state, Minnesota can quickly return to being a Big Ten power. Throw in all five starters returning and maybe a transfer or two and this team will be vastly improved next year alone. Hoping for a Tournament bid next year might be a bit too much, but I think it's a reasonable expectation for Tubby's second season.
Here's how I see the whole conference:
1. Ohio State - Should have the most explosive talent, even if Conley goes pro.
2. Michigan State - Last year's Round of 32 appearance represents a down year for Tom Izzo. With most key players returning and a lot of good recruits, they should be able to find an elite scorer or two to complement Neitzel.
3. Indiana - Kelvin Sampson always gets great recruits, and Eric Gordon might be the best he's ever gotten. This team might even start the season ranked in the Top Ten nationally.
4. Wisconsin - Can't move these guys back any further. Will still be a deep and well-coached team.
5. Michigan - Lose a lot of starters, but bring in an excellent set of recruits and a better coach. They've had Tournament-level talent for years, and Beilein should be able to put all the pieces together.
6. Illinois - Bruce Weber has been dogged for being unable to get elite recruits, and losing Eric Gordon has been the worst of all. Lost in the fuss over that, Illinois does bring in several other blue-chippers. This team will still have an excellent shot at the Tournament.
7. Purdue - An improving program, but this team was Carl Landry And The Others this past year. Even with an amazing recruiting class, it's hard to see this team doing any better than they did last year.
8. Minnesota - All five starters returning and Tubby Smith as the new coach? Gopher fans should be excited for the first time in years.
9. Iowa - Adam Haluska will be really hard to replace, but Tyler Smith had a chance to be First Team All-Big Ten if he can live up to expectations.
10. Penn State - This team was better than their record last year. And most of their key parts return. But with the conference being so improved all over you can be a better team and not move up in the standings at all.
11. Northwestern - They just don't have enough athletic talent. Tim Doyle was a one-of-a-kind player that will be impossible to replace. The only hope for the Wildcats will be if Kevin Coble can become an elite scorer in the post.