Big Ten Conference
I spent a lot of time wondering this season why there is so much hate for the Big Ten nationally. It wasn't just that just about every analyst everywhere killed the conference and acted as if it was a step below the other major conferences (even though it ended up second in the RPI and the top rated conference in Sagarin), but it was as if they didn't even watch Big Ten games. One example I talked about was watching analysts butcher the preview between Florida State and Wisconsin in the Tournament, where they all analyzed it as a match-up between Florida State's offense and Wisconsin's defense, and wondered at halftime how Wisconsin's poor offense could come back from a large deficit. In reality, Wisconsin's offense was much better than their defense, and their offense was actually one of the most efficient in the nation. They struggled this year because their defense was the worst it has been in years, and their rebounding was also weaker than usual. To butcher the analysis that badly means that you just haven't watched these teams play, or you have no idea how to analyze a basketball team. I understand why some casual fans would rather see 90-88 scores than slow-paced, fundamental basketball. But I can't fathom how supposed "experts" could fall into the same trap.
Any discussion of the conference has to start, of course, with Michigan State. They were just so deep and solid in every aspect of the game. Goran Suton is going to be a really tough loss with everything he brought to the table in terms of leadership and toughness, and Travis Walton was another great leader as a Senior. Marquise Gray and Idong Ibok also leave, meaning that Michigan State will be thin in terms of experienced big men. But have no fear, Spartans fans, as Tom Izzo has two highly rated big men coming in next season, Derrick Nix and Garrick Sherman (rated the 8th and 19th best centers in the nation by Scout.com). Kalin Lucas should be the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, and Korie Lucious really started to show signs of something special late in his Freshman year as well. Durrell Summers and Chris Allen will get a lot of time in the back court as well. Raymar Morgan and Draymond Green will start in the front court. Most likely they'll start three guards, but things could change if somebody steps up to fill the spot of a third big man. You have to imagine that Michigan State will take a small step backwards next year, but they'll contend for another Big Ten title.
The other elite team in the Big Ten last season was Purdue. They really struggled at times with preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Robbie Hummel struggling with a back injury. I would think that he should be able to get that fixed for next season, but having him healthy and at his best is so important for this team. The reason they played so well without him was because JaJuan Johnson took the leap and became a truly dominant inside player. He is just so great on the offensive boards. Purdue doesn't lose any starters to graduation, although they do lose two role players (Nemanja Calasan and Marcus Green). Their top recruits are D. J. Byrd (Rivals: 97, Scout: 30 SF) and Jeff Robinson (Scout: 33 PF). Expect Byrd to get more playing time as a Freshman, though as a shooting guard, despite being listed as a small forward in high school.
Illinois had a surprisingly good season, tying Purdue for second place in the Big Ten regular season standings. It was really tough for them to have the season effectively end on an injury to Chester Frazier. Frazier really was the key for this team, and he'll be a tough loss next season. Trent Meacham and Calvin Brock also graduate. The key to their success next season will be Demetri McCamey and Alex Legion. We will see how Legion develops in his first full season, but McCamey really has to make the leap after having a stellar Freshman season but seemingly plateauing in his Sophomore season. One interesting change is recruiting, where Bruce Weber has constantly had the label of a guy who is an excellent in-game coach who can't recruit. Not this year, as he brings in a class rated in the Top 15 by both Scout.com and Rivals.com. The team really struggled without Frazier this past season, but they should have enough added weapons to return to the Tournament next year without him.
The aforementioned Wisconsin team loses two starters to graduation: Marcus Landry and Joe Krabbenhoft. Krabbenhoft is a really tough loss because he was one of the great "glue" guys in the nation who just did all of the little things. Landry will also be a tough loss since he was pretty much their only inside offense. Jon Leuer could fill some of that gap if he can get a little bit bigger and develop more of an inside presence. Keaton Nankivil is a very good shooter for a big man, but he hasn't shown much of an inside game yet. It's possible that redshirt Freshman Jared Berggren or recruit Mike Bruesewitz could fill that gap as well. If Wisconsin can find that inside presence and improve their inside rebounding and defense then they'll be a very dangerous team again, because their back court will be great. Trevon Huges, Jason Bohannon, Jordan Taylor and Robert Wilson are all back.
Ohio State got a lot of good news when Evan Turner said that he'd return for next season. B.J. Mullens is going pro, but he's a much easier loss to swallow. I understand that Mullens is a raw physical talent with a lot of potential, but he still has a lot of developing to do to even be an elite college player. Evan Turner is already one of the best players in the Big Ten, and he can carry this team on his back. Everybody else will return, including William Buford and P.J. Hill in the back court, swing men David Lighty and Jon Diebler, and big man Dallas Lauderdale. They don't have any big recruits coming in, but Ohio State should still be better just because of the fact that all of their key cogs are back.
Penn State and Northwestern were both very pleasant surprises this past season. Penn State was led by the superb play of Talor Battle, and he'll be back. But Jamelle Cornley's inside presence was so important, and he'll be a very tough loss. Stanley Pringle was the other Senior starter. Andrew Jones is going to have to be even better on the inside to try to replace Cornley, and Jeff Brooks will get more time as well. They don't have any recruits coming in who are expected to be immediate impact players, so Penn State might take a little bit of a step backwards, but they are certainly moving in the right direction as a program. Northwestern, on the other hand, only loses Craig Moore to graduation. Kevin Coble will have one last shot to take Northwestern to their first ever Tournament appearance. A key will probably be Kyle Rowley, and if he can stay on the court long enough to provide a larger presence.
Michigan and Minnesota should both be improved, with every key player returning for both teams. Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims both insist that they're staying for another year, and they should also get a lot of production from a solid recruiting class. Minnesota might really be dangerous as they bring in another Top 15 recruiting class to go along with a team that actually spent much of last season in the Top 25 before faltering late. Tubby Smith has been bringing in a lot of great talent, and now they're starting to become experienced as well.
One final team to discuss briefly is Indiana. I have to say that I absolutely loved the great way that the Indiana fans supported their team. They knew that Tom Crean is going to bring this team back soon, and they were willing to be positive with a bunch of kids who clearly were not capable of competing in the Big Ten. I watched the one game that they won in conference, over Iowa. When they hit their big shots late in the game you would have thought that they just clinched the conference title the way the crowd was going nuts. With a Top 15 recruiting class coming in, the question is actually whether some of the starters from this past year's team will still get a lot of playing time next season. Two players from the starting lineup who should start again next season are Devan Dumes and Tom Pritchad. Matt Roth also has potential as a three-point specialist. But expect the freshman class to be a big part of this team next season. It will probably be another couple of years before they can compete at the top of the Big Ten, but nobody has any questions about whether they'll be far better next season.
Here's how I see the conference playing out next season:
1. Purdue - I think this team will develop a lot after all of the struggles they have this past season. They are no longer the surprise Freshmen and Sophomores that took the conference by surprise in 2007-08. They're now savvy veterans, and they should be the solid favorites as long as Robbie Hummel is healthy.
2. Minnesota - You knew that Tubby Smith was going to develop a Big Ten title contending team sooner rather than later. It looks like Year Three will be the year that he finally competes for one.
3. Ohio State - Evan Turner came back to win a Big Ten title with Ohio State. He'll have a shot.
4. Michigan State - I can't drop this team any further. They will have the best starting back court in the conference.
5. Wisconsin - The key will be improving their defense and rebounding. The back court will be outstanding.
6. Michigan - The only reason I have them this low is because the Big Ten should be even better next season than it was this season. I'd be shocked if Michigan doesn't make the Tournament.
7. Illinois - Depending on how well they can replace Chester Frazier, they should be back to the Tournament.
8. Northwestern - This might be Northwestern's best ever chance at making the NCAA Tournament.
9. Penn State - They should take a small step backwards, but anything is possible when Talor Battle is at his best.
10. Indiana - They will be far better, but I still think they're going to miss another Tournament before making it back in 2011.
11. Iowa - The one program in the Big Ten that is struggling right now. Cyrus Tate will be gone, and Jeff Peterson is transferring out. Todd Lickliter might already be on the hot seat with how frustrated Iowa fans are at seeing themselves left behind as everybody else in this conference improves.