Sunday, April 11, 2010

2010-11 Preview: Big Ten

Big Ten Conference

I would say this was a disappointing season for the Big Ten. Part of the blame goes to injuries, as each of their four top teams lost their best player for at least several games, while Indiana and Northwestern also had a killer injury. But the real disappointments were teams like Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan, all of whom finished well below where they were expected to, without the excuse of injuries. The best team for the length of the season was probably Purdue, a team that was one of the four best teams in the nation before Robbie Hummel went down with an injury. Hummel will be back next season, but the big question is whether JaJuan Johnson will go pro. For now I believe he will come back. The key graduations are Chris Kramer and Keaton Grant. Grant is the more talented of the two, but Kramer is probably the bigger loss because he is the ultimate glue guy - nobody hustled more than he did. If I was an NBA team I'd sign Kramer to be the 12th man on the bench just to have him in practice every day. Regardless, Purdue will still have Lewis Jackson, E'Twaun Moore and Kelsey Barlow in the backcourt. Assuming Johnson comes back then he and Hummel will be a great one-two punch in the frontcourt, but they're going to need depth. Their lack of frontcourt depth this past season was a big reason why the season fell apart when Hummel was hurt. Their recruiting class is short on frontcourt depth as well, with the best player being a point guard, Terone Johnson (Rivals: 46, Scout: 14 PG). If one or two of the bigger bench players they have can develop over the summer then they'll be a really good team, because their backcourt will be one of the best in the country even with the loss of Keaton Grant.

Ohio State was the team that won the three-way tiebreaker atop the Big Ten and was the top seed in the Big Ten tournament, and they don't lose much to graduation, losing only role players Jeremie Simmons, P.J. Hill and Kyle Madsen. Hill is the bigger loss because he could play the point, and they'll actually need a real point guard next year since Evan Turner won't be able to play the point again since he'll be going pro. But with nobody else expected to go pro Ohio State will return four starters: William Buford, David Lighty, Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale. But despite returning four starters they were dreadfully thin in 2009-10, and by graduating all of their key bench players they're going to be entirely dependent on their incoming freshmen class to make up the bench. But nobody ever accused Thad Matta of not being a great recruiter, and he's got a consensus Top Three recruiting class that has both depth and quality. It is led by Jared Sullinger (Rivals: 3, Scout: 1 C) and DeShaun Thomas (Rivals: 18, Scout: 4 PF). Sullinger in particular is clearly ready to star in the Big Ten from day one, and will probably start along with the four returning starters. It's not quite the Thad Five, but it's going to be a heck of a class. The one worry for Ohio State is finding an offensive creator, as it was clear that players like Jon Diebler really struggled to get open when Evan Turner was hurt and defenses didn't have to plan everything around containing him. The other team that finished in a tie atop the Big Ten was Michigan State, which put together yet another Final Four run (thanks to Kansas and Ohio State, which did Michigan State a favor by flaming out early). Raymar Morgan is the only key graduation, and the only question is the Draft status of Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers. I do think both of them will be back, along with Korie Lucious, Draymond Green, Chris Allen, Delvon Roe, Derrick Nix and Garrick Sherman. There's no question that Michigan State is going to have a lot of big bodies and will rebound well and play good defense, and so the question is on offense. I thought that in some ways the team got better when Kalin Lucas got hurt because Draymond Green is such a smart player. They were able to run their offense through Green in stretches in the same way that they ran their offense through Goran Suton during their 2009 Final Four run. Lucas occasionally tries to do too much himself, and a key will be whether he's able to understand the value of running a lot of offense through Green. Tom Izzo has another very good recruiting class coming in again, highlighted by Adreian Payne (Rivals: 20, Scout: 5C) and Keith Appling (Rivals: 34, Scout: 5 C). Michigan State should actually be better next season than they were this past season, and they'll be a Final Four contender yet again.

A surprise to many this past season, though not to me, was Wisconsin. Every year analysts make the same mistake of saying Wisconsin will fall apart because of the loss of so many key seniors with such a weak recruiting class coming in, forgetting that those same seniors were criticized as being a weak recruiting class four years earlier. Once again they have key graduations, and in this case it's the starting backcourt of Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon. With the development of Jordan Taylor to handle the point I think Bohannon is the bigger loss, not only because of his shot but because he was such a steady player who never made mistakes, which is the type of player that thrives in Bo Ryan's system. They will be very thin at guard next season, with a lot riding on the rapid development of recruit Josh Gasser, with a high likelihood of only three scholarship guards on the roster. That said, the entire frontcourt will be back, highlighted by Jon Leuer. I thought Leuer was overrated his first two seasons, but he improved dramatically as a junior and will be one of the best players in the Big Ten in 2010-11. Duje Dukan is another key recruit. Minnesota was the fifth team to make the Tournament out of the Big Ten, but it was a very disappointing season for a team that had a ton of talent on the court but a lot of problems off of it. Royce White and Paul Carter were part of that, and both are transferring out. The key graduations are Lawrence Westbrook and Damion Johnson. They do return Blake Hoffarber, one of the best clutch shooters in the game, along with Devoe Joseph and Al Nolen in the backcourt (assuming Nolen can regain eligibility after the NCAA denied him eligibility for the second half of this past season), and the twin towers of Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson down low. Minnesota loses a lot more talent than they get back in recruiting, but they had Top 25 talent this past season, so the real question will be whether they can get the off-the-court stuff under control and play to their ability. They will have enough talent to get back to the NCAA Tournament.

Northwestern entered the 2009-10 season with high hopes for their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance, and those were immediately dashed with season ending injuries to Kevin Coble and Jeff Ryan. I would expect both of those players to get redshirts and be back in 2010-11, and if so then the only key loss is Jeremy Nash. Nash was a very good perimeter defender, but he's not the overall player that Coble is. John Shurna has turned into one of the best in the nation at moving away from the ball and hitting his shots when he gets them, and Drew Crawford had an excellent season handling the ball as a freshman. With Michael Thompson and Luke Mirkovic also coming back, Northwestern should definitely be improved. One of the reasons I'm hoping the NCAA doesn't expand to 96 teams quite yet (other than the obvious reasons) is that after so many years of coming up just short of the NCAA Tournament it would feel empty if Northwestern finally got in just because they expanded the field large enough to put them in. Even with a field of 65 I think they'll finally go Dancing in 2011. Illinois is another team that should be improved, as all seven players that earned at least 12 minutes per game will be back, including Demetri McCamey, who is one of the best passers in the nation. Mike Tisdale has really expanded his game offensively and is a match-up nightmare, and D.J. Richadson had an excellent freshman season as well. They will hope to get depth not just from Tyler Griffey, but also from three excellent recruits: Jereme Richmond (Rivals: 36, Scout: 3 SF), Meyers Leonard (Rivals: 39, Scout: 9C) and Crandall Head (Rivals: 81, Scout: 12 SG).

At the bottom of the conference I expect both Indiana and Penn State to be improved. Indiana returns all five starters, and will also get Maurice Creek back, who was having a great freshman season before going down with a season-ending injury. If he could have stayed healthy they might have made the 2010 NIT, and with all of their other key players back they can only be better. Tom Crean took over with a completely bare cupboard, and it's taken time for him to restock. I said when he took over that I expected 2008-09 to be a disaster, 2009-10 would be an improved team that wasn't quite ready to make a run at a Tournament, but that by 2010-11 they would be ready to make a run at the bubble. I stand by that. Penn State had zero seniors on the roster, although Talor Battle is exploring the NBA Draft. That said, I think he's just finding out what he'll have to do as a senior to make the NBA, because he's a marginal Draft pick now and you know he'd like to play a season with his younger brother Taran Buie, who is the top recruit in their 2010 class. Penn State finished 3-15 in the Big Ten, but they were much better than that record and just seemingly lost every close game they were in (a Pomeroy Luck rating of 346th in the nation). Add Buie with the rest of the roster returning and they'll definitely be much improved in 2010-11.

In the end, I expect Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State to again be the top of the conference. It's very tough to separate the three of them, and any of them could end up winning it. All three also are possible Top Ten teams nationally. Here's how I see the whole conference ending up:

1. Michigan State - Assuming Lucas and Summers both come back they're going to be very deep. Korie Lucious developed a lot while Lucas was out, and was a different player in the NCAA Tournament compared to where he was when Lucas was injured earlier in the season. They'll definitely be better than they were in 2009-10.
2. Purdue - Keaton Grant and Chris Kramer will be tough to replace, but this was one of the four best teams in the nation before Hummel got hurt. Hummel has had a lot of injury problems, but if he can stay healthy for his senior season then Purdue will be a Final Four contender again.
3. Ohio State - It's not clear who "the man" will be with Evan Turner gone, and who will be taking the important shots late in games. But Sullinger will be a star from day one, and they'll have all four starters other than Turner back.
4. Illinois - They'll definitely be better with every key player back. I don't think they have the talent up and down the roster to make a run at the Big Ten title, but they could very well be a Top 25 team.
5. Wisconsin - I can't drop them any further than this. They're going to be dangerously thin at the guard position, but Duke just managed to win a National Championship with only three scholarship guards on the active roster. Wisconsin's frontcourt doesn't have a player like Kyle Singler, of course, but they should be safely back in the top half of the Big Ten and in the NCAA Tournament.
6. Northwestern - If everybody can stay healthy then I think they'll finally earn that NCAA Tournament berth.
7. Minnesota - They'll definitely have NCAA Tournament talent in 2010-11. But they had Top 25 talent in 2009-10 and they ended up needing a furious Big Ten tournament performance just to sneak in as one of the last two or three teams in the Tournament field.
8. Indiana - Maurice Creek could be one of the best players in the Big Ten in 2010-11, and the Hoosiers should be improved.
9. Penn State - Assuming Talor Battle is back then they'll definitely be better. They don't have the talent up and down the roster that the top half of the conference has, however.
10. Michigan - I'll move them up a few spots if Manny Harris comes back, but I don't think he will. With DeShawn Sims leaving as well it's going to be a rebuilding year for Michigan.
11. Iowa - This is the easiest pick in the conference, as I can't see any scenario where Iowa doesn't finish in last place. The roster has absolutely nobody that would even sniff the rotation of a team like Ohio State, Michigan State or Purdue.

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