Sunday, April 13, 2008

2008-09 Preview: Big Ten

Big Ten Conference

An obvious place to start a discussion of the Big Ten is with its defending regular season and tournament champion, Wisconsin. The Badgers outperformed everybody's expectations all season, and proved that nobody can do more with less than Bo Ryan. Still, he's not a miracle worker, and it's very hard to see a repeat performance coming next season. Michael Flowers was probably the best player on the team, so his graduation will obviously hurt, but I don't think Wisconsin's back court will be too bad. Both Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon are stellar guards, and Wisconsin had a few more decent guards off the bench (not to mention a couple coming in their recruiting class). The real problem for Wisconsin will be on the inside, where they lose both seven-footers, Brian Butch and Greg Stiemsma, leaving Marcus Landry as the only really capable offensive player down low. Bo Ryan brings in a nice duo of centers in Jared Berggren (Rivals: 58, Scout: 15 C) and Ian Markolf (Scout: 35 C), but freshmen usually get very little playing time in Ryan's complicated system. Without any good post players coming off the bench last season, I really wonder how the Badgers are going to pound with teams like Ohio State and Michigan State next year.

Ohio State suffered a bit of a down year in 2007-08, but not for lack of talent. The Buckeyes simply had to depend far too much on freshmen. It took a while for the young guys to get used to the system, and the weak schedule that Thad Matta was forced to use in the early part of the season hurt their Tournament resume. But as the cliche goes, there are no freshmen in March, and the Buckeyes looked dominant in running through the NIT. Kosta Koufus is already a very polished offensive player on the inside, and I think Evan Turner has first team All-Big Ten talent. Throw in David Lighty, Jon Diebler and arguably the top recruiting class in the nation and Ohio State will have a very, very good team next year. Jamar Butler's clutch scoring and Othello Hunter's inside toughness will be hard to replace, but Ohio State is going to be an outstanding team next year nonetheless.

The Buckeyes should be the chief competitor for the team that will probably be the unanimous favorites to take the Big Ten next year, Purdue. They had an outstanding set of players last season, including E'Twaun Moore, Robbie Hummel and Keaton Grant. The best part is that the five players who got over 20 minutes per game last year were all freshmen and sophomores, and none of them are expected to go pro. It's hard to imagine Purdue won't be improved next year. And don't be fooled by their poor RPI, because like Ohio State they were very young and struggled in the early part of the year. Purdue swept Wisconsin and came within one game of taking the Big Ten last year. They have the potential to be a Top Ten team next year.

It's hard to say that Michigan State will be as good as they were last year with Drew Neitzel and Drew Naymick gone, but the Spartans will still be very good as long as Raymar Morgan sticks around for another year (as he's expected to do). Kalin Lucas took a while to get going, but really looked great late in his freshman season. It wasn't really that absurd when Tournament commentators compared him to a young Chris Paul, as he really can get to the basket at will. Throw in an outstanding recruiting class and Tom Izzo is going to have a very good team yet again. Still, the Spartans might not be the best Big Ten team from their own state, as Michigan should be vastly improved. John Beilein's system is very complicated, and Michigan often seemed confused on offense last year. But most everybody will be back, and Beilein will be able to better adapt his system to his personnel in year two. And Manny Harris flew under the radar last year, but he is going to be a heck of a star.

One team that absolutely won't be very good next season is Indiana. D.J. White and Lance Stemler graduate, and Eric Gordon is going pro. It also remains to be seen if Armon Bassett will be allowed back on the team. Tom Crean is a great hire, but it's going to take him a year to bring in a top flight recruiting class. Barring some late Juco transfers, Indiana isn't expected to bring much in next season. Still, Crean will turn this program around. It just might take him a year or two to do it. As for Minnesota, Tubby Smith did a great job in his first season there. He did rely heavily on graduating seniors Lawrence McKenzie, Dan Coleman and Spencer Tollackson, which makes you wonder if the team will struggle to improve in Tubby's second season. But they did have a lot of nice young players coming off the bench, and Tubby brings in an outstanding recruiting class. Tubby has always been a great recruiter, and there's an excellent chance that he'll bring his new team to the Tournament in only year two.

The final team I'm going to talk about is Illinois, which was a lot better than its record indicated. It seemed like they found a way to lose every single close game all season. Demetri McCamey had a very good freshman year and looks to become a star in the Big Ten. Alex Legion is also expected to transfer in from Kentucky, and the Illini will get another season out of Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham. If Rodney Alexander and Mike Tisdale can ably fill the gap left by the graduating big men Brian Randle and Shaun Pruitt, Illinois has the potential to work their way back to the Tournament as well.

Here's how I see the conference as a whole stacking up:

1. Ohio State - Thad Matta might be the best recruiter in the country. His boys will be more experienced next season, and that should lead to a whole lot of success.
2. Purdue - I think it's a bit optimistic of Purdue fans to think that this team will just pick up where they left off. It's a whole lot different winning games when the pressure is on you than it is when you're pulling upsets. Still, they have a great shot to take the Big Ten.
3. Michigan State - No reason this team can't spend most of next year in the Top 25.
4. Wisconsin - Can't drop them too far. They lose a lot of this year's team to graduation, but is it really more than they lost after the 2006-07 season? Plus, this is one of the better recruiting classes that Ryan has ever had.
5. Michigan - I don't think Michigan will be too affected by the new three-point line. Beilein is smart enough to adapt his strategy to his team, and with athletic players like Manny Harris he is less dependent on the three than he was at West Virginia, anyway.
6. Minnesota - The Gophers will be very young next year, but they should improve greatly as the year goes on.
7. Illinois - Underrated last season, and could potentially work their way back into the Tournament.
8. Indiana - It's going to be a rebuilding year in Bloomington, but I expect the Hoosiers to be back in the Tournament in 2009-10.
9. Penn State - Return almost everybody, and are good enough to maybe even make a Tournament run if they play their hand right.
10. Northwestern - Kevin Coble needs to be a star if Northwestern is ever going to move up the standings.
11. Iowa - Could be a long year in 2008-09 but a good recruiting class could mean better things for 2009-10.

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