The Big Ten will be another contested race as there is no clear favorite. There may only be 4 teams from the conference dancing in March, as the bottom of the conference is pretty bad. Still, there should be some great matchups along the way as the conference enters year two of the 18 game schedule.
1. Purdue – Except for Scott Martin, the Boilermakers have everyone back from a young team that finished 15-3 in the Big Ten. They progressed very quickly last season which means they could be the frontrunner in the conference this year. They didn’t have much of a low post presence, opting for a four-guard lineup at times. Robbie Hummell had an outstanding freshman season as a forward who can go inside or out. Sophomore JaJuan Johnson gives Purdue their truest low post presence up front. On the perimeter, the Boilermakers can apply plenty of pressure with Keaton Grant, Marcus Green, Chris Kramer, and E’Twaun Moore returning. So long as that pressure doesn’t send their opponents to the free throw line.
2. Michigan State – Two seasons ago, the Spartans turned the ball over on almost 1/4th of their possessions. They improved it to only 1/5th of their possessions last year, but the question will be how well they take care of the ball without Drew Neitzel who was the only player who was exceptional at not giving the ball up. The Spartans will be deep this year and stronger up front with more scoring options. Kalin Lucas is a quick point guard, and Chris Allen showed flashes in his freshman season, including 20 points against Memphis. Senior captain and combo-guard Travis Walton can back up either of them. Freshman Delvon Roe gives the frontcourt a huge boost as he is a quick and explosive power forward. Solid starter Goran Suton returns as well as starter Marquise Gray. How Tom Izzo sets his starting lineup will be interesting with Roe in the mix as well as returning leading scorer Raymar Morgan. Morgan is a great slasher but might not be a good enough shooter to move to a perimeter position. Either way, the Spartans are deep and might me well-equipped to run the floor a lot this season.
3. Wisconsin – Head coach Bo Ryan taught the nation last year to never count out the Badgers in the Big Ten title mix no matter what players they lose. A year ago it was Alando Tucker and Kammron Taylor. This year it is Brian Butch, Michael Flowers, and Greg Steimsma. Returning point guard Trevon Hughes figures to be the player that makes this team go after his breakout sophomore season. Jason Bohannon is known as a spot-up three point shooter, but he developed last season into a better defender and won the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year. Depth should come from another shooter in Tim Jarmusz, and the freshmen guard Robert Wilson and Jordan Taylor may also see time. The frontcourt will be all about seniors Marcus Landry and Joe Krabbenhoft. Landry will have to carry the load up front while Krabbenhoft is a do-everything forward. At least one more young player will have to step up which could be sophomore Jon Leuer who scored 25 points against Michigan last year.
4. Ohio State – Last year’s NIT champions will feature a lot of new faces once again, but should get back to the NCAA tournament. Gone are Jamar Butler, Othello Hunter, and one-and-done Kosta Koufos. That means it’s time for some other decorated Thad Matta recruits to step up. BJ Mullens is the next 7-foot freshman in-line who will likely be the go-to guy this year. David Lighty and Evan Turner are the leading returning scorers and should be featured heavy on the wings along with Jon Diebler who hopes to shake off his shooting woes. Freshman Noopy Crater may see immediate time at the point, while William Buford could see significant time off the bench. Dallas Lauderdale showed signs of promise, but may have to deliver now to play alongside Mullens.
5. Minnesota – Even though the top three scorers are gone (Lawrence McKenzie, Dan Coleman, Spencer Tollackson), the Gophers could move up in the standings again in Tubby Smith’s second year. As a result two freshman are likely to contribute right away in the frontcourt. Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson bring athleticism and strength immediately. Damian Johnson also figures to play a role after contributing last season. Al Nolen and Lawrence Westbrook are the likely the two starting guards, and both will have to increase their scoring. They will have help from last year’s Junior College Player of the Year, Devron Bostick. Blake Hoffarber adds a three-point shooter to the mix.
6. Illinois – Since the 2005 title game, the Illini posted 11 conference wins in 2006, 9 wins in 2007, and 5 wins in 2008. It may be safe to assume that 5 wins was rock bottom. Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle are gone from the frontcourt, which leaves the biggest question marks there. Mike Tisdale will have to show that he put on weight to bang down low in place of Pruitt. Mike Davis seems like the likely power forward, but Bill Cole and Dominique Keller should be in the mix. Davis is the most athletic of the bunch. Demetri McCamey was playing well by the end of the season and will return at point guard, and Alex Legion will become eligible in mid-season after transferring from Kentucky. Trent Meachem gives the Illini a three-point threat, while Chester Frazier brings the intensity on defense.
7. Michigan – John Beilein is always a mastermind with what he was given, but last year was as difficult as they come. This year there could be marked improvement. It all starts with Manny Harris who is a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate after averaging 16.1 points per game as a freshman. Transfer Laval Lucas-Perry from Arizona will contribute immediately as a shooter and defender, while taking pressure of Kelvin Grady who had a hard time as a freshman point guard. Ekpe Udoh’s decision to transfer hurts, but the frontcourt will rely on DeShawn Sims who was the team’s best post player. He can also step out and shoot threes which is a must in Beilein’s system. Zack Gibson is expected to start at center after averaging 13.8 minutes per game last year, while Anthony Wright and Jevohn Shepherd are the likely small forwards who have got to hit shots to stay on the court.
8. Penn State – The Nittany Lions went through a lot of adversity last year starting four freshmen and junior college transfer after leading scorer Geary Claxton went down with an injury. Claxton is gone now, so the Lions have to continue on like they did at the end of the season when they upset Indiana and Michigan State. The backcourt will feature Talor Battle who could be a star after a fantastic freshman season. Seniors Danny Morrissey and Stanley Pringle bring experience to the backcourt. The frontcourt will feature a young mix of sophomores to go along with senior Jamelle Cornley. Cornley is undersized at 6’5” but that doesn’t stop him from battling night in and night out. The sophomores Andrew Jones, David Jackson, and Jeff Brooks bring depth, but the size still is lacking.
9. Northwestern – Fielding a competitive team with the academic standards of Northwestern is always tough, but Bill Carmody brought in four players 6’8” or taller to solve the Wildcats size issue. Two are centers, Kyle Rowley and Luke Mirkovic, and two are power forwards, John Shurna and Davide Curletti. They will all work alongside leading scorer Kevin Coble. The backcourt will be the experienced bunch with Craig Moore and Michael Thompson returning after averaging double digits last year. Jeremy Nash and Jeff Ryan provide depth outside.
10. Iowa – Todd Lickliter’s first year was rough, but it may not get much better this season. Leading scorers Tony Freeman and Justin Johnson are both gone and were the only Hawkeyes to average double digits scoring numbers. Cyrus Tate improved last year and will be counted on this year as a go-to-guy in his senior year. Jarryd Cole was a starter before his injury last year but should be back this year alongside Tate in the frontcourt. Shooting guard could be the team’s strength with returning starter Jake Kelly as well as freshman matt Gatens, a top-100 recruit, and junior college transfers Devan Bawinkel and Jermain Davis. Point guard is a question mark with Jeff Peterson returning after struggling last season, which could leave the door open for freshman Anthony Tucker. Iowa has to solve its scoring troubles, or it may only be able to win games that are in the 40’s as it did in a 46-43 win over Michigan State.
11. Indiana – The offseason for the Hoosiers was a busy one. Out is Kelvin Sampson after the NCAA recruiting violations. Tom Crean from Marquette takes over as head coach. Eric Gordon left early for the NBA. DJ White, Lance Stemler, AJ Ratliff, and Mike White are gone. Armon Bassett, Jamarcus Ellis, DeAndre Thomas, and Brandon McGhee were dismissed. Jordan Crawford and Eli Holman transferred. Plus two incoming freshman who signed with Sampson decided to go elsewhere. The only players left are senior Kyle Taber, who averaged 1.3 points per game last year, and a sophomore walk-on Brett Finkelmeier. New faces will contribute everywhere. Expect to see Taber, Tom Pritchard, and Tijan Jobe in the frontcourt. Verdell Jones, a junior college transfer, and Daniel Dumes, a transfer from Eastern Michigan, will share time at the point. Matt Roth, Nick Williams, and Malik Story figure to play the other guard spots. Roth will knock down threes, while Williams is likely to lead the team in scoring.