Conference Countdown: No. 1 Big Ten

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1. Big Ten
2. Big XII
3. Big East
4. ACC
5. SEC
6. Mountain West
7. Pac-10
8. Atlantic 10
9. Conference USA
10. West Coast Conference

Pre-season Awards

Player of the Year: Jon Leuer, Wisconsin

The
Big Ten will have one of the most exciting player of the year races.
Even with Robbie Hummel’s season over, there is a ton of talent at the
top of the league. Included in that group is Jon Leuer, one of the most
underrated players in the country. He was the Badgers leading scorer
and rebounder last season despite missing nine games with a broken
wrist. He’s got a good finesse game in the post, using a variety of
jump hooks and turnarounds. He also has a soft touch on his jump shot
and is a capable ball handler, which makes him a difficult matchup at
times. He impressed people quite a bit at the Team USA workouts over
the summer, and with Trevon Hughes gone to graduation, expect a big
season out of Leuer.

And a close second goes to: Kalin Lucas, Michigan State

Lucas
is a great player as well. In fact, he’s already won a Big Ten player
of the year award, taking home the hardware in 2009. When he’s healthy,
he’s as quick as anyone in the league with the ball, a pain to keep out
of the paint, and a very good shooter with a knack for hitting some
big-time shots. I have two concerns about Lucas. He’s still working his
way back from the achilles injury that ended his 2010 NCAA Tournament,
so only time will tell if he is actually back to 100%. I also was
concerned by his lack of development last season. Lucas was benched
because of a lack of leadership and didn’t really improve all that much
as a junior. But this is Lucas’ team. He’s the star, and when he
embraces that, he has the talent to carry this team to another Final
Four.

Breakout Star: Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin

Its
tough to pick out a breakout star from the Big Ten because, well, we
already know who most of the best players are. One guy stands out for
me, however. Taylor moved into the starting lineup as a sophomore and
had a very successful season (10 points, 3.5 assists) playing alongside
Trevon Hughes. Taylor is a better distributor than Hughes was, and
Hughes also had a tendency to dominate the ball. This season, as the
sole ball-handler, Taylor is going to be relied upon much more as a
playmaker, especially considering the lack of offensive firepower on
this Wisconsin roster. I don’t think its out of the question for him to
develop into a second- or third-team all-conference performer.

All-Conference First Team

  • POY – Jon Leuer, Wisconsin, Sr.
  • G – Kalin Lucas, Michigan State, Sr.
  • G – E’Twaun Moore, Purdue, Sr.
  • G – Demetri McCamey, Illinois, Sr.
  • F – Jared Sullinger, Ohio State, Fr.
  • F – JaJuan Johnson, Purdue, Sr.

All-Conference Second Team

  • G – Maurice Creek, Indiana, So.
  • G – Durrell Summers, Michigan State, Sr.
  • G – Talor Battle, Penn State, Sr.
  • F – John Shurna, Northwestern, Jr.
  • F – Mike Davis, Illinois, Sr.

Freshman of the Year: Jared Sullinger, Ohio State

Sullinger
is universely regarded as the best big man in the class. At 6’8″, 250+
lb, he’s got the size and the strength to play immediately in the Big
Ten. He’s not just big, either. He’s skilled. He can score on the
low-block, he can get to the rim facing up, and he has range out to 18
feet. He is also a very cerebral player. Sullinger understands angles
— sealing his man when the ball gets reversed, holding position
defensively and offensively, boxing out — which lets him get a lot of
easy baskets and a ton of rebounds. He’s a producer on the block, and
should complement the shot-blocking presence of Dallas Lauderdale well.
The Buckeyes are going to need someone to be a go-to presence for them
with Evan Turner gone, and Sullinger could be that guy.

All-Freshman Team

  • G – Keith Appling, Michigan State
  • G – Tim Hardaway, Jr., Michigan
  • G – Taran Buie, Penn State
  • F – Jereme Richmond, Illinois
  • F – DeShaun Thomas, Ohio State

What Happened?:

  • Expansion: Everybody welcome Nebraska to the Big Ten! Well, next year anyway. And despite the rumors to the contrary, that is all the Big Ten added. For now.
  • Robbie Hummel: Breaks your heart.
  • Tom Izzo and his rumor mill: First it was the Cavs. He was staying, then he was going, and now he’s staying. Good decision, thanks to The Decision.

    Then
    there was Chris Allen. He was suspended for the Big Ten tournament last
    season, then throughout the summer his name was coming up in rumors. He
    would play. He wasn’t going to play. Finally last month, Izzo ended the
    drama, saying that Allen failed to live up to his obligations.

    Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, two Michigan State players were accused of a sexual assault on the same night that Korie Lucious got a DUI.

  • It wasn’t just Chris Allen:
    Allen isn’t the only player that won’t be returning next season. Laval
    Lucas-Perry was dismissed from Michigan for the dreaded “violation of team rules.”

    Northwestern got a blow when Kevin Coble, a second-team all-conference performer in 2009, decided he was not going to return to the basketball team, instead focusing his efforts on his last semester of classes.

    And then there is Zisis Sarikopoulos, who has scored all of 48 points in his collegiate career, who signed a three-year contract in Greece.

    Iowa not only lost Anthony Tucker, who was suspended for an arrest and then transferred to D-II Winona State, they lost head coach Todd Lickliter. He was replaced by Siena’s Fran McCaffery.

  • Trevor Mbakwe is cleared, legally: Well, not exactly.
    He agreed to skip trial in exchange for completing a six-month
    intervention program. Everything will be erased from his record when he
    pays $100 fine and does 100 hours of community service. It also means
    that Minnesota has cleared him to play, which is great news for Tubby
    Smith and the Golden Gophers.

What’s Next?:

  • Is this the year for Northwestern?:
    The Wildcats are the only major conference team that has never played
    in the NCAA Tournament. Ever. And this season may just be their best
    shot. I know we have said that over and over the last two years, but
    with the players they have returning, a good non-conference season and
    a couple of wins over the top of the Big Ten, and they are dancing.
  • Three in a row?:
    Everyone knows that Michigan State has been to back-to-back Final
    Fours. This year? They are one of the favorites to win the national
    title. Can they make it three straight Final Fours? Do they end up
    winning a title during that stretch?
  • Is expansion over?:
    Most believed that the Big Ten wanted to get to 16 teams this summer,
    and there are some that still believe that is the case. Does it happen
    next summer? Will the Big East and the Big XII survive it?

Power Rankings

  1. Purdue:
    Purdue was originally considered the favorite to win the Big Ten title.
    That was before Robbie Hummel blew out his knee. Quite a few people
    have dropped the Boilermakers in their preseason polls, which isn’t
    necessarily fair. This is still the same basic team that made the Sweet
    16 last season. This Purdue team still has two all-americans in E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson. The
    Boilermakers still have role players. Lewis Jackson is a quick point
    guard who was dealing with a foot injury last season but is back
    healthy. Kelsey Barlow was the guy that played the point guard role in
    his stead and did an admirable job. He’s a big, strong kid that can
    defend and get to the rim. Jon Hart, Ryne Smith, DJ Byrd, and Patrick
    Bade also return, and Croatian big man Sandi Marcius should finally be
    ready to play. Throw in the mix four talented freshmen, particularly
    four-star guards Terone Johnson and Anthony Johnson, and you got
    yourself a very good basketball team. Don’t count this team out.
  2. Michigan State:
    The Spartans once again looks like a team capable of making a run to,
    and through, the Final Four. While Raymar Morgan, and now Chris Allen,
    are both gone, the core of this team returns. Kalin Lucas, the 2009 Big
    Ten player of the year, should be back to 100% after blowing out his
    achilles in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Who knows how quickly he can
    return to his peak, but there is the talent on this roster to allow him
    to ease into being a star again. Durrell Summers has loads of talent —
    6’4″, athletic, range on his jumper — and had a coming out party in
    the tournament last season. Korie Lucious has been inconsistent
    throughout his first two seasons but definitely has shown flashes of
    being an impact player in the back court. Many also believe that Keith
    Appling has the ability to make Spartan fans forget about Allen. Up
    front is a bit of a question mark. Draymond Green, the versatile 6’6″
    power forward, is back, as is Delvon Roe, a super-talented but
    oft-injured 6’8″ power forward. Hefty sophomore Derrick Nix returns,
    and Adreian Payne, a top 20 forward, will also be in the mix. Expect
    the Spartans to contend for both the Big Ten and national titles.
  3. Illinois:
    The Fighting Illini have a shot at being very, very good this year. It
    starts with Demetri McCamey, a stocky point guard that averaged 15
    points and 7 assists last season. McCamey is one of the better
    playmakers in the country, and while he still turns the ball over a bit
    much and has a tendency to dominate possession, his ability to create
    open looks for his teammates is crucial. Also returning are DJ
    Richardson and Brandon Paul, two talented freshman that had up and down
    seasons. The front line of Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis is back, as
    well. The roster, which loses some key role players like Jeffery Jordan
    and Dominque Keller, will be bolstered by another excellent recruiting
    class. Shooting guard Crandall Head, forward Jereme Richmond, and
    seven-footer Meyers Leonard are all four-star recruits that will be
    able to contribute immediately. As I see it, the issue with this Illini
    team isn’t necessarily talent. There are a lot of very good basketball
    players on this roster, and with a guy like McCamey on the floor —
    especially when there are four guys around him that can shoot —
    getting good shots probably won’t be the issue. The problem is interior
    toughness. Neither Tisdale or Davis are real bruisers or physical
    rebounders/defenders. Leonard is all of 225lb. That could spell trouble
    playing in a Big Ten with the likes of Michigan State and Ohio State.
  4. Ohio State:
    The Buckeyes lost Evan Turner to the draft, but as Thad Matta is wont
    to do, he simply reloaded. Again. The talk about this team is going to
    be the freshman class. Headlined by 6’8″ bruiser Jared Sullinger and
    6’6″ scoring forward DeShaun Thomas, this group is six deep, with all
    six receiving at least three stars from Rivals. The front court isn’t
    just freshmen, as Dallas Lauderdale returns to protect the rim and
    Nikola Kecman is back to provide a little bit of depth. In the back
    court, David Lighty, William Buford, and Jon Diebler all return. The
    question, obviously, is at the point. Turner wasn’t valuable just
    because he could score and get rebounds and play the point at 6’7″, it
    was because he made everyone on the floor that much better. Will
    Diebler and Buford get as many open looks without Turner? Does Lighty
    get the same amount of space to operate? Obviously, having a big man on
    the block like Sullinger will help space things, but without a
    facilitator stepping up (Aaron Creft is the only PG recruit, but
    Lenzelle Smith and Jordan Sibert are talented back court players) I
    have concerns about how well this team will run offensively. The
    Buckeyes are going to be a different product on the court this season,
    but they will still be at the top of the Big Ten when it is all said
    and done.
  5. Wisconsin:
    It doesn’t seem to ever matter who the Badgers lose. They always come
    back the exact same team the next season. Bo Ryan’s back court of Jason
    Bohannon and Trevon Hughes has graduated, but don’t expect the Badgers
    to be down this season. Junior Jordan Taylor, who looked quite
    impressive in his minutes playing behind Hughes, is back, as is
    sophomore Ryan Evans, who isn’t the shooter that Bohannon was, but who
    is bigger, stronger, and a better defender. Returning up front will be
    Jon Leuer, who could very well be the best big man in the Big Ten this
    year, and Keaton Nankivil, who showed flashes of brilliance last
    season. Both are big and both are dangerous in the post and on the
    perimeter. Take those four, and fill in the blanks with Ryan’s
    never-ending string of tough, defensive-minded kids, and the Badgers
    will once again compete atop this conference. Because Ryan is one of
    the few coaches that always recruits for his system, not based on top
    100 lists, his teams are always underrated. A warning to all those in
    the Big Ten — Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois, and Ohio State are all
    loaded this season, but sleep on Wisconsin at your own risk.
  6. Northwestern:
    The Wildcats caught a bad break when Kevin Coble decided he wasn’t
    going to return for his final season with Northwestern. But that
    doesn’t mean that the Wildcats are dead in the water. Northwestern
    brings back five of their top six scorers from a team that won 20 games
    and was in bubble consideration until the end of February. One of those
    five is John Shurna, a combo-forward that averaged 18 and 6 in Coble’s
    stead. They also bring back Michael Thompson, one of the most
    underrated guards in the conference. Drew Crawford was selected as the
    Big Ten freshman of the year. Luka Mirkovic and Alex Marcotullio also
    return, while freshman JerShon Cobb, a top 100 recruit, should be able
    to fill in Jeremy Nash’s shoes. This is the same Northwestern team,
    just a year older. Why can’t they compete this year? Northwestern has
    never made an NCAA Tournament. Could that change this season?
  7. Minnesota:
    I like the squad Minnesota has this season. True, they lose Damian
    Johnson, Lawrence Westbrook, Paul Carter, and the chance to use Royce
    White. But the Gophers were deep last season, which means that they are
    going to be able to handle some of that loss. Their strength is going
    to be up front, where Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson both return at
    the center. While those two could, feasibly, play alongside one
    another, the addition of Trevor Mbakwe will be key. A physical, 6’7″
    forward, Mbakwe would be a nice complement to Smith’s other bigs.
    Shooter Blake Hoffarber also returns, as does Rodney Williams, an
    athletic 6’7″ slasher that has the potential to be a weapon in this
    league. Al Nolen and Devoe Joseph will once again be handling the back
    court duties. And with six newcomers, Tubby Smith has a lot of pieces
    here. Minnesota isn’t going to win the Big Ten, but a tournament berth
    isn’t out of the question.
  8. Indiana:
    Tom Crean brought in a very good recruiting class in 2009, and while it
    didn’t do much for the Hoosiers last season, the dividends will begin
    to be paid this season. Maurice Creek, a guard that dislocated his knee
    back in December, and big man Christian Watford were as good as any two
    freshmen in the conference last season. Throw in rising juniors Verdell
    Jones and Tom Pritchard and senior-to-be Jeremiah Rivers, and the
    Hoosiers have themselves a pretty solid core to build around. An NCAA
    Tournament berth would be a borderline miracle, and even a .500 record
    in this conference this season would be impressive, but this team isn’t
    going to be a pushover. The Hoosiers are going to win some games and
    they are going to put a scare into some of the better teams. They
    aren’t there yet, but Crean is getting this team close.
  9. Penn State:
    Looking strictly at their record, the Nittany Lions were not a good
    basketball team last season. In fact, they were down right bad. Going
    11-20 on the season and 3-15 in Big Ten play (they lost their first 12)
    is not ideal. That said, this club lost some close games. By three at
    Temple; two against Virginia Tech; OT at Wisconsin; one at Illinois,
    two at Michigan State; four against Purdue. The list goes on from
    there. Ed Dechellis’ team didn’t win many games, but they weren’t blown
    out that often either. In other words, last year’s club was probably
    tougher than their record indicates, and they bring back essentially
    the same roster, headlined by all-Big Ten point guard Talor Battle.
    Battle is a stat sheet stuffer, at times by necessity as much as
    talent, but he certainly can put points on the board, whether scoring
    or finding assists. With solid players like David Jackson, Andrew
    Jones, and Jeff Brooks returning along the front line, Tim Frazier back
    for his sophomore campaign, and two solid freshmen — point guard Taran
    Buie (Battle’s half-brother) and big man Jonathon Graham — the Nittany
    Lions have a team that should be competitive. Given how strong the Big
    Ten is this year, a .500 finish would be quite impressive. That said,
    Penn State won’t be a pushover, and could very well spring a few upsets.
  10. Michigan:
    When John Beilein was hired at Michigan, many expected him to
    orchestrate a turnaround like he did at West Virginia previously. After
    reaching the 2009 NCAA Tournament, most thought the Wolverines to be a
    top 25 club last year. But that fell apart, and then so did Beilein’s
    roster. Manny Harris, DeShawn Sims, and Laval Lucas-Perry are all gone.
    So where is Michigan headed. There are just four returners that saw
    playing time — Stu Douglass, Zak Novak, Darius Morris, and Matt
    Vogrich. They aren’t bringing in much, either. Evan Smotrycz, a 6’8″
    small forward from New Hampshire, is a top 100 recruit. Jordan Morgan
    is a three-star center, but he is undergoing surgery on his left knee.
    None of Blake McLimans, Tim Hardaway, and Jon Horford cracked Rivals
    top 150. On paper, this looks like a team destined for a rebuilding
    year. But keep in mind, this is the kind of team that Beilein succeeds
    with. A bunch of scrappy underachievers willing to buy into Beilein’s
    system. I’m not saying that Michigan fans should be penciling in a Big
    Ten title. Far from it. All I’m saying is that maybe the loss of Sims,
    Harris, and Lucas-Perry will be addition by subtraction. While a .500
    season would probably be considered an overachievement in 2010-11,
    don’t write this group off just yet. Remember, Beilein has a tendency
    for turning teams around.
  11. Iowa:
    It is going to be another long season for Hawkeye fans. Todd Lickliter
    was fired after a 10-22 season, and with only six players returning,
    Fran McCaffery is going to have his work cut out for him. He gets back
    a solid trio of guards with Cully Payne, Matt Gaetens, and Eric May,
    and with four three-star recruits (according to Rivals) coming in, this
    isn’t a bare cupboard. But it certainly isn’t full, and with the amount
    of quality basketball teams in this conference next season, matching
    last year’s total of four Big Ten wins would probably be considered a
    good season, comparatively.


Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit