Player of the Year: Jared Sullinger, So., Ohio State
Picking a Player of the Year in the Big Ten is as difficult as any conference in the country, but I’m going to have to go with Sullinger. We’ll start with the obvious — Sullinger is the most dominating interior presence in the country. He’s impossible to move off of the block once he has established position, he’s got solid-but-improving post moves, and he’s an animal on the glass. All of that was determined last year when he averaged 17.2 ppg and 10.2 rpg as a freshman. The entire Buckeye offense revolves around him. But the same can be said for Jordan Taylor as well. What pushes Sullinger over the top? Well, for starters, his team is the favorite to win the league. With all else being equal, the guy whose team wins more should be, more or less, the tiebreaker. (And, generally speaking, conference player of the year awards generally end up being given to the best player on the best team in the conference.) The other reason? Sullinger’s dropped 15 pounds of baby fat. So not only will he have a summer’s worth of development on his skill set, he’s going to be in that much better shape, that much more athletic, and play that many more minutes.
And a close second goes to…: Jordan Taylor, Sr., Wisconsin
The fact that I don’t have Jordan Taylor winning the Player of the Year does nothing to diminish my view of him as a player. He’s sensational. Look at the numbers he put up last season — 18.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, and 4.7 apg while shooting 42.9% from three — and then think about the fact that he posted those numbers on a team that played at the 344th fastest pace. In other words, almost every other player in the country had significantly more chances to score, get a rebound or find an assist every game. His offensive rating was off-the-charts, he never turned the ball over and he managed to remain one of the most efficient players in the country despite dominating possession of the ball offensively. Unfortunately, I think it will be difficult for Taylor to post tempo-free numbers that will be as impressive next season. With guys like Jon Leuer, Keaton Nankivil and Tim Jarmusz gone, Wisconsin won’t have as many options offensively. It will be difficult to post those kind of numbers with so much more focus from the defense.
Breakout Star: Keith Appling, So., Michigan State
Appling came into Michigan State as a hyped freshman, having made the 2010 McDonald’s all-american team, but his chances to showcase his ability were limited early in the year. He was playing behind senior starters Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers as well as Korie Lucious until January. This year, with none of those three on the team, the Spartans are going to be turned over to Appling. Last year, Appling was primarily a spot-up shooter, showing off an excellent three-point jumper and solid ability in the mid-range. He came into school with the reputation of being more of a slasher, however. The one thing that we know Appling is not is a pure point guard, but Tom Izzo has had success with shoot-first point guards in the past — Lucas, Drew Neitzel. Draymond Green is a talented enough playmaker that the offense can be run through him, so if Appling can embrace a scorer’s mentality while being the team’s primary ball handler, he should be in line for a big season.
– POY: Jared Sullinger, So., Ohio State
– G: Jordan Taylor, Sr., Wisconsin
– G: William Buford, Sr, Ohio State
– F: Tim Hardaway, So., Michigan
– F: Draymond Green, Sr., Michigan State
– C: Trevor Mbakwe, Sr., Minnesota
– G: Aaron Craft, So., Ohio State
– G: Brandon Paul, Jr., Illinois
– F: Robbie Hummel, Sr., Purdue
– F: John Shurna, Sr., Northwestern
– F: Melsahn Basabe, So, Iowa
Newcomer of the Year: Bo Spencer, Nebraska
Spencer has plenty of experience playing to role of lead-scorer on a bad basketball team. He did it for two years with LSU before transferring to Nebraska for his senior season. Spencer finds himself in an ideal situation for a point guard that likes to shoot. He’s playing on a defensive-minded team that doesn’t have a ton of scoring options and that also just lost their primary playmaker and leading scorer, who just so happened to be the point guard. I’m not expecting an efficient season out of Spencer. But I am expecting him to put up some solid numbers.
– G: Andre Hollins, Minnesota
– G: Austin Etherington, Indiana
– F: Branden Dawson, Michigan State
– F: Jon Graham, Penn State
– C: Cody Zeller, Indiana
Five summer storylines
– Careers hindered by injuries: Delvon Roe was, when he was a junior in high school, as close as you could get to being a sure thing. He had the size, he had the off-the-charts athleticism, and he played the game hard. Blue-collar players with all-american talent are a rare find. Unfortunately, Roe’s body simply never cooperated. Normally, he went into the season feeling healthy, getting a couple months of the old Delvon back before being forced to miss practice and live in the training room. But this fall, Roe was heading into the year with knees that were already bothering him. So instead of putting himself through that kind of pain, Roe decided to call it quits. But hey, at least he has a back-up plan.
Maurice Creek’s story might be even more depressing. He broke the patella in his left knee midway through his freshman year. He suffered a stress fracture in his right knee midway through a sophomore year where he was playing at about 65%. Then earlier this month, Creek missed a step going up some stairs and ruptured his Achilles’ tendon. He’ll miss the entire season.
– Matt Painter’s do-se-do with Missouri: The folks in West Lafayette were quite scared for a while. After Mike Anderson took the Arkansas job and before Frank Haith accepted the Missouri position, the Tigers targeted Painter. He was very, very close to taking the job, and multiple times during their courtship, it appeared as if Painter to Missouri was a done deal. But on March 30th, Purdue fans got the information they wanted to hear — Painter was staying home.
– Jereme Richmond: Richmond was a head-case in his time with Illinois, getting suspended for the Illini’s trip to the NCAA Tournament after heading home to deal with some personal issues during an Illinois road trip. He declared for the draft and ended up going undrafted, which means he was no longer a part of the Illinois program, but his story was just too juicy not too follow. First, there was Richmond’s uncle spouting off in the media about how good his nephew is and how ridiculous it was the NBA didn’t want him. But more importantly, there was the incident that Richmond was involved in in August. Richmond was arrested for a domestic disturbance that involved an assault on his girlfriend and ended with Richmond showing up at her house with a gun. I think Bruce Weber is glad this kid is out of his program.
– Jared Sullinger and William Buford return to school: This was the biggest news of the summer for Big Ten fans. Jared Sullinger was a lock to be a top five pick. Buford was likely destined for the middle of the first round. Both announced after Ohio State’s loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 that they would be returning to school for another season. And while most writers dismissed this as nothing but a couple kids making an irrational announcement after a disappointing loss, both lived up to their word. All of a sudden, Ohio State was once again a top five team.
– Replacing point guards: Six schools in the Big Ten will be trying to replace important point guards next season. Nebraska found themselves an adequate replacement for Lance Jeter when Bo Spencer decided to transfer in from LSU. The same can be said for Illinois, who will be replacing Demetri McCamey with Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco. Minnesota lost their points guards to transfers (Justin Cobbs, Devoe Joseph) and graduation (Al Nolen, Blake Hoffarber), but Tubby Smith will be heading into this year with a point guard by committee approach. Michigan will be doing the same as they try to replace Darius Morris, who left early for the NBA, with a couple seniors guards and a freshman named Try Burke. Michigan State will be replacing Kalin Lucas and Korie Lucious with Keith Appling. Lastly, Northwestern will be trying to make the most difficult replacement by filling the void left by Juice Thompson’s graduation.
Five storylines to follow this season
– Is this the year Northwestern makes the tournament?: The Wildcats have never made the NCAA Tournament in the history of their program. Ever. Last year was supposed to be the year they changed that, but with John Shurna battling a high-ankle sprain throughout conference play, those plans were derailed. This season it will be much more difficult, as the Wildcats try and find a way to replace the production and the leadership of Juice Thompson, who may have been the most underrated point guard in the country last year. But Northwestern does have quite a bit of talent returning. Surrounding a healthy John Shurna with Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb is a solid core. With a couple of big men and a trio of guards to try and fill the void at the point, Northwestern will have their fate in their own hands.
– Can Michigan State and Purdue rebuild?: Kalin Lucas, JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore. Those names have dominated Big Ten talk for what feels like a decade. But with all three of those players graduating, both the Spartans and the Boilermakers will have quite a different look this season. Tom Izzo will be relying on a sophomore playing out of position at the point, a pair of newcomers on the wing and the playmaking ability of Draymond Green to rebuild. Purdue, on the other hand, will be hoping Robbie Hummel can return to his pre-injury form to lead a group of relatively unexperienced — albeit talented — youngsters on a run to the NCAA Tournament.
– Replacing Jon Diebler and David Lighty: The big news of the summer for the Big Ten was that Jared Sullinger and William Buford would both be returning to school. And while that immediately ratcheted up the hype the Buckeyes had coming into the season, it completely ignored the value that Diebler and Lighty added to this team. Lighty was arguably the most talented glue-guy in the country last season. He was capable of guarding any player in the country, regardless of position. But he was also able give the Buckeyes a boost wherever they needed it. He rebounded the ball, he shot the ball well from beyond the arc, he was able to put the ball on the floor and create. That versatility will be sorely missed. Diebler, on the other hand, was the single most dangerous shooter in the country last season. He also happened to be terrific at feeding the post. Thad Matta would use Diebler to feed Sullinger in the post, which make it that much more difficult for defenses to double team him and still rotate effectively defensively.
– Can Indiana finally make the jump?: Hoosier fans have been waiting for Tom Crean to get this program going in the right direction. They’ve now suffered through three consecutive 20 loss seasons, and the natives are starting to get restless. Crean isn’t going to have too many more opportunities to guide this team if they don’t start getting better, and this may be the year to do it. They add Cody Zeller and Austin Etherington to a team that already includes Verdell Jones, an improved Jordy Hulls and potential breakout performers Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo. Its too early to say its now or never for Crean, but how close does he want to get to that point?
– Wisconsin’s success and Jordan Taylor’s efficiency: As we mentioned earlier, Taylor was arguably the best player in the country last season. That’s at least what the stat heads will tell you. But so much of that success came as a result of the ability of Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil to spread the floor with their perimeter shooting. If Taylor doesn’t have his big men to spread the floor, will he be as effective? If he has defenses concentrating their efforts on him next season, does he put up the same numbers? Will Taylor be able to carry his teammates to the level that will be expected of them this year?
1. Ohio State: The 2010-2011 season didn’t end the way that Ohio State had hoped. After sweeping both the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles, the Buckeyes headed into the NCAA Tournament with just two losses — at Wisconsin and at Purdue. They were the No. 1 overall seed and a clear favorite to win it all. But it all fell apart for the Buckeyes in the Sweet 16, as they ran into a Kentucky team that forced them into their worst shooting performance of the season and sent OSU back to Columbus with a 62-60 loss. And while the Buckeyes lost seniors David Lighty and Jon Diebler, the disappointing finish did bring about some good news — both Jared Sullinger and William Buford made the decision to return to campus for another year.
The loss of Lighty and Diebler is going to hurt more than any Buckeye fan will care to admit. Those two were invaluable to the Ohio State program, playing as arguably the best role players in the country. But getting Sullinger back is a difference maker not only to this team, but in the hierarchy of the Big Ten as a whole and to the structure of college basketball on a national scale. Sullinger is the single most dominant interior presence in the country. He is an immovable object on the block, the guy that every coach at every level will want to use to show their big men how to establish position in the post and while battling for rebounds. He’s got some terrific moves on the block and will only get better this season. Should I mention that he’s gotten himself into prime physical shape, cutting 15 pounds of baby fat to give himself a chiseled, 265 lb frame? Joining him up front will be DeShaun Thomas, a 6’7″ combo-forward that is in line to become a starter this year. Thomas played limited minutes off the bench last season, but was extremely productive scoring the ball and cleaning the glass in the time he did see. Many have him pegged to be a break out performer this year. Throw in Boston College transfer and freshman Amir Williams, both of whom will likely see limited minutes as Thad Matta keeps one of the shortest benches in the country, and the Buckeyes have far and away the best front line in the Big Ten.
The back court — and the team, frankly — will be anchored by the play of Aaron Craft at the point. A fairly unheralded recruit coming out of high school, Craft came off the bench as a freshman but played starters minutes. He’s a sensational on-ball defender that embraces the role of facilitator. I’m not sure there are five point guards in the country better at running a team than Craft. He’ll be joined by Buford in the back court. Buford, believe it or not, has a very real shot of becoming Ohio State’s all-time leading scorer this season. He was known as a mid-range shooter, a Richard Hamilton-esque scorer coming off of screens, prior to this season, but he’s extended his range to become a dead-eye three-point shooter. It will be interesting to see who earns the minutes at the three this year. Sophomores Jordan Sibert, J.D. Weatherspoon and Lenzelle Smith Jr. as well as freshman Sam Thompson will be battling for the playing time. Ohio State will be the favorite to win the Big Ten against this season, and if some of their young talent can embrace being a role player by buying in defensively, the Buckeyes will have a very good chance of making it to the Final Four.
2. Wisconsin: Eventually, people are going to learn not to sleep on Wisconsin in the preseason polls. After starting the year outside the AP’s top 25, Wisconsin slowly grinded their way to the top of Kenpom’s rankings, bursting onto the national scene when Jordan Taylor led the Badgers from a 15 point second half deficit to a win at Ohio State. Riding the coattails of two of the best players in the Big Ten, Wisconsin finished in third place in the league standings, eventually making the Sweet 16 before losing to Butler. The Badgers weren’t — and never are — flashy last season. But they were the epitome of efficiency. What made them so good was their patience in waiting for a good shot, the fact that they never turned the ball over, how well they hit their free throws and how good they were at clearing defensive rebounds.
Well, all that and Jordan Taylor. We’ve already written plenty of words on just how good Taylor was last season, but it needs to be stated again — the numbers that he posted last season playing in a system that had so few possessions is incredibly impressive. In a year where there are a number of talented point guards, Taylor is, for my money, the best in the country. The only reason he isn’t far-and-away the Preseason Player of the Year in this league is because of that big fella over at Ohio State. Taylor will be joined in the back court by Josh Gasser, a sophomore who started from day one as a freshman. Gasser is a very fundamental all-around player, but it would be nice to see him become a more consistent three-point shooter playing with Taylor. Senior Rob Wilson, who had a disappointing junior season as he was hampered by a hamstring injury, will likely be called upon to fill the role left open by Tim Jarmusz as a defender and a guy that can hit open shots. Ryan Evans will get a shot here as well, especially if he learns how to shoot. Sophomore Ben Brust and freshmen George Marshall and Traevon Jackson will likely see back court minutes as well.
In the front court, it will be interesting to see just what kind of player Mike Breusewitz turns into this season. A 6’6″ forward, Breusewitz really came on strong late in the season, making a number of key plays in a number of critical games. With the front court minutes open, he will have plenty of opportunities to prove his worth. But will he be big enough to slide into that power forward spot, or does he continue to play as a wing forward? Easily the biggest challenge for Bo Ryan this season will be replacing the versatility of his two big men. What made Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil so dangerous was their ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter, making them serious pick-and-pop threats. Junior Jared Berggren and freshmen Jarrod Uthoff, Frank Kaminsky and Evan Anderson should all get front court minutes. If one or two of those big bodies can develop their jumper, Wisconsin has a shot to be very good.
3. Michigan State: The 2010-2011 was, frankly, a disaster for the Spartans. After Tom Izzo finally decided to return to East Lansing and turn down the Cleveland Cavaliers job, his team was predicted by almost everyone to be the most worthy challenger to Duke in the preseason. But due to a variety of issues — Kalin Lucas never could get healthy, Chris Allen and Korie Lucious were both kicked off the team, Durrell Summers and Derrick Nix never seemed to grasp the team concept, the rape accusations — Michigan State was never able to find a rhythm. They finished 19-15 overall and 9-9 in the Big Ten, somehow managing to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, where they lost in the first round.
This year, the Spartans are going to have a much different look. Lucas and Summers both graduated, as did Garrick Sherman and Mike Kebler. Delvon Roe opted to call it quits as a basketball player instead of continuing to try and play through injuries. As a result, with the exception of Draymond Green, Michigan State is going to have a completely new starting lineup this year. Obviously, Green is going to be the anchor for this team. At 6’7″, 230 lb, Green is one of the most versatile and well-rounded players in the country. He’s a combo-forward that cleans the glass on both ends of the floor, but he is also the best playmaker on this MSU team (4.1 apg). Without a true point guard on the roster, expect Green to play a point forward role this year. The center spot is going to be a battle all season long. Junior Derrick Nix seems to have finally gotten serious about basketball, having gotten down to 268 lb. He’ll be battling with the taller and more athletic Adreian Payne, and athletic sophomore that needs to put on some strength. There won’t be much depth without Roe, however, as seldom-used senior Anthony Ianni and redshirt freshman Alex Guana are the only other big men.
The back court will be a completely different product for the Spartans. Sophomore Keith Appling will likely take over at the point, although he is far from a pure point guard. He can score, but as a freshman Appling had fewer assists than turnovers. Even Delvon Roe averaged more assists than Appling. He can score, however, and it shouldn’t be a huge issue if Izzo can take advantage of Green’s playmaking ability. Joining him on the perimeter will likely be Brandon Wood and Branden Dawson. Wood is a transfer from Valparaiso that averaged 16.7 ppg and 3.1 apg as a junior. Dawson is a freshman that is drawing comparisons to former Michigan State forward Raymar Morgan. Freshmen Brandan Kearney and Travis Trice, who may be the only true point guard on the roster, will also see time, as will senior Austin Thornton. Russell Byrd will be a name to keep an eye on, but there is no guarantee that he gets healthy — or healthy enough to make an impact — this year. Michigan State will be an interesting team to follow. There is talent on this roster, but there are also a lot of unknowns. Depending on how this team comes together, I don’t think a top four finish in the conference is out of the question.
4. Michigan: The Wolverines headed into last season with virtually no expectations. After graduating nearly 70% of their scoring from 2009-2010, Michigan had one of the youngest rosters in the country and made their lives even more difficult by playing one of the toughest schedules in the country. Midway through Big Ten play, Michigan still looked like they were in trouble, as the Wolverines sat at 1-6 in Big Ten play. But something in Michigan clicked. They won eight of their last 11 regular season games, they advanced to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament and they blew out Tennessee in the first round of the Big Dance before nearly coming back from 15 points down to force overtime against Duke. If star point guard Darius Morris hadn’t made the decision to enter the NBA Draft, Michigan probably would have entered the season as a top ten team.
But the fact of the matter is that Morris did go pro, forgoing his final two seasons of eligibility, and it will be a major hit on this team. Morris was a perfect fit at the point for John Beilein’s system and without him, Michigan has a void at the point. And while that void will likely mean that Michigan is not among the elite teams in the country, they are still going to be good enough to hang around the top 25. The beauty of John Beilein’s system is that it is a system; the sum is almost always greater than the individual parts. The back court will be anchored by seniors Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, who are both solid all-around guards. Novak actually led the Wolverines in rebounding last year despite being just 6’4″. Both will need to improve on their ability to score and create, however. Tim Hardaway Jr., a sophomore, will end up being the star of this team and should play his way onto an all-Big Ten team. Hardaway became a dangerous scorer as his freshman season progressed. He’ll need to become a more consistent shooter and a better playmaker, but the talent is there. The x-factor in the back court will be freshman Trey Burke, who is the one true point guard on this roster. Will he be ready for the rigors of the Big Ten immediately? Junior Matt Vogrich and freshman Carlton Brundridge will also see a lot of time in the back court.
The development of the Michigan front court will be a key for the Wolverines this season. Two sophomores — Jordan Morgan and Evan Smotrycz — will probably end up starting. Morgan is a 6’8″, 240 lb center that had a couple of big games last season. He’s a solid rebounder that can finish around the rim, but he gets overwhelmed battling bigger front lines by himself. Smotrycz is a face-up four that will cause match-up problems with his ability on the perimeter. The majority of his shots came from beyond the arc last season, which is a strength for him and will help to spread the floor, but Smotrycz does need to get better on the glass. The guy to keep an eye on here will be Jon Horford. The 6’9″ sophomore has bulked up to 250 lb after being listed at 210 lb as a freshman. If he’s an impact player this season, he’ll allow Beilein to put a bigger lineup on the floor against teams with a stronger front court presence. Breakout sophomore years run in his blood — his brother, Al, became a star as a sophomore. Michigan has some major question marks, but I’m a believer in Beilein. He has the pieces on this team to be successful running his system. I expect them to be an NCAA Tournament team once again.
5. Illinois: Demetri McCamey was inconsistent to the bitter end. After a stellar year (individually) in 2009-2010, McCamey was picked by many to be the preseason Player of the Year in the Big Ten heading into last season. He looked the part early on as well, showcasing his dangerous jump shot and terrific playmaking ability. But the Illini went as McCamey went, and the closer his mind got to the NBA, the worse off the Illini were. After starting the year 10-1, Illinois lost to UIC at the United Center and followed that up by blowing a late lead and collapsing down the stretch in a loss to Missouri. Three wins to start Big Ten play made it seem like Illinois had managed to right the ship, but Bruce Weber’s club lost seven of their last 11 games and were bounced in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Illinois loses quite a bit heading into this season — McCamey, Jereme Richmond, Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis, Bill Cole — but at some point, that has to feel like addition by subtraction. Richmond was a knucklehead in every sense of the word. McCamey wasn’t as bad, but he had checked out late in the year. Recognizable names may be gone, but there is no way that the Illini haven’t improved their team chemistry. The strength for this season will, once again, be in the Illini’s back court. Juniors DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul will finally have a chance to make Illinois their team. Richardson is a better shooter than Paul, but Paul is a more dangerous all-around player, especially on the offensive end of the floor. Expect Paul and Richardson to become the first and second options offensively this year. They’ll be joined in the back court by Sam Maniscalco, a point guard transfer from Bradley that was one of the best players in the Missouri Valley. Maniscalco, who is legit as a player, is a senior, so he’ll be essentially keeping the point guard spot warm while freshman Tracy Abrams learns how to handle the Big Ten. Crandall Head is a defensive specialist on the perimeter, while Myke Henry and Devin Langford are freshmen that should get a shot at contributing this year.
There are a lot of players in the Illini back court, but the front court is not quite as promising. Meyers Leonard is the name everyone is going to recognize. A seven-foot sophomore, Leonard is a terrific athlete with all the tools to be a beast at this level but none of the skills to put those tools to use. He did spend the summer playing over in Latvia with the USA’s U19 team, which had to have been a quality experience. He’ll likely be joined in the starting lineup, at least early in the season, by Tyler Griffey, a 6’9″ junior that will spread the floor with his perimeter stroke. Don’t be surprised to see Griffey lose that spot, however, as Weber brings in a solid recruiting class along the front line. Nnanna Egwu, a 6’10” center form Nigeria, is the headliner, but power forward Mike Shaw — a Chicago native — will make some noise as well. Losing Richmond and McCamey was a good thing for this group chemistry-wise, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Illinois make the NCAA Tournament. I also wouldn’t be surprised if this group was even better next season; Maniscalco is the only player that will graduate.
6. Purdue: For the Boilermakers, the past two seasons have been anything but unsuccessful. They won a combined 53 games and went 14-4 in the Big Ten both years. They made the Sweet 16 in 2010 and advanced to the second round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament. All things considered, Matt Painter’s program could be in a much worse position. But it stings to think about just what could have been. Purdue lost Robbie Hummel to a torn acl — the same torn acl — the past two years. In 2010-2011, he never even had a chance to step on the court, as he reinjured the knee on the second day of practice. With JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore using up their eligibility last season, its impossible not to head into this year with anything other than what that injury cost Purdue on your mind.
There may not be an NCAA Tournament team in the country that has more question marks heading into the season than Purdue. First and foremost, there is the issue of replacing the scoring that is lost with Moore and Johnson. Those two weren’t only the first two options offensively for the Boilermakers, there were times where they were more or less the only options. The easy pick to replace that production is Hummel. But Hummel hasn’t played in a basketball game in over 20 months. He’s endured two devastating knee injuries and had to recover from two serious surgeries. And in his time off, he managed to make it to all of one official practice. There is no guarantee that Hummel is going to return to his previous form. Even when he was healthy, Hummel wasn’t necessarily a go-to player. He was more of a complimentary player, a guy that does all the little things well, can shoot the lights out and is able to attack a close out.
Senior point guard Lewis Jackson is likely going to be asked to play a bigger role offensively this season. He averaged 8.0 ppg and 4.0 apg as a junior, but he is going to need to be more assertive and more aggressive scoring the basketball. In addition to Hummel, Jackson may be the only other player whose role this solidified this season, as Painter will have a plethora of perimeter options. Sharp shooting senior Ryne Smith will probably get the start, as will DJ Byrd. But with experienced upper classmen like Kelsey Barlow and John Hart as well as talented youngsters Terone Johnson and Anthony Johnson coming off the bench, Purdue’s guards are going to have to work to earn minutes. Sophomores Travis Carroll and Sandi Marcius and freshmen Jacob Lawson and Donnie Hale will be the front court rotation, giving the Boilermakers one of the youngest front lines in the country. Will they be able to battle with the bigger teams in the Big Ten? There is no doubt that Purdue will be well-coached and physical defensively this season, a credit to the coaching of Matt Painter. And there certainly are some talented pieces on this roster, the question is simply how are they going to fit together?
7. Northwestern: Northwestern had one of their best seasons in the history of the program in 2010-2011. They won 20 games, they came a possession away from beating league champion Ohio State twice and they won two games in the NIT. For a program with the history of Northwestern, that is without a doubt a successful season. But what is going to sting is that it could have been so much more. John Shurna suffered a high-ankle sprain midway through the year and was never the same, and as a result the Wildcats were unable to get over the hump against the better competition in the league. To make matters worse, Juice Thompson, Northwestern’s starting point guard the past four years, graduates. There may not be a play in the league more difficult to replace than Thompson when you factor in what he meant to this team not only as a player, but as a leader.
Bill Carmody does bring in two freshmen point guards to take over the role in Tre Demps and David Sobolewski, but throwing a freshman into the fire and asking them to fill that void is a tall task. The good news is that Carmody’s system is one that doesn’t necessitate a true point guard. It makes it easier at the end of a shot clock, but really all the Wildcats need is someone to get them into their continuity sets. If Demps and Sobolewski struggle, junior Alex Marcotullio should be able to slide over and handle the point guard duties as he is the best ball-handler that returns. Marcotullio also averaged 13.0 ppg over the last six games when he was thrust into the starting lineup. The rest of the perimeter will be made up of junior Drew Crawford and sophomore JerShon Cobb. Crawford built on a freshman season where he won Co-Freshman of the Year honors to average 12.0 ppg, playing better down the stretch as he stopped settling for as many threes. Cobb had a solid freshman campaign despite battling through injuries much of the season.
Inside, Luka Mirkovic and David Curletti will provide the bulk. Both players are senior that have been through their share of battles in their time at Northwestern. Combined, they averaged 11.4 ppg and 7.1 rpg, which isn’t overpowering but should keep Northwestern from being overrun in the paint by some of the bigger front lines in the Big Ten. The star of this team, however, is John Shurna. Shurna is a deadly shooter that was having an incredible season before suffering an high-ankle sprain right at the end on non-conference play. He returned, but he was never quite able to reach 100% the rest of the season. A 6’7″ combo-forward, Shurna’s game centers around his perimeter stroke, although he’s consistently gotten better at getting to the rim. What makes Northwestern dangerous is how well they move the ball offensively, keeping the floor spread and creating open looks for their multitude of shooters. Whether or not they actually make the NCAA Tournament this season is unclear, but what we do know is that if this team is hitting their shots from the perimeter, they are going to be able play with anyone in the country.
8. Minnesota: The Gophers had a roller coaster season in 2010-2011, and not in a good way. After storming through the non-conference portion of their schedule and climbing as high as the top ten, Minnesota collapsed. They lost 13 of their last 19 games as a result of injuries (Al Nolen and Maurice Walker), mid-season transfers (Devoe Joseph) and an overall lack of maturity of their roster. They lost another key piece over the summer as Colton Iverson left the program. When it was all said and done, the Gophers were sitting ninth in a thoroughly mediocre Big Ten, watching the postseason from home.
Despite all of that turmoil, there is still a chance that Minnesota will end up being competitive in the conference this year. Their strength lies in the front court. Trevor Mbakwe, who was finally cleared to play after missing the 2009-2010 season due to a pending court case from his time at a junior college, is back and will be one of the best big men in the conference. A physical specimen, Mbakwe is one of the most imposing presences in the paint that the Big Ten has to offer. He’s a good shot blocker and a terrific rebounder, and if he can continue to develop his back to the basket game, he’ll put up better numbers than the 13.9 ppg and 10.5 rpg he averaged as a junior. He’ll be joined by Ralph Sampson III, who decided to return to school after pulling his name out of the NBA Draft pool. Sampson is a better low-post scoring threat than Mbakwe, but he didn’t have as much success as junior as many people expected him too. Walker, who was a touted recruit last season but missed the second half of the year with an injury, will be the first big man off the bench while Eliot Eliason, Oto Osenieks, and Andre Ingram will provide depth.
Tubby Smith’s club also has some promising pieces on the perimeter. Rodney Williams, a 6’7″ small forward, is one of the most exciting players in the country to watch thanks to his explosive athleticism. He’ll need to become a better shooter and more of an offensive threat, but he’s the kind of player than can change a game with his defensive playmaking and ability to soar around the rim. Austin Hollins and Chip Armelin showed some promise as freshmen last season, performing well despite being forced into a less-than-ideal situation of playing out of position as freshmen. Smith also brings in some impressive perimeter talent. Andre Hollins is a heady two-guard that can score and defend and will likely remind Gopher fans of Lawrence Westbrook. Joe Coleman is an impressive athlete that needs to refine his offensive repertoire. JuCo transfer Julian Welch will be in the mix as well. Minnesota’s biggest weakness is going to be at the spots Blake Hoffarber and Al Nolen played. Both were solid all-around guards. Hoffarber was a shooter and a playmaker while Nolen was a terror to keep out of the paint. Both were quality defenders as well. Who is the point guard on this roster? Who is going to be their shooter? Minnesota has some athletes and will be successful if they buy in defensively, but this team is going to have some struggles on the offensive end.
9. Indiana: The natives of the Hoosier State are starting to get restless. Tom Crean’s now in his fourth season as the head coach at Indiana, and there haven’t been enough steps made in the right direction. Prior to Crean, no Indiana head coach had ever lost 20 games in a season, and Crean has done just that in each of his three years at the helm. Progress is being to be made, however. Last year, Indiana knocked off two NCAA Tournament teams in Illinois and Michigan, knocked off Minnesota when they were ranked and had a couple of close losses against some of the league’s top teams. Becoming a more consistent team, especially on the defensive end of the floor, and a team that can play their best basketball for 40 minutes is a key.
Indiana should be improved this season even with the loss of Maurice Creek, who was a shell of himself in the minutes he got as a sophomore. It starts in the front court for Indiana, where Christian Watford and Cody Zeller will give the Hoosiers one of the more talented front lines in the league. Watford is a difficult matchup for opponents due to his versatility offensively. He’s a legitimate three-point shooter (38.5%) that can also score on the block. He took a lot of shots as a sophomore, but he had to. Indiana wasn’t overloaded with scorers last season, and Watford was their most potent weapon. Watford’s perimeter ability will allow him to work well in tandem with Zeller, the most highly-regarded freshman Crean has brought in. Zeller is a mobile and effective post scorer, and he’s already begun to address his biggest flaw — he’s added 20 pounds of muscle since he got to campus. Those two should be able to anchor this IU team, although they will be a major question mark defensively. Depth could be an issue with Bobby Capobianco transferring out, but senior Tom Pritchard and junior Derek Elston should be able to adequately spell the starters.
Even without Creek, there is some talent on the perimeter. Perhaps the biggest positive to come out of last season was the development of Jordy Hulls as a point guard and leader for this team. He’s not a great defender and his playmaking ability is a bit of a question mark, but he doesn’t turn the ball over and he’s a lights-out shooter that will be able to run this team. Senior Verdell Jones is probably going to be the best scorer that returns on the perimeter, but there are some issues with his game. He’s a turnover machine, his shot selection his questionable and there were times last year that IU looked better with him out of the lineup. Sophomores Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo will likely split time at the three. There are fairly high expectations for both players heading into the season, and they are perhaps the two best perimeter defenders on the roster. Freshman Austin Etherington and senior Matt Roth will provide the outside shooting. There is talent on this Indiana roster. But is there enough talent — and, more importantly, enough toughness to defend for 40 minutes — to actually win games? Indiana has finished seasons 0-9, 1-12 and 0-10 under Crean. Will that change this year?
10. Nebraska: Despite playing one of the weakest non-conference schedules in the country, Nebraska had a chance to sneak their way into the NCAA Tournament late in the year. After they knocked off Texas to move to 18-8 overall and 6-6 in the Big 12, the Cornhuskers were firmly in the conversation for the bubble. And while the Huskers lost five of their last six games — including an embarrassing 27 points loss to Wichita State in the opening round of the NIT — the year should still be considered a positive one for head coach Doc Sadler.
Nebraska lost their two most talented offensive weapons from a season ago. Lance Jeter — who joined Jamaal Tinsley and Kirk Hinrich as the only player to ever averaged 5 rpg and 5 apg in Big 12 play in a season — graduated and Christian Standhardinger was decided not to return to the team in December. Replacing Jeter’s playmaking should be made up for by the addition of LSU transfer Bo Spencer, who will immediately step in and be the Husker’s No. 1 option offensively. He’ll be joined on the perimeter by Toney McCray, a 6’6″ wing with a solid perimeter stroke, and Caleb Walker. Brandon Richardson should see some time off the bench, as will junior Ray Gallegos, Binghamton transfer Dylan Talley and freshmen David Rivers, Corey Hilliard and Josiah Moore. Up front, Nebraska has some solid big men. Jorge Brian Diaz returns, but he needs to get more physical inside. Brandon Ubel and Andre Almeida will be back as well. This team cuts their teeth on their ability to defend. With Spencer in the lineup and a couple of capable shooters and big men, Nebraska should be able to compete in their new league, although I don’t expect them to be in line for an at-large bid this year.
11. Iowa: Looking at their record alone, its easy to think that Fran McCaffery hasn’t made any progress in building the Hawkeyes into a contender. A 20 loss season complete with two six-game losing streaks in conference play will do that. But if you look deeper, there were some promising results during the 2010-2011 campaign for Iowa. They beat Michigan State by 20 and knocked off Purdue. They took Wisconsin and Michigan to overtime and nearly beat Ohio State. There were some embarrassing blowouts, particularly on the road, where Iowa struggled all-season long, but with seven of their eight rotational players back this season, there is reason to be optimistic about the growth of the Iowa program.
That optimism starts with the freshman season had by Melsahn Basabe. An under-recruited, 6’7″ power forward out of New York, Basabe burst onto the national radar when he went for 22 points, 13 boards and six blocks against Jared Sullinger and the Buckeyes. Granted, he did have his ups and downs as a freshman — he finished the season averaging 11.0 ppg and 6.8 rpg — but the promise is there. Basabe is a lanky, athletic forward that succeeded because of his ability to find space in the paint and finish around the rim. His offensive arsenal is still developing, but his quickness on the block and his terrific motor on both ends of the floor make him a candidate to break out as a sophomore. The biggest issue for McCaffery this season will be figuring out who to pair Basabe with up front. Jaryd Cole graduated, meaning that Andrew Brommer and Devon Archie will likely be the guys competing for minutes at center. Aaron White and Gabriel Olaseni will provide depth.
Iowa has quite a bit of talent returning in their back court. While Cully Payne, who only saw action in five games due to a sports hernia, transferred to Loyola (IL), the Hawkeyes will have a senior duo in their back court of Matt Gatens and Bryce Cartwright. Cartwright, who averaged 5.9 apg in his first season in Iowa and was named honorable mention all-Big Ten, will handle the playmaking duties, which will be vital to the faster tempo that McCaffery will be looking to play. Gatens is the team’s best scorer and one of their better shooters, but he has to become more effective from beyond the arc that the 33.1% he shot as a junior. Eric May, Zach McCabe and Roy Devyn Marble all had solid seasons as underclassmen last year, and while be joined by freshmen Aaron White and Josh Oglesby this season. There is a ton of youth on this Iowa roster, enough that its difficult to see them truly competing in the league this year. But the trend for the Hawkeyes is definitely in the right direction.
12. Penn State: The Nittany Lions may have lost 15 games during the 2010-2011 season, but there is no way that you can call the year a disappointment. Penn State knocked off four ranked opponents in Big Ten play, came within a possession of winning at Ohio State and at Purdue, made the finals of the Big Ten tournament and earned themselves an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. It was a terrific way to end the career of Talor Battle — arguably the most successful player in the history of the Penn State basketball program — as well as Jeff Brooks, David Jackson and Andruw Jones. The Nittany Lions won’t be building off that season, however, as each of those four players were senior starters on a team with virtually no depth. Throw in the fact that head coach Ed DeChellis opted to take the head coaching job at Navy over remaining in State College, and new head coach Pat Chambers is going to have his work cut out for him.
The only player that returns that played any significant minutes is Tim Frazier, a junior guard that started last season. Frazier struggled early in the season, but he really came on over the last month, averaging double figures in Penn State’s last 11 games. After that, there are a lot of question marks and a lot of minutes to be earned. Senior Cammeron Woodyard and sophomore Jermaine Marshall both saw limited action in the back court last season. They’ll be joined by newcomers Trey Lewis, Matt Glover and Ross Travis. In the front court, seldom-used sophomore Billy Oliver will be joined by sophomore Sasa Borovnjak and freshman Jon Graham, who both redshirted this season. Incoming freshmen Peter Alexis and Patrick Ackerman will also see time. While its unclear who will be playing what minutes for the Nittany Lions next season, what is clear is that it will probably be awhile before Chambers has this team back in the NCAA Tournament.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.