Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
OUTLOOK: The Big Ten Conference has had eight teams reach the Final Four in the last 12 years, the league now synonymous with excellence as it relates to the world of major college basketball.
Last season, the Ohio State Buckeyes reached that lofty perch, only to fall to eventual national runner-up Kansas. Despite the league's amazing run as one of the nation's elite, a Big Ten team hasn't won the national title since Michigan State turned the trick in 2000.
That could all change this season, as the Indiana Hoosiers appear to have what it takes to be left standing when the dust settles on that first Monday in April, laying claim to their sixth national crown, and their first since 1987. Coach Tom Crean has an extremely talented squad, but to reach that point Indiana is going to have to outlast the likes of Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Both the Wolverines and Buckeyes in particular are expected to give the Hoosiers a run for their money, as each possesses the sort of talent-rich roster most teams drool over. The Spartans and Badgers are probably just a rung below, each boasting their share of gifted athletes.
Even the second half of the teams currently calling the conference home aren't pushovers, but there is a fairly dramatic drop-off in terms of overall talent. Still, the Big Ten has some of the nation's top coaches, all of whom are capable of keeping their teams competitive in a league that thrives upon it as it prepares its teams for the pomp and circumstance that is the NCAA Tournament.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Indiana
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
1 Indiana, 2. Michigan, 3. Ohio State, 4. Michigan State, 5. Wisconsin. 6. Minnesota, 7. Purdue, 8. Northwestern, 8. Iowa, 10. Illinois, 11. Penn State, 12. Nebraska
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
INDIANA: The Hoosiers open the 2012-13 season as the No. 1 team in the country, their first such distinction since ending the 1993 campaign as the top team in the land. Indiana has the good fortune of returning all five starters and 11 total letterwinners from last year's team that advanced to the Sweet 16 and finished with a 27-9 overall record. A dangerous team any way you look at it, Indiana can run with the best in the country, but is coming off a year in which it drained 43.1 percent of its 3-point shots as well. The team is led by Crean, now entering his fifth year at the helm, and he has one of the top players in country at his disposal in 6-11 sophomore Cody Zeller. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year as selected by the league's coaches last season, Zeller averaged 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, but he isn't the only talented player who will be wearing the crimson and cream this year as he will be joined up front by senior Christian Watford (12.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and junior Will Sheehy (8.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg). The IU backcourt is expected to consist of seniors Jordan Hulls (11.7 ppg, 3.3 apg) and Victor Oladipo (10.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg), as well as the return of junior Maurice Cheek, who missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles. Add a highly-touted recruiting class to the mix, which includes standout point guard Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell, and anything but a Big Ten title and deep run in the NCAA Tournament will be a huge disappointment.
MICHIGAN: The Wolverines welcome back three starters from last year's NCAA Tournament team that won a share of the Big Ten title. Head Coach John Beilein enters his sixth year with the program and returns a pair of All-Big Ten performers in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Burke was named the league's Freshman of the Year by the media last season after averaging 14.8 points and 4.6 assists per game, while Hardaway, Jr. turned in 14.6 ppg and as long as he puts forth a consistent effort from one night to the next he should put together a campaign worthy of additional accolades. The duo will need to be on top of their game throughout the season, but particularly early on as newcomers Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III develop their overall games. Both are talented players already, but while Robinson has the blood lines (his dad is former Purdue and NBA star Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson), the 6-10 McGary comes in as one of the top frontcourt recruits in the country. Another youngster who could make an immediate impact is 3-point sniper Spike Albrecht. Scoring in close to the basket will be paramount to any success Michigan achieves this year, but make no mistake, this team will run through Burke and Hardaway, Jr.
OHIO STATE: With future NBA first-round pick Jared Sullinger leading the way, the Buckeyes won a share of the Big Ten title and reached the Final Four last season. Despite the skilled big man moving on to the professional ranks, Ohio State still has enough talent to challenge in the ultra-competitive Big Ten, and head coach Thad Matta has to be thrilled to have three starters back to lead by example. Aaron Craft (8.8 ppg, 4.6 apg, 2.5 spg) and Deshaun Thomas (15.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg) both earned All-Big Ten honors a season ago, with the former being named the league's Defensive Player of the Year. While Thomas will hold court up front and Craft working his magic out on the perimeter, help will need to come from a slew of solid if unspectacular players. The hope is guys like Lenzelle Smith, Jr. (6.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Evan Ravenel (3.4 ppg, 2.2 rpg) will contribute more as their roles expand. There is only one freshman on the roster this year, as 6-5 Italian import Amedeo Della Valle has the outside shooting chops to keep opposing teams from keying too much on OSU's "big two". Long-range shooting is something the Buckeyes are going to have to work on as they hit just 33.4 percent of their 3-point attempts last season.
MICHIGAN STATE: There are few coaches around that are able to replenish a roster the way Tom Izzo can, the long-time mentor now entering his 18th year at Michigan State and needing to do one of his better jobs in keeping the Spartans near the top of the Big Ten heap. MSU lost a big-time performer in Draymond Green (16.2 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 3.8 apg), and it will now be up to guys like junior guard Keith Appling (11.4 ppg, 3.9 apg) and sophomore swingman Branden Dawson (8.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg) to lead the charge. Izzo will rely heavily on those guys, but also expected to elevate their respective games are second- year guard Travis Trice, who is a dangerous 3-point shooter and could develop into one of the leaders of this team, as well as junior center Adreian Payne (7.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg, team-high 39 blocks), who simply needs to establish his presence down low and not allow the opposition to cheat on the outside in an effort to keep the Spartans' shooters in check. Michigan State has always prided itself on defense and rebounding, and the team enjoyed success in both areas last year when it allowed just 59.3 ppg and claimed a plus-8.0 advantage on the glass. Expect more of the same this time around, although when they have the ball, the Spartans could run a little more which would make them that much harder to defend.
WISCONSIN: While some wondered whether the Badgers had enough talent to compete with the big boys in the Big Ten last year, they proved they had the goods as they won 26 games and reached the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16. Head coach Bo Ryan preaches sound play at both ends of the floor, and while the team is expected to perform well defensively a year after leading the nation with just 53.2 ppg allowed, there are questions about its ability to score the basketball. Wisconsin averaged a mere 64 ppg in 2011-12, and the loss of Jordan Taylor and his 14.8 ppg, means guys like seniors Ryan Evans (11.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and Jared Berggren (10.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg) will need to step it up in a big way. Junior Josh Gasser (7.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg) nailed 45.2 percent of his 3- point shots last year, and junior Ben Brust (7.3 ppg) is also another long- range threat as he made more 3-pointers (58) than any returning player. The Badgers will start the season without senior forward Mike Bruesewitz (5.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg) as he recovers from surgery to repair of large gash to his right leg. One of UW's top recruits is 6-8 forward Sam Dekker, who scored more than 2,600 points in his high school career. The Badgers will be highly competitive thanks to a suffocating defensive effort, but whether or not they can score with more regularity remains to be seen.
MINNESOTA: Tubby Smith enters his sixth season in charge of the Minnesota men's basketball team, and while he has had talented squads in the past, this may be his most balanced one yet. The team returns its top five scorers, including senior Trevor Mbakwe who averaged 14.0 points and 9.1 rebounds per game last season before going down with a serious knee injury just a few weeks in. Rodney Williams (12.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg) is the only other Golden Gopher who averaged double digits in the scoring column last season, and when Mbakwe was lost for the duration, it was Williams who assumed the role of go-to guy. Julian Welch (9.5 ppg, 2.9 apg) along with Austin (9.2 ppg) and Andre Hollins (8.7 ppg) are also back, and all will need to increase production in every aspect of the game for Minnesota to climb the Big Ten ladder a year after losing twice as many conference games as it won (6-12). Smith landed a couple of top-notch recruits in 6-4 guard Wally Ellenson and 6-8 forward Charles Buggs, the former being a solid shooter and the latter bringing a wealth of skill to the table, not the least of which is his superior athleticism. The Gophers have talent, but staying healthy (see Mbakwe) will be the key to any success the team achieves this season.
PURDUE: No team in the Big Ten lost more quality players following the end of last season than did the Boilermakers as Robbie Hummel, Lewis Jackson and Ryne Smith accounted for half of the team's scoring. Junior guard Terone Johnson (9.2 ppg) will be counted on heavily by head coach Matt Painter to lead both on the court and in the locker room, and expanded roles for senior D.J. Byrd (8.9 ppg, 2.3 rpg) and sophomore Anthony Johnson (5.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg) should benefit the team as well. There are six freshmen listed on the 2012-13 roster, and the most talented appear to be point guard Ronnie Johnson and center A.J. Hammons. The 7-0 Hammons will need to condition his body to withstand the rigors of playing major college basketball, but his skill set is certainly suited for the game, while Ronnie Johnson has the ability to become a special floor general for a Purdue squad that will need someone to direct the offense and get the ball to its more capable scorers. Three-point shooting will be huge for the Boilermakers this season, and Byrd is the top guy in that department after hitting 65 treys at a 43-percent clip a year ago. Hitting the glass will also be key for Purdue as it was in the negative in rebounding margin in 2011-12.
NORTHWESTERN: The Wildcats won 19 games last season, but finished two games below .500 in conference play (8-10) and went the final five weeks without stringing together consecutive wins. In all fairness, they didn't drop back- to-back games during the same stretch, but that kind of lackluster effort has been indicative of the team in its history, which still does not include an invite to the NCAA Tournament. Head Coach Bill Carmody enters his 13th year at the controls, and he is genuinely excited about the talent he has assembled this season, despite the glaring absence of scoring machine John Shurna (20.0 ppg). Senior Drew Crawford (16.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg) takes over as Northwestern's top performer, and he should get help from sophomore guard Dave Sobolewski (8.3 ppg, 3.7 apg) as well as senior Reggie Hearn (7.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg). Junior JerShon Cobb (7.1 ppg) was expected to have an expanded role, but he has been suspended for the entire season due to a violation of team policy. Former Louisville Cardinal Jared Shropshire is expected to make his final year of eligibility a productive one as he brings experience and athleticism to the court for a team that will need someone to complement the effort Crawford is expected to deliver.
IOWA: For the Hawkeyes to avoid another middling-type season (18-17, 8-10) this year, tightening up the defensive reins will be the key after they allowed a Big Ten-worst 72.5 ppg in 2011-12. The loss of leading scorer Matt Gatens (15.2 ppg) doesn't help at the offensive end, but allows for guys like junior Roy Devan Marble (11.5 ppg, 3.6 apg) and Aaron White (11.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg) to develop into even more productive players. Sophomore Josh Oglesby (6.4 ppg, 45 3-pointers) will serve as the team's primary long-range threat. Junior forwards Melsahn Basabe (8.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Zach McCabe (7.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg) will get their chance to shine, but it's Marble coach Fran McCaffery is expecting big things from as he assumes the role previously held by Gatens. Iowa fans are excited about the prospects a guy like 6-1 freshman Mike Gesell brings to the table, and the same for 7-1 rookie Adam Woodbury, as both could see significant playing time from the outset. Lacking a true superstar, the Hawkeyes will be hard-pressed to finish in the top half of the conference standing this year. However, if they play well as a team and catch some breaks health-wise, they could show improvement.
ILLINOIS: Despite finishing on the positive side of the ledger last season (17-15), coach Bruce Weber was shown the door and his replacement, former Ohio University head man John Groce, has been entrusted with restoring the pride the Fighting Illini showed between 2000-06 when they never lost double-digit games in a season. Groce has some talent to work with as he embarks on this next chapter in his career, notably leading scorer Brandon Paul (14.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.9 apg) who will need to improve his shooting touch if he is to become truly one of the elite players in the conference. D.J. Richardson (11.6 ppg) is one of the team's elder statesmen, and big things are expected from 6-8 forward Sam McLaurin who while at Coastal Carolina last season shot better than 61 percent from the field in averaging 10.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. McLaurin adds instant credibility to a team that figured to struggle on the glass this year after losing Meyers Leonard (13.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg) following last season. The key to any success the Illini achieve this year could hinge on the play of sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams (4.3 ppg), without whom the team is likely to be a rudderless ship despite having a new captain at the controls.
PENN STATE: There isn't a team in the Big Ten that relies more on one player than Penn State does on senior guard Tim Frazier. The 6-1 standout averaged 18.8 points, 6.2 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game in 2011-12, and he is on pace to become the school's all-time assists leader while also expected to shoulder the majority of the scoring burden once again. Joining Frazier in the Nittany Lion backcourt is junior Jermaine Marshall (10.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg), and he is coming off a year in which he led the team with 43 3-pointers. Overall however, the team shot just 31.1 percent from long range in netting a mere 61.8 ppg. Expected to produce right away after transferring in from Southern Miss is sophomore guard D.J. Newbill, while the frontcourt should benefit from the seasoning guys like Jon Graham (3.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and Ross Travis (4.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg) got as rookies last season. Frazier is the team's catalyst in more ways than one, but if coach Patrick Chambers can get one or two others to play above their means then perhaps the Lions can improve upon the 12 wins they logged in his first season at the helm.
NEBRASKA: The Cornhuskers lost nine of their last 10 games last season, and the school's administration decided a change was in order so Doc Sadler was let go and former Colorado State head coach Tim Miles was given the job. Miles isn't likely to have a whole lot of success in his first year at the helm as the team lost its only double-digit scorer in Bo Spencer (15.4 ppg), and five of its top six scorers overall. Senior guard Dylan Talley (8.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg) is the lone holdover from that group, but he started just one of the 25 games he appeared in last season. Senior forward Brandon Ubel (6.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg) will need to elevate his game considerably to give Nebraska a frontcourt presence, and guys like 6-7 sophomore David Rivers and 6-11 senior Andre Almeida could help there as well. Make no mistake, scoring is the sticking point with this team, as it averaged a league-low 60.9 ppg last season. One guy who could shine brighter as the season wears on is diminutive freshman point guard Benny Parker. Even with a new voice calling the shots, it won't be easy for the Huskers to win more than the four conference games they did in their first year in the Big Ten.