I was going to use this in a publication, but then one thing fell through, and then another...and now it's here. I'm taking a small break from blogging this week, which is why it's been a bit quiet around here. I'll be back on Friday for the Minnesota preview, and I'm sure others will have articles up as well. If you like this, there's more where it came from -- Pete
If the '07-'08 and '08-'09 seasons were the ripening of one of the best classes the Big Ten had ever seen, the '09-'10 season would be its harvest. Seniors Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, JaJuan Johnson, E'Twaun Moore, Talor Battle, Demetri McCamey, David Lighty, Jon Leuer, and Al Nolen were a few of the players that would battle for the Big Ten title last year, and the title chase was a dream for one team, solid for some, and drudgery for others.
Al Nolen's broken foot derailed a promising Minnesota team, condemning them to Minneapolis in March. Talor Battle deferred a bit more, elevated his supporting crew, and led Penn State to its first NCAA tournament berth since 2001. Demetri McCamey and the Illini stumbled a bit, but made the tournament. Darius Morris was one of the most improved players in the NCAA and led Michigan to the NCAAs. Purdue and Wisconsin had very good seasons, but finished in second and third respectively to an Ohio State team that rode Jon Diebler's three-point shooting and Jared Sullinger's rotund behind to a Big Ten title. Then there was Michigan State, who lost Chris Allen before the season even began and Korie Lucious during conference play to dismissals, but still somehow shambled to an NCAA tournament bid despite their worst season in a decade.
With those graduations plus the addition of Nebraska, the Big Ten is in a state of transition. While Ohio State will be the favorite thanks to the return of Jared Sullinger, the middle of the conference will be completely up for grabs. The following rankings are our predictions as to how the 2011-2012 Big Ten season will finish, in order from first to last:
1. OHIO STATE
At the end of last season Jared Sullinger was projected as a lottery pick. Almost everyone was surprised when he decided to stay in Columbus, and thus the Buckeyes are predicted to be Big Ten champions this season. Sullinger will form a solid corps of players along with defensive stalwart Aaron Craft and deadeye shooting guard William Buford. Sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas will improve, and given how short Thad Matta likes to see his bench, those four players will probably see the vast majority of playing time. A strong recruiting class will fill in the gaps, and Ohio State will most likely gain back-to-back titles.
2. MICHIGAN STATE
Is this a homer pick? Possibly. However, Michigan State has the raw talent to compete with Ohio State for the Big Ten title...if it can coalesce. Sophomore Keith Appling and graduate school transfer Brandon Wood will have to replace Kalin Lucas at the point, but team assist leader last season Draymond Green should be able to make enough plays. Freshman Branden Dawson can provide inside scoring and offensive rebounding, and if Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix tap their potential into production the Spartans may be a threat for the Big Ten crown.
Wisconsin has been the popular pick to compete with Ohio State for the top of the Big Ten, but everyone besides point guard Jordan Taylor will have question marks. Neither Mike Bruesewitz or Josh Gasser has displayed the outside shooting touch long associated with the Badgers, and they'll be the two veterans relied on to replace Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil. It's dangerous to doubt a Bo Ryan-led team however, and the odds are more than good that enough contributors (redshirt freshman center Evan Anderson will be one to watch) will be found to yield one of the best teams in the conference.
If Darius Morris hadn't left for the NBA Draft this year, it'd be the Wolverines and Buckeyes as the top two teams in the conference. Michigan is without Morris though, and they'll need to adjust to life without the catalyst for their success last season. The good news is that all the other pieces return, as Tim Hardaway Jr. found his outside shot in February, Jordan Morgan will provide offense from the post, and Zack Novak will still do all the little things. This team will live and die on how the point is run, and as of now it looks like freshman Trey Burke will bear that onus. If he can adapt quickly, look out for Michigan. If he can't, look out for Michigan...below.
JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore have left the Boilermakers, and with them they took more than half of Purdue's scoring from last season. Thankfully for the black and gold, Robbie Hummel will be back for his senior year after taking all last year to heal from a knee injury suffered in a practice in October. Lewis Jackson will be one of the better point guards in the Big Ten, and Ryne Smith will provide solid shooting from deep. If Purdue can find a second source for interior scoring along with Hummel and maintain the defense from last season, life without Moore and Johnson may not be as bad as predicted.
Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson will comprise one of the best frontcourts in the conference. Someone needs to get them ball however, and that duty will fall to Chip Armelin and Austin Hollins now that Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber have expired their eligibilities. The one aspect that Minnesota must improve most is three-point shooting - Hoffarber was their top marksman, and nobody left on this year's team shot above 30% from three last season. If Minnesota can knock down a few shots outside the arc and free up room for Mbakwe and Sampson to operate, a trip to the NCAAs isn't too tall of an order.
The Illini were one of the hardest teams hit by attrition, as Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale, and Mike Davis have graduated, and freshman Jereme Richmond curiously chose to enter the NBA draft. That leaves juniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, along with sophomore Meyers Leonard as the core Illinois will build around for the future. A very good recruiting class is coming in to help out though, and with the losses other teams are incurring, the Illini couldn't have picked a better year to reload. Growing pains will occur early and often. There's only one senior on the roster however, so if Illinois can make it through this season, 2012-2013 will look bright.
Indiana has seemingly been predicted to move its way up in the Big Ten for the past couple years now, and each time they've faltered. This year they have no excuse, as they've retained all of their major pieces as other teams have lost theirs. Christian Watford and Verdell Jones are great at drawing fouls, but must make more shots in different areas (Watford from two, Jones from three). Victor Oladipo can be counted on to put back misses, and Jordan Hulls is one of the conference's best shooters. If freshman Cody Zeller lives up to his five-star ranking and the Hoosiers can stop fouling the postseason will be a certainty.
The Hawkeyes were expected to have a tough go of it last season, and while they did (4-14 in conference), wins over Michigan State and Purdue hinted at the team's potential. Melsahn Basabe was one of the Big Ten's impact freshman, a tough rebounder and efficent scorer inside. He had a great point guard feeding him in Bryce Cartwright, who will look to improve his shooting in his senior year. The shooting and field goal defense will need to improve, but Iowa will no longer be the doormat it has been in the past couple seasons.
Michael Thompson may not have been the most renowned player in the Big Ten, but he was integral to the Wildcats. He was the team's second best three-point shooter, its assist leader by far, and played more minutes than anyone in the conference except Talor Battle. John Shurna will still provide buckets from close and afar, but now Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb must make sure the plays still happen. The Wildcats should still be able to pull off an upset or two with their style of offense, but with only one player suited for inside play (senior Luka Mirkovic), and a soft defense, expect the 'Cats to miss the NCAAs yet again.
Nebraska went 7-9 in the Big 12 last season on the strength of how they played on the interior. Their two-point scoring and defense were some of the best in the nation. However, the rest of their offense left much to be desired. The Cornhuskers couldn't rebound on offense, turned the ball over on more than 20% of their possessions, and had a hard time getting to the foul line. They lose two players from last year's team, and one of them was arguably their most important in point guard Lance Jeter. This ranking is the most likely to be incorrect, for if they adjust quickly Nebraska could find itself in the mix for an NIT berth. If the transition to the Big Ten is a bit rough, they'll end up at the 11 spot.
12. PENN STATE
It's not just that Talor Battle is gone. It's that seniors Jeff Brooks, Andrew Jones, and David Jackson are gone with him, along with Taran Buie's dismissal. Tim Frazier will have to bear the same load Battle did in years previous, if not more. Frazier was a good distributor for last year's Nittany Lion team, but he'll most likely have to repeat his 22-point performance in the Big Ten tournament semifinals against Michigan State every night if this team wants to even have a whiff of success. The recruiting class will need to help immensely if this team has any hope of leaving the cellar.