I know, there's a lot to focus on this fall - IU football just equalled last year's win total, there's IU Soccer, and there's other pro sports (evidently this "baseball" is coming up on some sort of playoff structure?) to pay attention to. Still, I've seen a few other Big Ten pre-season power polls, and thought I'd weigh in as well in the upcoming year's conference basketball hiearchy. It's been a while since I posted on the national picture but some things have changed enough that the conference picture has clarified a little bit for me. Specifically, I'm less high on Ohio State - I still really like the defense, but I just have to wonder how well the offense will run now without Sullinger to move bodies around and Buford for bail-outs, and I'm higher on Minnesota - there's a lot of depth and a lot of potential up there.
1. Indiana- The Hoosiers got some bad news in losing Ron Patterson, but still have quite the recruiting haul to go along with five returning starters from their Sweet 16 finish last season. Derek Elston and Remy Abell also return off the bench, and Abell in particular could see an expanded role now that Patterson is gone. The four true freshmen should see quite a bit of the floor, even if they don't start, with bigs Hanner Mosquera-Parea and Peter Jurkin shoring up the interior defense, and Hollowell and Yogi Ferrell providing some real offensive spark and playmaking either in the starting line-up or off the bench. There's so many things to like about this club offensively, that I'll just mention that defense is still the primary concern for this team, but if B1G POY front-runner Cody Zeller has truly bulked up without sacrificing his athleticism, you could see him and Parea boosting the team's interior defensive stats significantly. Watch the early returns on defensive rebounding and opponents' 2-point field goal percentage as compared to last year.
2. Michigan - I would love to drop the Wolverines quite a bit, and I don't buy into the hype on their freshmen too much, but they are probably the Hoosiers' top competition. Trey Burke will lead the squad, but now that he has NBA aspirations, this may actually hurt the Wolverines as Beilien has seen several players take a step back after realizing that scouts were watching (Manny Harris and Tim Hardaway Jr. come to mind). Burke and Hardaway return with Jordan Morgan to form a nice core, and Glenn Robinson III seems most likely to join them for major minutes. Al Horford returns from injury and should be the major reason that Mitch McGary doesn't see as much time on the floor as many expect. Redshirt freshman Max Beilfeldt may actually see some minutes if he can hit the three, but otherwise I see problems for Beilien's offense as there's not a lot accurate outside shooters here outside of Burke and the little-used Matt Vogrich. The losses of Zack Novak, Stu Douglass, and even Evan Smotrycz will likely be felt the first time they face a zone defense.
3. Michigan State - Losing Draymond Green will set you back, a lot. Yet, Tom Izzo seems to always prevail, and he's got Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne to share the increased burden in the paint along with freshman Matt Costello. He also added a couple of good wings in frosh Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine, both of whom have been rumored as possible starters. Keith Appling and Brandan Kearney returns in the backcourt, and if Travis Trice bounces back from injury, he'll see a lot of minutes as the only true point on the roster. Two major questions will probably keep these Spartans from title contention, and they are 1) outside shooting - who makes threes here? and 2) who is the go-to guy, the emotional leader, and the key playmaker now that Green is gone? Green got stops in so many ways, was a top three-point shooter, and racked up a lot of assists while maintaining a positive assist/turnover ratio. You can't underestimate his loss on this team's standing.
t-4. Minnesota - This is probably overselling the Gophers a bit, they seem like a lock for the top six, but if there's a big surprise in the conference, I'd pick Minny. Adding Trevor Mbakwe to the NIT runners-up without losing too much production (Ralph Sampson and Chip Armelin), should be enough to make the jump to NCAA contention, let alone adding redshirt center Mo Walker and true frosh Wally Ellenson and Charles Buggs. The main question is, does Rodney Williams go back to his mediocre ways if Trevor Mbakwe is in the paint? And also, although outside shooting will likely still a bit of an achilles heel (which means you've not seen the last of Julian Welch in the starting lineup), we should expect Mbakwe and blossoming Elliot Elliason to shore up the interior defense and Tubby Smith's squad to move up the conference ladder a few rungs.
t-4. Wisconsin - Don't bet against Bo Ryan. That said, I don't see the loss of Jordan Taylor as easily replaced as some would have you believe. Sam Dekker will be a great player for Wisconsin, but he may not start much this season with Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans returning. Redshirt freshman George Marshall will get some minutes at point, but I think junior Josh Gasser will really be running the show. I'm not sure either of them can fill that bailout role that Taylor was so good at, though. Sniper Ben Brust probably gets a few more minutes, and maybe a starting nod, too, unless Traevon Jackson has made some real strides in the offseason. Jared Berggren needs to continue to develop, and Frank Kaminski needs to shake off the lackluster performance he had in the NCAA tourney.
t-4. Ohio State- Yes, there's plenty of talent on hand here and yes, Thad Matta can coach. But it's not like Matta's never seen the NIT either. The Buckeyes will be tougher, maybe even tougher defensively than last season (more minutes for Amir Williams should be rewarding here), and there's enough highly-rated talent to have a dark-horse run to the Final Four. But they're also going to have problems on offense - and it's not so much the outside shooting I doubt as much as the ways in which those shots will be generated. DeShaun Thomas thrived when Sullinger was kicking the ball out or William Buford was driving and dishing, but neither of them are here. Aaron Craft is a fine point guard, but not the playmaker that Thomas and Lenzelle Smith are likely to need to open things up for them. And who's the bail-out guy when the clock is ticking down? I think the X-factor here is the sophomore Shannon Scott, who (along with Williams) needs to live up to his McDonald's All-American billing to make the offense run. I think it's a safe bet that their defense will carry them to a decent seed in the NCAA tourney, but I wouldn't put too much money on the Buckeyes really playing above their seed.
7. Northwestern - Some NU fans are pretty excited for next season, despite the loss of John Shurna. Why? They see Drew Crawford as the next BMOC, Jared Cobb as a possible starter (if healthy) and are excited about the transfers of Nikola Cerina and Jared Swopshire, and are absolutely drooling over having two 7-footers on campus with freshmen Alex Olah and Chier Ajou. I'll add that the redshirted Michael Turner and true frosh Kale Abrahamson are piquing interest, and nobody here is even noting that Tre Demps was considered a pretty big get before he got injured last season and had to sit out. Nor do people here in Evanston seem to remember that Alex Marcotullio was actually one of the more efficient shooting guards in the conference last season, and all-B1G-freshman-team worthy Dave Sobolewski returns. Things could be really great for the Wildcats this year! Ahem. Could. I've not caught that level of enthusiasm (the conference-worst defense will still be very problematic - without Shurna, especially), so I foresee another tense year on the bubble, which is as good as it gets in Evanston.
8. Iowa - Why the step back? Losing your starting backcourt would hurt anyone, but Matt Gatens played crazy minutes and only Roy Devyn Marble was really able to back up Bryce Cartwright's starting minutes at lead guard. Freshman Mike Gesell will probably be pretty good, especially down the road, but it's hard to step into the point guard spot as a true freshman in the Big Ten. People are expecting big things from 7-footer Adam Woodbury, but bigs usually develop slower - remember that Amir Williams was ranked higher than Cody Zeller coming out of high school. I really like Aaron White, and think Zach McCabe and Melsahn Basabe were actually a bit underrated in conference play, but this is probably a transition year. I do believe that the defense might get better this year (and it was pretty close to the bottom of the conference last season) the offense is likely to stall or get worse. And finally, it seemed like Iowa overachieved a bit on wins last season - looking at per-possession efficiency margins, the Hawkeyes probably should've been closer to Minny's in-conference win total (6) rather than matching Northwestern's (8). The NCAA's are certainly possible, just not probable.
9. Purdue - Joey "Brackets" Lunardi has them making the NCAA's, barely. I'm not so sure. A lot of key features of last year's offense are gone (notably three-point shooting and steady ball-handling) as well as the linchpin of the defense (Robbie Hummel). The freshmen class (led by point Ronnie Johnson) here is solid, and will be bolstered by redshirt and probable starter Donnie Hale, but offseason reports suggest that deep bench members Sandi Marcius and Anthony Johnson are also looking like they could both crack the starting five, alongside Johnsons Ronnie and Terone, and DJ Byrd. That's not really good news for the Boilers, who need Hale or frosh center AJ Hammons to be able to hold their own in conference play in the paint, and could get some mileage out of lanky frosh wing Raphael Davis. I suspect Painter will do a solid coaching job to have this group on the winning side of .500, but I wouldn't expect much more than a NIT berth this season.
10. Penn State - Tim Frazier is an all-league level point guard, and gets a nice backcourt mate in transfer DJ Newbill this season. Jermaine Marshall can score some points, and there's a couple of sophomores that might take a step forward in the frontcourt, notably Ross Travis and Jon Graham proved they could hang in the Big Ten. However, as tough as they are, you don't want your starting bigs averaging a mere 6'7" in this league. Reserve center Sasa Borovnjak could conceivably make enough strides in the offseason to nail the starting spot, and frosh Donovan Jack and Brandon Taylor should bolster the Nittany Lions' depth inside. Still, it's hard to look at the personnel here and see anything that's all that significantly better than last year - and don't forget that per-possession, the in-conference defense was only better than Northwestern's. Freshman wing Akosa Maduegbanum should join the all-hardest-name-to-spell team, though.
11. Illinois - I'm not a fan of their backcourt, and with Meyers Leonard gone, the frontcourt isn't exactly imposing. You have to respect that Brandon Paul might go off for 40 in any given game, but the odds are generally in your favor against that happening. DJ Richardson and Tracey Abrams were the least productive backcourt in the conference last season, and there's no reason that will change. The possible breakout wings redshirt freshman Kevin Langford and Myke Henry are unlikely to see the ball or much of the floor behind Richardson and Paul (and Joe Bertrand), and only 6-8 graduate transfer Sam "f*** it, I'm going to Illinois" McLaurin seems able to give them a legit post scorer so the Illini can even have a hope of seeing the postseason.
12. Nebraska - Probably the worst in the conference in terms of raw talent and depth by a long shot. Not as bad as the 2008-2009 Hoosiers, but not good. How bad? They lose four starters (only Brandon Ubel returns) and need Dylan Talley and Andre Almedia to bounce back from injuries to really have a team to field that could compete in the Big Ten. The Huskers won four games last season, and it's hard to see them topping that. It's certainly within reason to think that at least two of their newcomers (notably, Juco Deverell Biggs and frosh Shavon Shields) could capably step right into starting roles. The future's not awful for new coach Tim Miles,and Nebraska has a couple of transfers who play big minutes in 2013-2014, but this season is going to be rough. Any more injuries, illnesses, or suspensions, and there will be walk-ons will be seeing rotation minutes.