Big Ten Season Preview
As good a league as any… at least at the top.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
Defending Conference Champion: Ohio State
Defending Regular Season Champion: Tie: Purdue/Michigan State/Ohio State
3. Michigan State
4. Ohio State
10. Penn State
Summary: You are looking at the deepest league in the country…at least at the top of the conference. After the first six or seven teams, the quality drops off dramatically, but in the top half of the Big Ten, each team has legitimate conference championship aspirations. Only a few teams have the actual firepower to achieve that goal.
Purdue has too much senior talent coming back to not pick the Boilers (the senior season = college sports’ answer to the free agent season), and it happens to be the most battle-tested and dynamic senior trio in the country. E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson wisely pulled out of the NBA Draft, and a healthy Robbie Hummel returns for one last run to the Final Four. It looked like the Boilermakers were destined for Indy before their season went down with Hummel’s ACL. Some experts are trying to be cute and point to the loss of the almighty Chris Kramer as the reason Matt Painter’s squad will come up short this season (I’m going to avoid the “Chris Kramer was the heart and soul of Purdue” road at all costs). Sure they’ll miss his 1.5 BNPG average (Bloodied Noses Per Game), but no one can convince me the loss of Kramer is going to derail a potential Purdue Final Four run.
Bruce Weber has finally built the Ilini program back up, and with virtually everyone back from a team that both surprised and disappointed last season, expectations are high. The returning veteran core of Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale is now supplemented by Illinois Mr. Basketball small forward Jereme Richmond. Illinois could have the deepest roster in the league, and while they will certainly be at the top of the standings all season long, I’m not sure it will be enough to beat out Purdue for the top spot.
Michigan State will somehow make the Final Four this season. Based on, oooh I don’t know, the past decade, it would be stupid to bet against the Spartans in March. Big Ten play isn’t such as sure of a thing, though. You can’t just pencil in an all-league starting point guard coming off major Achilles surgery, even if it is Kalin Lucas. The rest of the team looks impressive, with nearly everyone returning from last season’s surprising Final Four team (including Izzo himself who famously flirted with and then turned down the Cavs…best “Decision” ever). If Lucas rebounds and is at full strength for the entire Big Ten schedule and Durrell Summers, Draymond Green and Delvon Roe all take major steps forward, then the Spartans could be the team to beat. If not, then they’ll always have March.
Team on the Rise: It feels like Indiana basketball has been down for a half a century already, but Tom Crean finally has the Hoosiers program looking up…it’s just looking up in the wrong conference. In the Pac-10, for instance, the Hoosiers could be one of the league’s most talented teams, but in this year’s Big Ten, there’s not much of a chance for upward mobility. This team will be respectable (obviously not good enough for the diehards who flock to Bloomington every week), with Maurice Creek, Verdell Jones and Christian Watford expected to fufill the promise they’ve shown glimpses of in their brief college careers. Creek in particular was off to a great start in his freshman season before injuring his knee in December. It may not seem like a .500 season is much to celebrate about, but that’s how ugly things were for IU basketball when the “Crean and Crimson” era began.
Team on the Decline: I’m guessing last year didn’t turn out like John Beilein hoped. In his third year on the job at Michigan, system fully implanted (I can personally vouch for the fact that Beilein’s offense, which we ran a version of at Cornell, does take a lot time and reps to get proficient at), two star players returning (DeShawn Sims and Manny Harris), and coming off a Sweet 16 season…a mediocre 15-17 record is what the Maize and Blue spit out. Now both Sims and Harris are gone, and while the team may be easier to coach, the Wolverines are in full blown rebuilding mode now. If it weren’t for good old Iowa to hold down the fort in the cellar, Beilein would be staring at a last place finish in his fourth season as head coach. There are a few intriguing players on the roster (if his crossover is half as good as his dad’s, Tim Hardaway Jr was a nice sign for Beilein), but there is not enough talent in Ann Arbor to compete consistently in a conference as strong as this one.
Underrated Player: He might not be underrated in the Big Ten, but in terms of national notoriety, Jon Leuer might be one of most underappreciated and dangerous big men in the country. Leuer might not receive the credit he deserves because he stars in a Wisconsin program that, despite it’s remarkably consistent performance under Bo Ryan, hasn’t produced many star players (Devin Harris being the obvious exception). He is one of the Big Ten’s biggest match-up nightmares –a 6-10 forward who’s equally adept at and away from the basket. In our second round win against Wisconsin last season, we couldn’t stop Leuer from draining step back jumpers, stroking contested three-pointers, and displaying a capable low post game as well. Leuer will have the opportunity to step up even more offensively now that Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon have graduated.
Keep an eye on: Whether Northwestern can end the drought of all droughts and make the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. Last year everyone thought the Wildcats had their best shot in Bill Carmody’s tenure, then Kevin Coble injured his foot and left the program. Coble’s absence, though maybe depriving Northwestern of their long awaited first dance, allowed other players like John Shurna, Michael Thompson and Drew Crawford to emerge and develop for this upcoming season. It’s not unreasonable to think the Big Ten could earn as many as seven bids to the Tournament this season, and Northwestern (finally) has the horses to earn that last bid.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.