Big Ten Preview
Despite significant losses to graduation, Buckeyes’ reign continues.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
Defending Conference Champion: Ohio State
Top Player: Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
Top Freshman: Cody Zeller, Indiana
Most Underrated Player: Zack Novak, Michigan
Projected Tournament Teams: Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Purdue, Indiana
1. Will Jared Sullinger be able to repeat his freshman success without David Lighty and Jon Diebler?
As great as Sullinger is (he is the best college basketball player in the country… Harrison Barnes is your best future pro), he thrived last season in part thanks to the arsenal of marksmen he had surrounding him on the three-point line. David Lighty, Jon Diebler and William Buford led the nation’s most efficient three-point shooting attack last season.
Sullinger’s post presence and his underrated knack for making the correct pass out of double and triple teams (much harder than it sounds) didn’t hurt the Buckeyes’ shooting proficiency. But that’s obviously a two-way street. Sullinger was lucky enough to operate against single-coverage most possessions due to the opposition’s fear of doubling down off the shooters and its respect for Sullinger’s passing ability. Last season’s second leading scorer Buford is still around and Aaron Craft has proven he can knock down open threes, but there just isn’t the same depth of perimeter weapons for opponents to worry about when deliberating how to defend Sullinger. Sophomore DeShaun Thomas showed potential from distance as a freshman, but is he ready to replace Lighty or Dieber? While it’s still a gamble, I have a feeling Big Ten rivals will feel a little more comfortable making Ohio State’s shooters beat them from deep this season. Sullinger will still put up numbers (he’s too good not to), but he will have to make a mindset adjustment in order to do so.
2. Will this be the year Northwestern finally makes its first ever NCAA Tournament?
The last few seasons were each supposed to be the one that Northwestern got that decaying monkey carcass off of its back. Despite recent near-Tournament misses, there is once again optimism surrounding the ’11-12 Wildcats team. Something has clearly clicked on the recruiting trail for Bill Carmody, because after years of being forced to settle for fringe Big 10 players, the Wildcats are signing and in the mix with some top high school prospects.
Having said all of that, to answer the posed question: No. Northwestern will not make its long awaited trip to the dance floor this season. Last year (which yielded a very solid but not good enough 20-14 tally), with no elite teams in the conference outside Ohio State, the school had its chance. With the rise of Indiana, the incorporation of tough Nebraska, and the expected return of the real Michigan State Spartans, there will be more quality teams in the league this season. The program’s recent success has at least created a culture of semi-winning, but terrific noodle-armed forward John Shurna needs more help. The loss of terrific guard Michael Thompson is significant.
3. How can we trust that Michigan State won’t flop like last season?
I don’t think Tom Izzo will let it happen. Though highly unlikely, you get the feeling that Izzo would release all twelve of his players from their scholarships and start from scratch before going through another season from hell like the last.
The Spartans, for whatever reason, just had a bad year. The root of the troubles is debatable, but I think it had something to do with your traditional snowball effect: A bad loss early in the season crippled confidence and carried into another and another. Maybe Izzo was too reliant on his kids’ Final Four experience and uncharacteristically relaxed some. By the time he realized his vets were not going to snap out of it on their own, the season was lost. Whatever the problem was, this team is way too talented to let it happen again. The Spartans still have the ageless frontcourt of Draymond Green and Delvon Roe; Keith Appling showed promise in his rookie season; and it shouldn’t be too hard to motivate the other holdovers from last season. Athletic freshman small forward Branden Dawson should make an immediate impact and help replace Durrell Summers.
Predicted Finish + Bottom Line:
1. Ohio State
Not many teams could lose a duo like David Lighty and Jon Diebler and still be an overwhelming favorite to win a conference the next season. THE Ohio State Buckeyes will win the Big Ten, but its post-season success depends on the development of tough-nosed sophomore point guard Aaron Craft.
This team has the nation’s most experienced frontcourt, but it needs sophomore guard Keith Appling to solidify the critical point guard slot. That would take a lot of pressure off talented freshmen guards Brandon Kearney and Travis Trice.
Jon Leuer is gone, but Bo Ryan still has the best overall point guard in the nation on his roster in Jordan Taylor. Another scorer or two needs to emerge for the Badgers, but this team will be as thorny as ever.
A potentially special season and dream backcourt was ruined by Darius Morris’ decision to enter the Draft. What the Wolverines do have are Tim Hardaway Jr and heady role players who skillfully execute John Beilein’s two-guard offense.
Robbie Hummel is back … again. The poor guy who has been through two knee surgeries and a lifetime of ‘what ifs’ in the last couple of years should motivate a young, but talented Boilermaker squad. Losing JaJuan Johnson and E’Twuan Moore, however, lowers the expectations significantly.
Tom Crean has to realize this is the season. The talent is finally stockpiled to a level in Bloomington where an NCAA Tournament berth is not a fanatical Hoosier Nation pipedream but a real possibility. Watch out for a monster season from Christian Watford.
Bruce Weber has to hope that losing the cantankerous Jereme Richmond is addition by subtraction. The only problem for the Illini is it subtracts too much else from last season’s roster to bank on getting back to the Tournament. The Orange Krush should have fun watching a very solid recruiting haul (four top-100 freshmen according to ESPN), though.
John Shurna should give all the rail-thin, vertically challenged white kids out there hope for playing major conference college basketball. Outside of maybe Hummel, Shurna is the league’s most versatile player. But for Northwestern to reach that elusive first NCAA Tournament appearance, coach Bill Carmody needs another star to emerge from a pretty talented roster.
Occasionally, I make a gut-inspired call, and for whatever reason, the Gophers don’t do it for me this season. Though Trever Mbakwe is a maniacal crasher of boards, I didn’t like the uninspiring fashion with which Tubby Smith’s team finished the season. Freshman point guard Andre Hollins could make an immediate impact on this squad.
In Doc Sadler’s inaugural Big Ten season, Nebraska will probably land where it usually did in the Big 12: in the bottom half of the league. Don’t expect the Huskers to be a pushover though … Sadler always has his team playing tough D, especially at home.
11. Penn State
Pat Chambers should bring a spark to the sideline in his first season in Happy Valley, but losing last season’s top three scorers to graduation (including Mr. Clutch Talor Battle) will be hard to overcome.
Unfortunately for Hawkeye fans, progress involves falling to a conference opponent by less than 10 points, but Iowa was more competitive last season. Though losses will once again mount in Iowa City, but expect a big sophomore campaign from forward Melsahn Basabe. Iowa fans can also look forward to a standout 2012 recruiting class arriving in a year.