The "BIG TENNNN" may be a running joke during this current football season, but it's projected to be quite the opposite in basketball; Indiana (#1), Ohio State (#4), and Michigan (#5) make the top five in both the AP and Coaches poll, with Michigan State sitting at #14 in each. If you prefer KenPom (say "yes"), the outlook is even brighter, with Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan State, and Wisconsin running #'s 2-5 and Michigan at #12. The depth is strong, as well: nine teams make KenPom's top 54, while every squad save Nebraska (#216—yikes) is within the upper 90.
How do I see the conference shaking out this year? Find out below.
1. Indiana (#1 AP, #1 Coaches, #3 KenPom)
Last year: 27-9 (11-7 Big Ten), lost to Kentucky in Sweet Sixteen
Returning Starters: 4
Key Returners: C Cody Zeller, PF Christian Watford, SG/SF Victor Oladipo, PG Jordan Hulls
Key Departures: none
Top Newcomer(s): PG Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell (Rivals 5*, #19 overall), SF Jeremy Hollowell (4*, #41 ovr), PF Hanner Parea (4*, #43 ovr)
It's not hard to see why, even in the country's best conference, Indiana is the consensus frontrunner. The Hoosiers return every starter from the only team to defeat Kentucky in the regular season in 2011-12; they also gave the Widcats a run for their money (hurr hurr) in the Sweet Sixteen before falling to the eventual national champs.
Sophomore center Cody Zeller is a near-unanimous preseason All-American after averaging 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game in his debut season—an extremely efficient post player, his 66.5 true shooting % was ninth in the country. Teams collapsing on Zeller in the post, however, usually pay dearly, as the Hoosiers feature a pair of lights-out shooters in PF Christian Watford (43.7 3P% last year), PG Jordan Hulls (49.3%), as well as a couple capable outside gunners off the bench in Will Sheehy and Derek Elston. Add in athletic slasher Victor Oladipo (52.3 2P%) and a
solid distributing guard in Verdell Jones (23.0 assist rate) and you get perhaps the best starting five in the country.
To top it off, the Hoosiers pulled in three top-50 recruits in the 2012 class, including electric five-star point guard Yogi Ferrell, who should make an immediate splash off the bench. While Indiana isn't a defensive juggernaut, their fantastic shooting and the inside presence of Zeller make them extremely difficult to beat.
EDIT: Verdell Jones graduated, and I am an idiot. Slide Will Sheehy into the starting five; little else changes.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the projected Big Ten standings.]
2. Ohio State (#4 AP, #4 Coaches, #2 KenPom)
Last year: 31-8 (13-5 Big Ten), lost to Kansas in Final Four
Returning Starters: 3
Key Returners: SF/PF Deshaun Thomas, PG Aaron Craft, SG/SF Lenzelle Smith Jr.
Key Departures: C Jared Sullinger, SG William Buford
Top Newcomer(s): PG Amadeo Della Valle (Rivals 3*)
The Buckeyes have a couple big holes to fill in their starting lineup after losing center Jared Sullinger and guard William Buford, two of their top three scoring options from last year; just as importantly, Sullinger was one of the conference's best rebounders and a matchup nightmare who created space for the rest of the team to operate on offense. While Ohio State has the talent of a top-three team, I want to see how they handle his departure before expecting them to give Indiana a serious run.
That said, Ohio State has perhaps the conference's most dangerous scorer in forward Deshaun Thomas, who averaged 15.9 points per game on 59.9 2P% and 34.5 3P% shooting last year; despite being a bit of a gunner, he's still efficient and had one of the better turnover rates in the conference, though with a minuscule 6.0% assist rate he's something of an offensive black hole, and that was with Sullinger and Buford flanking him.
Point guard Aaron Craft doubles as a pass-first offensive creator and arguably the best defensive guard in the country; in the Big Ten Tournament, he hounded Trey Burke into a 1-11 shooting performace to key a Buckeye blowout. The other returning starter, Lenzelle Smith Jr., was the fifth option last year, but he's a solid shooter (55.6 eFG%).
To fill the void left by Sullinger, the Buckeyes will rely on PF Evan Ravenel, a limited offensive player who rebounds well and plays decent defense (though he must cut down drastically on his 7.3 fouls committed/40 minutes) and center Amir Williams, a former McDonald's All-American from Detroit Country Day who showed flashes of impressive athleticism and The Brow-esque shot-blocking (14.0% block rate!) in limited minutes as a freshman in 2011-12. While those two won't replace the offensive production of Sullinger, they could very well be a defensive upgrade while Thomas et al pick up the scoring slack.
3. Michigan (#5 AP, #5 Coaches, #12 KenPom)
Last year: 24-10 (13-5 Big Ten), lost to Ohio in first round of NCAA Tournament
Returning Starters: 3
Key Returners: PG Trey Burke, SG Tim Hardaway Jr., C Jordan Morgan
Key Departures: PF Zack Novak, SG Stu Douglass, PF Evan Smotrycz
Top Newcomer(s): SF Glenn Robinson III (Rivals 5*, #11 overall), PF/C Mitch McGary (4*, #30 ovr), SG Nik Stauskas (4*, #71 ovr)
I've covered Michigan extensively already and will have a big picture outlook on Thursday, so this will be brief. Trey Burke is arguably the country's best point guard as a sophomore; if Tim Hardaway Jr.'s shooting can return to his freshman year numbers while Robinson and McGary come close to living up to the hype, this is a team that could contend for the league title and a Final Four appearance. With a lot of question marks defensively and a heavy reliance on youth, however, this team could also fall towards the bottom of the top 25 in such a tough conference. Freshmen Nik Stauskas and Caris Levert could be X-factors that put this team over the top.
4. Michigan State (#14 AP, #14 Coaches, #4 KenPom)
Last year: 29-8 (13-5 Big Ten), lost to Louisville in Sweet Sixteen
Returning Starters: 2
Key Returners: PG Keith Appling, SF Branden Dawson, C Adreian Payne, PF/C Derrick Nix
Key Departures: PF Draymond Green, SG Brandon Wood, SF Austin Thornton
Top Newcomer(s): SG Gary Harris (Rivals 5*, #25 overall), SG Denzel Valentine (4*, #81 ovr), PF Matt Costello (4*, #83 ovr)
Like Ohio State, Michigan State heads into the 2012-13 season trying to figure out how to replace the heart and soul of their team; in this case, the void is left by Draymond Green, the do-everything point forward who earned KenPom's player of the year award last season. As is the case with the Buckeyes, this is a team with top-five talent that must figure out a new identity.
Point guard Keith Appling should emerge as the team's new top dog; he's at his best going to the basket, where he's an adept finisher and a regular presence at the free throw line. He's also a good distributor, though he'll have to cut down on his 20.6% turnover rate for this offense to fire on all cylinders. He'll be flanked by sophomore small forward Branden Dawson, an athletic and efficient scorer inside the arc who may take a few weeks to get to 100% after suffering a torn ACL in the regular season finale last year, and five-star freshman shooting guard Gary Harris, an early favorite for newcomer of the year. Harris is an all-around scoring threat who could very well emerge as the team's go-to guy as the season wears on.
The Spartans feature a pair of vintage Izzo bangers inside in center Adreian Payne (16.9 DReb%, 6.9 Blk%) and power forward Derrick Nix (55.8 2P%, 10.7 OReb%). Payne is the better athlete and defensive presence, while Nix—cleared to play and given team captaincy by Izzo after an offseason arrest for impaired driving—is a surprisingly skilled and nimble post player given his rotund figure; both are above-average rebounders.
The fate of this team rests on the maturation of Appling and Nix and the ability of Harris to make an immediate impact. With Tom Izzo at the helm, it's safe to assume we'll see improvement from the returning players, a well-coached outfit that can beat any team at any time, and a squad that is at their best come the postseason.
Coulda Been A Contender
5. Wisconsin (#23 AP, #21 Coaches, #5 KenPom)
Last year: 26-10 (12-6 Big Ten), lost to Syracuse in Sweet Sixteen
Returning Starters: 3
Key Returners: SF Ryan Evans, C Jared Berggren, PF Mike Bruesewitz
Key Departures: PG Jordan Taylor
Top Newcomer(s): SF Sam Dekker (Rivals 5*, #13 overall)
I was prepared to put Wisconsin in the above category, possibly above Michigan State and even Michigan, before Jordan Taylor's expected replacement, Josh Gasser—the first Badger since 2002-03 (Alando Tucker) to start as a freshman—went down for the season last weekend with a torn ACL. That's a huge blow to a team that already had to replace their top scorer and assist man in Taylor. Redshirt freshman George Marshall—an unranked three-star recruit in 2011—now must step in and run the offense.
The Badgers, as we've come to expect under Bo Ryan, will be strong up front, led by center Jared Berggren and forwards Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans. Despite being the smallest of the three, Evans (20.4 DReb%) is actually the best rebounder, while the tallest, Berggren (50.3 2P%, 37.2 3P%), is the most accurate shooter; Bruesewitz does the dirty work on the offensive glass.
The scoring load may well fall on freshman Sam Dekker, a 6'7" five-star wing from Sheboygan who can score with his back to the basket or facing up from the outside. Berggren and shooting guard Ben Brust (38.9 3P%) will help with perimeter scoring. A Bo Ryan team through-and-through, however, the Badgers will look to grind the pace to a halt, lean on their normally-stellar defense, and win games with scores that barely crack 50.
Middle Of The Pack
6. Minnesota (#30 AP, #34 Coaches, #26 KenPom)
Last year: 23-15 (6-12 Big Ten), lost to Stanford in NIT title game
Returning Starters: 4
Key Returners: PF Trevor Mbakwe, SF Rodney Williams, PG Andre Hollins, SG Julian Welch
Key Departures: C Ralph Sampson III
Top Newcomer(s): PF Charles Buggs (Rivals 3*), SG Wally Ellenson (Rivals 3*)
If there's a team that could make a surprise move into the top five in the conference, it's Minnesota, which gets PF Trevor Mbakwe back after he was granted a sixth year of eligibility following a torn ACL in the seventh game of the 2011-12 season. Mbakwe caught another break this week—a September DUI conviction threatened to put him behind bars as he was already on probation, but he only received additional probation and community service.
If he's healthy, Mbakwe is one of the best post scorers in the conference, a great rebounder on both ends of the floor, and a shot-blocking presence on the interior. He pairs with SF Rodney Williams (61.5 2P%, 5.2 Blk%) to form one of the most athletic, high-flying frontcourt duos in the country. With good outside shooting coming from the backcourt of Julian Welch (43.8 3P%) and Andre Hollins (37.9 3P%), the Gophers have a dangerous offense that works from the inside out.
The Gophers were an inconsistent squad last season and will need to find a way to replace center Ralph Sampson III, either by plugging in 6'11" sophomore Elliott Eliason or going small with three guards surrounding Mbakwe and Williams. Their combination of athleticism and outside shooting will give more than a few teams problems, and this team should find their way into the NCAA tournament.
7. Iowa (#53 KenPom)
Last year: 18-17 (8-10 Big Ten), lost to Oregon in second round of NIT
Returning Starters: 4
Key Returners: SG Roy Devyn Marble, PF Aaron Wright, SF Melsahn Basabe, SF Zach McCabe
Key Departures: SG Matt Gatens
Top Newcomer(s): C Adam Woodbury (Rivals 4*, #50 ovr), PG Mike Gesell (4*, #100 ovr)
The Hawkeyes made a big leap last year in Fran McCaffery's second season at the helm, improving from 11-17 to 18-17 with an NIT appearance. Though they lose lights-out shooter Matt Gatens, a pair of impact freshmen—center Adam Woodbury and point guard Mike Gesell, the latter of whom should start right away—and the underrated Roy Devyn Marble could push this team even higher in year three.
Marble does a little bit of everything for Iowa, creating shots for himself (44.5 2P%, 39.3 3P%) and others (24.0% assist rate) from his shooting guard spot. Forwards Aaron Wright and Melsahn Basabe will be relied upon for rebounding—though they struggled in that regard, especially defensively, last year, and Basabe spent much of the season in McCaffery's doghouse—while junior wing Zach McCabe hit 22-of-49 shots from beyond the arc last year.
Where this team must improve is on the defensive end after ceding a league-high 71.6 points per game in conference play last year; Woodbury could help here by adding a big body on the interior. If Iowa steps it up on that end, they could sneak into the NCAA Tournament; if not, they should at least make an encore appearance in the NIT.
8. Illinois (#54 KenPom)
Last year: 17-15 (6-12 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: 4
Key Returners: SG Brandon Paul, SG D.J. Richardson, PG Tracy Abrams
Key Departures: C Meyers Leonard
Top Newcomer(s): SG Mike LaTulip (NR)
Last year could not have gone much worse for an Illini team expected to compete for an NCAA appearance, as head coach Bruce Weber was fired after a 2-12 collapse to end the season with the team appearing to quit on him down the stretch. Talented center Meyers Leonard had enough, declaring early for the NBA Draft and leaving behind a sizeable hole in the middle of the Illinois lineup.
The Illini could bounce back, however, after hiring Ohio coach John Groce to take over for Weber. Groce's team will rely heavily on shooting guard Brandon Paul, a volume shooter who exploded for 43 points in a victory over Ohio State but also shot just 34% with 22 turnovers over the team's final six games—capped off by a 2-11, 7 TO performance as the Illini fell to Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. He'll inevitably have a few 25+ scoring efforts and his fair share of clunkers.
Fellow guard D.J. Richardson actually managed to chuck up even more three-pointers than Paul, though at least he made 34.8% of his 204(!) attempts last year. Unlike Paul, Richardson does a solid job of not turning the ball over, making him a decent, though not great, secondary scoring option. Watch for sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams to take on a more prominent role in the offense this year, as well.
Losing Leonard is a huge blow to the Illini's interior game, with only senior power forward Tyler Griffey and seldom-used sophomore Mike Shaw representing much of a rebounding presence. This will be a perimeter-heavy team that lives and dies by the outside shot; if Groce can reign in Paul, however, they could get enough big games from their shooters to find their way into the postseason.
9. Purdue (#37 KenPom)
Last year: 22-13 (10-8 Big Ten), lost to Kansas in NCAA round of 32
Returning Starters: 2
Key Returners: SG Terone Johnson, SG D.J. Byrd, C Travis Carroll
Key Departures: PF Robbie Hummel, PG Lewis Jackson, SG Ryne Smith
Top Newcomer(s): C A.J. Hammons (Rivals 4*, #77 overall), PG Ronnie Johnson (4*, #94 ovr), SF Raphael Davis (4*, #96 ovr)
After a seemingly endless, injury-plagued-but-wildly-productive collegiate career, Robbie Hummel has finally departed the Purdue roster; leaving with him are point guard Lewis Jackson and shooting guard Ryne Smith. Those three represent three of last year's top four scorers plus their leaders in rebounds and assists.
Needless to say, the Boilermakers have a lot to replace this year if they want to claw their way back to the Big Dance. They'll lean on slashing guard Terone Johnson (53.0 2P%) and sharp-shooter D.J. Byrd (43.0 3P%) to carry the scoring load. A pair of true freshmen—center A.J. Hammons and point guard Ronnie Johnson—should see significant time, with Johnson likely taking over the starting job at the one.
Without Hummel, Purdue sorely lacks an inside scorer, and if Hammons can't fill that role it's unlikely that they'll find a major threat on the roster. As such, defenses should be able to key on Purdue's perimeter game—Byrd is a great shooter but very one-dimensional offensively. A rebuilding year lies ahead in West Lafayette.
10. Penn State (#67 KenPom)
Last year: 12-20 (4-14 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: 3
Key Returners: PG Tim Frazier, PG Tim Frazier, PG Tim Frazier
Key Departures: SG Cammeron Woodyard
Top Newcomer(s): SG D.J. Newbill (Southern Miss transfer), PF Brandon Taylor (Rivals 3*)
Point guard Tim Frazier bears the load for his team more than any other player in the conference—last year, he played 92.8% of PSU's available minutes (13th nationally), accounted for 32.6% of their possessions (10th), took 30.3% of their shots (76th), and had a near-inconceivable 43.5% assist rate (2nd). As far as basketball is concerned, Tim Frazier is Penn State.
Frazier will get some welcome help in the form of shooting guard D.J. Newbill, who posted a solid freshman campaign at Southern Miss before deciding to transfer back to his home state. Junior guard Jermaine Marshall also adds a some scoring punch, though he's not a great shooter (43.8 2P%, 32.6 3P%).
The Nittany Lions have a few big bodies to throw out there in sophomore Ross Travis (18.2 DReb%), juniors Sasa Borovnjak and Billy Oliver, and freshman Brandon Taylor. For the most part, however, they'll hope Frazier can carry them to victory. This should work against the next two teams, and perhaps once or twice against middle-of-the-pack squads, but this is still far from a complete team.
11. Northwestern (#90 KenPom)
Last year: 19-14 (8-10 Big Ten), lost to Washington in second round of NIT
Returning Starters: 3
Key Returners: SG Drew Crawford, PG Dave Sobolewsi
Key Departures: PF/C John Shurna, C Luka Mirkovic
Top Newcomer(s): PF Jared Swopshire (Louisville transfer)
Man, poor Northwestern; after coming so close to their first-ever NCAA Tournament bid, the Wildcats lose all-time leading scorer John Shurna, who's taken his wonky shooting motion to the Big Apple. Left behind is the remnants of a decent team, including sharp-shooting wing Drew Crawford (56.0 eFG%) and sophomore point guard Dave "Sobocop" Sobolewski (19.9% assist rate), but this was already a squad playing Shurna out of position at center a large portion of the time.
The addition of transfer Jared Swopshire, who was squeezed out of playing time at Louisville, should help matters, and the team is deeper across the board after barely going seven deep last year. Replacing Shurna's scoring output, however, is a tall task that this squad may not be up to.
12. Nebraska (#216 KenPom)
Last year: 12-18 (4-14 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: 1
Key Returners: C Brandon Ubel, SG Dylan Talley
Key Departures: SG Bo Spencer, SF Toney McCray, PG Brandon Richardson
Top Newcomer(s): PG Benny Parker (Rivals 3*), SG Shavon Shields (3*), PG Deverell Biggs (3*)
Nebraska, a team that fired Doc Sadler after a disappointing 4-14 Big Ten debut, now must entirely rebuild after losing four starters and returning only two players—C Brandon Ubel and SG Dylan Talley—that averaged more than 8.3 minutes per game last year. Let's just go ahead, say they'll finish last, and never speak of them again.