For the Big Ten, this was largely a season of disappointment.
At the start of the year, the league appeared to have nine teams good enough for a March dance card, while a handful of those teams had legitimate Final Four aspirations. Then Michigan drastically underachieved, Illinois mildly underachieved and Minnesota needed a last-ditch surge to earn a lowly 11-seed in the NCAA tournament.
Then there were injuries. Purdue's Final Four chances were derailed when Robbie Hummel tore his ACL in late February. Northwestern may have missed out on their first NCAA berth due to Kevin Coble's season-ender (before the season even started) and Indiana lost out on their return to respectability when star freshman Maurice Creek's season ended due to a knee injury in December.
Of course, with all that disappointment, the conference was still the fourth strongest in the nation, according to Ken Pomeroy's ratings, and did their heavy lifting in March. The Big Ten sent three teams in the Sweet 16, more than any other conference, and Michigan State returned to the Final Four, even after losing their best player, Kalin Lucas, in the first half of their second round win over Maryland.
Looking ahead to 2010, the conference will suffer a few serious losses (Evan Turner, Raymar Morgan, Trevon Hughes, Chris Kramer, Manny Harris and several others), but much of the conference's talent is returning and more than a handful of teams look to be better in 2011 than they were in 2010. In fact, with the field of the NCAA tournament likely to expand to 96 in the spring, it's very reasonable to expect the conference to send eight or nine teams dancing. Expect six teams if the field remains in the neighborhood of 65.
Some things won't change. Iowa is bad and will continue to be so. And the team with the best shot to make a Final Four run is Michigan State; it would mark the Spartans' third straight trip.
1. Michigan State
The Spartans, along with Duke, will sit atop the preseason polls, and with the Blue Devils losing three starters, Michigan State will almost certainly begin the year as the better team.
While injuries are never a good thing, the Lucas injury may end up being a blessing for the 2011 Michigan State tourney run. Sure, his loss may have cost the Spartans the 2010 NCAA title, but it may have also afforded the Sprtans another year of his services. Now, he'll be back alongside fellow senior Durrell Summers to lead a very impressive roster.
There aren't many, if any, teams that can match the defense and rebounding Michigan State can bring. If they have any issue, it will be scoring, though that seems manageable.
Chris Allen doubles as a sharpshooter and lock-down defender, the diminutive Korie Lucious isn't afraid of taking the big shot (just ask Maryland). He developed well in the NCAA tourney as a scorer with Lucas on the shelf. Draymond Green also possesses the ability to be more than a big body and will further improve on the offensive end in '10-'11.
Delvin Roe, Garrick Sherman and Derrick Nix give MSU plenty of depth as well. Oh, and Izzo has another solid recruiting class coming in, led by elite shooting guard Keith Appling and stellar center Adreian Payne.
I would have picked the Boilermakers to win the NCAA tournament in a heartbeat this year had Hummel not gone down injured. Now Purdue is going to have to go without graduated seniors Chris Kramer and Keaton Grant. I assume E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson stay in school -- both have declared for the draft but not hired agents -- but there is talk they might leave to the NBA. If they stay, Purdue will be very solid once again. Moore, Hummel and Johnson are as formidable a big three as anyone in the nation can boast (they combined to average more than 47 points per game last season). [Update: Yes, Moore and Johnson are staying]
Of course, those three can't do it alone -- and we already saw what a single injury can do. Plus, how are the Boilers going to fill the void in emotion and grit left by Kramer, a two-time Big Ten defensive player of the year? Some players from the group of D.J. Byrd, Lewis Jackson and Kelsey Barlow will have to step up in a big way. They also have four recruits coming in, headlined by shooting guard Terone Johnson and power forward Travis Carroll.
3. Ohio State
The Buckeyes only lose three seniors -- none of whom was more than a low-minute role player last season -- but the big blow is seeing Naismith award winner Evan Turner depart for the NBA. Considering the aforementioned seniors comprised pretty much all of Ohio State's bench work (they were very heavily reliant on the five starters), the Buckeyes are essentially returning four players of consequence.
William Buford, Jon Diebler, David Lighty and Dallas Lauderdale comprise quite the impressive foursome, but they can't form a great team alone. As seemingly always with head coach Thad Matta, it's going to come down to his freshman class, which should be as talented as always. Jared Sullinger is considered by many to be the top power forward in the nation and Deshaun Thomas is a top-five prospect at small forward. Both are McDonald's All-Americans, but they aren't alone. Matta has two other players -- shooting guards Lenzelle Smith and Jordan Sibert -- who are regarded as top 100 recruits.
While Ohio State may not start the season on fire, as they figure out how to get the offense on track without Turner, they will be a team not many will want to face come February. Expect a return to the Sweet 16.
The Badgers lose on-floor leaders Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon, while bringing in a modest three-man recruiting class, but it would be a mistake to think they'll finish anywhere lower than this or miss an NCAA tournament. Bo Ryan doesn't miss tourneys. He's been at Wisconsin for nine seasons and made the Big Dance nine times. In eight of those seasons, he's made the second round and three times advanced to the Sweet 16. Ryan's worst season in conference was 2006, when the Badgers went 9-7 and he averages 12 conference victories per season.
Also, don't discount the amount of wins the Badgers can rack up at home. There is almost no better homecourt advantage in the nation. The Badgers are 136-11 at home under Ryan, including 69-6 in conference. Away from home, Wisconsin is just 81-71under Ryan.
In 2011, Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor will carry the scoring load, while incoming recruit Josh Gasser will need to do his best Trevon Hughes impression at point and Ryan Evans might emerge as a nice surprise as a swingman. They're thin in the backcourt, so expect lots of grinding and prodding. But would you have expected anything less from Wisconsin?
Wisconsin won't be as good as they have been in the past, but they are making the NCAA tournament and will definitely finish over .500 in conference.
Yes, Wildcat fans, this is the year. For many teams, such a statement would mean a Final Four or a national title. For Northwestern, it means the Wildcats will earn a berth to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. The Wildcats went 20-14 with a 7-11 conference record in 2009-2010 without their best player. Coble was a second-team all Big Ten selection in 2009 after averaging 15.7 points and 1.67 steals per game. He's 6-foot-8, shoots the lights out and will be back for the 2011 season.
Add him to the mix of John Shurna, Michael Thompson and Drew Crawford, and the Wildcats have a great top four. Shurna, specifically, really grew into a big-time scorer with Coble on the shelf. If the two learn to work as a team, they could be incredibly dangerous. Crawford will need to be more consistent, but he was only a freshman in '10 -- and he'll be counted on for scoring less with Coble back.
In addition, the Wildcats have a decent bench, full of hard-working role players. They may not be the most athletic team, but Northwestern will certainly be good enough to finally cross that Selection Sunday threshold.
This is a big year for Bruce Weber. He was set up to return all seven players who logged at least 12 minutes per game last season and blend in three top-100-caliber recruits -- including McDonald's all-American small forward Jereme Richmond. Instead, stud guard Demetri McCamey, who led the Illini in scoring and assists has departed for the NBA. Joining him is power forward Mike Davis. Both players have the option to return, and would improve Illinois' stock.
What do they have left? Well, Mike Tisdale is a seven-footer who can shoot -- somewhat in the Rik Smits mold. D.J. Richardson was their 3-point marksman, but has enough ability to develop into much more than that. He'll have to be the one who immediately steps up to fill the giant void left by McCamey. And remember, this wasn't even an NCAA tournament team last year. They will also need massive growth from Brandon Paul and Stan Simpson while getting immediate impact from all three freshman.
Weber's task will be to find a way to mix the depth he already has with the talent he's bringing in and then find a way to maximize the abilities of everyone at his disposal. If he does, Illinois will get back to the NCAA tournament. If not, his credit from the 2005 run to the national championship game will start to dwindle and the Illini faithful will start wondering about possibly replacing him.
[UPDATE, 5/8: McCamey and Davis have decided to withdraw from the NBA Draft and return to school. With them in house, the Illini will be pretty tough. At this point, I'd rank them fourth and bump down Wisconsin and Northwestern one spot each.]
[Update No. 2: Jeff Jordan has decided to leave the program. He averaged 13.8 minutes per game, with his offensive impact being minimal -- though he could play sound team defense. Still, the move won't hinder Illinois in 2011]
Tom Crean and his staff are still looking for some big bodies to balance out the offense. If none are added, the Hoosiers could possibly enter the fall with just two new recruits. Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey do appear they can be assets in the backcourt, but the Hoosiers won't be improved based upon newcomers. They lost only seven points per game to graduation and get their best player back.
Creek was averaging 16.4 points per game before suffering a fracture in his left knee in late December, and racked up his points by doing more than just stat padding against bad teams. Creek had 31 against Kentucky and 19 against Maryland. If he can return completely healthy, he is the go-to guy on offense for the Hoosiers and could lead the conference in scoring.
Along with Creek, Verdell Jones III (14.9 ppg, 3.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists and a knack for clutch shooting as a sophomore) and Christian Watford (12 ppg, 6 rpg as a freshman) give the Hoosiers three bona fide top-line starters. A trio of returning sophomores who showed immense growth as freshman -- sharp-shooting point guard Jordan Hulls and high-energy power forwards Bobby Capobianco and Derek Elston -- also will be back in the fray. Power forward Tom Pritchard and point guard Jeremiah Rivers add experience, but may lose out on minutes if the younger guys play like they can.
Expect 2009-2010 to be the last time the Hoosiers (who went 10-21, 4-14) finish under .500 under Crean, but they still aren't catapulting toward the top of the conference just yet. Next season may be a huge step forward, however.
Minnesota entered the season as a top-25 team, but underachieved. Off-court issues plagued the Gophers and it bled onto the court in the form of bad losses to Portland, Indiana and Michigan (twice). They did make a late run and impressed the NCAA selection committee enough to get a bid into the NCAA tournament, but were trounced in the first round by Xavier without much of a fight. They now lose Lawrence Westbrook, Damien Johnson and Devron Bostick to graduation while a few other players have transferred. The talent they have coming back in recruiting is modest, too, so the players currently on the roster will have to play much better than they did last year.
With players like Blake Hoffarber, Devoe Joseph, Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson, it's certainly possible. The Gophers could also get point guard Al Nolen back, if he's able to regain the academic eligibility he lost after the first semester last year. There's also the possibility that the disappearance of off-court issues helps the team to perform at a much higher level.
Still, it looks like a slight regression from last season is in the cards.
With Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims out the door, the Wolverines are going to have to find scoring elsewhere. The talented duo averaged almost 35 points a game between them, while the next best scorer was Zack Novak at 7.4 a game. You could make the argument Harris' inconsistency and selfishness was a major reason Michigan underachieved so drastically last season, but you can't argue the talent the team loses with these two players gone.
Now, Michigan is bringing in two highly-touted recruits -- including Tim Hardaway Jr. -- but that just doesn't seem enough to get this team back in the mix just yet. It's rebuilding time. Again. So goes the seemingly inescapable cycle in Ann Arbor.
10. Penn State
The team that went just 3-15 in the Big Ten last year has lost the dynamic Talor Battle to the NBA draft. They don't lose any other players and add a very talented recruit in Taran Buie (like Battle, a shooting guard), but the problem is the Nittany Lions don't have a ton of upper-echelon Big Ten talent remaining with Battle's departure.
Further clouding matters is how reliant they were on Battle last season to do anything offensively. He averaged more than twice as many points (18.5) as the next player (David Jackson was second with 9.5) and took 459 shots. Chris Babb was second with 239 shot attempts. And every shot that mattered went to Battle.
New head coach Fran McCaffery has his work cut out for him. Anthony Tucker is long gone (though, frankly, that is probably a good thing in light of the rebuilding project). The Hawkeyes have lost three players since former coach Todd Lickliter was fired (two recruits decided to go elsewhere while starting forward Aaron Fuller has decided to transfer) and currently have four open scholarships. The only problem is, they may not find suitable Big Ten level players to use them.
Iowa does have Matt Gatens and Jarryd Cole flanked by some decent sophomores-to-be coming back, but this team is looking at a long process to right the ship.