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Big Ten Conference Preview

Sat, 11/10/2012 - 11:10am

With a horrendous football season almost at its end, the Big Ten Conference rejoins the national conversation. The Big Ten had six bids to March’s NCAA Tournament (tied with the Big 12 for second-most) and four advanced to the Sweet 16 — tied for the lead among all conferences.

A lot of talent departed for greener pastures, but a lot is back and a lot has been added, resulting in five teams being ranked in the AP’s preseason top 25 — tops in the nation. Three of those teams — Indiana (No. 1), Ohio State (No. 4) and Michigan (No. 5) are in the top five. The conference had a team in the Final Four three out of the last four years. Who will it be this season?

1. Indiana Hoosiers
2011-12 record: 27-9, 11-7 Big Ten (fifth)

Postseason Finish: Lost 102-90 in Sweet 16 against eventual national champion Kentucky

Cody ZellerCody ZellerThe consensus on Indiana is that the Hoosiers are poised for the first Final Four since 2002 and could be in store for their first national championship since 1987. The lofty expectations were heightened after Indiana made a run to the Sweet 16, beating New Mexico State and VCU before losing to Kentucky. A good chunk of the optimism centers around preseason All-American Cody Zeller, a 7-foot center most consider the best player in the country and a lock to go in the top three of the NBA draft next summer. His 62.3 percent shooting led the Big Ten last season, and though he averaged 15.6 points and 6.6. rebounds last year, those numbers certainly will only rise with another year in the weight room and a strong supporting cast — including 3-point specialist Jordan Hulls — able to keep teams from keying on him.

One of the weaknesses of the Hoosiers last season was a lack of depth, a void that grew after Verdell Jones went down in early March with a knee injury, forcing Will Sheehey to start. They went on to average just eight bench points in three NCAA Tournament games. But that most definitely will change this season with the freshmen arrivals of guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell and forward Jeremy Hollowell. Ferrell is expected to start, which sends Sheehey back to the bench, and Hollowell likely will get significant minutes backing up Cody Zeller. Throw in the return of 6-5 Maurice Creek, who suffered a knee injury his sophomore year and a freak Achilles rupture before last season, and the Hoosiers could wear down opponents.

The Hoosiers were sloppy at times last season during Big Ten play, and were somewhat allergic to the road, going 3-6 away from Assembly Hall in the conference while going 8-1 at home. The Hoosiers led the conference in scoring, averaging 77.3 points per game, but also allowed 66.4 points per game, which ranked 10th. This was partly due to the team’s torrid pace, but the half-court defense should improve with the addition of Ferrell. Christian Watford is one of the best defenders in the conference and the length of freakish athlete Victor Oladipo hassles opponents.

With four returning starters — Hulls, Oladipo, Watford, and Zeller — this team has a ton of potential and leadership to get to the summit of college basketball. If they stay healthy, they’ll be right at the top of the conference if the road woes are behind them. Tom Crean has done an admirable job rebuilding the Hoosiers, but until they win a Big Ten title, it’s all just preseason hype.

Key Departures: Verdell Jones (7.5 ppg, 3.2 apg), Matt Roth (4.3 ppg)

Notable Newcomers: Kevin “Yogi Ferrell (6-foot freshman guard from Indianapolis), Jeremy Hollowell (6-8 freshman forward from Indianapolis)

Top Returning Players: Cody Zeller (15.6 ppg), Christian Watford (12.6 ppg), Victor Oladipo, Jordan Hulls (11.7 ppg), Maurice Creek (16.4 ppg in 2009-10; 8.3 ppg in 2010-11)

2. Michigan Wolverines
2011-12 record: 24-10, 13-5 Big Ten (co-Big Ten champs)

Postseason finish: The Wolverines lost 65-60 against Ohio in the round of 64 in the NCAA Tournament

So, why is there so much optimism for a team that didn’t make it past its first tournament game last season? Well, John Beilein can recruit, and coach a little too. Beilein had to replace Zack Novak and Stu Douglass — the heart of his team the previous four seasons. The main question surrounding this team is about who will step up and lead. That likely will be up to Tim Hardaway Jr., a 6-6 guard who is entering his junior season and looking to heighten his NBA stock. If Trey Burke has the same kind of year he did last season, it could be his last in Ann Arbor. He considered a jump to the NBA with former high school teammate Jared Sullinger after before reconsidering — probably a good move as this team now has a shot at back-to-back Big Ten titles for the first time since 1985-86.

Youth is a main sticking point for the Wolverines, who will start freshman Glenn Robinson III and bring highly-touted freshman forward McGary off the bench to play significant minutes. Two other freshmen, Spike Albrecht and Nik Stauskas, will come off the bench and play big roles as well — mostly focusing on being the 3-point specialists that Beilein’s offense relies on so much. Hopefully for the Wolverines, this will prevent Hardaway from jacking up as many as he did last year — he shot just 28.3 percent from beyond the arc and took 23 more than any teammate. He’s much more effective when he gets into the lane or takes mid-range jump shots. He’ll average more than last season’s 14.6 points per game if he takes that into account.

Robinson’s athleticism will complement preseason all-American Trey Burke’s passing ability — watch out for the alley-oop to him and Hardaway. McGary’s 6-10, 250-pound frame was a much-needed addition for the Wolverines frontcourt. He was recruited by the top schools in the nation and has the athleticism and physicality to match up with almost everybody in the country. Junior Jordan Morgan will help him along in the post. Sophomore Jon Horford was supposed to develop into someone like McGary, but has been slowed by a slew of injuries. He’s already suffered a knee injury but should be ready to come off the bench to add to the team’s depth down low. He’s added 30 pounds to his 6-10 frame and now sits at 250. He could be poised for a breakout year.

This team’s core is young, but has a ton of depth and could be Beilein’s most talented team ever. If they can overcome a lack of experience, they’ll challenge for another Big Ten crown and could be playing deep into March.

Key departures: Zack Novak (9.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.8 apg, .409 3-point percentage), Stu Douglass (7.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.3 apg)

Notable Newcomers: Mitch McGary (6-10, 250-pound freshman from Chesterton, Ind.), Glenn Robinson III (6-6, 210-pound forward from St. John, Ind.), Spike Albrecht (5-11 guard from Crown Point, Ind.), Nik Stauskas (6-6 freshman guard from Ontario)

Top Returning Players: Trey Burke (14.8 ppg, 4.6 apg, 3.5 rpg), Tim Hardaway Jr. (14.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.1 apg), Jordan Morgan (7.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg)

3. Ohio State Buckeyes

2011-12 record: 31-8, 13-5 Big Ten (co-Big Ten champs)

Postseason finish: Lost 64-62 against Kansas in the Final Four; runner-up in Big Ten Tournament

This team has a ton of questions, but Buckeyes fans know what they’ll get from preseason all-American Deshaun Thomas. The 6-7, 215-pound junior wing steps into Jared Sullinger’s role as the Buckeyes’ main offensive threat and favorite to capture the Big Ten scoring crown. Another thing we know: Point guard Aaron Craft again will lead this team by example with his hustle on both ends of the floor. Other than that, there are a bunch of roles up for grabs after the departure of Sullinger and William Buford, a mainstay at shooting guard for four years. The pair accounted for 42.6 percent of the scoring and nearly 40 percent of the team’s rebounds.

In the Buckeyes’ first exhibition game, coach Thad Matta started 6-7 sophomore LaQuinton Ross at the other forward spot and 6-11 sophomore Amir Williams at center. Both were big recruiting gets for Matta, but didn’t do much last season. Ross’ first season was sort of a disaster — he missed the first eight games last season as an academic non-qualifier, then couldn’t catch up to the rest of the team and played just nine games. But we have him ranked 60th on our 2013 Big Board, and he’s one of the longest players in the Big Ten with a 7-0.5 wingspan. He’ll help Ohio State’s scoring efforts tremendously. Williams is still a work in progress — he’s got a big body, but hasn’t really put it all together yet.

This isn’t a very deep team, so a lot will depend on how the starters perform. Several talented yet unproven recruits will come off the bench as well, including Shannon Scott (6-1 sophomore) and Sam Thompson (6-7 sophomore). Evan Ravenel remains a top option off the bench at forward.

Lenzelle Smith, Jr., returns and is a threat to shoot the 3. But the Buckeyes will have to look inside and create offense closer to the basket as Buford leaves a void behind the arc. Thomas will have to work a little harder to get his teammates involved this season after averaging less than an assist per game last year. Craft ranked third in the Big Ten in assists last season (4.6 per game) but the onus to share can’t all fall on him. Smith and others have to get their teammates involved, especially the young guys, to build some early confidence.

The dependability of Craft and the offensive talent of Thomas and Ross gives this team a chance to contend for the conference title. But it will depend on how they operate without team leaders Sullinger and Buford. Thomas is good, but is he a good enough leader? We’ll find out.

Key departures: Jared Sullinger (17.5 ppg, 9.2 rpg), William Buford (14.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.7 apg)

Notable Newcomers: None

Top Returning Players: Aaron Craft (8.8 ppg), Deshaun Thomas (15.9 ppg), Lenzelle Smith, Jr. (6.8 ppg), Amir Williams (1.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg), LaQuinton Ross (2.0 ppg)

4. Michigan State Spartans
2011-12 record: 29-8, 13-5 Big Ten (co-Big Ten champs)

Postseason finish: Lost 57-44 against Louisville in the Sweet 16; won Big Ten Tournament

Don’t bet against Tom Izzo. Yes, the Spartans lost Big Ten player of the year Draymond Green, who was one of the best leaders in school history, but this is what the Spartans do. They reload. They find guys to fill the void. Even when Branden Dawson was lost for the rest of last season when he tore an ACL March 4, the Spartans went on to win the Big Ten Tournament title game and made it to the Sweet 16.

This year’s team will no doubt miss Green down low, where he averaged more than 10 rebounds per game. But Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix should be able to pick up the slack. Payne, a 6-10 forward with a 7-1 wingspan, could be headed for a breakout season if he stays out of foul trouble like he did down the stretch for the Spartans last year. Fellow forward Dawson brings ridiculous athleticism, even after his ACL injury. He’s already shown in the team’s two exhibition games that he’s well on the way to recovery.

The team’s additions include Gary Harris, who will start at off-guard and immediately get shots as the team lacks a shooting specialist other than Travis Trice off the bench. Izzo doesn’t start freshmen very often, but Harris was a McDonald’s All-American who was named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball. His offensive and defensive games should fit right into Izzo’s system and be an upgrade to departed senior Brandon Wood. Keith Appling returns at point guard after another solid season. He’s one of the best defenders in the league and great distributor.

The biggest question for this team is if it can absorb the loss of Green not just on the court, but off of it as well. He was almost like an assistant coach who related to every player. The Spartans are young — nine of their 12 contributors are freshmen or sophomores — but if several guys step into a defined leadership role, the Spartans will be a competitor for the Big Ten title. If not, they still have Izzo, and like we’ve seen so many other times, he gets the most out of his teams.

Key departures: Draymond Green (16.2 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.5 spg), Brandon Wood (8.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg)

Notable Newcomers: Gary Harris (6-4 freshman from Fishers, Ind.), Denzel Valentine (6-5 freshman from Lansing), Matt Costello (6-9 freshman from Bay City, Mich.)

Top Returning Players: Keith Appling (11.4 ppg, 3.9 apg, 2.9 rpg, 1.2 spg), Adreian Payne (7.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg), Branden Dawson (8.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg), Derrick Nix (8.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg)

5. Minnesota Golden Gophers
2011-12 record: 23-15, 6-12 Big Ten (ninth)

Postseason finish: Lost 75-51 against Stanford in the NIT championship game

This is a defining season for Tubby Smith in Minneapolis. The Gophers have missed the past two NCAA Tournaments and have had some bad luck when it comes to injuries and player run-ins with the law. But there are no excuses this year — yet — and it’s time to compete at the top of the Big Ten.

This was the theme last year, too, before Trevor Mbakwe went down with a knee injury seven games into the season. He was granted a sixth year by the NCAA and is back to reclaim his spot as one of the conference’s most athletic and imposing shot-blockers in the post. Mbakwe might start the season coming off the bench as he gets back into form, but should take over for Elliott Eliason before Big Ten season hits.

Dunk machine Rodney Williams stepped into Mbakwe’s role at the four brilliantly and found his groove, drawing increased notice from NBA scouts. The team also gets help down low this year from 6-10 sophomore Maurice Walker, who sat out last season with a knee injury. Athletic 6-8 freshman Charles Buggs provides depth at the position in case of foul trouble or injury.

Mbwake and Williams also have a strong supporting cast in the backcourt, from the Hollinses (6-1 Andre and 6-4 Austin, not related) to wing Joe Coleman, who has improved dramatically since his freshman season. He averaged 8.8 points during the team’s NIT run, three more than his season average. Julian Welch (44-of-116, 43.8 percent) is the team’s shooting specialist off the bench.

This is a seasoned bunch. Ten of 15 players have spent three or more seasons in college basketball, leaving no excuses if Smith and company don’t make it back to the Big Dance. Minnesota easily could exceed expectations, but just as easily could let them become a pressure point. The Gophers have the talent; now it’s just a matter of putting it together.

Key Departures: Ralph Sampson III (7.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg)

Notable Newcomers: Charles Buggs (6-8 freshman from Arlington, Texas)

Top Returning Players: Trevor Mbakwe (14.0 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 1.7 bpg), Rodney Williams (12.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.3 spg, 1.4 bpg), Austin Hollins (9.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.1 apg), Joe Coleman (5.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg), Julian Welch (9.5 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.9 apg)

6. Wisconsin Badgers
2011-12 record: 26-10, 12-6 Big Ten (fourth)

Postseason finish: Lost 64-63 against Syracuse in the Sweet 16

An injury to experienced 3-point specialist Josh Gasser wasn’t what the Badgers needed at all, but they got it anyway. Gasser, whose 45.2 percent 3-point clip ranked third in the conference last season, will miss the entire season with a torn ACL in his left knee. It’s a devastating blow for a team looking to replace Jordan Taylor, who finished with the best assist-to-turnover ratio in NCAA history. Now, it’ll be redshirt freshman George Marshall looking to pick up a small amount of Taylor’s slack. At 5-11, Marshall can shoot the 3 and is a solid on-ball defender. It’s no substitute for what Gasser would’ve brought to the table, but like any Bo Ryan-coached team, the Badgers are deep and experienced. They’ll look to veterans Jared Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz in the frontcourt, and solid shooter Ben Brust and Ryan Evans on the wings.

Bruesewitz will likely miss the first few games after suffering a leg injury, but it could’ve been a lot worse for the Badgers. Bruesewitz missed a potentially career-threatening injury by inches when he sliced his leg open on the basket frame on a fast break in practice.

In addition to Marshall, Ryan will use true freshman Sam Dekker on the wing. At 6-7, Dekker can shoot the lights out but could use a little more time in the weight room to muscle down low. Wisconsin was a little offensively-challenged last season (64 points per game, 10th in the Big Ten), but its stifling defense (53.2 points per game, first) more than made up for it. Those numbers likely will go north, but someone needs to step up on offense in a big way with Taylor gone.

This could end up being one of Ryan’s best coaching jobs after the losses of Gasser and Taylor. Ryan stockpiles enough talent every year just in case something like this happens, so expect Wisconsin to be just as competitive as in recent years — and don’t plan on strolling into the Kohl Center without bringing your top game.

Key Departures: Jordan Taylor

Notable Newcomers: George Marshall (5-11 freshman from Chicago), Sam Dekker (6-7 freshman from Sheboygan, Wis.; this year’s Mr. Basketball in Wisconsin)

Top Returning Players: Jared Berggren (10.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg), Ryan Evans (11.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Mike Bruesewitz (5.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.8 apg), Ben Brust (4.0 ppg, 2.2 rpg)

7. Iowa Hawkeyes
2011-12 record: 18-17, 8-10 Big Ten

Postseason finish: Lost 108-97 against Oregon in the second round of the NIT.

It’s been a while since basketball received significant attention in Iowa City. But third-year coach Fran McCaffery led the Hawkeyes to their first winning mark since 2006-07 last season and has brought in a promising recruiting class. And with the football team struggling, the spotlight will shine even brighter on the Hawkeyes this winter. McCaffery will start two freshmen — 7-1 Adam Woodbury and 6-1 guard Mike Gesell — along with returning starters Devyn Marble, Zach McCabe and Aaron White. Woodbury is a work in progress — McCaffery has admitted as much — but already has the size to match up against the best of the Big Ten’s frontcourts. He can run the floor and will fit into McCaffery’s up-tempo philosophy.

Guard Devyn Marble has improved immensely under McCaffery on both sides of the ball. Marble was fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio last season, turning in a 2.1 mark, and was fourth in steals with 1.5 per game. Aaron White returns after a freshman season that saw him gain all-freshman honors from the Big Ten after he averaged 11.1 points and 5.7 rebounds last year. Melsahn Basabe will come off the bench after a disappointing sophomore season that saw his scoring decrease by nearly three points (11.0 to 8.2) and his rebounding decrease by two (6.8 to 4.8).

The Hawkeyes will be hard-pressed to make the NCAA Tournament, but it’s certainly possible if the Big Ten ranks at the top of the conference RPI again this season. The team’s youth and depth is somewhat concerning, but the shooters (sophomore Josh Oglesby, 45-of-121, 37.2 percent) and depth down low should help the Hawkeyes finish in the middle of the pack.

Key Departures: Matt Gatens (15.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.4 spg), Bryce Cartwright (6.0 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 4.8 apg), Anthony Clemmons (6-1 freshman from Lansing, Mich.)

Notable Newcomers: Mike Gessel (6-1 freshman from South Sioux City, Neb.), Adam Woodbury (7-1 freshman from Sioux City, Iowa)

Top Returning Players: Devyn Marble (11.5 ppg, 3.6 apg), Aaron White (11.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Zach McCabe (7.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg), Melsahn Basabe (8.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg)

8. Purdue Boilermakers
2011-12 record: 22-13, 10-8 Big Ten (sixth)

Postseason finish: Lost 63-60 against Kansas in the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament

It’s difficult to find a team in the NCAA Tournament last season that lost as much as Purdue did — more than half of their scoring won’t suit up this time around. And though coach Matt Painter hasn’t had an overall or Big Ten losing record since his first season in 2005, this year might turn into a develop-for-the-future effort.

The Boilermakers are younger and taller than they’ve been since the early years of JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore. They lost program icon Robbie Hummel after what seemed like 10 years (it was only six) and quick and physical point guard Lewis Jackson to graduation, leaving a void in the starting lineup. Freshman Ronnie Johnson will run the point for Painter alongside his brother Terone, a solid shooter who will be the team’s main scoring threat. But after a year of playing undersized and relying on Hummel to bail out the team’s offense, Purdue will again look inside. The talent Painter and staff gets to develop in the next few years is an enviable endeavor. Nine of his 14 players are underclassmen, and five of those nine will play in the post. Freshmen A.J. Hammons and Jay Simpson, with a little development, could form one of the top frontcourts in the conference if all goes well.

The Boilermakers are a year or two from competing for the Big Ten title, but a strong recruiting class should be enough for an NIT bid.

Key Departures: Robbie Hummel, Lewis Jackson, Ryne Smith

Notable Newcomers: Ronnie Johnson (6-foot freshman from Indianapolis), AJ Hammons (7-foot Gary freshman), Rapheal Davis (6-5 Fort Wayne freshman), Jay Simpson (6-9 Champaign, Ill., freshman)

Top Returning Players: Terone Johnson (9.2 ppg), D.J. Byrd (8.9 ppg), Anthony Johnson (5.4 ppg)

9. Northwestern Wildcats
2011-12 record: 19-14, 8-10 Big Ten (seventh)

Postseason finish: Lost 76-55 against Washington in the second round of the NIT.

Northwestern bolstered its size after losing all-time leading scorer John Shurna to graduation. The Wildcats don’t have a player who stands less than 6-1 on its roster and brought in players who stand 6-6, 7-2, 7-0, 6-10, 6-7, 6-8 and 6-9.

Can the Wildcats get to their first NCAA Tournament? It’s a definite possibility with this roster, but we said that last season, too — before they lost six of their first eight in the conference. With no Shurna, the young Wildcats will rely on Drew Crawford to carry the scoring torch. He shot 41.2 percent from beyond the arc last season while averaging 16.1 points per game. He’ll be complemented by sophomore Dave Sobolewski, a suburban Chicago kid who averaged 3.7 assists per game last season and led the Big Ten with a 2.6 assist-to-turnover ratio.

In Northwestern’s 19 wins last season, Crawford averaged 17.0 ppg. The Wildcats will have to see the same type of production or more, along with a significant amount of production from their new guys, to have a chance to challenge the upper half of the conference this season.

Key Departures: John Shurna (20.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.7 bpg)

Notable Newcomers: Jared Shropshire (6-8 Louisville transfer) Kale Abrahamson (6-7 freshman from West Des Moines, Iowa), Nikola Cerina (6-9 TCU transfer)

Top Returning Players: Drew Crawford (16.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg), Reggie Hearn (7.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg), Dave Sobolewski (8.7 ppg, 3.7 apg)

10. Illinois Fighting Illini
2011-12 record: 17-15, 6-12 Big Ten (ninth)

Postseason finish: None

First-year coach John Groce, who takes over after an impressive run at Ohio, will speed things up this season in Champaign. It’s a good thing, then, that he has athletes such as Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson to work with. Paul, the Illini’s leading scorer last season, is one of the conference’s best athletes, but needs to rely less on his jump shot this season. He shot just 39.2 percent from the field last season, including 33.3 from long range. Same goes for Richardson, who loves to hoist the 3 — he put up 204 last season, third in the conference behind John Shurna and Ryne Smith. But Richardson’s 34.8 percent didn’t rank in the top 10. Look for Groce to curb that sort of approach by getting his guys out in transition and having them focus on finding easier buckets.

The Illini could use a few more nights like Jan. 10, 2011. That’s when Paul went off for 43 points against Ohio State at Assembly Hall. This was his coming-out party as one of the top scorers in the Big Ten. The opposition will no doubt key on him, so others have to get involved. The Illini lost Meyers Leonard to the NBA after they collapsed down the stretch, losing 12 of their final 14 games and getting coach Bruce Weber fired. A big question is who will step up in the post. Early this season, it looks like Nnanna Egwu will take over the center spot and Coastal Carolina transfer Sam McLaurin will help out at the four. Joseph Bertrand returns on the wing after a somewhat-disappointing season, and Tyler Griffey will be back to help off the bench. Sophomore Tracy Abrams, who looks good early after taking over point guard responsibilities, will also score a lot. Abrams was voted most valuable player last season and captain this year by his teammates despite averaging just 4.3 points and 1.9 assists in 21.1 minutes.

The Illini have one of the most athletic and talented backcourts in the Big Ten, but will struggle in the post. Rebounding prowess will be thin. Paul can pick up some of the slack as he averaged 4.7 last year, but other than 6-11 Egwu, the Illini don’t have the size to battle much down low. They’ll miss Leonard tremendously and will have to use small lineups for the majority of the year. It can be overcome by getting out in transition, but in year one, Groce’s team will be a work in progress.

Key Departures: Meyers Leonard (13.6 pg, 8.2 rpg)

Notable newcomers: Sam McLaurin (10 ppg, 7.5 rpg at Coastal Carolina last season), Mike LaTulip (6-foot freshman from Arlington Heights, Ill.)

Top Returning players: Brandon Paul (14.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.9 apg), DJ Richardson (11.6 ppg), Joseph Bertrand (11.6 ppg)

11. Penn State Nittany Lions
2011-12 record: 12-20, 4-14 Big Ten (11th)

Postseason finish: None

Penn State won only four games in the conference last season, but it could’ve been a lot worse. That’s a testament to second-year head coach Pat Chambers, who despite a tough task looks like the perfect guy to get the Nittany Lions back to respectability. Chambers missed star Talor Battle by a year, so Tim Frazier carried the torch for Chambers as the next Penn State guard to light up the statbook. He’ll likely challenge Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas for the conference’s scoring crown after finishing second to Northwestern’s John Shurna in that category last season. Frazier (18.8 ppg) led third-place Jared Sullinger by more than a full point and also led the Big Ten in assists (6.2). He’s no slouch on defense, either, ranking .01 steals per game (2.4) behind Ohio State’s Aaron Craft.

Frazier’s overall production could see a dip because of some needed additions to the backcourt. Trey Lewis transferred away from the program, but Southern Miss transfer D.J. Newbill is a solid two-guard who can step in and give Frazier a breather at the point every once in a while (that didn’t happen last year). Jermaine Marshall (four 20-point games last season) will continue to be a legitimate scoring option on the wing and perimeter. The frontcourt is still a little suspect. They don’t get much in terms of scoring down low, but a much-improved Jon Graham could be starting early in the season in front of Ross Travis at the four. Penn State still needs more help, but if freshman Donovan Jack steps in and pairs with Graham, the Nittany Lions might be able to at least hold their own down low against the Big Ten. The starting spot at center for now goes to Sasa Borovnjak, a junior who isn’t much of a scoring threat.

It won’t quite happen for Chambers’ bunch in year two, even though the coach will have less of a one-man band to trot out on the floor. Expect a one-win or two-win improvement at best, as the supporting cast for Frazier still isn’t to the level it needs to be competitive.

Key Departures: Trey Lewis (Cleveland State transfer), Matt Glover (San Francisco transfer), Cammeron Woodyard (senior)

Notable Newcomers: D.J. Newbill (Southern Miss transfer), Donovon Jack (freshman)

Top Returning Players: Tim Frazier (18.8 ppg, 6.2 apg, 4.7 rpg), Jermaine Marshall (10.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg), Nick Colella, Ross Travis (4.4 ppg)

12. Nebraska Cornhuskers
2011-12 record: 12-18, 4-14 Big Ten (11th)

Postseason finish: None

It will be a trying first season for first-year coach Tim Miles and the Cornhuskers. Previous coach Doc Sadler was fired after six seasons in Lincoln. Sadler only had two losing seasons, but he never had a winning record in conference play in either the Big 12 or Big Ten.

The turnover between regimes has been tremendous, so it’s hard to tell what team Miles will put out on the floor this season. The Huskers’ top two and seven of their top nine scorers are no longer on the roster. Ten of the team’s 16 players are freshmen or sophomores. They bring back Andre Almeida, a 6-11, 314-pound mammoth who sat out last season with a knee injury after averaging 5.2 points and 3.3. rebounds as a junior. Their leading returning scorer, 6-10 Brandon Ubel, is a guy who averaged just shy of seven points last year.

It’s hard to find who on this team will step up as the go-to guy. It seems to be a collection of a bunch of average to below-average players, which won’t get you far in the Big Ten in most years, let alone in talent-rich 2012-13.

Key Departures: Bo Spencer (15.4 ppg), Toney McCray

Notable Newcomers: Benny Parker (5-9 freshman), Shavon Shields (6-6 freshman, son of Will Shields),

Top Returning Players: Brandon Ubel (6.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Dylan Talley (8.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg)

All-conference first team

Trey Burke, G, Michigan

Tim Frazier, G, Penn State

Keith Appling, G, Michigan State

Cody Zeller, F, Indiana

Deshaun Thomas, F, Ohio State

All-conference second team

Aaron Craft, G, Ohio State

Tim Hardaway Jr., G, Michigan

Brandon Paul, G, Illinois

Glenn Robinson III, G/F, Michigan

Trevor Mbakwe, F, Minnesota

Top 5 NBA Prospects

1. Cody Zeller, Indiana

The sophomore big man is expected to go No. 1 overall next summer if he decides to leave Bloomington. That might depend on how far the Hoosiers go this season — he’s said in the past that he wants to finish the rebuilding effort at Indiana. That means a top-three Big Ten finish and deep NCAA run, I would think. Zeller has the tools to play in the NBA right now. His athleticism and awareness around the basket make him a target for double teams. But he also knows how to find the open man and get open for easy layups and dunks — he shot 62.3 percent last year. He can also run the floor with the best of them and knock down mid-range jumpers. Zeller’s added 10-15 pounds of muscle from last year, so his NBA stock will only go up this season.

2. Glenn Robinson III, Michigan

His athleticism is what jumps out, even before he’s played a college game. The 6-6 forward plays well around the rim and can adjust his shot (or dunk) in the air. His long-range game is solid and he’s expected to knock down some threes. He’ll start this season for John Beilein, and it could be a one-and-one proposition if Robinson performs as expected.

3. Trey Burke, Michigan

Burke had one of the best freshman seasons in recent memory last season, but decided to return to school to develop his game. He stepped in at a point guard position that freshmen usually don’t pick up right away in college. His decision to return, though, was probably a good one as his body isn’t ready for the rigors of the NBA just yet. He gained seven pounds of muscle this offseason and his 6-foot frame is up to 190 pounds. Burke’s passing ability might be second-to-none in the country once he gets across half court. He’s also a solid on-ball defender and can easily swipe the ball if an opposing player exposes the ball. He hit a lot of big shots down the stretch for the Wolverines, and usually fires from mid to long range. His shooting percentage (.433) wasn’t the best, but expect that to improve in year two.

4. LaQuinton Ross, Ohio State

If Ross makes a jump similar to Thomas’ of last year, his name again will jump to the top of draft boards. The 6-7 wing player needs to commit to playing defense, but he has a great jump shot and his length makes things hard on the opposition. He could add some muscle, too, but with a solid season expect Ross to make the jump.

5. Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State

Thomas really had a breakout year last season. His offensive game flourished in the absence of Jared Sullinger early in the year, and the team looked to him down the stretch as a result. Sullinger and Thomas were great on the offense glass, finishing No. 1 and 2 in the conference, respectively. The NBA is all about athleticism, and Thomas features a lot of that. He started playing defense last season, too, which was good to see. It was a good call to come back and elevate his stock, though, as he can be the go-to guy on offense.

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