Men’s Basketball kicks off this week. Since we’ve been focused on football for so long, let’s catch you up on what’s going on in Big Ten Basketball:
1. Michigan State: Coach Izzo’s bunch is back and ready to take aim at another deep postseason run. Last year’s NCAA tournament trip ended with a loss to Butler in the Final Four, but Izzo will have senior point guard Kalin Lucas back and running the offense. Durrell Summers, Draymond Green and Korie Lucious are also returning, making this year’s team as strong as the one that tied for the conference-best record of 14-4 last year. With a good number of high-profile players leaving other schools in the Big Ten, MSU is poised to take the top spot in the conference.
Key players: Kalin Lucas is the engine that makes this Spartan fire on all cylinders. Though Korie Luscious filled in admirably for his probable backcourt mate, Lucas’s leadership and intangibles can’t be matched. He and Izzo know each other inside and out and might find themselves dancing all the way into March.
2. Ohio State: The Buckeyes will be a contender for the Big Ten regular season title with a crop of freshman set to make a difference after Evan Turner left for the NBA. Jared Sullinger will spell some of the other Buckeye forwards and team with Dallas Lauderdale to dominate the boards on both ends. A trio of veteran guards—David Lighty, Jon Diebler and William Buford—will share the ball-handling duties after Turner’s departure. Rest assured, Thad Matta & Co. will be tournament bound come March.
Key players: This season the guards will rely heavily on the front-court. This Buckeye team is abound with big bodies from Sullinger and Lauderdale to J.D. Witherspoon and Nikola Kecman. To ease the transition into a 3-point guard system, the big men will be featured on offense. Establishing the presence in the post will open up space for Diebler, Buford and Lighty to take aim from beyond the arc.
3. Illinois: Coming off a deep run in the NIT last season, the Illini will look to take advantage of the playoff experience that they gained. Led by a trio of seniors (Mike Davis, Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale), the Illini have a number of guys who can take and knock down an important bucket late in the game. Additionally, Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson—who will run the offense—are a year wiser to Bruce Weber’s system. The Illini will hope to make this season Weber’s fifth trip to the NCAA tournament.
Key player: Forward Mike Davis can do it all. He is an integral part of this team and will determine how far they go. Sure Illinois has enough to make it to the tournament without Davis, but he will be the player taking a lot of shots down the stretch.
4. Purdue: This was supposed to be the year for Purdue basketball. Senior Robbie Hummel, along with Jajuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore, would’ve been a senior class with their sights set on a deep run in the tourney, but given Robbie Hummel’s season-ending ACL tear—his second in the past two seasons—the season is in jeopardy. Had Hummel not been injured, the Boilermakers were primed to be in the top three for sure, but the injury puts them behind a deep Illinois team. Now the pressure to get Purdue to the tourney falls squarely on the shoulders of Moore and Johnson.
Key players: Moore will be instrumental for the this team because he led the team in scoring last year, 16.4 ppg, and he will handle the majority of the distributing duties, but Johnson will determine how far this team can go. He was in double digits for all but six games last year, and knowing it’s the last year he will be donning a Purdue uniform, he will look to show up for any NBA scouts.
5. Northwestern: What’s the next step for the ‘Cats after a 20-win season that ended with a loss to Rhode Island in the NIT? Many feel that this could be NU’s year to take advantage of some departures in other schools’ programs and get into the tournament. That being said, the Wildcats are a veteran bunch with postseason experience for all the players on the roster, minus one freshman. Four of the five starters from last year return, but the story line for this season will be “Can the ‘Cats get to the dance before it is too late?” Northwestern has four seniors and one freshman on this team, which means there will be a new look for the Wildcat team come the 2011-12 campaign.
Key players: Michael “Juice” Thompson is the heart of this team and runs the offense, but the key for Northwestern is the maturity of Drew Crawford. Sure, Shurna will probably lead the team in scoring, but Crawford has the physical abilities to be so much more for a Wildcat team trying to make the NCAA tournament for the first time. Crawford had several big games last year and now seems poised to be one of the premier guards in the Big Ten.
6. Wisconsin: The Badgers certainly were surprised to see their season end at the hands of the Cornell Big Red in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year, and the loss of Trevon Hughes will be a big obstacle for Bo Ryan & Co. to overcome. Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil will be a formidable duo, but the season will hinge on Wisconsin’s ability to find and develop a point guard who can replace what was lost when Hughes graduated. Jordan Taylor will probably handle the ball the majority of the time, but freshmen Ben Brust and Josh Gasser will stand to benefit from a year in Bo Ryan’s system before they are called upon to lead the team.
Key players: Jon Leuer led the team in scoring last year at 15.4 ppg, but the team struggled offensively in his absence despite going 6-3. Leuer will need to be the go-to guy late in the game because of his blend of experience and skill. Bo Ryan will have this team up around 20 wins, but it remains to be seen if they have enough to make a postseason run.
7. Minnesota: Coming off a trip to the NCAA tournament, the Golden Gophers will look to capitalize on that experience going into this season. Three of Minnesota’s top-five scorers last season are back, but Lawrence Westbrook is no longer there to take the shots late in the game for this team. The trio of Devoe Joseph, Blake Hoffarber and Ralph Sampson III will be key if this team is going to be a force in the Big Ten. A recruiting class of five bodes well for the Gophers in the future, but for now the Gophers will lean on their veteran threesome.
Key players: With Westbrook gone, the ball-handling duties fall on Joseph. Playing point guard in the Big Ten is no piece of cake, but if Joseph distributes and doesn’t turn the ball over, Minnesota may be primed for a postseason run. Sampson will control the boards on the defensive end, but their attack will start as soon as Joseph gets the ball in his hands.
8. Indiana: Last year was by no means easy for fans in Bloomington after Indiana mustered a 10-21 record. Tom Crean—head coach since 2008—helped Indiana take steps towards moving out of the cellar of the Big Ten. He finds himself now with a nucleus that can be quite potent at times. Verdell Jones III and Jeremiah Rivers will occupy the guard roles for this team, and the fact that both are 6’5” doesn’t hurt either. Additionally, Christian Watford is a viable option down low, but Crean’s crew still seems to be a year or two away.
Key players: Rivers will do the majority of the ball handling, but Verdell Jones III is the guy who will make the offense run. There isn’t too much flash to his game, he just gets the two points the most effective way. He has the game and not to mention the name, to be a big time player. Jones III will find himself making a lot of plays for the Hoosiers especially in crucial moments of games. That being said, the supporting cast outside of the three aforementioned players will be limited, so a third straight season without making the NCAA tournament is a distinct possibility.
9. Michigan: John Beilein is in for a rebuilding year in Ann Arbor. Sure his 1-3-1 defense will force turnovers and lead to a few close ones for the Wolverines, but the losses of Deshawn Sims and Manny Harris (16.8 and 18.1 ppg respectively) will be too much for Michigan to overcome. Zack Novak and Stu Douglass are the two remaining players from last year’s starting lineup and are the most experienced members of the team. Nevertheless, this year will be a trying one for basketball at Michigan.
Key players: It is not clear if Michigan has one go-to guy per se, but if the Wolverines are to win, it will surely be a collective effort. The most important player in all of this will be John Beilein and how effectively he implements schemes to help this team succeed in running their sets.
10. Penn State: If you watched Penn State last year, there weren’t many things you could take from their games. The one thing you could take is that without Talor Battle — who averaged 18.5 ppg last year — the Nittany Lions would’ve been in the single digits in the wins column. There is not much to say about this team that finished 3-15 in conference and 11-20 overall. Nevertheless, Penn St. brings a crew of freshman that could see playing time into the mix this season. Taran Buie and Tre Bowman could be the future back-court for the Nittany Lions, but for now, they will be learning from the senior guard Battle.
Key players: Battle will be called upon to not only handle the ball but also distribute and share a good portion of the scoring load. Scoring has never been a problem for Battle, but he will need to improve his assist-to-turnover ratio, which hovered around 2:1 last year. Battle will log serious minutes this season, and if Penn State is wise, they will look to another guard to help ease the load on him.
11. Iowa: Hawkeye faithful remained loyal throughout last season, but at times their fanhood was tested. Iowa stumbled to a 10-21 record in the regular season; losing nine of their last eleven games. Iowa will struggle again, especially in conference where they went 4-14 last year. Fran McCaffery will find it difficult to keep this team afloat in his first year as coach, but he has worked his magic in the past, especially at Siena where his team made the NCAA tournament the last three years.
Key players: McCaffery’s squad certainly isn’t deep, but the one go to guy is Matt Gatens. The junior, who led the team in scoring last year at 12.3 points a game, will look to improve on his statistics from last year’s campaign. Rest assured, Iowa won’t be busting brackets come March Madness.