The Big Ten conference couldn indeed be in for a surprise season this year. It's no longer the Greg Oden Conference, Alando Tucker and Chris Rock are no longer at Wisconsin, and there are three new head coaches at Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota. It seems as though the experts have decided that this will be a down year for the boys of the midwest except in Bloomington and East Lansing. It's hard to argue with them considering all the departures. One Big Ten All-Conference First teamer returns(Drew Neitzel, MSU), one second teamer(D.J. White, IU), one All-Freshmen teamer (Raymar Morgan, MSU), and none of the major individual award winners remain in the conference.
That leaves eight of the eleven teams with five or more freshmen on their roster, eight teams with three seniors or less, and six teams with both. That's much younger than the conference has been in the past.
What that means is that predicting who's going to finish where in the standing may be more difficult than in the past - to some extent. I think there are two tiers in the Big Ten this year: The top 6 and the bottom 5. Realistically there are only four teams that have legitimate shots at making the big dance in March, assuming everything goes the way it's supposed to.
Michigan State is the cream of the crop this season, returning All-Conference first team point guard, and a pre-season candidate for conference player of the year, Drew Neitzel. Sophomore Raymar Morgan is primed to build on his solid freshman season. You can never count out a team coached by Tom Izzo either, they always seem to be there in the end.
Indiana is right there with the Spartans as well due to the return of their own conference player of the year candidate D.J. White. He'll have some more help this season in form of freshman sensation Eric Gordon who was a top prospect out of high school, mentioned in the same sentences as O.J. Mayo and Derrick Rose. Expect good things from the Hoosiers this year.
The team that I think is flying under the radar right now is Ohio State. Yes they lost their trio of special freshmen to the NBA but they're bringing in four new youngsters that should be able to fill in atleast some of the void left by Oden, Conley, and Cook. Remember these names: Kosta Koufos and Jon Diebler. Koufos was the U-18 Euro tourney MVP and the runner up to Diebler for Mr. Basketball in Ohio. They should both play prominant roles immediately. Dallas Lauderdale and Evan Turner are the other two freshmen that should contribute, but maybe not right away.
Wisconsin is the last team in the Big Ten that I believe has a shot at playing in March. Losing Alando Tucker and Kammron Taylor will hurt, but the development of Brian Butch and Michael Flowers should help ease that pain. A decent freshman class and coach Bo Ryan should be able to put together a good enough season to get them to the Big Dance and finish in the top 5 in the Big Ten.
Purdue and Illinois should round out the top 6 in a weaker Big Ten than in the past due to decent recruiting classes and well balanced rosters.
Michigan and Minnesota are two of the three teams that have new coaches this season (Iowa being the other) so it's hard to say what's going to happen with those two teams. Michigan lost it's four top scorers from a year ago and are learning a complex, new system under new head coach John Beilein. They had a "disappointing" 22 win season last year and probably won't get off to a great start this season, making it hard to match the totals from last year. I think this team will be dangerous come the Big Ten tournament because they'll have gotten a grasp on a system that is very hard to defend and could make a surprise, Iowa-like run from a couple years ago, to steal a spot in the big dance.
As for Minnesota, they have nowhere to go but up. Just like Michigan they had a disappointing 22 win season - 22 wins for their opponents. They're one of the older teams in the conference and probably one of the least talented. But that's just what new head coach Tubby Smith wants you to think. They may not play much better this year but they'll play much harder and I think we'll see more than we thought we were going to out of the senior trio of Spencer Tollackson, Dan Coleman, and Lawrence Mckenzie. They won't make the dance and are probably a long shot for the NIT as well, but with Tubby on the bench we should expect nothing but better-than-last-year.
Iowa's best players (Tyler Smith, Adam Huluska) transferred to Tennessee and went to the NBA. They have some decent young talent and a hungry coach but they're two years away from being much of anything. Northwestern will spoil someone's Big Ten season but do nothing otherwise, and Penn State will be Penn State - which is to say not that good.
1. Michigan State 13-3
2. Indiana 12-4
3. Ohio State 11-5
4. Wisconsin 11-5
5. Purdue 9-7
6. Illinois 9-7
7. Michigan 8-8
8. Minnesota 8-8
9. Iowa 6-10
10. Penn State 4-12
11. Northwestern 2-14
All Conference Team
Player of the Year: D.J. White
Freshman of the Year: Eric Gordon
Defensive Player of the Year: Kosta Koufos
Coach of the Year: Tubby Smith