Big Ten Breakdown: 2013-2014

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By Daniel Feldman, Daily Sports Writer
Published November 13, 2013

With the old Big East now dissolved, and the Atlantic Coast Conference claiming some of the well-known teams, the once-popular debate of whether the Big East or Big Ten is the best conference in college basketball seems to have taken a new direction. While the ACC welcomes Final Four team Syracuse, the Big Ten comes back following a season in which four Big Ten teams out of eight NCAA Tournament squads made the Sweet 16, including two which advanced to the Elite Eight, as well as Michigan making the national championship game. This year, the Big Ten comes back with five schools ranked in the Top 25.

Here’s a breakdown of the upper echelon of competition the Wolverines will face this season.

1. Michigan State

After being unanimously selected the Big Ten favorite by the media heading into the season, the second-ranked Spartans showed on Tuesday night why they are not only seen as the leaders of the Big Ten, but of the country as well. Taking on No. 1 Kentucky in Chicago, Michigan State demonstrated its veteran savvy, defeating the Wildcats 78-74.

Returning six of their seven starters from last season, the Spartans looked in midseason form as center Adreian Payne – a preseason All-Big Ten member – tallied 15 points. Still, Payne was just the Spartans’ third-leading scorer behind guards Gary Harris (20) and Keith Appling (22). Harris, who considered entering the NBA Draft last year, returns at 100-percent health after being injured on and off last year. The sophomore was also named to the Preseason All-Big Ten team, adding to the distinction of preseason Big Ten Player of the Year.

Assuming Michigan State doesn’t lose to Columbia on Friday, it’ll take over the No. 1 national rank next week.

Though Big Ten play doesn’t start until Dec. 31 for the Spartans, they’ll have a number of notable non-conference games in the near future against No. 12 North Carolina in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and a tough road battle against Texas.

2. Ohio State

After an elimination in the Elite Eight by Wichita State, the Buckeyes return this year with one player that has become the face of the Big Ten over his past three years at Ohio State: Aaron Craft.

The senior guard and MVP of the 2013 Big Ten Tournament comes back to Columbus for one last go-round to help lead a team predicted third in the Big Ten.

After losing leading scorer Deshaun Thomas to the NBA Draft, the 10th-ranked Buckeyes (2-0) will be tasked with replacing 19.8 points per game.

With the loss, even more pressure and responsibility will be placed on Craft – the team’s second-leading scorer from last season with 10 points per game – to be a scoring threat.

The Buckeyes will have junior forward LaQuinton Ross back, a player that will step right into Thomas’s starting spot. After averaging 8.3 points off the bench in just 16.9 minutes of action last season, Ross has already – albeit in a two-game span – improved upon those numbers, averaging 12 points and seven rebounds in 26.5 minutes.

Of Ohio State’s remaining non-conference games, three that stand out are No. 17 Marquette, Maryland and No. 21 Notre Dame.

3. Wisconsin

While Wisconsin’s style of play – slow, stagnant, boring – may not be popular to Big Ten fans, there is no doubt it works and will continue to work as long as Bo Ryan remains coach of the Badgers.

Though No. 20 Wisconsin (2-0) had one of its worst offensive seasons under Ryan, the team still led the Big Ten in defensive efficiency, and in effect, wore teams down in games — the Badgers held opponents under 50 points 10 times.

Returning for Wisconsin is forward Sam Dekker, a 6-foot-7 shooter, proven by his 39-percent shooting from 3-point range and 9.6 points per game last season. His development and role will become larger this year with the losses of Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans.

While they depart, coming back for the Badgers will be junior Josh Gasser, who missed all of last year due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He’ll share the backcourt with Ben Brust, who has averaged 13 points in Wisconsin’s first two games, which were wins versus No. 11 Florida and St. John’s.

With a signature win already under its belt, Wisconsin’s next and perhaps only notable non-conference game will be against No. 25 Virginia on Dec. 4. Three days later, the Badgers will take on in-state rival Marquette.

4. Indiana

After coming into last year ranked No. 1, things are a bit different for the Hoosiers this time around.

Following a loss to Syracuse in the Sweet 16, Indiana returns to action trying to replace 72 percent of last year’s minutes. While it’s easy to remember that the Hoosiers lost forward Cody Zeller and guard Victor Oladipo to the NBA Draft – they were both top-five picks – Indiana also lost Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford and Derek Elston to graduation.

The new names are four ESPN Top 100 players – as well as two additional freshmen – that helped make up ESPN’s fourth-ranked class. From that six-man group, sure to make an immediate impact is forward Noah Vonleh, who has produced two double-doubles in as many games, while averaging 14 points and 12.5 rebounds.

Also sure to play a big role this year will be senior guard Evan Gordon – the brother of former Hoosier Eric Gordon, who is transferring from Arizona State. He’ll occupy the backcourt with sophomore Yogi Ferrell, who will have more of a leadership role with such a young team. After averaging 7.6 points last year, Ferrell is off to a quick start, averaging 14 points through the team’s first two games.

The Hoosiers’ most notable non-conference games include a matchup with Washington, at Madison Square Garden. Additionally, Indiana will have a rematch against No. 9 Syracuse on Dec. 3 as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The team’s last noteworthy non-conference game will be against Notre Dame as part of the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis. The Hoosiers suffered their first loss last year there against Butler.

5. Iowa

Michigan wasn’t the only Big Ten team to make it to a postseason tournament championship game last year. The Hawkeyes also did, losing in the title game of the National Invitation Tournament to Baylor.

Despite missing out on the Big Dance, Iowa comes back with much promise. Returning 12 players, the Hawkeyes will rely on senior guard Roy Devyn Marble, who averaged 15 points per game in his junior campaign. He’ll be joined in the backcourt by sophomore Mike Gesell, who was the Hawkeyes’ third-leading scorer last year, putting up 8.7 points per game.

Iowa will have 7-foot-1 Adam Woodbury back for his second year at center. After averaging just 16.5 minutes in his freshman year, a goal for the 245-pound big man in the offseason was to put on more weight to help himself battle down low in the bulk-filled Big Ten.

Probably the Hawkeyes’ best player, junior forward Aaron White will look to build off of his successful last season, in which he averaged 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds.

While Iowa has a deep roster coming back, a notable new player is Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff, a former Iowa high-school Mr. Basketball. After a much publicized transfer process, Uthoff will more than likely be one of the first guys off the bench for the Hawkeyes.

Like a number of other Big Ten schools, one of Iowa’s biggest non-conference games is Notre Dame. But unlike Ohio State and Indiana, the Hawkeyes are playing the Fighting Irish as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Additionally, like Michigan, Iowa will play at Iowa State.

6. Illinois

After faring much better than expected with current-Kansas State coach Bruce Weber’s players in his first year as the Fighting Illini head coach, John Groce returns for his second season at the helm of a suddenly young squad.

Illinois (2-0) started off hot last year, winning its first 12 games to reach a high of 10 in the AP poll. Despite starting off slow in Big Ten play, the Fighting Illini recovered to make the NCAA Tournament as a seven seed. After losing to Miami in the Round of 32, the Fighting Illini come back to the court with just four returning players.

With guard Brandon Paul now gone, the bulk of the offensive duty will fall on the shoulders of junior guard Tracy Abrams, senior forward Joseph Bertrand and junior forward Rayvonte Rice, who will be eligible to play after sitting out last season following transferring from Drake. Rounding out the group of veterans is junior center Nnanna Egwu Jr.

So far this season, the quartet has averaged 10-plus points each through the team’s first two games, with Rice leading the way with 17.5. Following close behind is Bertrand (17), then Abrams and Egwu with 11 and 10, respectively.

Illinois’ toughest non-conference games are against No. 18 Oregon on Dec. 14 and Missouri on Dec. 21.