The Big Ten looks to be relatively down this season. Like most prognosticators, the Daily basketball beat has picked Ohio State to win the conference. Wisconsin, Michigan, Purdue, and Michigan State will challenge for the championship as well. Here’s our take on each team for 2011-12, in order of projected finish:

No. 1 Ohio State: How do they do it? How do the Buckeyes lose three integral starters over the offseason — David Lighty, Dallas Lauderdale and Jon Diebler — and still retain so much talent on the roster? Head coach Thad Matta isn’t typically considered an elite coach, but he’s absolutely an elite recruiter (what he says to these kids to get them to Ohio State is beyond us).

The Buckeyes’ success starts with you-know-who — returning NCAA Freshman of the Year Jared Sullinger. Barring injury, Sully can take this team deep into the postseason single-handedly. Unfortunately for everyone else, he doesn’t need to do it single-handedly. Sophomore point guard Aaron Craft, who may be the least imposing player in the conference outside of Michigan’s Matt Vogrich, is a highly capable point guard. And senior William Buford may be the top wing in the league.

Bottom Line: Craft to Sullinger … Easier than Easy Mac. (Get it?)


No. 2 Wisconsin: Every year, Wisconsin contends in the Big Ten and makes the NCAA Tournament (the Badgers have made the Big Dance in 13 straight years, the fourth-longest active streak in the country). Chalk it up to Bo Ryan. The Wisconsin coach never fails to instill his principles on his teams.

Point guard Jordan Taylor said that Ryan won’t recruit a player unless he knows he fits the Badger formula. The result is strong, physical defense, efficient (read: boring) offense with his swing system, and solid fundamentals. This season, the Badgers have a star in Taylor, perhaps the best point guard in the country.

The key to Wisconsin’s season will be how it reloads in the front court after three departures. Ryan mentioned Jared Berggren, Frank Kaminsky, Evan Anderson and Jarred Uthoff as bigs to watch. Guard Josh Gasser returns in the backcourt after a solid freshman season.

Bottom Line: Expect typical Wisconsin. Biggest disappointment? Mike Bruesewitz already shaved off his ginger ‘fro.


No. 3 Michigan: With point guard Darius Morris being the only part of the Wolverines’ rotation from last year to depart, Michigan’s lineup brings back the most continuity of the Big Ten teams. This could work to the Wolverines’ advantage early in the year when opposing teams are still shuffling their lineups and figuring out what works.

Freshmen Trey Burke and Carlton Brundidge will replace Morris’s minutes, and the rest of the roster can expect to see similar roles. After a breakout freshman season, Tim Hardaway will look to take on even more scoring to bring up a Michigan offense that finished near the bottom of the Big Ten in scoring.

Senior captains Zack Novak and Stu Douglass will look to make their third seasons as co-captains count and help send this team deep into the NCAA Tournament. The next benchmark will be getting to the Sweet Sixteen.

Bottom Line: Michigan hopes the new Crisler Arena will house a Bentley-like product.


No. 4 Purdue: Purdue loses its top-two scorers but should be pretty good this year. That sentence only makes sense because of Robbie Hummel. The fifth-year senior forward was injured for the latter part of his junior year and all of his fourth year. He returns for the last season of his career, which started out promising. He scored in double-digits each season and led the Boilermakers in rebounding in his two full seasons.

Hummel will be supported by senior guards Lewis Jackson and Ryne Smith, who both started last season, but were in the shadows of seniors JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore. While Purdue put together a 14-4 conference record and finished second in the Big Ten last season, it got eliminated in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and can’t help but think of how good it could have been with Hummel on that team. This team hopes to open up the renovated Mackey Arena in style.

Bottom Line: Robbie Hummel. Robbie Hummel. Robbie Hummel. Robbie Hummel. Robbie Hummel.


No. 5 Michigan State: It didn’t matter that Michigan State wasn’t ranked in either preseason top-25 poll. When the Big Ten rankings came out, the Spartans were right back where they always are: the top three. All-Big Ten senior forward Draymond Green will need to score, rebound and most importantly, prevent the leadership and chemistry issues that plagued last year’s team.

The Spartans have a strong frontcourt, but need to replace their starters in the backcourt, including two-time All-Big Ten First Team point guard Kalin Lucas. Sophomore Keith Appling will step in at the point, while fifth-year senior guard Brandon Wood could be the second scoring option.

The Spartans will play good defense, but need Appling to be serviceable enough to allow Green and Wood to put points on the board. If they can, watch out for the green and white.

Bottom line: Nobody at Michigan cares how many days it’s been since Michigan State beat the Wolverines in basketball, but it’s a big number.


No. 6 Minnesota: Tubby Smith must feel a little like Alice in Wonderland — you’re not at Kentucky anymore, Tubby. The Golden Gopher headman has found coaching Minnesota a little more difficult having made the NCAA Tournament just twice in his four seasons.

Last year, the Gophers didn’t make any postseason tournament after dropping 10 of its last 11 games to finish ninth in the conference. The Gophers still have one of the better frontcourts in the Big Ten with preseason All-Big Ten forward Trevor Mbakwe and center Ralph Sampson III. Mbakwe, in particular, is a force.

But just like last season, point guard is a weakness. Freshman Andre Hollins could seize the job immediately, though there are more experienced options in sophomore Maverick Ahanmisi and junior college transfer Julian Welch.

Quote: “Coming into every season, I always try to lead the conference in rebounding. I want to lead in blocked shots too, but I have to battle with this guy (Sampson III) every day.” — Mbakwe


No. 7 Indiana: After three years of ineptitude, Indiana will no longer be an easy win thanks to the arrival of 6-foot-11 forward Cody Zeller — ESPN.com’s 14th-ranked incoming freshman. In fact, if Zeller lives up to the hype, the Hoosiers have a chance to equal, or even exceed, the eight conference wins head coach Tom Crean has in his three seasons at Indiana.

But a shadow was cast on the offseason when the Hoosiers lost junior guard Maurice Creek to a season-ending injury. Creek, a double-digit scorer, has now missed at least half of three straight seasons due to injuries. Still recovering from the mess left by former coach Kelvin Sampson, Crean finally enters a season with experience.

After last year’s roster featured just one senior, this year’s team has five seniors and four juniors, which should make playing against Crean’s vaunted defense increasingly difficult.

Bottom line: Another bad season will turn the shade of Crean’s chair from crimson to red-hot.


No. 8 Northwestern: Northwestern missed its chance to reach the NCAA Tournament last year. The program had never made a trip to March Madness, but there was promise with then-senior point guard Michael “Juice” Thompson breaking school records.

After a quick start in conference play, though, the Wildcats fell flat down the stretch and finished with a losing record against league opponents for the 43rd consecutive season. Senior forward John Shurna, who shot an impressive 43 percent from 3-point range last season, is expected to fill the leadership void left by Thompson’s departure.

And regardless of his success or failure in that regard, he will inevitably draw national attention for his awkward shooting form. For now, head coach Bill Carmody is dealing with question marks at point guard, which doesn’t bode well for a team that runs the Princeton offense.

Quote: “I think that good things are on the horizon. Or near horizon. Is there such a thing as near horizon? I don’t know, help me out.” — Bill Carmody


No. 9 Iowa: The tough part is over for Fran McCaffery. The second-year Iowa coach won’t have to worry about instilling a new offensive system, or about getting his players used to a new coaching staff, the typical growing pains when a new coach takes over a team.

The Hawkeyes struggled to a 10th-place finish in the conference, though they did upset Michigan State and Purdue. The challenge this season is to take a step forward. Melsahn Basabe will be a big part of that. The forward surprised the Big Ten as a freshman, showing great athleticism.

The backcourt should be solid with the return of point guard Bryce Cartwright and running mate Matt Gatens. The main issue right now is depth — Andrew Brommer and Devyn Marble both won’t be able to start the season on time. But the program is on the rise, recruiting is improving, and the fans are starting to get on board.

Bottom Line: For the first time in a while, the basketball team might actually be better than the football team if things fall into place.


No. 10 Illinois: It’s hard to imagine the Illini as non-factors in the Big Ten, but that’s what they could be if they don’t find someone who can put the ball in the basket. Illinois lost its top three scorers from last season and doesn’t have a lot of options for players who can pick up the slack.

Guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson have shown flashes of ability, but not the type that can carry a team. Sophomore 7-foot-1 center Meyers Leonard will be the Illini’s go-to guy in the post, but he hardly saw the court as a freshman. Leadership will also be hard to find on the young Illinois roster.

The only senior is point guard Sam Maniscalco, who transferred from Bradley last year, using the rule that allows a player to transfer, provided he has already graduated and will be in a graduate program not offered at the previous school.

Bottom Line: Bruce Weber’s voice could get even raspier if the Illini can’t find a true leader this season.


No. 11 Nebraska: It’ll be especially difficult for a program that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1998 to join a league that sent seven teams to the big dance last year. The upside for Doc Sadler’s Cornhuskers is experience.

There’s lots of it on this roster, and the conference as a whole is relatively inexperienced. Expect junior center Jorge Brian Diaz to impress. The guy can bang underneath, drain the midrange jumper, and Sadler — in his perfected Southern drawl — says Diaz is in the best shape of his career. With him, the frontcourt will be defensively sound as well. Nebraska’s weakness will be the backcourt.

The roster features a couple solid combo guards, but lacks the leadership of a true point guard. And sometimes, you’re only as good as your point man (see: Minnesota).

Quote: “When everything is said and done, these guys are going to have had the opportunity to play in some of the greatest arenas in college basketball. There’s so much history in this league.” — Doc Sadler


No. 12 Penn State:After reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 10 years last season, Penn State’s basketball program must be on the upswing, right? Well, when you take into account that the Nittany Lions lost everything from last year, the future at Penn State looks dreadful.

Big Ten teams will rejoice knowing that guard Talor Battle — the program’s best ever player — is gone, along with three other senior starters, leaving the Nittany Lions with less than 23% of last year’s scoring. To make matters worse, coach Ed Dechellis left Penn State for Navy in a move that had even mid-major coaches scratching their heads. Enter Pat Chambers, who arrives after a two-year stint as Boston University’s head coach.

With little talent and even less experience — Penn State has just one senior and 11 underclassman — the Nittany Lions are likely the conference’s worst team.

Bottom Line: Penn State should beat Slippery Rock in its opener. That may be it.

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