Ohio State won its first 24 games of last season, won the Big Ten title and was ranked #1 going into the NCAA Tournament, before a disappointing loss to Kentucky ended their Final Four dreams. The Buckeyes are a team of great expectations again this year, with sophomore power forward Jared Sullinger, one of the best players in the country, opting for another year of college ball in Columbus rather than sit through an NBA lockout. Ohio State is ranked #3 nationally, but I believe the preseason focus has not given enough credence to what Thad Matta’s program lost.
While Sullinger is the go-to guy and William Buford and Aaron Lighty are both good backcourt pieces, Matta is going to miss the senior leadership and outside shooting of Jon Diebler. Ohio State will miss the frontcourt presence of Dallas Lauderdale and they will certainly miss the offensive capabilities of swingman David Lighty, all of whom have graduated. This is a good team, but a beatable one. The real question is whether any of the most likely challengers in the Big Ten are up to the task, given that all of them face substantial rebuilding projects. Consider the following…
*Purdue lost two outstanding players in guard E’Twaun Moore and center JaJuan Johnson. Matt Painter has a trio of guards who got playing time and now need to take up Moore’s points. The X-factor for Purdue and perhaps for the entire Big Ten race is Robbie Hummel. The power forward who can go inside and out was one of the conference’s best players until knee surgery ended his season. He’s healthy and Purdue needs him back at full stride.
*Wisconsin guard Jordan Taylor is one of the best in the nation, but UW lost forward Jon Leuer to the NBA two hours down the road, as the Milwaukee Bucks drafted him. Bo Ryan needs to put together a frontcourt or the Badgers will spend the season on the NCAA bubble.
*Michigan State is missing its pace-setter and scorer, point guard Kalin Lucas, who has graduated and also lost key pieces in Korie Lucious and Durrell Summers. The Spartans, who have already lost to North Carolina and Duke, need Draymond Green to hit the boards and Keith Appling to be up to the task of leading the backcourt. Then Tom Izzo needs to find more of his trademark rebounders. A November 30 date with Florida State looms, as MSU tries to avoid going 0-3 against the ACC in November.
*Illinois lost its frontcourt duo of Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis, along with guard Demetri McCamey. I suppose the upside for Bruce Weber is that the Tisdale/Davis duo was maddeningly inconsistent, but there’s no one who looks ready to step in. This could be the year that finishes Weber in Champaign.
*Minnesota had a disappointing season a year ago, so maybe rebuilding with a new foundation isn’t such a bad thing. But there will still be growing pains for Tubby Smith’s program, particularly in the backcourt. The Gophs can play up front with Trevor Mbakwe, Ralph Sampson III and Rodney Williams, but finding floor leadership and outside shooting will determine their season. Keep an eye on Minnesota as an improving team in February, but they are not a dark horse championship challenger.
Wisconsin, Michigan State and Purdue are the most likely challengers to Ohio State, while Illinois and Minnesota each have pedigrees that deserve some respect and none are in any kind of position to make a title run. Therefore perhaps the real story of this conference is whether any of the following programs can step up and push into the upper tier…
*Michigan is already pretty close to that upper tier, making the NCAA Tournament last year, winning one game and giving Duke a good run in the Round of 32. Tim Hardaway Jr. leads the way scoring-wise in the backcourt and needs reliable help from Zack Novak shooting the three-ball. I’m skeptical of the frontcourt and depth, but they did knock off Memphis yesterday afternoon in the first round of the Maui Invitational out in Hawaii and get a shot at Duke tonight (7:00 ET, ESPN)
*Northwestern has won 57 games over the last three years, but still can’t shed the status of the only BCS program not to make the NCAA Tournament. If they’re going to do it this year, the frontcourt duo of Luka Mirkovic and John Shurna has to get more physical, Drew Crawford needs to loose things up in the backcourt and someone has to replace Michael Thompson’s floor-directing capabilities. They’ve started off by beating LSU and Seton Hall, which isn’t earth-shattering, but notable in that the Wildcats are still clearly a step ahead of lower-echelon BCS teams.
*Indiana might be finally turning the corner under Tom Crean. They have a nice backcourt to work with in Jordan Hulls and Maurice Cheeks, while Christian Watford can give them a scoring threat at forward. The key to the Hoosiers’ improvement will be better rebounding and to that end the key is the arrival of highly touted 6’11” freshman Cody Zeller.
*Nebraska lost its best player in Lance Jeter, but has everyone else back, including post man Brian Jorge-Diaz. The challenge they will face is replacing Jeter’s ability to make the offense run smoothly and they’ll need more offensive punch.
There’s only two teams in the Big Ten that appear to be hopeless cases this season. Iowa’s only selling point is 6’5” guard Matt Gatens who is a nice scorer, but in no way one who can carry a team the way he’ll have to for the Hawkeyes. Penn State made a run to the NCAAs a year ago, but they lost almost every contributor to that team. And really, just by saying they lost guard Talor Battle, is tantamount to saying “everybody” as the 20 ppg scorer was one of the conference’s underrated gems, at least in terms of national media attention. Lion head coach Ed DeChellis knew to leave town while the getting was good and he took the job at Navy. PSU’s rebuilding project, now much tougher with all the scandals looming over the football program, is in the hands of Patrick Chambers, a young coach who had success at Boston University.
Ohio State might not be as powerful as reported—we’ll find out more when they host Duke on November 29 and go to Kansas on December 10—but at least within this conference, there’s no real contender to challenge. The Big Ten’s most interesting storyline will be the race for NCAA bids in the muddled middle.