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Big Ten Primer: Questions surround possible title contenders Ohio State

There is no conference race more intriguing than the Big Ten, which could put as many as seven teams in the NCAA tournament, yet has no obvious pecking order after Ohio State at No. 1. Questions abound: Can Jordan Taylor carry Wisconsin's offense by himself? Can Michigan have a breakthrough year while starting a freshman point guard? Is Michigan State one of the country's biggest sleepers? Will Robbie Hummel get back to his pre-knee-injury form and make Purdue a contender? Is it finally Northwestern's year to make the NCAAs? What follows is our best guess at the answers.

Jared Sullinger, Ohio State

Sullinger's space-creating, extrasensory backside was such an asset last year that it inspired entire articles, including one in which he said, "my butt is my best friend." He shed 15 pounds after a freshman season in which he averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds, but assured me he retained his most valuable bulk.

"That weight went nowhere," Sullinger said. "I was playing open gym against [former Buckeye forward] Terrence Dials and he was like, 'Boy, you lost all that weight but you've still got that [butt]. I said, 'Hey, I can't help it.'"

More stamina plus same backside sounds like a formula for a 20-and-12 season, and a run at national Player of the Year honors, too.

Branden Dawson, Michigan State

The Big Ten doesn't have an impact freshman in the Anthony Davis/Marquis Teague/Austin Rivers sense. Indiana's Cody Zeller is the league's highest-rated recruit, but his body type (6-11, 230) suggests he might need two years to be great, rather than dominate immediately. That's why Dawson -- a physical, 6-foot-6 rookie who Tom Izzo thinks can be an elite rebounder in the Big Ten -- gets the nod. Dawson will be the undersized guy playing inside for the Spartans, while senior Draymond Green will be the oversized guy playing on the outside.

Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State

In his short stints of playing time last season, Thomas actually took a higher percentage of shots (30.5) than did Sullinger (25.2) or William Buford (26.8), and was remarkably efficient, with a 115.0 rating. Now that Thomas is likely to start, he shouldn't be commandeering a larger portion of the Buckeyes' offense than Sullinger. But Indiana's all-time prep scoring leader will get a fair share of shots. Shooting is what he's hard-wired to do.

13.4

The percentage of offensive possessions on which Wisconsin committed a turnover last season, the lowest in the country. Ohio State finished second among Big Ten teams at 15.8 percent; Iowa was last, at 21.6.

1. Ohio State

The Buckeyes have a sure thing in Sullinger, but plenty of questions around him. Will senior shooting guard William Buford -- whom we last saw going 2-of-16 against Kentucky in the Sweet 16 -- be a more efficient scorer and consistent defender? Will sophomore defensive stopper Aaron Craft run the point 80-90 percent of the time, or will coach Thad Matta put freshman Shannon Scott on the floor to pilot the offense? If it all comes together, OSU can make a national title run.

2. Wisconsin

If Jordan Taylor can post the same efficiency rating (126.9 on 27.4 percent usage) after losing pick-and-pop marksmen Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil, then just hand the Badgers' point guard the Naismith and Wooden Awards. Taylor has justified his standing as a first-team, preseason All-America point guard, but he'll probably have to work even harder for his points as a senior.

3. Michigan/Purdue (tied)

Michigan

Michigan is being regarded as the Big Ten's "third top-25 team," even after losing point guard Darius Morris. The gap between the Wolverines, Purdue and Michigan State is tiny at the start of the season. It widens if freshman Trey Burke emerges as a steady replacement at the point, and if sophomore forward Jordan Morgan has the kind of breakout season that his rookie-year stats portend. (You already know that wing Tim Hardaway Jr. is going to be good. The kid can score.)

Purdue

For all the talk about Sullinger and Taylor, there's only one returning player in the Big Ten who's been first-team all-league twice: the Boilers' Robbie Hummel, who's back for a fifth year after rehabbing from his second major knee injury. And he isn't alone: Senior Ryne Smith, a 44.1-percent long-range shooter, could have a Jon Diebler-like final season, and senior point guard Lewis Jackson quietly posted a 110.4 efficiency rating last season, on par with that of E'Twaun Moore's (albeit with only three-fourths the usage rate).

5. Michigan State

Draymond Green's point-forward skills will be in even greater demand this season, as the Spartans try to operate with Keith Appling, who's more of a combo-guard, at the point. Although I named Dawson the Big Ten's "impact freshman," the league's highest-impact newcomer could be Valparaiso transfer Brandon Wood. The fifth-year senior is a gunner who took 30.2 percent of Valpo's shots last year, and might just lead the Spartans in scoring.

6. Minnesota

The Gophers had one of the nation's worst free-falls last season, going from a 16-4, NCAA-tourney-bound team to a 17-14 team that missed the NIT. If they solve their point-guard situation -- three-star freshman Andre Hollins could start -- they could be dangerous, as they already have a formidable front line in Rodney Williams, Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III.

7. Northwestern

The 'Cats have enough firepower back (particularly in senior John Shurna, a 43.4 percent long-range shooter) to at least flirt with ending their all-time NCAA tournament drought. Their two biggest questions: Can junior Alex Marcotullio adequately replace Juice Thompson (who played 92.2 percent of minutes last season) at the point? And can they avoid finishing last in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency for the third straight year? NU won't make the big dance if it doesn't learn how to guard.

8. Nebraska

The Huskers were lured to the Big Ten because of football, not hoops, but don't sleep on this team, which went 19-13 last season (7-9 in the Big 12) and only lost one starter, senior Lance Jeter. LSU transfer Bo Spencer will slide in at the point for his final year of eligibility, and the offense will revolve around forwards Jorge Brian Diaz and Toney McCray. Expect them to pull off a few upsets against squads making their first trip to Lincoln.

9. Illinois

Look for 7-foot sophomore Meyers Leonard to have a breakout year after struggling mightily as a freshman. He had an impressive final few games at the FIBA Under-19 World Championships this summer in Latvia, and should be a more physical, athletic replacement for Mike Tisdale at the five spot. The Brandon Paul-D.J. Richardson backcourt is experienced enough to help the Illini get to the NIT, but they may not really take off until 2012-13.

10. Indiana

Tom Crean has a fine front line in Zeller and underrated forward Christian Watford, who could be a first-team All-Big Ten pick if he keeps progressing. The Hoosiers still don't have a backcourt to contend for an NCAA bid, though, and last year they had the league's second-worst defense, mostly due to a league-worst foul rate (0.552 free-throw attempts allowed per field-goal attempt) and the 40.0 percent clip they let opponents shoot from beyond the arc.

11. Iowa

Learn the name Melsahn Basabe: He's the best forward in the Big Ten you don't know about, and should be the anchor of an improving Iowa frontcourt over the next three seasons. The 6-9 sophomore made a strong impact on the glass (his OR/DR% splits of 13.0/19.6 were among the best in the league, as was his block percentage of 6.1).

12. Penn State

Talor Battle was almost everything on offense (32.0 percent of shots) for the Nittany Lions. The shots he didn't take, Jeff Brooks took, and the shots Brooks didn't take, David Jackson took. All of them are gone, and new coach Patrick Chambers is in for a long winter in Happy Valley. Junior guard Tim Frazier, last year's defensive stopper, will have to take on a much bigger offensive load after averaging 6.3 points as a sophomore.

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