First Look: Wisconsin Badgers a heavy favorite in retooled Big Ten in 2014-15
SI.com is taking a first look at the major conferences for 2014-15. The series will include the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, ACC, American, A-10, Mountain West and Pac-12. First up: the Big Ten.
By the end of 2013-14, the Big Ten arguably earned best-league-in-the-country honors. It had run second to the Big 12 for most of the season before putting three teams in the Elite Eight – Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin, with the Badgers advancing to the Final Four.
Wisconsin brings just about everyone back. But impactful personnel turnover afflicts nearly other team that was a contender last season, and even a few that weren't. The Big Ten won't be as big and bad, and the additions of wobbly Maryland and Rutgers programs might water down the quality even more for at least one year.
Here's an early look ahead at what's in store for the Big Ten:
State of the champion
Michigan won the regular season title and Michigan State plowed through to the league's tournament championship. Neither will look like the same team in 2014-15. The Wolverines face another reload that teeters on a rebuild after Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary all left for the NBA draft. Had McGary returned – instead of being nudged out by a looming one-year suspension after testing positive for marijuana during the NCAA tournament – coach John Belein has a nice inside-outside combo with the 6-foot-10 forward and do-it-all guard Caris LeVert. Instead, LeVert (12.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists per game) and guard Derrick Walton (7.9 ppg) are the only returning starters. Other players like sophomore-to-be Zak Irvin and incoming top 100 recruits Kameron Chatman and D.J. Wilson will need to make major leaps or instant impacts.
Michigan State, meanwhile, loses its core with the graduations of Keith Appling and Adreian Payne and the early departure of Gary Harris. Branden Dawson returns for his senior year after averaging 11.2 points and 8.3 rebounds in 2013-14, but he's never been able to carry the load. As with their in-state rivals, role players (Denzel Valentine, Travis Trice, Kenny Kaminski) and recruits (top 100 point guard Lourawls Nairn) will have to fill gaping holes. It'll be a feat if Michigan or Michigan State can repeat the championship success it enjoyed last season.
Wisconsin isn't just a contender. After 30 wins, a Final Four run and the loss of only one starter from that squad, the Badgers are a prohibitive favorite to win the Big Ten and can aspire to match -- or even exceed -- their postseason success from this past season. The scoring and energy of Ben Brust (12.8 ppg) are gone, but nothing else of substance is. Seven-foot center Frank Kaminsky eschewed the NBA after a breakout, All-Big Ten junior season (13.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and should be even stronger and more apt to confound defenses by scoring inside and out. A frontline of Kaminsky, Sam Dekker (12.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and sophomore-to-be Nigel Hayes, the Big Ten's sixth man of the year, should be nearly impossible to defend.
Meanwhile, the backcourt is manned by veterans and returning starters Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser. Some improved shooting by both – Jackson hit 40.8 percent of his field goal attempts, Gasser 43.3 percent of his – would help, but it's not imperative. Wisconsin has talent, and it has motivation, after a heartbreaking last-second loss to Kentucky in the national semifinals. The gulf between the Badgers and the rest of the Big Ten could be large.
James Blackmon, Indiana
On the one hand, the Hoosiers' 17-15 season this past season after losing two NBA lottery picks (Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller) could be expected. On the other hand, Indiana's hasn't advanced beyond the Sweet 16 in six seasons under Tom Crean, and the school isn't paying Crean for Sweet 16 berths. With Noah Vonleh bolting for the NBA draft and Jeremy Hollowell transferring, it'll be another retooling season in 2014-15 -- and the team will be heavily reliant on youth. The 6-4 Blackmon, though, averaged 33.4 points per game as a high school senior and almost alone could solve the perimeter shooting woes that plagued Indiana last year. Rivals.com labeled Blackmon “arguably the top shooter in the entire Class of 2014,” and he'll be counted on to run with junior-to-be Yogi Ferrell in a very guard-oriented look.
If there is a sleeper team that might give Wisconsin a run, it could be the post-Aaron Craft Buckeyes. The program lost significant contributors like the dogged Craft, a two-time Big Ten defensive player of the year, and leading scorer LaQuinton Ross. But the reset could help, especially offensively, with Shannon Scott (7.5 ppg, 2.0 steals per game) no longer deferring to Craft as much and top freshmen D'Angelo Russell (No. 18 nationally per Rivals.com) and Keita Bates-Diop (No. 26 nationally) afforded scoring opportunities right away. Adding a veteran reliability to that will be Lee, a 6-9 graduate transfer who will play immediately after averaging 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds for Temple last season. He provides a paint scoring presence that wasn't there a year ago, and then it's up to Scott and Sam Thompson (7.9 ppg) to add some more punch from the perimeter.
Coach on the hot seat
Matt Painter, Purdue
A string of six straight 20-win seasons has devolved into back-to-back losing campaigns, including a 15-17 showing last year with no postseason berth. Second-leading scorer Ronnie Johnson (10.8 ppg, 3.7 apg) has decided to transfer somewhere else for his final two seasons. Painter has 7-foot junior-to-be A.J. Hammons (10.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 3.1 blocks per game) to build around next season – but he is not a certain foundation. There are a ton of young pieces – Kendall Stephens, Bryson Scott and Basil Smotherman all played in 32 games as freshmen – and a four-star center, 7-2 Isaac Haas, is arriving. If Purdue can't succeed in a Big Ten that won't be as prohibitively good, Painter might not get a chance to take advantage of that young talent maturing. Elsewhere, Penn State's Pat Chambers and Indiana's Crean could help themselves with significant improvements this year. (Penn State went 6-12 in league play, Indiana 7-11.) Chambers has one of the toughest jobs around, but he'll probably have a new athletic director, too – always a dicey proposition for a holdover coach of a struggling team.