Michigan State's Kalin Lucas, who's back for his senior season after rupturing an Achilles during the NCAA tournament, has to be considered the favorite to win POY honors, especially if voters follow the best-player-on-the-best-team methodology. But watch out for Leuer, an ultraefficient, 6-foot-10 forward who'll be the Badgers' clear No. 1 offensive option for the first time in his career. He drew rave reviews from USA Basketball coaches for his work on the college select team this summer -- especially for his mid-range moves and driving skills -- and could very well enjoy a 20-and-8 season as a senior, putting himself in the conversation to become a the first UW player drafted since Alando Tucker. Leuer would be more of a household name already, had a broken left wrist not disrupted his promising junior year.
Impact Freshman: Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
Sullinger is a traditional low-post player with the size (at 6-9, 280 pounds) and skill set to be a double-double machine as a rookie. He may be the nation's highest-impact rookie other than North Carolina's Harrison Barnes and Duke's Kyrie Irving, and Sullinger, like those two, is already projected as a 2011 Lottery Pick. DraftExpress has him slotted at No. 9 on its current mock.
Breakout Candidate: Maurice Creek, Indiana
Creek fractured his left knee on Dec. 28, 2009, and missed the entire Big Ten portion of his freshman season, which meant he was left out of discussions about the nation's top freshmen. The numbers he put up before being injured were absurdly good, though: a 125.4 offensive rating while taking 31.8 percent of the team's shots, 44.8 percent long-range shooting, and 60.9 percent shooting inside the arc. He was by far the Hoosiers' best player, and if he can stay healthy and put up similar numbers as a sophomore, he'll warrant first-team all-conference honors.
Inside the Numbers: 73.7
The Big Ten had the nation's two best defensive rebounding teams in '09-10: Wisconsin, which was a four-seed in the NCAA tournament ... and Penn State, which went 3-15 in the league, and 11-20 overall. Both teams gathered 73.7 percent of available defensive boards, but the Badgers succeeded because they combined it with well-rounded D (ranking 19th nationally in efficiency), while the Nittany Lions failed because they barely forced any turnovers or blocked any shots, and allowed opponents to take far too many uncontested threes (ranking 126th nationally in efficiency). Making sure your opponent goes one-shot-and-done helps your defense; it just doesn't ensure that you have a great defense overall.
1. Michigan State
It will be considered a disappointment if the Spartans don't reach their third straight Final Four. This team is loaded with veteran talent and has multiple leaders in Kalin Lucas and junior Draymond Green, an ultra-valuable point forward who was the Big Ten's Sixth Man of the Year last season, and could emerge as a star in '10-11.
The Illini may have just as much talent as Michigan State, but they enter the year with less hype, because no one on their roster has experienced an NCAA tournament victory. Don't be shocked if they contend for the league title, though; senior Demetri McCamey is an elite point guard, if not yet an elite leader; 7-1 senior Mike Tisdale is one of the country's most underrated offensive centers; and freshman wing Jereme Richmond is a superb athlete who'll up their intensity level on D.
3. Ohio State
The Buckeyes have the designation of "nation's scariest team without a true point guard," and that's what makes them difficult to rank. They have two excellent gunners (junior William Buford and senior Jon Diebler), a glue-guy/lockdown defender (senior David Lighty), a star power forward (freshman Jared Sullinger) and two other post workhorses (freshman Deshaun Thomas and senior Dallas Lauderdale) ... but who'll run the show? Buford is the early favorite, and if he can make a successful conversion, Ohio State has a shot at the Final Four.
The Boilers will probably be forced to play small-ball at times, using 6-5 guard Kelsey Barlow -- their backup point guard last season -- as a power forward in the wake of Robbie Hummel's devastating knee injury. They'll have issues guarding some of the Big Ten's bigger frontcourts, but they could create issues for opponents by pushing the pace with a four-guard lineup. The Big Ten is a slow league, with just one team (Indiana) ranking in the nation's top 100 in tempo last season.
The Badgers' Jordan Taylor is my biggest breakout candidate other than Indiana's Maurice Creek. Taylor isn't in the "star" class of Big Ten floor generals with Lucas and McCamey, but the 6-1 junior had the best assist-to-turnover ratio (3-to-1) of any of the league's regular guards last season, and will have a much more expanded role now that Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon are gone. If Jon Leuer does win Big Ten Player of the Year, he'll have Taylor to thank.
The Gophers' front line of 6-11 Ralph Sampson, 6-10 Colton Iverson and 6-7 Trevor Mbakwe could provide them with the league's best 2-point field-goal defense. Last season they were second behind only Purdue, at 43.6 percent (ranking 26th nationally), and the Boilers are likely to slip some now that JaJuan Johnson is their lone experienced frontcourt player.
The Big Ten's best "grinder" at the point guard position is NU's Michael "Juice" Thompson, who was on the court 93.2 percent of the time in '09-10 and still managed to post a stellar offensive rating (115.9) and three-point percentage (41.1 percent). Just one returning player in the entire nation stayed off the bench less than Thompson last season: Delaware point guard Jawan Carter, who played 95.6 percent of his team's minutes.
The Hoosiers went 4-14 in league play without Maurice Creek, and it will be interesting to see how much their offensive efficiency improves with him taking the bulk of the shots. IU's highest-usage guards last season were then-sophomore Verdell Jones, whose offensive rating was 98.8 (on 28.4 percent of shots), and senior Devan Dumes, whose offensive rating was an abysmal 84.2 (on 25.8 percent of shots). By simply putting the ball in the hands of Creek and fellow sophomore Jordan Hulls, a 40.2 percent three-point shooter, the Hoosiers should be a much better scoring team.
In a "trying-to-find-hope" post from October, UMHoops.com pointed out some potential correlations between this inexperienced, less-than-promising Wolverines team and coach John Beilein's last squad at West Virginia, which won the 2007 NIT title. Top recruit Tim Hardaway Jr. -- who'll be needed to score right away -- is pegged as a guy who could become Beilein's next Da'Sean Butler. Michigan fans can only hope.
10. Penn State
Senior point guard Talor Battle pulled his name out of the NBA draft this offseason; he's a prolific (and clutch) scorer who gives the Nittany Lions at least a fighting chance of pulling of a few Big Ten upsets. As was mentioned above, though, they need to shore up their perimeter D to have any shot of winning more than a handful of league games. They ranked 275th nationally in three-point percentage allowed last season at 36.3 percent.
New coach Fran McCaffery will need, at the very least, 3-4 years to get the Hawkeyes back on solid footing after inheriting a decimated roster. He had a scare in the preseason when junior guard Matt Gatens, the team's top returning scorer at 12.3 points per game, suffered a torn tendon in his non-shooting hard ... but it was later determined that the injury will only cause Gatens to miss two games. It's going to be a long year for the Hawkeyes no matter what, but a Gatens-free team might've been at risk to go 0-fer in conference play.