The Big Ten is arguably the strongest conference heading into the 2012-13 college basketball season.
Indiana will likely be No. 1 in the nation to start the year, Ohio State returns key contributors from its Final Four team, Michigan has its strongest roster since the days of the Fab Five and Michigan State still has Tom Izzo.
But every team, no matter how strong, has concerns heading into a new campaign. The squads that make up the Big Ten are no different.
Here is one thing that each fanbase should be concerned about entering the 2012-13 season.
Penn State is not exactly a flagship basketball program.
But those fans hoping that this year’s hoopsters will at least temporarily distract them from the wounds left over by the football scandal may be disappointed.
Penn State has one of the most dynamic players in the entire Big Ten. Point guard Tim Frazier can score on just about anyone, dishes out assists at an impressive rate and isn’t afraid to mix it up on defense.
The problem is, the Nittany Lions don’t have much else. Barring some unexpected contributions from the youngsters, Penn State will once again languish near the bottom of the conference, despite another great season from Frazier.
The rebuilding project for second year coach Pat Chambers is just beginning. If he can get more players of Frazier’s ability in the fold, the future will look brighter in State College.
Ohio State has the potential to be one of the best teams in the entire nation next season, let alone the Big Ten. But it also has the chance to finish near the middle of the conference standings.
How can that be?
Well, much of the Buckeyes success will depend on young players who are extremely talented and extremely inexperienced.
Top-notch recruits LaQuinton Ross, Amir Williams and Shannon Scott will see significantly more playing time this season with the departures of Jared Sullinger and William Buford, and Thad Matta is going to need them to live up to their enticing abilities.
Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas (as well as Lenzelle Smith Jr. to a lesser extent) are the givens in the Buckeye lineup. But the scarlet and gray can’t repeat last season’s success without contributions from the other cogs.
Indiana could very well be the best team in the country in 2012-13 and are clearly the conference favorites.
However, the Hoosiers’ defense may be the only thing standing in the way of a truly elite team.
In 2011-12, Indiana ranked 64th in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted defensive rankings. While that isn’t exactly horrible, it’s certainly not national championship caliber.
Considering the crystal basketball is the ultimate goal this year in Bloomington, the defense is going to have to improve by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately for the Hoosier faithful, dynamic offense can only carry you so far come March.
If you don’t believe me, just look at the squad’s 102-90 loss to Kentucky in last year’s NCAA tournament.
For seemingly the past ten seasons, Purdue has maintained a core that included some combination of Robbie Hummel, E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson. If you want, you can even throw Chris Kramer in there.
However, none of these mainstays will be lacing it up in West Lafayette this year.
Instead, Matt Painter will primarily look to a solid freshmen class if Purdue hopes to achieve the type of success it has become accustomed to. The good news is, A.J. Hammons, Raphael Davis and Ronnie Johnson form a formidable core.
Nevertheless, the long term future looks brighter than the immediate one for the Boilermakers. Yes, these recruits are talented, but they do not have the Kentucky-like ability that has seen freshmen-oriented teams overcome inexperience and succeed right away.
Maybe it’s something about Chicago sports, but bad things have been happening recently when the city’s teams are close to their goals.
The Bulls were devastated by Derrick Rose’s ACL tear in the playoffs, the 7-3 Bears never recovered from Jay Cutler’s injury and the Cubs are the Cubs.
(For the record, as a Chicago sports fan, that was painful to type.)
As for Northwestern, the school seemed poised to qualify for its first ever NCAA tournament last season. John Shurna provided a scoring threat the fans weren’t used to in Evanston, and the Wildcats had a couple big home games to solidify their bid.
But, Northwestern blew leads against Michigan and Ohio State down the stretch and completed its collapse in the first game of the Big Ten Tournament. Alas, no March Madness for sportswriters’ favorite underdog.
It’s impossible not to think the team’s cursed history won’t play a factor down the stretch this year, even if it is just a mental thing.
It certainly has on the North Side for another Chicago team.
Brandon Paul has the ability to be one of the best players in the entire Big Ten.
If you need proof of that statement, just look back at Illinois’ surprising victory over Ohio State last year, where Paul poured in 43 points and a dagger three down the stretch.
On the other hand, he also has the capability to become somewhat of a greedy player in the Illini’s offense. Undoubtedly, that played somewhat of a role in Illinois’ shocking collapse last year.
With a new coach and an eye to the future in Champaign, where does that leave the senior Paul?
If he buys in, Illinois could exceed expectations this year. However, if he is more concerned with his potential NBA status, there could be some frustrating games for the Illini faithful.
Iowa has the same ugly truth as conference heavyweight Indiana, but this situation is much more dire.
Indiana’s defending may be preventing it from entering the realm of college basketball’s truly elite teams. However, Iowa’s defense is preventing it from even being considered as a formidable team.
The Hawkeyes were surprisingly efficient on the offensive side of the ball last season, but they were futile in their efforts to limit opponents’ baskets. In fact, Iowa ranked a paltry 180th in Ken Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted defensive rankings.
Not exactly the formula to climb out of the middle of the Big Ten standings.
Unfortunately for Iowa fans, if the Hawkeyes don’t drastically improve their defense, they will once again fail to sniff an NCAA tournament berth.
It’s no secret that Nebraska is not exactly a basketball school.
The Huskers were added to the Big Ten for their gridiron prowess, not their ability to put the ball in the basket. Still, Nebraska was somewhat competitive in some games last season, including a stunning victory over Indiana.
But that team had a little bit of talent on it. Specifically guard Bo Spencer, who averaged more than 15 points and one steal per contest.
However, he is gone this year, and so is much of the supporting cast that surrounded him. It doesn’t take a Nostradamus to predict struggles this season for Nebraska.
At least football season is right around the corner.
More specifically for Minnesota fans, there should be concerns about Trevor Mbakwe’s health.
The Golden Gophers will benefit from a sixth year of eligibility from their star big man, but it is a precarious year. In fact, there is a reason it is the sixth season. He just can’t seem to stay healthy.
Minnesota has a formidable core surrounding Mbakwe, including Austin Hollins, Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams. If Mbakwe can stay healthy, and play up to his enticing capabilities, the Gophers could find themselves playing deep into March.
Therein lays the other concern though. Even if Mbakwe survives the season unscathed, there is no guarantee that he will be even close to the dynamic athlete he was before tearing his ACL.
Minnesota fans can only hope.
Simply put, Draymond Green was Mr. Everything for Michigan State last season.
He was the Spartans’ on-court leader, their best scorer, their best rebounder, one of their best defenders and arguably their best passer. Statistically, Green averaged more than 16 points per game, more than 10 rebounds per game, about four assists per game, almost two steals a game and one block each time out.
So, it’s safe to guess he may be missed in East Lansing.
I am certainly not implying that Michigan State is going to be in for a rough season just because Green is gone. In fact, Tom Izzo returns plenty of talent and adds explosive newcomer Gary Harris to the mix.
But replacing Green will be too much to overcome in the Spartans’ attempt to reach the Final Four for the seventh time under Izzo.
Wisconsin and Michigan State are in very similar situations this season.
Both teams return the majority of their contributors from a year ago and add hyped prospects to the mix (Gary Harris for Michigan State and Sam Dekker for Wisconsin). However, both the Spartans (Draymond Green) and the Badgers (Jordan Taylor) must find a way to replace their best player and leader in 2012-13.
Taylor took every big shot for Wisconsin, handled the ball more than anyone, played solid defense and often bailed out the Badgers when their grind-it-out offense began to stall.
It’s going to be tough for the Badgers to reach the elite level they are aiming for without his presence on the floor or in the huddle.
Wisconsin will be good yet again, but it will not be considered a serious threat to win the conference or qualify for a Final Four.
Michigan has arguably the best starting five in the Big Ten, or at least the best one outside of Bloomington.
Star point guard Trey Burke returns, as does backcourt mate Tim Hardaway Jr., and they will join forces with one of the most dynamic freshmen classes to enter Ann Arbor in years. Newcomers Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary will be generating almost as much buzz as Denard Robinson in Wolverine country come winter.
However, Michigan also lost a handful of players. The program was hit by transfers, including that of center Evan Smotrycz, while sharp shooters Zack Novak and Stu Douglass graduated.
Outside of the starting five (Jordan Morgan will likely start with the four players mentioned above), there isn’t much left in Michigan’s cupboard.
Still, teams have competed and won Big Ten championships without much depth (just look at how much Thad Matta uses his bench), and Michigan may very well do just that.