The Big Ten was college basketball’s best conference last season, and while it may not run away with that title in 2013-14, it’s going to be awfully impressive once again. One of the striking advantages the league will again boast is a remarkable balance of elite players all over the lineup, not just in its traditional frontcourt power base.
Of course, that’s not to neglect the value of bruising big men such as Michigan star Mitch McGary. The Wolverines center could easily have declared for the NBA draft after a dazzling postseason performance, but instead he’s back to help the Maize and Blue try to climb back towards a B1G title.
Read on for more on McGary and the rest of the best players in the conference, position by position. These rankings do take potential into account, but proven performance counts for a lot more (especially in this grueling league).
Michigan State’s leading scorer last season, Keith Appling can put points on the board in a hurry. The streaky rising senior excels in a one-man fast break role, but he’s also got a dangerous jump shot.
Appling became less of a factor as a passer late in the season, totaling a mere three assists in three NCAA tournament games.
At his best, he’s devastating—witness a 24-point, eight-rebound, seven-assist outburst against Illinois—but Tom Izzo never knows which version of Appling will show up for a given game.
Thrown into the fire as a true freshman, Yogi Ferrell did an admirable job running Indiana’s offense. The 6’0” guard dished out 4.1 assists per game while feeding the likes of Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo.
Ferrell isn’t much of a scorer as yet (he went without a point in the Hoosiers’ last two NCAA tournament games), but he does have the advantage of being a fine free throw shooter when he can get to the line.
He’s a willing defender, though he doesn’t put up the eye-opening steal totals of some of the conference’s bigger names.
Andre Hollins made quite a splash in his first season as the Gophers’ starter.
A 41-point barrage against Memphis in the season’s sixth game prefigured an outstanding year in which the 6’1” sophomore averaged a team-high 14.6 points a night and shot .418 from three-point range.
Hollins’ passing wasn’t quite as deadly as his shot, but he did hand out 3.4 assists per contest. Both his leadership and his scoring will be put to the test next season as Minnesota adapts to life without Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams Jr.
Felled by a ruptured Achilles tendon four games into his senior year, Tim Frazier has gotten another chance from the NCAA. His extra year of eligibility gives Penn State the scariest backcourt in the Big Ten, and one of the best in the nation.
The last time the 6’1” Frazier played a full season, he led PSU in scoring (18.8 points), rebounding (4.7 boards), assists (6.2) and steals (2.4) per game.
He won’t duplicate that trick on a stronger 2013-14 Nittany Lions squad, but he’s a virtual lock to lead his team out of last place for the first time in three years.
There isn’t a defender in college basketball who can disrupt an offense like Aaron Craft. The 6’2” ballhawk creates even more turnovers than his 2.1 steals per game would suggest, and every opponent must account for him in its game plan.
Craft’s own offense isn’t too shabby either, as Iowa State learned when he buried a game-winning trey in the NCAA tournament.
After three years of deferring to elite scorers Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas, the rising senior may finally get to do some shooting of his own to go with his 4.6 assists a night.
Few players in the country were as dangerous in crunch time as Ben Brust was last season.
The junior guard’s clutch shooting (including an improbable half-court buzzer-beater) keyed overtime wins for the Badgers against Iowa and Michigan in the space of three days.
Brust finished as Wisconsin’s leading scorer, putting up 11.1 points per game in one of the nation’s slowest-paced offenses. His 79 three-pointers (on .389 shooting) were the Big Ten’s third-highest total.
If we were ranking the Big Ten’s most impressive athletes, Lenzelle Smith Jr. would be doing a good deal better.
Although his 6’4”, 205-lb frame and prodigious leaping ability haven’t translated into lofty numbers as yet, he’s shown flashes of what a tough matchup he can be (especially on the fast break).
Smith has improved steadily over his OSU career, posting personal bests of 9.2 points and 4.8 rebounds a game last season. Now a rising senior, he’ll have every opportunity to become a primary scoring option with Deshaun Thomas off to the NBA.
The hero of the Hawkeyes’ run to the NIT title game, Roy Devyn Marble had three of his five best point totals of the season in that tournament. The rising senior’s postseason heroics raised his team-leading average to 15 points per game on the year.
The 6’6” Marble is also a fine rebounder who grabbed 4.0 boards a night.
Although he spent large chunks of last year shoehorned into a ballhandling role, he should be able to play off the ball in 2013-14 as rising sophomore Anthony Clemmons (presumably) takes over the point guard duties.
Gary Harris is the toughest defensive SG in the Big Ten, and that’s saying something for a rising sophomore.
At 6’4”, 205 lbs, he has the muscle to challenge any perimeter player in the conference and the instincts to make plays on the outside (1.3 steals per game).
Harris is also a scary offensive weapon, especially when he gets hot from three-point range (where he shot .411 last season).
His 12.9 points a night finished a close second to Keith Appling's total for the team scoring lead, and it wouldn’t be any surprise if he overtook the veteran next season.
Stuck in basketball purgatory in State College, D.J. Newbill didn’t get nearly the headlines of some of his competitors last season. All the 6’4” sophomore did was light up scoreboards, leading the Nittany Lions with 16.3 points per game on the year.
Newbill didn’t exactly shy away from tough competition, torching the Wisconsin defense for 22 points and scoring a season-high 27 against Michigan State.
He’s also an outstanding rebounder who grabbed five boards a night as a Big Ten newcomer (after transferring from Southern Miss).
On the short list of the best dunkers in the conference, Sam Thompson has added some other elements to his game. The 6’7” high flyer shot .404 from beyond the arc as Deshaun Thompson’s sidekick last season.
Thompson averaged 7.8 points per game for the Buckeyes, though his 3.5 boards a night could use some improvement. His long arms also make him a frustrating matchup as a defender, though it doesn’t always show in the box score.
Freshmen rarely get noticed on Bo Ryan’s veteran-laden Wisconsin teams, but Sam Dekker forced his way into the spotlight. The 6’7” marksman scored 9.6 points per game (1.5 off the team lead) as a reserve last season.
Dekker, who nailed 39.1 percent of his three-point tries, is a lock for a starting job in next year’s depleted frontcourt. He’s also a perfectly solid rebounder (3.4 boards a night), even if his shooting skills tend to overshadow the rest of his game.
The breakout star of Ohio State’s postseason, LaQuinton Ross averaged 17.7 points over the team’s last three NCAA tournament games.
That March Madness spurt put Ross in line for a big chunk of the minutes vacated by Deshaun Thomas in the Buckeyes frontcourt.
Like Thomas, Ross is a combo forward who does most of his damage outside despite a power forward’s build (6’8”, 225 lbs).
He racked up 8.3 points and 2.9 boards a night off the bench last season, and the sky’s the limit if he does earn a starting job as a junior.
As a rising sophomore, Nik Stauskas is already one of the top three-point shooters in the country. The 6’6” sniper hit 44 percent of his long range tries, draining 80 three-pointers on the year.
With Trey Burke running the offense, Stauskas didn’t have to do much else beyond standing at the three-point arc and waiting for the ball.
Now that Burke is off to the NBA, expect his favorite long-range target to develop into a more versatile scorer (and probably add a few offensive rebounds to the three boards he grabbed per game last season).
Branden Dawson is a spectacular athlete who blends a power forward’s strength (at 230 lbs) with a wing player’s explosiveness.
He made those gifts count on the glass last season, grabbing 5.9 rebounds per game while competing with the vaunted Michigan State post players.
Dawson’s lack of a three-point shot keeps him from being a go-to scorer, but he did chip in 8.9 points a night as a sophomore. He’s also a lockdown defender whose quickness helped him grab 1.6 steals per contest.
The only McDonald’s All-American joining the Big Ten, Noah Vonleh is a safe bet to step right into a starting job at Indiana.
That prospect will mean plenty of scoring for the Hoosiers, because the 6’8” freshman is a first-class shooter from the high post.
At 220 lbs, Vonleh is better suited than most Big Ten newcomers to handling the league’s grinding interior play.
However, he’ll be even more effective pulling bigger defenders out to the wings and using his impressive ballhandling ability to attack them off the dribble.
The biggest question about Matt Costello coming out of high school was whether he could rebound and defend at the level Tom Izzo demands of his forwards.
A freshman season spent on the bench gave him time to build up the muscle he’ll need for those jobs, and his most important numbers entering his sophomore campaign are 6’9” and 245 lbs.
Costello is a skilled jump shooter who hit just under 50 percent of the few shots he got to take last season.
Now that he has the build to grind out points and rebounds down low, he’ll be an excellent complement to the Spartans’ other inside-outside post threat, Adreian Payne.
If John Beilein could afford to use Glenn Robinson III at his natural small forward spot, the son of the former NBA All-Star would be the Big Ten’s best at the position.
Even giving up size and low-post experience, the 6’6”, 210-lb freshman piled up 11 points and 5.4 rebounds a night on last year’s national runner-up squad.
An improving three-point shooter and phenomenal dunker, Robinson will likely pick up a big chunk of the scoring vacated by Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke. He’ll also make his share of plays on defense after averaging a steal per game as a freshman.
Ross Travis isn’t exactly a fit for the contemporary perimeter-PF paradigm, as he proved by shooting 5-for-40 from three-point range last season. When it comes to battling it out underneath, however, the Nittany Lions sophomore can bang with the best.
Undersized at 6’6”, 225 lbs, Travis still led PSU with 7.4 rebounds a game last season. Despite his ugly shooting percentages, he did manage 7.0 points a night, a figure that should increase with the help of a healthy Tim Frazier’s expert passes.
A native of Strongsville, OH (fittingly enough), Aaron White is a classic power forward in the Paul Millsap mold. He stands 6’8”, 218 lbs, and he’s been the Hawkeyes’ best interior weapon in each of his two collegiate seasons.
White’s 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game were key factors in Iowa’s NIT success, and he was one of the only Hawkeyes who played well—12 points, six boards—in the title-game trouncing by Baylor.
He’s even a terrific free-throw shooter for a big man, knocking down 74.8 percent of his tries from the stripe.
Even Big Ten big men will need to work to shoot over a 6’11” center, and Luke Fischer has the shot-blocking instincts to make that job even tougher. Unsurprisingly for an Indiana recruit, he’s even more dangerous on the offensive end.
Fischer, the Gatorade Player of the Year in Wisconsin as a high school senior, has the hands to score down low and the jump shot to be a threat in the mid-range game.
He also runs the floor awfully well for a player his size, which will help him compensate for his relative lack of bulk at 210 lbs.
He hasn’t yet grown beyond the role of defensive specialist, but Amir Williams certainly knows how to fill that job. The 6’11”, 250-lb sophomore blocked 1.4 shots per game despite only playing 16.5 minutes a night.
Williams also pulled in 3.9 rebounds per contest, a number that will surely jump when his minutes expand in Evan Ravenel’s absence. Now, if he could only start contributing more than 3.5 points per outing…
A.J. Hammons had one of the best freshman seasons hardly anybody noticed. Toiling for a sub-.500 Purdue squad, the 7’0”, 280-lb Goliath posted team highs of 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game.
Hammons also scored a solid 10.6 points a night in his Boilermakers debut, providing much-needed support for Terone Johnson. With a year of experience (and confidence), expect Hammons to become the No. 1 option in West Lafayette this season.
Mitch McGary’s sensational NCAA tournament made it easy to forget that he wasn’t a starter for most of his freshman season. Of course, averaging 14.3 points and 10.7 rebounds a night on the game’s biggest stage will do that for almost anyone.
McGary, who shot 10-for-11 from the field in a win over VCU, posted more modest numbers—7.5 points and 6.3 boards per contest—for the season as a whole.
Still, he’s got confidence to burn now, and his 6’10”, 250-lb frame and boundless energy should be more than enough to raise him to season-long star status in his sophomore campaign.
A power forward alongside hulking Derrick Nix last season, Adreian Payne is a good bet to slide into the pivot as a senior. He’s certainly got the toughness for it, having averaged 7.6 points and 1.3 blocks per game last year.
Where Payne really shines, though, is using his devastating athleticism on the offensive end. Shooting over or driving by the slower defenders he almost always faces.
At 6’10”, 240 lbs, he’s nearly as mobile as a small forward, and he should score a lot more than 10.5 points per game to close his college career.