The haves and have nots are well established in the Big Ten.
In the last two years, the same five schools—Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Indiana and Wisconsin—have finished in the top five of the conference standings. All five of those schools also have coaches who have been around for at least six seasons.
The rest of the conference is trying to catch up, and every other program (except for Purdue) has made a coaching change since 2010. It's not easy to make that jump.
With 2013 Big Ten champ Indiana losing Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, there should be some movement next season and an opportunity to mess up the pecking order. These are the teams positioned to make the biggest move or drop.
1. Michigan State
When you finished tied for second, as the Spartans did in 2013, there's obviously only one spot to climb.
Tom Izzo's team deserves to be the pick for preseason conference champ, and it's not really all that close.
The Buckeyes return most of their roster, but they lose leading scorer Deshaun Thomas. Michigan would be a good pick because of Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III and two talented freshmen guards who are coming in, but how can you pick a team that no longer has Trey Burke to pass up a team that returns almost everyone of importance?
Izzo's roster has a little bit of everything. Adreian Payne gives the Spartans inside scoring, and if he's more assertive, he could be a Big Ten POY candidate. Gary Harris is the best wing scorer in the league and also should be in the conversation for Big Ten POY. Denzel Valentine has the potential to be like a Draymond Green and play sort of a point forward role.
The key is point guard Keith Appling. When he was good last year, the Spartans were great. When he wasn't, the Spartans were usually off. If Appling can be more consistent, the Spartans will win the league.
I was around Illinois coach John Groce for the first time at the regional in St. Louis in 2012 when Groce had Ohio in the Sweet 16. Anyone who listens to Groce speak is convinced quickly the guy is going to be a really good coach who will be around for a long time. I was ready to trade in my laptop for some sneakers.
The man's energy and passion is magnetic. And without even considering what he has coming back or what he's brought in, I would bet on Groce, who had Ohio in the tournament in his second year.
Last season, the Illini got off to a 12-0 start and then were up and down during the conference season, in part, because of an over-reliance on the three and 29.4 percent three-point shooting during Big Ten play. They finished 8-10, got in the NCAA tournament and lost in the round of 32.
They lose leading scorers Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. Stepping in for Paul will be Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice, who averaged 16.8 points per game in 2012. Groce also signed three top-100 recruits (according to Rivals.com) and recently added Oregon State point guard Ahmad Starks, who could be eligible right away. Starks would either play behind or possibly next to point guard Tracy Abrams.
The last two years you could count on the top five in the Big Ten to finish in the top five. With Groce around, go ahead and add the Illini to that group that you can always count on.
With all the attention that was paid to the Big Ten last year, one team that didn't get much love and deserved at least a little bit of praise was Iowa.
The Hawkeyes won the games they should have won and finished 9-9 in the conference. Fran McCaffery's team then made a run to the NIT championship game, losing to Baylor.
Success in the postseason NIT isn't always the sign of an up-and-comer—2012 NIT champion Stanford was a disappointment last year—but combined with a solid year in the Big Ten, you have to like Iowa's chances to make some noise in 2014.
The Hawkeyes return their five leading scorers, three of whom will be seniors. They also lost two conference games in overtime last year. If they're able to have a winning record in the Big Ten in 2014, which should be the goal, they will make the NCAAs for the first time since 2006.
Here's a fact that has to put a little bit of fear in Tom Crean: Crean has never won more than 12 games at Indiana without Cody Zeller. The most conference games he's won without Zeller is four.
Zeller didn't live up to expectations last season since expectations were that he would be the national player of the year and lead IU to at least the Final Four. But those expectations were so great that Zeller was one of the most under-appreciated players in the country when you consider the impact he had on the program.
The good news is that the hard part for a program is climbing out of the hole, and IU fans should expect a consistent winner going forward. The Hoosiers return two dependable guards—Yogi Ferrell and Will Sheehey—and they have a nice recruiting class coming in, including McDonald's All-American Noah Vonleh. But a fall from the top of the Big Ten to somewhere in the middle of the pack is expected.
It could take some time to get back to where Zeller and Victor Oladipo had IU in 2013.
In one year as a head coach, Richard Pitino led his team to an 11-9 record in the Sun Belt and then lost in the conference championship game.
It was a nice turnaround after Florida International had won five conference games the year before with Isiah Thomas as the coach.
Props to Minnesota for taking a chance on a young coach, but there's no shot that Pitino gets that job if his dad isn't who his dad is. It could work out. He could be genetically guaranteed to be a great one. Or he could be overwhelmed for a few years in the Big Ten.
Considering the roster he'll coach next season, this is a bet that the young Pitino has a tough time adapting in at least Year One. The Gophers graduated big men Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams. Starting guard Joe Coleman transferred.
Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins are nice players, but they are the only two on the roster who played more than 14 minutes per game last season.
Minnesota underachieved going 8-10 in the Big Ten in 2013, and that's why Tubby Smith is no longer around. Duplicating that kind of mediocrity next year would actually be a win for Pitino. Expect the Gophers to go somewhere closer to 6-12.
And even if Pitino's not ready yet, he deserves some time to build the roster back up before expectations are placed on him.
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