Last season, the Big Ten conference was far-and-away the best conference in all of college basketball. After seven of the 12 league members secured spots in last year's NCAA tournament, including the Michigan Wolverines who reached the national championship game, the conference as a whole returned to its elite status.
Gone, however, are many of the players that made the conference play so special. Michigan's National Player of the Year Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., Indiana's Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas, Illinois' Brandon Paul and Wisconsin's Jared Berggren.
But, the landscape of the Big Ten next season will not be lacking in superior talent. New stars will form within an outstanding group of upperclassmen and talented incoming freshmen.
Looking ahead, these are the 12 players that will likely become their respective team's most valuable players next season.
All stats via ESPN.com.
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In his first season as head coach for the Illinois Fighting Illini, John Groce narrowly missed out on his second consecutive Sweet 16 appearance (Ohio, 2012). Despite coming up just short against the Miami Hurricanes, last season as a whole was viewed as a success, especially considering how superior the Big Ten conference performed from beginning to end.
Groce's second season, however, should prove to be a challenging task.
Following a stellar four-year career, do-it-all combo guard Brandon Paul has departed. So has D.J. Richardson, the team's second-leading scorer. Two crucial blows to a team, that in all likelihood, will be feverishly searching for a primary scoring option, but most importantly a leader.
Enter Malcolm Hill.
A part of a five-man recruiting class, Hill possesses the skills and abilities that will help ease the pain for the rebuilding Illini. At 6'7", Hill is a long wing player that thrives in the open court. He can use either hand to get himself inside and can score at an extremely high rate over smaller defenders.
As Hill prepares for his freshman season at Illinois, a lot will be expected of the native from Belleville, Ill., who has all of the makings of becoming a star in the Big Ten.
Like Illinois, the Indiana Hoosiers will enter into a rebuilding year also. With the departures of its top four scorers from a Big Ten regular season championship team, that includes projected NBA Draft lottery selections Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, many opportunities will become available for head coach Tom Crean's youthful Hoosiers in the 2013-14 season.
However, unlike the Fighting Illini, the overall talent for Indiana will not be in question.
While the Hoosiers will benefit with the returns of sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell and senior forward Will Sheehey, the spotlight, though, will shine greatest on the fourth-ranked incoming six-man recruiting class, according to ESPN.com and the prized gem of that class, Noah Vonleh.
Vonleh, a 6'9" power forward with a 7'4" wingspan, will figure to have the most significant impact for the Hoosiers this upcoming season. When examining his overall game, there isn't much that he can't do on a basketball court.
Vonleh is extremely polished for a big guy. He has a solid post game and the ability to score from the perimeter. He can also handle the basketball unlike most players his size. His biggest asset, though, is unquestionably rebounding missed shots.
Behind a world of potential and elite talent, Vonleh should not only become the player of the year for the defending conference champions, but also the Big Ten Player of the Year in what could be his one and only season at the college level.
The Iowa Hawkeyes finished in the top half of the Big Ten last season, and ahead of two teams that reached the NCAA tournament. However, the Hawkeyes were rewarded with an invitation to the NIT Tournament instead.
While the decision to leave Iowa out of the field of 68 was considered a "snub" among some, a less-than-stellar RPI ranking became the deciding factor. Nevertheless, the Hawkeyes advanced to the championship game against the Baylor Bears following four double-digit victories, which included wins over the Virginia Cavaliers and Maryland Terrapins.
Although Baylor proved to be the superior team in the championship game, Iowa proved throughout the course of the NIT tournament that it will be a team to pay attention to in the 2013-14 season.
The Hawkeyes will return their top two scorers from a 25-win season, senior guard Roy Devyn Marble and junior forward Aaron White, with hopes of challenging for a Big Ten conference crown.
It could also be a coming out party for White on the national stage.
After an impressive sophomore season averaging 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while being recognized as an All-Big Ten third-team selection, White should continue his progression into his third year at Iowa.
As the Hawkeyes embark on an opportunity to return to the NCAA tournament for the 23rd time in school history, the season success will hinge on the contributions from their 6'8" star forward.
"Where'd he come from?!" It was the thought of virtually everyone during last season's NCAA tournament, where Michigan's Mitch McGary made the most significant impact of his young college career.
Through the course of six games, culminating in playing for the national championship against Louisville, the 6'10", 250-pound forward was undoubtedly the best big man on the biggest stage in college basketball. After averaging 15.3 points and 10.7 rebounds per game for the national champion runner-up Wolverines, McGary simultaneously etched his name on many preseason first-team All-American lists as a sophomore.
With the departure of National Player of the Year, Trey Burke, as well as first-team All-Big Ten member Tim Hardaway Jr., McGary's value and role for the Wolverines will increase drastically. But can he continue to produce without the services of those two highly efficient playmakers?
That will depend on the arrival and transition to the college game from incoming freshmen, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton. Although McGary is working tirelessly on expanding his offensive game in the offseason, many of his scoring opportunities will come as the recipient from a drive and dish from his teammates.
One area, though, where McGary is at his very best is rebounding the basketball. He proved that throughout the course of his freshman season by leading the Wolverines in that statistical category with 6.3 rebounds per game. That number, in all likelihood, will increase as a sophomore.
For the first 33 games from last season, McGary was seen as a role player with the makings of an above-average four-year career ahead of him. In the final six games, McGary played himself into lottery pick material at the most opportune time.
Following his decision to return to Michigan and spurn the 2013 NBA draft, he is now the man in Ann Arbor.
Although there was some debate, the decision was never in doubt. Gary Harris' announcement to return to Michigan State was a big one. After all, the Spartans are considered as the favorites in the Big Ten, as well a national championship contender in 2013-14.
Harris ended his freshman season as the Big Ten freshman of the year after averaging 12.9 points per game while converting on 41 percent of his three-point attempts. He scored in double figures in 26 of 34 games played, including a career-high 23 points against Memphis in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
But did Harris perform to 100 percent of his capabilities?
That question stems from the season-long left shoulder injury that nagged at him throughout the season. During the offseason, however, Harris has spent a great deal resting and rehabbing the injury, opting against surgery, while participating in staff-supervised workouts allowed by the NCAA.
For head coach Tom Izzo, the Michigan State basketball team and Harris, the hopes are that the best shooting guard in the country, according to Sporting News, will be fully healthy and a more evolved player by the start of a championship-caliber season for the Spartans.
Minnesota Golden Gophers guard Andre Hollins' 41-point performance against the Memphis Tigers in the consolation semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament was one of the best individual games of the season. It was also significant, as Hollins is originally a native of the Bluff City.
From there on out, Hollins' scoring numbers continued to impress. He finished the season averaging 14.6 points per game while scoring double figures in 25 of 34 games played for the Gophers, who advanced to the third round of the NCAA tournament.
The Gophers will need more of that contribution next season from the junior guard, as they prepare to rebuild following the firing of then-head coach Tubby Smith and the departures of two of their top four scorers, Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams.
Although, Hollins can greatly benefit the win-loss column for the Gophers by becoming more of a facilitator and elevating his assist numbers (team-best 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore) by involving his teammates.
Do that, and a return appearance to the NCAA tournament for Minnesota and first-year head coach Richard Pitino is not out of the question.
Following two seasons of becoming a member of the Big Ten conference, Nebraska has performed as many have expected. The Cornhuskers are a combined 9-27 in league play. And unfortunately, the losses will likely increase in the 2013-14 season.
Two of its top three scorers are gone. However, the lone bright spot to this roster next season is senior combo guard Ray Gallegos.
After taking a redshirt following his sophomore season to refine his offensive game, Gallegos raised his scoring from 2.8 points to 12.5 points per game as a junior. His contributions were significant last season, however, he now becomes the primary option for the Cornhuskers.
Nebraska won't win a ton of games, but behind Gallegos' production they will compete each night to the fullest of its capabilities.
Northwestern amassed a 7-3 record after the first 10 games of last season behind the efforts of senior wing Drew Crawford. It would be the only games that Crawford would play in.
After suffering a torn labrum in his right shoulder that required surgery, Crawford missed the remainder of the season. Due to that, he used a medical redshirt that would allow him to return to school for a fifth year of eligibility.
His decision to return, however, was difficult after the firing of then-head coach Bill Carmody, who he had played under for four seasons. Nevertheless, Northwestern made a terrific hire during the NCAA tournament by hiring former Duke associate head coach Chris Collins.
The coaching change has brought a ton of excitement and energy to the Northwestern program, which finished the year as the second-worst team in the Big Ten. And it was enough to sway Crawford in returning for his final season.
Crawford will enter the 2013-14 season ranked 10th in school history with 1,418 career points. He was also an All-Big Ten third-team selection as a junior.
With a completely healed shoulder and a newly rejuvenated coaching change, Crawford will likely flourish under Coach Collins and once again earn All-Big Ten honors for the reinvigorated Northwestern Wildcats.
Tough, gritty, determined and passionate are the four most suitable words to describe the senior leader of the Ohio State Buckeyes, Aaron Craft.
He is considered by many as the best on-ball defender in the country bar none. He is the engine that makes the Buckeyes go.
Craft will prepare for his final season at Ohio State, and his last chance at a national championship. After coming up on the short end in each of his first three seasons (2011 - Sweet 16, 2012 - Final Four, 2013 - Elite Eight), the 6'2" point guard will attempt to guide his Buckeyes to the promised land in college basketball.
With another elite group of teammates around him, the task at hand will be less difficult, but still challenging nonetheless.
Yet, the question continues to be asked. How will Craft perform without a Jared Sullinger or a Deshaun Thomas by his side?
The 2013-14 season will likely be Craft's best year of his career. His scoring numbers should increase with the departure of Deshaun Thomas' 19.8 points per game, which will also open up plenty of scoring opportunities for the likes of Lenzelle Smith Jr., LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson.
Additionally, his assist-to-turnover ratio will again be top notch after posting a 2.4 number last season. And there is no need to talk about his defense, since it is Aaron Craft we are talking about.
He is, without question, the best point guard in the Big Ten. A bonafide All-Big Ten first-team player. But what he isn't has alluded him for three seasons; a national champion. Craft has one final season to change that.
The real question, though, is can he?
For the Penn State Nittany Lions, the 2012-13 season was a year to forget. They were the worst team in the Big Ten, after struggling to a 2-16 conference record, which included a 14-game losing streak before knocking off Michigan for their first league win.
Through all of the failures for Penn State, redshirt junior guard D.J. Newbill became one of the best players in the Big Ten. After senior point guard Tim Frazier was forced to miss the remainder of the season following an Achilles injury four games into the season, Newbill was thrust into the point guard role for the Nittany Lions.
Newbill finished the season averaging a team-best 16.3 points and 4.0 assists while ranking second on the team in rebounding with 5.0 rebounds per game. He was also recognized as the Penn State basketball MVP at the team's annual post season banquet.
With Frazier being granted a fifth year of eligibility, Penn State will now return its top three leading scorers, which also includes Jermaine Marshall.
However, it's Newbill who is the gem of this group, and who will likely earn All-Big Ten honors at season's end.
The first season after the Robbie Hummel-era was a tough one for the Purdue Boilermakers. After finishing the year with an 8-10 Big Ten record, many have asked if the Boilermakers can bounce back after losing arguably the best player in school history.
If they can, it starts with senior guard Terone Johnson.
As a junior, Johnson was the primary option for Purdue. He led the team in scoring with 13.5 points, while also ranking second in rebounding (4.7) and assists (2.9) per game.
The numbers are there. And after a review of a recent practice, so are the leadership qualities.
Combine the two, and the now Johnson-led Boilermakers have all of the potential erase a subpar season from a year ago and make a statement in 2013-14.
Sam Dekker's role as a freshman was that of a sixth man for the Wisconsin Badgers. As a sophomore, his role will expand by leaps and bounds.
Dekker ended his first season for Wisconsin as a model of consistency after averaging 9.6 points and 3.4 rebounds per game in just over 22 minutes of playing time. Behind his stellar play, he was rewarded with Big Ten All-Freshman team honors.
With more opportunities presented on the offensive end, the 6'7" Dekker will need to elevate his game to make the most of those chances. In doing so, he will give Wisconsin a dangerous weapon at its disposal.
While senior guard Ben Brust will receive most of the media attention, it is Dekker who is the most crucial piece to the overall success for head coach Bo Ryan's Badgers in the 2013-14 season.