Not many college conferences in any sport could lose two national Player of the Year finalists and still feature a host of championship contenders, but Big Ten basketball is doing just that. Even with Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo gone to the NBA, the best and deepest conference of 2012-13 is looking ready to reprise that role in the face of a stiff challenge from the expanded ACC.
The national runners-up from Michigan will be a big part of that high quality again, even with Burke gone. Glenn Robinson III is just one reason the Wolverines will have one of the scariest frontcourts anywhere in college hoops.
Read on for more on the Maize and Blue, along with previews of every other Big Ten team for the 2013-14 season, presented in order of predicted finish. Also included are predictions for some of the postseason award winners (including Player of the Year) and a pick for the Big Ten tournament champ.
Top Newcomers: G Tai Webster, C Walter Pitchford
Key Losses: G Dylan Talley, F Brandon Ubel
Outlook: Pitchford, formerly of Florida, headlines a group of transfers that brings loads of quantity but very little quality.
What little hope Nebraska has will rest with perimeter returnees Ray Gallegos (a spray-and-pray senior) and Shavon Shields (the rangy 6'7" son of former Huskers football star Will).
Top Newcomers: Coach Chris Collins, F Nate Taphorn
Key Losses: F Jared Swopshire, G Reggie Hearn
Outlook: The return of top scorer Drew Crawford will keep Northwestern from being a complete disaster in non-conference play, but this is not a team built to survive in the Big Ten.
The graduated Swopshire and Hearn were also the team's top rebounders, and Collins has very little muscle on his new roster aside from middling sophomore Alex Olah.
Top Newcomers: Coach Richard Pitino, G Malik Smith, F Charles Buggs
Key Losses: F Trevor Mbakwe, F Rodney Williams Jr.
Outlook: Pitino loves to let his guards get out and run in an up-tempo attack, which will be music to the ears of backcourt returnees Andre and Austin Hollins (no relation).
However, it's awfully tough to make waves in this conference without a viable interior presence, and there's nobody on these post-Mbakwe Gophers who fits that bill.
Top Newcomers: F Kendall Stephens
Key Losses: G D.J. Byrd
Outlook: Gargantuan center A.J. Hammons looks ready to become a full-fledged star, but he has very little help around him.
The Johnson brothers (Terone and Ronnie) are a subpar backcourt, and freshman Stephens will be the only three-point threat to speak of.
Top Newcomers: G Kendrick Nunn, G Malcolm Hill
Key Losses: G Brandon Paul, G D.J. Richardson
Outlook: Homegrown freshmen Nunn and Hill should be able to replace a big chunk of the scoring John Groce's team lost to graduation.
With tournament-tested returnees including PG Tracy Abrams and center Nnanna Egwu, the Illini could surprise if the youngsters get acclimated quickly.
Top Newcomers: F Allen Roberts
Key Losses: G Jermaine Marshall, G Nick Colella
Outlook: The return of sensational PG Tim Frazier (the team leader in virtually every category in 2011-12) offers some much-needed hope in State College.
Frazier and D.J. Newbill will comprise a formidable backcourt, even without scoring help from Marshall (gone to Arizona State). With gritty Ross Travis doing the dirty work under the boards, this team might well sneak into the NCAA tournament.
Top Newcomers: F Jarrod Uthoff
Key Losses: G Eric May
Outlook: May's leadership will be missed, but the rest of last year's rotation returns intact after a run to the NIT title game.
Aaron White is the best pure power forward in the conference, swingman Roy Devyn Marble is a productive scorer who can also defend, and sophomores Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury have both gained a lot from a year of college experience.
Top Newcomers: F Nigel Hayes
Key Losses: F Jared Berggren, F Ryan Evans, F Mike Bruesewitz.
Outlook: For a rarity, the 20th-ranked Badgers will have a legitimate offense to go with their perennial defensive toughness.
PG Ben Brust and forward Josh Gasser (back from an ACL tear) are both serious long-range shooting threats, and sophomore forward Sam Dekker is the most versatile and talented scorer of the bunch.
Top Newcomers: F Noah Vonleh, G Evan Gordon, C Luke Fischer
Key Losses: G Victor Oladipo, C Cody Zeller, F Christian Watford
Outlook: Vonleh, the leader of a celebrated freshman class, will step in as the new primary scoring option for the country's 24th-ranked team.
He's all talent and no college experience—a common theme with IU's shooters this season—but sophomore PG Yogi Ferrell should be able to hold the newbies together and keep the Hoosiers offense near the top of the Big Ten.
Top Newcomers: F Zak Irvin, G Derrick Walton Jr.
Key Losses: G Trey Burke, G Tim Hardaway Jr.
Outlook: Nobody could be expected to fully replace Burke, but freshman Walton will do a solid job running the point.
He'll have loads of help from the Final Four-hardened frontcourt, where Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas (plus freshman sniper Irvin) will be solid on defense and devastating on offense.
Top Newcomers: G Kameron Williams, F Marc Loving
Key Losses: F Deshaun Thomas, F Evan Ravenel
Outlook: The departures up front will leave Ohio State without any interior scoring to speak of, but C Amir Williams can at least hold the fort defensively.
A brigade of swingman types led by NCAA tournament standout LaQuinton Ross will provide more than enough scoring for the airtight Aaron Craft-led defense to contend for a No. 1 seed.
Top Newcomers: F Gavin Schilling
Key Losses: C Derrick Nix
Outlook: Four starters return to the Big Ten's deepest team, led by mobile big man Adreian Payne. He and sophomore SG Gary Harris are both impact players on defense as well as offense, and the Spartans will (as usual) be an imposing force on the glass.
The flip side of the Big Ten’s wealth of established stars is that freshmen are going to have a tough time making an impact on many of the best teams.
One obvious exception, though, is in Bloomington, where the Hoosiers are rebuilding their starting lineup around Noah Vonleh.
Vonleh (at 6’10”, 240 lbs) is the rare freshman who looks ready to handle the physicality of Big Ten rebounding. He’s even more dangerous for his scoring punch, both in the post and with a jump shot that boasts impressive range.
No coach wants to finish a season 2-16 in conference play, but it does present Pat Chambers with a distinctive opportunity. He has a serious chance to guide his team from a last-place finish to the NCAA tournament in the space of one season.
With Minnesota and Illinois (both in the field of 68 a year ago) suffering severe graduation losses, there’s ample opportunity for the Nittany Lions to make a move in the standings.
If PG Tim Frazier is as dominant as he was before his Achilles tear, Chambers will be one of many beneficiaries of PSU’s rise from the ashes.
In what’s certain to be a tight POY race, whichever team wins the Big Ten will give its top star a major boost in the voting. Thus, with Michigan State picked to head the standings, the choice here is Adreian Payne to edge out Aaron Craft or Mitch McGary.
Payne’s NBA-level quickness and leaping ability will make him the toughest post presence to guard in a conference full of bruising interior defenders.
Tom Izzo loves to run his offense through a big man, so Payne—who’s also a fine defender in his own right—will get ample opportunity to put up impressive stats.
With so many great teams at the top, the Big Ten is likelier than any major conference to see the regular-season champ lose in the conference tourney. One of several plausible ways that could happen would be a final between Ohio State and Michigan State.
The Spartans’ biggest vulnerability this season is going to be point guard Keith Appling, who proved last year just how bad he can be on an off night.
If he’s off his game against Aaron Craft and the Buckeyes’ smothering defense, the resulting turnovers will hand the game (and the title) to Ohio State.