The Big Ten's talent level dropped considerably with the departures of many of its top products. From Michigan State's perspective, losing Gary Harris, Keith Appling and Adreian Payne obviously diminishes the team's offensive firepower and leadership. However, Tom Izzo and company still faces a realistic chance to win the conference in 2014-15.
At the moment, the clear favorite has to be Wisconsin. The Final Four-bound Badgers showed the country just how dangerous it was last season, when it came within seconds of reaching the national championship game in the semifinal against Kentucky.
Now, Bo Ryan's veteran club returns nearly all of of its starters. Wisconsin all-time three-point leader Ben Brust graduates, but All-Big Ten First Teamer Frank Kaminski and forward Sam Dekker headline the returnees. With two All-American-caliber frontcourt guys back, along with Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser returning, Wisconsin will be one of the top teams in America.
Evidently, this is Wisconsin's conference to lose. Returning four of a Final Four squad's top players is a rarity in college basketball, and certainly a nightmare for the rest of the Big Ten.
Vying to knock off the loaded Badgers are Michigan State, Michigan and Nebraska.
Michigan surrenders its top three players to the NBA draft: Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary. Junior Caris LeVert will assume the primary scoring role, along with sophomore point guard Derrick Walton. The Wolverines will have to find some new sources to score the ball besides those two guys, but John Beilein is exceptional at reloading after key players leave.
Despite these losses, Michigan will remain in the top tier of the conference. Perhaps the team that is mostly prepared to knock off Wisconsin is Nebraska, a squad that returns all key players aside from Ray Gallegos.
Terran Petteway made his case for Big Ten Player of the Year in his 2013-14 campaign. He averaged 18 points and led the Cornhuskers to eight wins out of nine contests in a crucial stretch late in the season. After exiting the Round of 64 in disappointing fashion, they are poised for a momentous upcoming season.
So where does all of this leave Michigan State?
While the league loses some household names, the aforementioned teams are worthy and talented enough to advance deep into the NCAA tournament. These Spartans have the athletes to compete, but questions regarding lack of scoring will loom over them.
State can match up well with all teams in the Big Ten, with the possible exception of Wisconsin. If there is one unknown in Sparty's rotation, it is who will fill the void left by Adreian Payne. Kaminski could potentially torch Michigan State unless one of the big men, such as Matt Costello or Gavin Schilling, progress considerably.
If Izzo's squad can limit Kaminsky, it will have a serious chance to knock off the Badgers.
Sparty has the personnel to match the other contenders' firepower. Denzel Valentine, a versatile defender, will be able to limit Nebraska's Petteway. Branden Dawson can also guard a multitude of spots, which will enable him to cover Nebraska's second-leading scorer from 2013-14, Sam Shields.
Michigan, a team that State has struggled to upend in recent years, shouldn't provide too much of a mismatch advantage, either. Despite losing multiple key players, Michigan State still has plenty of talent to compensate for those losses.
Travis Trice blossomed late in the season, as did Dawson. Costello, Schilling and Kenny Kaminski all will need to assert themselves as capable post players, though Kaminski certainly took a giant step last season. Additionally, Alvin Ellis will assume a more prominent role and must improve offensively.
That is enough to compete for the conference championship. Combine a solid lineup with Tom Izzo, one of the country's most talented coaches at preparing for any given game, and Sparty could potentially win it.
The favorite is Wisconsin, but Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State aren't lagging too far behind. How the Spartans progress their young, inexperienced talent will likely determine whether Izzo captures his eighth Big Ten Championship.
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