The 2013-14 Ohio State Basketball season was nothing short of a disappointment, no matter which way you slice it.
The Buckeyes failed to live up to their early top-five ranking, failed to win or contend for a Big Ten title and were upset by Dayton—one of the supposed "little brother" programs in the state of Ohio—in their first game of the NCAA tournament.
If nothing else, Aaron Craft deserved better on the way out.
However, it is a testament to Thad Matta's program that we can even realistically discuss Ohio State's conference title hopes for the 2014-15 campaign after such a lackluster year and the departures of Craft, LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith Jr.
Matta reloaded with a sterling recruiting class and landed Temple transfer Anthony Lee to man the middle. Even with Lee scoring and grabbing rebounds down low, Ohio State is going to need incumbent center Amir Williams to play better, as Matta told Daniel Rogers of The Lantern:
We need Amir to play well. We need Amir to play consistently on both ends. We gotta get him back to tracking the ball, we gotta get him back to blocking shots more actively around the rim in terms of challenging shots … When he's played well, we've played well. I know that.
Hypothetically, let's say Williams does play better, Lee posts a few double-doubles along the way and the recruiting class plays up to expectations. Who would pose the biggest threats in the Big Ten for the Buckeyes?
At this point, the most prominent threat and the clear favorite to win the conference is Wisconsin.
The Badgers reached the Final Four last year and would have been in the national title game were it not for a heartbreaking loss to Kentucky in the final seconds on yet another Aaron Harrison heroic three-pointer. The only serious contributor Bo Ryan lost from that squad was Ben Brust, and the returnees have plenty of confidence and big-game experience from their recent run.
Traevon Jackson is still around to control the flow of the game at the point; Josh Gasser will still light it up from three-point range; Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes will patrol the paint (and beyond, especially in the case of Kaminsky) and Sam Dekker will compete for Big Ten Player of the Year.
That sounds like a championship formula, and we haven't even discussed Ryan's suffocating defense, which stifles opponents every season.
The Big Ten title—for the Buckeyes and everyone else—runs through Madison in the 2014-15 campaign.
Ohio State is far from alone in the departed-talent category when it comes to the Big Ten.
Michigan State lost the trio of Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne, of which the latter two will certainly be first-round picks in the NBA draft. However, Tom Izzo's squads are always championship-caliber ones, and this year's version will be no different, even without those playmakers.
Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine, Branden Dawson, Matt Costello and Kenny Kaminski all return to East Lansing, and more than one of those names should ring familiar with Buckeyes fans that have lost both hair and fingernails watching their team battle it out with the Spartans.
There is shooting ability, rebounding prowess and natural poise that only comes with experience in that foursome.
The ultra-athletic Dawson is also primed to make a leap as the presumed Michigan State leader, which should scare the rest of the conference.
The Buckeyes broke Nebraska's collective heart in last season's Big Ten tournament quarterfinals with a dramatic comeback victory in the final minutes, but that doesn't change the fact that the Cornhuskers are suddenly a basketball team to be reckoned with.
Just making the NCAA tournament represented an important culture change in this football-dominated athletic program, and Nebraska fans should be confident knowing their team is one of the best in the Big Ten heading into next year.
The core of last season's squad is back with more experience and an understanding of what it takes to win in March. Terran Petteway is a threat to score 20 or more points every time he steps on the floor, and he could very well win the Big Ten Player of the Year award.
Throw in the likes of Tai Webster, Shavon Shields, David Rivers and Walter Pitchford, and Nebraska is ready to at least compete for a Big Ten crown.
They may not quite be ready to make that ultimate championship step just yet, but the fact that the Cornhuskers are even being discussed as a Big Ten contender should generate plenty of excitement in Lincoln.
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