The Big Ten has been a bridesmaid instead of a bride in the college basketball world recently.
It is almost always one of the best conferences in the country during the regular season and regularly sends teams to the Final Four, but the last national championship from the league was Michigan State in 2000.
Ohio State has certainly been a part of this trend, with multiple trips to the Final Four, multiple No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, a loss in the national championship game and a heartbreaking loss to underdog Wichita State in the Elite Eight over the course of the past 10 years.
The question is, can the Buckeyes help the Big Ten establish itself as the nation’s best conference during the 2014-15 campaign?
Regardless of what too-early preseason polls say, the thought here is that Ohio State is much better than it was last year, even if it did lose Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and LaQuinton Ross. One reason why is that Thad Matta brought in a loaded recruiting class, which Jerry Meyer of 247Sports commented on, via Kyle Rowland of Eleven Warriors:
It’s funny, some people across the country are quick to doubt Thad and his ability to recruit. Yet, he typically brings in some great classes.
Ohio State is one of the top programs in the country. The stability and the consistency they have there has been impressive. Going into every year, I assume they could be a Final Four contender. Maybe they need a little bit of a punch here or a spark there as far talent infusion to be a team you think can win a national championship.
With Matta at the helm, the Buckeyes will bring the typically stout defense they always do, even if it falls off a bit without Craft. It is the potential offense that should have fans excited.
D’Angelo Russell will lead the attack from the perimeter with the versatility to play either point guard or shooting guard. He has a lethal three-point shot, an explosive first step off the bounce and the basketball IQ to find open teammates when the defense collapses.
Shannon Scott returns with his speed and gradually improving jumper, and the absence of Craft means he gets to move to his natural point guard position full time.
Sam Thompson and Marc Loving also return, and if Thompson’s improvement over the course of last year is any indication, he will be one of Ohio State’s best offensive weapons. Loving should also take a jump from his freshman to sophomore campaign, and his smooth stroke from distance should open up the floor for some of his teammates to attack off the dribble.
It won’t just be the Amir Williams Show down low either, as Matta landed Temple transfer Anthony Lee. Lee is a legitimate double-double guy who will give the Buckeyes their best low-post presence on both ends of the floor and on the glass since Jared Sullinger left.
Throw in a bench that consists of the sharp-shooting Kameron Williams, the strong Jae’Sean Tate and the explosive and versatile Keita Bates-Diop, and the scarlet and gray will have more depth this year as well.
This isn’t a national championship team, but it will go further than its early March Madness exit we saw last season against Dayton, which will certainly help the Big Ten’s national perception.
As for some of the other squads, Wisconsin is absolutely loaded. The Badgers were an impossibly deep Kentucky three-pointer away from reaching the national championship game last season and return every major contributor except Ben Brust. With Traevon Jackson, Frank Kaminsky, Josh Gasser, Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker, Wisconsin will not only be the Big Ten favorites but also one of the national title favorites.
Michigan State lost plenty of talent but still has the trio of Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson. What’s more, Tom Izzo is still the head coach, and he can work magic with much less than that. Look for Dawson to make a leap and contend for Big Ten Player of the Year this season.
Then there is upstart Nebraska, which made the NCAA tournament last year for what seemed like the first time in 200 years. The Cornhuskers still have Terran Petteway, who is arguably the best pure scorer returning in the Big Ten, and should be even better this season than they were in 2013-14.
Michigan and Iowa will give the league some depth at the high end of the middle class as well.
What will be the best conference next year?
Ultimately, the Big Ten needs to prove itself on the court.
Winning the Big Ten/ACC Challenge would be a good place to start, especially since the perception of the ACC will improve this year with the addition of Louisville to go along with Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina. The ACC used to dominate this event, but the Big Ten has flexed its muscles recently and hopes to do so again.
Of course, an impressive showing in the NCAA tournament for the Buckeyes and the rest of the teams on this list is a must. We are a championship-dominated sports society—that’s why fans of every single SEC team have been able to claim their college football superiority by riding the coattails of Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Les Miles and Cam Newton. The Big Ten could thus really use a national title.
Wisconsin is its best chance to do just that. No pressure or anything, Badgers.
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