Some aspects of the 2009-10 Big Ten basketball conference race will create a good old-fashioned sense of deja vu for those who remember last year's action and results.
For instance, Michigan State and Purdue are still good...
...and Iowa and Indiana still aren't.
Outside of the perennial title contenders and cellar-holders, however, there are certain to be teams that improve on their 2008-09 record, while other ballclubs won't be quite as fortunate.
Is your favorite team headed the right direction?
ON THE RISE
Ohio State (2008-09: 10-6 Big Ten, lost in first round of NCAA Tournament)
The Ohio State Buckeyes gave fans a sneak preview of the success they could enjoy this winter when they advanced to the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament as a No. 5 seed in March. Thad Matta's lineup features a trio of talented returning perimeter players in Evan Turner, William Buford, and Jon Diebler, and any one of these dead-eye shooters is capable of dropping 20 points on an unsuspecting opponent.
The Buckeyes will get a big boost with the return of a healthy David Lighty, who missed 26 games a year ago with a broken foot and was ultimately granted a medical redshirt. Lighty, a 6'5" swingman, has already started 50 games in his Ohio State career, and when he's added to the dangerous combination of Turner (a preseason All-Big Ten pick), Buford, and Diebler, the Buckeyes boast as talented a collection of guards and forwards as anyone in the conference (and maybe in the country).
Matta is blessed with depth and leadership in the backcourt as well, as senior guards Jeremie Simmons and P.J. Hill return for their final seasons in Columbus. Simmons started 25 games for Ohio State in 2008-09, but with Evan Turner expected to pick up more of the minutes at point guard now that Lighty is back at 100%, Simmons and Hill will need to figure out their roles for this up-and-coming ballclub.
The real question for Ohio State is down low, as the Buckeyes have lost star big men Greg Oden, Kosta Koufos, and B.J. Mullens to the NBA over the past three seasons. All three centers were first-round picks after a single season wearing scarlet and gray, and the mass exodus has left slim pickings in the post for OSU.
Dallas Lauderdale, who started 31 games a season ago as Mullens filled more of a sixth-man role, will be counted on to patrol the paint, but there's not much behind him. Matta will have the chance to develop some depth early on, as Lauderdale is recovering from a broken hand that could keep him out of the first few regular season games.
If Ohio State can find a second post player to complement Lauderdale or step up should he get in foul trouble, the Buckeyes are talented enough to easily be a top-three team in the conference, and Evan Turner and company could even sneak up on the Boilermakers and Spartans for a shot at the league crown.
Minnesota (2008-09: 9-9 Big Ten, lost in first round of NCAA Tournament)
Whenever a team that qualified for the field of 65 brings back its entire starting lineup intact, expectations skyrocket, and that's definitely the case in Minneapolis. Coach Tubby Smith is banking on bigger and better things from twin towers Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III, perimeter players Damian Johnson and Al Nolen, and of course, 08-09 leading scorer Lawrence Westbrook.
Minnesota will need to be a bit more consistent on the offensive end, as Westbrook was the only player to average in double figures a year ago, but an extra year of experience for all of the Gophers' key contributors can only help. Meanwhile, when the Maroon and Gold do hit the occasional dry spell, they can just throw the ball to No. 20 and get out of the way.
If Minnesota has issues this season, they may very well take place off the court. Senior Devron Bostick and freshman Royce White have been suspended indefinitely for violation of team rules, and heralded transfer Trevor Mbakwe, a junior college All-American a year ago, won't be playing anytime soon as he waits for resolution of his pending court case (Mbakwe was charged with felony assault during the offseason).
Smith will have his work cut out for him to keep this team's focus on the hardwood, but with an experienced starting lineup and a couple of do-everything upperclassmen (Paul Carter and Blake Hoffarber) off the bench, the Gophers are in good shape to crack the top half of the Big Ten standings and make some noise in March. Minnesota is looking for its first NCAA tournament win since 1997 (although that was later vacated), and the Golden Gophers should end their string of postseason futility in the 2010 Big Dance.
Michigan (2008-09: 9-9 Big Ten, lost in second round of NCAA Tournament)
The Michigan Wolverines, like the Gophers, finished last season with a .500 record in Big Ten play and fully expect to improve on that mark this winter. Coach John Beilein welcomes back two of the league's top five scorers from a year ago, guard Manny Harris and forward DeShawn Sims.
Harris, a 6'5" junior, has started every game of his Michigan career. He averaged 16.9 points per game in his sophomore campaign, trailing only Ohio State's Turner, and also led his squad in assists, steals, and rebounds (his 6.8 boards per contest equaled Sims' average). Harris was voted to the 2009-10 preseason All-Big Ten team and is a big reason the Wolverines find themselves ranked in the Top 25 headed into a season opener for the first time in a dozen years.
The other main reason is Sims, a 6'8" senior from Detroit. He tallied 15.4 points a game last season and combines with Harris to form a dangerous inside-outside combination. Sims had a 20-point, 20-rebound outing a year ago, the first in 31 years for a Wolverines player, and has the athletic talent to duplicate that feat several times over in his senior season.
Michigan returns four starters in all, including sophomores Stu Douglass and Zack Novak, and the Wolverines will have seven of the top eight scorers on last year's team once again donning the Maize and Blue in 2009-10.
While Beilein's unconventional scheme is always difficult for opponents to handle, this year, he has a wealth of talent on the floor to employ his patented switching defenses. Look for the Wolverines to make a run at the Sweet Sixteen...or beyond...with Harris, Sims, and their experienced supporting cast.
ON THE DECLINE
Wisconsin (2008-09: 10-8 Big Ten, lost in second round of NCAA Tournament)
The Badgers have never finished lower than fourth in the conference in eight years under head coach Bo Ryan.
Let me end the suspense right now: that's about to change.
With last year's leading scorer (Marcus Landry at 12.7 ppg) and leading rebounder (Joe Krabbenhoft, 6.7 rpg) out of eligibility, things will be different in Wisconsin.
Not to say the Badgers will necessarily be bad, as it's hard to argue with a coach who wins over 92% of his games at home. And the cupboard isn't empty, with familiar names like Jason Bohannon, Trevon Hughes, and Keaton Nankivil back.
However, so many of the conference's teams look to be better in the 2009-10 campaign, and Wisconsin...well...they're just not. The Badgers will once again play stingy defense, slow-as-molasses offense, and take care of business in the Kohl Center, but that won't be enough to keep pace with the conference's elite, especially without mainstays Landry and Krabbenhoft.
Welcome to the second division, Mr. Ryan.
Penn State (2008-09: 10-8 Big Ten, NIT champions)
Last year's Nittany Lions were basically a three man show, as Penn State rode Talor Battle, Jamelle Cornley, and Stanley Pringle to a tie for fourth-place in the Big Ten standings and ultimately, an NIT title.
Unfortunately for PSU and coach Ed DeChellis, two of the three amigos are gone, and Cornley and Pringle alone take more than 40 percent of the Lions' scoring with them.
While Battle had the best numbers of the trio, (finishing third in the conference scoring race at 16.7 ppg), the loss of options 1B and 1C ensure he'll face double-teams every night out as he tries to live up to his preseason All-Big Ten recognition.
Returning starters David Jackson and Andrew Jones (both junior forwards) could lighten the load on Battle somewhat (and wil have to for the Lions to even post a winning season), but it's safe to say there won't be any trophies in Happy Valley this time around.
Predicted 2009-10 order of finish :
2. Michigan State
3. Ohio State
9. Penn State