One of the most highly anticipated college basketball seasons is now in sight, and the talent in the Big Ten (with 12 teams) is a key reason many fans are looking forward to November.
Stars such as Robbie Hummell, Jordan Taylor, and Jared Sullinger are back for another year along with some pretty impressive players on other teams.
Let's not forget about the all-important recruiting classes, as four incoming freshmen were McDonald's All-Americans and three teams—Ohio State, Illinois, and Michigan State—had top 25 classes.
Yes, the conference did see its share of losses, as top players Jon Leuer, Darius Morris, Kalin Lucas, and Talor Battle all either exhausted their eligibility or departed for the NBA.
Yet, as many major conferences do, the Big Ten reloaded.
What follows is an educated guess on the projected starting lineups for each team, and how impressive those five players are in comparison to the rest of the league. As many will see, some teams lost a ton of players, while others are bringing almost their entire team back.
I feel as though the top team is obvious, as is the bottom, but in between it's pretty much a mystery.
G Jermaine Mitchell—So. (9 mpg, 3 ppg)
G Tim Frazier—Jr. (31 mpg, 6 ppg, 5 apg, 4 rpg)
G Cammeron Woodyard—Sr. (10 mpg)
F Billy Oliver—So. (14 mpg)
C Peter Alexis—Fr. (No. 50 Center in 2011 class, according to ESPNU)
Penn State lost four of their five starters, along with the vast majority of their scoring and rebounding from last season's NCAA Tournament team. So naturally, the Nittany Lions will be in rebuilding mode, and their starting lineup reflects that.
Chances are Tim Frazier will be expected to pick up the scoring load left by Talor Battle, and he's yet to prove himself capable. The other players were on the court sparingly, along with a freshman who isn't too highly regarded.
Alexis is a big body at 6'11" and 260 pounds, so he has the stature to keep position in the conference.
G Toney McCray—Sr. (23 mpg, 9 ppg, 4 rpg)
G Brandon Richardson—Sr. (23 mpg, 6 ppg)
G Caleb Walker—Sr. (20 mpg, 6 ppg, 5 rpg)
F Brandon Ubel—Jr. (20 mpg, 6 ppg, 4 rpg)
C Jorge Brian-Diaz—Jr. (26 mpg, 11 ppg, 4 rpg)
Welcome to the Big Ten, Nebraska. The Cornhuskers' inaugural basketball season could be a bit of a struggle. They now enter a better overall basketball conference (not as top heavy, but deeper), and do it without their top player from last season in Lance Jeter.
Talent-wise, though, they're behind. There will probably be some growing pains in conference play as they get used to playing the ugly style that has become the Big Ten's moniker.
The positive thing is these guys are experienced, with all five starters being upperclassmen and averaging over 20 minutes per game last season.
If Diaz and McCray can step up their games, they could surprise some people.
G Austin Hollins—So. (17 mpg, 5 ppg)
G Andre Hollins—Fr. (No. 79 overall on ESPNU Top 100)
F Rodney Williams—Jr. (25 mpg, 7 ppg, 4 rpg)
F Trevor Mbakwe—Sr. (31 mpg, 14 ppg, 11 rpg)
C Ralph Sampson III—Sr. (29 mpg, 10 ppg, 5 rpg)
Trevor Mbakwe was quietly one of the best big men in the conference last season. Aside from Mr. Sullinger, he may be the top returning big man.
Sampson and Williams both have solid talent and should improve their numbers.
However, the issue that plagued the Gophers last season will probably do so again in 2011-12—the backcourt. Austin Hollins is the lone returning guard who saw significant time. He's also a shooting guard.
So, Minnesota will probably have to rely on one of their freshmen guards to play significant time. I'm going to guess that Andre Hollins (no relation to Austin) will have to try and transition from scoring guard in high school to distributor in college.
If the Gophers had a returning floor general, these guys would be much higher because of their solid frontcourt.
G Bryce Cartwright—Sr. (31 mpg, 11 ppg, 6 apg, 3 rpg)
G Matt Gatens—Sr. (34 mpg, 13 ppg)
F Roy Devyn-Marble—So. (19 mpg, 6 ppg)
F Eric May—Jr. (25 mpg, 8 ppg, 3 rpg)
F Melsahn Basabe—So. (25 mpg, 11 ppg, 7 rpg)
The Iowa Hawkeyes return four of five starters, including their top three scorers from last season's disappointing squad.
Matt Gatens is one of the top returning guards this season, and while this isn't the most experienced lineup in the conference, all of them were regular contributors last season.
Basabe is a breakout candidate and if these guys are able to get to .500, it will probably be due to his continuing improvement from a stellar freshman campaign.
G D.J. Richardson—Jr. (27 mpg, 8 ppg)
G Brandon Paul—Jr. (22 mpg, 9 ppg, 3 rpg)
F Tyler Griffey—Jr. (7 mpg)
F Mike Shaw—Fr. (No. 91 overall on ESPNU Top 100)
C Meyers Leonard—So. (8 mpg)
Next to Penn State, Illinois lost the most from last season. Gone are Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale, Jereme Richmond, and Bill Cole.
Richmond's defection to the NBA was a shocker to many and really hurt this team's chances at being a contender for the Big Ten title.
Luckily, it's not as if coach Bruce Weber is without talent. The backcourt will be the strength with upperclassmen Paul and Richardson being regular contributors last season. These guys will be relied upon to take up much of the scoring load.
Up front, the Illini are inexperienced to say the least. There's been a lot of buzz surrounding Leonard and his improvement from last year—if it's true and he becomes the next stud center, they'll be fine.
One of the freshman will probably have to play immediately, and I'm going with Shaw. Even though he's not the most highly regarded, he sounds like a Mike Davis clone.
G Lewis Jackson—Sr. (26 mpg, 8 ppg, 4 apg, 3 rpg)
G Ryne Smith—Sr. (24 mpg, 6 ppg, 3 rpg)
F D.J. Byrd—Jr. (21 mpg, 5 ppg, 3 rpg)
F Robbie Hummell—Sr. (30 mpg, 16 ppg, 7 rpg, in 2009-10 season)
F Travis Carroll—So. (9 mpg)
Welcome back, Robbie Hummell. It's been too long since you were on the court in anything other than street clothes.
It's no secret Purdue's success this year will depend primarily on how well Hummell recovers from his season-ending ACL injury. If he's able to revert back to the Hummell from 2009-10, this team is an NCAA Tournament team easily.
If he struggles to get back to form like many do, it could be a bit of a struggle, which is why I have them in the middle of the pack here.
The rest of the lineup is pretty experienced, but not scoring-wise. Jackson is a solid point guard and will probably be counted on to be the second scorer, which he should be capable of doing as a senior.
The final slot in the lineup is a big unknown. I'm guessing they'll want a big guy in there so Hummell doesn't have to guard the opposing team's biggest player, so I went with Carroll, the biggest returnee (6'9", 230 pounds) who saw limited action in 31 of 34 games.
G Keith Appling—So. (23 mpg, 6 ppg, 3 rpg)
G Austin Thornton—Sr. (11 mpg)
F Branden Dawson—Fr. (No. 23 overall on ESPNU Top 100, McDonald's All-American)
F Draymond Green—Sr. (30 mpg, 13 ppg, 9 rpg, 4 apg)
C Adreian Payne—So. (9 mpg, 3 ppg)
The electrifying career of Kalin Lucas has come to an end. Now, coach Tom Izzo will be relying on one of the top passing big men in the country, Draymond Green, to be The Guy.
Green is probably the most versatile player in the conference, as he can score inside and out, handle the ball, and rebound with the best.
Aside from Green, this lineup is young and inexperienced. Appling is highly touted and will replace Lucas as the spark plug for Sparty. He's young, though, as is highly touted big man Adreian Payne. Payne has the talent to be a star, but he's yet to show it in college after seeing limited time last season.
Their crown jewel from the 2011 recruiting class is Branden Dawson. Regarded as one of the best rebounders in the class, he'll probably fill the role vacated by the retirement of Delvon Roe. Expect to see some highlight reel plays this season from the athletic frosh.
G Verdell Jones III—Sr. (28 mpg, 13 ppg, 3 apg, 3 rpg)
G Jordan Hulls—Jr. (31 mpg, 11 ppg, 3 apg)
G Maurice Creek—Jr. (20 mpg, 8 ppg)
F Christian Watford—Jr. (29 mpg, 16 ppg, 5 rpg)
F Cody Zeller—Fr. (No. 14 overall on ESPNU Top 100, McDonald's All-American)
Shocked the recently awful Hoosiers are this high? Don't be, because Indiana is on their way back to Big Ten championship contention.
They lose only one player from last season in Jeremiah Rivers.
Christian Watford is a sneaky good combo forward who's one of the better scorers in the conference. He'll be a first-team all-Big Ten type player this season.
The backcourt is experienced, as all three guys saw significant time last season. Jones is an experienced guard who will probably be asked to run the point full-time this season and not score as much.
Cody Zeller. Zeller is the best recruit coach Tom Crean has brought in and should impact the team right away. He's a pure post player much like his older brother, Tyler, at North Carolina. His only issue will be his slight of build at 6'11" and only 215 pounds, but he'll be a major contributor and will probably be the freshman of the year in the conference.
I'm not sure if they can make the NCAA Tournament because their bench is suspect, but this season Indiana will come back to relevance. Hoosier nation also knows about the top recruiting class on its way in 2012-13, so there is much to look forward to with this team.
G Trey Burke—Fr. (No. 84 overall on ESPNU Top 100)
G Stu Douglass—Sr. (30 mpg, 7 ppg, 3 rpg)
G Tim Hardaway Jr.—So. (31 mpg, 14 ppg, 7 rpg)
F Zack Novak—Sr. (35 mpg, 9 ppg, 6 rpg)
F Jordan Morgan—So. (24 mpg, 9 ppg, 5 rpg)
Had Darius Morris elected to return to Michigan, these guys might have the top spot. Nevertheless, they still have one of the better lineups in the conference, led by Tim Hardaway Jr.
Hardaway was probably the second best freshman in the conference last season behind Sullinger. He'll be even better this year as coach Beilein will count on him to be the primary scorer.
Up front, the Wolverines have a couple experienced contributors in Novak and Morgan. Though Novak is undersized, he fits the bill in Beilein's offense.
The big question mark is going to be point guard, though, and I have freshman Trey Burke as the new starter. Most will disagree, and I admit this selection is biased as I had the privilege to watch Burke play in high school alongside his former teammate, Jared Sullinger.
When I saw Burke play, he was simply a game manager because he had such a dominant player alongside him. He made few mistakes, and I think he can do something similar for Michigan.
If it's not him, though, I'd put my money on Hardaway manning the point much like Evan Turner did for OSU, and Evan Smotrycz being inserted into the lineup.
G Jershon Cobb—So. (24 mpg, 7 ppg, 3 rpg)
G Alex Macotullio—Jr. (23 mpg, 6 ppg)
G Drew Crawford—Jr. (31 mpg, 12 ppg, 5 rpg)
F John Shurna—Sr. (34 mpg, 17 ppg, 5 rpg, 3 apg)
C Luke Mirkovic—Sr. (24 mpg, 7 ppg, 5 rpg)
I doubt anyone saw this coming, but let me explain. John Shurna is the best pure scorer in the conference. He can score from anywhere on the court and is lethal on the perimeter.
Drew Crawford is a solid second scorer who plays bigger than he is and will be counted on to replace the scoring left by Michael Thompson along with Jershon Cobb.
Up front, Mirkovic provides one of the bigger bodies in the conference to bang with guys like Sullinger and Mbakwe.
Also, the Wildcats played Ohio State about as well as anyone in the conference last year. While they did lose a starter in Thompson, all five guys averaged over 20 minutes per game for a team that finished with 20 wins.
I'm not sure how good the bench will be, but just looking at the starting five, this is an NCAA-caliber team.
G Jordan Taylor—Sr. (37 mpg, 18 ppg, 5 apg, 4 rpg)
G Josh Gasser—So. (28 mpg, 6 ppg, 4 rpg)
F Mike Bruesewitz—Jr. (20 mpg, 5 ppg, 3 rpg)
F Ryan Evans—Jr. (12 mpg, 3 ppg)
F Jarrod Uthoff—Fr. (No. 90 overall on ESPNU Top 100)
It's hard to deny a team who has a preseason All-American guard from not being one of the top two starting units in the conference, so I didn't.
Jordan Taylor is the best guard in the conference, possibly the country. He's arguably the best guard Wisconsin has had since Bo Ryan took over.
The rest of the squad is relatively inexperienced, but remember that Ryan always manages to have a solid frontcourt. I'd expect one of the forwards to step up and fill some of the scoring that Jon Leuer left behind.
My wild card is freshman Jarrod Uthoff, who sounds like a Leuer clone. If he can put on some weight, he could make an impact immediately. Also watch out for fellow freshman Kenny Kaminsky, who's bigger, but not as highly regarded.
G Aaron Craft—So. (30 mpg, 7 ppg, 5 apg)
G William Buford—Sr. (32 mpg, 14 ppg, 4 rpg, 3 apg)
F DeShaun Thomas—So. (14 mpg, 8 ppg, 4 rpg)
F Jared Sullinger—So. (32 mpg, 17 ppg, 10 rpg)
C Amir Williams—Fr. (No. 43 overall on ESPNU Top 100, McDonald's All-American)
If anyone is shocked that the Buckeyes own the top spot, they clearly didn't watch any basketball last season.
Sure, seniors Dallas Lauderdale, David Lighty, and Jon Diebler are gone and their losses shouldn't be underestimated as this is now a very young team with only one upperclassman in William Buford.
In terms of pure talent, though, this is easily the top starting unit in the conference.
The unknown player here is Amir Williams, who I think will fill Lauderdale's role as a shot blocker and rebounder. He's on the light side at 220 pounds, but athletically, he can get up as high as anyone.
Combining him with Sullinger could form a dynamic duo inside. I also wouldn't be surprised if he gets taken out early much as Lauderdale was for his fellow McDonald's All-American, Shannon Scott, a point guard.
Thomas and Craft were solid contributors for the Buckeyes last season off the bench. Thomas was a pure scorer and provided an excellent scoring punch off the bench. I'd expect him to evolve into a better rebounder and possibly be the second scorer.
Craft will be the distributor he was last season. His scoring may improve slightly, but as long as his decision-making is as good as it was last year, he'll be a quality player.
And then there are the stars in Sullinger and Buford. Much has been said about how Sullinger is developing a jumper and dropping some weight to be more versatile. Some may fear he'll lose his strength that helped him dominate as a freshman—I'm not one of them.
The key will be Buford. Everyone remembers his horrific performance against Kentucky, especially him. He's going to be the leader and may have to adjust his role and be more of a bomber and defender rather than pure scorer. If he's able to improve his game and be more consistent, this is a Final Four contender.