Last year, the Big Ten featured a deep field of capable teams led by a bevy of talented upperclassmen. 2011-12 will be a different story.
Virtually every team in the conference has to replace at least one key player, making this season a year of transition and uncertainty. Many players will have to take on bigger roles, and how they handle that burden will determine how successful their team is.
Expect a season-long battle to determine the hierarchy in the Big Ten, though one team appears to be a step ahead of its competition.
12. Penn State
Key Losses: Taylor Battle, Jeff Brooks, David Jackson and Andrew Jones
Key Returning Players: Tim Frazier
Key Newcomers: Matt Glover and Ross Travis
It looks like it is going to be a long season in Happy Valley.
Not only does Penn State have a new coach with Ed Dechelis leaving for Navy, but the roster was gutted due to graduation and transfers.
Taylor Battle has carried this team pretty much since he arrived on campus, and Jeff Brooks was a brutally efficient combo forward. Both are huge losses that will be difficult to replace.
Big man Andrew Jones and forward David Jackson also graduated, and backup guard Taran Buie transferred.
Junior point guard Tim Frazier is the only returning player that has ever played more than 15 minutes per game, and he was much better as a passer than a scorer last season.
Junior college transfer Matt Glover and freshman Ross Travis should step right into the starting lineup, and senior Cammeron Woodyard and redshirt sophomore Sasa Borovnjak should see a huge increase in minutes. Jonathan Graham and Trey Lewis are two other freshmen that could see a lot of time.
The bottom line is that this is a transition year for Penn State, so expectations should be pretty low.
There probably aren't going to be many wins for the team in conference play, so player development will be very important.
Key Losses: Lance Jeter
Key Returning Players: Jorge Brian Diaz, Tony McCray, Brandon Richardson, Caleb Walker and Andre Almeida
Key Newcomers: Bo Spencer, Dylan Talley, Corey Hilliard, Josiah Moore and David Rivers
As the conference newcomer, it's a little difficult to predict exactly where Nebraska fits in. Its opponents won't be familiar with it and vice versa.
I can't say I've watched many Nebraska games, so I have to use what I see on paper. The team is coming off a reasonably decent year in the Big 12 (19-13, 7-9 in conference), but I suspect that the Huskers won't hit the ground running in the Big Ten.
They look like a team that is pretty deep but lacks star power.
With Lance Jeter moving on, Nebraska's best player is probably Jorge Brian Diaz. The junior big man was pretty solid offensively, averaging 10.5 points per game while shooting nearly 54 percent from the floor.
Tony McCray seems to be the team's next best returning player. The 6'6" forward averaged 8.5 points and 4.3 rebounds in just under 23 minutes per game. He was particularly lethal from outside, where he shot over 40 percent on the season.
The rest of the returning players seem to be a collection of role players, with no one else averaging over seven points, 4.5 rebounds or two assists.
The team's biggest strength seems to be its size. Between Diaz, Andre Almeida and Brandon Ubell, Nebraska has three players in its rotation that are 6'10" or taller. This also shows up in its Pomeroy ratings from last season, where Nebraska finished sixth in the country in both preventing offensive rebounds and field goal defense against two-point shots.
The team's biggest weakness appears to be in the backcourt. With Lance Jeter moving on, Nebraska seems to be lacking guards that can hurt you. Caleb Walker was reasonably efficient last year (46.3 percent from the field, 35.7 percent from deep), but he only averaged six points per game. Brandon Richardson also returns, but he didn't score much more than Walker and wasn't particularly efficient.
Even with Jeter, the team finished 116th nationally in offensive efficiency. Things could get ugly without him.
The team's main hope in the backcourt seems to be LSU transfer Bo Spencer. He was a two-year starter that put up decent point totals, but it remains to be seen how efficient he will be.
Spencer had a far better sophomore season (11.4 PPG, 41.2 percent from the floor, 40.3 percent from outside and only 1.9 turnovers per game) than he did as a junior (14.5 PPG, 33.3 percent from the floor, 28.4 percent from outside and 3.3 turnovers per game).
I have a hard time seeing Nebraska as a threat to make the tournament. I just don't see the kind of dependable players on the roster that you need to have a successful season.
However, if Nebraska continues to play solid defense and its backcourt can be reasonably productive, the team could finish a bit higher than I have it here.
Key Losses: Blake Hoffarber, Devoe Joseph and Al Nolen
Key Returning Players: Trevor Mbakwe, Ralph Sampson and Rodney Williams
Key Newcomers: Julian Welch, Andre Hollins, Joe Coleman and Andre Ingram
Minnesota got off to a nice start last year. However, after some losses in the backcourt, the team's season fell apart.
In the games without both Devoe Joseph and Al Nolen in the lineup, the Gophers went 2-10. Now that Blake Hoffarber has graduated as well, that doesn't bode well for their 2011-12 season.
Based on last season, I could argue that they should be lower. However, the team's frontcourt is just too solid.
Trevor Mbakwe is an absolute monster down low. Not only did he average 13.9 points and 10.5 rebounds, he did it while shooting over 58 percent from the floor and making a difference defensively as well. If not for Jared Sullinger, he'd probably be the best big man in the league.
Ralph Sampson III is also a talented big man that can step out and hit a jumper. However, I'm sure Minnesota fans would like to see him be a bit more aggressive (especially on the glass), as he could probably make more plays.
Minnesota has a pretty athletic small forward as well with Rodney Williams. Though he didn't have a particularly good freshman season, he could be a difference-maker with his length and leaping ability.
As I already alluded to, the team's big question mark is the backcourt. None of its returning guards were particularly good last season, especially as three-point shooters. Austin Hollins will probably play a lot, but he only averaged 4.5 points per game last year.
Minnesota needs some production from its newcomers on the perimeter, and fast.
Junior college transfer Julian Welch should start at point guard, which should give them some hope. Freshman Andre Hollins also has a chance to play early, and Joe Coleman could crack the rotation as well.
If the Gophers' guards can make some shots and keep teams from crowding their big men, a tournament bid isn't totally out of the question.
However, we saw how ugly things can get at the end of last season, even with one solid guard in the lineup.
Key Losses: JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore
Key Returning Players: Robbie Hummel, Lewis Jackson, Ryne Smith, D.J. Byrd, Kelsey Barlow and Terone Johnson
Key Newcomers: Donnie Hale and Jacob Lawson
Before any Purdue fans start to panic, keep in mind that this spot in the rankings isn't nearly as bad as it looks. I don't see much separation between the next several teams, so a few breaks here or there could drastically affect the order. If things break in its favor, Purdue could easily be a tournament team.
However, there is a reason I ranked the team ninth. I feel like it has numerous question marks that should temper expectations a bit.
The biggest one to me is how effective Robbie Hummel will be. While he is one of the most talented players in the league, he also hasn't played since February 2010 because of knee injuries.
If he isn't quite 100 percent, or takes a while to shake off the rust, Purdue could really struggle. The team needs him to be a dominant player after the departures of JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore. Those two carried the Boilermakers last year with only marginal contributions from the supporting cast.
The most productive of that group was point guard Lewis Jackson. He was solid as a ball-handler, shot a very good percentage on the year and had some solid games offensively in conference play. They will need him to look for his shot much more often this season.
Ryne Smith is another player that was effective as a role player. He shot a lethal 44.1 percent from the arc, but he didn't bring much else to the table.
They have a number of other wing players with experience, though none separated themselves from the pack last year. D.J. Byrd, Terone Johnson and Kelsey Barlow all averaged about five points per game last year, though only Barlow shot over 36 percent from the floor.
The frontcourt isn't nearly as deep. Outside of Hummel, Travis Carroll has the most experience, and he played less than 10 minutes per game last year. Sandy Marcius played last year as well, and Purdue has two freshmen big men in Donnie Hale and Jacob Lawson.
It's very difficult to predict what they will get from this group.
Purdue's roster is full of question marks. That said, if Hummel is his old self and some of their role players step up, the Boilermakers can have a successful season.
Key Losses: Jarryd Cole
Key Returning Players: Matt Gatens, Melsahn Basabe, Bryce Cartwright, Eric May, Zach McCabe and Roy Marble
Key Newcomers: Josh Oglesby, Aaron White and Gabe Olaseni
Iowa is coming off a rough season, but its program is moving in the right direction.
Probably the biggest reason for that is Melsahn Basabe. Even as a freshman, he was making plays on both ends of the floor. He's already one of the best big men in the conference, and he could really be a star by the time he graduates.
Iowa also has a trio of experienced guards in Matt Gatens, Bryce Cartwright and Eric May.
Gatens was the team's leading scorer and a dangerous shooter. Cartwright's main strength was as a distributor, averaging nearly six assists per game. May shot the best percentage from deep, 39.4 percent.
Roy Marble played quite a few minutes last year as well, though he was only somewhat effective.
There are still some issues in Iowa City, though.
Iowa wasn't nearly as efficient on offense as it could be, missing a lot of jumpers and turning it over fairly often as well. The team's guards will have to make more shots to make significant progress this season.
The defense was only okay, as well, though I expect that to get better as Basabe gains experience.
The team doesn't have a ton of depth either, with Zach McCabe stepping into the starting lineup. Marble and Andrew Brommer appear to be Iowa's only real options at the moment.
Iowa probably isn't a threat to crack the top half of the league, but it has some solid players on the roster and should be competitive.
Key Losses: Michael Thompson
Key Returning Player: John Shurna, Drew Crawford, Luka Mirkovic, Jershon Cobb, Alex Marcotullio and Davide Curletti
Key Newcomers: Tre Demps, David Sobolewski and Mike Turner
It's seems like every year, the question is, "Will this be the year that NU finally makes the tournament?"
Recently, Northwestern has had the talent to finally make that breakthrough, but something goes awry and the team ends up in the NIT.
This year is very similar. The Cats may have more raw talent than any other team they've had in recent history, but they still don't have much margin for error if they want to make the dance.
While NU has four starters returning, its one loss is a massive one. Michael Thompson was the team leader and best player for long stretches, especially when John Shurna was struggling with his high ankle sprain. He rarely left the court and was the go-to guy in the clutch. He kept the offense running smoothly and was a threat from well beyond the three-point line.
NU has an obvious replacement as its top scoring option with Shurna. Technically, he lead the team in scoring—even at less than 100 percent for most of conference play. When he's healthy, he's an extremely tough matchup. He is lethal from the behind the arc, can finish inside and is athletic and skilled enough to create his own shot.
They might have a solid second scorer as well with Drew Crawford. He is a better athlete than NU typically gets, and he averaged 12 points per game last year, but he has been very inconsistent. He can finish when he attacks the basket, but sometimes he settles for jumpers too easily. If he gets more aggressive, he could make a major impact.
Alex Marcotullio and Jershon Cobb will be tasked with keeping the offense running smoothly.
Marcotullio was the first man off the bench last year and slid into the starting lineup when Cobb was out. He has good size and made a number of hustle plays late last year. His scoring is highly dependent on whether his jumpers are falling or not. If he can round out his offensive game a bit, he could be a solid point guard.
Though he's generally considered a shooting guard, Cobb might take over some ball-handling duties as well. This is especially true in the Princeton offense, where the ball is moving constantly. Like most freshmen, Cobb made some good plays but also took some questionable shots and struggled with consistency. He also had some nagging issues with his hip after a collision in the St. John's game, which led to off-season surgery.
The team's backups on the perimeter should be freshmen David Sobolewski and Tre Demps. Obviously, it's hard to say how effective they will be at this point.
NU's two main post players return, though it's still not exactly a strength. Luka Mirkovic is serviceable, but he isn't really athletic or skilled enough to be a real difference maker. His size is an asset, but there are games where he struggles significantly.
The same can be said about Davide Curletti. Though he's a bit more athletic, he doesn't have much of a scoring touch and can be prone to mistakes.
There isn't much depth beyond those two inside. The only other big man on the roster is freshman Mike Turner, who probably doesn't have the bulk to bang bodies inside.
As usual, the main questions with Northwestern come down to defense. The team struggled pretty much across the board defensively last year, but especially in two-point field goal percentage allowed (52.6 percent, 324th in the country). Even assuming their offense is efficient and productive, they have to cut back on the number of easy shots around the rim.
If NU's offense reaches its potential and the team improves even a little on defense, it could get that elusive tournament bid.
Northwestern needs to avoid the injury issues it's had the last few seasons and finish better in games against quality competition.
Key Losses: Jeremiah Rivers, Maurice Creek (injury)
Key Returning Players: Christian Watford, Verdell Jones III, Jordan Hulls, Victor Oladipo, Derek Elston, Will Sheehey and Tom Pritchard
Key Newcomers: Cody Zeller, Austin Etherington and Remy Abell
Is this the year Indiana finally starts the climb toward respectability?
They have suffered through some rough seasons after the Kelvin Sampson era, but the Hoosiers have a few productive veterans now and are starting to build their talent base.
Their most talented player is probably Christian Watford. The combo forward gets to the free throw line and can hit shots from outside. He was already pretty efficient, getting 16 points on just under 12 shots per game, but could really take his game to another level if he gets his shooting percentage closer to the high 40s like his talents suggest.
The Hoosiers also have two solid options in the backcourt with Jordan Hulls and Verdell Jones. Hulls is easily the best shooter on the team, and Jones is a versatile wing player that does a little bit of everything.
They have a few other options on the perimeter as well. Though Maurice Creek got hurt again, Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey were solid as role players last year and could excel with more minutes.
One of their major issues last year was a lack of good interior options. Derek Elston and Tom Pritchard were their only real options inside, and neither is particularly skilled.
They have a little more hope inside this year because of Cody Zeller. The highly recruited freshman has good size and athleticism, but he'll need to bulk up to take full advantage of his skills. He may not dominate immediately, but he'll get a chance to play early.
It would take quite a bit of improvement from last year for them to get an at-large bid.
On paper, they have the pieces. However, Indiana will need to play better defense and make a few more outside shots to open up space to attack the basket.
The main key is making progress leading into next season, when the Hoosiers get significant reinforcements from a stellar recruiting class.
Key Losses: Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Jereme Richmond
Key Returning Players: Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Meyers Leonard and Tyler Griffey
Key Newcomers: Sam Maniscalco, Tracy Abrams, Myke Henry, Mike Shaw and Nnanna Egwu
The Illinois fans I know had a love/hate relationship with the departing senior class. On the one hand, they were highly talented and could look great when they were on. On the other, they disappeared in far too many games, leading to highly inconsistent results.
Can some fresh blood get the Illini to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament again? Their recruiting has been much better the last few seasons, and now it's time for those young players to start proving themselves.
The Illini really need Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson to take over as their leaders and leading scorers. They've had to play off the ball the last two years with Demetri McCamey at the point and made plenty of shots from outside.
Now, they'll have the opportunity to make plays with the ball in their hands and attack the basket more often.
Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalo should also play a big role in the backcourt. Though he had a rough, injury-shortened season last year, he has been solid running the point and scoring from outside in past seasons.
The youth movement is even more pronounced up front, with only the lightly used Tyler Griffey and Meyers Leonard returning.
While both could start, the performance of Leonard is a far bigger key for Illinois. He's very big and very athletic, but he still needs to sharpen his game. He could be a star, maybe as soon as this year.
The Illini will also have a multitude of freshmen forwards on the roster. Myke Henry, Mike Shaw and Nnanna Egwu were all major signings.
Will any of them be able to step in and make an impact this year? If they do, this could be a very solid team.
While this is a transition year for Illinois, that doesn't mean the team won't be a factor. It has a multitude of guards that can score, which should give the team a little margin for error while its bigs develop.
Key Losses: Darius Morris
Key Returning Players: Tim Hardaway Jr., Jordan Morgan, Zack Novak, Stu Douglass and Evan Smotrycz
Key Newcomers: Trey Burke, Carlton Brundidge and Max Bielfeldt
If Darius Morris had stayed in school, I would have had the Wolverines solidly in the second slot in this slideshow. Without him, I just don't know what to think about this team. It has a number of solid players, but I'm not totally sure who handles the ball and creates quality shots.
The best answer to that is probably Tim Hardaway Jr. He's a very good athlete, but is pretty streaky as a shooter. If he takes the next step to stardom, Michigan will be in much better shape.
Michigan fans would also point to Jordan Morgan as a player to watch. He can be a load in the post, as shown by his ridiculous 62.7 percent shooting percentage. For the Wolverines to be a threat to win the conference title, he's going to have to do a lot better than 9.2 points and 5.4 rebounds, though.
Zack Novak and Stu Douglass are solid, veteran guards that can fill in as glue guys, but they're probably not going to take over many games.
Sophomore Evan Smotrycz could be a big key to Michigan's season. He did some damage from outside in his first year of college ball, but didn't contribute much in other areas. He's a very good fit for the Princeton offense, so he could thrive with more experience.
It remains to be seen what Michigan can get from the rest of its roster. Matt Vogrich was okay in spots on the wing, but the team's options at point guard and inside are a mystery.
Trey Burke and Carlton Brundidge were fairly highly regarded as recruits. If either could step in and produce right away, that would be a big boost. The Wolverines could also use some contributions from Jon Horford and Blake McLimans.
Michigan should probably be in the tournament, but things are a bit less certain without Morris.
Some of the team's young players will have to step up and take on leadership roles to build on a strong season.
Key Losses: John Leuer, Keaton Nankivil and Tim Jarmusz
Key Returning Players: Jordan Taylor, Josh Gasser and Mike Bruesewitz
Key Newcomers: Frank Kaminsky, Jared Uthoff and Traevon Jackson
Wisconsin doesn't look like the third best team in the conference on paper, but Big Ten fans have learned that they can't doubt the Badgers. No matter what players they lose, they always find a way to finish in the top four by the end of the year.
The Badgers were lethally efficient on offense last year by not making mistakes and hitting a lot of threes. Jon Leuer was a huge part of that, and Keaton Nankivil was a dangerous part of their attack as well.
While those guys will be missed, Jordan Taylor is still in Madison. Though he occasionally forced some shots, he was the foundation of their offense. He rarely turned the ball over while running the offense and was able to take over games with his shooting. He's easily the best guard in the conference.
The rest of the roster is an entirely different matter. No other returning player averaged more than six points or four rebounds.
John Gasser is the Badgers' second best in each of those categories behind Taylor. He played a lot of minutes in his freshman year and kept his mistakes to a minimum. He'll have to look for his shot much more often this season.
Another player that will be counted on to produce much more this year is Mike Bruesewitz. Right now, he's known mostly for his hair. That will have to change if Wisconsin is going to contend for a conference title. He's a solid fit for Wisconsin' swing offense because he'll work inside and can step out and hit the three.
The only other player that cracked the 10-minutes-per-game mark last year is Ryan Evans, a fairly inefficient forward.
Who else will emerge for Wisconsin?
Your guess is as good as mine, though someone always steps up. One of the best bets is Jared Berrgren, a formerly highly-recruited big man that hasn't seen the floor much in his first three seasons.
Wisconsin doesn't usually rely on true freshmen, but Jared Uthoff and Frank Kaminsky both have the size and shooting ability of a typical Wisconsin big man.
You can probably guess how this season will go.
Everyone will wonder how Wisconsin will survive without Leuer, they'll win at home, grind out a few wins on the road, and at the end of the year, they'll have at least 10 wins in conference.
It has become the Wisconsin way.
2. Michigan State
Key Losses: Kalin Lucas, Darrell Summers, Gerrick Sherman and Delvon Roe (injury)
Key Returning Players: Draymond Green, Keith Appling, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne
Key Newcomers: Brandon Wood and Branden Dawson
The Spartans have a very tenuous hold on the No. 2 slot in these rankings. At least a third of the teams below Ohio State have a shot at finishing second in the conference, though it would take a lot to catch the Buckeyes at No. 1.
The Spartans were thought to be a potential Final Four team last year, but suffered through a disappointing season of rehabs, transfers and underachieving. Many of those players have moved on, so MSU will have to count on a lot of underclassmen and a few key newcomers.
The most important of those is Brandon Wood, a transfer from Valparaiso. He was a difference-maker in the Horizon League, averaging 16.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.7 steals. He can do it all and might be Michigan State's best player.
They will also need Branden Dawson to contribute. The McDonald's All-American is an athletic forward that isn't afraid to play down low. He should get at least 20 minutes per game off the bench, if not start.
Two more highly regarded recruits will have to step up in their second year on campus. Keith Appling is going to have to play heavy minutes at the point, and Adreian Payne will have to make better use of his size and athleticism inside.
The team's one proven producer is Draymond Green. He's an extremely versatile forward that did a little bit of everything for the Spartans. He scored down low, hit threes, rebounded, made plays on defense, handled the ball and created shots for his teammates.
The only real gripe you could have about Green is he got a little jumper-happy last season, which hurt his field goal percentage.
There is a lot of pressure on the guys I've mentioned, given that depth doesn't seem to be a team strength. Michigan State's bench is going to be comprised of Austin Thornton and a lot of freshmen (and maybe Derrick Nix if he doesn't start).
Despite the question marks involved, I think Michigan State has the highest ceiling of the non-OSU teams in the Big Ten.
There is plenty of talent on the roster; they simply have to play better than they did last year.
Given the recent history of the Spartans, that seems like a relatively safe bet.
1. Ohio State
Key Losses: Jon Diebler, David Lighty and Dallas Lauderdale
Key Returning Players: Jared Sullinger, William Buford, Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas
Key Newcomers: Amir Williams, Sam Thompson and Shannon Scott
Even with the loss of three of the team's regular contributors from last year's conference championship team, OSU appears to be the class of the league by a solid margin.
The biggest reason, both literally and figuratively, is Jared Sullinger. The 6'9" sophomore was a beast on the low block, averaging 17.2 points per game while shooting 54 percent from the floor. His advanced post arsenal makes him nearly impossible to cover with one defender, which creates plenty of room for his teammates.
The biggest beneficiary of all of that attention will be WIlliam Buford, who is an All-Conference-caliber player as well. He was lethal from the arc last year (44.2 percent) but can also make plays on the drive.
Replacing the production of David Lighty and Jon Diebler won't be easy, but Ohio State does have two sophomores that can step up.
Look for Aaron Craft to take on a much bigger role in the offense. As a freshman, he excelled running the offense and being disruptive on defense while picking his spots as a scorer. With more consistent scoring, he could be one of the most well-rounded guards in the league.
Deshaun Thomas could also carry a much bigger load offensively. He only played 14 minutes per game last year, but still averaged 7.5 points and 3.5 rebounds as a combo forward. With his length and scoring touch, he has breakout potential.
The roster is a bit of a mystery outside of those four players. The Buckeyes haven't used their bench much in the past several seasons, and it shows in their lack of experienced options.
Players like Jordan Siebert and Lenzelle Smith haven't seen the floor much, but they could play more this season. Boston College transfer Evan Ravenel could also get significant playing time.
However, it's more likely that OSU will simply rely on another talented recruiting class. Amir Williams gives them another big, athletic option inside, Shannon Scott is a talented point guard that could make a difference in a shallow backcourt and Sam Thompson is an athletic wing player that could see time at multiple positions.
Whichever two or three players crack the rotation won't have to do the heavy lifting for Ohio State. If they don't make too many mistakes and make plays when they can, the Buckeyes will be fine.
Though the team might not be as successful in conference play as it was last season, OSU is still a heavy favorite to win another Big Ten title.
The other challengers all have some major question marks, so OSU should get every opportunity to set itself up for a deep tournament run.
The two main contenders for Big Ten Player of the Year (numbers 11 and 0)
G: Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin
G: William Buford, Ohio State
F: John Shurna, Northwestern
F: Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota
C: Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
G: Brandon Wood, Michigan State
G: Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan
F: Draymond Green, Michigan State
F: Christian Watford, Indiana
F: Robbie Hummel, Purdue
G: Jordan Hulls, Indiana
G: Brandon Paul, Illinois
G: D.J. Richardson, Illinois
G: Aaron Craft, Ohio State
F: Melsahn Basabe, Iowa
Conference Player of the Year: Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
Freshman of the Year: Cody Zeller, Indiana
Defensive Player of the Year: Aaron Craft, Ohio State