LINCOLN, Neb. -- A year after sending six teams to the NCAA tournament and having four of them advance to the Sweet Sixteen, the Big Ten conference is hoping for an even better performance in 2012.
While losing many notable faces to graduation and to the NBA - including two first-round draft picks in Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Illinois’ Meyers Leonard - the Big Ten is still regarded as one of, if not, the best overall conferences in the nation. Last season, the Big Ten recorded the highest conference RPI with five top-16 teams, all while boasting the toughest strength of schedule in the country.
With expectations at an all-time high entering this season, there will certainly be a lot of pressure on the schools when the season tips off.
The early favorite this season, Indiana, returns their entire starting lineup from a year ago, including sophomore Cody Zeller. Arguably the best returning player in the Big Ten, Zeller’s decision to return for a second season after posting 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game places the Hoosiers right near the top of the rankings and a forerunner for the national championship. In addition, Indiana brings back the versatile Christian Watford and his 12.6 points per game.
Just behind Indiana is Michigan State and Ohio State. Despite losing Draymond Green, the Spartans are comfortable with Keith Appling taking over the team while McDonald’s All-American guard Gary Harris is ready to utilize his star-powered ability for another deep postseason run in East Lansing. Similar to Michigan State, the Buckeyes lose their star big man in Sullinger, but return one of the nation’s smartest and toughest players in point guard Aaron Craft. The defensive-minded guard will pair up with the team’s leading returning scorer, Deshaun Thomas, for what they hope will be another Final Four run.
As always, Michigan and Wisconsin will be in contention for the top spot in the conference. The Wolverines, anchored by guard Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., bring in a strong recruiting class that should play a vital role throughout the season. Meanwhile, the Badgers will be without their star player in Jordan Taylor; however, Wisconsin does return all of their other key players, including two veteran guards in Josh Gasser and Ben Brust.
The one team who earned a bid in the NCAA Championship tournament that will have the hardest time returning is Purdue. The Boilermakers will be without their heart and soul on the floor in Robbie Hummel and their second leading scorer in Lewis Jackson. Between the two, Purdue will lose around 26 points and 10 rebounds per game. With that much firepower gone and a brutal conference schedule, Purdue could be on the outside looking in when it comes to Selection Sunday.
While Purdue could be on the decline, Minnesota is poised to climb the standings in 2012 due to the return of Trevor Mbakwe. When healthy, Mbakwe is one of the best big men in the nation. Prior to his season-ending injury, the Golden Gophers appeared to be a serious contender in the conference. Mbakwe’s health will go a long in way in determining their chances at a Sweet 16 run.
Occupying the bottom of the conference will be Northwestern, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and Penn State. The Wildcats will be without the conference’s leading scorer from a year ago in Jon Shurna, while the Nittany Lions bring back their top playmaker, Tim Frazier. With a year under their belt, the Cornhuskers will look to make a little more noise this season, but will have an uphill battle with the loss of their leading scorer in Bo Spencer.
BRR's PRESEASON ALL-BIG TEN TEAM
G: Aaron Craft, Jr. - Ohio State
G: Tim Frazier, Sr. - Penn State
F: Deshaun Thomas, Jr. - Ohio State
C: Cody Zeller, So. - Indiana
G: Trey Burke, So. - Michigan
Coach of the Year: Tom Crean, Indiana
Player of the Year: Cody Zeller, Indiana
Defensive Player of the Year: Aaron Craft, Ohio State
- Josh Harvey -
Kyle Phillippi covers the Big Ten Conference for BigRedReport.com. His work has also been featured in Big Red Report Magazine and FOXSports.com.
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