By: Brian Mosgaller
With Ben Brust signing up to don the cardinal-and-white for Bo Ryan on Friday, ending his quasi-controversial recruiting situation, Wisconsin men’s basketball finally completed its four-player recruiting class for the upcoming season.
Therefore, let’s commence the premature prediction making.
To a homer, and true believer in the genius of Señor Ryan, the addition of Brust seems like the final piece necessary for the Badgers to make another legitimate run at a league title – something the team has done three times under Ryan’s reign (2002, 2003, 2008).
But without question, the competition will be stiff, and a repeat of last year’s top-heavy finish (when there was a three-way tie for first between Purdue, Michigan State and Ohio State, one team one game back – Wisconsin – and one more – Illinois – with more than 10 wins) is quite reasonable, if not more than likely.
So, without further ado, here is where I envision the Big Ten chips falling next year, considering Brust’s addition and the fact that all the major Big Ten underclassmen who had flirted with the NBA draft (Purdue’s E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson, Illinois’ Demetri McCamey and Mike Davis, and Penn State’s Talor Battle) are coming back to school.
1.) Michigan State Spartans
The popular pick in this spot is and will continue to be Purdue, and I understand that. To be fair, they’re both really good teams and the conference race will almost definitely involve both teams until the final game or two. Yet, the reason I give the Spartans the edge is quite simple. Tom Izzo.
When the cupboard is relatively bare and the deck is stacked against this natural born Yooper, he still manages to will his team to top three Big Ten finishes and top six NCAA seeds. But when Izzo returns a Final Four team that will lose only Raymar Morgan, watch out.
Coming off a Big Ten Player of the Year campaign in 2008-09, Kalin Lucas coasted at times last year prior to rupturing his Achilles in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Next year, Lucas should return with a renewed sense of purpose and mission, reestablishing himself as one of the league’s premier guards.
Moreover, Lucas’s absence (not only due to the Achilles’ injury, but also to a sprained ankle) allowed Milwaukee native Korie Lucious to really grow and start to discover his identity as a point guard. On top of that, Durrell Summers figured out his scoring potential as the season neared its end, averaging 19 points a game in the tourney, and Draymond Green, the 20010 Sixth Man of the Year, anchors the post as one of the more talented post presences in the conference.
It goes without saying that MSU teams will rebound, play hard-nosed “D,” and offer maximum effort. Combining all of that with top-tier talent and enviable experience and the Spartans should raise a lucky 13th banner to the Breslin Center rafters.
2.) Purdue Boilermakers
This is definitely a case where that “2” should instead read “1b.” Recall that before team-leader Robbie Hummel went down with a tragic knee injury, this team was ranked No. 3 in the country and boasted a 24-3 overall mark. Impressively, the Boilermakers managed to finish the year 29-6, including an unexpected visit to the Sweet 16.
So, we know they were good.
But they take this spot not because of what they showed last year, but because of today’s news that both E’Twaun Moore – the team’s leading scorer (16.4 per game) and assist leader (2.7 an outing) – and JaJuan Johnson – who finished with marks of 15.5 points per game, a team-best 7.1 rebounds and a league-best 2.0 blocks – would return for their senior year after entering their names into the NBA Draft process.
Everybody wins. Moore and Johnson are both too raw to make an impact at the next level, and with them, Purdue is as formidable as any team in the land because, of course, they will join a healthy (or as healthy as he gets) Hummel, and returning point guard Lewis Jackson.
And the value of those returning contributors outweighs the loss of everyone’s most recent favorite-to-hate Boilermaker Chris Kramer (worse than Brian Cardinal, in my opinion) and mainstay guard Keaton Grant.
Barring another devastating injury, there’s no reason Matt Painter’s squad shouldn’t be in a position similar to the one they were in before Hummel went down.
3.) Wisconsin Badgers
Now I know this pick could incite claims of partiality, but I couldn’t care less. Heading into last season, when the question of post-production had no clear answer, pundits, experts, writers and bloggers all picked the Badgers to finish in the bottom half of the conference.
As usual, Bo Ryan proved everyone wrong, developing Jon Leuer into a legitimate post threat, and then surviving Leuer’s injury by transforming the team’s offensive attack without compromising the team’s defensive foundation. Hopefully, the lesson was learned: don’t bet against Bo.
So I won’t. Sure, the Badgers will need to replace two starting, senior guards, which is never an easy task. But UW is lucky enough to have a player as talented and experienced as Jordan Taylor to take the reins. Beyond that, the guard depth appeared slim, but then the squad added Brust to Port Washington, Wis., recruit Josh Gasser, giving Ryan two more perimeter players to work with. Throw in Rob Wilson, and the guard shortage for Wisconsin is less worrisome than the post situation from the year before.
Most important, though, will be the chance for Jon Leuer to really take over this squad. As a 6-foot-10 forward with a sweet jumper, Leuer is a match-up problem almost every time he steps onto the floor. Personally, I think this is the year Leuer really puts his name on the national map by dominating the Big Ten. As a result, the Badgers will challenge again.
4.) Ohio State Buckeyes
Anytime you lose a player who notched 20.4 points per game, 9.2 rebounds and 6 assists while shooting over 50 percent, you’re going to suffer a bit. Evan Turner did everything for Thad Matta’s unit last year, and his importance was clearly demonstrated in watching the Buckeyes while he was injured and when he came back.
Oddly, however, Matta’s Buckeyes aren’t shit out of luck. Far from it. Rather, OSU will return the other four starters and add two McDonald’s All-Americans, including hometown favorite Jared Sullinger.
And honestly, this isn’t something new. Matta has already dealt with Greg Oden, Daequan Cook and Mike Conley, Kousta Koufos, and B.J. Mullens leaving early and he has hardly missed a beat. Expect that trend to continue this year.
5.) Illinois Fighting Illini
Outside of Purdue, there wasn’t a happier Big Ten town today than Champagne. The cause? The announced returns of standout point guard Demetri McCamey and versatile (if frail) forward Mike Davis.
Like last season when the Illini finished out of the top-of-the-league party, they probably don’t have enough to seriously contend for top honors. Nevertheless, they are probably a lock for nine Big Ten wins and an NCAA bid. More or less, though, this team will go as far as McCamey takes them. The big point guard reminiscent of Deron Williams led the league in assists last year (7.1) while contributing 15.1 points. Yet at times, McCamey could be petulant, and he butted heads with coach Bruce Weber.
If McCamey can get on the same page as his coach and help some young talent to develop, Illinois shouldn’t be on the outside of the bubble for a second straight year.
6.) Minnesota Golden Gophers
Many like Northwestern here, but come on, it’s Northwestern. Although it will be difficult to fill the shoes of graduating departees Lawrence Westbrook, Devron Bostick and Damian Johnson, the Gophers still bring back second-leading scorer Blake Hoffarber, Devoe Joseph, and two 6-foot-10 plus posts, Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson.
And, like with Izzo, when rosters compare closely and the rest is unknown, go with the better coach. So I will, taking Tubby Smith and the Gophers to hover on the tenuous bubble surface.
7.) Northwestern Wildcats
Could this finally be the year the lovable losers from Evanston get invited to the Dance? It just may be. The Wildcats flirted with such a fate last year before fading as the conference season wore on.
This year, the Wildcats will benefit from the return of Kevin Coble, injured all of last year, who had led the team in scoring and rebounding his first three years. Coble will now join John Shurna, who finished the year third in the league in scoring (18.2 per) and seventh in glass-cleaning (6.4).
In short, this is the best chance these destitute fans have had in a long time to realistically watch a tournament team. We can only wait and see if Coble and Co. can handle that pressure.
8.) Penn State Nittany Lions
Nittany Lion fans must be thanking their lucky stars today as they receive the news that Talor Battle, who was second in the Big Ten in scoring (18.5 ppg), will return. Battle was already a one-man team and will be so even more next year (if that makes sense) with the transfers of Chris Babb, the Lions’ third-leading scorer, and contributor Bill Edwards.
Frankly, after Northwestern, none of these teams have much of a shot. But having Battle will at least allow this team to compete on a frequent basis. Unfortunately, that’s more than can be said for…
9.) Indiana Hoosiers
It’s an intriguing query: If Tom Crean could go back in time, would he take this job twice? Probably not, but he did, so here we are. Slowly but surely, Crean’s recruiting acumen is paying dividends, but the proud Hoosiers just aren’t there yet.
Crean’s crew, led by 16.4 point per game scorer, Maurice Creek, does bring some scoring punch to the table, averaging a respectable 66.2 points per contest last season. It’s the other side of the ball that is their true problem, as IU surrendered over 71 a game.
The upside here is that the team is still incredibly young and could surprise people if they can somehow find a way to get stops.
10.) Michigan Wolverines
Last year, the maize-and-blue were one of those teams on the schedule you hated because you should beat them, but you knew you were in for a dogfight. And for the Wolverines, the dogs they entered in the fight were dynamic offensive producers Manny Harris (18.1 ppg) and DeShawn Sims (16.8 ppg). If Harris and Sims were on, watch out. If they weren’t, opponents were in good shape.
Now, both are gone and the team’s leading returning scorer is Zack Novak, who chipped in just over seven a game.
John Beilein is a good coach and seems like a better man. Alas, that isn’t enough to win games, and the Wolverines will struggle to score this year.
11.) Iowa Hawkeyes
Iowa, Iowa, Iowa. Well, at least you’ve still got football, right?
There’s not much to say here – the Hawkeyes hardwood prospects are bleak and the program is looking at another cycle of rebuilding after firing Todd Lickliter (setting in motion the Ben Brust transfer).
Lickliter’s replacement Fran McCaffrey, from Siena, did remarkable things with the Saints in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). In Iowa City, however, he inherits a mess and it will take him awhile to get things right.
Stupid Steve Alford…