The Big Ten looks loaded this year. A quick look at the all-conference teams below shows that this is a very experienced conference (eight seniors and a junior on my all-conference squads), and with a 09-10 Final Four team (Michigan State) and a team that was a key injury away from being a Final Four contender (Purdue) returns almost all of their key contributors, clearly the top of the heap here is very talented. Given those two squad’s past success and key returnees, they are the co-favorites in the league with the Spartans getting a bit of a nod due to slightly fewer question marks.
However, the next tier of teams, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Illinois, will likely be right on the heels of the leaders all season long. Ohio State and Illinois both feature intriguing mixes of returning experience and incoming talent, while Wisconsin is Wisconsin and you can pencil them in for about 12 conference wins and 25 wins on the season today.
Those top two tiers in the league are the teams that should be fairly comfortable on Selection Sunday with their lot; the next tier (Minnesota and Northwestern) is made up of teams who could be a little nervous that day. An early guess? Both teams get in.
And then there’s the bottom tier, teams that are either rebuilding or should be rebuilding. Penn State and Indiana both have some players that could carry their teams at times, but lack the overall roster to compete for an upper-division finish in such a talented league. Michigan could finish higher just on the strength of John Bielein and his system, but Iowa, poor Iowa and new head coach Fran McCaffrey, could have a rough season with a remade roster and a program starting all over from scratch.
All-Big Ten First Team G Kalin Lucas, Sr, Michigan State G Talor Battle, Sr, Penn State F Mike Davis, Sr, Illinois F Jon Leuer, Sr, Wisconsin C Jared Sullinger, Fr, Ohio State
All-Big Ten Second Team G E’Twaun Moore, Sr, Purdue G William Buford, Jr, Ohio State F Robbie Hummel, Sr, Purdue F Kevin Coble, Sr, Northwestern C JaJuan Johnson, Sr, Purdue
All-Freshman Team G Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan G Roy Marble Jr., Iowa F Jereme Richmond, Illinois F DeShaun Thomas, Ohio State C Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
This is the year and the roster that Bruce Weber and his Illinois program have been building to, ever since the rebuilding project following the ’05 run to the national championship game. All major contributors will likely return (Mike Davis and Demetri McCamey have both entered their names in the NBA Draft, but neither has hired an agent and both should return to school for their senior seasons), last year’s very good recruiting class has a year of experience and three new highly-regarded recruits join them and a roster loaded with six seniors. Last year’s Illini team fell just outside of the tournament; this year’s team, and likely the team for the near future, should be able to skate in on talent alone.
Assuming Davis and McCamey indeed pull their names out of the draft before May 8th, the Illini should return their entire starting five from 09-10. McCamey is the mercurial point guard, very talented but with some personality flaws that are likely accelerating coach Weber’s aging process. He is prone to bad shots at time, can get a little out of control and when things don’t go well for him he doesn’t always play with a sense of urgency. While he was better on all of those fronts last year than he was the year before, he still had some meltdowns as the season progressed, and he’ll need to mature in those areas in order to help his team make the most of its talent. Davis, likewise, is a talented but flawed player. At 6-9, Davis has a soft touch on his jumper and is a skilled shot-maker around the hoop. He is a very good rebounder and can block a few shots, but often shies away from physical play, a nearly fatal fault in the Big Ten. Davis’ soft play is exacerbated by the fact that he plays alongside a center, Mike Tisdale, who is more of a face-up jump-shooter than a back-to-the-basket post, leaving Illinois without a true grinder inside.
Both D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul will return for their sophomore season with experience as starters. Richardson started all but one of the Illini games while Paul started in 14 games as freshmen. Paul is an athletic slashing two-guard, while Richardson is a combo-guard than can score in a variety of ways. Both, however, shot under 40% from the field last year and each will need to significantly increase that percentage. When Paul did not start, that role went to Bill Cole, a long and lanky swingman who is a savvy player: excellent defender, good passer, three-point range and plenty of hustle.
However, it is quite possible that the fifth starting spot will not go to Cole or to Paul, but to incoming freshman swing Jereme Richmond, a fine athletic specimen that will give their frontline more of the physicality it needs. The rest of the freshman class should see playing time, but it is Richmond who will play the biggest role immediately. Meyers Leonard is a 6-11 center who, much like Davis and Tisdale, is more comfortable facing the basket and is more of a finesse big than a power guy. The final member of the class is off-guard Crandall Head, brother of former Illini guard Luther Head. He has a similar skillset to his brother, but will need to improve his shooting accuracy before he has a chance to take minutes away from either Richardson or Paul.
Rounding out the roster are players like sophomore power forward Tyler Griffey, a good interior player who will continue to get minutes through his Illini career, and senior guard Jeff Jordan, a quietly effective guard and the son of some schmuck you’ve probably never heard of. Jordan actually had the best assist-to-turnover margin on the squad and is a pretty good rebounding guard in limited minutes, although with all the talent on this team it will be interesting to see if he gets any minutes in his senior season; he may be an ideal backup point on a team loaded with off-guards.
This Illini squad is talented enough to challenge for a Big Ten title, but they’ll need to get tougher, especially in the paint, and they’ll need to get smarter, especially at the point. Those things are not out of the question, but it would require seniors to do things that they haven’t yet shown the ability to do in their previous three years. But that is sometimes exactly what seniors do.