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
Last we saw the Badgers they were losing in decidedly un-Wisconsin-like fashion to an upstart Cornell squad, allowing the Big Red to torch them to the tune of 60-some percent from the field and 50-some percent from three, all while getting outrebounded and turning the ball over more than their opponent. Definitely not the kind of thing you expect from a Bo Ryan squad, but once again in 2010-11, you should expect the Badgers to be an extraordinarily efficient club on both ends of the court, to take care of the ball, to clean up the defensive glass and defend the perimeter while pouring in their share of threes.
However, the Badgers will have to replace their starting backcourt and two leading three-point shooters, Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon, a task that is easier said than done. Tim Jarmusz started the majority of the games in his junior year as a third-guard/swingman-type, and will likely continue in that role, although he is not a huge impact player, averaging less than three points per game last season. The players who will have the most pressure on them to replace the departed seniors are three juniors: point guard Jordan Taylor, off-guard Robert Wilson and swingman Ryan Evans. Taylor will almost certainly get the starting position in place of Hughes, and despite his mistake-prone tendencies in his early days in Madison, he has turned into a savvy and confident leader for the team. Either Wilson or Evans will take over the two-guard spot, although I suppose it is possible that all three of these guys start and Jarmusz moves to the bench). Wilson is the better shooter of the two, and may even be every bit the equal of Bohannon in that regard, but can also attack the hoop and draw fouls, and has the type of defensive instincts that Wisconsin basketball is built on. Evans is more of the aggressive slasher type, but also still an excellent defender. All three of these guys have had plenty of experience in their time on campus, so while losing a backcourt with the amount of experience that Hughes and Bohannon had is never a good thing, the Badgers won’t exactly be flying blind.
Up front, things are a little more settled for Wisconsin. Keaton Nankivil started every game for the Badgers last year, and will likely do the same in his senior season. And Jon Leuer started most of the games last year and was very effective, despite missing nine games due to a broken wrist. Leuer is just a perfect example of a Ryan big man: some guard skills, great post moves, pick-and-pop three-point range, tough fundamental rebounder, good passer – just an all-around great college big man. Nankivil’s offensive game is not as polished as Leuer’s, but he is a streaky three-point shooter from the top of the key, passes and rebounds well and does all sorts of little things that make Wisconsin big men so fun to watch. Depth up front will be provided 6-7 sophomore bruiser Mike Bruesewitz and 6-10 junior center Jared Berggren, both of whom played limited minutes last season, but given Ryan’s track record of developing frontcourt players over the course of their careers, could be due some larger roles this season.
Ryan also brings in a four-man recruiting class, the highlight of which is 6-11 center Evan Anderson, a physical fundamental center who Ryan will likely bring along as slowly as he has his other big guys. Anderson may redshirt his first year, or barring that, could play sparingly. The two guards in the class, 6-2 combo guard Ben Brust and 6-4 point guard Josh Gasser, are both high IQ guys that could step into some minutes immediately. The final new Badger will be 6-8 swingman Duje Dukan, a pure-shooting Croatian who could fit in very well in Ryan’s swing offense.
Despite the personnel changes in the backcourt, expect this iteration of the Badgers to be quite similar to previous versions: efficient, tough, and smart. And while teams like Purdue and Michigan State, and even to a lesser degree Illinois and Ohio State, get the majority of the buzz in the Big Ten, don’t be surprised to look up in late February and see Wisconsin sitting right there in striking distance near the top of the Big Ten standings.