Big Ten Hoops Preview

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The league isn't as top-heavy as in past seasons, but the "no easy games" mantra has never been more true.

It's difficult to remember an offseason when the B1G lost as much talent as it did this summer. Trey Burke, Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller, Deshaun Thomas, Trevor Mbakwe, Brandon Paul and Sasa Borovnjak are just some of the big names to have departed from what was the strongest conference in the country last season. And yet, the B1G rolls on - it's the top conference in KenPom's preseason rankings and sports five teams in the initial coaches poll.

The strength of this edition of the conference lies in its depth. Both Penn State and Northwestern, picked 10th and 11th by the league's media and coaches, bring back redshirted all-conference players that will lead otherwise experienced cores. Nebraska, predicted to finish last, brings in a highly-touted freshman Kiwi point guard and two major-conference transfer forwards that will play in a brand-new, 15,000 seat arena. There are no established doormats this season and margins are slim - so let's take a look at what will make or break every team.

Illinois Fighting Illini

Key Returnees: G Tracy Abrams (10.6 ppg, 3.4 apg), G Joseph Bertrand (7.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg), C Nnanna Egwu (6.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg)

Key Additions: G Rayvonte Rice (transfer from Drake), G Malcolm Hill (Fr.), G Kendrick Nunn (Fr.)

Why they'll succeed: John Groce is a very good coach, and he's brought in six players who can make a significant impact for a team that's lost some production in the backcourt. Rice is a hulk of a shooting guard at 6'4" 235lbs that won't need to adjust too much to be a force in the B1G.

Why they'll fail: Not enough experience. That, or John Groce spends too much time thinking about next season if Chicago high school phenom Cliff Alexander commits to play in Champaign.

Indiana Hoosiers

Key Returnees: G Yogi Ferrell (7.6 ppg, 4.1 apg), F Will Sheehey (9.5 ppg, 49% FG)

Key Additions: G Evan Gordon (transfer from Arizona St.), F Noah Vonleh (Fr.), G Troy Williams (Fr.), G Stanford Robinson (Fr.), C Luke Fischer (Fr.)

Why they'll succeed: Like Illinois, the Hoosiers have brought in a fantastic five-man recruiting class. Tom Crean has a great senior leader in Sheehey and a sophomore point guard poised for a breakout season in Ferrell. Vonleh should win B1G freshman of the year.

Why they'll fail: Indiana was one of the best teams in the country last season and expectations are perpetually sky high in Bloomington. They've lost more production than any team in the conference and as good as the freshmen are, it'll be hard for them to replicate in one season what Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo and co. were able to accomplish after two full years together. It's also unclear if Crean has figured out what the hell a zone defense is.

Iowa Hawkeyes

Key Returnees: G Roy Devyn Marble (15.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg), F Aaron White (12.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg), G Mike Gesell (8.7 ppg, 2.6 apg), F Melsahn Basabe (6.8 rpg, 5.1 rpg), F Zach McCabe (5.7 rpg, 3.7 rpg)

Key Additions: F Jarrod Uthoff (transfer from Wisconsin), G Peter Jok (Fr.)

Why they'll succeed: Simply put, they haven't lost anybody from last year's team, which got to Madison Square Garden for the NIT title game. There are a lot of B1G-caliber players on the roster, and Wisconsin transfer Uthoff could very well be the player that pushes them from the mid-range to the top-tier of the conference standings.

Why they'll fail: There are plenty of B1G-caliber players, but what if none of them take the next step to become stars? Marble is an inconsistent shooter, White makes some questionable decisions with the ball, and there might not be a true point guard on the roster. Fran McCaffery might not be the coach a B1G contender needs, either - their best win last season came against Wisconsin at home.

Michigan Wolverines

Key Returnees: G Nik Stauskas (11.0 ppg, 44% 3PT), F Glenn Robinson III (11.0 ppg, 57% FG), C Mitch McGary (7.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg), F Jordan Morgan (4.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg)

Key Additions: G Zak Irvin (Fr.), G Derrick Walton (Fr.), F Mark Donnal (Fr.)

Why they'll succeed: The majority of contributors from last season's national runner-up return, and despite the loss of Burke there's still a ton of talent in Ann Arbor. McGary was named AP first-team All-America and if he can play like he did in last year's NCAA tournament there isn't a player in the nation who can stop him. Stauskas might be the most underrated player in the country and he and Robinson should be able to handle their larger roles. John Beilein's 2013 recruiting class isn't quite what he had coming in last season, but he should be able to make do with two top-50 guards in Irvin and Walton.

Why they'll fail: Spike Albrecht was unreal against Louisville last April, but can he or Walton be the distributor this team needs? And will either have a healthy McGary to pass to? The 6'10" center's back has been giving him problems all preseason, and that's not an issue that heals overnight. Without him manning the middle the Wolverines could conceivably slip back into the middle of the B1G pack.

Michigan State Spartans

Key Returnees: G Gary Harris (12.9 ppg, 41% 3PT), G Keith Appling (13.4 ppg, 3.3 apg), C Adreian Payne (10.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg), F Branden Dawson (8.9 ppg, 53% FG), G Denzel Valentine (5.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg)

Key Additions: F/C Gavin Schilling (Fr.)

Why they'll succeed: This is your vintage Tom Izzo Michigan State team. Sparty has talent and athleticism in every position and the experience to bring it all together into a group that you wouldn't dare bet against in March. Harris is the preseason B1G player of the year as a sophomore and he will only improve on his impressive shooting figures with a healthy shoulder. Payne is perhaps the conference's lone big man that can outplay McGary on any given night.

Why they'll fail: Injuries, I guess? I don't know, Keith Appling has his fair share of struggles now and then. That's about it. Don't expect failure from an Izzo team.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Key Returnees: G Andre Hollins (14.6 ppg, 41% 3PT), G Austin Hollins (10.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg)

Key Additions: F Joey King (transfer from Drake)

Why they'll succeed: The Hollinses (no relation) are two of the better guards in the B1G and their experience can drag a brand-new frontcourt through this transition phase. Rich Pitino has no Tubbystache to speak of but he does bring a youthful enthusiasm that signs recruits and builds new facilities, and the Gopher faithful are hoping that can translate into a mid-table finish.

Why they'll fail: There's not much of a frontcourt to speak of and replacing the minutes of Mbakwe and Rodney Williams will be a committee job. Oto Oseniks was thought to be an option at power forward but the reviews from Minnesota's preseason game aren't pretty.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

Key Returnees: G Ray Gallegos (12.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg), G/F Shavon Shields (8.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg), F David Rivers (5.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg)

Key Additions: F Walter Pitchford (transfer from Florida), F Terran Petteway (transfer from Texas Tech), G Tai Webster (Fr.), F Nick Fuller (Fr.)

Why they'll succeed: There's actually some talent for Tim Miles to work with here. Shavon Shields was one of the more impressive freshmen in the B1G last year and teaming him with a senior leader in Gallegos and a promising, internationally-capped freshman point guard in Webster could put a lot of butts in the seats of Pinnacle Bank Arena. With a little luck the Huskers could find themselves in a non-NCAA postseason tournament.

Why they'll fail: The inexperienced transfers might not fill out the frontcourt as previously hoped and Nebrasketball protocol could reign supreme as a result. The luster of the new arena will fade pretty quickly if there aren't any wins to be seen. Hell, they may never recover mentally from a season-opening meeting with Dunk City this Friday night.

Northwestern Wildcats

Key Returnees: F Drew Crawford (13.5 ppg, 10 games played), G Dave Sobolewski (9.8 ppg, 4.0 apg), G TreDemps.Com (7.6 ppg, 18.8 mpg), C Alex Olah (6.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg), G JerShon Cobb (7.1 ppg in 2011-12)

Key Additions: F Nate Taphorn (Fr.)

Why they'll succeed: Chris Collins has the feel of a coach who can take Northwestern to the promised land, and as our friends at Sippin' On Purple point out, he's correcting some of the fatal flaws of the Bill Carmody era. Crawford and Cobb are back for one more go-round so Collins has something to work with before his 2014 recruits enter the fold. Sobolewski can be a very good point guard on his day and Olah has the skill set and size to match up with a generally weak group of B1G frontlines.

Why they'll fail: There's a lot of optimism around the Wildcats, but you don't wash the jNW stink out of the program in one season. There's a lack of depth beyond the starting five and a significant injury could doom them to another non-tourney season. Even if they're healthy, there's sure to be some growing pains under a new coach teaching them a new system (that should actually include man-to-man principles!).

Ohio State Buckeyes

Key Returnees: G Aaron Craft (10.0 ppg, 4.6 apg), G Lenzelle Smith Jr (9.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg), F LaQuinton Ross (8.3 ppg, 47% FG), G Sam Thompson (7.8 ppg, 3.5 apg), G Shannon Scott (4.9 ppg, 3.8 apg)

Key Additions: F Marc Loving (Fr.), G Kameron Williams (Fr.)

Why they'll succeed: The Buckeyes have a lot of upperclassmen on the roster, and that may be their biggest advantage along with Thad Matta's guidance in an otherwise young B1G. Aaron Craft, overrated as he may be, is without question a gutty leader that has a reputation as one of the best defenders in the country. Ross looks poised to finally become the head honcho on offense after a big showing in last year's NCAA tournament.

Why they'll fail: As you have to be aware of by now, there are new hand-check limitations in college basketball that some (including Keith Appling) believe Craft won't be able to adjust to. Even if that is an exaggeration, and he can adjust, it's hard to imagine him being the same kind of player in 2014. If Ross can't carry the load on offense, it doesn't look like the Buckeyes have another consistent and reliable scorer on the roster.

Purdue Boilermakers

Key Returnees: G Terone Johnson (13.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg), C A.J. Hammons (10.6 ppg, 2.0 bpg), G Ronnie Johnson (10.3 ppg, 4.1 apg), G Rapheal Davis (5.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg)

Key Additions: F Errick Peck (transfer from Cornell), G Sterling Carter (transfer from Seattle), F Basil Smotherman (!) III (!!) (Fr.)

Why they'll succeed: A.J. Hammons is probably the third best center in the conference and the Boilers have the supporting cast to rebound from their uncharacteristically sub-.500 record in 2012-13. The Johnson brothers are two of the best when their outside shots are falling, and getting redshirt freshman Jay Simpson back and healthy to pair with Hammons should give Matt Painter one of the better frontcourts in the conference.

Why they'll fail: Hammons enters this season with a little off-court baggage and if he can't keep out of trouble then Painter's gameplan probably goes out the window. As with Iowa, there may not be a player capable of taking their game to that "star" level. But the biggest reason why the Boilers will fail is if (IF) they deprive the college basketball world the chance to say his amazing name every night and decide to redshirt Basil Smotherman III.

Wisconsin Badgers

Key Returnees: G Ben Brust (11.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg), F Sam Dekker (9.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg), G Traevon Jackson (6.9 ppg, 2.8 apg), C Frank Kaminski (4.2 ppg, 1.8 rpg)

Key Additions: G Bronson Koenig (Fr.), F Nigel Hayes (Fr.), F Vitto Brown (Fr.)

Why they'll succeed: Bo Ryan is still there, yes? Then the loss of Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans (and his free-throw jumpers) shouldn't hurt too much. There doesn't appear to much on the roster in terms of a big man besides the seven-footer Kaminsky, but Ryan will magically plug guys into the lineup and win 24 games without any hiccups. The already strong backcourt of Brust and Jackson will get a major boost in the form of a healthy Josh Gasser. And I haven't even mentioned the best player on the team, Dekker. Don't be shocked to see him on the first or second all-B1G team at the end of the year.

Why they'll fail: Bo Ryan retires or the Kohl Center floods or something else ridiculous happens.


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