With today being a big day for the early entrants to the 2012 NBA Draft most fans now know how next year's Big Ten will look. It is going to be a year of transition. Long-time names like Draymond Green, Robbie Hummel, and John Shurna are gone, while a wealth of talent is coming in to several programs. It should be another fun year. We already know that a lot of talent is staying instead of leaving early, while other schools are likely going into full-fledged rebuilding mode.
It is never too early to begin the speculation for next year, either. With that in mind, here is my modest prediction, from worst to best, for how the Big Ten should look next season.
12. Nebraska Cornhuskers - Nebraska went 12-18 in their first year of Big Ten play, 4-14 in the league, were blown out of their first Big Ten Tournament, fired their coach, graduate their top two scorers, and they have a fairly bland recruiting class coming in. That's not what they want to open their new arena. Nebraska lost nine of its last 10 games, only blowing out an Illinois team that quit on Bruce Weber.
Simply put, Tim Miles has a very long rebuilding project ahead of him, and everyone else in the Big Ten is looking at Nebraska as a win already.
11. Penn St. Nittany Lions - Penn State had the worst overall record in the league at 12-20 and was 3-13 in its final 16 games. Tim Frazier will return as the Talor Battle Memorial Great Player On An Awful Team Award winner from 2012, but unlike Battle's final season in Happy Valley, an NCAA berth is unlikely. Frazier already did virtually everything (18.8 ppg, 4.7. rpg, 6.2 apg) for Penn State. Their recruiting class is only two strong, and Trey Lewis has already announced he is leaving in addition to Matt Glover.
Basically, I am giving Penn State an edge over Nebraska because at least Frazier is a proven difference-maker and possible all-Big Ten selection. He can probably win 3-4 Big Ten games by himself.
10. Illinois Fighting Illini - Illinois has a lot of talent, but I can't fogive them for flat out quitting after the upset of Ohio State. They literally went from beating a Final Four team to losing to Penn State in a span of nine days. How on earth does that happen? Weber was fired in favor of John Groce. Meyers Leonard will also now beg for calls in the NBA. The good news is that everyone else is back except for Sam Maniscalco.
I like D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul in the backcourt, but calling them mercurial would be a compliment. Tracy Abrams and Tyler Griffey give them experience, but can you really trust this team if virtually the same talent checked out in the final two months of the season?
9. Northwestern Wildcats - I don't understand how you can hate on Northwestern. These poor fans have lost close games in about every way possible during the last three years. Worse yet, if even one of those games changes they probably make the tournament. Now they lose John Shurna, but Drew Crawford is more than capable of being this team's leading scorer. Alex Olah could be an impact freshman, and Dave Sobolewski had a great freshman season.
Unfortunately, I can see it as another season where Northwestern is good, but not good enough to win close games in an excellent conference. I predict at least five Big Ten losses by three points or less, including one where the game-winning layup on a breakaway is missed when Crawford trips over Ed Hightower.
8. Minnesota Golden Gophers - Consider this the dividing line between longshots and possible NCAA teams. The Gophers would have been an NCAA team in 2012 if not for Trevor Mbakwe's injury, and the best news they received is that he will return for 2012-13. They only lose Ralph Sampson III, but he was already lost in many games anyway. Rodney Williams paired with a healthy Mbakwe will make this a very dangerous team.
This team reached the NIT final and grew a lot during that postseason run. They can definitely get over the hump and make the NCAAs next year.
7. Iowa Hawkeyes - I really like Iowa going into next year, and with their late season Big Ten run they showed me enough to think they can reach the NCAAs. As long as they don't completely stink out the joint in the non-conference again this has the look of a .500 team in league play. The Hawkeyes get two four-star recruits (Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury), one being a 7' center (Woodbury). Roy Devyn marble is a solid guard, and Maelsahn Basabe's disappointing year could be a blip once paired with Woodbury.
Don't be surprised if Iowa wins 9-10 Big Ten games next season and is solidly in the NCAA field. I put them at No. 7 because I think the next six teams are better from a chemistry/talent standpoint, but Iowa is more than capable of an upper half finish.
6. Purdue Boilermakers - This is my safety pick because I need to see how our five freshmen fit into their new roles, and we will need at least two of them to have a major impact. Still, I think I don't think the goal of another 20 win season with 10 Big Ten wins and an NCAA berth is too optimistic. D.J. Byrd will be the senior leader, and it is entirely possible we'll be building a pretty special foundation for 2013-14 where Byrd is the only subtraction with three major additions.
Of course, if the 2012 freshmen want to have a Baby Boilers like impact (and the 2012-13 has more returning than the 2007-08 team did) I don't think any of you will mind.
5. Michigan Wolverines - The return of Trey Burke was huge, and this could be a scary good team with the addition of Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary. McGary is a beast that will be able to bang with anyone down low, and Jordan Morgan gives them two legitimate bigs.
Still, there are some concerns. This team lost two good senior leaders. They didn't exactly finish strong, either, as the loss to Purdue cost them an outright Big Ten title and the first round loss to Ohio wasn't encouraging. Something felt off about this team from the Purdue loss going forward. Will it be corrected?
4. Wisconsin Badgers - Yes, they lose Jordan Taylor and Rob Wilson (whom Indiana made immortal for a day), but all Bo Ryan does is coach teams to top 4 Big Ten finishes. They were within a possession of the Elite Eight even before 5-star recruit Sam Dekker came on board.
Say what you will about Wisconsin this past season, but they proved to be mortal in Madison for the first time under Ryan and still finished a game out of a share of first place.
3. Ohio St. Buckeyes - DeShaun Thomas and Aaron Craft give the Buckeyes possibly the best backcourt in the conference, but there are no recruits coming in at all. Jared Sullinger is taking his whining to the NBA (thank God), so thad Matta will have to dip into his bench for once. Amir Williams becomes the new post player after playing limited minutes this season. Lenzelle Smith Jr. provides guard depth, but this will be a thinner team than past OSU squads.
I would not be surprised to see OSU slide down in the league, but it is still a talented team that will be a factor in every game.
2. Michigan St. Spartans - As long as Brendan Dawson returns healthy and Gary Harris has an instant impact this will be a solid team. Keith Appling started to come on late, and Adreian Payne will have another year under his belt. Izzo is also one of the best coaches in the league, so he'll have this team ready to play. Brandon Wood, Austin Tornton, and, of course, Big Ten POTY Draymond Green are big losses.
The big concern is that there were games last year (at Illinois, at Indiana, vs. Louisville) where the Spartans simply did not show up. It just seemed odd to me.
1. Indiana Hoosiers - With Christian Watford and Cody Zeller coming back plus the addition of a legitimate game-changing point guard in Kevin Ferrell this team is legitimately scary-good. I do think it is a bit of a one-year window, however. IU fans are deluding themselves if they think Zeller stays after next season if the Hoosiers make the Final Four, and the only thing I see derailing this team would be any chemistry issues. With Ferrell having Watford, Victor Oladipo, Jordan Hulls, and even a healthy Maurice Creek to dish to, plus Zeller on the block, this team is frightening from a pure basketball standpoint.
If all Hanner Perea and Jeremy Hollowell do is block out, rebound, block shots, and dunk they will be an infinite upgrade over Tom Pritchard. Ferrell driving the line and kicking out to open three-point shooters on a team that shot 43% from long range terrifies me.
Honestly, Indiana is one of the few teams in the country that gets better with the players it lost. They're extremely deep. They didn't play a lick of defense most times last season, but Perea and Zeller can protect the rim, and offensively they have no excuse to not score 85 points per game. Who cares if you give up 80 per game as long as you score 85? I've seen Ferrell play twice this year in person and I have no doubt that he can enter the Big Ten and be an all-Big Ten point guard from day one. His play, with the shooters IU will have and the post presence down low, makes Indiana a frighteningly good team.
Indiana fans should be excited. This is a legitimate preseason top 5 team that should shoot for the 2013 National Title. Anything less should be considered a failure, honestly, especially with the turnover every year in college basketball and they fact that they return most of an already good team.
And yes, consider that the best possible reverse jinx I can put out there.