With Connecticut’s 53-41 victory over Butler on Monday night, the 2010-11 basketball season is officially complete. Much to my disgust, the Big East won the national crown after I bashed the conference for being highly overrated all season. It looked smart early on in the tournament, as the Big East seemingly suffered an upset or more every day. OK, enough Big East talk. Here are my 12 things to watch in the Big Ten during the 2011-12 season:
1. Welcome, Nebraska – A 12-team conference for the first time, the Big Ten will forever have a different look and schedule with the arrival of Nebraska. Nebraska is a football school, first and foremost, so its arrival in basketball won’t have quite the impact it will on the gridiron. The Huskers, who knocked off three ranked foes this past season, including then-No. 3 Texas, are better than the casual fan realize. That said, the Huskers graduated Lance Jeter, their leading scorer, and it’s never an easy task playing in Big Ten venues, especially for the first time.
2. Robbie Hummel’s return – Sidekicks JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore are gone, but the final member of Purdue’s talented Big 3 is back for one last season. The reason: Injuries, of course. Hummel has had two knee surgeries in the past 14 months, and it will be interesting to see what kind of player he is following the two procedures, let alone if he can finally avoid the injury bug. Regardless, Hummel should be the easiest player to root for, Purdue fan or not.
3. Sullinger and crew back for another run – Ohio State dominated this past season en route to earning the NCAA tournament’s top overall seed. The Buckeyes went 34-2, with their lone losses coming on the road at Wisconsin and Purdue, before Kentucky shocked them in the Sweet 16. Freshman of Year Jared Sullinger and talented wing William Buford say they will return to Columbus for another season and Sixth Man of the Year Aaron Craft also is back, so that, plus another solid recruiting class, is enough to make the Buckeyes the favorite to win a third straight Big Ten crown.
4. Michigan’s ascent to a Big Ten contender – Other than Ohio State, no Big Ten team played better than Michigan down the stretch. The Wolverines started 1-6 in Big Ten play, if you remember, before reeling off eight of their final 11 conference contests. The Wolverines are expected to return every player, although Darius Morris is rumored to be testing the NBA waters. Morris is the most important Michigan player, however talented Tim Hardaway Jr., improving big man Jordan Morgan and tough-as-heck veteran Zack Novak give the Wolverines a solid nucleus, no matter what Morris decides.
5. The Kalin Lucas-less Spartans – For the past four seasons, Kalin Lucas has been Tom Izzos’ floor general. The 2008-09 Big Ten Player of the Year battled injury throughout his tenure in East Lansing, but he was the unquestioned face of the Spartans in his final three seasons. It’s going to be weird to watch the Spartans and not see No. 1 on the floor, that’s for sure. How much different will the Spartans look without Lucas, though? That will be up to Keith Appling, who has the skills to be a terrific player. If he makes the improvements many expect he will, Michigan State could surprise next year – a lot like it did in the 2010 tourney after Lucas tore his Achilles.
6. Which Badger will step up this year? – Every season, Bo Ryan loses a star player and manages to find someone or a group of players to pick up the slack. This time, Ryan and the Badgers will have to replace Jon Leuer, the inside-outside threat who finished his career as a first-team Big Ten player. It won’t be easy, of course, but it’s impossible not to believe in Ryan’s track record. This past year, Jordan Taylor went from a solid backup point guard to a first-teamer to help account for the loss of Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon. Next year, look for Josh Gasser to make a similar leap.
7. Cody Zeller’s impact in Bloomington – College basketball, let alone Big Ten basketball, is a far better product when Indiana is good. It’s no secret the Hoosiers have struggled recently, compiling an 8-46 Big Ten clip the past three seasons, but they have more talent than the recent record indicates. Throw in Cody Zeller, the McDonald’s All-American out of the Hoosier State, and now Tom Crean has a legit big guy to go along with his wing players. Zeller won’t be able to do it himself, especially as a freshman, but his signing is nothing but a great sign for the future of Indiana hoops.
8. The annual Northwestern question – It’s becoming the question Northwestern faces every year, and it will reamin the question until it does something about it: Will the Wildcats make their first NCAA tourney next year? This past season was supposed to be the year, considering the talent Northwestern returned and the expanded field. It didn’t happen. There’s always next year, right? While the Wildcats lose all-important point guard Juice Thompson, they do return John Shurna, Drew Crawford, Alex Marcotullio and JerShon Cobb, among others. If Shurna can stay healthy, this annual question should be one we ask much of next season.
9. What to make of Illinois?– As good as Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale were, the trio didn’t live up to expectations. During their four years, Illinois won one NCAA tournament game and made the tourney twice. Illinois fans expected much more. A lot like Michigan a year ago, the Illini enter next season with a lot of question marks. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Wolverines, after all, did just fine with a pair of juniors leading the way — exactly what Illinois will have in Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson — and a bunch of unproven young talent. Meyers Leonard has the skills to help Illinois surprise, but Jereme Richmond’s decision to turn pro hurts the talent pool.
10. Iowa is done flirting with the Big Ten’s basement – Fran McCaffery runs a system players like, he has a year under his belt in Iowa City, and he returns his share of talent. Yes, things are starting to look up for Iowa basketball fans. In Bryce Cartwright and Melsahn Basabe, the Hawkeyes figure to boast one of the Big Ten’s better inside-oustide duos. And in Matt Gatens, who seems like he’s been around forever, the Hawkeyes feature one of the deadliest 3-point shooters. Iowa is still a very young, inexperienced team that will encounter its share of inconsistencies, but the pieces are there for a turnaround season.
11. Penn State sans Talor Battle – When anyone thinks Penn State basketball these days, Talor Battle is the first thing that comes to mind. Battle had an incredible career, one that goes down as one of the two greatest in school history. He’s gone now, as are Jeff Brooks, David Jackson and Andrew Jones. So where will Ed DeChellis turn? The options are thin, razor thin. The Nittany Lions were all about their seniors this past year, particularly Battle, to the point where their non-senior leading scorer was Tim Frazier (6.3). After him, it was Jermaine Marshall, at 2.5. One thing’s for sure: No Big Ten team will have fewer proven weapons or less depth than the Nittany Lions in 2011-12.
12. Tubby Smith turns to his big men – Whether Trevor Mbakwe stays or leaves, Tubby Smith needs his other big guys, Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson, who has been rumored to transfer, to take that proverbial next step. The Gophers don’t figure to have the scoring power to outscore opponents — not after Blake Hoffarber’s graduation and Devoe Joseph’s transfer early this past season — so it will have to win games with its defense. Sampson and Iverson have the length to make life terrible on foes, and now it’s time to see that on a nightly basis.