Dienhart: Who will be the Big Ten favorite?

Ohio State’s announcement today that Deshaun Thomas was turning pro after his junior season was about as surprising and anticlimactic as the conclusion to a Roadrunner-Coyote cartoon. We all knew what was coming. So, when the Buckeyes’ season ended with a surprising Elite Eight loss to Wichita State last Saturday, it seemed almost a certainty that we had just watched Thomas play his final game in scarlet and gray following a glorious three-season run.

Thomas had done about all he could at Ohio State. He went to a Final Four, he won a Big Ten regular-season title, he won a Big Ten tourney title, he was first-team All-Big Ten. And Thomas looked dominating in doing all of it, leading the Big Ten in scoring this past season with a 19.8-point average and often being the best player on the court each time he stepped onto the hardwood.

But, if you believe most NBA draft analysts, Thomas projects as a likely second-round choice. If he’s selected at all.

No doubt, the 6-7, 225-pound Fort Wayne, Ind., native is a terrific shooter who has a big-time mentality and a scorer’s mind-set. But he may lack the quickness and athletic ability to keep pace with the elite NBA specimens. And Thomas is an iffy defender—at best. Add it all up, and Thomas looks like a fringe NBA player who may end up playing in Europe.

Time will tell. This much is certain: Ohio State and the Big Ten will miss Thomas.

Yes, the Buckeyes—who also lose senior Evan Ravenel in addition to Thomas–will welcome back players like Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross, Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, Lenzelle Smith, Jr., and Amir Williams, among others. And Ohio’s Mr. Basketball (Marc Loving) is coming aboard. But Thomas was a franchise-type player who wasn’t afraid of the big shot or the big moment. He was the star of stars for an Ohio State team that won the Big Ten tourney and earned a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance this season. And players of that ilk are difficult to replace.

Thomas is the first Big Ten player to declare for the draft. But others are almost sure to follow, as speculation swirls the most around Michigan’s Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr.; Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo; Michigan State’s Adreian Payne. Of that aforementioned group, the players most likely to leave are Burke and Oladipo. If any or all of them bolt early, it will have a profound impact on the shape and state of the Big Ten race in 2013-14 following what was one of the best seasons in conference history.

Look at the scoring leaders from the past season here:

Rank Player Team GP FG% 3P% FT% RPG APG PPG SPG
1 D. Thomas Ohio State 37 .445 .344 .834 5.9 1.3 19.8 0.5
2 T. Burke Michigan 37 .464 .381 .808 3.1 6.8 18.8 1.6
3 B. Paul Illinois 36 .401 .325 .738 4.4 2.7 16.6 1.2
4 C. Zeller Indiana 36 .562 .000 .757 8.1 1.3 16.5 1.0
5 D. Newbill Penn State 31 .405 .267 .684 5.0 4.0 16.3 1.2
6 J. Marshall Penn State 31 .391 .339 .759 4.6 2.6 15.3 1.5
7 R. Marble Iowa 37 .409 .327 .810 4.0 3.0 15.0 1.1
8 T. Hardaway Jr. Michigan 36 .445 .387 .695 4.6 2.3 14.6 0.7
9 A. Hollins Minnesota 34 .416 .418 .806 3.7 3.4 14.6 1.1
10 D. Talley Nebraska 33 .372 .342 .741 4.8 2.5 13.7 0.9

So who will be the favorite next season?

Even without Thomas, the Buckeyes will be right up there, with Ross looking primed to assume Thomas’ role as resident stud.

Iowa will welcome back every key player but one (Eric May) from a squad that just made a run to the NIT title game. Roy Devyn Marble, Aaron White and Mike Gesell will be nice building blocks. And Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff becomes eligible.

Wisconsin will miss Mike Bruesewitz, Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans but will still have top talent in Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky, Ben Brust, Traevon Jackson. And Josh Gasser will be back from injury.

Michigan can build around Mitch McGary, Jordan Morgan, Jon Horford, Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III, along with incoming signee Zak Irvin, an Indiana Mr. Basketball.

Michigan State—which gives big good-bye to senior Derrick Nix–will have some formidable talent in Keith Appling, Branden Dawson, Matt Costello, Gary Harris, Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice.

Indiana loses seniors Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford but will welcome back Will Sheehey, Jeremy Hollowell, Hanner Perea, Yogi Ferrell and a star-studded recruiting class led by Noah Vonleh.

So, while the losses look likely to be significant for the Big Ten, the potential still remains for big things next season.

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About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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J.C. on 4/5/2013 @ 5:40pm EST Said:

I think Ohio State without Deshaun Thomas may result in a lot more ball movement and less isolation. But the one issue that plague the Buckeyes is probably still an issue: Outside shooting.

The development of Amir Williams or Trey McDonald is very important, as is finding a consistent outside shooter.