Tom Dienhart answers your latest Big Ten questions

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Dienhart answers your latest Big Ten questions

You have questions, and I have answers … some of the time.

Here is the latest edition of my Big Ten Mailbag. As usual, the mailbag is 100 percent guaranteed.

What team will be the favorite next season in Big Ten hoops? – Matt

We still need to find out which players who have declared for the draft will stay in the draft. But knowing what we know, I think next year’s race should come down to three schools: Michigan State, Wisconsin and Indiana. The Spartans lose Denzel Valentine, Matt Costello, Deyonta Davis and Bryn Forbes, among others, but Tom Izzo will welcome his best recruiting class ever to go along with holdovers like Tum Tum Nairn, Gavin Schilling and Eron Harris. Indiana got a big boost when Thomas Bryant said he was returning for his sophomore year. And James Blackmon will be back from injury for an IU squad that also will have OG Anunoby, Robert Johnson and Pitt transfer Josh Newkirk as top options. Troy Williams is testing the NBA waters but could return. The key: replacing star senior point man Yogi Ferrell. Wisconsin returns every key player from last year’s Sweet 16 squad, featuring Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, Jordan Hill, Ethan Happ, Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter, among others.

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What have Ohio State and Michigan State done that would make you think they could be better and beat Michigan next season? – Eddie

At this point, the Buckeyes and Spartans get the benefit of the doubt. They are the bellwethers of the conference. MSU has won 11 or more games in five of the last six seasons, winning the Rose and Cotton Bowls in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and advancing to the playoffs last season. Ohio State has gone 50-4 overall since Urban Meyer took over in 2012, winning the national title in 2014. These programs have lots of talent and momentum, and are well-coached. No doubt, Michigan is gaining steam under Jim Harbaugh—but I’m not sure the depth of talent is on hand to surpass Ohio State and Michigan State this season. But maybe soon. Plus, the Wolverines have to play at OSU and at MSU this season.

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Where do you think Nebraska will finish in the West? – Austin Behrendsen

This will be a motivated group coming off an often-challenging 6-7 debut for Mike Riley that featured myriad close losses. The Huskers opened 3-6 with gut-punch defeats to BYU, Miami (Fla.), Illinois, Wisconsin and Purdue, which was the nadir. But Nebraska salvaged the season by winning three of its last four games. A veteran roster is back led by QB Tommy Armstrong. But the trench play on both sides needs to improve. Having said that, I think the Huskers could win the West. If not Nebraska, Iowa should take the division. I don’t see Nebraska finishing lower than third in the division.

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Although the national media believes Purdue’s Darrell Hazell is under pressure, do you? – Brad

Well, Hazell is entering his fourth season in West Lafayette. And, there is no sugar-coating it: Things have not gone well. Hazell is 6-30 overall and 2-22 in the Big Ten. The program has made no progress since Hazell arrived from Kent State to replace Danny Hope. Adding urgency for Hazell is the fact A.D. Morgan Burke is primed to step down, as the process to hire a replacement has begun. Credit Hazell for trying to enact change, firing both coordinators. Will it work? It better. Hazell needs to produce tangible results in 2016.

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Does Indiana have a shot to get back to a bowl game? – Rob H.

Yes. Kevin Wilson has done a good job with this program, building momentum and augmenting the roster. He finally enjoyed a breakthrough last year by earning the Hoosiers’ first bowl trip since the 2007 season. The offense continues to hum along but must answer questions at quarterback and running back. But the biggest issue remains a defense that can’t seem to gain traction. To that end, Wilson brought in coordinator Tom Allen from South Florida to try to remedy this perpetually ailing unit that last season ranked last overall (509.5 ypg) and last in scoring (37.6 ppg) in the Big Ten. Allen is the third DC under Wilson.

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Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

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, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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