Brent Yarina, BTN.com Senior Editor, October 27, 2011
CHICAGO – Everyone at Big Ten Basketball Media Day on Thursday seemed to agree that two-time reigning conference champ and preseason No. 3 Ohio State is the 2011-12 Big Ten men's favorite. Everyone except Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor, that is. "I'd be lying to you if I didn't see us winning it," the star point guard said.
He might be right, but the conference's preseason rankings, released Thursday morning, had the Buckeyes listed as the Big Ten's top team, followed by Taylor's Badgers and Michigan State. The Big Ten only has the media vote on the top three finishers, in addition to a preseason All-Big Ten team and Player of the Year (Ohio State's Jared Sullinger).
"There's going to be stiff competition, a lot of good teams," Taylor said. "It's wide open. I don't think there's any team that is going to be an Ohio State the way they were last year, in terms of going undefeated for a long time."
The Buckeyes went 32-2 last season en route to winning their second consecutive Big Ten title, this one of the outright variety, and second Big Ten tourney crown in as many years. They lost veterans Jon Diebler, Dallas Lauderdale and David Lighty from last season's talented core, but they return the aforementioned Sullinger, who turned down the NBA, wing William Buford and talented sophomores Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas, to go along with another heralded Thad Matta recruiting class. The skill level is incredibly high, and that's why a lot of experts think it's Ohio State's conference to lose.
Craft, however, knows that a third straight Big Ten title won't be as easy as the experts make it seem.
"The best part about the Big Ten is every game there's the potential that you could lose," Craft said. "Every team is good, and you have to come ready to play every game."
That's especially true on the road, so it's not like the other 11 teams are going to pack it in and set their sights on second place – no matter how many times the media personalities anoint the Buckeyes favorites. There's simply too much talent and too many great coaches up and down the conference to think Ohio State has it in the bag. And that includes Illinois, Michigan and Purdue, teams that didn't make the conference's top 3 list.
Watch our interview with Taylor:
First-team honors: In addition to releasing the top three teams, the conference announced its 2011-12 Preseason All-Big Ten Team:
* — Denotes preseason player of the year.
No huge surprises here. One could say Hummel is a bit surprising, what with two season-ending knee injuries the last two years, but if he's 100 percent and can avoid another injury, it's hard to imagine his name won't be there when the season is over. The other four picks, you'd have to think, were almost unanimous.
Speaking of Hummel…: No matter who you talk to, coaches or players from rival teams, everyone likes and respects Purdue's oft-injured forward. Here's what Illinois' Bruce Weber had to say about Hummel's injury-plagued last two seasons: "A kid doesn't deserve that. He's an All-American player, but he's an All-American person." Hummel, as you can imagine, was a popular man throughout media day. He answered the same question regarding his knees and injury history over and over – so much so, it's easy to see why no one has a bad thing to say about him. You just hope he can avoid another mishap. Last year's preseason ACL injury was not an easy one for the team to handle. "It was tough, it was really tough, to see a guy like him go down again," teammate Ryne Smith said.
Making strides in Indiana: The Hoosiers, it appears, have their most talented team since D.J. White and Eric Gordon led the way in Bloomington. It isn't saying much, considering the massive struggles Indiana has had recently, but it's a step in the right direction. In Christian Watford, Verdell Jones, Jordan Hulls, Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey, Tom Crean has his best cast of characters since taking over the Hoosiers. Oh, and then there's the local kid, the highly recruited big man, Cody Zeller. Zeller faces an enormous amount of pressure this season, primarily because many Indiana fans view him as the savior. He's the hot topic in Bloomington, and if you spent any time around the Indiana players' table Thursday – which didn't include Zeller – you heard his name constantly in questions and answers.
Lighter and newer Sullinger: Sullinger wasn't in attendance Thursday due to a midterm exam, but he was a popular topic. The preseason player of the year has shed 20 pounds since last season ended and looks great, according to fellow sophomore Aaron Craft. Rumors have been swirling that the new body will make Sullinger and inside-outside threat and give him a face-to-the-basket game. Is it true? "He's able to get on the perimeter a little more now," Craft said. "We all understand a majority of Jared's game is still on the block, where it was last year. He's just able to spread it out a little more and make some outside shots." As if Big Ten big men needed more headaches when guarding Sullinger.
Lots of change at Michigan State: Other than Draymond Green, Michigan State will boast a lot of new faces. "I'm trying to think of who our second starter is," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "This is why I love football more than basketball, because if I taped something across their forehead in basketball, someone would probably sue me." It isn't that bad. Keith Appling is back, along with Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, but standout point guard Kalin Lucas and slasher Durrell Summers are gone and Delvon Roe had to quit due to all of his knee injuries.
A new year, a new outlook: A year ago, most had Michigan pegged for the bottom of the Big Ten. Following a surprising 9-9 Big Ten season and a narrow defeat to Duke in the NCAA tourney, the Wolverines are expected to compete in the Big Ten. While Michigan lost star point guard Darius Morris to the NBA, it has a team that's coming together and fits John Beilein's system. "We've got a group that's been through it already," Zack Novak said. "We've experienced some success and we have experienced some failure. For a group that's only played one year together, we have more experience than it shows." They also have talent, headlined by sophomore sensation Tim Hardaway Jr., who averaged 13.9 points per game as a freshman.
Hear Novak talk about the Wolverines here:
It's time to turn the page in Champaign: The Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale era is over, and depending on who you ask, that could be viewed as a positive. The Illini never seemed lived up to expectations during last year's senior class' tenure. Now, Bruce Weber will rely on a revamped and inexperienced roster, led by juniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. Who knows, it could turn out great. Paul thinks the Illini will be just fine. "We're going to surprise a lot of teams," he said.
Iowa has big goals: No Big Ten team returns more of its core than the Hawkeyes, who went 4-14 in Big Ten play last season. Aside from Jarryd Cole, Iowa returns every significant contributor, including its leading score (Matt Gatens), leading rebounder (Melsahn Basabe) and leading assist guy (Bryce Cartwright), and that's got the team thinking big. "It's time to get back (to the NCAA tournament), it's time to get Iowa back to that level," Gatens said. It's a lofty goal, but there's no doubt the Hawkeyes will be more talented and experienced in Fran McCaffery's second season. And on a positive note: Gatens and Cartwright both singled out Eric May as a player who's improved a lot in the offseason. May, if you remember, impressed as a freshman before struggling and losing his starting gig last year under McCaffery. An improved May would give the Hawkeyes another weapon and an elite athlete on both ends of the floor.
Fresh faces in State College: Gone is four-year starter and standout Talor Battle, not to mention Jeff Brooks, David Jackson and Andrew Jones, and head coach Ed DeChellis. When the Nittany Lions open things up next month, they're going to look a lot different than the team that made a surprising run to the NCAA tourney last season. It all starts with the man in charge, that being Pat Chambers. Chambers inherits an unproven roster, headlined by guard Tim Frazier, perhaps the lone member of the Nittany Lions that the casual Big Ten fan will know. "We're going to be a team that plays hard for 40 minutes or more, if needed," Frazier said. "We're going to take charges and do the little things." Frazier averaged 6.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game in a surprising sophomore campaign, and now he's one of only three upperclassmen on the team. "My role is to keep progressing," he said. " I need to be the leader of this team."
Welcome, Nebraska: Perhaps you've heard the Big Ten has 12 teams now? Nebraska debuts as a Big Ten hoops member next month, and it enters the season with a lot of unknowns. Brandon Ubel called the Big Ten a "bigger and more physical league" than the Big 12, the Huskers' previous home. But that's about all they know. The Huskers face a few significant disadvantages in Year 1 as Big Ten members, including making their first trips to rowdy Big Ten gyms and being unfamiliar with every opponent they face. As good of a coach as Doc Sadler is, Ubel and his teammates won't have the advantage of being familiar with their opponents and knowing how to game plan against their new foes. "It will be a little different, because until you play it, you don't know what to expect and don't know what will work and what won't work." The Huskers open Big Ten play Dec. 27 against Wisconsin.
Mbakwe's back: Not only did Trevor Mbakwe lead the Big Ten in rebounding last season, at 10.5 boards per game, he was the top rebounder for Team USA at the World University Games this summer. The chiseled Gopher forward is back for his second and final season in Minneapolis, and there's no telling how good he can be. "He's terrific, but we really want him to be a more complete player this year," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. "He's focused on having a really great year."
Now's the time for Northwestern: With John Shurna in his final season, this is Northwestern's best chance to finally put an end to that ugly streak of no NCAA tourney berths in program history. Shurna has the talent around him, including Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb and Alex Marcotullio, to make it happen. "Everybody's full of hope and energy," Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. Now, it's a matter of prolonging that hope and energy well into Big Ten play.
Best Dressed: Far from a fashion expert here, I was asked on Twitter who was the best dressed contingent at media day. My answer would be Michigan State's Draymond Green. Here's a look at what he was wearing. And staying in the state of Michigan, but on the women's side, you have to see Michigan head coach Kevin Borseth's suit coat lining. Check it out. That's absolutely awesome. Borseth said it was a gift from the University of Michigan Alumni Association when he was hired.
Random highlight: You mean, other than the fire alarm going off in the interview room and everyone simply ignoring it? Guess there was no fire, after all. Tom Izzo gave a select few of us a good laugh when he got up from his table and left for the day. As he stood up, his chair somehow flipped back and went to the ground, prompting him to joke, "Could you all get some chairs in Chicago that don't tip over?!" As only Izzo could, he stood the chair up, tucked it under the table and walked out of the room as if nothing happened.