The Big Ten was an extremely competitive conference last year. Though Indiana and Iowa often struggled, every other team was in the mix for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
The league should be very similar this year. Most of the Big Ten's key players return in what should be a hotly contested conference once again.
There are two definitive favorites, but every other spot is up for grabs.
1) Michigan State
Why they could win the league : The Spartans return nearly every key player from their Final Four appearance last season. They have one of the best backcourts in the country, led by junior point guard Kalin Lucas, as well as an extremely talented forward, senior Raymar Morgan.
What could stop them: Goran Suton was a big part of their success last year. Now that he has graduated, Michigan State is far less proven inside than they were in 2008-2009. They also don't appear to have a dependable bench at this point in time.
X-Factor: Delvon Roe was solid in limited minutes last season, but he will have to play a much bigger role this season. The sophomore was considered one of the top recruits in the country before he had micro-fracture surgery late in his senior season. By most accounts, he was not fully recovered last year.
If he is healthy and has a breakout season, their outlook improves considerably.
Bottom line: The Spartans are the consensus favorite to win the league and are a threat to return to the Final Four if they reach their potential.
Why they could win the league: The big three from Purdue's Sweet 16 team is back. That alone makes them one of the favorites to win the league. Center JaJuan Johnson, forward Robbie Hummel and guard E'Twaun Moore are all candidates for the All-Big Ten first team.
What could stop them: Outside of their three stars, you never knew exactly what you were going to get from the Boilermakers, which hurt their consistency.
While they were capable of blowing out Michigan State and Ohio State, they also nearly dropped both games against Northwestern, lost at Penn State, and lost both regular season games against Illinois.
Purdue needs its role players to step up and have a good season. Johnson, Moore, and Hummel to staying healthy wouldn't hurt, either.
X-factor: Purdue needs Keaton Grant to have a good year. After a solid sophomore campaign where he averaged 11.2 points per game and hit 44 percent of his three pointers, Grant was inconsistent last year, averaging only 7.9 points and shooting a dreadful 36 percent from the floor.
If Grant gets back on track, they should win the league.
Bottom line: The Boilermakers should have a strong season and have a good chance to return to the Sweet 16. If one of their role players emerges, they could have a big year.
The Other Tournament Teams
Why they could win the league: Minnesota is the deepest team in the league. Eleven players averaged at least 10 minutes per game last year, and most of them are back. They were also one of the strongest defensive teams in the league.
Why they probably won't: The Golden Gophers were not a good offensive team last year. They averaged a respectable 66.3 points per game last year, but they shot only 32.7 percent from behind the arc and turned the ball over 14.5 times per game.
This had a big effect on their record, especially in light of their defensive abilities. They only lost once when they scored 65 points, but were 5-10 in games where they failed to reach that mark.
X-Factor: The Gophers landed a big time recruit in Royce White. The 6-foot-7 forward could inject some life into their offense and give them a much needed dependable scorer. Though admittedly their rotations were a factor, it is not a good sign that only two Gophers averaged as many as seven points per game last year.
Bottom Line: Minnesota has a deep team with great size up front that can shut down anyone defensively. However, unless they can improve their offensive efficiency, they will have a hard time joining the elite teams in the country.
4) Ohio State
Why they could win the league : Evan Turner is the best player in the conference. He is a matchup nightmare because of his length and ability to score inside and out.
They also have three solid guards with David Lighty returning from injury and Jon Diebler and William Buford still on the roster.
Why they probably won't: B.J. Mullens left for the pros, which leaves the Buckeyes very thin up front. Dallas Lauderdale is the only returning big man with significant game experience, and he's not really a threat offensively.
X-Factor: David Lighty has to be healthy and productive for them to succeed. Because they are so thin inside, their perimeter attack has to be dominant. Lighty also appears to be the guard most capable of holding his own inside against opposing big men.
Bottom line: Ohio State is a tournament team, but they will likely struggle against teams with good size up front that can pound the glass. They could also be prone to scoring droughts and off-nights given their reliance on perimeter scoring.
Why they could win the league : The Illini play tough defense and return a solid trio of players in guard Demetri McCamey, forward Mike Davis, and center Mike Tisdale. They also add two solid guard recruits to replace departed sniper Trent Meacham and Chester Frazier.
Why they probably won't : Their guard play was often atrocious last year and it will have to improve. The Illini were an extremely inconsistent team, scoring two victories over Purdue, as well as beating Missouri and Minnesota. However, they also failed to crack 40 points in their other matchup with Minnesota and lost arguably the ugliest game of the year, 38-33 against Penn State.
X-Factor: Freshmen Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson will determine how far this team goes. Both of them are far more talented than the duo of Meacham and Frazier from last year, but neither is a true point guard. You could throw McCamey into this category as well, as he looked like a star at times but disappeared at others.
Bottom Line: Illinois will go as far as their backcourt will take them. Tisdale and Davis form a solid frontcourt and complement each other well, but their guards have to take care of the ball and make some shots from outside.
Why they could win the league: Everything starts with Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims. Both are star-caliber players that could make the All-Big Ten First Team. They make up the strongest inside-out duo in the conference.
Why they almost certainly won't: Michigan doesn't have nearly enough help for their two stars to be a conference title contender. No other Wolverine averaged even seven points per game last year, and every other regular that played at least 17 minutes per game shot under 40 percent from the floor.
X-Factor: Pick a role player, any role player. If someone besides Harris and Sims can step up and be a consistently solid contributor, the Wolverines will be in much better shape. The top candidates are probably Laval Lucas-Perry, a mid-season transfer last year, and incoming freshman guard Darius Morris.
Bottom Line: Michigan will probably win enough games to make the tournament, but they likely won't be a major player unless their two stars get significant help.
Other Teams Fighting For a Tournament Bid
Why they could make the Big Dance: The Cats were highly competitive last year, finishing 17-14 and 8-10 in conference. They even had road wins against Michigan State and Purdue, something virtually unheard of for NU.
Star forward Kevin Coble is back and so is point guard Michael Thompson. NU has also greatly improved their size and talent level over the last few seasons, which could give them enough support to finally break through.
Why they could fall short: I could just write "they're Northwestern" and move on, but I won't.
NU has historically struggled to defend opposing post players and rebound, as well as find support for their occasional star players.
This year might not be any different. While they do have two legitimate centers in Kyle Rowley, Luka Mirkovic and several forwards at 6-foot-8, we're still not exactly talking about All-Conference caliber players up front.
They could also struggle to replace the marksmanship of departed shooting guard Craig Moore. Moore bailed them out regularly with deep three pointers last year. While they have players that can shoot, none are as dangerous as Moore was.
They need someone to step up and complement Coble and Thompson to be successful.
X-Factor: Sophomore John Shurna is the key to NU's season. He played only 18 minutes per game last year, but will be expected to be one of the Cats' key players this year. At 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds with good athleticism, he could give NU a versatile playmaker at both ends of the floor.
Bottom Line: Northwestern is bigger and more athletic than usual, but they still have to show that improvement on the floor. Some of their talented younger players will have to make a difference if NU wants to avoid another March at home.
Why they could make the Big Dance: Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon return in the backcourt. John Leuer returns up front. That gives them the bulk of the core from their NCAA tournament team last year.
Why they could fall short: They also lost Marcus Landry, who was their leading and most efficient scorer. Hughes and Bohannon both shot well below 40 percent from the floor on the year, so they need some high-efficiency players to balance that.
The Badgers will have to get contributions from some new players to make it back to the tournament.
X-Factor: Keaton Nankivil is one of their few returning role players with playing experience. The junior forward has good size and some scoring ability. If he can successfully take on a bigger role, the team will get a big boost.
Bottom Line: Wisconsin has to replace their best player, but it wouldn't be the first time they did that successfully. The Badgers will have to keep the revolving door of productive under-the-radar players moving to have a good year.
9) Penn State
Why they could make the Big Dance: Taylor Battle is one of the best players in the conference. The junior guard averaged 16.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, and five assists last season.
Why they will probably fall short: Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, the rest of the roster doesn't look nearly as strong. They lost Jamelle Cornley and Stanley Pringle, who were the only other two players on the team to average over seven points per game.
X-Factor: Big man Andrew Jones is their second returning scorer. He averaged six points and six rebounds last year while shooting almost 58 percent from the field. If the junior can increase his production, the Nittany Lions will be more respectable.
Bottom Line: Battle is an excellent player, but there just isn't enough talent on the roster to make the tournament.
Why they could make the Big Dance: Indiana brings in one of the top recruiting classes in the country as well as Georgetown transfer Jeremiah Rivers. They also return most of their key players from last year's team.
Why they will probably fall short: Is that really a good thing? The Hoosiers won only six games last year, averaging barely 60 points per game and committing over 17 turnovers.
While their talent level has definitely increased, they still have ball-handling issues and don't have many options inside besides sophomore Tom Pritchard.
X-Factor: Freshmen Maurice Creek and Christian Watford will play a big role in any improvement for the Hoosiers. If they can step in and perform right away, it will take pressure off of their other players.
Bottom Line: Indiana will be a better team than they had last year, but they would still have to improve considerably to get back on track as a program.
Why they could make the Big Dance: Sharp-shooters Matt Gatens and Anthony Tucker return from last year's team. They are both deadly outside shooters.
Why they will probably fall short: Those are the only two solid contributors returning from last year's team, and Tucker was ineligible for the second half of last season.
Considering they barely scored 60 points per game last year and only went 5-13 in conference, that's not a good sign. They're very young inside and lost Jeff Peterson, their best ball-handler. If Jake Kelly had returned they would have had a solid backcourt, but he transferred to Indiana State for personal reasons.
X-Factor: Jarryd Cole is their most experienced returning big man. They will need him to have a productive year up front.
Bottom Line: Iowa had a rough season last year and it doesn't look like things will get any better. They simply lost too many players from an already struggling team.
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