While opinions differ about which will be the top conference this season, most people would agree that the Big Ten rivals any other, especially at the top of the league.
A couple of teams have legitimate Final Four aspirations, while a couple of others could surprise. Here is a short list of things to be curious about in the upcoming year.
1.Will Iowa win any conference games this year?
This is a legitimate question. Fran McCaffery has rebuilt before, most recently with Siena, who has made three consecutive NCAA appearances, advancing to the second round twice. But he is essentially starting from scratch in a tough, tough league and this will be his biggest challenge yet. One or two wins in the conference would be a start.
2. Is this the year that Northwestern makes the NCAA tournament?
The announcement that Kevin Coble would not be suiting up this year may deter some from predicting that they will. However, every significant contributor except for Jeremy Nash returns for the Wildcats, including Michael Thompson at the point and potential all-conference forward, John Shurna.
They played last year without Coble as well. If the Wildcats can establish some depth, they could hang with some of the top teams in the league and maybe, just maybe make their way to the Big Dance.
3. Can Michigan State stay healthy enough to make a title run?
The Spartans will open the season ranked in the top five, guaranteed, seeking a third consecutive trip to the Final Four and possibly beyond.
Already feeling the pain as several players are nursing minor injuries, MSU can ill-afford to lose Kalin Lucas or Delvon Roe for any extended periods of time. Both are coming off surgeries and while both have been given a clean bill of health, their respective histories suggest some doubt. Korie Lucious has been hobbled by a knee injury this season as well. State has some help up front this season with the addition of Adreian Payne but no one that can replace Lucas, long-term.
4. Can Purdue compete without Robbie Hummel?
Two serious injuries in two seasons to Hummel have effectively derailed Purdue's Final Four aspirations. Recent knee surgery was deemed successful (when isn't it?) and he was expected to be ready for the opening of the season.
But he won't be. In fact, he is out for the season after tearing the ACL in his right knee at practice today.
Purdue is a solid, well-coached team but unless someone jumps up in a big way, they won't compete for the league title this year.
5. Can Illinois take a run at the Big Ten title?
Why not? They return a veteran team led by Demetri McCamey, have some solid second-year players and a solid recruiting class.
They were inconsistent last year, which cost them a trip to the NCAA tournament. Without the lapses, the Fighting Illini will be vying for top spot in the league.
6. Will Indiana make a substantial move up in the standings?
Certainly this will be the best team that Tom Crean has had in his time here. Maurice Creek returns after missing half of last season and Verdell Jones is back as well.
Finding some post options, even something to keep the defense honest, is a key this season. The Hoosiers continue to improve from a competitive standpoint, but the top six in the league are all veteran teams. A move into the top six could be a stretch.
7. How will Wisconsin fare on the road?
Not even going to ask about home, where, during Bo Ryan's tenure, the Badgers don't lose.
On the road, it could be a different story. Wisconsin will need some scoring from sources other than Jon Leuer or Jordan Taylor. Ryan usually invents a way to get it, and likely will again this year, which will mean another March Madness berth. They could be in a battle with Minnesota and Northwestern, just outside of the top group.
8. How much of an impact will Jared Sullinger have with Ohio State?
Considering the lack of any interior game last season, it could be huge.
Losing Evan Turner obviously hurts but everyone else is back, including William Buford, Jon Diebler and David Lighty (who seems to have been there for ten years). With no disrespect to Dallas Lauderdale, who is a good defender, shot blocker and rebounder, the Buckeyes get an automatic upgrade in the post just with Sullinger's presence, and could be very, very tough by the end of the season.
9. Is John Beilein treading water at Michigan?
Maybe. But probably not yet.
Deshawn Sims is gone, which is going to hurt. Manny Harris is gone, which is going to hurt - to a degree. He and Beilein never quite saw eye-to-eye (diplomatically speaking) and while the distraction is gone, so is the production on the court.
After being picked to be a top-25 team to begin last season, the Wolverines were a disappointment. Things have to get better soon but this year's outlook is not great.
10. Who has the most to gain in the non-conference schedule?
Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern and now maybe even Purdue need to make the most of their non-conference games. These games could be critical come March, either for seeding purposes or simply to get the invite to the Dance. All of these teams should be in a good spot come March but could get some early insurance with some good early-season wins.
(Number four was originally, " Can Robbie Hummel stay healthy for the full season?". I didn't get finished with this before I had the answer.)
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