Big Ten's most important players

July, 20, 2012
7/20/12
3:03
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Editor's note: ESPN.com’s Summer Shootaround series catches up on the offseason story lines for each conference. For more on the Big Ten, click here.

The most important player for each team in the conference ...

Illinois: Brandon Paul

Illinois' collapse led to Bruce Weber's dismissal. But new coach John Groce hopes to start fresh with an Illinois squad that will rely on Paul in the coming season. He's a skillful guard whose abilities were often masked by his inconsistency. The same player who dropped 43 points during an upset win over No. 5 Ohio State on Jan. 10 went 1-for-7 and scored two points in a road loss to Nebraska a month later. The Big Ten is packed with nationally ranked teams. The second tier of the league will be tough, too. Any chance that Illinois has to avoid a bottom-of-the-conference finish will be attached to Paul's performance each night.

[+] EnlargeCody Zeller
Richard Mackson/US PresswireCody Zeller and the Hoosiers are the early favorites in the talent-rich Big Ten.
Indiana: Cody Zeller

The National Player of the Year contender could lead IU to its first national championship since 1987. Tom Crean signed one of the top recruiting classes in the country. Christian Watford expanded his game and returns for his senior campaign. With Zeller inside, the Hoosiers could reach the final stages of the NCAA tournament. As good as he was during his freshman season, Zeller remained in the post. But Crean says he'll draw the elite big man out of the paint in many scenarios next season. The new wrinkles will make this guy an even bigger problem for the rest of the Big Ten.

Iowa: Aaron White

White averaged 11.1 ppg and 5.7 rpg as a freshman and was ninth in Ken Pomeroy's offensive ratings of players who accounted for at least 20 percent of their team's possessions. The 6-foot-8 forward's promising start was anchored by his performance in the NIT. He scored 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in a first-round victory over Dayton. He recorded 22 points and eight boards in a loss to Oregon in the second. Fran McCaffery is bringing in a stellar recruiting class, as Adam Woodbury and Mike Gesell will contribute right away. But White could emerge as the team's anchor.

Michigan: Trey Burke

Burke is one of the most dynamic players in the country, and his energy was contagious last season. Michigan didn't have much size. The Wolverines weren't that deep. But they still managed to earn a share of the conference title. This season, they'll add nationally ranked recruits Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary. Balancing that team will be one of Burke's responsibilities. With Robinson in the mix, Burke won't have to carry as much of the scoring load. So he should feel more comfortable distributing. His poise and leadership will be the most significant components in Michigan's push for another Big Ten title.

Michigan State: Branden Dawson

During the NCAA tournament, coach Tom Izzo worried about Dawson's absence. Before Dawson suffered a torn ACL in the regular-season finale he was the Spartans' most ambidextrous defender and a strong rebounder. The 6-6 forward, who was a McDonald's All-American in high school, might return at some point this season. If he's healthy, he'll matter. The Spartans have a strong recruiting class. Plus, Keith Appling and Derrick Nix are back. But Dawson is a key player on the roster right now, too. His health will affect the entire 2012-13 season for MSU. Robbie Hummel proved that a player coming off an ACL injury could still play at a high level. Dawson could have a similar experience this season.

Minnesota: Trevor Mbakwe

In his only full season in the Big Ten (2010-11), Mbakwe led the league in rebounding. He considered the NBA after averaging a double-double (13.9 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 1.3 bpg) that year but ultimately returned. He looked like a pro prospect this past season until he suffered an ACL tear in the seventh game. The Gophers are counting on Mbakwe to make the most of his sixth year of eligibility. In limited action last season, he averaged 14.0 ppg, 9.1 rpg and 1.7 bpg. If he gets back on track, he'll be in the mix for Big Ten Player of the Year.

Nebraska: Dylan Talley

The Cornhuskers fired Doc Sadler in March following a 12-18 (4-14 Big Ten) season. Tim Miles will need time to rebuild (build?) a program that was one of the worst in the Big Six, and the Huskers lost their top two scorers, Bo Spencer and Toney McCray. Jorge Brian Diaz, a 6-11 center who averaged 8.6 ppg in limited action, left school in April. So it's up to Talley (8.9 ppg), a 6-5 shooting guard, to become a go-to player for Miles. He had his moments this past season. With Spencer and McCray gone, however, Nebraska can't afford many off nights from Talley this season.

Northwestern: Drew Crawford

So close. Again. But the Wildcats failed to put together a resume to warrant their first NCAA tournament bid. A loss to Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten tournament sealed their fate. Earning bid No. 1 will be even more difficult without John Shurna. But Crawford (16.1 ppg) returns for his senior season and is the biggest factor in Northwestern's bid to remain relevant in a tough Big Ten. Shurna carried the program. This season, however, Crawford has to embrace that role. And that means he has to be comfortable as the No. 1 guy.

Ohio State: Deshaun Thomas

Thomas can score (15.5 ppg), but what about the rest of his game? We know the 6-7 forward is a versatile attacker. And as the new focus of Ohio State's offense following the departure of Jared Sullinger, coach Thad Matta can stretch his offense. But Thomas has yet to prove he's an all-around threat on both ends of the floor. He'll get buckets for the Buckeyes, but they need him to play strong defense, too. They need him to rebound. They need him to affect the game in more ways this season.

Penn State: Tim Frazier

The Nittany Lions struggled this past season, tying Nebraska for last place. Lost in their woes, though, was Frazier's ridiculous stat line. He averaged 18.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 2.4 steals per game. Penn State only won four Big Ten games. Without Frazier, it might not have won any. He was that vital. Not much will change this season for the point guard who earned All-Big Ten first-team honors from the media.

Purdue: Ronnie Johnson

Johnson was ranked No. 93 in the ESPN 100 for the 2012 class. No grace period for this freshman. Right now, he's probably the starting point guard for a Boilermakers program that was guided by Lewis Jackson for four years. Coach Matt Painter also moves on without star forward Robbie Hummel. Plus, Kelsey Barlow was dismissed in February following an incident at a bar. Painter needs his highly rated recruits to make their marks early. Johnson isn't just the most important player within that group, he's the most significant player on the roster because he has to play starting point guard in a competitive league his freshman year.

Wisconsin: Jared Berggren

Berggren was No. 2 in the Big Ten in blocks and was fourth in block percentage this past season, per Pomeroy. The 6-10 center played a complementary role with All-American point guard Jordan Taylor running the show, but with Taylor gone the Badgers will need more from Berggren. Coach Bo Ryan wants Berggren to get stronger this offseason, an enhancement that should help him top last season's 5.0 rpg. In the team's one-point loss to Syracuse in the Sweet 16, Berggren offered a glimpse of his potential with a 17-point game and a 3-for-3 clip from the 3-point line. It was the kind of performance that raised expectations for this season.

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