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Monday, August 30, 2010
Best Case/Worst Case: Big Ten

By Eamonn Brennan

The ESPN.com summer previewing tour continues again this week with Summer Shootaround, our exhaustive August look at key college hoops conferences. In addition to helping out with the Shootarounds -- check out today's Big Ten preview here -- yours truly will be adding some related commentary on the blog. Today: a best-case/worst-case look at the Big Ten.

ILLINOIS

Best case: In today's Big Ten Shootaround, ESPN's Doug Gottlieb predicted Illinois would win the Big Ten in 2010-11. That's a bold prediction -- certainly Michigan State and Purdue fans will have something to say about it -- but it is within the realm of possibility. The Illini will have to get a more complete performance from senior guard Demetri McCamey. McCamey has always been able to score. This season, he needs to defend. He also needs to incorporate Illinois' veteran core -- forwards Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale -- with Illinois' talented freshmen (including Illinois Mr. Basketball Jereme Richmond) and sophomores (former Mr. Basketball Brandon Paul, guard D.J. Richardson) if the Illini want to have any chance of making Gottlieb's prediction look prescient.

Worst case: Make no mistake about it: Illinois does have talent. But with the exception of the newcomer Richmond, this is the same team that saw its defensive efficiency plummet in 2009-10, that lost a number of games to inferior opponents, and that limped to an NIT finish despite wins against Michigan State and at Wisconsin in back-to-back February performances. In other words: There are no guarantees of success here. Could Illinois win the Big Ten? Maybe. Just as likely, though, the 2010-11 Illini finish fifth in the conference -- maybe worse -- on the way to an NCAA tournament bid, but an otherwise unremarkable season. Anything is on the table.

INDIANA

Best case: The Hoosiers are still rebuilding. That's not going to change this season. What could change is the seriousness with which Tom Crean's team stages that rebuild. Crean's top 15-ranked 2009 recruiting class returns as sophomores in 2010-11, with the key return of guard Maurice Creek from a knee injury that ended his season after some brilliant early performances. Promising forward Christian Watford showed great scoring technique in 2009-10, and should benefit from a year of college-level weight training. Verdell Jones III provides solid outside scoring, forward Tom Pritchard crashes the offensive glass, Jordan Hulls and Matt Roth hit outside shots, and senior guard Jeremiah Rivers is one of the better defenders (and perhaps one of the worst offensive players) in the country. Indiana is still a couple years from being fully back, but if the Hoosiers can collectively make an impressive frosh-to-soph improvement, those years should be slightly less depressing for an Indiana fan base desperate for competitive basketball.

Worst case: Even so, a .500 season is probably too much to ask. This is still a very young team, and Crean didn't land much help in what turned out to be a rather disappointing 2010 recruiting class. (2011, for what it's worth, is looking much better.) In other words, this is the same team that went 10-21 with a 4-14 mark in the Big Ten in 2009-10. The Hoosiers should improve, but that improvement will be less revelatory than marginal. And the worst case is not improving at all.

IOWA

Best case: New coach Fran McCaffery has promised to implement an up-tempo, attacking style of play this season. That should be a welcome relief for Iowa fans, who quickly and totally lost interest in Todd Lickliter's slow, boring, and ultimately ineffective brand of play. But with so little talent on this team -- Lickliter lost 10 players during his tenure for varying reasons, and forward Brennan Cougill was declared academically ineligible this summer -- it won't matter how fast McCaffery plays. Iowa will lose, lose often, and lose by a lot. Hawks fans will have to be happy with a more aesthetically pleasing style and a revamped Carver Hawkeye Arena; that's this program's immediate best-case scenario.

Worst case: Of course, no one wants to lose all the time, no matter how enjoyably up-tempo their team is playing. But it's not inconceivable that this Iowa team -- led by junior guard Matt Gatens and basically nobody else -- could find itself struggling to avoid a winless Big Ten season.

MICHIGAN

Best case: After losing his two key players from a disappointing 15-17 season, Michigan coach John Beilein finds himself in a bit of a quandary. It's Beilein's fourth year at the program. At this point in his West Virginia tenure, the Mountaineers were streaking to the Elite Eight and making lovable stars of players like Kevin Pittsnogle. At this point in his Michigan tenure, the Wolverines are struggling in August exhibition games against Belgian professional teams, Beilein is waving farewell to assistant coaches, chumps like me are speculating whether Beilein is on the hot seat, and Wolverines fans are left hoping the likes of Zack Novak, Stu Douglass and freshman guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. (yes, son of that Tim Hardaway) can piece together a surprisingly successful season. The odds of that happening? Not great. Best case is probably a middle-of-the-road Big Ten finish, but that might be enough to keep the buzzards at bay long enough for Beilein to land another batch of recruits.

Worst case: Losing DeShawn Sims and Manny Harris will be incredibly tough for this team to overcome. For all of Harris' faults, he was a major contributor on both ends of the floor in 2009-10. Sims was an efficient post scorer and the team's only player with notable rebounding percentages on both ends of the floor. Without them, Michigan is bound to struggle. Best case would be a surprise. Worst case could see the Wolverines plummet into the Big Ten's incredibly soft bottom third -- the province of Indiana, Iowa, and Penn State. That's not anybody's idea of an effective rebuild.

MICHIGAN STATE

Best case: Michigan State has big expectations in 2010-11, and for good reason. With the exception of departed senior Raymar Morgan and dismissed guard Chris Allen, the Spartans return everyone from a team that managed to make it to the Final Four while injured star point guard Kalin Lucas sat on the bench in polyester warmups. Lucas will be back in 2010-11, as will Draymond Green, Durrell Summers, Derrick Nix, Delvon Roe and Korie Lucious. Coach Tom Izzo is also back -- a big contract from the Cleveland Cavaliers wasn't enough to pull him away from this team -- and he'll welcome the No. 10 recruiting class in the country to campus this fall. (Two of those 2010 recruits, forward Adreian Payne and guard Keith Appling, could be contribute as early as this season.) So, yes, the best case for the Michigan State Spartans -- and probably the most likely case, given all this talent -- is a Big Ten title and a third straight trip to the Final Four. But this time, Michigan State won't be happy unless it leaves with a national title.

Worst case: It seems foolish to predict anything less than success for the 2010-11 Spartans. That said, Izzo's coaching pattern usually sees his teams struggle in the early portions of their season before coming together just in time for a tournament run. If those struggles metastasize and follow the Spartans into the Big Ten season, they could lose some ground to Purdue, the conference's other prohibitive favorite. And if this team doesn't make it to the Final Four, the season will have to be seen as a disappointment. So go the perils of high expectations.

MINNESOTA

Best case: With the possible exception of Illinois, Minnesota might be the Big Ten team with the most divergent 2010-11 prospectus. There are positive signs, though. The Gophers made the NCAA tournament last season despite a handful of suspensions and dismissals. With the Royce White saga finally out of his hair and Al Nolen and Trevor Mbakwe apparently fully eligible, coach Tubby Smith should have a more focused and efficient group in 2010-11. Blake Hoffarber is one of the country's most underrated players -- he posted the nation's highest offensive rating and its fourth-highest effective field goal percentage in 2010-11 despite limited usage. Forward Ralph Sampson III is a solid interior presence. Colton Iverson is the team's most efficient rebounder. Rodney Williams has Smith very excited, and Mbakwe should only add to the Gophers' interior depth. This is a team full of returning players that managed to fight off distraction and land in the NCAA tournament in 2009-10. Smith might be a little biased, but is his belief in the Gophers as a potential Big Ten title team all that farfetched?

Worst case: Not to be Pessimistic Pete, but yes, it might be. The Gophers' returners are all solid, sure, but it's hard to see that team cracking the Big Ten's ceiling in the coming year. Part of that has to do with the elite teams at the top of the conference -- Purdue and Michigan State are both going to be very difficult to beat, to say nothing of Ohio State, Wisconsin, and even Illinois -- but part of that just might be the Gophers' own limitations. The late bubble run was gutty, but it came from an inconsistent team that lost its bona fide leader, Lawrence Westbrook, to graduation this offseason. More realistic is a solid, NCAA tournament-type season. Worst case is a finish below Northwestern in fringe bubble territory. None of those results would qualify as a surprise.

NORTHWESTERN

Best case: Can this be the year? The Northwestern Wildcats will have one storyline attached to their program for as long as that storyline remains unfulfilled: When will Northwestern finally make its first NCAA tournament? Bill Carmody's team has flirted with the bubble in the past two seasons, and a few months ago -- when it appeared former star forward Kevin Coble would be joining up with a team that competed quite capably in 2009-10 without him -- the consensus was that this would be Northwestern's best chance yet. Instead, Coble decided to quit basketball and focus on school as a senior. The good news here is that Coble's offensive play was replaced almost entirely by sophomore John Shurna last season. If Shurna maintains his production in 2010-11 and Carmody can get his team to play even marginally better defense, the Wildcats will have as good a chance at the NCAA tournament as if Coble had decided studying is for nerds.

Worst case: And now, the bad news. The problem with the 2010-11 Wildcats is the second "if" in that last sentence. That if is defense. Northwestern was the No. 169-ranked team in adjusted defensive efficiency last season. It allowed opponents to rebound 33.6 percent of their misses (rank: No. 216) and sent opponents to the free throw line at the startlingly high rate of 41.6 percent (rank: No. 256). With the exception of departed senior Jeremy Nash, the 2010-11 Wildcats will be very much the same team as the 2009-10 version. What will Carmody do? How can he make his team better on defense? Can he? And if he doesn't, can Northwestern fans reasonably expect a shot to make the NCAA tournament? Judging by the past two seasons, that answer is almost certainly no.

OHIO STATE

Best case: Are the Buckeyes the Big Ten's biggest sleeper? That sounds like a dumb question, considering the team's four returning starters (William Buford, Jon Diebler, David Lighty, Dallas Lauderdale) and its marquee, No. 2-ranked forward recruit in Jared Sullinger. Of course people should know about the Buckeyes. But when you consider the departure of national player of the year Evan Turner and the buzz surrounding Purdue, Michigan State and even Illinois, it would seem easy to casually write Ohio State off. That would be a mistake. If the Bucks can incorporate Sullinger into their veteran lineup, they could have one of the Big Ten's -- heck, one of the country's -- most formidable frontcourts. They could return to a more traditional style of play, one that doesn't rely on a 6-foot-7 all-worlder leading the team in rebounds from the point guard position. And, by the end of the season, the Buckeyes could very well be your Big Ten champs.

Worst case: They could also be the fifth- or sixth-best team in the Big Ten. Sullinger is a big-time recruit, sure, and Ohio State should add some perimeter depth with No. 3-ranked small forward prospect Deshaun Thomas. But Turner did so much of everything in 2009-10 -- he led the team in points, rebounds, assists and steals while dominating the ball in all facets of the game -- that it's fair to wonder if Ohio State can collectively make up for his departure. Does William Buford assume more of the scoring load? Can he? Does Jon Diebler add another dimension to his perimeter-reliant game? Will a group of veterans unused to sharing minutes incorporate Sullinger and Thomas effectively? And who plays point guard, anyway? All of those questions demand answers. The Buckeyes will be too talented to miss out on the tournament in 2010-11, but if they fail to stay among the Big Ten's elite, the transition to the post-Turner era will be primarily to blame.

PENN STATE

Best case: Talor Battle's upperclassman years have been something of a shame. They haven't been, like, you know, a real shame; that word should probably be reserved for any one of the many horrible humanitarian tragedies happening around the globe even as we speak. (Whoa. That got heavy for a second. Back to hoops starting ... now.) But Battle's talents have been wasted on a Penn State team that went from NIT champ in 2008-09 to 11-20 and a last-place Big Ten finish in 2009-10. Penn State returns much of last season's lineup in 2010-11. That is either a good thing (experience never hurts, I guess) or a bad one (last-place Big Ten finish, etc.), but Penn State's hopes of avoiding a repeat performance largely lie with Battle's lightning-quick brilliance.

Worst case: The Nittany Lions don't have much in the way of talented recruits to help Battle this season, and if the sophomore Tim Frazier doesn't significantly improve, the Lions will be staring down the barrel of another last-place Big Ten finish. Hoping for much more seems less optimistic than foolish.

PURDUE

Best case: Like their main competition for the Big Ten title -- the Michigan State Spartans -- Matt Painter's charges have very clear aspirations for the 2010-11 season. They want to win the conference title. They want to get a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday. They want to appear in the 2011 Final Four. And they want to win the title. All four of those goals were within reach before Robbie Hummel tore his ACL in late February. And all four of those goals are why Purdue's Big Three -- Hummel, E'Twaun Moore, and JaJuan Johnson, who might have been a first-round pick in June -- returned for their senior seasons. Purdue will have to find a way to compensate for the loss of Chris Kramer, perhaps the country's best defender for much of his career, but assuming Hummel and company stay healthy, the Boilermakers should remain among the nation's elite for most of the season. The next step? Finishing the job.

Worst case: Even assuming Moore, Hummel and Johnson stay healthy, replacing Kramer will be nearly impossible. Purdue's offense was good but not great last season; it got considerably worse without Hummel, ending the season at No. 70 overall in offensive efficiency. (See Purdue's 11-point first-half performance against Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament for anecdotal evidence. Things got pretty putrid.) Purdue's defense, meanwhile, was the third-most efficient in the country. Kramer had a lot do with that. For Painter to maintain his team's trademark stifling man-to-man, Moore will have to replace Kramer's ability to match up with opponents' best players. Junior guard Lewis Jackson will have to replace Kramer's efficient guard play. Someone will have to become a consistent spot shooter. For all of the Big Three's brilliance, the 2010-11 Boilermakers do have a couple of holes, and if Kramer proves to be even more underrated than we thought, the Boilermakers could have matchup problems with deep, versatile lineups. Think Michigan State. Think Duke. Think Syracuse. That's Purdue's competition in 2010-11. That lofty company is a testament to how good this team should be. It's also a major challenge, even for a trio this uniquely talented.

WISCONSIN

Best case: Pop quiz. Since Bo Ryan took over at Wisconsin in 2001-02, the Badgers have:
You don't have to be a good tester to know the answer. It's "D." Ryan's Badgers have been a model of consistency for a decade, which makes predicting their performance in 2010-11 pretty easy. Wisconsin will compete for the Big Ten title and finish near the top of the conference. The Badgers will win almost all of their games at home. They'll make the NCAA tournament, and probably win at least one game. Whether they can do something more will come down to how well Ryan's team replaces departed guards Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon. Still, senior forward Jon Leuer should compete for Big Ten Player of the Year honors as Ryan's system -- that inexorably consistent swing offense his players execute so masterfully -- trucks along for another successful season.

Worst case: If the Badgers' ceiling is not as high as some of their conference foes', their worst-case bottom is not nearly as low. Barring injury, Wisconsin would probably consider another fourth-place finish to be something of a disappointment. UW will never look in jeopardy of falling behind the Illinoises, Minnesotas, and Northwesterns of the world, but if junior guard Jordan Taylor fails to step into Hughes' leadership role, it's easy to see the Badgers remaining competitive without challenging Purdue or Michigan State for the top conference honors. Most teams would love that as a bottom scenario, but in Madison, fourth place is no big whoop.