- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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The drill, you know it. Here are five things I can't wait to see in the Big Ten this season:
1. How -- and whether -- Purdue recovers
At the risk of overplaying the Robbie Hummel story (he was, after all, the story of Big Ten media day, too), I'm going with this at No. 1. To me, there is no greater intrigue in the league this season than in finding out just what effect Hummel's ACL tear will have on his team in 2010-11. We know from last year's injury that the forward added far more to Purdue's offense than to its defense. Purdue's offensive efficiency drastically declined after Hummel's first ACL tear last February (thanks in large part to a couple of 40-point stinkers in games against Michigan State and Minnesota, the latter of which saw the Boilermakers score 11 points in the first half), but there was some sign Purdue had righted the points-per-possession ship during their run to the Sweet 16. Defensively, the Boilers were not only fine, they were better with Hummel out; coach Matt Painter changed his team's style, focusing less on offensive rebounds demanding his team get behind the ball with all five players. With Chris Kramer still patrolling the perimeter, and a much more careful Boilermakers team on the floor, Purdue ended the season with the third-most efficient defense in the country.
The problem is that not all of Hummel's contributions, even on the offensive end, are quantifiable. Hummel's versatility as a point forward with 3-point range opened the lane for JaJuan Johnson and made it difficult to impossible to double the big man on the elbow and short post. Hummel drew a high number of fouls, distributed the ball well without turning it over, and was in many ways a glue guy who played with the efficiency of a star. Kramer's defense (and sneaky good, fourth-option-type offense) is also a major loss. Painter is a more than capable coach with more time than last year to figure out how to replace Hummel (and now Kramer), and he has a large amount of depth to utilize in that process. But it's hard to imagine these Boilermakers being as good as last year's pre-ACL version.
2. A healthy Kalin Lucas
It's no wonder Michigan State is ranked just behind Duke in just about everyone's preseason top 25. The Spartans went to their second-straight Final Four in 2009-10 without the help of their best player, guard Kalin Lucas, who was a contender for Big Ten Player of the Year until an Achilles tear forced him to the sidelines for the remainder of the season. The 2010-11 version gets Lucas -- and everyone not named Raymar Morgan and Chris Allen -- back. Toss in a talented recruiting class with at least one likely contributor (freshman Keith Appling) already in the mix, and you get a loaded, experienced team as talented as any in the country. The real draw, though, is Lucas -- how he recovers, how he leads, and how he closes his Michigan State career after being forced to watch from the sidelines during last year's triumphant and unexpected finish.
3. Bruce Weber's best team in years
Even in down years, Bruce Weber's teams did one thing. They defended. Weber is a defensive coach, and his ability to get his players to play stifling man-to-man defense out to 30 feet has been one reason why a lack of talent in the post-Deron Williams era hasn't gotten him in more trouble with his fan base. But no such problem exists this season: Illinois returns all five starters from last year's team. Three seniors, including All-Big Ten preseason pick Demetri McCamey, are back. Last year's two highly touted freshman -- Brandon Paul and Big Ten freshman of the year D.J. Richardson -- will look to make the freshman-to-sophomore leap. And another big-time recruiting class, including forward Jereme Richmond, the No. 23-ranked player in the class of 2010, shouldn't need much time to make an impact. There is no small amount of expectation surrounding this team: The Big Ten's media picked Illinois to finish fourth behind Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue, and the Illini are ranked No. 13 in the AP preseason poll. That's a big jump in expectations for a defensively mediocre team that limped to an NIT finish last season, but it's a warranted one. Now Weber just has to remember how to get his guys to play defense. With all that talent, the offensive end -- and an NCAA tournament bid -- should take care of itself.
4. Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger
Losing a high-usage player of the year like Evan Turner isn't the sort of thing your program is supposed to immediately overcome. But Sullinger, the No. 2-ranked player in the class of 2010, could push the 2010-11 version of the Buckeyes to be even better than last year's team. The four non-Turner starters -- versatile guards William Buford and David Lighty, sharpshooter Jon Diebler, and bruising center Dallas Lauderdale -- return. By plugging Sullinger (not to mention top small forward prospect DeShaun Thomas) in, Ohio State won't have to play four guards this season. They won't lack frontcourt depth when Lauderdale gets in foul trouble. They won't have to play their starters an insane number of minutes. And, if Sullinger plays to expectations, they'll have as effective a low-block scorer as any team in the country. It's hard to pick Ohio State over Michigan State to start the season, but by the end of it, Ohio State could very well deserve that distinction. They might just be the second-best team in the country.
5. Another ho-hum Wisconsin season
And rest assured, denizens of Madison: I mean "ho-hum" in the most complimentary way possible. This is a stat I've written before, but one that bears repeating: In Bo Ryan's tenure, the Badgers have failed to finish worse than fourth in the Big Ten exactly zero times. In nine seasons, the Badgers have failed to win 20 games only twice, and failed to win more than 24 games three times. The man and his program are models of consistency. That consistency hasn't exactly translated into tournament success; Ryan's teams have been past the second round of the NCAA tournament only three times in his tenure, and they've gotten past the Sweet 16 just once. But, still, how good must it feel to be a Wisconsin fan? To know, before the season even starts, that your team is going to be in the Big Ten mix?
That feeling shouldn't change this season. Wisconsin lost guards Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon, but it returned Jordan Taylor and potential Big Ten Player of the Year Jon Leuer, an efficient high-usage forward who rebounds on the defensive end and scores from everywhere on offense. He's perfect for Ryan's slow-swing system, and Ryan's system is perfect for the Big Ten. The Badgers will have to make sure last year's stellar turnover rate stays something near to stellar, and the loss of those experienced guards will be an early challenge, but would you wager, even in a very tough Big Ten, on a Bo Ryan team finishing outside the league's top four? There's no reason to start now.