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At the Watercooler: Talking Big Ten

Editor's Note: For the past three days, we've spent some time examining Ohio State, Michigan and Indiana. Seems like a good time for Eamonn and Myron to get together at the watercooler to discuss the state of the Big Ten after a memorable season.

Eamonn Brennan: Hello again, Myron, and greetings from a decidedly summer-y Chicago. We have been commissioned to discuss a conference with which we are both intimately familiar: The Big Ten. Specifically: What is the Big Ten's outlook for the coming season? These are the pressing questions of our day. They beg definitive answers.

Everyone agrees the Big Ten was the best conference in the country last season. Frankly, I'm not sure we've had a league that was so feted before the season live up to expectations so thoroughly. At various points, including in March, as many as five Big Ten teams looked like genuine national title contenders, and that doesn't include the pre-meltdown Minnesota Gophers.

The question is how much of that strength will roll over to the new season. At first glance, the league looks like it will be less top-heavy, with fewer obvious national title contenders or favorites, while also being a tad deeper. Your thoughts?

Myron Medcalf: What's up, Eamonn? It's never too early to talk Big Ten basketball.

As you mentioned, there were stretches when Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin all appeared capable of pursuing collegiate gold. It's always a stacked league. But the quality within last season's Big Ten was stunning. Elite teams and consistent depth throughout the conference.

It will be quite difficult for 2013-14 to rival last season's run. So many teams are regrouping and/or rebuilding. Minnesota has a new staff and multiple new faces. Ohio State has talent, but how will the Buckeyes evolve without Deshaun Thomas in the lineup? Michigan brings back Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, but the reigning Wooden Award winner (Trey Burke) was a crucial element within the Wolverines' success. And how do you measure Iowa's ceiling after last year's inconsistency?

We don't know as much about this Big Ten as knew about last year's league at this point in the offseason. But we still know the league will feature a competitive collective that should be nationally relevant again.

There are few doubts about the top. Michigan and Michigan State look like the clear favorites. And the strength of a league is often measured by the first tier in any league. Who do you think has the edge, Eamonn? Michigan or Michigan State?

EB: I think Michigan State has an edge in that rivalry next season, if only barely. It's impossible not to like what the Spartans have coming back. Gary Harris was one of the best freshman in the country last season, even as he was often battling a nagging shoulder injury. He'll be excellent next season. Adreian Payne is the rare late-blooming senior who came into East Lansing raw and one-dimensional and took until midway through his junior year to unveil a reliable perimeter shot, one that should turn his athletic 6-foot-11 frame into a far more devastating offensive tool, provided he unleashes it for the full breadth of a season. Senior point guard Keith Appling had his struggles offensively last season but is nonetheless a luxury in the modern game. Branden Dawson is excellent. Denzel Valentine is intriguing. And so on.

I think the Spartans have just a little bit more than the Wolverines, but like I said, it's only by a bit. Yes, Trey Burke is gone, but UM has a more than capable set of veterans and some intriguing young guards to fill the vacant spots in the backcourt. For me, Michigan's shot at contending for another national title comes down to two things: Whether Mitch McGary can be the player he was in the NCAA tournament without Burke, and whether Robinson, given more touches and responsibilities in a post-Tim Hardaway offense, blossoms into an all-around threat (as opposed to his effective but limited rim-running role as a freshman).

In any case, it's totally fair to consider those two teams the cream of next year's crop. I'd say Ohio State is just a half-notch below. As our colleague Andy Katz wrote this week, though replacing Deshaun Thomas will be a chore, at this point Thad Matta has earned a Wisconsin-esque benefit of the doubt. (Of course, Wisconsin will be there, too. It's like clockwork at this point.)

There are a handful of big question marks in the league, none bigger, in my opinion, than Indiana. The Hoosiers are going to have plenty of talent on hand, but much of it will be young, and all of it will revolve around point guard Yogi Ferrell, who may have to distribute and score in equal measure. Another big question, as you've touched on, is Minnesota under first-year coach Richard Pitino. What are some of the other big questions we should be asking about this league?

MM: Well, the biggest question in the league surrounds the team that's based in Iowa City, Iowa. In this game, you can only rebuild for so long. Will Iowa finally make a serious push in the Big Ten and reach the NCAA tournament? The Hawkeyes return more than 90 percent of their scoring from last season. They won 25 games in 2012-13 and reached the NIT title game. They were top-50 in offensive and defensive efficiency.

This has to be an NCAA tournament year for Iowa.

Michigan and Michigan State are on top. But that third contender slot within the league is available. Sure, Ohio State, Indiana, Wisconsin or some other squad could fill it. Why not Iowa? I like Fran McCaffery's pieces. I like Roy Devyn Marble's versatility. I think Aaron White is one of America's most underrated frontcourt contributors. I still believe Melsahn Basabe can give the Hawkeyes better production, assuming he's focused this offseason. And incoming freshman Peter Jok is talented enough to compete for quality minutes in his first season.

But we all said similar things about Iowa a year ago. And that season ended with an NIT berth. This has to be different.

Other questions about Big Ten basketball: Now that it's on the verge of assembling some of America's best facilities, will Nebraska and Tim Miles begin to attract more talent and climb out of the league's basement? How will the Chris Collins era begin at Northwestern? Can Richard Pitino really execute a Louisville-like system in the Big Ten? Should he even try?

And then there's this question. And I need your help with this one, Eamonn. I'm not going to be the guy who doubts Wisconsin. Been there, done that. Under Bo Ryan, the Badgers have never finished lower than fourth in the league and they've never missed the Big Dance.

Somehow, they'll figure it out again.

Still, they just lost a trio of veterans when Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans exhausted their collective eligibility.

Eamonn, is Sam Dekker ready to lead the Badgers and help the program maintain the streak in just his second season of college basketball? What are your personal expectations for Dekker?

EB: My expectations are unreservedly high. Dekker was already pretty great working within UW's system as a freshman. He was efficient on offense, he didn't turn it over and he managed to launch 128 3s (he shot 39.1 percent) despite playing reserve minutes off the bench. Even if he's merely that good as a sophomore with more playing time, the Badgers have a legitimate star on their hands. If he's better, which is not an unfair expectation given a full season and summer to get bigger, stronger and more refined, why can't he anchor the Badgers' offense? He's certainly talented enough to do so.

In general, whether Dekker breaks out or is merely solid, I think Wisconsin will be just fine. Frank Kaminsky, a 6-foot-11 forward who can shoot from the perimeter, should shine in a much larger role. Ben Brust is still in the building. And guard Josh Gasser, who would have been the starting point last season, returns from last fall's knee injury. Yes, Ryan lost a lot. No, I don't think the Badgers will take a step back. There are few entities quite so reliable in college athletics. Wisconsin makes predictions easy.

I'm with you on Iowa; frankly, the tournament should be a baseline expectation. I have far more questions about another team we've mentioned already: Indiana.

It is going to be really interesting to see the Hoosiers in their first true transition season following Tom Crean's methodical rebuild. Most of the guys (with the notable exception of Will Sheehey) who helped IU climb out of its post-Kelvin Sampson morass are gone now. In their place is a very talented point guard (Ferrell) who has the potential to be a real star, surrounded by a really athletically tantalizing but unproven group of younger players.

Noah Vonleh is a top-10 player in one of the most loaded overall freshman classes in recent memory, but is he too raw to dominate right away? Where is Hanner Mosquera-Parea -- who simply wasn't ready last season -- in his development? Is Jeremy Hollowell ready to be a major contributor? What of various other youngsters, like Luke Fischer (the No. 4-ranked center in the 2013 class), Stanford Robinson and Troy Williams? Crean's impressive recruiting is going to keep Indiana good for the foreseeable future, but after losing four 1,000-point scorers (which is just insane), there is still a pretty wide variance in IU's possible outcomes next season.

This is probably the right place to talk about some of the lower portions of the league, which we should discuss before we wrap this thing. Fact is, there are a lot of teams that could make this a deeper league than it was in 2012-13. Northwestern has Drew Crawford and Jershon Cobb returning, as well as promising sophomore center Alex Olah. Penn State has the do-everything Tim Frazier coming off injury and joining the league's top returning scorer in D.J. Newbill. (PSU would have had the top two scorers but for Jermaine Marshall's defection this summer.) Purdue has a potential beast in center A.J. Hammons. Despite a coaching change and a swath of departures, Minnesota still has Andre and Austin Hollins. Illinois is well-coached and clearly on its way back up the ladder.

And so on. Perhaps only Nebraska can be excluded from the "could be a lot better than last season" conversation, but the Cornhuskers will be opening their brand new downtown arena this season, which will give them some of the best (if not the best) facilities in the country, nevermind the Big Ten. In other words: There is a lot to dig through toward the bottom of the prospective Big Ten, but most of the evidence points to a deeper pound-for-pound league, if not a "better" one.

Which of the mid-to-lower table teams is most intriguing to you, Myron? Which do you think has the best chance of success? Or, conversely, collapse?

MM: Well, I'm most intrigued by Purdue. I think A.J. Hammons will be a major deal next season. The world will know him soon. That's right, Russia, China and Ecuador. Remember the name: A.J. Hammons. Matt Painter returns his top three scorers and adds a solid recruiting class. In most years, I'd say that projections for this young group should be tempered. But we've discussed the dynamics of Big Ten basketball in 2013-14 and we agree that there are many unknowns below the top two or three squads.

So there's certainly room for a team such as Purdue to surprise the field. But the Boilermakers were ranked 311th in defensive turnover percentage last season. They gave up 67.7 ppg in league play. You can't beat the best in the Big Ten without consistent defensive execution, the most significant task for this crew.

Possible collapse? Well, I'll wrap this up with a little story. I recently spoke with an opposing Big Ten coach about Richard Pitino's plan to run the floor and press at Minnesota. That coach paused for a moment, and essentially suggested that the particular brand of basketball just doesn't work (consistently) in the grind-it-out, physical conference unless you're equipped with elite talent throughout your roster. Minnesota lost Trevor Mbakwe, Rodney Williams and Joe Coleman (transfer). The Gophers have Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins, as you've mentioned, but they're not elite.

Pitino has some solid pieces. But the combination of a new staff, a new style that might not work in a new league and the team's voids could lead to a messy season for the Gophers. Not that the expectations are sky high or anything. But I have a lot of question marks about the program.

Some things never change, I guess.

Speaking of collapse, I have to clean my golf clubs so I can prepare to hit houses and large trees at courses throughout Minnesota in the coming weeks. Enjoy the weather, Eamonn. Until next time, my friend.

EB: You heard it here first: A.J. Hammons is the next big thing in Ecuador. I think it's probably best we stop here.

Enjoy the pebbles and sticks, Myron.