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Conference Countdown: No. 1 Big Ten

1. Big Ten
2. Big XII
3. Big East
4. ACC
5. SEC
6. Mountain West
7. Pac-10
8. Atlantic 10
9. Conference USA
10. West Coast Conference

Pre-season Awards

Player of the Year: Jon Leuer, Wisconsin

The Big Ten will have one of the most exciting player of the year races. Even with Robbie Hummel’s season over, there is a ton of talent at the top of the league. Included in that group is Jon Leuer, one of the most underrated players in the country. He was the Badgers leading scorer and rebounder last season despite missing nine games with a broken wrist. He’s got a good finesse game in the post, using a variety of jump hooks and turnarounds. He also has a soft touch on his jump shot and is a capable ball handler, which makes him a difficult matchup at times. He impressed people quite a bit at the Team USA workouts over the summer, and with Trevon Hughes gone to graduation, expect a big season out of Leuer.

And a close second goes to: Kalin Lucas, Michigan State

Lucas is a great player as well. In fact, he’s already won a Big Ten player of the year award, taking home the hardware in 2009. When he’s healthy, he’s as quick as anyone in the league with the ball, a pain to keep out of the paint, and a very good shooter with a knack for hitting some big-time shots. I have two concerns about Lucas. He’s still working his way back from the achilles injury that ended his 2010 NCAA Tournament, so only time will tell if he is actually back to 100%. I also was concerned by his lack of development last season. Lucas was benched because of a lack of leadership and didn’t really improve all that much as a junior. But this is Lucas’ team. He’s the star, and when he embraces that, he has the talent to carry this team to another Final Four.

Breakout Star: Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin

Its tough to pick out a breakout star from the Big Ten because, well, we already know who most of the best players are. One guy stands out for me, however. Taylor moved into the starting lineup as a sophomore and had a very successful season (10 points, 3.5 assists) playing alongside Trevon Hughes. Taylor is a better distributor than Hughes was, and Hughes also had a tendency to dominate the ball. This season, as the sole ball-handler, Taylor is going to be relied upon much more as a playmaker, especially considering the lack of offensive firepower on this Wisconsin roster. I don’t think its out of the question for him to develop into a second- or third-team all-conference performer.

All-Conference First Team

  • POY - Jon Leuer, Wisconsin, Sr.
  • G - Kalin Lucas, Michigan State, Sr.
  • G - E’Twaun Moore, Purdue, Sr.
  • G - Demetri McCamey, Illinois, Sr.
  • F - Jared Sullinger, Ohio State, Fr.
  • F - JaJuan Johnson, Purdue, Sr.

All-Conference Second Team

  • G - Maurice Creek, Indiana, So.
  • G - Durrell Summers, Michigan State, Sr.
  • G - Talor Battle, Penn State, Sr.
  • F - John Shurna, Northwestern, Jr.
  • F - Mike Davis, Illinois, Sr.

Freshman of the Year: Jared Sullinger, Ohio State

Sullinger is universely regarded as the best big man in the class. At 6'8", 250+ lb, he’s got the size and the strength to play immediately in the Big Ten. He’s not just big, either. He’s skilled. He can score on the low-block, he can get to the rim facing up, and he has range out to 18 feet. He is also a very cerebral player. Sullinger understands angles -- sealing his man when the ball gets reversed, holding position defensively and offensively, boxing out -- which lets him get a lot of easy baskets and a ton of rebounds. He’s a producer on the block, and should complement the shot-blocking presence of Dallas Lauderdale well. The Buckeyes are going to need someone to be a go-to presence for them with Evan Turner gone, and Sullinger could be that guy.

All-Freshman Team

  • G - Keith Appling, Michigan State
  • G - Tim Hardaway, Jr., Michigan
  • G - Taran Buie, Penn State
  • F - Jereme Richmond, Illinois
  • F - DeShaun Thomas, Ohio State

What Happened?:

  • Expansion: Everybody welcome Nebraska to the Big Ten! Well, next year anyway. And despite the rumors to the contrary, that is all the Big Ten added. For now.
  • Robbie Hummel: Breaks your heart.
  • Tom Izzo and his rumor mill: First it was the Cavs. He was staying, then he was going, and now he’s staying. Good decision, thanks to The Decision.

    Then there was Chris Allen. He was suspended for the Big Ten tournament last season, then throughout the summer his name was coming up in rumors. He would play. He wasn’t going to play. Finally last month, Izzo ended the drama, saying that Allen failed to live up to his obligations.

    Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, two Michigan State players were accused of a sexual assault on the same night that Korie Lucious got a DUI.

  • It wasn’t just Chris Allen: Allen isn’t the only player that won’t be returning next season. Laval Lucas-Perry was dismissed from Michigan for the dreaded “violation of team rules.”

    Northwestern got a blow when Kevin Coble, a second-team all-conference performer in 2009, decided he was not going to return to the basketball team, instead focusing his efforts on his last semester of classes.

    And then there is Zisis Sarikopoulos, who has scored all of 48 points in his collegiate career, who signed a three-year contract in Greece.

    Iowa not only lost Anthony Tucker, who was suspended for an arrest and then transferred to D-II Winona State, they lost head coach Todd Lickliter. He was replaced by Siena’s Fran McCaffery.

  • Trevor Mbakwe is cleared, legally: Well, not exactly. He agreed to skip trial in exchange for completing a six-month intervention program. Everything will be erased from his record when he pays $100 fine and does 100 hours of community service. It also means that Minnesota has cleared him to play, which is great news for Tubby Smith and the Golden Gophers.

What’s Next?:

  • Is this the year for Northwestern?: The Wildcats are the only major conference team that has never played in the NCAA Tournament. Ever. And this season may just be their best shot. I know we have said that over and over the last two years, but with the players they have returning, a good non-conference season and a couple of wins over the top of the Big Ten, and they are dancing.
  • Three in a row?: Everyone knows that Michigan State has been to back-to-back Final Fours. This year? They are one of the favorites to win the national title. Can they make it three straight Final Fours? Do they end up winning a title during that stretch?
  • Is expansion over?: Most believed that the Big Ten wanted to get to 16 teams this summer, and there are some that still believe that is the case. Does it happen next summer? Will the Big East and the Big XII survive it?

Power Rankings

  1. Purdue: Purdue was originally considered the favorite to win the Big Ten title. That was before Robbie Hummel blew out his knee. Quite a few people have dropped the Boilermakers in their preseason polls, which isn’t necessarily fair. This is still the same basic team that made the Sweet 16 last season. This Purdue team still has two all-americans in E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson. The Boilermakers still have role players. Lewis Jackson is a quick point guard who was dealing with a foot injury last season but is back healthy. Kelsey Barlow was the guy that played the point guard role in his stead and did an admirable job. He’s a big, strong kid that can defend and get to the rim. Jon Hart, Ryne Smith, DJ Byrd, and Patrick Bade also return, and Croatian big man Sandi Marcius should finally be ready to play. Throw in the mix four talented freshmen, particularly four-star guards Terone Johnson and Anthony Johnson, and you got yourself a very good basketball team. Don’t count this team out.
  2. Michigan State: The Spartans once again looks like a team capable of making a run to, and through, the Final Four. While Raymar Morgan, and now Chris Allen, are both gone, the core of this team returns. Kalin Lucas, the 2009 Big Ten player of the year, should be back to 100% after blowing out his achilles in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Who knows how quickly he can return to his peak, but there is the talent on this roster to allow him to ease into being a star again. Durrell Summers has loads of talent -- 6'4", athletic, range on his jumper -- and had a coming out party in the tournament last season. Korie Lucious has been inconsistent throughout his first two seasons but definitely has shown flashes of being an impact player in the back court. Many also believe that Keith Appling has the ability to make Spartan fans forget about Allen. Up front is a bit of a question mark. Draymond Green, the versatile 6'6" power forward, is back, as is Delvon Roe, a super-talented but oft-injured 6'8" power forward. Hefty sophomore Derrick Nix returns, and Adreian Payne, a top 20 forward, will also be in the mix. Expect the Spartans to contend for both the Big Ten and national titles.
  3. Illinois: The Fighting Illini have a shot at being very, very good this year. It starts with Demetri McCamey, a stocky point guard that averaged 15 points and 7 assists last season. McCamey is one of the better playmakers in the country, and while he still turns the ball over a bit much and has a tendency to dominate possession, his ability to create open looks for his teammates is crucial. Also returning are DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul, two talented freshman that had up and down seasons. The front line of Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis is back, as well. The roster, which loses some key role players like Jeffery Jordan and Dominque Keller, will be bolstered by another excellent recruiting class. Shooting guard Crandall Head, forward Jereme Richmond, and seven-footer Meyers Leonard are all four-star recruits that will be able to contribute immediately. As I see it, the issue with this Illini team isn’t necessarily talent. There are a lot of very good basketball players on this roster, and with a guy like McCamey on the floor -- especially when there are four guys around him that can shoot -- getting good shots probably won’t be the issue. The problem is interior toughness. Neither Tisdale or Davis are real bruisers or physical rebounders/defenders. Leonard is all of 225lb. That could spell trouble playing in a Big Ten with the likes of Michigan State and Ohio State.
  4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes lost Evan Turner to the draft, but as Thad Matta is wont to do, he simply reloaded. Again. The talk about this team is going to be the freshman class. Headlined by 6'8" bruiser Jared Sullinger and 6'6" scoring forward DeShaun Thomas, this group is six deep, with all six receiving at least three stars from Rivals. The front court isn’t just freshmen, as Dallas Lauderdale returns to protect the rim and Nikola Kecman is back to provide a little bit of depth. In the back court, David Lighty, William Buford, and Jon Diebler all return. The question, obviously, is at the point. Turner wasn’t valuable just because he could score and get rebounds and play the point at 6'7", it was because he made everyone on the floor that much better. Will Diebler and Buford get as many open looks without Turner? Does Lighty get the same amount of space to operate? Obviously, having a big man on the block like Sullinger will help space things, but without a facilitator stepping up (Aaron Creft is the only PG recruit, but Lenzelle Smith and Jordan Sibert are talented back court players) I have concerns about how well this team will run offensively. The Buckeyes are going to be a different product on the court this season, but they will still be at the top of the Big Ten when it is all said and done.
  5. Wisconsin: It doesn’t seem to ever matter who the Badgers lose. They always come back the exact same team the next season. Bo Ryan’s back court of Jason Bohannon and Trevon Hughes has graduated, but don’t expect the Badgers to be down this season. Junior Jordan Taylor, who looked quite impressive in his minutes playing behind Hughes, is back, as is sophomore Ryan Evans, who isn’t the shooter that Bohannon was, but who is bigger, stronger, and a better defender. Returning up front will be Jon Leuer, who could very well be the best big man in the Big Ten this year, and Keaton Nankivil, who showed flashes of brilliance last season. Both are big and both are dangerous in the post and on the perimeter. Take those four, and fill in the blanks with Ryan’s never-ending string of tough, defensive-minded kids, and the Badgers will once again compete atop this conference. Because Ryan is one of the few coaches that always recruits for his system, not based on top 100 lists, his teams are always underrated. A warning to all those in the Big Ten -- Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois, and Ohio State are all loaded this season, but sleep on Wisconsin at your own risk.
  6. Northwestern: The Wildcats caught a bad break when Kevin Coble decided he wasn’t going to return for his final season with Northwestern. But that doesn’t mean that the Wildcats are dead in the water. Northwestern brings back five of their top six scorers from a team that won 20 games and was in bubble consideration until the end of February. One of those five is John Shurna, a combo-forward that averaged 18 and 6 in Coble’s stead. They also bring back Michael Thompson, one of the most underrated guards in the conference. Drew Crawford was selected as the Big Ten freshman of the year. Luka Mirkovic and Alex Marcotullio also return, while freshman JerShon Cobb, a top 100 recruit, should be able to fill in Jeremy Nash’s shoes. This is the same Northwestern team, just a year older. Why can’t they compete this year? Northwestern has never made an NCAA Tournament. Could that change this season?
  7. Minnesota: I like the squad Minnesota has this season. True, they lose Damian Johnson, Lawrence Westbrook, Paul Carter, and the chance to use Royce White. But the Gophers were deep last season, which means that they are going to be able to handle some of that loss. Their strength is going to be up front, where Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson both return at the center. While those two could, feasibly, play alongside one another, the addition of Trevor Mbakwe will be key. A physical, 6'7" forward, Mbakwe would be a nice complement to Smith’s other bigs. Shooter Blake Hoffarber also returns, as does Rodney Williams, an athletic 6'7" slasher that has the potential to be a weapon in this league. Al Nolen and Devoe Joseph will once again be handling the back court duties. And with six newcomers, Tubby Smith has a lot of pieces here. Minnesota isn’t going to win the Big Ten, but a tournament berth isn’t out of the question.
  8. Indiana: Tom Crean brought in a very good recruiting class in 2009, and while it didn’t do much for the Hoosiers last season, the dividends will begin to be paid this season. Maurice Creek, a guard that dislocated his knee back in December, and big man Christian Watford were as good as any two freshmen in the conference last season. Throw in rising juniors Verdell Jones and Tom Pritchard and senior-to-be Jeremiah Rivers, and the Hoosiers have themselves a pretty solid core to build around. An NCAA Tournament berth would be a borderline miracle, and even a .500 record in this conference this season would be impressive, but this team isn’t going to be a pushover. The Hoosiers are going to win some games and they are going to put a scare into some of the better teams. They aren’t there yet, but Crean is getting this team close.
  9. Penn State: Looking strictly at their record, the Nittany Lions were not a good basketball team last season. In fact, they were down right bad. Going 11-20 on the season and 3-15 in Big Ten play (they lost their first 12) is not ideal. That said, this club lost some close games. By three at Temple; two against Virginia Tech; OT at Wisconsin; one at Illinois, two at Michigan State; four against Purdue. The list goes on from there. Ed Dechellis’ team didn’t win many games, but they weren’t blown out that often either. In other words, last year’s club was probably tougher than their record indicates, and they bring back essentially the same roster, headlined by all-Big Ten point guard Talor Battle. Battle is a stat sheet stuffer, at times by necessity as much as talent, but he certainly can put points on the board, whether scoring or finding assists. With solid players like David Jackson, Andrew Jones, and Jeff Brooks returning along the front line, Tim Frazier back for his sophomore campaign, and two solid freshmen -- point guard Taran Buie (Battle’s half-brother) and big man Jonathon Graham -- the Nittany Lions have a team that should be competitive. Given how strong the Big Ten is this year, a .500 finish would be quite impressive. That said, Penn State won’t be a pushover, and could very well spring a few upsets.
  10. Michigan: When John Beilein was hired at Michigan, many expected him to orchestrate a turnaround like he did at West Virginia previously. After reaching the 2009 NCAA Tournament, most thought the Wolverines to be a top 25 club last year. But that fell apart, and then so did Beilein’s roster. Manny Harris, DeShawn Sims, and Laval Lucas-Perry are all gone. So where is Michigan headed. There are just four returners that saw playing time -- Stu Douglass, Zak Novak, Darius Morris, and Matt Vogrich. They aren’t bringing in much, either. Evan Smotrycz, a 6'8" small forward from New Hampshire, is a top 100 recruit. Jordan Morgan is a three-star center, but he is undergoing surgery on his left knee. None of Blake McLimans, Tim Hardaway, and Jon Horford cracked Rivals top 150. On paper, this looks like a team destined for a rebuilding year. But keep in mind, this is the kind of team that Beilein succeeds with. A bunch of scrappy underachievers willing to buy into Beilein’s system. I’m not saying that Michigan fans should be penciling in a Big Ten title. Far from it. All I’m saying is that maybe the loss of Sims, Harris, and Lucas-Perry will be addition by subtraction. While a .500 season would probably be considered an overachievement in 2010-11, don’t write this group off just yet. Remember, Beilein has a tendency for turning teams around.
  11. Iowa: It is going to be another long season for Hawkeye fans. Todd Lickliter was fired after a 10-22 season, and with only six players returning, Fran McCaffery is going to have his work cut out for him. He gets back a solid trio of guards with Cully Payne, Matt Gaetens, and Eric May, and with four three-star recruits (according to Rivals) coming in, this isn’t a bare cupboard. But it certainly isn’t full, and with the amount of quality basketball teams in this conference next season, matching last year’s total of four Big Ten wins would probably be considered a good season, comparatively.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.