If you thought it has been a down year across the board for the Big Ten this football season, wait until conference play in basketball gets kick started.
Not more than two years ago, this conference contained arguably the two best teams in the nation at the time and a collection of the best players in America. The Big Ten sent a team to the national title game twice in three years (Illinois in 2005, Ohio State in 2007) and last season had two teams in the Sweet 16 and another win the NIT.
Now, I'm struggling to find more than two teams that will be nationally relevant in 2008-09. The one thing that's for certain, though is that Raymar Morgan (pictured left) is going to be a terror for the other 10 teams to stop.
Here are my thoughts on these Big 2, Middling 2 and Little 7 in my predicted order of finish.
1) Michigan State Spartans
Tom Izzo, under his watch, will never let this program slip. They brought in another top-20 recruiting class to complement All-American caliber players like Kalin Lucas and Raymar Morgan. They've got shooting touch with those two, size with senior Goran Suton and leadership from fiery senior guard Travis Walton. They'll miss Drew Neitzel's motor, but the Spartans will have no problem going into March on a roll and should hang their first Big Ten Champions banner since 2001. Delvon Roe, a 6'8" forward, will make an immediate impact as a freshman.
2) Purdue Boliermakers
There's no way Matt Painter can do a better job stepping into Gene Keady's giant shoes than he has done over the past two seasons. A 25-9 record and revitalized fan base has West Lafayette buzzing about this team in 2008. Even more remarkable, he had that record and a close loss to Elite Eight member Xavier being led by a freshman trio of Robbie Hummel, E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson. They're all back this season and the experience they gained will take the Boilermakers far this spring.
3) Ohio State Buckeyes
Will the star big man from any recruiting class go anywhere but Columbus anymore? Greg Oden and Kosta Koufous made immediate impacts for the Buckeyes over the last two seasons...this eyar...it will be 7-footer B.J. Mullens. Thad Matta's team was left in the cold on Selection Sunday last year, but no matter, they just parlayed that into a deep, impressive run to an NIT title. Athletic guard David Lighty and Evan Turner are the returning starters and Matta is expecting a lot from sophomore Jon Diebler at the two-guard. The Buckeyes are clearly the best of middle pack behind Michigan State and Purdue this season.
4) Wisconsin Badgers
In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year after Big Ten POY Alando Tucker split for the NBA, the Badgers didn't really do anything...other than win the conference title and could only be stifled by Cinderella Davidson. The best thing about Wisconsin every year is that Bo Ryan is the best in the Big Ten at coaching up younger players. This year, his disciples will be Trevon Hughes, Marcus Landry and hulking forward Joe Krabbenhoft. The Badgers are also blessed with quality depth at every position.
5) Minnesota Golden Gophers
If there's one guarantee about the Gophers this season, its that Blake Hoffarber will nail a ridiculous shot. He had this one in a Minnesota state title game to send the game into double OT and then, to follow it up, this buzzer-beater to knock off Indiana in the quarters of the Big Ten tourney. Tubby Smith has immediately given this program credibility again and, while they will not challenge for a conference title this year, they've got a real shot at making the tournament. Along with Hoffarber, Lawrence Westbrook is an experienced starter and Al Nolen's lockdown defense pace the Gophers attack and swingman Jamal Abu-Shamala's ceiling is sky high.
6) Illinois Fighting Illini
Major steps back are the name of the game for Bruce Weber since losing the '05 title game...their win total has dropped every year since going 37-2 in 2004-05 up through last year's complete miss of the postseason. The ray of hope for Chief Illiniwek this season is transfer Alex Legion, a 6'5" guard who decommitted from Michigan to go to Kentucky, then left after six games in Lexington to enroll at Illinois. He's surrounded by Trent Meacham, another transfer, Demetri McCamey and Chester Frazier; those guys paired with Legion will make for a very good backcourt.
7) Michigan Wolverines
John Beilein will see improvement in his second season in Ann Arbor, but not enough to get Michigan to the Big Dance. Laval Lucas-Perry, a small yet rangy transfer guard from Arizona, will provide an immediate impact, but the Wolverines has major trouble scoring across the board.
8) Iowa Hawkeyes
It's safe to say that this program hasn't been the same since winning the Big Ten in 2006 then getting quickly dispatched by 14-seed Northwestern State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Hawkeyes spiraled to 17 and 13 win seasons since then and Todd Lickliter has his work cut out for him now as Tony Freeman and Justin Johnson, who combined for nearly half of Iowa's points last year, are gone.
9) Northwestern Wildcats
It's almost crazy to put the Wildcats up this high in the Big Ten seeing as that they had one win in conference last year, and that was over sad-sack Michigan. However, Kevin Coble and Craig Moore give Evanston a light at the end of the tunnel this year; they're two of the conference's better long-range shooters. That light, unfortunately, isn't a postseason bid though.
10) Penn State Nittany Lions
Hopefully fans in Happy Valley got their share of winning this football season, because there sure wont be much at the Jordan Center this season. Ed DeChellis' job is on the line here...no improvement, again, will probably cost him his job.
11) Indiana Hoosiers
This will probably be the most anyone writes about a last-place projection anywhere, but it's warranted for the Hoosiers, who have gone through more turmoil over the past nine months than anyone in the nation. After the Kelvin Sampson debacle mercifully ended (depending on who you talk to), Indiana and new head coach Tom Crean is left with no returning starters and barely a returning scholarship player in sight. In fact, according to The Sporting News, more than 50% of the members of the USBWA couldn't name two Indiana PLAYERS, let alone starters. Senior Kyle Taber is the Hoosiers most talented player, but beyond him, walk-on Brett Finklemeier has the most experience of any othe player on the team with 11 minutes. No, not per game. Total. In his career. Indiana will trot out eight freshmen this season and it will be a lean year in Bloomington, that's for sure. However, if there's one coach that brings the attitude and the fire to turn this program around, it's certainly Crean.