We finish our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we've worked backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.
1. Big Ten
By David Fox
Since Michigan State won the 2000 national championship, the Big Ten has been the bridesmaid conference.
Only the ACC has made more Final Four and national championship game appearances than the Big Ten in the past 10 tournaments, but the ACC has five titles in that span. Meanwhile, the Big Ten has been the national runner-up four times in seven trips to the Final Four - with no championships.
If a Big Ten team reaches the Final Four in 2011, it will have earned it. Even with one of its top teams hurt by a major injury to a key player, the Big Ten could be the strongest and deepest conference in the country.
The season-ending ACL injury to Purdue's Robbie Hummel deprived the Big Ten of a top-five team in the preseason polls, but the league still has two in that class - Michigan State and Ohio State.
How Purdue fares without Hummel (and glue guy Chris Kramer) will be a season-long story line in the Big Ten. By no means are the Boilermakers' hopes sunk. F/C JaJuan Johnson decided to stay in school rather than enter the NBA draft. G E'Twaun Moore, who has led the team in scoring all three seasons he has been on campus, returns as well. The Boilermakers have played without Hummel for parts of each of the past two seasons, but never for more than eight games.
Injury - or at least recovery from injury - also will shape Michigan State, the Big Ten's preseason favorite. G Kalin Lucas, Big Ten player of the year in 2008-09, suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the NCAA tournament. He's one of the best point guards in the country when healthy, but he's something of an X-factor at this point. Lucas will be surrounded by talent in Durrell Summers, Draymond Green and Delvon Roe (who also battled injuries last season). Michigan State reached the Final Four and tied for the Big Ten title, but the Spartans lacked consistency.
National player of the year Evan Turner is gone, but Ohio State shouldn't have a major drop-off. Part of the reason is an outstanding supporting cast - William Buford, David Lighty and Jon Diebler - will move into featured roles. Still, there is no true point guard, and it likely will be committee affair. Once again, Ohio State signed a highly touted big man in C Jared Sullinger, the fifth-ranked recruit in the country. Expect him to be more of an impact player than previous five-star recruits B.J. Mullens and Kosta Koufos. Sullinger should contend for national freshman of the year honors.
Illinois fans have ridden a roller-coaster since a 2005 national championship game appearance. Perhaps this season will be another peak. Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis are back in the frontcourt, and PG Demetri McCamey, who can be as good as anyone in the country when he's on, also returns. All three are seniors.
Wisconsin routinely is one of the most overlooked programs on a national level, possibly because the Badgers have failed to get out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament in four of the past five seasons. The Badgers should be tournament-bound again this season and have the to shock teams inside the conference and out, as the Badgers did when they beat Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They lose the backcourt duo of Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon, but F Jon Leuer elected to return to school and is a star. Jordan Taylor is a solid point guard who performed well in the second half of last season.
Tubby Smith has led Minnesota to back-to-back NCAA tournaments. Now, the Gophers are seeking their third consecutive trip for the first time in school history. Ralph Sampson III (6 feet 11) and Colton Iverson (6-10) make for an imposing frontcourt, but they need to become better offensive players. Devoe Joseph will be on the spot to replace leading scorer Lawrence Westbrook in the backcourt for the Gophers, who advanced to the league tourney championship game last season.
While Purdue is dealing with an unexpected injury, Northwestern is dealing with an unexpected departure. Star F Kevin Coble left the team to focus on academics. A sign that these aren't the typical Wildcats: The loss might not be devastating. Northwestern still has NCAA tournament hopes without Coble. The Wildcats are the only Big Six conference school never to receive an NCAA bid.
The final four teams in the Big Ten are in various stages of rebuilding. An NIT isn't a big deal in the grand scheme of things for Indiana, but in Tom Crean's third season, it's a reasonable goal. Four players who started at least 20 games are back for the Hoosiers. Penn State won the 2009 NIT, but collapsed last season as high-scoring G Talor Battle basically was a one-man team. He'll at least have more experience around him this season. Michigan must replace its core of Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims and could battle Iowa to stay out of last place.
FACTS AND FIGURES New coaches: Fran McCaffery at Iowa (had been coach at Siena)
Regular-season winner last season: Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan State tied.
Tourney winner last season: Ohio State
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 5th in 2009-10, 2nd in 2008-09, 6th in 2007-08
2011 conference tournament: March 10-13, Indianapolis
MAKING A LIST Best frontcourt: Michigan State. The unit loses Raymar Morgan, but the Spartans still should be among the nation's best up front. They led the nation in rebounding margin and experienced minimal drop off the past few seasons when Morgan was injured. The versatile Draymond Green excelled coming off the bench, while Derrick Nix and Garrick Sherman are sophomores who should see increased playing time this season. The Spartans also are counting on junior Delvon Roe to be healthy for a full season.
Best backcourt: Michigan State. The Spartans wouldn't be a national title contender if they weren't well-balanced. Still, Michigan State's fortunes could depend on the Achilles' tendon of Kalin Lucas, who was sidelined for part of the NCAA tournament. Korie Lucious is a capable backup, but he will face a suspension of at least two games after a drunken driving arrest. Without Lucas in the lineup, Durrell Summers carried the Spartans during the tournament. The transfer of Chris Allen hurts, but Michigan State adds McDonald's All-American Keith Appling.
Program on the rise: Northwestern. Many programs don't get too excited about an NIT appearance. Not Northwestern. The Wildcats played in the postseason in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history, and they're seeking their first NCAA bid. Even without F Kevin Coble, who ended his basketball career to focus on graduating in December, the Wildcats should at least contend for a tournament berth thanks to John Shurna, Drew Crawford and Michael Thompson. Even if Northwestern fails to reach the tournament, three consecutive NITs is a major step forward in Evanston.
Program on the decline: Michigan. The Wolverines won an NCAA tournament game in 2009, John Beilein's second in Ann Arbor. But the Wolverines have failed to build any momentum from that season. They slipped to 7-11 in the Big Ten last season and may have to fight to stay out of last place in the league in 2010-11. Only two players who started at least 20 games last season return, and no one on the roster averaged more than 7.4 points last season.
Coach on the rise: Iowa's Fran McCaffery. Determining the coach on the rise in a league such as the Big Ten is difficult. Most of the coaches already are at the pinnacle of their careers. If there is a coach with some upside, it's McCaffery, who took Siena to three consecutive NCAA tournaments. Now he'll try his hand at rebuilding Iowa. It won't be easy early - especially this season now that leading scorer Matt Gatens is out for three weeks. McCaffery could be in for a rough season, but he reached the NCAA tournament in his third season at Siena.
Coach on the hot seat: Penn State's Ed DeChellis. The Nittany Lions won the 2009 NIT but had trouble simply winning a game in 2009-10. They started 0-12 in the Big Ten before winning three of their final five regular-season games. The main problem was that the Nittany Lions returned just one player (G Talor Battle) from what essentially was a three-man team. Penn State should be improved this season with Battle and three other starters returning.
Most underrated player: Northwestern G Michael Thompson (5-10/190, Sr.). Shurna and Coble received most of the accolades for Northwestern in recent seasons, but were either of them the Wildcats' best player? Thompson is a workhorse point guard, leading the Big Ten at 37.7 minutes per game. He's also one of the most efficient, finishing in the top five in the league in assists, free-throw percentage, 3-point field-goal percentage, 3-pointers made and assist-to-turnover ratio. He also averaged 14.2 points per game.