Big Ten Primer: Questions surround possible title contenders Ohio State
Jared Sullinger is working with a better team than Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor
Purdue welcomes back fifth-year, all-league Boilermaker Robbie Hummel
Melsahn Basabe is the best forward in the Big Ten that most have never heard of
There is no conference race more intriguing than the Big Ten, which could put as many as seven teams in the NCAA tournament, yet has no obvious pecking order after Ohio State at No. 1. Questions abound: Can Jordan Taylor carry Wisconsin's offense by himself? Can Michigan have a breakthrough year while starting a freshman point guard? Is Michigan State one of the country's biggest sleepers? Will Robbie Hummel get back to his pre-knee-injury form and make Purdue a contender? Is it finally Northwestern's year to make the NCAAs? What follows is our best guess at the answers.
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
Sullinger's space-creating, extrasensory backside was such an asset last year that it inspired entire articles, including one in which he said, "my butt is my best friend." He shed 15 pounds after a freshman season in which he averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds, but assured me he retained his most valuable bulk.
"That weight went nowhere," Sullinger said. "I was playing open gym against [former Buckeye forward] Terrence Dials and he was like, 'Boy, you lost all that weight but you've still got that [butt]. I said, 'Hey, I can't help it.'"
More stamina plus same backside sounds like a formula for a 20-and-12 season, and a run at national Player of the Year honors, too.
Branden Dawson, Michigan State
The Big Ten doesn't have an impact freshman in the Anthony Davis/Marquis Teague/Austin Rivers sense. Indiana's Cody Zeller is the league's highest-rated recruit, but his body type (6-11, 230) suggests he might need two years to be great, rather than dominate immediately. That's why Dawson -- a physical, 6-foot-6 rookie who Tom Izzo thinks can be an elite rebounder in the Big Ten -- gets the nod. Dawson will be the undersized guy playing inside for the Spartans, while senior Draymond Green will be the oversized guy playing on the outside.
Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State
In his short stints of playing time last season, Thomas actually took a higher percentage of shots (30.5) than did Sullinger (25.2) or William Buford (26.8), and was remarkably efficient, with a 115.0 rating. Now that Thomas is likely to start, he shouldn't be commandeering a larger portion of the Buckeyes' offense than Sullinger. But Indiana's all-time prep scoring leader will get a fair share of shots. Shooting is what he's hard-wired to do.
The percentage of offensive possessions on which Wisconsin committed a turnover last season, the lowest in the country. Ohio State finished second among Big Ten teams at 15.8 percent; Iowa was last, at 21.6.
1. Ohio State
The Buckeyes have a sure thing in Sullinger, but plenty of questions around him. Will senior shooting guard William Buford -- whom we last saw going 2-of-16 against Kentucky in the Sweet 16 -- be a more efficient scorer and consistent defender? Will sophomore defensive stopper Aaron Craft run the point 80-90 percent of the time, or will coach Thad Matta put freshman Shannon Scott on the floor to pilot the offense? If it all comes together, OSU can make a national title run.
If Jordan Taylor can post the same efficiency rating (126.9 on 27.4 percent usage) after losing pick-and-pop marksmen Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil, then just hand the Badgers' point guard the Naismith and Wooden Awards. Taylor has justified his standing as a first-team, preseason All-America point guard, but he'll probably have to work even harder for his points as a senior.
3. Michigan/Purdue (tied)
Michigan is being regarded as the Big Ten's "third top-25 team," even after losing point guard Darius Morris. The gap between the Wolverines, Purdue and Michigan State is tiny at the start of the season. It widens if freshman Trey Burke emerges as a steady replacement at the point, and if sophomore forward Jordan Morgan has the kind of breakout season that his rookie-year stats portend. (You already know that wing Tim Hardaway Jr. is going to be good. The kid can score.)
For all the talk about Sullinger and Taylor, there's only one returning player in the Big Ten who's been first-team all-league twice: the Boilers' Robbie Hummel, who's back for a fifth year after rehabbing from his second major knee injury. And he isn't alone: Senior Ryne Smith, a 44.1-percent long-range shooter, could have a Jon Diebler-like final season, and senior point guard Lewis Jackson quietly posted a 110.4 efficiency rating last season, on par with that of E'Twaun Moore's (albeit with only three-fourths the usage rate).