With powers ranging from Duke and North Carolina to Connecticut and Syracuse, both the ACC and Big East Conferences have dominated the recent college basketball scene. This year, however, the Big Ten looks primed to carry the title of “Best Conference in America.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and his Spartans will wear targets on their backs in 2009 after a run to the NCAA Championship game last season. Kalin Lucas, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, returns alongside talented sophomore Draymond Green, junior Durrell Summers, and back-up point guard Korie Lucious. Most important, often-injured senior forward Raymar Morgan looks to help carry the load offensively after the departure of big man Goran Suton.
Purdue, ranked seventh in the country, headlines the group of challengers. Coach Matt Painter looks to rely on stout defensive presence Chris Kramer on the perimeter. Offensively, the Boilermakers feature a potent inside-outside combination of either Robbie Hummel or E’Twaun Moore alongside commanding inside presence JaJuan Johnson.
In addition, Ohio State, three years removed from a magical NCAA final run with then-Buckeye superstars Greg Oden and Mike Conley, looks to challenge for the conference championship. The Buckeyes will again have to rely on junior guard/forward Evan Turner. He led the conference in scoring last season and returns to a team with eight of its nine leading scorers. Senior Kyle Madsen looks to fill in for departed center B.J. Mullens, currently of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Meanwhile, rival Michigan and its coach, John Beilein, have a potent squad as well. Watch for forward DeShawn Sims and guard Manny Harris to emerge as one of the nation’s elite combinations.
Tubby Smith’s Minnesota Golden Gophers hope to improve on 2008-09, when they returned to the NCAA Tournament. Lawrence Westbrook comes back after leading the team in scoring last year, as do secondary options Damian Johnson and Blake Hoffarber. Nevertheless, the key for Minnesota this season is freshman phenom Rodney Williams. If the forward can develop into a force down low, Minnesota should be dangerous.
Do not forget Illinois, on the cusp of the Top 25. Coach Bruce Weber has a pair of outstanding freshman guards in Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson that could become the Big Ten’s version of Kentucky’s John Wall and Eric Bledsoe. Demetri McCamey needs to be more consistent offensively for the Illini. They struggled to score, especially after the injury to point guard Chester Frazier last season. Michael Jordan’s son, Jeff Jordan, will play in 2009-10 after initially backing out of playing college basketball.
Bo Ryan is the coach of the Wisconsin Badgers, and his teams always seem to get hot at the right times. The Badgers, led by a stifling defense, should earn an at-large NCAA bid. On the outside looking in are Penn State and Northwestern. The Nittany Lions just missed last year’s tournament, but made the N.I.T. final. Northwestern, conversely, seems to be more of an underdog, especially since star Kevin Coble is out for the season with a foot injury.
Unfortunately, the Indiana Hoosiers seem to be at least a year away from a bid into the “Big Dance.” But it’s not all bad in Bloomington for coach Tom Crean and Company; the Final Four is now permanently in their backyard.