Big Ten Primer: MSU remains class of league, but watch out for Illinois
Ohio St. has the designation of "nation's scariest team without a true point guard"
Purdue must make some drastic changes in the wake of Robbie Hummel's injury
Wisconsin has plenty of promise with versatile Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor
Player of the Year: Jon Leuer, Wisconsin
Michigan State's Kalin Lucas, who's back for his senior season after rupturing an Achilles during the NCAA tournament, has to be considered the favorite to win POY honors, especially if voters follow the best-player-on-the-best-team methodology. But watch out for Leuer, an ultraefficient, 6-foot-10 forward who'll be the Badgers' clear No. 1 offensive option for the first time in his career. He drew rave reviews from USA Basketball coaches for his work on the college select team this summer -- especially for his mid-range moves and driving skills -- and could very well enjoy a 20-and-8 season as a senior, putting himself in the conversation to become a the first UW player drafted since Alando Tucker. Leuer would be more of a household name already, had a broken left wrist not disrupted his promising junior year.
Impact Freshman: Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
Sullinger is a traditional low-post player with the size (at 6-9, 280 pounds) and skill set to be a double-double machine as a rookie. He may be the nation's highest-impact rookie other than North Carolina's Harrison Barnes and Duke's Kyrie Irving, and Sullinger, like those two, is already projected as a 2011 Lottery Pick. DraftExpress has him slotted at No. 9 on its current mock.
Breakout Candidate: Maurice Creek, Indiana
Creek fractured his left knee on Dec. 28, 2009, and missed the entire Big Ten portion of his freshman season, which meant he was left out of discussions about the nation's top freshmen. The numbers he put up before being injured were absurdly good, though: a 125.4 offensive rating while taking 31.8 percent of the team's shots, 44.8 percent long-range shooting, and 60.9 percent shooting inside the arc. He was by far the Hoosiers' best player, and if he can stay healthy and put up similar numbers as a sophomore, he'll warrant first-team all-conference honors.
Inside the Numbers: 73.7
The Big Ten had the nation's two best defensive rebounding teams in '09-10: Wisconsin, which was a four-seed in the NCAA tournament ... and Penn State, which went 3-15 in the league, and 11-20 overall. Both teams gathered 73.7 percent of available defensive boards, but the Badgers succeeded because they combined it with well-rounded D (ranking 19th nationally in efficiency), while the Nittany Lions failed because they barely forced any turnovers or blocked any shots, and allowed opponents to take far too many uncontested threes (ranking 126th nationally in efficiency). Making sure your opponent goes one-shot-and-done helps your defense; it just doesn't ensure that you have a great defense overall.
1. Michigan State
It will be considered a disappointment if the Spartans don't reach their third straight Final Four. This team is loaded with veteran talent and has multiple leaders in Kalin Lucas and junior Draymond Green, an ultra-valuable point forward who was the Big Ten's Sixth Man of the Year last season, and could emerge as a star in '10-11.
The Illini may have just as much talent as Michigan State, but they enter the year with less hype, because no one on their roster has experienced an NCAA tournament victory. Don't be shocked if they contend for the league title, though; senior Demetri McCamey is an elite point guard, if not yet an elite leader; 7-1 senior Mike Tisdale is one of the country's most underrated offensive centers; and freshman wing Jereme Richmond is a superb athlete who'll up their intensity level on D.
3. Ohio State
The Buckeyes have the designation of "nation's scariest team without a true point guard," and that's what makes them difficult to rank. They have two excellent gunners (junior William Buford and senior Jon Diebler), a glue-guy/lockdown defender (senior David Lighty), a star power forward (freshman Jared Sullinger) and two other post workhorses (freshman Deshaun Thomas and senior Dallas Lauderdale) ... but who'll run the show? Buford is the early favorite, and if he can make a successful conversion, Ohio State has a shot at the Final Four.
The Boilers will probably be forced to play small-ball at times, using 6-5 guard Kelsey Barlow -- their backup point guard last season -- as a power forward in the wake of Robbie Hummel's devastating knee injury. They'll have issues guarding some of the Big Ten's bigger frontcourts, but they could create issues for opponents by pushing the pace with a four-guard lineup. The Big Ten is a slow league, with just one team (Indiana) ranking in the nation's top 100 in tempo last season.