Big Ten Primer (cont.)
4. Michigan State: The backcourt of Appling and Harris pairs with a sizeable frontline in 6-9, 270-pound Derrick Nix and 6-10, 240-pound Adreian Payne, but the health of sophomore forward Branden Dawson, who tore his ACL in the Spartans' regular-season finale, could be the x-factor. While Dawson recently told reporters he's more explosive than he was before undergoing surgery, Izzo has said he is "leery" of the situation for now and it seems Dawson is unlikely to be rushed into a larger role than he can handle. Given his outstanding work on the offensive glass (his 13.3 percent offensive rebounding rate led Big Ten qualifiers last season) and ability to defend multiple positions, the Spartans will undoubtedly be a better team when Dawson is at full strength, whenever that may be.
5. Wisconsin: The Badgers have finished in the Big Ten's top four in each of Bo Ryan's 11 seasons, but the already-difficult task of doing so again got even harder with news that point guard Josh Gasser will miss this season with a torn ACL. Finding steady point guard play -- likely from redshirt freshman George Marshall -- to replace Gasser, who himself was replacing Jordan Taylor, will be imperative. The team's strength will be their senior-laden frontline, with forwards Ryan Evans and Mike Brusewitz (once he recovers from a leg laceration) and center Jared Berggren, who are joined by Sam Dekker, a 6-7 wing and rare five-star signee who could help right away.
6. Minnesota: Between an encouraging NIT finals run, the aforementioned emergence of Andre Hollins, and the return of forward Trevor Mbakwe, it's hard to imagine the Golden Gophers not improving on last year's ninth-place finish. If Mbakwe is healthy enough to be the player who has averaged 13.9 points and 10.3 rebounds per game since the start of the 2010-11 season and Hollins's strong finish carries over into a new season, this should be the best team of Tubby Smith's tenure. But the caveat for Hollins carries over to the Gophers at large: they will need to take better care of the ball, having ranked 301st nationally in turnover rate last season.
7. Iowa: Fran McCaffery's second season in Iowa City was an up-and-down affair in which the Hawkeyes beat Wisconsin (twice), Indiana, and Michigan, but finished 18-17 overall and dropped home games to Nebraska and Campbell. If Iowa can avoid similar let-downs this season, it has a chance to build early momentum with a soft nonconference slate as players like Devyn Marble (11.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.6 apg) and Aaron White (11.1 ppg, top-10 in the conference in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate) continue to improve. In bigger need of improvement is one of the country's most porous two-point defenses, which allowed opponents to score at a league-worst 51.8 percent clip last season.
8. Northwestern: Finally earning a spot in the NCAA tournament will be difficult unless the Wildcats improve a lackluster defense. But more troubling given that weakness might be their ranking in the bottom 30 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage last season. The Wildcats should get some help in that department from 6-8 Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire, who was 11th in the Big East in defensive rebounding percentage in 2009-10, but he can only do so much. The emergence of a second scoring option to pair with Drew Crawford (16.1 ppg, 41.2 percent from three) after John Shurna's graduation will also be needed for the Wildcats to finally get off the bubble.
9. Purdue: Can D.J. Byrd remain one of the conference's most efficient offensive players while being counted on as more than a complementary player? His offensive efficiency rating last year ranks second among Big Ten returnees -- thanks in large part to 43.0 percent three-point shooting and a low, low 8.3 percent turnover rate -- in 19.5 minutes per game. How he and junior Terone Johnson shoulder the load while a solid recruiting class -- including new point guard and Johnson's younger brother, Ronnie -- gets up to speed will determine whether the Boilermakers can stay on track in a rebuilding year.
10. Illinois: New coach John Groce has said he wants to establish an up-tempo attack, but conceded he might not yet have the ballhandling to do so. What he does have is guard Brandon Paul, who famously poured in 43 points against Ohio State but, to considerably less fanfare, also scored four points or fewer four times. Paul and fellow senior guard D.J. Richardson can be a nice duo, but the Illini need someone to emerge in the frontcourt to avoid a rough transitional season.
11. Penn State: With a void to be filled after Talor Battle's graduation, Tim Frazier came up in a big way last year, averaging 18.8 points, 6.2 assists, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.4 steals per game while ranking 10th nationally in possession usage and second in assist rate. The Nittany Lions will again need every bit of production they can get from Frazier, though some help arrives in the form of Southern Mississippi transfer D.J. Newbill, a 6-4 wing who was an efficient scorer and offensive rebounder in a limited role as a freshman in 2010-11.
12. Nebraska: Tim Miles is an exciting hire, but it took him a few years to win at Colorado State: His first Rams team went 7-25 before increasing its win total in each of his five seasons and reaching the NCAA tournament and winning 20 games last season. For his first season in Lincoln, Miles inherits a roster with just two returning regulars -- forward Brandon Ubel and guard Dylan Talley -- from last season's tied-for-last-place squad, which means a chance to turn the page but also plenty of growing pains before Miles gets the program trending upward.