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Jon Rothstein’s Big Ten Offseason Notebook

Questions, Preseason Power Rankings & Players To Watch
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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By Jon Rothstein
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FIVE QUESTIONS ENTERING THE BIG TEN

1. IS THE BIG TEN BETTER THAN IT WAS LAST YEAR?

Yes, and the biggest reason why is because the bottom third of the league is significantly better than it was last season. Teams like Penn State, Northwestern, and Nebraska should all be much improved, and that will only make conference victories that much tougher to come by. On any given night, any team in the Big Ten has a chance to beat its opponent. You can’t say that about most leagues in college basketball.

2. WHAT CAN INDIANA DO FOR AN ENCORE?

Sustain excellence, and that’s something that is harder than achieving it the first time. Tom Crean resurrected the Hoosiers’ program from the ashes and won 56 games over the past two seasons while advancing to back-to-back Sweet 16′s, but now the challenge for Indiana is to keep their program at an elite level. The Hoosiers lost four starters from last year’s group that won the Big Ten regular season title, but add an influx of talent that should keep them competitive. Veterans Yogi Ferrell and Will Sheehey will anchor the back court, along with Arizona State transfer Evan Gordon. Gordon, who will be eligible to play immediately without sitting out a season could be one of the more impactful newcomers in the Big Ten thanks to Indiana’s need for battle tested players. The Hoosiers’ freshmen class is extremely deep, and led by forward Noah Vonleh, who should be an immediate contributor on the base line. A big key for Indiana will be the development of 6-8 sophomore Jeremy Hollowell, a big time talent who only reached double-figures twice during his freshman season.

3. WILL IOWA LIVE UP TO EXPECTATIONS?

It’d be shocking it they didn’t. The Hawkeyes nearly made the NCAA Tournament last year and return their entire core while adding an impact forward in Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff. Iowa lost six conference games by five points or less last season, and an extra year of experience should go a long way for this group in close game situations. The biggest key for this team? Outside shooting. Fran McCaffery needs a reliable shot maker from deep, and a potential candidate to fill that role is freshman Peter Jok. The 6-5 small forward is an effortless shooter, and could compete with veteran Josh Oglesby for a “specialist” role in reserve.

4. WHAT DOES TIM FRAZIER’S RETURN MEAN FOR PENN STATE?

That the Nittany Lions will have a back court that can match up with any team they’ll play on their schedule. 12 months ago, Frazier was being talked about as one of the best guards in college basketball. Now after he missed last season with an achilles injury, he’s a bit of a forgotten man. The fifth-year senior gives the Nittany Lions someone who can take pressure off D.J. Newbill (16.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 4.0 APG), and that means that more times than not, Pat Chambers is going to have a pair of guards that are going to have an advantage over their opponents. Penn State suffered a bit of a blow when Jermaine Marshall opted to transfer to Arizona State, but Chambers acted quickly to replace him by adding Miami (OH)transfer Allen Roberts (12.3 PPG). If Roberts can fill the role vacated by Marshall, and Pitt transfer John Johnson and freshman Geno Thorpe produce at a reasonably high level, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that this team will be competing for some sort of postseason berth. The biggest question for the Nittany Lions? The backboard. Undersized forward Ross Travis (7.4 RPG) returns and will play a big role on the glass, but Chambers is going to have to figure out a way to navigate nightly rebounding issues if this team is to reach its potential. Another thing to remember? Chambers was an assistant to Jay Wright when Villanova went to the Elite Eight in 2006 by playing a four-guard lineup with four different players regularly on the floor under 6-4. Don’t be surprised to see Penn State regularly use a smaller, skilled alignment.

5. WHO IS THE SLEEPER?

Purdue. Matt Painter’s team struggled for much of last season, but they return four starters from a squad that showed signs of promise late in the year. Point guard Ronnie Johnson should be much more consistent as a sophomore, and his brother Terone is primed to be one of the Big Ten’s best perimeter scorers as a senior. Sophomores Rapheal Davis and A.J. Hammons should both make jumps in their second season of college basketball, while Cornell transfer Errick Peck will add leadership and intangibles. The big wild cards for this team are red shirt freshman Jay Simpson and first-year guard Kendall Stephens, who will be called upon to replace some of the outside shooting that was lost with D.J. Byrd’s graduation. If Stephens is a reliable outside threat, and Simpson can stay healthy, there’s no reason why Purdue shouldn’t be an NCAA Tournament team next March.

BIG TEN PRESEASON POWER RANKINGS

1. MICHIGAN STATE

THE SKINNY: Adreian Payne’s return makes Sparty a Final Four contender.

2. OHIO STATE

THE SKINNY: Take the pictures and put them away. We won’t see another Aaron Craft for an awful long time.

3. MICHIGAN

THE SKINNY: Freshman point guard Derrick Walton will pick up where Trey Burke left off.

4. IOWA

THE SKINNY: The Hawkeyes will make the NCAA Tournament, and have the potential to do damage once they get there.

5. WISCONSIN

THE SKINNY: Death, taxes, and Bo Ryan.

6. INDIANA

THE SKINNY: Will Sheehey should emerge as one of the better players in the Big Ten.

7. PURDUE

THE SKINNY: The Boilermakers will return to the NCAA Tournament.

8. ILLINOIS

THE SKINNY: Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice could be the Illini’s top scorer.

9. PENN STATE

THE SKINNY: The Nittany Lions have a back court that can match up with anyone, but who will get a rebound?

10. NORTHWESTERN

THE SKINNY: Newly minted coach Chris Collins will benefit from the returns of both Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb.

11. NEBRASKA

THE SKINNY: Tim Miles’ team is noticeably better on paper, but so is the rest of the league.

12. MINNESOTA

THE SKINNY: Richard Pitino’s system should enhance the abilities of both Andre and Austin Hollins.

BIG TEN PRESEASON FIRST TEAM

Aaron Craft, Ohio State

Gary Harris, Michigan State

Glenn Robinson III, Michigan

Adreian Payne, Michigan State

Mitch McGary, Michigan

BIG TEN PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Adreian Payne, Michigan State

TEN WHO HAVE WAITED AND WILL MAKE AN INSTANT IMPACT

Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa (transfer)
Rayvonte Rice, Illinois (transfer)
Tim Frazier, Penn State (red shirt)
John Johnson, Penn State (transfer)
Drew Crawford, Northwestern (red shirt)
JerShon Cobb, Northwestern (red shirt)
Josh Gasser, Wisconsin (red shirt)
Terran Petteway, Nebraska (transfer)
Walter Pitchford, Nebraska (transfer)
Kenny Kaminski, Michigan State (red shirt)

TEN IMPACT FRESHMEN

Noah Vonleh, Indiana
Troy Williams, Indiana
Luke Fischer, Indiana
Stanford Robinson, Indiana
Derrick Walton, Michigan
Zak Irvin, Michigan
Marc Loving, Ohio State
Kendall Stephens, Purdue
Kendrick Nunn, Illinois
Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin

FIVE UNDER-THE-RADAR FRESHMEN

Peter Jok, Iowa
Geno Thorpe, Penn State
Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin
Gavin Schilling, Michigan State
Tai Webster, Nebraska

FIVE BREAKOUT PLAYERS

Will Sheehey, Indiana
Denzel Valentine, Michigan State
Caris LeVert, Michigan
LaQuinton Ross, Ohio State
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

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