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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Big Ten Preview: Projections and five storylines to watch

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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jared sullinger

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Our week-long Big Ten preview continues with conference projections and a look at the league's five most intriguing storylines entering the new season.

1. Could Ohio State be better than last year?

When Northern Arizona coach Mike Adras voted Ohio State No. 1 in the final coach's poll of the season last April, he wasn't alone in thinking that the nation's best team failed to advance past the Sweet 16. The Buckeyes went 34-3 and entered the NCAA tournament as the favorites to cut down the nets in Houston, but a 62-60 loss to Kentucky obliterated those dreams two wins shy of the Final Four.

The good news for Ohio State is that Jared Sullinger's surprising decision to return for his sophomore year gives the program a chance to be as good or better than it was last season. The Buckeyes will miss the outside shooting of Jon Diebler, the perimeter defense of David Lighty and the interior presence of Dallas Lauderdale, but no Big Ten team returns a more formidable collection of talent.

Sophomore Aaron Craft is a steady point guard and the league's top perimeter defender. Senior William Buford is a deadly outside shooter who can also get to the rim. Sophomore DeShaun Thomas is a promising wing who can score in bunches but needs to be more selective. And then there's Sullinger, already the nation's premier interior scorer before he spent the offseason shedding weight and improving his conditioning so he can play more minutes without wearing down.

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2. Can Michigan continue its ascent without Darius Morris?

The high of nearly toppling Duke to reach the Sweet 16 subsided abruptly for Michigan this past spring when the Wolverines learned that a key member of their program would not be returning for his junior season. Darius Morris, the point guard who helped spark Michigan's late-season resurgence, decided to leave for the NBA a year earlier than expected rather than attempt to solidify his status as a first-round pick with one more year of college.

Michigan likely would have contended with Ohio State and Wisconsin had Morris returned, but instead the Wolverines will go as far as whoever replaces him at point guard takes them. The most likely heir apparent to Morris is freshman Trey Burke, a Columbus, Ohio, native with a smooth jump shot and the ability to penetrate the lane and find teammates off the dribble.

If Burke can provide competent point guard play, Michigan has sufficient talent around him to continue its ascent in the Big Ten standings. Emerging star Tim Hardaway can hit from the perimeter or beat opposing defenders off the dribble, seniors Zack Novak and Stu Douglass provide outside shooting and leadership and forwards Jordan Morgan and Evan Smotrycz are both candidates for breakout seasons. {YSP:MORE}

3. Will Tom Crean's recruiting success translate into wins?

Indiana's roster was so threadbare in the wake of Kelvin Sampson's scandal-tainted tenure that success-starved Hoosiers fans have shown great patience during Tom Crean's tenure despite three losing seasons. That patience will start to wear thin, however, if the deeper, more experienced Hoosiers don't at least contend for an NCAA tournament bid in Crean's fourth season.

With impact recruit Cody Zeller joining returning star Christian Watford in the frontcourt and a versatile backcourt highlighted by athletic senior Verdell Jones, Indiana has the personnel to improve dramatically on last year's 12-18 finish. The Hoosiers won't challenge for a Big Ten title until their highly touted 2012 recruiting class arrives, but 18 to 20 wins and a top-six finish in league aren't unreasonable goals.

The X-factor for Indiana will be the play of Maurice Creek, a 6-foot-5 junior whose first two seasons have been cut short by season-ending knee injuries. Updates on Creek's progress have been scarce, but if he could regain some semblance of the form he showed as a freshman when he lit up Kentucky for 31 points, that could alter the course of Indiana's season and increase the chances the Hoosiers play deep into March.

4. How will Wisconsin handle increased expectations?

To appreciate how consistently successful Wisconsin has been in Big Ten play under coach Bo Ryan, consider that the last time the Badgers finished worse than tied for fourth in the league was before he took over the program in 2001. So many of those seasons exceeded meager external expectations, but this year the Badgers aren't going to sneak up on any of their opponents.

With point guard Jordan Taylor returning after a brilliant junior year and Josh Gasser and Mike Bruesewitz primed for breakout seasons, Wisconsin will likely appear in the top 15 of most preseason polls. Ohio State remains the favorite to capture a second straight Big Ten championship, but Wisconsin figures to be the team most capable of capitalizing if the Buckeyes slip up.

The key to the Badgers' season will be how they replace the production of graduated big men Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil. Three strong NCAA tourney games from Bruesewitz suggest the 6-foot-6 forward is prepared for an increased role, but 6-foot-10 junior Jared Berggren will need to be more than a placeholder at center or a freshmen will take his minutes as the season progresses.

5. Can John Shurna lead Northwestern to its first NCAA bid?

Three NIT bids in three seasons represent one of the most successful eras in Northwestern basketball history, but star forward John Shurna has loftier aspirations entering his senior year. "It's tournament or bust," he told the Chicago Tribune during the summer. "If we don't make it, I'll feel like my career here would be a failure."

Proclamations like that are rare at a star-crossed school that has never made the NCAA tournament before, but Shurna didn't bypass the chance to be a second-round pick in last June's NBA draft for another NIT appearance. The Wildcats return four starters from last year's 20-win team including Shurna, wing Drew Crawford and center Luka Mirkovic, raising hopes they can crack the upper half of the Big Ten and sneak into the field of 68.

The biggest concern facing Northwestern is the lack of an apparent replacement for point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson, the Wildcats' second-leading scorer and the maestro of their Princeton offense. Veteran 3-point marksman Alex Marcotullio is the most likely choice, but promising sophomore combo guard JerShon Cobb could see some playing time at point guard, as could incoming freshmen David Sobolewski and Tre Demps.

More conference previews from the Dagger:

ACC: Lessons from the pros keep North Carolina humble and hungry, ACC projections and storylines to watch, Ex-Wake Forest star Ish Smith scouts the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league ACC games, Q&A with Florida State junior Michael Snaer

Atlantic 10: Temple's Micheal Eric hopes to seize his chance, A-10 projections and storylines to watch, Ex-Xavier star Byron Larkin scouts the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league A-10 games, Q&A with St. Louis guard Kwamain Mitchell

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