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By Lindy's Sports, Special to The Sports Xchange November 1, 2013 6:10 PM
The league was regarded as the nation's toughest all season long by most metrics. Not only did all of the myriad computerized rankings declare the Big Ten the best, three teams opened the year in the Associated Press poll's top five and four teams finished in the top 10. Those same four teams (Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State) reached the Sweet 16. Oh, and when the NBA draft rolled around, Indiana's Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller went second and fourth, respectively, while Michigan's Trey Burke was picked ninth and Tim Hardaway Jr. 24th. All four of those first-round picks turned pro with eligibility remaining, so that begs the question: Does the Big Ten have enough in reserve to be the nation's best again? Let's put it this way: Most early 2014 NBA mock drafts project five or six Big Ten players going in the first round. Michigan State and Michigan not only have the players the pros like, they have the experience and the depth to capture the Big Ten and go deep in the NCAA tournament. The Spartans are Lindy's preseason No. 1 with big man Adreian Payne, shooting guard Gary Harris, point guard Keith Appling and forward Branden Dawson together again. The Wolverines won't have an easy time replacing Burke at the point - though sophomore Spike Albrecht did a heck of a job during the first half of the title game - but Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas will make the transition easier. While it's important to note all of the terrific lineups in the league and the likelihood of seven teams reaching the NCAA Tournament, here's the other half of the equation: There are no bad teams. Penn State slid last year, but it returns all-league senior guard Tim Frazier from an Achilles tendon injury. Northwestern slid last year, but returns all-league senior swingman Drew Crawford from injury. Nebraska's talent level continues to nudge upward as the team moves into the $180-million Pinnacle Bank Arena. 1. Michigan State Good News: Three of the league's top five returnees - going by the coaches' all-Big Ten vote last year - belong to the Spartans. Bad News: Maybe the fact Tom Izzo didn't lure any Top 50 incoming freshmen like he usually does. Our Call: Should have the highest expectations from start to finish. 2. Ohio State Good News: Back are four starters from a Sweet 16 team - and that doesn't include sharpshooting 4 man LaQuinton Ross. Bad News: With Deshaun Thomas gone to the San Antonio Spurs, Thad Matta needs to find a consistent source of post production. Our Call: If regulars Lenzelle Smith Jr. or Sam Thompson can make a jump, the Bucks will go Sweet 16 for the fifth year in a row. 3. Michigan Good News: Despite losing two NBA first-round picks, there's oodles of young talent still around. Bad News: It's silly to expect anyone to do as many things for the Wolverines as Trey Burke. Our Call: It's not unreasonable for Michigan to shoot for another Final Four. 4. Iowa Good News: Nine of top 10 scorers from NIT runners-up are back ... and much-discussed Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff arrives. Bad News: Anything close to last year's 3-7 start in Big Ten play would be disaster. Our Call: It's time to seize the program's first NCAA bid since '06. 5. Indiana Good News: A strong recruiting class - Noah Vonleh headlines - joins forces with PG Yogi Ferrell and SF Will Sheehey. Bad News: When's the last time a program lost four starters and came anywhere near its previous exploits? Our Call: A third consecutive NCAA Tournament berth is assured, but there will be some bumps. 6. Wisconsin Good News: PG Josh Gasser returns from knee surgery to spearhead a veteran perimeter group. Bad News: Junior Frank Kaminsky (10.3 minutes per game) is the only big man with any legitimate college experience. Our Call: Despite having just one senior in rotation, the Badgers get to the NCAA Tournament for the 16th year in a row. 7. Illinois Good News: PG Tracy Abrams and C Nnanna Egwu are blossoming and Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice is a wild card. Bad News: SF Joseph Bertrand - the likely sixth man - is the only other scholarship player back from last year's squad. Our Call: With five freshmen and three transfers working into the mix, John Groce's revival takes a step back. 8. Purdue Good News: 7-foot sophomore A.J. Hammons has limitless potential and senior Terone Johnson leads a deep backcourt. Bad News: The Boilers' plans include four sophomores and three freshmen, which means some more growing pains. Our Call: If Hammons finds a consistent groove, a seventh NCAA bid in eight years isn't out of the question. 9. Minnesota Good News: Leading scorers Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins stuck around to team up with new coach Richard Pitino. Bad News: Lots of playing time available in the frontcourt, as Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams finally are done. Our Call: Transfer Malik Smith's NCAA waiver - he averaged 14.1 points for FIU last year - boosts Gophers' postseason chances. 10. Northwestern Good News: Chris Collins inherits excellent scorers on the wing in Drew Crawford and redshirted junior JerShon Cobb. Bad News: The frontcourt consists of slimmed-down 7-footer Alex Olah and a plethora of question marks. Our Call: NU needs a return to postseason to signal to recruits that Collins has program on the climb. 11. Penn State Good News: In Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill, they have the league's past two scoring champs. Bad News: Jermaine Marshall, last year's No. 6 scorer in the Big Ten, stunned everyone by bolting for Arizona State. Our Call: Not enough firepower to expect anything except an outside shot at NIT. 12. Nebraska Good News: Move into the 15,000-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena with Florida transfer Walter Pitchford ready to roll. Bad News: Will miss Dylan Talley and Brandon Ubel a lot, especially early. Our Call: Hold off on expectations until Huskers win back-to-back Big Ten games for first time.