|Gary Harris and Michigan State are loaded and ready to reclaim the Big Ten crown. (iusportcom.com)|
Five Big Ten ballers were drafted in June, four went in the first round and three in the lottery. Will the nation's "best conference" defend this imaginary title and send seven teams into the NCAA tourney again? While things appear to be thinner at the top, the depth remains strong and some squads (I'm lookin at you, Hoosiers) may thrive under lower expectations. This year, however, Tom Izzo will be the coach carrying the weight of Final Four expectations.
Favorite: Michigan State
A year after watching Indiana finish first in the regular season, seeing Ohio State win the conference tournament, and (worst of all for Spartans fans) viewing the big brother Wolverines in the national title game, Sparty should have more to cheer about this year as Gary Harris returns for what could be a very memorable sophomore season. The 6'4" guard was second on the team in minutes last year and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year, but nagging shoulder injuries blunted his effectiveness. Adreian Payne also returns as a top shot blocker with a great free throw stroke and surprising range from the floor. Swingman Branden Dawson, like Harris, is very talented and should break out this year if he can stay healthy. Point guard Keith Appling continued to tease and frustrate Spartan fans with his mercurial shooting and decision-making. In his senior year, will Appling cede to Harris in the backcourt? Izzo will earn his pay if he can smooth everything over and get his team to make the deep run their talent demands.
Dark Horse Team to Watch: Iowa
Ohio State should be nipping at the Spartans' heels all year, but in the spirit of picking an actual dark horse and not a runner-up, I'm going with the Hawkeyes. Coach Fran McCaffery has been rebuilding in Iowa City with an entertaining brand of ball, but it will be a disappointing setback if they don't get into the NCAAs in his fourth season. The NIT runner-up Hawkeyes return all of their key contributors; only seven starts from big man Eric May must be replaced this year. Roy Devyn Marble (yes, that is Roy's kid) had an up-and-down year and was actually benched at times by McCaffery, but he finished on a high note and his ability to get to the line and stretch a defense are crucial for this team. Aaron White is another quality player causing mismatch problems for opposing defenses, and four-star recruit (and 7-footer) Adam Woodbury should start to assert himself more in his sophomore season. The shooting of sophomore guards Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmens will need to improve for the Hawkeyes to reach their full potential and dance into the Sweet 16 for the first time since Dr. Tom Davis helmed the Hawkeyes in 1999.
Player of the Year: Gary Harris (Michigan State)
Aaron Craft will be your broadcaster choice, but thankfully most of them don't get to vote on anything. Glenn Robinson and Sam Dekker should also contend here. That said, the best player on the best team generally wins this award, and Harris is my prime choice here. Harris has great size for a scoring guard in college, and with his shooting and athletic ability he should be getting to the free throw line much more often this year. As the featured option in the Spartan attack, his points per game should improve quite a bit. It will be interesting to see if he can show more playmaking ability, as nba scouts would be keen to have more examples on tape.
Coach of the Year: Fran McCaffery (Iowa)
In this conference there will always be a lot of qualified candidates who have already won this award, which actually makes it easier for voters to justify giving the nod to a "new guy" in the mix. Iowa is loaded up to take the next step, and McCaffery knows it. A Tuesday night showdown hosting the Spartans on January 28 could be a statement win.
Newcomer of the Year: Derrick Walton (Michigan)
Replacing the national player of the year is a tall order, but Walton will only be asked to help steer what should still be a prolific offense under coach John Beilein. Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson and Nik Stauskas will give Walton plenty of passing targets, and the true freshman point guard should show enough 3 point range to keep defenses honest as well.
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