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Brian Mull | | October 7, 2016

College basketball: 5 things to watch in the Big Ten

  Michigan State Spartans head coach Tom Izzo is ready for another run in a crowded Big Ten conference.

The Big Ten has endured a slight slump in recent seasons. The 14-team conference finished first in the nation in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings each season from 2011-13 and second in 2014.

But in the last two seasons, it dipped to fourth and fifth.

Although seven teams made the NCAA tournament in 2015-16, March Madness brought frustration rather than celebration. The last national title for the conference occurred in 2000 (Michigan State).

Michigan State was the second most popular pick to win the NCAA title a year ago — 20 percent of the participants in the Capital One Bracket Challenge tabbed the Spartans to clip the nets. Instead, the No. 2 seed suffered a stunning loss to Middle Tennessee State in the first round. Purdue, a No. 5 seed, also lost in the first round and no Big Ten team advanced beyond the Sweet 16, which leaves some room for improvement heading into the 2016-17 season.

That said, here are five things to watch in the Big Ten this season:

Who emerges in the frontcourt for Michigan State?

The Spartans graduated their top three players from a 29-win team including Denzel Valentine, who split the national Player of the Year awards with Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield. The 6-5 Swiss Army Knife will be missed, but the Spartans should still flourish in the backcourt and on the wing. Eron Harris, a 6-3 guard who shot 44 percent on 3-pointers, is an elite defender and averaged 17 points in the four games Valentine missed to injury. 

Two freshmen will also be able to help right away.

Joshua Langford is a hard-driving 6-5 freshman McDonald’s All-American from Alabama and Miles Bridges is an explosive 6-7, 230-pound forward from Flint, Mich. 

Tom Izzo has questions around the basket, however, where Sparty typically shines. Matt Costello (10 ppg, 8 rpg) graduated and 6-10 forward Deyonta Davis departed for the NBA after one season. Well-traveled graduate transfer Ben Carter, a stretch forward, is out indefinitely with a knee injury.

Gavin Schilling was a likely starter before suffering a preseason injury last September. He’s the key, Izzo told reporters at Michigan State media day. 

“He had a great great summer," Izzo said. "He’s in great shape.”

What does Greg Gard do for an encore?

  Michigan State's junior forward Gavin Schilling (34) will be called on to shoulder more load in the frontcourt.

The Wisconsin Badgers wrote one of the best stories in college basketball a year ago. Veteran coach Bo Ryan retired abruptly midseason, and longtime assistant Greg Gard replaced him. After a bumpy start the Badgers clicked, winning 11 of 12 down the stretch to extend two impressive streaks: 18 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, 16 consecutive top-four finishes in Big Ten.

The Badgers could be even better this season.

The top 10 players return from a squad that was 13th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Nigel Hayes (15.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg) thrived everywhere except beyond-the-arc last season (39 of 133 on 3s). Ethan Happ was used on 25 percent of the Badgers possessions and delivered a 105.9 offensive rating to earn Big Ten Rookie of the Year. Bronson Koenig hit a brilliant corner 3 to beat Xavier in the NCAA tournament. Don't be surprised if the Badgers are battling for a spot in Phoenix this year.

How does Indiana replace Yogi Ferrell?

The diminutive point guard quietly had one of the better four-year careers in Indiana basketball history. By his senior season, he was an efficient scorer and playmaker who rarely left the court. 

Josh Newkirk, a transfer from Pittsburgh, will slide into the role. He’s not the same kind of scorer (5.9 ppg at Pitt), but he’ll have plenty of teammates to feed.

Thomas Bryant is a dominant low-post scorer, who could challenge for Big Ten Player of the Year honors. The 6-10 center shot 71 percent on 2-pointers last season, and his 125.7 offensive rating was second to Michigan State’s Valentine among players who were used on at least 20 percent of possessions.

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  Indiana guard Robert Johnson (4) will handle extra distributing duties with the departure of Yogi Ferrell.
James Blackmon Jr. averaged 16 points per game before a season-ending injury. Robert Johnson scored in double figures 11 times until a nagging ankle injury cost him five of the last seven games. 

OG Anunoby, a 6-8 forward, exploded late in the season and could reach star status as a sophomore. 

The Hoosiers improved on defense as last season unfolded, finishing third in points allowed per possession in Big Ten action. Their coach wants to see the progress continue and feels this roster has the length and versatility to apply fullcourt pressure at times.

“We're only going to go as far as our ability to have really good team defense [takes us],”  Tom Crean told the Indianapolis Star.

Is Purdue’s backcourt up to the task?

The Boilermakers won 26 games and reached the Big Ten tournament finals, but the early NCAA exit stung. It was an interesting season for Purdue though. 

The Boilermakers received little production from their backcourt, struggled to avoid turnovers in conference play (11th in Big Ten) and while they hung their hat on stingy defense, all of the important defensive stats slipped to the middle-of-the-pack against Big Ten foes.

The Boilermakers had the league’s defensive player of the year the last two seasons (Rapheal Davis, A.J. Hammons) but both have graduated.

MOREDon't overlook Purdue's PJ Thompson

  Purdue Boilermakers guard P.J. Thompson (3) has shown great strides in his game this offseason.
Purdue hopes Michigan transfer Spike Albrecht can make an immediate impact in the backcourt. P.J. Thompson has a 3.00 assist-turnover ratio in two seasons and shot 47 percent from deep in conference. Ryan Cline made 42 3-pointers in limited action and should play more minutes this season. 

With Isaac Haas, Caleb Swanigan and Vince Edwards, the Boilermakers can lay claim to the best frontcourt in the conference. Improved perimeter production will be pivotal for a program denied the Sweet 16 since 2010.

Who are the best of the rest? 

Melo Trimble has made 363 free throws in two seasons at Maryland, been an excellent distributor (28.7 assist rate) and finisher, making 69 percent of the 103 shots he attempted at the rim in 2015-16.The Terps need him to excel in each area if they hope to sniff their 27 wins from a year ago.

Ohio State finished 21-14 and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008. The Buckeyes expect to be back in the dance this year. All five starters return, which should lead to more efficient offense. They scored 1.02 points per possession in conference games, ranking 10th.

Ample offensive talent returns to Michigan, which won 23 games and clipped Tulsa in a First Four matchup in the NCAA tournament. But the Wolverines have finished 88th or worse in adjusted defensive efficiency the last three seasons. New assistant Billy Donlon, a former Wright State head coach, is supposed to help in that area. 

Northwestern was ninth in the Big Ten, 20-12 overall and is trending upward entering Chris Collins’ fourth season as coach. He’s banking on a boost from the return of sophomore Vic Law, who tore his labrum last preseason. Point guard Bryant McIntosh is a slick passer (37.3 assist rate).

After an injury-riddled season, Illinois returns Malcolm Hill (18.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and should contend for an NCAA tournament berth after missing three years in a row. 

Iowa won 22 games overall but lost seven after Feb. 10th. The Hawkeyes must replace four starters, although Peter Jok (113.9 offensive rating, 40 pct. on 3s) is one of the Big Ten’s best.

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