Here are five storylines I look forward to following in the Big Ten this season:
1. How good can Ohio State be?
We know the Buckeyes are going to be good. Jared Sullinger is back. That's enough to guarantee a solid season at the very least. With Aaron Craft, William Buford and Deshaun Thomas all returning from last season's squad, as well, there's a fair amount of experience and continuity around the ultra-talented forward. That's enough to upgrade the Buckeyes to Big Ten favorite status.
That much seems given. The question is whether Ohio State can be truly great, whether it has the talent and cohesion to top the likes of North Carolina, Kentucky, Connecticut and any other challengers that arise in the next five months. Here, the questions are more valid. Can freshman center Amir Williams start alongside Sullinger and provide enough inside presence to allow Sullinger's expanded inside-out game to flourish? Will star freshman point guard Shannon Scott earn minutes alongside Craft and Buford, and how will that rotation work? Will Thomas -- one of the best players in Indiana high school history, who flashed loads of talent in limited time as a freshman -- emerge as the X factor swingman? And how do the Bucks replace fifth-year senior David Lighty's defense?
It's safe to assume Ohio State will be good. Very good? Sure. National-championship good? The above questions -- and others we don't yet know -- will determine that.
2. Illinois' search for identity
The 2010-11 Illinois team should have excelled. Instead, it was merely mediocre. At first glance, this season's team should take a step back: Three senior starters graduated, the most experienced returners have thus far been role players, and the rest of the squad is comprised of a host of freshmen and inexperienced sophomores. In the meantime, coach Bruce Weber is on something of a hot seat: Illinois fans are restless after last season's letdown, and probably for good reason.
Which makes the Illini's search for an identity all the more important. At Big Ten media day Thursday, Weber said he expected his team to be more aggressive. That'd be a good start; Weber's teams are at their best when they play a pressuring man-to-man style. That was missing last season. If Illinois can find it, it may not have to worry about taking a step backward. It may well move in the opposite direction.
3. Wisconsin's usual suspects
There was a lot of talk at Big Ten media day about underrating Wisconsin. It's a fair point. Every year, the Badgers lose a couple of key players, and every year, we're not sure how good they're going to be, and every year Bo Ryan's team is among the best in the Big Ten and not infrequently among the best in the nation. This season isn't all that different. The Badgers lost forwards Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil, their two most important frontcourt players, and the replacements aren't immediately clear. But if yours truly had to guess, he would say look out for Mike Bruesewitz. He's not a big name and his game won't land him on too many YouTube highlight reels, but it's never the flash that gets Wisconsin in the top 10.
4. Is this (finally) Northwestern's year?
Northwestern coach Bill Carmody is officially sick of the questions about the NCAA tournament. He admitted as much Thursday, when he lamented that he couldn't make it through the entire news conference without answering that question. Fat chance, Coach.
Still, there is some hope he won't have to deal with another year of the same questions. NU returns its two most talented players in 2011-12, one of which, John Shurna, could be the best quick-release long-range shooter in the country. Shurna dealt with nagging injuries for much of the stretch run last season. Meanwhile, Drew Crawford has morphed into a capable and versatile scorer. The Wildcats will have to deal with the loss of Michael "Juice" Thompson, their charismatic leader and late-game specialist.
The Cats have been knocking on the door, and the questions have become more pertinent than ever. Is this their time?
5. Is Iowa the dark-horse candidate?
The Big Ten is as wide open this season -- at least beyond Ohio State and Wisconsin, that is -- as at any point in the recent past. So the question is: Which previously struggling program, if any, can surprise the rest of the league? Candidates include Northwestern, Minnesota, Indiana and, I'd argue, Iowa. The Hawkeyes have one of the best post players in the league in Melsahn Basabe and a potential breakout wing player in Matt Gatens, and coach Fran McCaffery now has the benefit of a year's work with the same players in his high-pressure uptempo system. I'm not saying Iowa is going to the tournament, but as a slightly surprising sleeper? I can see it.