Even the one-and-dones come back for another year in the Big Ten. The most veteran-laden of basketball's power conferences returns a slew of familiar faces this season. The biggest and brightest of those headliners reside in East Lansing, as does the league's one legitimate shot at ending a national championship drought that is approaching two decades.
Tom Izzo has his best and most complete lineup at Michigan State since Mateen Cleaves and the Flintstones won it all in 2000. Can the Spartans' sophomore class find the consistency it needs to navigate a conference schedule that replaces what it lacks in star power with depth and experience?
Michigan State's top challengers this season look like they'll come from a pool of teams that return at least one star, if not most of the starting lineup. Minnesota's depth still has to prove it can take a legitimate swing at a conference title. Northwestern brings back four starters from the team that ended an epic absence from the NCAA tournament. Purdue has to replace player of the year Caleb Swanigan but has all the complementary pieces from last year's 27-win season back on campus. Maryland is down its top star, without Melo Trimble, and will turn to a trio of sophomores to fill his shoes.
New coaches at Ohio State and Indiana will need some time to settle in, which provides all the more reason that it will need to be Michigan State carrying the Big Ten flag if the conference is going to make an appearance in San Antonio at season's end.
Number of teams that should make the NCAA tournament: Seven. Michigan State, Minnesota and Purdue should be in. Northwestern shouldn't be too far behind that group, thanks to all the experience the Wildcats return. Then comes a deep bubble crew that includes Maryland, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Penn State. It's hard to imagine all of those teams finding a seat at the table, but three out of five seems like a reasonable expectation on pace with what the Big Ten has sent dancing in recent years.
The player who will own the conference: Sophomore Miles Bridges put the NBA on hold this year in hopes of joining the eternal first-name-only club (along with Magic and Mateen) at Michigan State. He knows the only way to do that is by hanging a banner in East Lansing. He averaged 16.9 points and 8.3 rebounds during his rookie season and has room to grow as his comfort level increases.
The freshman you will want to tune in to see every time he plays: We're trying to keep this from becoming a Michigan State preview, but talent is talent, and Jaren Jackson Jr. has a lot of it. The 6-foot-11, five-star prospect can score from outside, and he has the ability to run past or post up the big men who will defend him in the paint. The Indianapolis product also has the luxury of a star-studded cast around him to keep the pressure of carrying a team from slowing him down.
Coach with the toughest job: Wisconsin's Greg Gard. Archie Miller and Chris Holtmann both have some heavy lifting ahead of them at traditional powers Indiana and Ohio State, but they should at least get some patience as a welcome gift. Steve Pikiell has the least to work with as he keeps trying to climb out of a crater at Rutgers, but again expectations should be forgiving. Gard, meanwhile, has to continue a lengthy March Madness streak with an incredibly young team as he tries to fully emerge from mentor Bo Ryan's shadow this season. At least he has Ethan Happ, a leader and one of the nation's best post players, back to help him.
The team that will surprise you: Penn State has depth and a frontcourt player in Mike Watkins who could develop into a difference-maker. Tony Carr will run the show at point guard after making the All-Big Ten freshman squad last year. He has enough help around him for the Nittany Lions to turn the corner with a winning record this year and maybe even help Penn State to its first tournament victory since 2001.
The team that will disappoint you: Just how much did Swanigan do for the Boilermakers last year? Purdue might have to find out the hard way this season. There are a lot of pieces still in West Lafayette, but it isn't clear what will tie them all together. If you're expecting to see Purdue creep its way into the Top 25 and earn a high seed in March, you might want to brace yourself for some rocky stretches this winter.
The league title will come down to...: Michigan State taking better care of the basketball and letting its young studs off the leash. If the Spartans manage to put all of their pieces together in the right way, this team is too talented to be stopped in the conference this season. If the turnover troubles that derailed the offense last season return, a pack of other programs will be waiting to pounce.