The college basketball season isn't far away. It’s time to start looking at the important questions that will shape the 2016-17 season.
It’s hard to argue which will be the best conference in college basketball this season. The ACC boasts not just a national title favorite in Duke but also championship contenders (North Carolina and Virginia), championship sleepers (Louisville and Syracuse) and a host of teams that will make things interesting (NC State, Miami and Notre Dame).
That said, being the best doesn’t necessarily make for the most interesting (think what Meryl Streep does to a best-actress Oscar competition). Which conference will have the most interesting race to the finish?
My money is on the Big Ten. In the spirit of the season, let’s say Quinnipiac polled a selection of undecided college hoops voters and asked them to pick the Big Ten champion right now. Odds are, the race would be extremely tight. Unlike in the ACC (Duke), SEC (Kentucky), Big 12 (Kansas) and Pac-12 (Oregon and Arizona), in which the results would lean toward landslides, the Big Ten has no fewer than four squads that could reasonably earn a vote, and it has a collection of others that wouldn’t be entirely outlandish picks.
What makes the Big Ten so evenly matched? It's a combination of sure things and question marks. The sure things come in the way of experience. In June, six conference players were selected in the NBA Draft, but only two of those six (Maryland’s Diamond Stone and Michigan State’s Deyonta Davis) were freshmen. The league returns a wealth of experience sprinkled evenly among all 14 members, and while everyone loves a good rookie, veterans are college basketball’s great separators.
The question marks are holes and deficiencies that make the Big Ten’s top teams less of sure things than their Power 5 compatriots ... even with their sure things.
Trust me, this makes sense.
Take, for example, Michigan State. Tom Izzo will partner arguably his best recruiting class with a host of returning veterans, including Eron Harris, Marvin Clark, Matt Schilling and Lourawls "TumTum" Nairn Jr. (who shall henceforth be called Tum to save headline space and carpal tunnel). However, the Spartans lost Denzel Valentine, who led the team in virtually every category, both quantifiable and not.
Then there is Wisconsin, a team that returns essentially everyone from its Sweet 16 finish a year ago, including Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes. The Badgers have a head coach who has survived pretty much the weirdest year a coach can drop into and live to tell about it. Greg Gard managed the middle-of-the-night retirement of Bo Ryan, his doubting-Thomas athletic director, the ever-looming presence of beloved Wisconsinite Tony Bennett, a Ryan post-retirement scandal and an 8-8 start. My guess is he’s ready for pretty much anything now. But are the Badgers going to be better than they were a season ago, or have they maxed their talent?
Tom Crean coached his way off the hot seat last season by leading Indiana to the Big Ten regular-season title, a 27-8 Sweet 16 finish and an especially sweet second-round win over Kentucky. Thomas Bryant, his talented big man, surprised many by opting to stay in school, so getting him back -- along with a healthy James Blackmon Jr. and the crazily athletic OG Anunoby -- makes for a promising Hoosier future. But IU just lost Collin Hartman to a knee injury. There’s no timetable for his return, and most importantly, Yogi Ferrell is gone. For four years, Ferrell was the team’s anchor, not to mention point guard. Now Crean will have to see if Pitt transfer Josh Newkirk is up to the task.
Purdue is in similar straits. Like Bryant, Caleb Swanigan opted for a sophomore season rather than an early NBA exit. Partnered again with Isaac Haas, he should account for one of the nastier frontcourts in the game. But the two big guys will be only as good as the smallest guy on the roster. P.J. Thompson, all 5-foot-10 of him, will get the early nod as the Boilermakers’ starting point guard. He was good last year, with a school record assist-to-turnover ratio, but his size puts him at a disadvantage defensively. His backups are heralded freshman Carsen Edwards and Michigan transfer Spike Albrecht.
That quartet quantifies as the top of the Big Ten heap, but does any one team scream prohibitive favorite? Not really. Truth be told, the rest of the league -- Maryland with Melo Trimble, Ohio State with JaQuan Lyle, Michigan and its three-guard rotation, and Penn State’s best freshmen class in history -- isn't that far behind.
That’s why, though it might not match the ACC for star power, the Big Ten will be the most fascinating race this year.