An offseason look around the Big Ten

We're now a year and change after the first wave of conference realignment. For all the pixels spilled during that heady time about the Big Ten's aggressive, money-laden pursuit of expansion, at the end of the day very little actually changed, especially where basketball is concerned.

Nebraska hopped on board. The conference split into two awkwardly named divisions for football. And ... yeah. That's pretty much it.

That's just fine by us; it means more time to spend talking about real, actual basketball. Let's recap the Big Ten's offseason and take a brief spin around the league as it stands with just one month until the official start of practice:

Jared Sullinger is back, and so are the Buckeyes. When Ohio State lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 in March, the Buckeyes freshman forward phenom told the media he would be returning to Columbus to chase a national title as a sophomore. Some believed him. Others didn't.

You could understand the skepticism. As a freshman, Sullinger was one of the best players in college basketball, a dominant low-post force destined to draw massive NBA paychecks sooner rather than later. The highest reaches of the draft lottery were available to him. Besides, players say a lot of things in the heat of the NCAA tournament. Once the disappointment wears off, they typically seize the NBA day.

Sullinger has always been cut from a different cloth, though, so maybe it shouldn't have been the least bit surprising when the big man followed through on his bold "I'll be back" proclamation. A few weeks later, Sullinger's father told the New York Times his son had stayed in school to compete for a national title, sure, but that he'd also done so because he wanted to spend time shedding weight, refining his outside game and morphing from a low-post center to a versatile, multifaceted power forward.

Sullinger has done all that this offseason. He's flashed outside range and high-post touch at the Nike Skills Camps. He's dropped between 10 and 20 pounds, with the hope of slimming to about 255 pounds by the time the season starts. (Sullinger was listed at 280 pounds last year, and he probably weighed a touch more.) There's an excellent chance the new-look Sullinger will be more creative, more skilled and more dangerous than he ever was as a freshman. And that's saying something.

At any weight, though, Sullinger's return -- alongside the returns of point guard Aaron Craft, shooting guard William Buford, versatile scorer Deshaun Thomas and a bevy of players from the loaded 2010 and 2011 recruiting classes -- is why Ohio State is yet again the odds-on favorite to win the Big Ten and joins North Carolina, Kentucky and UConn among the four favorites for the national title.

Michigan State enjoys its quiet offseason. Last summer, Michigan State endured as much offseason turmoil -- most of it self-inflicted -- as any team in the country. One of its star guards, Chris Allen, waited around East Lansing for months hoping to learn whether he would be invited back for his senior season; he was eventually dismissed. Another former guard, Korie Lucious, was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence. The Spartans' longtime coach, Tom Izzo, found himself wrapped up in the LeBron James free agency saga as he fielded a tempting contract offer from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Despite all that, the Spartans were ranked No. 2 in the country to begin the 2010-11 season. As we saw, it didn't take long for the wheels to fall off, and Izzo could never quite get things running smoothly again.

This season, it's been all quiet on the green and white front. There has been some news here and there; the oft-injured Delvon Roe suffered an ankle sprain in July, for example. But the prevailing feeling is one of calm. And Izzo, citing his latest team's lack of outside expectations, sounds as excited for this season as he has in years. If the chaos of last summer had anything to with the 2010-11 Spartans' struggles, then this offseason's comparative quiet could be a positive indicator as Michigan State looks to reclaim a place among the nation's elite in 2012.

These players would make a fantastic all-star team. Unfortunately, that's not how it works. If there's a widespread theme in the Big Ten this offseason -- besides the impending wide-open race to challenge the Buckeyes -- it's the way so many talented and effective Big Ten stars will find themselves without key counterparts in the season to come. To wit:

  • Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor returns for his senior season without Jon Leuer, his former compatriot in ruthlessly efficient and unbearably slow basketball.

  • Purdue's Robbie Hummel is back after back-to-back ACL tears, and he'll be trying to reacclimate himself to big-time college basketball without the help of former Boilermakers stars JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore.

  • Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe had to wave farewell to Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber, and now he'll try to anchor a Gophers team that will try to bounce back from last season's late collapse.

  • Northwestern forward John Shurna is one of the best shooters in the country, but he'll be working in an offense without team leader and senior guard Juice Thompson.

  • Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. benefited greatly from the assist-happy tendencies of former backcourt mate Darius Morris in 2011. Now, Morris is a locked-out NBA player, the Wolverines are determined to make the leap, and Michigan will hope to get even more from their promising young star.

See what I mean? All of these players are excellent; all of these teams have outside shots at Big Ten supremacy. But in each case, a combination of things will have to happen: The star himself will have to do more than ever and the team around him will have to adapt. Until we see some version of those finished products, it's hard to say just what the Big Ten's muddled middle will eventually yield. But it should be fun to find out.

Can Indiana and Illinois make the leap? Indiana has won a whopping eight Big Ten games in Tom Crean's first three seasons. That pace may change in 2011-12, and not just because the conference appears more ripe for the upset picking than ever. This summer, the Hoosiers brought a major talent to campus in the form of power forward Cody Zeller. Zeller's presence will allow promising forward Christian Watford to rotate into the backcourt and play more of a traditional small forward role -- his natural position -- without having to bang with larger, tougher defenders in the low block. Watford looked good in workouts this summer. The Hoosiers may not be back in the NCAA tournament this season, but they're almost certain to improve. How much is the real question.

Illinois, meanwhile, lost its four most important players -- Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale graduated and forward Jereme Richmond made arguably the most ill-advised draft entry of the offseason. Typically, that sort of loss would be the first step toward a protracted rebuild. Not in Champaign. For one, last season's senior-lead trio never quite got it; the toughness, intelligence and leadership displayed by Bruce Weber's best teams were never really present. Besides, it helps that Weber has recruited so well in recent years. He has two excellent guards in D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul, an incredibly promising center prospect in sophomore Meyers Leonard, and a slew of incoming and second-year talents that didn't get a chance to shine on last season's veteran team.

The Illini won't be making any national title runs in the near future, but Weber has this program in much better shape than you might expect from last season's thoroughly maddening mediocrity.

New places, new faces ... There's not much to report on the new coaching front in the Big Ten this offseason, but there are two new coaches in the conference this year. One is Nebraska coach Doc Sadler, who -- OK, you see what I did there.

The second is an actual new face in an actual new place, as former Boston University coach Pat Chambers takes over for the departed Ed DeChellis at Penn State. Nothing about PSU's hire went well until the actual hire itself. The school had a right to feel borderline insulted when DeChellis, sensing the ice around him thinning, jumped ship for -- wait for it -- Navy. Penn State responded by looking at every well-worn coaching retread in the sport; for a while there, the school seemed determined to hire the least inspiring man for the job.

And then ... yahtzee! Chambers took the gig, and brought with him a font of youthful energy and inspiring anecdotes (like this one right here). Fans have already warmed to the new coach, and you can understand why. But Chambers will need that enthusiasm and understanding as he and a talent-bereft team battle through what could be a very difficult first season. In the long term, though, Penn State seems to have ended the DeChellis mess with as positive an outcome as possible. It's not something we're used to saying about the school's basketball program, but in this case, the black shoe fits.

Ready for some hoops? Here are some games in the first few weeks of the season that should have you salivating:

Michigan State vs. North Carolina, Nov. 11: This game is already colloquially known as the aircraft carrier game, because it will be played on a docked U.S. aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego. It will be a major nonconference test for the Spartans, who will -- ah, never mind. As long as your brain properly processed the words "aircraft carrier game," you'll be watching.

Florida at Ohio State, Nov. 15: Last year, the Buckeyes flew to Gainesville, put a hurting on the Gators in their own building, introduced Jared Sullinger to the world and left as one of the scarier teams in all of college hoops. This one could be every bit as meaningful -- and arguably more entertaining.

Michigan State vs. Duke, Nov. 15: Yes, the Spartans have a game versus North Carolina (on an aircraft carrier!) in San Diego Bay on Nov. 11, followed by a matchup with Duke in New York on Nov. 15. This is not the wisest scheduling move of all time, but it should make for some fascinating basketball.

Michigan vs. Memphis, Nov. 21: Michigan is taking its talents to Maui this November, and its first-round game versus a young but hyper-talented Memphis team might be the best on the slate. And if the Wolverines win? Up next would be a second-round NCAA tourney rematch with Duke.

Duke at Ohio State, Nov. 29: The Buckeyes avoided North Carolina in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge schedule, but they still drew what could be an awfully tough challenge from a dynamic Duke lineup. The good news? The game's in Columbus, not at Cameron Indoor.

Purdue at Xavier, Dec. 3: Robbie Hummel's last basketball action was nearly two years ago, when the Boilermakers' supporting cast included JaJuan Johnson, E'Twaun Moore and -- blast from the past -- Chris Kramer. Now Hummel will look to recover from his injuries and lead a depleted-but-still-talented roster. Matt Painter will have his team ready to play, but will the Boilers have enough talent? This trip to Cincinnati should reveal plenty.

Marquette at Wisconsin, Dec. 3: The Badgers travel to Chapel Hill for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, but this might end up being a much more competitive game, especially given the underrated rivalry between Wisconsin's two largest hoops constituencies.