| ||The Big Ten deservedly claimed its spot as the top basketball conference last season by sending two teams to the Final Four. While both Michigan State and Ohio State failed to reach the national title game, the depth the league (four teams in the Sweet 16) and the talent returning in the conference should keep the Big Ten at the head of the hoops class this season.
The league might suffer in the power rankings early in the season because Michigan State will be without two-time Big Ten player of the year Mateen Cleaves until January, which means the Spartans will face road games against North Carolina, Arizona and Kentucky and a matchup with Kansas in the Great Eight without their floor general.
With Cleaves sidelined, Ohio State's Scoonie Penn becomes the conference's marquee player. Those two just scratch the surface of the point-guard talent in the league -- A.J. Guyton returns to be Indiana's No. 1 option and Michigan and Illinois have dynamic newcomers stepping in.
There will be a few more cheap wins in the conference than in past years, but the middle of the Big Ten will be as competitve as ever.
Mateen Cleaves, senior, G, Michigan State, 11.6 ppg, 7.2 apg
Scoonie Penn, senior, G, Ohio State, 16.9 ppg, 4.3 apg
Michael Redd, junior, G, Ohio State, 19.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg
Morris Peterson, senior, F, Michigan State, 13.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg
Brian Cardinal, senior, F, Purdue, 11.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg
Player of the year: Scoonie Penn
No player means more to his team's success than Penn. He lifted an 8-22 squad two seasons ago to the Final Four last year, perfectly fitting into coach Jim O'Brien's system. He makes everyone on his team better, most notably Michael Redd. Cleaves' extended absence also gives Penn a headstart on garnering national exposure.
Frank Williams, freshman, G, Illinois
Jason Richardson, freshman, F, Michigan State
Mike Chappell, junior, F, Michigan State
LaVell Blanchard, freshman, F, Michigan
Brian Cook, freshman, C, Illinois
Newcomer of the year: Frank Williams
Illinois started to come together at the end of last season, putting a scare into the NCAA Tournament selection committee by making it to the Big Ten tournament final despite its losing record. Williams, who was ineligible last season but practiced with the team, should step in to run the vastly improved Illini. That will allow reigning conference freshman of the year Cory Bradford to slide over to shooting guard.
Best backcourt: Ohio State
Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd could have been lottery picks in last June's NBA draft. The duo gives the Buckeyes everything they want out of a backcourt: scoring, leadership, ball-handling, defense, you name it. Penn is a perfect floor general and Redd can score from anywhere on the court. The unit is only made stronger by defensive whiz Brian Brown, who started some last season in a three-guard lineup, and designated gunner Slobodan Savovic.
Best frontcourt: Michigan State
The way the Spartans attack the glass, it seems like Michigan State has 10 guys in the paint. The loss of Antonio Smith will hurt, but A.J. Granger and Andre Hutson fill the roles needed on a team with stars like Cleaves and Morris Peterson. Five newcomers 6-foot-8 or taller give the Spartans depth, and should Jason Richardson have his eligibility problems cleared up, the high-flying trio of Peterson, Mike Chappell and Richardson will be tough to beat.
Team on the rise: Illinois
The Illini's run in last season's Big Ten tournament was a glimpse of what this team can do. Lon Kruger has made his mark on the program, and the incredible influx of talent will make Illinois a contender for the title. Frank Williams, Brian Cook and Marcus Griffin will step in and contribute immediately, and Cory Bradford will only get better moving from point guard to shooting guard.
Team on the fall: Minnesota
New coach Dan Monson didn't exactly inherit a solid program. The recently announced self-imposed ban from postseason play notwithstanding, Monson is also missing his top scorer (Quincy Lewis) and point guard (Kevin Clark). Seven-footer Joel Przybilla has a chance to dominate the post in a league largely devoid of true big men, but he won't put up many numbers if the team can't find somebody to bring the ball over half-court.
Unsung player: Jacob Jaacks, Iowa
The 6-foot-8, 235-pound center dishes out his share of punishment in the paint. Hey, if it works for Brian Cardinal, why not? But like Cardinal, Jaacks is more than just a bruiser. He hit 37 percent of his 3-pointers last season, making him a tough matchup for opponents. Alford had a similar big man with touch last season at Southwest Missouri State, where Danny Moore helped lead the Bears to the Sweet 16. Jaacks isn't Moore, but he has similar skills and should find a solid role in Alford's system.
Toughest road game: Illinois
Assembly Hall was a tough place to play last season when the llini weren't playing particularly well. But when you combine the team that should be on the floor this season with a rabid student following sitting right on the court, you get an explosive venue. The highlights that should come out of this lllinois team will energize the crowd even more.
NCAA: Michigan State, Ohio State, Illinois, Michigan, Purdue, Iowa
NIT: Indiana, Wisconsin, Penn State