Ok, I'm not TRYING to be a conference homer here and if you want to discuss Big Ten FOOTBALL, you'll see that I'm telling the truth. But I do get feisty about the Big Ten basketball argument because I don't think the conference gets as much respect as it deserves. I'm not saying they are always the best conference--the Big East was by far the strongest college basketball conference last season. But I AM saying that 90% of the time, most of the teams are tough to beat and very competitive across the league and it seems like in the past couple of years, all we hear about is the lack of talent in the Big Ten. I disagree. Every conference goes through ups and downs and cycles of talent. Last year was a bit more of a rebuilding year in the Big Ten, yet teams like Michigan State, Purdue and even Illinois did a lot better than people expected. And do I need to mention Michigan's big wins over Duke and UCLA? I think not.
I'm going off on a tangent...but since I'm talking about Big Ten, let's start there.
~ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
Lost: Guard Chester Frazier
Returning: Guards Demitri McCamey and Alex Legion, Forwards Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis
Bruce Weber's club surprised a lot of people in 2008-2009, but there was still some work to do after a first round NCAA tournament loss to Western Kentucky. This season appears to be another step in the right direction for Illinois. They will certainly miss the leadership and defense of Chester Frazier, and McCamey and Legion will need to step up on both ends of the floor. Additionally, Weber (and fans alike) expect big things from freshman guard D.J. Richardson. And don't be too concerned about that horrible 38-33 game against Penn State last season. It became the poster child for why the Big Ten supposedly sucks, but it isn't something that was repeated and definitely won't be an issue this year.
Lost: No one really
Returning: Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims
Michigan made a huge splash early in 2008-2009 by defeating not one, but TWO of the most dominant college basketball programs ever: UCLA and Duke. Many were quick to write them off, saying it was too early to worry about those wins and waiting to see how they did in conference play....and at times it seemed those big wins were a fluke. Michigan had a mediocre season in the Big Ten, but those two early victories helped push them out of the bubble and into NCAA tournament play for the first time in a decade. To silence any remaining doubts, they captured a decisive victory against Clemson in the first round. It was almost as if they had to prove they belonged and frankly, I think they did.
The two brightest stars of the season, Harris and Sims, are one of the strongest inside-outside combinations in the Big Ten and seemed to flourish under John Beilein's tutelage. One key will be for both of these guys to stay out of foul trouble--without Sims' explosive power down low, teams will be able to key on Harris or vice versa. Now, with 7 of the top 8 players returning and a group of freshman ready to make an impact, Michigan looks to be a top finisher in the conference. The Big Ten race will be a fight, but Michigan will be right in the thick of it.
Lost: Guard Jodie Meeks
Returning: Forward Patrick Patterson
Key Additions: Guard John Wall, head coach John Calipari
This one is pretty much a no-brainer. With All-American candidate Patrick Patterson down low, the coaching of John Calipari and a strong corps of talented newcomers, most preseason polls already have the Wildcats in the Final Four. I'm not ready for that yet. I'm not saying they can't or won't get there, but before they've even played a game? No thanks. I'm not ready to base a decision like that on pre-season potential. The other teams: strong corps of vets, lots of success last year, improved skills, etc. etc. But these guys don't have my respect quite yet--and no offense to Calipari fans out there, but if there is one coach who gives me that uneasy feeling, Cal would be that guy. I think there's something suspicious about a coach who convienently changed coaching jobs (at two different schools) only to have Final Four appearances vacated almost immediately upon his departure. It just seems fishy...
But I digress. Whatever Cal allegedly does or doesn't do, he can get his players to play. He gets the fans on his side. He brings in recruits. He charms you with his media savvy and his ability to get it done. And he better get it down in Lexington or they will be quick to show him the door. He certainly has the talent and potential in his players.
Patrick Patterson struggled with injuries and sharing the spotlight with sharp-shooter Jodie Meeks, and seemed to be a little overlooked, despite reaching the 1,000 point mark in just 2 years. This season should be his time to shine. Patterson will have a host of highly-heralded recruits to back him up, but as the leading veteran on the team, now is the time to be the face of Kentucky basketball. Freshman John Wall--the #1 recruit in the nation--and DeMarcus Cousins should find plenty of room on the starting roster. After debuting at Big Blue Madness, their presence electrified the crowd and only increased excitement for how far this team will go. In addition, it will be interesting to see how returnees DeAndre Liggins and Perry Stevenson do with their games under a new coach.
I'm not entirely sold yet. Check back with me in February and see if I've changed my mind.