Ohio State sophomore forward Jared Sullinger was the most durable, versatile and talented post player in the Big Ten the last two seasons. He’s 6-foot-9, he can pass from the past, shoot jumpers and, of course, was a force on the boards.
Sullinger, who Wednesday declared he will head to the NBA, was a two-time, first-team all-Big Ten selection. No one player can replace him and his skill set for the Buckeyes, although several players could combine for the job.
Sullinger is the first top-shelf Big Ten player to announce he’s going pro (Illinois’ Meyers Leonard also declared). Had Sullinger stayed, it would have been easy to declare the Buckeyes the league’s favorite (maybe even national favorite) entering next season. Instead, Ohio State fits in with a handful of other schools — provided their players stay away from the NBA draft.
Talented Michigan point guard Trey Burke is either leaving or undecided, according to multiple reports. Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Christian Watford also could enter the draft. Sullinger’s teammate, Deshaun Thomas, also has a decision to make, as does Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe. Players have until April 10 to declare for the draft.
Until it’s official with Burke, the Indiana boys, Thomas or Mbakwe, we’re keeping them in the league. With that, here’s a way-too-early projection for the Big Ten race entering next season:
1. Michigan — The tri-Big Ten champion Wolverines should repeat in some fashion if Burke returns. Burke, a second-team all-Big Ten point guard from last season, scored 14.8 points a game and dished 4.6 assists. Shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who was a third-team all-Big Ten guard as a sophomore, scored 14.6 points. They’ll be joined by post Jordan Morgan, who was ninth in the league in rebounding as a sophomore. Michigan loses glue guys Stu Douglass and Zach Novak, as well as key forward Evan Smotrycz (4.9 rebounds), who will transfer. But Michigan makes up for those losses with talent. Five-star Rivals recruit Mitch McGary, the nation’s top 6-foot-10 power forward/center and athletic small forward Glenn Robinson Jr., will make the Wolverines not just a Big Ten heavyweight, but a national title contender – if Burke stays. Otherwise, Michigan is just another good team.
2. Indiana – The Hoosiers have become the post-tournament media darlings and why not. The Hoosiers reached the Sweet 16 and traded punches against national champion Kentucky before losing by 12. This year Zeller was the league’s best center (although he was voted second-team all-Big Ten as a freshman) and was the Hoosiers’ primary offensive threat with plenty of nice complementary players like Watford, Jordan Hulls and Will Sheehey and top defender Victor Oladipo. The upper-echelon talent comes next year with Rivals’ 5-star players point guard Yogi Ferrell and forward Hanner Perea as well as 4-star small forward Jeremy Hollowell. Potential could push the Hoosiers ahead of Michigan, but I like the Wolverines just a tad more based on proven talent (again, it all changes with Burke’s decision).
3. Michigan State — Yes, the Spartans lose the Big Ten’s best player in Draymond Green, who averaged 16. 2 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists a game. Talented forward Branden Dawson, a member of the Big Ten’s all-freshman team, suffered a torn ACL at season’s end. But Tom Izzo solidified one of the Big Ten’s best incoming classes with a tough guy in Matt Costello, an athletic wing in Gary Harris and a versatile swing player in Denzel Valentine (for more read here). Plus, the Spartans return third-team all-Big Ten guard Keith Appling (11.4 points, 3.9 assists as a sophomore) and physical posts Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix (who is suspended after a marijuana arrest). But never count out Izzo, who is the nation’s best coach.
4. Ohio State — So where do the Buckeyes go post-Sullinger? They still have a hard-nosed point guard in Aaron Craft, an inside scoring threat in Thomas, an ascending player in shooting guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., and five talented freshmen who played sparingly this year. But Ohio State had only five players average more than 11.5 minutes a game. Every other team in the league would die to throw in Shannon Scott, Trey McDonald, LaQuinton Ross and Amir Williams for 15-18 minutes a game. Instead Ohio State rode out their stars and when one got in foul trouble (ahem, Thomas in the Final Four), other players looked ill-prepared replacing them. You can’t overlook the talent that returns, but I can’t put them at the top because the talent is largely unproven.
5. Wisconsin– The Badgers lose talented point guard Jordan Taylor, who scored 1,533 career points and set an NCAA record with a 3.01 career assist-to-turnover ratio. But Wisconsin returns virtually everyone else, from center Jared Berggren to forward Mike Bruesewitz to combo Ryan Evans to shooter extraordinaire Ben Brust. Plus incoming 6-foot-8 freshman Sam Dekker is the real deal. At worst Wisconsin will find a game manager to replace Taylor. The Badgers are easy to overlook, but they will finish at least in the Big Ten’s upper half and probably higher as usual.
6. Minnesota — No Big Ten team recently has lost the talented players for either off-the-court issues (Royce White, Devoe Joseph) or injuries (Al Nolen, Mbakwe) quite like the Gophers. Still, Minnesota worked through Mbakwe’s injury to win 23 games and finish second in the NIT this year. Mbakwe, who led the Big Ten in rebounding two seasons ago, tore an ACL early last season and was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA for next season. The Gophers are stuck because they have all but one player returning and would need a scholarship waiver for Mbakwe to come back (unless somebody leaves, wink-wink, nod-nod). Freshman Andre Hollins took over at point guard and scored at least 12 points in eight of Minnesota’s final nine games. Rodney Williams, who is loaded with athletic potential, shrugged off inconsistency and scored at least 18 points in five straight games until the NIT final.
7. Iowa — The Hawkeyes earned their first winning season since 2007 and signed one of the country’s top freshmen classes, headlined by Rivals’ 4-stars Adam Woodbury (center) and Mike Gesell (point guard). The Hawkeyes also return one of the Big Ten’s best freshmen in forward Aaron White, who led the team in rebounding and averaged 11.1 points a game. Off-guard Devyn Marble scored 11.5 points a game and finished fifth in Big Ten assist/turnover ratio at 2.1. Marble exploded for 31 points in an NIT loss at Oregon, sinking his first seven 3-pointers. Zach McCabe, Eric May and Melsahn Basabe all started more than 20 games for Iowa, and off-guard and designated shooter Josh Oglesby started five games. But replacing all-everything guard Matt Gatens and underrated point guard Bryce Cartwright presents a challenge for Iowa.
8. Illinois — The Fighting Illini have oodles of talent on their roster, including scoring guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, and lose just one key player in center Meyers Leonard. Paul scored a league-high 43 points against Ohio State this year, and Richardson is among the Big Ten’s most explosive players. The key for Illinois is for new coach John Groce to blend the talent together (pretty much the theme every year in Champaign). It’s not an impossible task.
9. Purdue — The Boilermakers bring in four high-caliber recruits, led by Rivals’ 4-star recruits point guard Ronnie Johnson (high school teammate of incoming Iowa freshman Pat Ingram) and 6-9 forward Jay Simpson. Purdue loses a talented foundation of players in Robbie Hummel, Lewis Jackson and Ryne Smith (plus Kelsey Barlow, who was booted from the team) so at first blush it appears to be a rebuilding year for the Boilermakers.
10. Northwestern — The Wildcats tied for seventh this season and graduated all-time leading scorer John Shurna plus key contributors Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti. Northwestern does return third-team all-Big Ten guard Drew Crawford, as well as all-freshman team member Dave Sobolewski. Northwestern picks up three versatile players in forward Kale Abrahamson (of West Des Moines), center Alex Olah and guard Sanjay Lumpkin. Maybe the Wildcats can adequately replace Shurna, but Northwestern didn’t post a winning Big Ten record this year with what many call the school’s best-ever team.
11. Penn State — Penn State finished tied for last, which wasn’t a surprise. But the Nittany Lions were competitive, which kind of was a surprise. Penn State featured the league’s best all-around guard in Tim Frazier, who will return next year. The Nittany Lions will add Rivals’ 3-star shooting guard Akosa Maduegbunam to replace Cammeron Woodyard. Coach Patrick Chambers had his team playing hard — especially at home — this season, so improvement is expected.
12. Nebraska — The Cornhuskers are going through a regime change (from Doc Sadler to Tim Miles), losing their best inside presence (Jorge Brian Diaz is leaving for a pro career in Puerto Rico) and they could be down to nine scholarship players for next season (click here for more information). Plus, Nebraska tied Penn State for last place in its inaugural Big Ten campaign. The Cornhuskers had a few nice wins (home against Indiana and Illinois, road at Iowa) but largely weren’t competitive, hence the coaching change.