By Adam Hoge-
(CBS) One thing is clear as the 2011-12 college basketball season begins: In the Big Ten, it’s Ohio State and everyone else.
The conference announced Thursday at Big Ten Basketball Media Day that the Buckeyes were picked to finish first by the media, while Wisconsin was picked to finish second and Michigan State third. The conference only reveals the top three choices.
The media also selected its Preseason All-Big Ten Team, led by Ohio State sophomore forward Jared Sullinger, who was tabbed as the Preseason Player of the Year. Wisconsin guard Jordan Taylor, Purdue forward Robbie Hummel, Michigan State forward Draymond Green and Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe make up the rest of the Preseason All-Big Ten Team.
The Buckeyes, Badgers and Spartans all return just two starters each, but Sullinger is widely considered the best big man in the country and will be joined by sophomore point guard Aaron Craft who played a large role in helping Ohio State go 34-3 last season. Sullinger shocked the college basketball world last spring when he announced he would return for his sophomore season, but Buckeyes head coach Thad Matta revealed Thursday that he knew his stud forward was coming back all along.
“Jared had told me a year ago last summer that he was going to be here for at least two years,” Matta said. “So there was no shock and awe in my mind when he announced that he was coming back.”
Another player returning to the fold is Hummel, but his situation is very different. Coming off two separate ACL tears, Hummel will play in his first game this fall since February 2010. Already one of the conference’s best players before he went down, Purdue coach Matt Painter has high expectations for the heart-and-soul of the Boilermakers.
“I expect (Hummel) to have the best season of his career,” Painter said. “And that’s just from watching him for the past couple of months. He looks great to me.”
A big season from Hummel will go a long way for the Boilermakers as they have to replace the contributions left behind by E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson.
Illinois must replace point guard Demetri McCamey and fill the void left behind by Jereme Richmond who was kicked out of the program after just one season. The Illini also lost forwards Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale and head coach Bruce Weber acknowledged Thursday that his need team needs help at the point guard and power forward positions. Where will that help come from? Freshmen.
Weber likes what he has seen from point guard Tracy Abrams and forward Mike Shaw, both of which seem destined for playing time this season. But surprisingly, Weber said it’s a different freshman that has stood out the most.
“Nnanna Egwu might be the furthest along,” he said. “He’s a big kid from Chicago, Saint Ignatius, and it’s just an amazing story. Really didn’t play organized basketball until high school, and four years later he’s MVP of our state high school All-Star game.
“Just plays so hard. Runs the court. Very dedicated, puts a lot of time into it. Wants to be good. Loves it. And he pushes Meyers every day in practice with his intensity.”
At 6-11, Egwu is in the mold of JaJuan Johnson, a tall, lanky kid with giant upside. Illini fans should be encouraged by Weber’s comments because Egwu appeared to be destined for a redshirt as the high school season ended last year.
Weber added that D.J. Richardson “didn’t have a great year last year” and has to play better for the Illini this season. Brandon Paul will take on the bulk of the scoring load with McCamey gone and they will need Meyers Leonhard to blossom down low.
Is This The Year?
It’s been an ongoing question for Northwestern the last few years: Will the Wildcats finally make the NCAA Tournament?
NU returns four of five starters so there is optimism in Evanston, but the one loss will be tough to overcome. Michael Thompson was one of the best players in Northwestern history and his leadership will be missed at the point guard position.
“I never think about replacing a guy,” head coach Bill Carmody said. “I just think the dynamic changes every year: this guy gets better, this guy improves. You have freshmen coming in and how are they going to fit into the mix. I’m forgetting about Thompson.”
Only wins and loss will determine whether or not Carmody actually is able to forget about Thompson. The Wildcats will count on JerShon Cobb and Alex Marcotullio to fill the void.
The good news is that Northwestern will have senior forward John Shurna back at 100 percent to start the season. Shurna looked like an All-American last season before suffering an ankle injury in the middle of the non-conference season. He played hurt during the Big Ten season and, while effective, he was never the same.
If Shurna puts together a full season and Drew Crawford plays more consistently, an NCAA Tournament berth can’t be ruled out for the Wildcats. It will be tough though.
Adam is the Sports Content Producer for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.