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October 30, 2009

League preview: Big Ten

Today, we continue our conference countdown. We're working backward, from our No. 31 league to the top league in the nation.

We started with the low-major leagues, unveiling three per day, and the mid-major leagues, unveiling two per day. Each of the top 12 leagues gets a day to itself.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. Michigan State
2. Purdue
3. Ohio State
4. Michigan
5. Illinois
6. Minnesota
7. Wisconsin
8. Northwestern
9. Penn State
10. Indiana
11. Iowa
FIRST TEAM
C JaJuan Johnson, 6-10/215, Jr., Purdue
F Robbie Hummel, 6-8/208, Jr., Purdue
F Evan Turner, 6-7/205, Jr., Ohio State
G Manny Harris, 6-5/185, Jr., Michigan
G Kalin Lucas, 6-0/190, Jr. Michigan State
SECOND TEAM
F Kevin Coble, 6-8/210, Sr., Northwestern
F Mike Davis, 6-9/220, Jr., Illinois
F DeShawn Sims, 6-8/235, Sr., Michigan
G Talor Battle, 6-0/170, Jr., Penn State
G E'Twaun Moore, 6-3/184, Jr., Purdue
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
F Evan Turner, 6-7/205, Jr., Ohio State
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR
F Christian Watford, 6-8/215, Fr., Indiana
AT A GLANCE
Regular-season winner last season: Michigan State.
Tournament winner last season: Purdue (lost in Sweet 16 to Connecticut as a No. 5 seed).
2010 conference tournament: March 11-14. Conseco Fieldhouse, Indianapolis.
New coaches: None.
Best frontcourt: Illinois.
Best backcourt: Michigan State.
Coach on the rise: Matt Painter, Purdue.
Last NCAA title team: Michigan State, 2000.
Last NCAA runner-up: Michigan State, 2009.
Last Final Four appearance: Michigan State, 2009.
Last time league received multiple NCAA bids: 2009.

If you sense deja vu during a Big Ten game this season, you won't be alone. Much of the same cast of characters returns to the conference, which had one of most successful seasons in its history in 2008-09.

For starters, the league didn't have any coaching turnover on the sideline for the first time since 2002-03. The job security was well-deserved: A conference-record eight teams won at least 20 games, and the Big Ten tied a conference record with seven teams in the NCAA tournament, including national runner-up Michigan State. Another team, Penn State, won the postseason NIT.

The faces on the court will look familiar, too. Only Wisconsin and Iowa must replace their leading scorers from last season. All five members of the All-Big Ten first team return.

Perhaps the biggest loss belongs to Michigan State. Spartans center Goran Suton - a key player during the tournament run - was a senior.

The rest of the conference hopes his departure, along with that of Big Ten defensive player of the year Travis Walton, will help close the gap between the Spartans and the other 10 teams.

Michigan State won the league by a comfortable four-game margin, leaving eight other teams bunched up in the middle of the conference standings. Only three wins separated second-place Illinois and Purdue from ninth-place Northwestern. Michigan State, at least, hopes some things never change.

PROGRAM ON THE RISE
Michigan: The Wolverines more than doubled their win total, from 10 to 22, in John Beilein's second season in Ann Arbor. Along the way, Michigan reached its first NCAA tournament since 1998. Another tournament bid will be expected this season, and Michigan could challenge for even bigger prizes. Michigan's top seven players return, led by Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims. Harris and Sims were among the top five scorers in the league.

PROGRAM ON THE DECLINE
Wisconsin: Bo Ryan hasn't finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten in his eight seasons at Wisconsin. He hasn't missed the NCAA tournament, either. Both of those marks could be in danger this season. The Badgers' 20 wins and 10-8 record in Big Ten play were the second-lowest totals in Ryan's tenure in Madison. In a league where most teams return their key players, the Badgers must replace leading scorer Marcus Landry and leading rebounder Joe Krabbenhoft.

COACH ON THE HOT SEAT
Todd Lickliter, Iowa: Only two Big Ten teams failed to reach the postseason. One was Indiana, ravaged by the messy Kelvin Sampson departure. The other was Iowa, four seasons removed from winning the Big Ten tournament. Iowa is 28-36 overall and 11-25 in the Big Ten in Lickliter's two seasons. The Hawkeyes are more likely to finish last in the league than they are to get an NCAA bid.

BIGGEST SNEAKERS TO FILL
Center Goran Suton, Michigan State: Suton had a fine regular season for the Spartans, but he really showed his value during the NCAA tournament. In Michigan State's run to the title game, Suton averaged 13 points and 10.7 rebounds (up from 10.1 and 8.2 during the regular season). The Spartans have no immediate replacement. Little-used sophomore Tom Herzog and freshmen Garrick Sherman and Derrick Nix are the candidates to take over for Suton, a second-team All-Big Ten player.

MOST OVERRATED PLAYER
Forward Raymar Morgan, Michigan State: Morgan was playing well until midway through last season, when he was struck with mononucleosis; he wasn't the same player the rest of the season. Guess what? Michigan State still reached the Final Four with limited contributions from Morgan. He has loads of potential, but he's also inconsistent, scoring 20 points one night and four the next. That was on full display in the NCAA tournament, where his point totals - 16, three, four, zero, 18, four - went up and down like a thrill ride.

MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER
Guard Lawrence Westbrook, Minnesota: He's easy to overlook. After all, he averaged only 12.6 points per game and he doesn't get as much notice in the league as guards such as Kalin Lucas, Manny Harris and Talor Battle. But don't ignore Westbrook. He was the only Minnesota player to average double figures in scoring, and he had a knack for hitting big shots - especially in Big Ten play. He's a great fit for what coach Tubby Smith wants from his players offensively and defensively.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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