CBSSports.com College Basketball Insider

Conference Countdown: No. 5 -- Big Ten

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POY candidate Jared Sullinger and DeShaun Thomas help make OSU the favorite. (Getty Images)  
POY candidate Jared Sullinger and DeShaun Thomas help make OSU the favorite. (Getty Images)  

This might surprise you about the Big Ten: Jared Sullinger is neither the top returning scorer nor rebounder.

How's that possible?

That's what I thought when I realized the CBSSports.com Preseason National Player of the Year didn't average as many points last season as Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor or as many rebounds as Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe. But Sullinger is still the league's best player on the league's best team, and, on paper, there really isn't anybody in the Big Ten who should be able to challenge Ohio State. So let's not debate the top. But second through 12th? Yeah, that can be debated pretty reasonably from lots of different sides. Should make for a fun season.

(Schools listed in predicted order of finish.)

1. Ohio State: You can tell by looking at the all-conference teams here that Ohio State is once again loaded. Jared Sullinger and William Buford are first-teamers while Aaron Craft and DeShaun Thomas are second-teamers. That's testament to the talent Thad Matta has assembled in Columbus. As long as he keeps recruiting this way, he'll break through and win a national championship eventually. It might even happen this season.

2012 Tournament:
March 8-11 -- Indianapolis
Quick facts
Defending regular-season champion:
Ohio State
Defending tournament champion:
Ohio State
Top returning scorer:
Jordan Taylor (Wisconsin), 18.1 ppg
Top returning rebounder:
Trevor Mbakwe (Minnesota), 10.5 rpg
Accolades
First team
G - Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin
G - William Buford, Ohio State
F - Draymond Green, Michigan State
F - Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota
F - Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
Second team
G - Aaron Craft, Ohio State
G - Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan
F - DeShaun Thomas, Ohio State
F - Robbie Hummel, Purdue
F - John Shurna, Northwestern
Player of the year
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
Newcomer of the year
Cody Zeller, Indiana
Breakthrough player
DeShaun Thomas, Ohio State
Coach on the hot seat
Bruce Weber, Illinois
Click here for more
conference previews

2. Michigan: The unexpected loss of Darius Morris to the NBA hurt, no question. But the Wolverines still have enough talent to compete near the top of the Big Ten, return to the NCAA tournament and advance for the second straight season. The only question mark is who will replace Morris at point guard. Will it be freshman Trey Burke, senior Stu Douglas or a combination of the two? John Beilein is still trying to figure that out.

3. Wisconsin: Guess who didn't lose his point guard like Beilein lost his? Bo Ryan. So the man who has led the Badgers to 10 consecutive NCAA tournaments will almost certainly do it again. That's how good Jordan Taylor is. This time last year, not many people realized it because most of the attention was on Jon Leuer. But now Leuer is gone and Taylor is nationally respected, and the Badgers will be near the top of the Big Ten standings again, just like always.

4. Michigan State: A core of Draymond Green and Keith Appling gives Tom Izzo something to work with, although it might not look like it early considering the Spartans open with North Carolina and Duke. Will Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne be better? Can Valparaiso transfer Brandon Wood score in the Big Ten like he scored in the Horizon League? Those are the questions that must be answered. If they're answered in a positive way, the Spartans could crack the top three of this league, perhaps even the top two.

5. Illinois: Bruce Weber had a dysfunctional team last season featuring too many players with different agendas, which is why the Illini underachieved and finished 9-9 in the Big Ten. Three double-digit scorers from that team are gone, including point guard Demetri McCamey. But the hope within the program is that this could be addition by subtraction, and that a less-talented-but-still-talented roster manages to win more league games than it loses. If not, the heat will turn up on Weber -- a respectable and accomplished coach, but one Illini fans sometimes bemoan because he hasn't been to the Sweet 16 since 2005.

6. Purdue: The Boilermakers might be coming off consecutive Final Fours -- and perhaps even a national championship -- if Robbie Hummel never tore two ACLs in a span of nine months. But he did. So they aren't. And that's just life, I guess. Either way, Hummel is back and ... (fingers crossed) healthy. But classmates JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore have both exhausted their eligibility, so a middle-of-the-pack finish in the Big Ten seems most likely.

7. Northwestern: Is this the season Northwestern finally makes the NCAA tournament? That question is asked each October, and the answer is usually a simple "no." But this time there's a real chance. Replacing point guard Michael Thompson won't be easy; he's the program's record holder for assists and minutes played. But John Shurna is back, and so is Drew Crawford. That's two double-digit scorers that could help get Bill Carmody in the good graces of his fans.

8. Indiana: Maurice Creek just had his third major surgery in the past 22 months and at the same time lowered the ceiling on what Tom Crean can accomplish in his fourth season of this rebuilding job at Indiana. The Hoosiers will be better thanks to the addition of Cody Zeller, and a great recruiting class is on the way. But it'll be another season before Indiana is relevant the way Indiana should be.

9. Minnesota: Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III give Minnesota one of the nation's best frontcourts, but the backcourt is bare. There's just not much there. So the Gophers will probably fail to win a game in the NCAA tournament for the 14th straight season, mostly because they'll probably miss the NCAA tournament for the second straight season.

10. Nebraska: Doc Sadler claims he has his most talented Nebraska team ever, and I don't doubt that's true. But that statement is also a testament to the difficulty of this job because a good coach's best team could still be reasonably picked 10th in the Big Ten.

11. Iowa: Second-year coach Fran McCaffery is on record saying he feels good about where the program is headed, and he should. But it's not there yet, and that'll show in the final standings, too.

12. Penn State: The fact that Ed DeChellis walked away from a Big Ten job to be the coach at Navy suggests he knew how this season would go, and that it could go so poorly that it would cost him his job. New coach Pat Chambers, the youngest coach in the Big Ten, inherited almost nothing. So anything other than a last-place finish would be worth celebrating.

2011-12 Season Preview
DateFeatureDateFeature
Oct. 13Preseason Top 25 (and one) Nov. 1Top freshmen
 Projected NCAA tournament field Nov. 2Top transfers
 Goodman and Parrish bracket picks Nov. 3Under the radar players
Oct. 14Team profiles: 'Cuse | UConn | UK | UNC Nov. 4Breakout players
Oct. 17Preseason All-Americans Nov. 5Best shooters
Oct. 18Top 100 players Nov. 6Best defensive players
Oct. 19Positional rankings: Point guards Nov. 768 things ...
Oct. 20Positional rankings: Wing men Nov. 8Ranking the preseason tourneys
Oct. 21Positional rankings: Big men Nov. 950 can't miss games
   Nov. 10Coaches on the Hot Seat

Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.
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