Posted by Matt Jones
It may still feel like the Final Four just ended, but for most schools, the offseason is now more than two months old. With that in mind, all of us at the blog are going to take this week to give you what we’re calling “Conference Catch-Ups.” The motive is to recap the biggest storylines in college basketball’s offseason so far, plus keep your appetite whetted in what is the longest offseason in major American sports.
The Big Stories:
Sullinger returns to Columbus: It had become a fact of life in college basketball in recent years. The players projected to go in the top 10 of the NBA draft inevitably spoke all season about wrestling with their decision and being conflicted as to their future, but in the end the result was the same. Everyone went to the NBA. Everyone took the money. And college basketball missed out on a second season from its most important stars. But not this year. In part due to the potential lockout and in part due to a unique set of individuals, more talent is returning to college basketball that any time in the past decade. And no player will have a more important impact on his team than Jared Sullinger. The wide big man who rolled through the Big Ten last season will return and try to avenge the disappointment the Buckeyes received in their Sweet 16 loss last season to Kentucky. He will be the preseason favorite for National Player of the Year and Big Ten defenses will once again have a near impossible task in attempting to stop him from yet another season of college domination.
Matt Painter makes a Purdue statement: For any basketball program to truly be considered as a consistent power, it has to be able to keep its coach after a level of success has been reached. When Matt Painter was approached this season by Missouri, most thought he would end up leaving West Lafayette. The combination of a higher financial offer and the ability to have more freedom in recruiting seemed to doom the Boilermakers to the loss of their rising coaching star. But then, Painter surprised most onlookers by returning to Purdue while receiving a new eight-year deal at his alma mater. The commitment from Purdue ensures that it will remain a top tier Big Ten program, while opening up the possibility of a rise in national status as well.
Can Indiana return from the depths?: College basketball is better when the programs that care the most actually achieve success. With that in mind, the collapse of Indiana basketball has been painful for hardcore college basketball fans to watch. When Kelvin Sampson took the program to its nadir, most assumed the climb back to the respectability would be a long one. But almost no one thought it would be this painful. In Tom Crean’s third season, the Hoosiers were still only 12-20 and questions as to his future started to simmer beneath the surface. The optimistic fans point to a solid recruiting class, led by Cody Zeller, the latest product from the successful college basketball family and the savior to most of Indiana nation. Crean already has a number of top recruits committed for 2012, but at this point, some degree of success must be shown on the court. 2011-2012 is crucial.
John Shurna bids to be the next Jimmer: Northwestern basketball almost defines the word irrelevant. Having never made the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats are the ultimate “team you can ignore” if you feel the desire to have a regular life and not obsess over all aspects of college basketball. But next season may be different, as superstar forward John Shurna decided to forego the NBA draft and give Northwestern its best chance to make the Big Dance in over a decade. With Shurna’s scoring leading a talented veteran team, Bill Carmody has the chance to make the noise in conference that Northwestern fans have waited on for...well, a lifetime. Its now or never as the Wildcats won’t see a talent like Shurna again anytime soon.
The Great Unknown
How will Tom Izzo and Michigan State bounce back from an uncharacteristically disappointing season? Since Izzo got his groove going in East Lansing, one thing has always been certain. Regardless of how his team starts, one can count on it finishing well and maximizing its capabilities. But last year’s campaign was different. With big Izzo supporters (like me), waiting with baited breath to see some sign of life with the Spartans, Izzo was never able to find that magic formula and Michigan State wallowed in uncharacteristic mediocrity throughout the season. The loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament to UCLA finished one of the more trying years of Izzo’s career and left fans with a feeling they had rarely seen before, the sting of underachievement. How the program will bounce back will be an interesting storyline to follow all season.
NBA Draft Report
The Big Ten was relatively unaffected by early entries into the NBA Draft. Jereme Richmond decided to forego his final three years of college and leave Illinois, as did Darius Morris of Michigan. Both losses are significant and will effect next season's teams, but neither was a real surprise. But the Richmond and Morris news was really the only negative part of the offseason for the Big Ten as the other major decisions were positive. Jared Sullinger will help Ohio State contend for a title and John Shurna makes Northwestern respectable and keeps the NCAA tournament dream alive. The NBA having little interest in the Big Ten may not say a lot for the league’s overall talent level, but it will help all of its teams remain contenders next season.
Sam Maniscalco (Illinois)
Colton Iverson (Minnesota)
Cully Payne (Iowa)
Garrick Sherman (Michigan State)
Royce Woolridge (Kansas)
My Commentary in 20 words or less:
Illinois: Losing Jereme Richmond is a significant loss as Bruce Weber tries to stop the continued slow decline of the Illini program.
Indiana: Hoosier fans seem convinced Tom Crean does things “the right way.” Will that way ever include actual wins?
Iowa: Its a long road back to respectability for the Hawkeyes, who need a major influx of talent to be competitive.
Michigan: Michigan will once again be on the border of making the NCAA tournament and will once again fall short.
Michigan State: All season long last year, I repeated the mantra, “dont bet against Tom Izzo.” It didn’t happen last season, but it will this year. Athleticism upgrade is needed.
Minnesota: Tubby Smith seems to be treading water, as the Gophers never seem to rise above mediocrity. Does he still care?
Nebraska: New to the Big Ten, the Huskers are actually much better off than their opponents will imagine. A contender for an NCAA berth next season.
Northwestern: This is the year. The Wildcats are NCAA tournament bound and John Shurna has the potential to become a national star.
Ohio State: The return of Jared Sullinger means Ohio State will join Kentucky, UNC and Duke to form a power four in college basketball next season.
Penn State: What can you say? You lose a coach who takes a pay cut to go to Navy and you want me to care about your basketball team?
Purdue: Matt Painter now can establish Purdue as a consistent top 3 Big Ten team. The state of Indiana is there for the taking.
Wisconsin: No coach impresses me more on a yearly basis than Bo Ryan. Their style of basketball is mind-numbing but another great season is ahead.