Picking the Big Ten

Fletcher Page offers his preseason thoughts on the best conference in college basketball.

01. Michigan State

Why: The Spartans are pretty well loaded, with guards Gary Harris, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson joined by ever-developing big man Adreian Payne.

Why not: It's hard to find something not to like. Coach Tom Izzo attempts to push past the Sweet Sixteen, the round where the team finished disappointed in each of the last two playoffs.

02. Ohio State

Why: Aaron Craft leads four returning starters following yet another successful season under coach Thad Matta (at least 29 wins in each of the last four years).

Why not: Star power means something when you're competing for the conference crown. How does the loss of Deshaun Thomas impact the team?

03. Iowa

Why: Four starters and nine of the top 10 scorers return, including All-Big Ten candidate Roy Devyn Marble.

Why not: Are the Hawkeyes ready for top billing? Last season's 5-15 record in road games and 3-7 start in the Big Ten won't match loftier expectations for this campaign.

04. Michigan

Why: Sophomores Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas return after reaching the NCAA title game a year ago.

Why not: Trey Burke isn't around to bail the team out with 28-footers anymore. Can freshman Derrick Walton Jr. fill those shoes?

05. Wisconsin

Why: Guard Josh Gasser and forward Sam Dekker lead a Badgers team that should be ranked in the preseason Top 25.

Why not: How do the Badgers replace the leadership and production from departed seniors Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz?

06. Indiana

Why: Yogi Ferrell is one of the better point guards in the league, joined by a talented group of freshmen and already proven sophomore Will Sheehey.

Why not: Four starters, including Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, are gone after winning the Big Ten in 2012-13.

07. Illinois

Why: Transfers Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey join mainstays Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu and Joe Bertrand to help alleviate the loss of four main contributors gone via graduation.

Why not: There are nine new faces on the roster and coach John Groce has only 10 scholarship players to employ this season.

08. Purdue

Why: Four starters return, and the potential of A.J. Hammons is enticing after he led the Big Ten in blocks as a freshman in 2012-13.

Why not: Three players transferred in the offseason after the Boilermakers missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six seasons.

09. Minnesota

Why: Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins give first-year coach Richard Pitino a strong 1-2 punch on the perimeter.

Why not: Four starters from last season's NCAA Tournament berth are gone, indicating massive turnover and a fresh start.

10. Penn State

Why: Playmaker Tim Frazier returns to the backcourt with close friend D.J. Newbill to create one of the better scoring tandems in the Big Ten.

Why not: Can Ross Travis emerge as a legit big man in the conference? Even still, it's going to take more than three players to keep up in this league.

11. Northwestern

Why: Limited or absent last season, Drew Crawford (shoulder injury) and Jershon Cobb (academic suspension) return to the backcourt at full strength and full speed.

Why not: First year coach Chris Collins will need time to implement his system and culture and to recruit his guys.

12. Nebraska

Why: Senior guard Ray Gallegos led the Big Ten in 3-pointers last season and sophomore Shavon Shields impressed as a freshman, giving fans a reason to fill the new 15,000 seat, $180 million arena opening this year.

Why not: Coach Tim Miles still has work to do in building his program. The Cornhuskers haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 1998.

Well there you have it. I think the Big Ten is the best conference in basketball, and I enjoy covering, watching and discussing the teams, players and coaches -- top to bottom.

- As for my list, I thought for a while about putting Ohio State ahead of the Spartans. Craft is (finally) a senior. Feels like that guy has been around forever. He's a Player of the Year candidate and the Buckeyes will be tough.

- My biggest reach is Iowa at No. 3. It's not that the Hawkeyes aren't deserving. It's just that Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana are good teams. The top four or five in this league is a special place to be. I took a chance due to essentially the entire roster returning and the potential for Marble to become a bon-a-fide star.

- I like Illinois at No. 7. The fact that there is so much turnover and the team is still picked to finish where it did last season speaks volumes for the opinion many hold for John Groce and the direction he has his program headed.

- Personally, I think Nebraska can find five or six conference wins. I placed them dead last, but I think the Cornhuskers are building a little something and won't be a fun team to play in late February, when wins will be of the upmost importance.

Tell me what you think. Give me your thoughts and conference predictions HERE on the IlliniPlaybook premium message board.

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