Illinois, the defending conference champion, and Michigan State, which finished tied for second with Wisconsin, were picked to finish first and second, respectively, in polling of media planning to attend the conference's annual convention, the league announced Wednesday.
Both the Illini and the Spartans return all five starters to their lineups, whereas Wisconsin initially needed to replace three starters, including Big Ten Player of the Year Devin Harris.
"That's great for the program in that even though we had some heavy losses at key positions," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said, "you have two of your top defenders in Freddie [Owens] and Devin. Point production [to replace], obviously, from a point guard that did what Devin did. And then for them to still pick us third, that says a lot for Wisconsin, the players, and what they've established with the championships the past few years."
An additional returning starter, junior guard Boo Wade, is taking a leave of absence from the team, leaving forward Mike Wilkinson, a preseason all-conference selection, as the only returning starter who is currently practicing.
"We have a strong program. We have good people coming in," Wilkinson said. "Even though we lose a guy like Devin, we still have lots of good players, lots of talent."
Wisconsin has added three freshmen in guard Michael Flowers, forward DeAaron Williams and center Greg Stiemsma, along with transfer guard Sharif Chambliss and redshirted players Alando Tucker, Jason Chappell and Brian Butch.
"We have some guys that haven't got as much as experience on the court during a Big Ten game but that doesn't mean that they can't be every bit as good as Devin or, the sum of them, as good as Devin," Wilkinson said. "We just need people to step up, do a good job, and so far in practice we're doing that. As long they continue to do that and continue to improve, who knows what this team can do."
Wisconsin won a school-record 25 games last season, finishing 12-4 in the Big Ten, 25-7 overall and winning the Big Ten Conference Tournament for the first time in school history. Wisconsin was also picked to finish third prior to last season.
"That's good but you know for us it's not anything that we put our hat on," Ryan said. "We just hope that at the end of the year we're in the mix."
The Illini (13-3, 26-7) reached the Sweet 16 for the third time in four seasons under first-year coach Bruce Weber. Their returning quintet includes preseason player of the year Deron Williams.
"They deserve it," Ryan said. "They had a great year last year."
Michigan State tied Wisconsin at 12-4 in league play and was 18-12 overall.
"[Illinois and Michigan State are] two programs that have been pretty doggone good and are well coached," Ryan said. "They've got athletes that can play and understand the game. I'd probably pick those two too."
In a change from past years, Big Ten coaches did not vote on a preseason conference top three or preseason all-conference team.
The three conference favorites, meanwhile, dominated the preseason All-Big Ten team as well. Williams and Wilkinson are joined on the squad by Illinois guard Dee Brown, Michigan State center Paul Davis and Indiana guard Bracey Wright. Davis and Williams were first-team all-conference selections a year ago, while Brown, Wilkinson and Wright were second-team picks. Wilkinson, Brown and Williams were also named to the Big Ten's all-tournament team.