Four at-large selections joined Illinois in the NCAA tournament last March and two of those (Michigan State and Wisconsin) did quite well – the Spartans joining the Illini in the Final Four and the Badgers knocking off Northern Iowa, Bucknell and North Carolina State but falling to eventual champion North Carolina.
Look for at least six teams to bag at-large berths this time around, with Michigan State the most likely squad to win the Big Ten tournament and secure the automatic bid.
And it wouldn't surprise at least one analyst (uh, that would be me) if at least five of the conference's teams are playing in Week 2 of the NCAA tournament.
As you can see, that same analyst thinks the Big Ten will be just about as good as anyone (the ACC, Big East and Big 12 included) this season. And he's spent a little time on his homework.
A closer look at the Big Ten projected finish:
1. Michigan State
Frank's Spin: In college basketball these days, quality seniors are as valuable as a full tank of gasoline and the Spartans lost four of them – seniors, not full tanks of unleaded – off their 2005 Final Four team: Alan Anderson, Kelvin Torbert, Chris Hill and Tim Bograkos. Not to worry for coach Tom Izzo, though. Still on hand are four starters (center Paul Davis, wings Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager and playmaker Drew Neitzel) from a team that beat Duke and Kentucky in Austin last March. The biggest issues for Izzo will be to determine who will start with Davis in the post spots (he has multiple options) and to develop some perimeter depth.
Postseason possibilities: The safest choice (other than Duke, naturally) in the winter to be playing in Indianapolis in April? It's Michigan State.
Frank's Spin: March is the time for the definitive evaluation but this appears to be the best team that Steve Alford has coached in Iowa City. Seniors Jeff Horner and Greg Brunner, along with junior Adam Haluska, make up three of the dozen or so best players in the conference. Guard Mike Henderson and center Erek Hansen return as starters and both have a clue about playing defense. And the depth, led by Dunking Doug Thomas, is the best Alford has had at his disposal.
Postseason possibilities: Say hello to my No. 1 Final Four Sleeper of 2006.
Frank's Spin: Anyone else recall how close the Badgers came to making it a three-Big Ten team affair in St. Louis last April? Coach Bo Ryan lost five of the top nine scorers off the team that lost to North Carolina in the Round of Eight in Syracuse. But his best player – one of the guys with the best shot at dethroning Dee Brown as Big Ten Player of the Year – returns. And Herb Sendek and Roy Williams became Alando Tucker admirers after the 6-5 forward went for a combined 47 points against North Carolina State and the Tar Heels in the Carrier Dome.
Postseason possibilities: Some season, and maybe soon, Ryan will take a team to the Final Four. The Badgers will do well to win a couple of tournament games this time around, though.
4. Ohio State
Frank's Spin: With apologies to NIT champion South Carolina, the Buckeyes were the best team not in the NCAA tournament last spring. Unless the NCAA adds another season to the school's self-imposed tourney ban (unlikely), Thad Matta will take his team into the 2006 NCAA tourney and it should do a little damage. He returns the same starting lineup he used for the final 12 games of last season (which included the first loss inflicted on Illinois). But a couple of newcomers, guards Ron Lewis (a Bowling Green transfer) and Sylvester Mayes (via junior college), will snatch playing time away from some of the veterans.
Postseason possibilities: The Buckeyes will get into the NCAA tourney and maybe win a game or two before the serious countdown toward the Greg Oden Era begins.
Frank's Spin: Yes, the Illini lost a lot (three starters, including NBA first-round choices Deron Williams and Luther Head). But, no, it's not time to banish them to the second division of the conference. Dee Brown probably would have remained in the NBA draft pool if not for suffering a broken foot in Chicago during the league's pre-draft camp. But why quibble? He's back, as is fellow senior James Augustine, and that's a nice foundation for Bruce Weber to sculpt another 20-victory/NCAA Tournament squad upon. But returning reserves Richard McBride and Warren Carter, along with 2004-05 redshirts Brian Randle and Calvin Brock, will each have to contribute significantly.
Postseason possibilities: Can you go from 37 wins to "national sleeper" in one season? Absolutely. Don't be startled when this team is playing into the second week of the NCAA tournament.
Frank's Spin: The Hoosiers haven't been among the NCAA tourney field of 65 the past two springs and, for Mike Davis' job security, that streak shouldn't reach three. Post D.J. White was the conference's Freshman of the Year and he'll be joined up front by Auburn transfer Marco Killingsworth, who should be every bit as productive. The team's backcourt took a hit with the loss of sophomore A.J. Ratliff after surgery on his right thumb on Oct. 25. But Davis returns a starter at point guard (Marshall Strickland). White is expected to miss as much as six weeks after suffering a broken bone in his left foot.
Postseason possibilities: Barring few significant injuries, the Hoosiers should be back in the NCAA tournament, which should calm some anxieties in Bloomington.
Frank's Spin: The Gophers could be better than they were during a 21-win (10 in conference), NCAA tournament-bid 2004-05 season and still finish this low. That's how deep in quality teams the Big Ten is this season. Dan Monson lost three starters but one of those who returned, 6-5 Vincent Grier, is one of the best wing-types in the country. And the guard play, with sophomore Rico Tucker being joined by redshirts Adam Boone and Maurice Hargrow (starters in 2003-04), should be something beyond dependable.
Postseason possibilities: It will take another strong performance down the stretch but another at-large bid is well within reasonable expectation this season.
Frank's Spin: The Wolverines were NIT champions in 2004 but haven't been to an NCAA tournament since 1998. They can recover nicely from a 13-win (four in the Big Ten) season but only if Lester Abram (sidelined most of last season with a shoulder injury) and Daniel Horton (who didn't play the final 12 games after being suspended for an off-the-court issue) play as well as they did in 2003-04. Getting more consistent play in the post from Courtney Sims and Chris Hunter would help as well.
Postseason possibilities: There's enough innate talent on hand to get back to the NCAA tournament but, until they prove otherwise, the Wolverines appear, at best, NIT* (or whatever it's being called in March) participants.
Frank's Spin: Senior forward Vedran Vukusic was a third-team all-Big Ten choice last season. But if the Wildcats are going to get into post-season play for the first time in six seasons under coach Bill Carmody, it will be because three players who started their careers elsewhere, Michael Thompson (Duke), Tim Doyle (St. John's) and Bernard Cote (Kentucky), each played well.
Postseason possibilities: The hunch is that this is the season the Wildcats finally get to the NIT under Carmody.
Frank's Spin: The first season in the post-Gene Keady Era is upon the Boilermakers. And the transition under alumnus Matt Painter (who spent last season as the program's "associate head coach") will be a lot smoother assuming that senior forward Carl Landry has fully recovered from the knee surgery that sidelined from early February-on after he had averaged 18.2 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.
Postseason possibilities: The Boilermakers could double their wins (seven) of last season but that still isn't going to be enough to extend their season beyond the Big Ten tournament.
11. Penn State
Frank's Spin: Sophomore Geary Claxton (12.7 points and 6.3 rebounds) is one of the better players that you probably haven't heard of before now unless you follow the Big Ten very intently. But he's going to need a lot of support in order to help the Nittany Lions improve a whole lot on their 1-15 conference performance of last season.
Postseason possibilities: You know the answer to this one.
Projected All-Conference first team
- Dee Brown (5-11, Sr., Illinois)
- Paul Davis (6-11, Sr., Michigan State)
- Alando Tucker (6-5, Jr., Wisconsin)
- Terence Dials (6-9, Sr., Ohio State)
- Vincent Grier (6-5, Sr., Minnesota)
- D.J. White (6-8, So., Indiana)
- Maurice Ager (6-4, Sr., Michigan State)
- Greg Brunner (6-7, Sr., Iowa)
- Jeff Horner (6-3, Sr., Iowa)
- James Augustine (6-10, Sr., Illinois)
Most influential newcomers
- Marco Killingsworth (6-8, Sr., Indiana)
- Marquise Gray (6-8, Fr., Michigan State)
- Ron Lewis (6-4, Jr., Ohio State)
- Marcus Landry (6-7, Fr., Wisconsin)
- Marcus Arnold (6-8, Jr., Illinois)
Most nationally underrated player
- Terence Dials (6-9, Sr., Ohio State)
Best NBA prospect
- Paul Davis (6-11, Sr., Michigan State)
An April inductee into the USBWA Hall of Fame, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's National Basketball Expert and is also a columnist for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Burlison's pieces at www.FrankHoops.com