Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist at Rush the Court.
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Just two seasons ago, the Big Ten was far from the premiere conference in college basketball. Yet Midwesterners that follow the conference religiously could be optimistic about the future. A number of super-talented sophomores permeated the eleven teams and those loyal fans knew that when this crop of players became seniors- should they stick around for four years- the Big Ten would be special again. A combination of injuries keeping kids in school, consistently improving talent and teams looking for one last shot at cutting down the nets have created what should be the nation’s most competitive conference in 2010-11.
If healthy, Lucas is the best the Big 10 has to offer
1. Kalin Lucas, Michigan State– Last season was a mixed bag for Lucas, who battled leadership issues part of the season, excelled early in Big Ten play with clutch shots and witnessed his Spartans advance to another Final Four with the All-America candidate watching from the sidelines. Lucas is again dealing with a Michigan State squad that has aspirations of playing on the first weekend in April. A blur in the open floor that excels in transition, Lucas performs well in the team-oriented Spartan attack, although it might take a month or so for Lucas to ease back into tip-top shape. He’s a gifted floor general with outstanding court vision that loves finding teammates Durrell Summers and Chris Allen off screens for open threes. He’s also capable defensively and last year posted a career high 45% FG. There’s no debate who is the captain of this Michigan State ship, and both Izzo and Lucas would much prefer a smoother ride as a senior. If Lucas has an outstanding season and leads his team to a national title, expect the Mateen Cleaves comparisons to begin.
2. Robbie Hummel, Purdue– With Chris Kramer graduating, Robbie Hummel now takes the role as the heart and soul of a Purdue team that has similar expectations as rival Michigan State. Hummel’s ACL tear last February at Minnesota devastated the Boilermakers, and although they rallied to reach the Sweet 16, Hummel’s loss was a crushing blow on all fronts- scoring, rebounding, defense and leadership. Hummel could be cleared for full-contact basketball as soon as August, meaning he’ll soon team with JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore for another shot at glory. Hummel isn’t the most athletic forward on the planet, but he makes up for that with constant toughness, intelligence and effort on both ends. He excels in catch-and-shoot situations around the perimeter, generating good lift with a smooth stroke that can lead to first half performances like Ohio State witnessed last January. Hummel is a very productive rebounder grabbing almost seven boards a game at just 6’8 and only turned the ball over once every 30 minutes during his junior season. The Boilermakers need Hummel’s back and knees at 100% to cross the rugged terrain of the Big Ten and emerge as a favorite to cut down the nets in Houston.
3. Jon Leuer, Wisconsin– Leuer is another typical developed Wisconsin star in the making. He’s a tall, versatile, inside/outside scoring threat who rarely played as a freshman while learning the swing offense, yet gradually develops into an all-Big Ten player by his senior season. Jay Wright raved about Leuer’s game while coaching him at USA Basketball this summer, exclaiming he can shoot, pass, put it on the floor and has great size. Sounds like a complete player to me, and one that Bo Ryan is expecting to take on a larger role with Trevon Hughes no longer patrolling the Kohl Center hardwood. By all accounts, Leuer posted a very impressive junior season, nearly doubling his PPG production, grabbing six boards a game, shooting 52% overall and featuring a solid mid-range jumper. And in typical Wisconsin fashion, Leuer almost never turns the ball over or makes mental mistakes on the floor. His 43 points on 16-28 FG in Wisconsin’s two NCAA Tournament games showed the world his fractured wrist was a thing of the past. Much like Lucas and Hummel, if Leuer stays healthy, he’ll be a candidate for Player of the Year honors in the conference.
4. JaJuan Johnson, Purdue– The Indianapolis native enters his senior season looking to help lead Purdue to a national title and impress NBA scouts in the process. Johnson dabbled with the NBA Draft before electing to return to a loaded Boilermaker team as their anchor in the paint. When Johnson is motivated like he was during the NCAA Tournament, he’s an absolute force. Johnson has utilized his long wingspan and superb instincts to mold into one of the best pure shot blockers in the nation. His offensive repertoire has expanded significantly since arriving on campus both on the low block and in the mid-range game. He also picks up a good chunk of his points by attacking the glass and finishing pick-and-rolls. During a mid-January slump that included three straight Big Ten losses where Johnson scored a total of 18 points and took 19 shots, Matt Painter made it clear the team had to go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate. Most of that frustration was intended for Johnson, who would finally screw his head on straight and peak with a 24/7 at Ohio State and a 23/15 against Siena in March. The allure of capturing an NCAA title in his senior year should be sufficient for Johnson to play motivated.
5. Talor Battle, Penn State– Other than an NIT run as a sophomore, Battle’s name hasn’t been nationally recognized throughout his career, mostly because the Nittany Lions have mostly been mired in losing seasons. Big Ten followers know Battle all too well, probably because he’s torched their own team at one point or another the last three years. Battle will need some more help from his supporting cast if Penn State wants to shock the world and contend in what should be an ultra-competitive Big Ten. He’s a prototypical scoring point guard- evident by his 16.7 and 18.5 PPG the last two seasons- but does a capable job distributing the ball and finding open teammates. Ranking third in the Big Ten behind Evan Turner and Manny Harris in possessions used last season and playing 92% of his teams’ minutes, Battle is the focal point for Ed DeChellis’ offensive attack. When Battle has to put on the Superman cape and do everything, rarely do the Nittany Lions have the same success as when his teammates are also performing at a high level.
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