Get the Athlon Sports Newsletter
Our top questions for the Big Ten, Atlantic 10 and MVC
With Midnight Madness less than two months away, our look at some of the biggest questions in college basketball for 2012-13 continues into its second week.
Like the NCAA Tournament, we’re taking on 17 questions in each of our four regions of the country (South, East, Midwest and West) for our Great 68 Questions. We’ve “seeded” our questions, too, ranking the biggest questions in each region.
Today, we examine the top 17 questions in the Midwest Region, which includes the Big Ten, Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley and the MAC.
Midwest Region No. 1 seed: Does Tom Crean have Indiana ready to return to the Final Four?
A year after returning to the NCAA Tournament, the Hoosiers are thinking even bigger. Indiana has been at or near the top of nearly every media outlet’s early top 25 for 2012-13, including Athlon’s early rankings in March. The Hoosiers were good enough to defeat three top-five teams last season (Kentucky, Ohio State, Michigan State), but all were in Bloomington. The Hoosiers went 0-3 against the same teams outside of Assembly Hall. Four starters return, including pro prospects Cody Zeller and Christian Watford, and the Hoosiers add a top-10 signing class to the mix. This group has talent and experience -- two things wholly absent from Crean’s first team in 2008-09. If Indiana can improve its road record (2011-12 included road losses to NCAA no-shows Nebraska and Iowa), the Hoosiers could contend for a Final Four or more.
Related: Big Ten coach rankings
No. 2: Will Deshaun Thomas step out of Jared Sullinger’s shadow?
Thomas arrived in the same signing class as Sullinger and was nearly as highly touted. Ohio State didn’t need Thomas to be a major contributor as a freshman, and as a sophomore he was the Buckeyes’ second-leading scorer after Sullinger. With Sully and William Buford gone, Thomas will need to take the next step to become Ohio State’s biggest scoring threat. Thomas already improved his shooting percentage fro 47.8 percent as a freshman to 52 percent as a sophomore while more than doubling his minutes. The 6-foot-7 power forward averaged 18.9 points during the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments and could threaten to match that average over the course of the 2012-13 season.
No. 3: Did Trey Burke return to a Big Ten-championship team?
Trey Burke was a revelation as a freshman, averaging 14.8 points and 4.6 assists as Michigan tied for the best record in the Big Ten. He considered the NBA Draft and would have been the second Wolverines point guard in two seasons to leave early, joining Darius Morris. Instead, Burke returns to a team aiming for a deep NCAA Tournament run. Michigan has two things it hasn’t had under John Beilein: depth and a strong frontcourt that can either bang or win with finesse. The Wolverines also return guard Tim Hardaway Jr. -- and Burke to run the show.
No. 4: Who is Michigan State’s leader in the post-Draymond Green era?
At one point or another in the last three seasons, Green led Michigan State in scoring, rebounding and assists. Although the Spartans lose their best player, they should remain in Big Ten contention. Branden Dawson, Michigan State’s top signee a year ago, missed the final six games of the season. The Spartans will count on him to fill the rebounding role (Green averaged 10.6 per game last season, Dawson averaged 4.5). Point guard Keith Appling (11.4 ppg) is also back. His 130 assists were four fewer than Green. Fellow guard Travis Trice surprised last season, and fleet-footed McDonald’s All-American Gary Harris should be one of the top newcomers in the Big Ten. It may take a team effort to replace Green, but Michigan State has the bodies to do so.
No. 5: How will Butler and VCU take to their new conference?
Butler and VCU both have hopes of competing for an Atlantic 10 title in their first season in the league, though the A-10 may be a more rugged conference than the Horizon and Colonial, respectively. Of the two, VCU may be more equipped to compete immediately in the new league. The Rams return loads of experience from a team that won 29 games before losing by 2 to Indiana in the Round of 32. Butler landed in the College Basketball Invitational last season after going 11-7 in the Horizon League. Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke should help Butler’s main deficiency of outside shooting, but veteran point guard Ronald Nored is gone. With the traditional powers in the A-10, Temple and Xavier, going through some roster turnover, Butler and VCU may be in conference title mix.
No. 6: Who runs the point in Madison?
Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor didn’t match his prodigious junior season in 2011-12, but Taylor and his 87 career starts will be missed for certain. With a deep, senior-laden frontcourt of Jared Beggren, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz, Wisconsin has one clear question: Who will man the point? Josh Gasser is a junior who stepped in for Taylor when needed, but he may need to be more aggressive a shooter. Redshirt freshman George Marshall also is a good distributor and penetrator off the dribble.
No. 7: Is Saint Louis ready for the big time?
Rick Majerus finally has some consistency on his roster. His early teams with the Billikens were filled with freshmen, and shortly before the 2010-11 season, Kwamain Mitchell and Willie Reed were suspended for the season. Although leading scorer Brian Conklin is gone in 2012-13, Saint Louis is gearing up for another NCAA Tournament run, and perhaps more. The Billikens return six of the top seven scorers, including A-10 Player of the Year candidate Mitchell. After several seasons of Temple and Xavier perched atop the A-10, a changing of the guard may be on its way. Saint Louis, which has not won even a share of a conference title since 1971, is poised to take advantage.
No. 8: Temple and Xavier lose key cogs. Are they still A-10 contenders?
We’ve twice mentioned roster turnover at Temple and Xavier in this countdown. That’s with good reason. Both Temple and Xavier have finished in the top three in the A-10 in each of the last five seasons. The trend may change this season. First, teams like Saint Louis, Butler, VCU and more are in the mix. Second, the Owls and Musketeers are rebuilding. Xavier may have to rely on sophomore Dez Wells and a handful of freshmen with veterans Tu Holloway, Kenny Frease and Mark Lyons (a transfer to Arizona) gone. Temple’s situation is a little less precarious. The Owls have a proven scorer in Khalif Wyatt and veterans Scootie Randall and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson on board, but guards Juan Fernandez and Ramone Moore are out. Both should remain competitive, but NCAA Tournament berths for either are not guaranteed.
No. 9: Can the McDermotts take Creighton from good to great?
Dana Altman built a consistent NCAA Tournament program at Creighton, a program that has won at least 20 games in 13 of the last 14 seasons. The ceiling has never been higher in Omaha, with the Bluejays coming off a 29-6 season in Greg McDermott’s second season. All-American Doug McDermott is a National Player of the Year candidate again, but the goal is to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1974. Almost every piece is back for Creighton, but the departure of three-year starting point guard Antoine Young is a big loss. Sophomore Austin Chatman and senior Grant Gibbs can both run the point to their strengths, but neither may bring the scoring threat Young did.
No. 10: What does the post-Robbie Hummel era mean for Purdue?
Purdue coach Matt Painter is starting over. Due to the season-ending injury that kept him out of the 2010-11 season, Hummel didn’t leave with his signing class of JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore. Either way, Purdue will be young with nine underclassmen and four freshmen. The Boilermakers will have size and talent, but they’ll be at a major experience disadvantage against most other teams in the Big Ten. Not that it’s an unfamiliar place for Painter -- A team led by freshmen and sophomores, including Hummel and Moore, went 15-3 in the Big Ten in 2007-08.
No. 11: Does a healthy Trevor Mbakwe turn Minnesota to a Tournament team?
Tubby Smith led the Gophers to the NCAA Tournament in two of his first three seasons, but Minnesota slipped to 6-12 in the Big Ten in each of the last two. That said, Minnesota has to wonder what might have been last season. The Gophers got only seven games out of Trevor Mbakwe (13.9 ppg, 10.5 rpg) after he was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Senior Rodney Williams (17.2 ppg in the final nine games) and sophomore point guard Andre Hollins (16.8 ppg in the final nine) finished last season on a tear on the way to the NIT final. If that momentum carries, Minnesota will contend.
No. 12: Was John Groce the missing piece at Illinois?
John Groce’s teams at Ohio had a knack of getting hot at the right time. Despite never winning as much as a MAC division title, the Bobcats won two MAC tournaments in four seasons under Groce and advanced in the NCAA Tourney each time, including the Sweet 16 in 2012. Illinois has had the opposite program, missing the NCAA Tournament in three of the last five seasons. Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson are experienced guards who may excel under Groce, but Illinois may be a multi-year project. Groce, a noted recruiter at Ohio State, will be watched closely on his ability to restock the roster, too.
No. 13: Does Fran McCaffery have the nation’s top sleeper team?
Iowa quietly proved it was back on the right track last season, finishing with a winning record for the first time since 2006-07 and winning a postseason game (in the NIT) for the first time since 2003. Leading scorer Matt Gatens is gone, but the Hawkeyes are as optimistic as they’ve been in recent years. Every other key player returns. If freshman point guard Matt Gesell can handle the position, Iowa could contend for an NCAA Tournament spot.
No. 14: Are UMass and St. Joseph’s ready to step into A-10 prominence?
No one will confuse these UMass and St. Joe’s teams with the ones led by Marcus Camby and Jameer Nelson, but both schools enter the season with hopes of contending for NCAA Tournament berths. UMass returns all but one starter from a team that won 25 games and played in NIT thanks to the arrival of 5-9 point guard Chaz Williams. St. Joe’s brings back all five starters to a team that returned to 20-win status for the first time since 2007-08. The RedHawks also are led by one of the league’s best point guards, Carl Jones.
No. 15: Does Ohio have another NCAA Tournament run in mind?
More often than not, when a mid-major loses a successful coach to a major power, it hits rebuilding mode. That might not be the case with post-John Groce Ohio. The Bobcats brought in former TCU coach Jim Christian, who is already a proven MAC winner, going 76-28 in the league and 137-59 overall at Kent State from 2002-08. D.J. Cooper (14.7 ppg, 5.7 apg) is a senior, and a handful of other key players return to a team that took North Carolina to overtime in the Sweet 16.
No. 16: Has the NCAA Tournament window closed at Northwestern?
Northwestern has come close to reaching its first NCAA Tournament, but the Wildcats have ultimately landed in the NIT in each of the last four seasons. John Shurna, Northwestern’s best player the last three seasons, is gone, meaning the Wildcats will need a new go-to player. Drew Crawford, Dave Sobolewski and JerShon Cob are back, plus Northwestern adds Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire. The Wildcats lack the superstar, but they may be more balanced than they’ve ever been under Bill Carmody.
No. 17: What hope does Wichita State have with five seniors gone?
Wichita State spent three seasons building to 2011-12, winning the NIT a year before winning the Missouri Valley regular season title. Five seniors are gone, including two all-conference picks and an all-defensive team selection. Wichita State might not go neck and neck with Creighton, but the Shockers still have hopes for the postseason. Carl Hall was the league’s Newcomer of the Year last season, and Shockers could add a second consecutive player to win that award with the arrival of Oregon transfer Malcolm Armstead.