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Basketball Preview: Top O' The Heap

With three Elite Eight appearances amongst them and a varying number of departures, last year's conference powers are still equipped to stay on top.

Lemme show you how we get down in Lisle.
Lemme show you how we get down in Lisle.
Tom Pennington


1. Wisconsin

Vitals:

Last Season: 30-8, 12-6 B1G

Postseason: Lost to Kentucky in Final Four

Venue: Kohl Center

Coach: Bo Ryan

OTE Predictions:

Average: 27-4 overall, 15-3 B1G

High: 29-2, 17-1 B1G (Aaron Yorke, DJ Carver)

Low: 26-5 overall (Graham Filler), 14-4 B1G (Jesse Collins)

It's certainly not a difficult time to be a Badger fan right now. Fresh off a Final Four appearance, Wisconsin returns almost everyone, adds even more, and looks poised to do huge things this year. It all starts with likely 2015 NBA Draft picks Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. Kaminsky has been the recipient of an unusual amount of hype for a Wisconsin player coming into this year, earning preseason B1G POY honors, a spot on the preseason All-American team, and recently ESPN named him the top player in college basketball (what kind of hardware do they get for those awards?). After spurning the NBA for one last run with the Badgers, look for Big Daddy Fups to take the reigns of a loaded Wisconsin roster. Joining him in the spotlight is Dekker, who had a monster offseason featuring a breakout performance as the premier player at LeBron's Skills Academy as well as a growth spurt from 6'7" to 6'9". Despite dealing with an ankle injury recently, Dekker will be ready to go for the season opener and will look to reach the potential he's shown since joining the Badgers as a 5-star prospect out of Sheboygan.


Joining them on the starting line is prototypical Badger Josh Gasser, polarizing but talented PG Traevon Jackson, and either the PG heir Bronson Koenig or the reigning B1G Sixth Man of the Year Nigel Hayes. Stretch-4 sharpshooter Duje Dukan fills out the expected rotation to give Wisconsin its best-ever assembly of Bo Ryan protégés: everyone can defend, run the floor, post up and shoot from deep (Nigel Hayes makes threes now!), and has good-to-great size for their natural position. Looking for dark horse playing candidates? Freshman Ethan Happ was expected to redshirt this season but has performed so well that he may opt to play if he can get eight minutes or so a game, and Zak Showalter is an athletic freak that will be good for bringing offense, energy, and figurative fireworks off the bench in spurts. If there's a weakness on this roster (and they're hard to find), it might be that there isn't really a true center to back up Kaminsky. This isn't really an issue for planned substitutions and short-term foul trouble, but if Kaminsky happens to miss extended time at some point (/knock on wood) it will be interesting to see how the team evolves around that.

I'm not big on making predictions, but it's fair to say that expectation levels are at an all-time high for this team. Look for both conference and national championships to be the goal (and realistic this time!), with minimum expectations being top 4 in the conference and an Elite Eight appearance. I think it's fair to say the product on the floor will be as exciting as ever, and I think it's also fair to say that people will ignore this and call it boring anyways. On, Wisconsin!

-MC CYH


T-2. Michigan State

Vitals:


Last Season: 29-9, 12-6 B1G

Postseason: Lost to UConn in Elite Eight

Venue: Breslin Center

Coach: Tom Izzo

OTE Predictions:

Average: 24-7 overall, 13-5 B1G (conference tournament champions)

High: 26-5, 15-3 (Candystripes for Breakfast)

Low: 22-9, 13-5 (6 predictors)

Given the available talent, last year's third-place regular season finish and exit in the Elite Eight can probably be viewed as a disappointment. Departed seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne became Izzo's first four-year players to not raise a Final Four banner, and with Gary Harris leaving early for the NBA, this team faces a post-2006esque production drain.

That said, this team still has the parts to be a serious contender. Positional Gumby Denzel Valentine is the logical candidate to assume leadership of this team, and with seniors Brandon Dawson and Travis Trice, the Spartans have a decent core to work with. How far this team can go largely depends on the progress of big men Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling, and contributions from freshmen Lourawls 'Tum Tum' (I swear I'm not making that up) Nairn and Marvin Clark would sure be great to have. Shooting guard remains up for grabs between sophomore Alvin Ellis III and transfer Bryn Forbes. Overall, there's a lot to figure out before an early-season matchup with hated recruit thieves Duke in the Champions Classic. But Tom Izzo often turns in his best seasons with unproven, overlooked rosters. It'll be interesting to see what he can do with this group, since the predictors seem to like Izzo's ability to retool.

-AK


T-2. Ohio State


Vitals:

Last Season: 25-10 overall, 10-8 B1G

Postseason: Lost in "second' round to Dayton (whoops)

Venue: Value City Arena

Coach: Goblin Matta

OTE Predictions:

Average: 24-7 overall, 13-5 B1G

High: 27-4, 15-3 B1G (Jesse Collins)

Low: 22-9, 11-7 B1G (Aaron Yorke)

Well, last season certainly didn't end on the note the Buckeyes would have liked. After struggling much of the season to generate consistent offense outside of LaQuinton Ross, the Buckeyes ended with a whimper in back-to-back tourney losses in the BTT to Michigan and the Big Dance to instate upstart Dayton. Ross bolted for the NBA, and veterans Lenzelle Smith Jr and All-Multiverse Hustle And Grit Squad Captain/Object Of Dan Dakich's Enduring Love Aaron Craft graduated, taking a huge amount of game experience with them.

Still, the beat goes on for the conference's best recruiter, and Thad Matta has three potential impact freshmen in D'Angelo Russell, JaeSean Tate, and Keita Bates-Diop. And a good thing, too, because despite there being 7 (!) seniors on the roster, it's not clear any one of them can reliably handle a primary scorer's role. OSU figures to once again be a stout defensive team with excellent size and athleticism; if any of the newcomers, or perhaps a guy like Marc Loving, is able to elevate their play the way Ross did after Deshaun Thomas left, OSU should find itself back in the thick of the conference race.

-AK


4. Michigan


Vitals:

Last Season: 28-9 overall, 15-3 B1G (regular season champions)

Postseason: Lost to Kentucky in the Elite Eight

Venue: Crisler Arena

Coach: John Beilein

OTE Predictions:

Average: 22-8 overall, 11-7 B1G

High: 24-7, 14-4 B1G (Mike Jones)

Low: 20-10, 10-8 B1G (Aaron Yorke)

Ah, Michigan hoops: The new favorite child in Ann Arbor. There are few better coaches than John Beilein. This guy:

· Takes 3 stars and turns them into lottery picks

· Beats Michigan State

· Makes surprising NCAA Tourney runs

· Makes talented tweeners like GR3 fit into his system and excel.

You can believe in the Michigan offensive system, a guard-focused, elbow-attacking concept. You can believe that their slow play will continue to lead to 20+ win seasons and NCAA appearances.

Caris LaVert looks primed and ready to be the next Wolverine All-American. Frosh Kameron Chatman is the Power Forward that Beilein needed. And Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. look primetime ready.

-GF