Michigan State is joined by fellow tri-champs from last year, Ohio State & Purdue. If the Boilemakers can keep Robbie Hummel healthy, they're a potential Top 5 team, with shotblocker JaJuan Johnson in the post. The Buckeyes lose national Player of the Year Evan Turner, but take a look at who's returning--both guards, both forwards and head coach Thad Matta, who's made more with less. A conference championship is a real possibility. These contenders are joined by Illinois, who just missed the Dance last year, but returns a good inside tandem of Mike Davis & Mike Tisdale and a quality backcourt of Demetri McCamey and D.J. Richardson. Consistency from the post duo will define the success of Bruce Weber's team.
The contenders are in the middle are headed up by Wisconsin & Minnesota, primarily on the strength of their coaches. The Badgers, led by Bo Ryan, have to replace the backcourt of Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon, but can build around forward Jon Leurer and guard Jordan Taylor. The Gophers' Tubby Smith has three starters back, although the loss of Lawrence Westbrook cost him his top scorer. Both teams are going to play hard and play defense. That alone won't make them a championship contender, but it will give them a leg up on the rest of the league.
Northwestern is the only team in a BCS conference to have never made the NCAA Tournament. They have a chance this year, with Michael Thompson running the show and John Shurna scoring and rebounding down low. Indiana's rebuilding project will take a big step forward under Tom Crean as he returns four starters. Look for the Hoosiers to return to the postseason and to be on the NCAA bubble in early March. I also hesitate to write off Michigan--they're coming off a disappointing year and lost their two meal tickets, in Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims, but John Beilein is the kind of coach you suspect might pull a few unsuspecting bench players out of the woodwork and turn them into three-point machines. If this league gets seven NCAA bids, given Michigan at least a puncher's chance of stealing one of them.
There's no chance for Iowa & Penn State, but at least Nittany Lion fans have guard Talor Battle, one of the league's most exciting players to cheer on.
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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football ,game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.