In his first three years, Adreian Payne has quietly undergone transition from role player to underrated superstar, and now goes into senior season looking to lead Michigan State back to Final Four. (Photo courtesy of CBS Sports)
Our double dose of "32 In 32" conference previews reaches into the Midwest for its second half, profiling the Big Ten in further detail. Without any further ado, here's how we see the conference that will soon add Maryland and Rutgers playing out:
1) Michigan State - Sparty's new senior class, led by Adreian Payne and Keith Appling, has a piece of program history on the line as they enter their final seasons in East Lansing. In Tom Izzo's previous eighteen seasons at the helm of the Spartans, every one of his four-year players that has stayed every year and earned his degree has competed in a Final Four. Payne, Appling, and walk-on guard Dan Chapman; the final member of Michigan State's senior trio, have not, suffering back-to-back losses in the Sweet 16 after a heartbreaking round of 64 loss to UCLA in 2011. This season, however, the Spartans possess both the pieces and talent to make the trip to Dallas. Joining Payne up front will be junior Branden Dawson, who could see some minutes at the power forward position in a smaller lineup that will allow for swingman Denzel Valentine to have a breakout sophomore season as the bridge between Dawson and Payne up front, and also Appling and Gary Harris in the backcourt. Expect Travis Trice to have more of an impact as Sparty's sixth man this year, with a deep bench co-anchored by Russell Byrd, Alex Gauna and Matt Costello there to back him up. Pay close attention to 6-9 freshman Gavin Schilling of Chicago, who was recruited to replace Derrick Nix, and will have his share of significant minutes throughout the season.
2) Michigan - One thing holds true for every team that John Beilein coaches, and that is that the team gets better with every season. Beilein's latest campaign, one in which he is just six months removed from nearly winning a national championship, will be a telling encore. Gone are starting guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., but Canadian marksman Nik Stauskas returns for a sophomore season that will make the sweet-shooting backcourt stalwart a household name, and Caris LeVert will step into the starting five on a full-time basis to replace Hardaway while freshman Derrick Walton will walk into the fire immediately as the successor to Burke, last year's John Wooden Award winner. Inside the paint, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary return for their sophomore seasons, with Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan reprising their roles as leaders of the Wolverines' supporting cast. If Spike Albrecht can have more performances like his memorable first half in the national championship game, the Maize and Blue will have enough guard depth to contend with anyone in the nation.
3) Ohio State - Thad Matta will not have an easy go of it replacing Deshaun Thomas in Columbus, but the Buckeyes return nearly everyone else from the team that came within four points of a second consecutive Final Four appearance, including the best defender of the last decade in senior point guard Aaron Craft. Once a one-trick pony, Craft has improved his scoring and passing to the point where he became an all-around threat early in his sophomore season, and is a serious Big Ten Player of the Year candidate. Joining him in the backcourt once again will be Lenzelle Smith Jr., with equally adept passer Shannon Scott having an increased role as he enters his junior season. With Thomas having been drafted by the San Antonio Spurs, LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson will attempt to make up for his productivity while also providing support for 6-11 center Amir Williams, whose offensive opportunities should double with the parity in scoring up front.
4) Wisconsin - If anyone has learned anything about the Big Ten over the years, it is to never count out Bo Ryan. With four-year veterans Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz having graduated this past May, most critics are sleeping on the Badgers somewhat, but situations like this are where Ryan thrives at the helm. This year should be no different in Madison, with senior marksman Ben Brust leading the charge with point guard Traevon Jackson as his running mate yet again. Sophomore wing Sam Dekker, who had a solid freshman season that included a 42 percent clip from three-point range, is on the precipice of breaking out and becoming a household name in a Badger lineup that may be undersized, but will still frustrate all comers defensively. Josh Gasser also returns to the backcourt after missing all of last season with a torn ACL, and sophomore George Marshall enhances the guard depth. With Berggren gone, 6-11 and 6-10 juniors Frank Kaminsky and Evan Anderson should have chances to make significant impacts.
5) Iowa - Within three years, Fran McCaffery took the Hawkeyes from Big Ten also-rans to contenders, with an appearance in the NIT championship game this past April serving as the crowning achievement of his brief tenure. With only Eric May having graduated last year, nearly all of McCaffery's Iowa team is back this season, led by senior swingman Devyn Marble and junior forward Aaron White. Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons combine to form one of the more underrated young backcourts in the Big Ten, with Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe blending scoring punch with physicality on one of the deeper front lines in the conference. Josh Oglesby and Gabriel Olaseni lead a bench that will also feature Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff, but remember this name: Adam Woodbury. A 7-1 sophomore that started every game for the Hawkeyes last season as a freshman, "Woody" is Iowa's X-factor, and could approach a double-double average if he gets enough offensive chances.
6) Indiana - All of Tom Crean's four leading scorers have either graduated or turned pro, leaving the Hoosier offense in the hands of small forward Will Sheehey as he enters his senior season. Indiana's personnel overhaul will allow sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell to show off his exceptional skill set even further this year, especially with graduate transfer Evan Gordon arriving from Arizona State just five years after his brother Eric was a rookie sensation in Bloomington. Aside from Sheehey and the starting backcourt, though, the cream and crimson are a much younger group this time around, and highly touted 6-10 freshman Noah Vonleh will be a significant building block for the Hoosier front line.
7) Illinois - John Groce has three transfers sitting out this season in Champaign, but adds two more that completed their year in residence for the Illini last year. Drake expatriate Rayvonte Rice will join fellow Valley castoff Jon Ekey, who is eligible immediately after graduating from Illinois State, to form a potent scoring combo from the wing that will not only penetrate inside, but will set 6-11 junior Nnanna Egwu up early and often. In the backcourt, point guard Tracy Abrams returns alongside swingman Joseph Bertrand, with freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Austin Colbert poised to make themselves integral parts of the rotation.
8) Minnesota - After reaching the NCAA Tournament and advancing to the round of 32, the Golden Gophers still were not satisfied with Tubby Smith, firing him and injecting a dose of youth into the program by hiring 31-year-old Richard Pitino as his successor. The oldest son of newly enshrined Hall of Famer and reigning national champion coach Rick, the junior Pitino inherits the pieces to win early, starting with his backcourt tandem of Andre and Austin Hollins. The Minnesota front line will be a concern, however, with Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams' departures leaving 6-10 Canadian Maurice Walker and 6-11 junior Elliott Eliason to pick up the slack after averaging a combined 20 minutes per game a year ago.
9) Purdue - Brothers Terone and Ronnie Johnson return for their senior and sophomore seasons, respectively, to anchor the backcourt for Matt Painter and the Boilermakers, who have a breakout performance in the making from seven-foot sophomore center A.J. Hammons, Purdue's best big man since Brad Miller. With D.J. Byrd having graduated, Rapheal Davis should see significant improvement on the wing as a sophomore, and Cornell graduate transfer Errick Peck will also chip in immediately.
10) Penn State - Tim Frazier returning off a medical redshirt is a huge shot in the arm for the Nittany Lions, who will use the sixth-year senior in the backcourt alongside D.J. Newbill. After Jermaine Marshall graduated and transferred to Arizona State, Pat Chambers was able to replace him with a graduate transfer in Allen Roberts, who arrives in State College from Miami University. Incoming freshman Geno Thorpe will make a big impact right away if his performance in June's Mary Kline Classic was any indication, and while Brandon Taylor could be an X-factor on the wing, remember this name: Ross Travis. The junior from Chaska, Minnesota, known to golf fans as the home of Hazeltine National Golf Club, averaged seven points and just as many rebounds per game last year, will most likely eclipse double figures in both statistics this season. Pitt expatriate John Johnson will add to the guard depth when he becomes eligible in December, which will allow Chambers to replicate the "four quick" look honed to perfection by his mentor Jay Wright at Villanova.
11) Northwestern - A new era begins in Evanston, as longtime Duke assistant Chris Collins, the son of longtime NBA head coach Doug, takes over the reins of the Wildcats for his first head coaching job. Collins inherits two significant pieces in his backcourt right away, those being senior swingman Drew Crawford and sophomore point guard Dave Sobolewski, who welcome JerShon Cobb back into the guard stable after he was suspended for the season by former coach Bill Carmody. Sophomore Tre Demps adds to the guard depth, but size will be a concern if seven-foot Romanian Alex Olah does not see significant improvement.
12) Nebraska - Head coach Tim Miles, best known for tweeting at halftime while coaching at Colorado State, looks to build off his first campaign in Lincoln, one that yielded a 15-18 season for the Huskers. Two of his three leading scorers are no longer around, leaving senior marksman Ray Gallegos as the hub of the wheel offensively, with swingmen Shavon Shields and David Rivers as the primary options in his supporting cast. Sophomore Benny Parker could see the majority of minutes at the point guard spot, but the Nebraska front line is still a work in progress.