Big Ten basketball 2014: Spartans & everybody else

Payne stays put, which is a pain for MSU's foes

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For a while, everything was breaking right for Big Ten men's basketball teams who didn't have candidates to leave school early for the 2013 NBA draft.

Victor Oladipo and Cory Zeller announced they were leaving Indiana with eligibility remaining to turn pro. So did Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas. Michigan's Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., too.

That happens to be the five players who were first-team All-Big Ten as voted on by the league's coaches.

Those were a lot of dominoes to fall, and open the door for other teams to advance next season. But then the other candidates for an early-entrance to the NBA made their choices. And they all stayed put.

First, it was freshman guard Gary Harris of Michigan State. Not a surprise. Then came sophomores-to-be Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary of Michigan. Many felt Robinson would go pro. He didn't, and those two automatically give the Wolverines the nucleus of a fine team again next season.

The final question mark gave an answer Sunday when Michigan State power forward Adreian Payne announced he was returning for his senior season. While that's good for college basketball and fantastic for Tom Izzo's team, it's not so good for teams who want to compete with the Spartans for next season's Big Ten title.

Payne keeps getting better, and he's pretty formidable right now. He averaged 10.5 points and 7.6 rebounds in the season just ended, and it seems like his game is only getting better. There may not be an interior player in the nation who will have Payne's combination of talent and experience.

Then you put him in a veteran lineup with three other returning starters including the strong backcourt of Keith Appling and Harris, and well-rounded forward Branden Dawson, and you have the overwhelming preseason pick to win the Big Ten. Especially with Tom Izzo coaching.

Hey, you can't expect every good team to have its roster torn asunder in the offseason.

In Iowa's case, though, it's been interesting to see that few media people in Big Ten Country are hesitating to lift the Hawkeyes into upper-tier expectations. Graham Couch of the Lansing State Journal wrote this Sunday night:

From MSUís perspective, next yearís team just became elite. Maybe elite, elite. Certainly among the preseason national title contenders and an overwhelming favorite in the Big Ten, over a solid second tier that includes Michigan, Iowa, Ohio State and Purdue (probably in that order).

Iowa, of course, has all sorts of returning contributors. Four were in the starting lineup for the Hawkeyes at the NIT in New York, and everyone who didn't start that game is coming back, joined by Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff and incoming freshman Peter Jok.

Even with perhaps the five best players in the league departing, it's going to be a strong league again next season. Ohio State loses the terrific Thomas, but look at what it returns. Aaron Craft is widely recognized as the league's best defensive player, and he averaged 10 points and 4.6 assists. Wing player LaQuinton Ross had a breakout performance in the NCAA tourney. Shannon Scott is a terrific passer and defender. Forward Sam Thompson seemingly can touch the top of the backboard with his leaping ability.

Michigan not only has Robinson and McCary (the latter seemed to improve with each passing NCAA tourney contest), but has guard Nic Stauskas, who averaged 11 points and drained 44 percent of his 3-pointers. Reserves Jon Horford and Caris LeVert are Big Ten players. Perhaps the next big thing in Wolverine hoops will be incoming freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr.

I'm not going team by team, but ... Purdue will be a young team with a nice core of vets in Terone Johnson, A.J. Hammons and Ronnie Johnson, and a well-regarded freshman class. Wisconsin -- never to be discounted -- has an entire starting frontcourt to replace. But Bo Ryan welcomes back Ben Brust, Traevon Jackson and Sam Dekker, as well as point guard Josh Gasser, who missed last season with a torn ACL after being counted on to start for the Badgers.

Illinois will rebuild, but it will do it in State Farm Center†instead of Assembly Hall.

By the way, don't count me among those saying I can't wait for next basketball season. We finally got something resembling spring in the Midwest. Next winter can take its sweet time getting here. I'm not convinced this winter is gone yet. 

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