Gazing into the crystal basketball

Staff writer Amelia Rayno handicaps the Big Ten men's basketball race at the start of preseason play:

1 Michigan State

How can you deny it? The Spartans are loaded with talent, starting with Gary Harris, who could be the conference player of the year.

2 Michigan

Sure, the Wolverines watched Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. head to the NBA, but Michigan has plenty of stars in waiting. Glen Robinson III and Mitch McGary could each take the next step.

3 Ohio State

Who will replace all of Deshaun Thomas' points? It just might be LaQuinton Ross. Solid defense will keep the Buckeyes highly competitive while the point distribution works itself out.

4 Indiana

The Hoosiers lost more than any Big Ten team, but they still have a highly respected coach in Tom Crean, a worthy point guard in Yogi Ferrell and a nice restocking of players with the nation's sixth-ranked recruiting class.

5 Wisconsin

It's hard to ever count out the Badgers. A lot of weight will be put on the shoulders of youngsters Ben Brust and Sam Dekker. Can they lead the way to a 16th consecutive Big Dance berth? I think yes.

6 Iowa

Last season, the Hawkeyes looked a year away. Now, behind Aaron White and Melsahn Besabe — who will each take the next step — Iowa will be a tournament team once more.

7 Purdue

The Boilermakers are again young, but if 7-footer A.J. Hammons and guards/brothers Terone and Ronnie Johnson can do what's expected, Purdue could scare some conference foes.

8 Northwestern

Drew Crawford is back from shoulder surgery and will give new coach Chris Collins a potential star. It'll be enough to pull the Wildcats out of the basement, but the NCAA tournament might still prove elusive.

9 Gophers

Coach Richard Pitino certainly has turned the excitement level up a notch in his first year, but the Gophers still have some major holes in the lineup, most notably in the frontcourt.

10 Illinois

Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson are gone, and it will take some time to find adequate replacements.

11 Penn State

With Tim Frazier back, combining with D.J. Newbill for one of the best backcourts in the conference, it's tempting to pick the Nittany Lions higher. Still, they'll need help to move up.

12 Nebraska

On the face of it, it's easy to think the Huskers can improve on last year's bid. But with a tougher bottom half, no victory will come easy.