SB Nation

Thomas Beindit | November 5, 2014

2014-2015 Big Ten preview

+Introduction

This is the best conference in college basketball

Last year, the Big Ten was the best conference in college basketball.  Not only did the conference show this during the regular season with the best KenPom rating of any conference, but the Big Ten also showed it in the postseason, with the most Elite Eight teams, Sweet Sixteen teams, and an NIT title for Minnesota.  The Badgers and Buckeyes both entered conference play with undefeated records, but neither team won either the Big Ten championship or the Big Ten Tournament, as the two teams from the Mitten State (Michigan & MSU) won these titles respectively.

During the summer, the conference backed up its great season with an equally great NBA Draft.  On draft night, the Big Ten had 7 players with their names called and 6 of these were called in the 1st Round.  Both were highs for the conference during the last decade.  The conference then put 34 total players in the 2014 NBA Summer League and not only had many Draft picks (Tim Hardaway, Jr., Garry Harris, Noah Vonleh) put up big performances, but many other players (Aaron Craft, Devyn Marble) earned themselves NBA roster spots as a result of their performances.  It was a great all around summer for the Big Ten.

Of course, not every team had success, as 6 teams from the conference failed to make last year's NCAA Tournament and both newcomers to the Big Ten (Maryland & Rutgers) did not make the postseason.  Perhaps the most disappointing of these teams were Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, and Purdue, who were all considered NCAA Tournament contenders before the start of the season.  Still, as the offseason ends, not a single Big Ten program made a coaching change and not a single head coach in the conference left a Big Ten program.  The conference's respect is at an all-time high and its coaches are one of the biggest reasons why it has been so well received.

With the 2014-15 season on the horizon, the conference could be more unpredictable than it has been over any of the last few seasons.  There are certainly teams with known commodities like Nebraska and Wisconsin, but there are also plenty of teams with a lot of turnover like Michigan, MSU, and OSU that will still have plenty of talent to compete at the top level of the conference.  With the elite coaching, roster transition, and incoming talent, conference play is going to be virtually unpredictable on a nightly basis.  There are just too many good teams to think that teams are going to be kept down for more than a couple of games.  This should be a wild season.

This brings us to BTPowerhouse's 2014-15 Big Ten basketball preview.  We're going to be taking a look at every team in the Big Ten, where they project for next season, their offseason departures, their returners, their incoming recruits, the team's major storylines, and a breakdown on how the team will likely look on the court.  Following our look at the team in the Big Ten, we will finish up with some conference-wide predictions on how things look for the upcoming season.

+Teams

Tier 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5
Wisconsin +
Michigan +
Ohio State +
Nebraska +
Illinois +
Michigan State +
Indiana +
Iowa +
Minnesota +
Maryland +
Purdue +
Northwestern +
Penn State +
Rutgers +
Barcelona +
Paris Saint-Germain +
Ajax +
APOEL +
Chelsea +
Schalke 04 +
Sporting Lisbon +
Maribor +
Porto +
Shakhtar Donetsk +
Athletic Bilbao +
BATE Borisov +
Michigan
2013-14 Season Performance

Last season the Wolverines went 28-9 overall and 15-3 in the Big Ten.  Michigan made the NCAA Tournament and were eliminated in the Elite Eight by Kentucky.  In the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan was eliminated by Michigan State in the Championship game.  Michigan finished the season at #11 in RPI and #10 in KenPom.  Highlights of the season included a regular season sweep of Michigan State, a season sweep of Ohio State, and a Sweet Sixteen win over Tennessee.  Low points of the season included a neutral site loss to Charlotte and a road loss to Indiana.  Statistical leaders were Jon Horford, Caris LeVert, Jordan Morgan, and Nik Stauskas.  Horford led the team in blocks.  LeVert led the team in steals.  Morgan led the team in rebounds.  Stauskas led the team in minutes, points, assists, usage, and win shares.

Offseason Exits

During the offseason, Michigan lost a total of 7 players for a variety of reasons with 3 players entering the NBA Draft.  These players were Brad Anlauf, Jon Horford, Cole McConnell, Mitch McGary, Jordan Morgan, Glenn Robinson III (GR3), and Nik Stauskas.  The most significant departures are GR3, Morgan, and Stauskas.  Last season, Stauskas earned Big Ten Player of the Year and was easily one of the most dynamic offensive players in the nation.  Stauskas was an elite shooter that could handle the ball and had the ability to open up teammates with his passing.  GR3 was forced to play out of position during his time at Michigan, but was a solid defender that could rebound the ball and had a nice interior game.  Morgan was a 5th year senior last season that was one of the best defensive big men in the conference that turned into a really nice piece late last season.  Along with these players, Horford and McGary represent important departures as well.  Horford was inconsistent during his career in Ann Arbor, but he was one of the best blockers on the team and a decent defender.  McGary was easily the team's best big man, but was injured and forced to sit out most of last year, so his departure is more about lost potential for the Wolverines.  Anlauf and McConnell were both walk-ons that played less than 40 total minutes last year.

New Additions

This season, the Wolverines will be bringing in 6 new recruits and 1 transfer.  The recruits are Kameron Chatman, Aubrey Dawkins, Ricky Doyle, Austin Hatch, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (MAAR), and DJ Wilson.  Dawkins, Hatch, and MAAR are shooting guards, Chatman and Wilson are small forwards, and Doyle is a power forward.  Chatman and Wilson are rated as 4-star recruits, Dawkins, Doyle, and MAAR are rated as 3-star recruits, and Hatch is unrated according to 247Sports.  Chatman is widely considered to be the most college ready recruit in the class for Michigan due to his versatility, shooting, and his handle.  Chatman is expected to start at the 4 spot for Michigan as the team plays in a smaller lineup.  Due to the team's departures on the wing, Dawkins, MAAR, and Wilson will all likely see playing time as freshman.  Dawkins has a quick and effective jump shot, MAAR is considered to be a pure scorer, and Wilson is a diverse player that can play at almost any position.  Upfront, Doyle joins what has become a thin frontcourt for the Wolverines and could be the team's best rebounder in year one.  Hatch will likely redshirt his first season as he continues to recover from life threatening injuries he suffered during an airplane crash in high school.  The lone transfer this year comes from Duncan Robinson from Williams College.  Robinson is a Stauskas-esque player that is deadly from outside the arc.  Robinson will not be eligible to play this season.

Team Strengths

The strength for Michigan is in the backcourt and on the offensive side of the ball.  With the return of Spike Albrecht, Caris LeVert, and Derrick Walton, the Wolverines have 3 proven players in the backcourt for next season.  LeVert is being discussed as a potential Big Ten Player of the Year candidate, Walton is being discussed as an All-Big Ten candidate, and Albrecht has proven he can lead Michigan to wins as a backup.  Add in Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (MAAR) and Michigan's backcourt can be deeper and more talented than any in the conference.  Dawkins and MAAR aren't necessarily the most high profile recruits, but with the talent and depth Michigan has coming back, they will be fighting just to get minutes, which is a good sign for Michigan.  The backcourt will also add to what should be a deadly offensive team yet again.  LeVert is a dynamic scorer, shooter, and passer and will feed the offense.  The Wolverines were the #1 offense in KenPom last season and should bring back more than enough firepower to continue near the top of the charts.

Team Weaknesses

The biggest concern for Michigan this season will come at the center position and particularly with interior defense and rebounding.  With the departures of Jon Horford, Mitch McGary, and Jordan Morgan, the Wolverines are losing the top players on the team in rebounding rate last season and 3 of the team's top 5 average rebounders last year.  Add in that Morgan may have been the team's best defensive starter and that Horford was arguably the team's best blocker down the line and there have to be major questions upfront.  The Wolverines will likely look to Max Bielfeldt, Mark Donnal, and Ricky Doyle to fill the void left by the departures in the offseason.  The wildcard here is Mark Donnal who redshirted last season.  Donnal was a 4-star recruit when he arrived in Ann Arbor, but most see him as a power forward and not a center.  If Donnal can be productive, it would be a big break for Michigan and take much of the pressure off Bielfeldt and Doyle.  Bielfeldt will be a senior this season, but he has been relatively unproductive at Michigan.  Doyle has shown promise and has a high ceiling, but size and strength will likely be issues in his first season as a Wolverine.  Perhaps Michigan can get some production upfront, but it's hard not to see this as the weakest part of the team.

2014-15 Storylines

The biggest storyline for Michigan this season will be whether the team can once again replace key offseason departures and remain nationally relevant.  This is the 4th year in a row that Michigan has lost key pieces during the offseason and Michigan will look to continue its recent trend of performing despite these challenges.  The Wolverines will have their hands full upfront, but the team is relatively stocked considering the losses of Jordan Morgan, Glenn Robinson III, and Nik Stauskas.  Michigan returns 2 starters in Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton, returns a key bench player in Zak Irvin, and adds a major recruit in Kameron Chatman.  The potential is there for Michigan to once again overcome offseason departures, but John Beilein will have his work cut out this year.

Team Perspective From Zach Travis of Maize n Brew

Michigan basketball is in a weird place these days: it is the one place where Michigan fans can find hope and progress.  John Beilein has built a really solid foundation for the program and is turning out NBA draft picks at a level no one thought possible four years ago.  That he is doing so through player development and not just picking up blue chip recruits also bodes well for the program's continued success.  This year will be a tough task.  Michigan loses its entire front line and two of its most used wing players from the last two years.  The Wolverines have a lot of talent to rely on in the back court with Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton, and Zak Irvin all back and improved, but this season will test just how fast Beilein and assistant coach Bacari Alexander can get a young and potential-filled front line up to speed.  Michigan should still have enough to be a tournament team and a solid Big Ten squad.  An impressive coaching performance could put Michigan in the hunt for a Big Ten title in a down year, as well as another deep NCAA tournament run.

Indiana
2013-14 Season Performance

Last season, the Hoosiers went 17-15 overall and 7-11 in the Big Ten.  Indiana failed to make the postseason.  In the Big Ten Tournament, Indiana was eliminated by Illinois in the 1st Round.  Indiana finished the season at #99 in RPI and #67 in KenPom.  Highlights of the season included wins over Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin at home.  Low points of the season included losses at home to Northwestern and Penn State and a blowout loss on the road to arch-rival Purdue.  Statistical leaders were Yogi Ferrell, Will Sheehey, and Noah Vonleh.  Ferrell led the team in minutes, points, assists, win shares, and usage (excluding Taylor Wayer).  Sheehey led the team in steals.  Vonleh led the team in rebounds and blocks.

Offseason Exits

During the offseason, Indiana lost a total of 10 players for a variety of reasons.  These players were Austin Etherington, Joe Fagan, Evan Gordon, Jeremy Hollowell, Jeff Howard, Peter Jurkin, Jonny Marlin, Will Sheehey, and Noah Vonleh.  Four of these players transferred, three of these players graduated, one player left the team, and one player went to the 2014 NBA Draft.  Of these 10 players, the most significant losses are Gordon, Hollowell, Sheehey, and Vonleh.  In minutes, all four of these players were in the top seven on Indiana's roster last season.  When you add in that Vonleh was by far Indiana's most productive big man, Sheehey may have been the second best offensive player on the team, and both were top notch defenders, the Hoosiers are losing a lot in just these two.  Gordon and Hollowell may have never lived up to the hype last season, but both played significant minutes and Hollowell still had the potential to develop as a junior or a senior.  Of the remaining 6 departures, only Etherington averaged at least 10 minutes per game and he did this at just 10.6 minutes per game.  Etherington is a noteworthy departure as he was a young player with potential, but the other five never contributed significantly.  Finally, it is worth noting that Luke Fisher trnasferred to Marquette during the middle of the season.  He would have likely been a contributor upfront at the end of last season and during this season.

New Additions

This season, the Hoosiers will be bringing in 6 new recruits and 1 transfer.  The recruits are Jeremiah April, James Blackmon, Jr., Max Hoetzel, Emmitt Holt, Robert Johnson, and Tim Priller.  Blackmon is rated as a 5-star recruit, Johnson is rated as a 4-star recruit, and April, Hoetzel, Holt, and Priller are rated as 3-star recruits according to 247Sports.  Blackmon and Johnson are shooting guards, Hoetzel, Holt, and Priller are power forwards, and April is a center.  Within Indiana's 2014 recruiting class, Blackmon is clearly the most high-profile recruit.  Blackmon was targeted by numerous major programs including Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Michigan State, and UConn for his elite shooting ability and offensive capabilities.  Though Johnson has likely received the most attention in the class outside of Blackmon, he will have a tough road for playing time due to a deep Indiana backcourt.  Upfront, it would not be out of line for April, Hoetzel, Holt, and Priller to all see time.  However, Hoetzel and Holt are considered by many the chief players in line to play, especially with injury concerns for April.  This could be important as the frontcourt is widely considered the weak spot for the Hoosiers.  This is a very impressive recruiting class that may appear a bit underwhelming on its face, but could add a lot of depth to a team that desperately needs it.  The final addition is Nick Zeisloft, who is a transfer from Illinois State.  Zeisloft is a guard and brings a lot of talent at shooting from outside the arc to the Hoosiers this year.  Zeisloft will have 2 years of eligibility in Bloomington.

Team Strengths

The strength of Indiana's roster this season is clearly in the backcourt.  The team not only has the potential for multiple star players from this positional group, but they also are set to have good depth as well.  To start, Indiana brings back Yogi Ferrell, who was the team's best player last season.  He was already an All-Big Ten caliber of player and with another year to develop, he could be even better, especially if he has more effective places to feed the ball.  This is where newcomer James Blackmon, Jr. comes in.  Blackmon is not just a high profile recruit.  He's the type of prospect that is expected to start from day one.  Blackmon should be a serious contender for Big Ten Freshman of the Year and should be in the running to be Indiana's best player outside of Ferrell.  Add in Stanford Robinson and newcomers Robert Johnson and Nick Zeisloft and there are plenty of options on the wing and off the bench as well.  Obviously, a lot will depend on how the newcomers perform, but the Hoosiers should have one of the best backcourts in the Big Ten this season.

Team Weaknesses

The biggest concern about this year's Indiana team has to be in the frontcourt and, particularly, at the center position.  The Hoosiers do return Devin Davis, Hanner Mosquera-Perea, and Troy Williams, but the team still lacks a proven big man, especially at center.  Williams was able to show some potential last season, but he is clearly better suited to play at the 3 or 4 spots.  On the other side, Davis and Mosquera-Perea were relatively unproductive last season.  In fact, neither Davis or Mosquera-Perea averaged even 8 minutes per game during conference play last year and considering that Indiana's frontcourt was relatively mediocre outside of Noah Vonleh, that is concerning.  Of course, there are several things to note here.  Davis and Mosquera-Perea were both underclassmen last season, so they could very well improve and the addition of several recruits in the frontcourt could minimize the need for Davis and Mosquera-Perea to improve dramatically.  However, barring a recruit making a surprise entrance in the frontcourt or a returner taking a massive step forward, this will be a major area of concern for Indiana. It should be noted that due to an automobile accident involving Indiana newcomer Emmitt Holt, Devin Davis suffered a head injury and is expected to miss significant time this season. It is unknown how much time he will miss.

2014-15 Storylines

The biggest storyline for Indiana this season will be the challenge of overcoming incredible roster turnover.  Not only did Indiana lose 10 players from the team last season, they face the challenge of losing 4 of the team's biggest contributors and easily the team's most effective big man.  If the Hoosiers can get production out of the team's newcomers, this has the potential to be a pretty good team and maybe even a very good team if a player in the frontcourt can emerge as well.  The Hoosiers should be an exciting team with James Blackmon, Jr. and Yogi Ferrell manning the backcourt, but Tom Crean will have to find some pieces to surround them in the coming year.

Team Perspective From Kyle Swick of The Crimson Quarry

Prognostications for the 2014-15 Hoosiers seem to be all over the map, and for good reason. There are a ton of unknowns about this season given that a lot of the contributors to last year's disappointing campaign have moved on after a giant exodus in the Spring. More than a few think Tom Crean's seat should be (or is) getting warm as the backslide from the 2012-13 season was much further than anticipated.

The lack of size up front is of greatest concern going in, as 6'8" Hanner Mosquera-Perea is the only guy with enough size and strength to bang down low in the B1G among the players projected to play the most during the conference season. His first two years in Bloomington have been marred with inconsistency, and it's not a stretch to believe that this team will go as he goes. A great season out of Perea, combined with what projects to be an excellent backcourt, could put the Hoosiers into the upper third of the league, but anything similar to what we've seen out of him so far, and it becomes difficult to see IU winning much more than they did last year.

Speaking of the backcourt, and here's my bold prediction: I believe that Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon Jr. will team up to be the best backcourt in the B1G this season. Early returns from the trip to Canada and practice have shown these two to be very in tune with one another and regardless of how it shakes out down low, these guys, being spelled with Stanford Robinson, highly-touted recruit Rob Johnson and transfer sharpshooter Nick Zeisloft will immediately solve the shooting woes that plagued the roster last season.

Illinois
2013-14 Season Performance

Last season, the Fighting Illinois went 20-15 overall and 7-11 in the Big Ten.  Illinois made the NIT and were eliminated in the 2nd Round by Clemson.  In the Big Ten Tournament, Illinois was eliminated by Michigan in the 2nd Round.  Illinois finished the season at #67 in RPI and #49 in KenPom.  Highlights of the season included wins over Michigan State on the road, Nebraska at home, and Missouri on a neutral court.  Low points of the season included a home loss to Purdue, a road loss to Northwestern, and a road loss to Georgia Tech.  Statistical leaders were Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Rayvonte Rice.  Abrams led the team in assists.  Egwu led the team in rebounds and blocks.  Rice led the team in minutes, points, steals, win shares, and usage.

Offseason Exits

During the offseason, Illinois lost a total of 2 players to graduation.  These players were Joseph Betrand and Jon Ekey.  Both are significant departures for the Illini.  Both players were in the top 5 for minutes and win shares on the team last season.  In some ways, the impact of Betrand and Ekey faded down the stretch, but Ekey was still 2nd on the team in total win shares and Betrand was 3rd on the team in points per game.  Neither of these players were close to the contributions of a player like Rayvonte Rice last season, but there's no denying that both made significant contributions to the team.  Ekey was probably the more valuable player overall, but it is worth noting that Betrand was one of the better offensive contributors on a team that was #177 in team offense according to KenPom.  On a team that desperately needs playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, losing one of their biggest contributors is certainly not a good sign.  Meanwhile, Ekey was one of the best rebounders on the team and was 2nd in rebounding rate on the roster.  Ekey did not have a high usage rate, but he certainly did things like rebound the ball well.  The Illini will have their work cut out for them in replacing two valuable pieces.

New Additions

This season, the Fighting Illinois will be bringing in 2 new recruits.  The recruits are Leron Black and Michael Finke.  Black is rated as a 4-star recruit and Finke is rated as a 3-star recruit according to 247Sports.  Black and Finke are both power forwards.  Both recruits have received plenty of recruiting hype, but Black is definitely considered to be the more college ready prospect of the two.  Black has the ability to drive the hoop, defend down low, and can rebound the basketball very well.  Some have mentioned Black as a contender for All-Big Ten Freshman Team honors, but this will be a major challenge simply considering the depth that both Black and Finke will face to see the court this season.  Since Malcolm Hill and Rayvonte Rice should be relatively cemented starters at the 3 and 4 spots in the lineup, being able to battle for minutes alone would be pretty telling for both of these recruits.  The focus of Illinois' team this season probably will not be on the newcomers, but they could provide an ample boost to an already deep squad.

Team Strengths

The strength for Illinois this season will undoubtedly be on the defensive side of the court.  Last season, the Illini were rated as the #11 defense according to KenPom and a big part of that was the pressure the team brought on the wing and upfront.  This wasn't a defense boosted by blocks or turnovers either, as the team wasn't necessarily great in either one of those categories.  Sure, the Illini were better at getting turnovers in conference play, but this was a team that was simply strong all around as a defense.  An incredibly slow pace certainly helped these numbers somewhat, but it's tough to see Illinois taking a step back here, especially with the vast majority of the team back and the addition of Leron Black, who most anticipate will be able to hold his own on the defensive side of the court.  Losing Tracy Abrams to a season-ending injury will hurt here, but it's going to remain very difficult to score on Illinois, especially on the wing.

Team Weaknesses

The biggest concern for Illinois has to be the offense and in particular, the team's shooting.  Last season, Rayvonte Rice was the team's best offensive weapon.  He not only led the team in scoring, usage, and player efficiency, but he also led the team by nearly a full game in offensive win shares.  In fact, Rice had the same number of offensive win shares as the #2 and #3 players on Illinois' team combined.  In short, the offense largely lived and died with the play of Rice.  Now, Rice is back this season, but if Illinois wants to make a step forward from #177 in offense according to KenPom, they are going to need to get others involved.  One area that needs a lot of help is in shooting and particularly, shooting from outside the arc.  Last year, Illinois was #10 in the Big Ten in 3PT percentage and they are losing their leader in attempts outside the arc and their second best player in terms of 3PT percentage.  A key player here will be Kendrick Nunn, who emerged later in the year and was a pretty solid shooter.  He will have to grow into that role if Illinois can improve in this area.

2014-15 Storylines

The biggest storyline for Illinois this season will be whether John Groce can take a surprisingly deep and talented roster back to the NCAA Tournament.  Despite being regulated to the NIT last season, the Illini really developed over the course of the season and were a lot better than many think.  The team did lose 2 key players in the offseason and another to injury, but they bring many young guys back and have added 2 new and exciting recruits.  The Fighting Illini may not be as stacked as teams like Wisconsin, but this roster has a wide distribution of depth, experience, and talent.  There may be no other team more primed for a breakout than Illinois.

Team Perspective From Jim Vainisi of The Champaign Room

Don't sleep on Illinois this season; this will be John Groce's best team thus far.  Rayvonte Rice, Nnanna Egwu, Kendrick Nunn, and Malcolm Hill all return and they're joined by talented transfers Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks. Senior Point Guard Tracy Abrams will miss the entire season with an ACL injury, but Starks will step in and give the offense another dimension. Top-40 freshman Leron Black will provide a nice spark off the bench; look for him to make the All-Freshman team. All in all, expect the Illini to be one of the B1G's best shooting teams this season with Cosby, Starks, Nunn, Hill, and Rice all in the fold. The biggest question/concern is the team's lack of a "go-to rebounder", but team has great rebounding guards and they'll be contributing in that aspect. It should be a fun season in Champaign.  You starting lineup is likely Starks, Cosby, Rice, Hill, and Egwu with Black and Nunn as your top bench options.  Illinois should finish in the top 6 of the Big Ten and have a shot at the 2nd weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Northwestern
2013-14 Season Performance

Last season, the Wildcats went 14-19 overall and 6-12 in the Big Ten.  Northwestern failed to make a postseason tournament for the second straight season.  In the Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern was eliminated by Michigan State in the 2nd Round.  Northwestern finished the season at #123 in RPI and #131 in KenPom.  Highlights of the season included a road win over Wisconsin, a win in the Big Ten Tournament against Iowa, and a road win against Indiana.  Low points of the season included home losses to DePaul, Illinois State, and Penn State.  Statistical leaders were Drew Crawford, Tre Demps, Sanjay Lumpkin, and Alex Olah.  Crawford led the team in minutes, points, rebounds, win shares, and usage.  Demps led the team in assists.  Lumpkin led the team in steals.  Olah led the team in blocks.

Offseason Exits

During the offseason, Northwestern lost a total of 7 players for a variety of reasons.  These players were Kale Abrahamson, Chier Ajou, Nikola Cerina, Drew Crawford, Aaron Liberman, James Montgomery, III, and Mike Turner.  Four of these players graduated and three of these players transferred.  Of these 7 players, the most significant losses come the departures of Abrahamson and Crawford.  In fact, none of the other players even averaged 10 minutes a game next season and all except Cerina failed to reach 100 total minutes.  Still the losses and Abrahamson and particularly Crawford are substantial.  Crawford not only led the team in minutes, points, and rebounds, but he dominated the advanced numbers as well.  He led the team in win shares, usage, player efficiency, and was in the Top 4 on the team in true rebounding rate, assist rate, true shooting percentage, and offensive rating.  Perhaps the most telling statistic to look at for Crawford is field goal attempts.  Last year, Crawford took 91 more attempts than anybody else on the roster.  The gap from Crawford to Tre Demps - 2nd on the team in FGAs - had only 21 fewer attempts than Abrahamson, who is the second biggest departure on the team.  Clearly, Crawford is going to be the big guy this team has to replace.  Of course, Abrahamson had a few nice games for Northwestern last season including a 19 point game against UCLA and a few decent conference games, but he was largely a depth piece and never made a consistent offensive impact for the Wildcats.  It is also worth noting that Turner opted to transfer during the season, so he is not technically an offseason departure.

New Additions

This season, the Wildcats will be bringing in 5 new recruits, 1 transfer, and a new walk-on.  The recruits are Victor Law, Scott Lindsey, Bryant McIntosh, Gavin Skelly, and Johnnie Vassar.  Law is rated as a 4-star recruit and the remaining 4 recruits are 3-star recruits according to 247Sports.  Law and Lindsey are small forwards, McIntosh is a point guard, Skelly is a power forward, and Vassar is a point guard.  Law is unanimous heralded as the top prospect in Northwestern's 2014 recruiting class due to his athleticism, length, and defensive ability, but McIntosh has also received a great deal of attention due to his scoring, passing, and ability to shoot the ball.  Vassar has also received some attention and should get some minutes in the backcourt, but the remaining 3 recruits are considered to be more long-term options.  The incoming transfer is Jeremiah Kreisberg from Yale.  Kreisberg is a graduate transfer and will be eligible immediately this season.  He will likely serve as a backup behind Alex Olah, but he was a contributor in his time at Yale, averaging 13.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.  He will likely see significant minutes off the bench this season.  The final addition is Nicolas Segura, who will be a walk-on to Northwestern's team.  Segura is a small forward and is considered to be a good passer and finisher around the rim.

Team Strengths

The strength of Northwestern's team this season will on the defensive side of the court.  The Wildcats were the 3rd highest rated defense on KenPom in the conference last season and will look to continue that with most of the team's lineup back and some exciting new additions.  Even considering the significant loss of Drew Crawford, Northwestern will be able to play Victor Law and Sanjay Lumpkin on the wing, which should still be a pretty formidable defensive front.  Add in another year of experience for Tre Demps and Alex Olah and this should be a team that's very challenging to score on this season.  Perhaps if the team changes their pace this could influence Northwestern's performance on this side of the court a little more and rebounding should be a challenge, but all the pieces are there for Northwestern to continue to be a very good defense that can grind out games even against top offenses.

Team Weaknesses

The biggest weakness for Northwestern's team will be on the offensive side, and particularly when shooting the ball.  The Wildcats were rated as the #309 offense in the country last season and a big part of that was the team's inability to shoot the ball.  Now, with the departure of Drew Crawford, there are going to be even more questions about how the team is going to try and score.  JerShon Cobb and Tre Demps are proven scorers, but neither has been particularly efficient.  Crawford led the team in usage last season and Northwestern has to find a way to replace Crawford's 13 field goal attempts per game.  Considering that only one player on the rest of Northwestern's team (Cobb) averaged at least 10 attempts per game, this will be no easy feat.  The major worry here is that Cobb and Demps attempt to take the load over by themselves and make an inefficient returning offense even more inefficient.  Perhaps Bryant McIntosh can help address these concerns, but this will likely be one of the biggest challenges in 2014-15 for Northwestern.

2014-15 Storylines

The biggest storylines for Northwestern this season are going to be the attempts to replace do-it-all senior Drew Crawford from last season and what has become one of the most exciting incoming recruiting classes in Northwestern basketball history.  There's a lot of excitement in the Northwestern program right now.  Last year, the team was not great, but they were a lot better than an 11th place conference finish would indicate.  Add in 5 new recruits including a Top 100 recruit and a nice transfer for depth and you have the signs of a team about to take a big leap.  However, it's important to remember that this team is also losing their best player from last year.  From the outside, it looks like everything is moving in the right direction, except for the departure of Crawford.  Perhaps the new additions and rising players like Alex Olah can make up for Crawford's departure, but these two storylines will be the things that ultimately determine the success of Northwestern's 2014-15 season.

Team Perspective From Jason Dorow at Inside NU

Northwestern basketball has a brand new look in 2014-15. Not only does Welsh-Ryan Arena feature a new court and videoboards, but the roster includes more new players than returnees. Luckily for the young squad, Northwestern's non-conference schedule couldn't get much easier. The freshmen will have time to learn the system and create some chemistry while likely nabbing double digit wins before conference play. From there on, it will be a grind for the Wildcats.

The team has to find a way to fill the void left by last season's leading scorer and rebounder, Drew Crawford. Wingmen JerShon Cobb and Tre Demps aren't the caliber of player that Crawford was, but both can score the rock and have stepped up as leaders for NU. A bunch of guards will probably rotate in the backcourt, as Collins hopes to push the tempo more this season. Freshman Vic Law is something special in transition, and unlike previous years, the ‘Cats should be getting above the rim quite often. Still, defense will be this team's forte as Collins tries to create an offensive scheme that suits his personnel.

Northwestern won't make much noise in the Big Ten, but this year should provide a good idea of what the future in Evanston will look like.

Purdue
2013-14 Season Performance

Last season, the Boilermakers went 15-17 overall and 5-13 in the Big Ten.  Purdue failed to make the postseason.  In the Big Ten Tournament, Purdue was eliminated by Ohio State in the 1st Round.  Purdue finished the season at #141 in RPI and #97 in KenPom.  Highlights of the season included home wins over Indiana, Minnesota, and Nebraska.  Low points of the season included being swept by Northwestern and a neutral site loss to Washington State.  Statistical leaders were AJ Hammons, Ronnie Johnson, Terone Johnson, and Bryson Scott.  Hammons led the team in rebounds, blocks, and win shares.  Terone Johnson led the team in minutes, points.  Ronnie Johnson led the team in assists.  Scott led the team in steals and usage (excluding Stephen Toyra).

Offseason Exits

During the offseason, Purdue lost a total of 4 players to graduation and 1 player to transfer.  These players were Travis Carroll, Sterling Carter, Ronnie Johnson, Terone Johnson, and Errick Peck.  The most significant departures are Ronnie Johnson and Terone Johnson.  Both players averaged over 25 minutes per game and were top 3 in scoring and top 5 in total win shares on the team.  When you add in that both players could get to the free throw line and that Ronnie Johnson was the best passer on last year's Purdue team with 3.7 assists per game and a 26.4 assist rate.  Along with these losses, Purdue will also have to replace Carter and Peck, who both made significant contributions last season.  Both Carter and Peck averaged over 15 minutes a game last season and although neither was a great offensive weapon, Carter was one of the better passers on the team and Peck was one of the better rebounders on the team.  The final departure was Carroll, who averaged just 7.1 minutes per game.  It is also worth noting that Jay Simpson retired from basketball due to a heart condition late last season.

New Additions

This season, the Boilermakers will be bringing in 5 new recruits and 1 transfer.  The recruits are Vincent Edwards, Isaac Haas, Dakota Mathias, Jacquil Taylor, and PJ Thompson.  Edwards and Haas are rated as 4-star recruits and Mathias, Taylor, and Thompson are rated as 3-star recruits according to 247Sports.  Thompson is a point guard, Mathias is a shooting guard, Edwards is a small forward, Taylor is a power forward, and Haas is a center.  The recruits entering West Lafayette with the most hype are Edwards and Haas.  Many considered Edwards to be one of the top targets for Painter in 2014 and it is because of his shooting, passing, and ability to rebound the ball.  He is a diverse player that received attention from many big programs.  Haas is remarkable due to his 7'2" stature and ability to score down low.  He will battle for time behind Hammons, but is considered to have a high ceiling.  Mathias and Thompson aren't receiving as much hype as Edwards and Haas, but both could earn playing time this season and Mathias could be a sleeper for Purdue this season.  Taylor could contribute, but he will have to battle at a deep position for Purdue.  The final addition is transfer Jon Octeus from Colorado State.  Octeus is known for his defensive abilities and should be in serious contention to start at the point.

Team Strengths

The strength for Purdue this season will undoubtedly come from the frontcourt.  The Boilermakers return the team's best player and NBA Draft prospect in AJ Hammons in the frontcourt along with Basil Smotherman, who showed a great deal of potential in year one.  Hammons was the team's best rebounder last season and a ferocious shot blocker.  There has been a great deal of criticism regarding the inconsistency of Hammons during his career, but he is still one of the best big men in the conference and certainly the best on Purdue's roster.  Alongside Hammons, Smotherman still has a lot of developing to do before he can be an impact player, but he brought a lot of energy to the lineup last season and still has plenty of room to grow.  The other wildcard here is the addition of Isaac Haas, who many believe is the best recruit in Purdue's incoming class.  If he can be productive in his first year, this would give the Boilermakers a plethora of options upfront.

Team Weaknesses

The biggest concern for Purdue this season will be replacing its backcourt from last year.  With the departures of both Ronnie Johnson and Terone Johnson, the Boilermakers were left searching for options.  Raphael Davis and Bryson Scott return this year, but neither played or contributed as much as the Johnsons.  The addition of Jon Octeus from Colorado State should help this unit significantly, but it's still difficult to see this group being able to compete with the top groups in the Big Ten.  Likely, this group will come down to how quickly Octeus can transition into his role with this team and how much Scott can improve in his second year.  Scott has shown potential, but he was still limited as a freshman on a bad team, which isn't always a good sign.  One thing worth noting is that neither Ronnie Johnson nor Terone Johnson were very efficient for Purdue last season.  Both played a great deal and put up decent numbers, but they were largely due to volume and not due to efficiency.  If Octeus and Scott can be more efficient, perhaps it can allow the frontcourt to absorb more of the possessions to make up the difference.

2014-15 Storylines

The biggest storyline for Purdue this season is going to center around whether AJ Hammons can live up to his hype and lead the Boilermakers back to relevance in the conference and on the national level.  There are certainly bigger NBA prospects in the nation than Hammons, but Hammons has shown that he has the ability to perform on an elite level.  If he can finally do this on a consistent basis, Purdue could be a lot more dangerous this season.  The other aspect of Hammons taking the next step forward will be more productive players on the wing and in the backcourt.  Kendall Stephens was a pretty good shooter for Purdue last year, but not many others contributed on any consistent basis.  If the Boilermakers can get more talent on the perimeter, it could help Hammons grow into his potential and be the difference maker for Purdue this season.

Team Perspective From Travis Miller of Hammer & Rails

For Purdue, there are a lot of questions. people who follow the program feel like the loss of the Johnson brothers, though they were Purdue's top scorers, might be addition by subtraction. Unlike the best Painter teams, which were loaded in the back court but light in the post, the Boilers are now strong in the middle with A.J. Hammons, Isaac Haas, and Jacquil Taylor. The perimeter shooting is not proven, but Vince Edwards and Dakota Mathias give Purdue more options outside than Kendall Stephens. This is a young Purdue team, but if they gel (unlike the last two seasons) they could surprise some people.

Penn State
2013-14 Season Performance

Last season, the Nittany Lions went 16-18 overall and 6-12 in the Big Ten.  Penn State made the CBI Tournament and were eliminated by Siena in the Quarterfinal by a final score of 54-52.  In the Big Ten Tournament, Penn State was eliminated by Minnesota in the 1st Round.  Penn State finished the season at #111 in RPI and #82 in KenPom.  Highlights of the season included a season sweep of Ohio State, a road win over Indiana and an overtime win over St. John's.  Low points of the season included back-to-back losses to Minnesota to end conference play and losses to Bucknell and Princeton at home.  Statistical leaders were Tim Frazier, Donovan Jack, D.J. Newbill, and Ross Travis.  Frazier led the team in minutes, assists, steals, and win shares.  Jack led the team in blocks.  Newbill led the team in points and usage.  Travis led the team in rebounds.

Offseason Exits

During the offseason, Penn State lost a total of 4 players.  These players were Zach Cooper, Tim Frazier, Allen Roberts, and Graham Woodward.  Cooper, Frazier, and Roberts all left due to graduation and Woodward left due to transfer.  Frazier is clearly the most significant loss for the team as he led the roster in minutes, assists, steals, and win shares, but Roberts and Woodward were also contributors.  Roberts averaged 18.5 minutes, 5.7 points, and 2.7 rebounds per game.  He was limited to 18 games, but he did have a solid usage rate at 17.7% and .09 win shares per 40 minutes.  Woodward's contributions were pretty limited, but he was a true freshman with at least some potential in the backcourt.  This is significant because Frazier is now out.  Outside of Frazier, Penn State isn't losing much, but that's like saying the Miami Heat "just" lost LeBron this year.  Frazier is the guy that stirred the pot and created much of the team's offense.  Not only did create a lot for himself, but he did it efficiently - leading the team in Player Efficiency - and was easily the best passer on the team.  His assist rate was nearly 22% higher than any other player on Penn State's roster and there's a reason why his 2011-12 season had the 3rd highest assist rate of any Big Ten player since the 2009-10 season.  Those are impressive numbers and are going to be hard to replace.  It is worth noting that Roberts technically left during the season and not during the offseason.

New Additions

This season, the Nittany Lions will be bringing in 2 new recruits and 1 transfer.  The recruits are Shep Garner and Isaiah Washington.  Devin Foster is a JUCO transfer.  Garner and Washington are 3-star recruits according to 247Sports and Foster is unrated.  Foster is shooting guard, Garner is a combo guard, and Washington is a shooting guard.  Foster is considered to be a very good 3 PT shooter and is expected to help fill in for the loss of Frazier.  Garner is expected to be Foster's primary backup and is considered the more college ready of the two prospects.  Penn State's new additions will have to make a big impact for the Nittany Lions to be productive in the backcourt in the upcoming season.

Team Strengths

The strength of this team will likely be in the backcourt.  Yes, the loss of Frazier will be felt deeply and it's highly unlikely that Foster and/or Garner can hope to match what he brought to the table for Penn State, but this will still likely be the strength of the team.  Not only is DJ Newbill - the team's best player - in this position group, but there are solid options with potential to utilize.  Plus, if there are issues at one position, Pat Chambers can move Newbill to fill in.  He has the ability to play multiple positions, which should help mask matchup problems, lineup, and depth issues in the backcourt.  Foster, Garner, and Washington are unknowns here, but Foster is at least semi proven and Garner and Washington will likely only be looking at backup minutes, so their potential impact or liability to the team is limited.  Along with these three, Geno Thorpe is also on the roster.  Thorpe struggled in his freshman season, but he did improve over the course of the season and fans can hope he has improved over the offseason.  The backcourt has some question marks, but the depth and talent should make this Penn State's greatest strength this season.

Team Weaknesses

The biggest weakness for Penn State this season will likely be the team's frontcourt.  Though there is a great deal of experience upfront and known commodities, the Nittany Lions lack productive players down low.  Donovan Jack and Ross Travis are both upperclassmen and have played in plenty of games for Penn State, but neither has shown the ability to compete at a high level.  Jack was the team's best blocker last season and Travis was the team's best rebounder, but both struggled to score and struggled either in blocking or rebounding.  Plus, neither player was necessarily that great on the defensive end and neither has imposing size.  Perhaps Jordan Dickerson and Julian Moore will get more involved over the course of the season - they certainly look like the long-term options - but for now, this looks like a group that could potentially limit a backcourt with a lot of potential.

2014-15 Storylines

The biggest storyline for Penn State's team this season is how they plan to replace do it all point guard Tim Frazier.  Over his career, Frazier made a tremendous impact for the Nittany Lions and was influential in DJ Newbill's breakout last season.  There are potential answers here in transfer Devin Foster and incoming freshman Shep Garner, but there will likely be growing pains at the point as well.  Along with replacing Frazier, this is also considered to be a very significant season for Pat Chambers.  This will be the fourth year under Chambers and the Nittany Lions have failed to make the NCAA Tournament or the NIT.  Chambers may not be the "hot seat" just yet, but this certainly could be a year that tells a lot about Chamber's tenure.

Team Perspective From Chad Markulics of Black Shoe Diaries

Penn State's challenge has always been looking to break into the B1G's middle class ever since the school joined the conference in 1994, and it takes something special to climb into that strata. The beginning of their third decade in the B1G, however, looks promising. Head coach Pat Chambers is close to securing the program's best recruiting class, well, ever, but Chambers knows that the off-court wins only get a program so far. Penn State had some high expectations for themselves last season, but perhaps those expectations were too high, as the Lions got out to an 0-6 start in conference play, dooming any hopes of an NCAA or NIT bid despite a respectable 6-6 record over their final 12 games.

So where does that leave Penn State heading into 2014-15? Well for one, it leaves them searching for a season they can sell to the next batch of recruits, and it leaves them having to do so without Frazier - or any established point guard, for that matter. Newbill will be tasked with moving back to the position he played during Frazier's season-long absence in 2013-14, especially if neither JuCo transfer Devin Foster nor freshman Shep Garner can take command of the role in the chances they'll get during non-conference play.

Of course, it won't much matter who's running the offense if Penn State doesn't hit shots at a higher rate than they did last season (31.2% from three as a team). For starters, Brandon Taylor and John Johnson will have to improve their numbers from 2013-14 if they want to play as much as possible, as Donovon Jack and redshirt freshman Payton Banks will be chomping at the bit to get their share of shots. Geno Thorpe is seen as the team's future, and the sooner that future arrives the better because Penn State will be looking for that second star to pair with Newbill.

All in all, there's reason for cautious optimism in Happy Valley, and the positive impact a successful season (NIT or better) would have on this program is immeasurable. But they'll have to prove they can climb up the basement ladder a *somewhat* weakened B1G has provided them in 2014-15 before they walk among the conference's perennially relevant teams.

Rutgers
2013-14 Season Performance

Last season, the Scarlet Knights went 12-21 overall and 5-13 in the American Athletic Conference (AAC).  Rutgers failed to make the postseason and was eliminated in their conference tournament by Louisville after an astounding 61 point loss.  Rutgers finished the season at #195 in RPI and #166 on KenPom.  Highlights of the season included wins over Canisius and Houston.  Low points of the season included the season ending loss to Louisville, a home loss to Fairleigh Dickinson, and a road loss to UCF.  Statistical leaders were Kadeem Jack and Myles Mack.  Jack led the team in rebounds and blocks.  Mack led the team in minutes, points, assists, steals, win shares, and usage.

Offseason Exits

During the offseason, Rutgers lost Craig Brown, D'Von Campbell, Wally Judge, J.J. Moore, and Jerome Seagears.  All of these losses are significant as each of these players averaged at least 10 minutes a game.  However, only Judge, Moore, and Seagears averaged at least 20 minutes a game and only Moore averaged at least 10 points per game.  This can also be seen in the advanced stats as only Moore, Judge, and Seagears were in the top half of the team in total win shares.  In fact, Brown had a total of -0.2 win shares last season.  On top of that, only Judge and Moore topped 20% usage rate last season.  Each of these losses will have at least some impact, but the big losses are Judge, Moore, and Seagears.  In particular, Rutgers will have to replace Judge's ability to get to the free throw line, Moore's scoring, and Seagear's passing.

New Additions

This season, the Scarlet Knights will be bringing in 3 new recruits and 3 transfers.  The recruits are Ibrahima Diallo, D.J. Foreman, and Mike Williams.  All three players are 3-star recruits according to 247Sports.  Diallo is a center, Foreman is a power forward, and Williams is a shooting guard.  Williams will likely get the most minutes out of the three as a bench player for the backcourt.  Rutgers is thin in the backcourt, so his development will be key.  The other additions are Bishop Daniels, Shaquille Doorson, and Ryan Johnson.  Daniels is a JUCO transfer and expected to be a starter in year one.  He is characterized as a scorer, which should be a welcome addition to team leader Myles Mack.  Doorson is a center, was originally committed to Pittsburgh, and was rated as a 3-star recruit.  Johnson is a wing and is considered to be a quality shooter.  Unfortunately for Rutgers, Diallo and Johnson have been ruled ineligible for the upcoming season due to academic issues.

Team Strengths

Rutgers will face many challenges this season, but the strength of this team has to be in the frontcourt.  Kadeem Jack is generally considered to be the best player on the team and he should lock down the power forward position.  Along with this, Greg Lewis offers the potential to make an impact.  He has yet to play much in his time with Rutgers, but he was generally regarded as an exciting prospect when he originally joined the team.  Finally, the team has frontcourt options in Shaquille Doorson, D.J. Foreman, and Junior Etou.  Doorson and Foreman are obviously young players and will face early challenges like any young player, but they are options to rotate and Etou could slide down if Jordan needs another option.  After all, he did play at power forward some last season.

Team Weaknesses

The biggest weakness of Rutgers' team is a thin backcourt.  Though Myles Mack will certainly lock down the point guard position for next season, everything else is a relative question mark.  There is hope that JUCO transfer Bishop Daniels can make an impact, but he is an unknown at this point.  After that, things get really interesting.  The depth chart after Daniels and Mack is pretty much true freshman Mike Williams and Kerwin Okoro.  Williams is an incoming 3-star recruit and Okoro averaged just over 7 minutes a game last season.  It's certainly possible that one or two of Daniels, Okoro, and Williams emerge and become productive players, but it's hard to see much depth here regardless of any improvements.

2014-15 Storylines

There are several storylines to follow for Rutgers in the upcoming season, but the biggest center around coach Eddie Jordan and his efforts to rebuild the program.  Last season, the Scarlet Knights were one of the weaker teams in the AAC and they are now moving to the nation's most challenging basketball conference.  If Rutgers wants to win games and be competitive, they are going to have to improve from last season.  There are certainly signs of improvement and Jordan has brought in several intriguing options, but this is a thin team that is going to rely on its two stars (Jack & Mack) to do much of the work.  There are signs of hope for the future, but can the Scarlet Knights exceed expectations and make an impact this season?

Team Perspective From Dave White of On The Banks

Rutgers is coming off a scandal, followed by a terrible season.  There's no other way to put it.  They went 5-13 in conference last year, beating only teams that finished below them in the standings.  And now they move to the Big Ten.  However, after Eddie Jordan reshaped the roster, there is plenty of hope the team will improve on the court.

Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack are the senior leaders of the team, hoping their final season will be one that sets the tone for future seasons.  Mack has been consistent his entire career and there's no reason to expect a drop off now.  On the other hand, Jack took a huge step forward last year, and if he does the same this year, he will be a player who the nation has their eye on.  Jack has the potential to be an NBA pick.

The other key players are Greg Lewis, a redshirt Junior who is finally healthy and looking to lock down the starting center position. Bishop Daniels, a former Miami player and JUCO transfer, looks to help with the leader guard role and bring much needed defense to the guard position.  Junior Etou, the sophomore, looks to bring scoring and defense to the wing.

Rutgers may not be world beaters this year, but there's plenty of hope they can be competitive and stay out the last place spot in conference.

Ohio State
2013-14 Season Performance

Last season, the Buckeyes went 25-10 overall and 10-8 in the Big Ten.  Ohio State made the NCAA Tournament and were eliminated by Dayton in the Round of 64.  In the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan eliminated Ohio State in the semi-finals.  Ohio State finished the season at #24 in RPI and #20 in KenPom.  Highlights of the season included a road win over Wisconsin, a win over Michigan State, and a Big Ten Tournament win over Nebraska.  Low points of the season included being swept by Penn State, a road loss to Indiana, and a home loss to Iowa.  Statistical leaders were Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross, and Amir Williams.  Craft led the team in minutes, assists, steals, and win shares.  Ross led the team in points, rebounds, and usage (minus Jake Lohrbach).  Williams led the team in blocks.

Offseason Exits

During the offseason, Ohio State lost a total of 5 players for a variety of reasons.  These players were Aaron Craft, Amedeo Della Valle, Andrew Goldstein, LaQuinton Ross, and Lenzelle Smith, Jr.  Craft, Ross, and Smith are clearly the most significant departures.  During his 4 year stretch in Columbus, Craft become an icon for the team, fans, and the hard-nosed defensive style that Thad Matta instills in all of his teams.  Craft certainly wasn't the best player on Ohio State's team during his tenure with the Buckeyes, but it was his defensive prowess and ability to create plays offensively that made him such a nice piece.  Ross was often maligned for his defensive play, but during his last 2 years and particularly in 2013-14, Ross was a pretty solid offensive player.  In fact, one can make a pretty strong argument that Ross was OSU's best offensive player last season.  Ross did, after all, lead the team in points, points produced, offensive win shares, and was probably the team's most effective long range shooter.  Smith was often lost in the mix, but he was a dynamic player that could score and hit the boards.  He never got the attention of a Craft, but he put together a pretty good season last year and his combination of scoring, passing, and rebounding was one that's not easy to find.  The final departures were Della Valle and Goldstein.  Della Valle was a nice bench piece for the Buckeyes last season, but never developed as some hoped and Goldstein played just 2 minutes all year.  From an on-court contribution perspective, these two should be easy to replace.

New Additions

This season, the Buckeyes will be bringing in 4 new recruits and 2 transfers.  The recruits are Keita Bates-Diop, Dave Bell, D'Angelo Russell, and Jae'Sean Tate.  Russell is a shooting guard, Bates-Diop and Tate are small forwards, and Bell is a power forward.  Russell is rated as a 5-star, Bates-Diop and Tate are rated as 4-star, and Bell is rated as a 3-star recruit according to 247Sports.  Though this is arguably the best incoming recruiting class in the Big Ten for this season, Russell is widely regarded as the best recruit in the class.  Russell is considered to be an elite recruit due to his athleticism, defense, and shooting abilities.  If he isn't an instant starter in Columbus, it will be surprising.  Along with Russell, Bates-Diop and Tate could be important pickups.  Both will likely play on the wing and should see serious playing time in year one.  Bates-Diop has a nice handle and the ability to create his own shots, which makes him a very dangerous offensive weapon.  Tate has a great deal of athleticism and is widely regarded for his high motor play.  Bell is considered to be a pretty raw recruit that may take some time to develop,  Along with this recruiting class, Ohio State will be adding Anthony Lee from Temple and Trevor Thompson from Virginia Tech.  Lee is eligible to play this season and has the ability to score and rebound.  Thompson is not eligible to play this season, but boosts a great deal of youth and size for the future.

Team Strengths

The strength for the Buckeyes this season should come on the defensive side of the court.  Though Ohio State should have some interesting offensive weapons in true freshmen Keita Bates-Diop and D'Angelo Russell, the defense is once again in position to be elite.  This conclusion may be a bit surprising with the loss of Aaron Craft, who was Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season, but there are plenty of good defensive players on this roster.  The first has to be Shannon Scott.  Craft was obviously a great defender, but one could make a pretty strong argument that Scott was right with Craft last year.  Scott has nice speed, can stay in front of opponents, and is able to disrupt shots with his hands.  The backcourt pressure brought by the Buckeyes will look very similar this year.  Along with Scott, OSU will also be bringing back Sam Thompson and Amir Williams, who were both pretty solid defenders last season.  Thompson has the length to swarm opponents and Williams does a nice job of keeping players from getting inside.  Neither are on the level of Scott, but both are good defenders.  There are questions about how the newcomers will perform on this side of the court, but Anthony Lee and D'Angelo Russell both look like they should be able to hold their own and Russell has the athleticism and length to be very good if he develops.  Overall, it's pretty likely that the Buckeyes will be near the top of the conference in terms of defense.

Team Weaknesses

The biggest concern for Ohio State this season will likely be shooting and particularly from long range.  Although Keita Bates-Diop and D'Angelo Russell are expected to contribute in this area early and often this season, the Buckeyes have a lot of their outside shooting to replace.  Over the offseason, OSU lost 64% of their attempts from outside the arc and their two most effective perimeter shooters in LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith, Jr.  Now, the Buckeyes weren't exactly a great shooting team last season as they were only 8th in the Big Ten in 3PT makes last year, but that is still a lot to lose.  In fact, Shannon Scott could be the best returning outside shooter and he made just 30.2% of his 3PT attempts.  Bates-Diop and Russell should be big boosts to this area, but OSU needs to find productive shooters this season.  The other thing that makes this even more concerning is that the Buckeyes are also losing 2 of the teams best passers in Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, Jr.  Last season, Craft led the team in assist rate and assists and Smith was 3rd in both assist rate and assists on the team.  If OSU cannot find productive passers this season, that could make it even harder to alleviate shooting concerns as players will have to create their own shots and won't have as many open shooting opportunities.  The backcourt will be vital for the Buckeyes in addressing these concerns.

2014-15 Storylines

The biggest storyline for Ohio State this season will be the large roster turnover this season and whether the Big Ten's highest rated recruiting class can make an early impact.  OSU arguably lost the team's best 3 players during the offseason and will largely rely on true freshmen to fill this void.  Programs like Kentucky have shown this strategy can work, but can it work in Columbus?  If Thad Matta and staff are able to work these young talents like Keita Bates-Diop and D'Angelo Russell into the lineup early and often, this has the potential to be a very good team.  However, if the true freshmen struggle to be productive, this team might not have the depth to overcome its offseason losses.  Matta has shown he can get production out of young players before, but this will be the storyline to watch this year.

Team Perspective From Matt Brown of Land Grant Holy Land

This is going to be a different Ohio State team this season. Gone are the rosy cheeks and active hands of Aaron Craft, which I'm sure every other Big Ten fanbase is thrilled about. Also gone is Ohio State's leading scorer, LaQuinton Ross. This team has struggled to find consistent offense over the last two seasons, but despite losing their leading scorer, should be a much deeper, and *much* better shooting team from last year.

Shannon Scott steps in as a more than capable Aaron Craft replacement, and will be joining by Anthony Lee, a sweet shooting big man graduate transfer from Temple to provide some depth with Ohio State's bigs. Big time freshman guard D'Angelo Williams is a near consensus tag to be the Big Ten freshman of the year, and he brings shooting chops and the ability to spell Scott at the point. Add in projected improvements from Marc Loving, redshirt freshman Kam Williams, some intriguing other freshman, and the acrobatics of Slam Thompson, and you have what should be an athletic, deep team that can still defend, but can finally provide some spacing as well. Ohio State is probably a good step behind Wisconsin, but look for the Buckeyes to challenge near the top of the Big Ten table.

Maryland
2013-14 Season Performance

Last season, the Terrapins went 17-15 overall and 9-9 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.  Maryland failed to make the postseason.  In the ACC Tournament, Maryland was eliminated by Florida State in the 2nd Round.  Maryland finished the season at #75 in RPI and #40 in KenPom.  Highlights of the season included home wins over Florida State and Virginia and a neutral site win over Providence.  Low points of the season included home losses to Boston University and Oregon State and a road loss to Clemson.  Statistical leaders were Nick Faust, Jake Layman, Charles Mitchell, and Dezmine Wells.  Faust led the team in steals.  Layman led the team in minutes.  Mitchell led the team in rebounds.  Wells led the team in points, assists, blocks, usage, and win shares.

Offseason Exits

During the offseason, Maryland lost a total of 7 players to transfers and 1 player to graduation.  These players were Seth Allen, John Auslander, Shaquille Cleare, Nick Faust, Conner Lipinski, A.J. Metz, Charles Mitchell, and Roddy Peters.  The most significant departures come from Allen and Faust.  Last season, both players averaged over 25 minutes per game and were in the top 5 in scoring and in total win shares on the team.  Allen was one of the most effective offensive players on the team and was 2nd on the team in usage and assist rate.  On top of that, Allen was also the team's most significant threat from outside the arc.  Faust wasn't as effective offensively as Allen, but he played significant minutes, contributed on the boards, and frequently got to the free throw line.  These two players will be a challenge to replace for the Terps.  On top of replacing these two, Maryland will also have the challenge of replacing Cleare, Mitchell, and Peters.  These three were much more limited in contributions, but all three did play and Mitchell averaged nearly 20 minutes a game in conference play.  The big thing here is that all three of these players were young and provided depth, which means Maryland has to replace 2 big contributors and 3 depth pieces in one season.  The final departures were Ausland, Lipinski, and Metz.  None of these 3 even averaged 3 minutes per game.

New Additions

This season, the Terrapins will be bringing in 4 new recruits and 2 transfers.  The recruits are Michal Cekovsky, Jared Nickens, Melo Trimble, and Dion Wiley.  All four recruits are rated as 4-star recruits according to 247Sports.  Trimble is a point guard, Wiley is a shooting guard, Nickens is a small forward, and Cekovsky is a power forward.  Coming into the season, Trimble is easily the recruit that has received the most hype.  Trimble has a solid handle, can pass the ball, and is considered to be a deadly outside shooter.  Along with Trimble, it's very likely to see Nickens and Wiley get involved on the wing.  However, they will have to compete for time behind Dez Wells and Richaud Pack.  Cekovsky is considered to be a wild card in this recruiting class.  His 7'0" stature has excited many Terp fans, but he still requires more strength and as an international player, he is an unknown.  Finally, the two transfers are Robert Carter, Jr. and Richaud Pack.  Carter is a forward from Georgia Tech, but will have to sit out the upcoming season.  Pack is a guard coming from North Carolina A&T and is eligible to play as a graduate senior.  Pack was very efficient in his previous college play and could factor into replacing Allen in the backcourt.

Team Strengths

Despite the losses of Seth Allen and Nick Faust, the strength of Maryland's team this season will likely come from the backcourt.  Not only does Maryland have Dez Wells back - who could be in the All-Big Ten race - but the Terps also bring in Richaud Pack from North Carolina A&T and elite recruit Melo Trimble.  Wells alone is a big piece, as he has the ability to score in transition, at the hoop, can get to the line, and can even hit some jump shots.  Between Pack, Trimble, and Wells, it seems unlikely that Maryland can't find at least 2 good starters.  Behind them, Dion Wiley could also become a factor.  As much as people are focusing on Trimble, Wiley could also be an exciting piece for the future of Maryland.  This unit does face the challenge of replacing a lot of assists from the departures, but with the additions, this should be the strength of the team.

Team Weaknesses

The biggest concerns for Maryland this season are going to be shooting the ball and in the frontcourt.  Last year, the Terps were not a great shooting team.  Not only did Maryland finish at #187 in the nation in 3PT percentage, but the team was also #224 in true shooting percentage and will arguably be losing their best shooter from outside the arc in Seth Allen.  Typically, when a team is already mediocre to bad at shooting the ball and they lose their best shooter, it's not a good sign for the coming season.  Certainly, the addition of Melo Trimble should help and if the offense can become better in general - Maryland was #114 in KenPom offense in 2013-14 - it should help players get easier looks from long range, but this will be an area of concern all year.  The Terps do return a few players upfront, but the only real contributor that comes back is Evan Smotrycz.  During his career, Smotrycz has been tremendously inconsistent and struggles with staying on the court and avoiding fouls.  With the departures of Shaquille Cleare and Charles Mitchell, there will be a lot of pressure on the newcomers to be effective upfront.

2014-15 Storylines

The biggest storyline for Maryland this season is going to focus on Mark Turgeon's job status with Maryland.  This is Turgeon's 4th year with the Terps, but all he has to show for it so far is one trip to the NIT in 2013.  None of Turgeon's teams at Maryland have been able to finish with a winning conference record and with the transition to a much deeper and tougher Big Ten, there are questions about whether this trend will end this season.  On top of that, Turgeon will have to overcome major roster turnover this season.  Over the offseason, Maryland lost 8 players and lost a key recruit from their 2014 recruiting class.  Regardless of why this turnover occurred, it makes this season even more challenging.  Not every departure was a major contributor, but Seth Allen and Nick Faust were impact players and the team certainly lost plenty of depth.  A lot will depend on how Turgeon and his team can overcome these challenges, but it will have a tremendous impact on Turgeon's tenure in College Park.

Team Perspective From Andrew Emmer of Testudo Times

It's almost impossible to predict how the 2014-2014 Maryland basketball season will go. There are too many unknowns and too many question marks for anyone to say with any certainty what to expect from this Terps team.

Maryland lost five players with varying degrees of importance to transfer during the offseason, but this will be the most experienced team of the Mark Turgeon era, with four scholarship seniors in Dez Wells, Evan Smotrycz, Jon Graham and Richaud Pack. This is up from zero seniors last season, when Maryland really struggled to find any consistency or leadership on the court.

The names to know are: Wells, the unquestioned leader and heart of the team; Smotrycz, the prototypical "stretch-four" who most B1G fans will be familiar with from his time at Michigan; Jake Layman, versatile wing that produces never-ending, and rarely warranted, Chandler Parsons comparisons; and Melo Trimble, the crown jewel of the Terps highly touted freshman class, this incoming McDonald's All American point guard will be given the keys to the offense from Day One.

I can see Maryland just as easily winning 12 games as I can see them winning 27 - that's how high the variance is for this team. If everything clicks, they are one of the most talented teams in the conference and could finish in the top echelon. If not, and they miss the NCAA tournament for the 4th straight year under Turgeon, there will be major hot seat talk.

Michigan State
2013-14 Season Performance

Last season, the Spartans went 29-9 overall and 12-6 in the Big Ten.  Michigan State made the NCAA Tournament and were eliminated in the Elite Eight by UConn.  In the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan State beat Michigan in the Championship game.  Michigan State finished the season at #18 in RPI and #9 in KenPom.  Highlights of the season included a win over rival Michigan to win the Big Ten Tournament, a win over Kentucky at the beginning of the season and a win over Virginia.  Low points of the season included home losses to Illinois and Nebraska and a neutral site loss to Georgetown.  Statistical leaders were Keith Appling, Matt Costello, Branden Dawson, Gary Harris, and Adreian Payne.  Appling led the team in assists.  Costello led the team in blocks.  Dawson led the team in rebounds.  Harris led the team in minutes, points, steals, and win shares.  Payne led the team in usage.

Offseason Exits

During the offseason, Michigan State lost a total of 7 players for a variety of reasons with 3 players entering the NBA.  The most significant departures are Keith Appling, Gary Harris, and Adreian Payne.  Last season, Harris was arguably the "runner-up" for Big Ten Player of the Year and was the most consistent player for the Spartans, especially on the offensive side of the ball.  Harris was a great defender, could get to the hoop, and was a productive shooter.  Appling and Payne contributed more sporadically due to injury concerns, but Appling was the guy that got the offense going for MSU and Payne was easily the team's best big man.  Appling may have been limited as the year went on, but there's a reason why Izzo wanted him out there.  Payne was a big time player himself and could have made a run at All-Big Ten status if he had been able to play.  These 3 losses are huge and though other teams lose more, the Spartans lose a ton from their lineup in these departures.  Other notable departures were Russell Byrd and Kenny Kaminski.  Byrd and Kaminski were relatively limited in their contributions last season and combined to average roughly 20 minutes per game.  Byrd was primarily a bench prospect, but Kaminski was projected by many to be a key backup this season and one of the better shooters on the team.  His departure will hit a relatively thin Spartan frontcourt.  The final two departures were Dan Chapman and Alex Gauna.  Chapman played just 21 minutes last season and though Gauna did play in some games, both were pretty limited.

New Additions

This season, the Spartans will be bringing in 4 new recruits and 2 transfers.  The recruits are Javon Bess, Marvin Clark, Kenny Goins, and Lourawls Nairn, Jr.  Nairn is a point guard, Bess and Goins are small forwards, and Clark is a power forward.  Nairn is rated as a 4-star recruit, Bess and Clark are rated as 3-star recruits, and Goins is unrated according to 247Sports.  Nairn is widely considered to be the best recruit in the class and many expect him to contribute with Keith Appling off to the NBA.  Nairn is widely regarded for his speed and ability to get to the hoop.  Along with Nairn, Bess is also an interesting recruit that can create his own shot and has a nice handle.  Bess could easily be one of the more overlooked recruits in the conference.  Clark will have to fight for playing time between Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine, but he could definitely into a nice stretch 4 for Tom Izzo.  Goins is a preferred walk-on and will likely serve as a bench option this season.  Along with the recruiting class, the Spartans will be bringing in Bryn Forbes and Eron Harris as transfers.  Forbes will be coming from Cleveland State and Harris will be coming from West Virginia.  Both are regarded as very good shooters and Harris is one of the best shot creators in the nation.  Forbes will be eligible to play this season, but Harris will have to sit out a year.

Team Strengths

The strength for the Spartans this season will likely come on the defensive side of the court.  Though the Spartans were actually a better offensive than defensive team last season according to KenPom, a big part of this was the constant rotation in the lineup due to injuries and the absence of Branden Dawson, who may have been the team's best defensive player last season.  Now, with Matt Costello and Dawson likely manning the frontcourt, MSU will boost one of the toughest defensive frontcourts in the conference.  The Spartans will have to find a replacement for Gary Harris, who was a pretty good defender last season, but there are several options to rotate in the backcourt and with the development of players like Alvin Ellis III and Denzel Valentine, this is going to be a tough team to score on.  The other thing worth noting is that MSU should once again be very good on the boards.  The loss of Adreian Payne will hurt, but with Costello, Dawson, and Valentine, there are some solid options to rebound the ball.  In fact, despite the departures, the Spartans still return 4 of their top 5 players in true rebounding percentage (Trevor Bohnoff removed).  The pieces are there to have a really good defensive and rebounding team once again.

Team Weaknesses

Despite what could be a good defensive frontcourt for MSU, the biggest concern has to be in frontcourt depth.  Matt Costello and Branden Dawson are both proven starters, but to say there isn't much outside of them is putting it mildly.  There are certainly options to play at power forward with Marvin Clark, Branden Dawson, and Denzel Valentine, but the center position will be a major concern for MSU.  Matt Costello is certainly good enough to start, but behind him, there really is only Gavin Shilling and true freshman walk-on Kenny Goins.  Schilling showed some flashes last year and played in a deep and talented frontcourt, but he still averaged just 6.5 minutes.  Schilling was a decent rebounder when he was on the court, but he ranked 12th in player efficiency and 13th in offensive rating on the team.  He could very likely take the freshman to sophomore jump this season, but that still really only gives MSU two legitimate options here.  When you're talking about big men and particularly centers, fouling has to be a concern.  If Costello is forced to the bench and especially if Schilling is forced to the bench as well, the Spartans could be in deep trouble.  If Costello and Dawson can stay on the court, MSU should be fine here, but depth is definitely a red flag.

2014-15 Storylines

The biggest storyline for Michigan State this season will be how the team attempts to replace 3 starters and 2 important contributors from last year.  For many, last season was the year that the Spartans would truly contend for a Final Four appearance and the national championship.  Unfortunately, MSU fell short of making the Final Four, but the real challenge could come now with major roster changes occurring since last March.  For most, this team is going to look very different than the last few seasons.  Can Tom Izzo continue his magic and keep MSU at the top of the Big Ten despite these challenges?  That will be the story for MSU this season.

Team Perspective From Mike Wilson of Spartan Digest

Perhaps no team in the Big Ten lost as much from last season at Michigan State. Not only did seniors Adreian Payne and Keith Appling graduate, but also Gary Harris left early for the NBA. On top of that, Alex Gauna left the program, Russell Byrd transferred and Kenny Kaminski was dismissed. What is left is a core of Branden Dawson, Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine. Dawson brings the big presence for MSU with a lot of athleticism and spent an offseason working on his handle and his shot. Trice brings leadership and good shooting from the outside, while Valentine brings passing and basketball smarts to the table after a much-improved sophomore season. It will be up to those three to dictate this Michigan State team's success, as well as junior forward Matt Costello. It looks like a team that will be in the NCAA Tournament come March, but how much success can they have in the regular season? IT will be a much different MSU team in appearance and it should come down to defense, toughness and rebounding - just like Tom Izzo likes it.

Benfica

One of the grand old clubs of European football, Benfica have been regulars in the Champions League under Jorge Jesus, and made the quarterfinals in 2011-12. They arrive in this season's tournament off the back of one of the most successful seasons in the club's history: not only did they reach the final of the Europa League, eventually losing on penalties, but they became the first Portuguese club to complete a domestic treble.

However, the price that Europe's second-tier clubs pay for success is to have their squad pillaged, and it's been a busy summer for the Benfica exit door. First-team regulars Lazar Marković, Ezequiel Garay and Guilherme Siqueira have all gone, as have young goalkeeper Jan Oblak and goal machine Óscar Cardozo. Jesus has already acknowledged that it will be "impossible for this team to have the same capabilities as last season." Unless their coach can alchemize some more gold out of an unfancied squad, it won't just be the curse of Bela Guttmann that keeps them from European glory.

How they got here

By crushing all of Portugal beneath their bootheels. They lost 2-1 to Maritimo on opening day, they lost by the same scoreline to FC Porto on the last day of the season, but in between, Benfica went 28 games unbeaten, 23 of them wins. Top before Christmas, they were never dislodged on the way to their 33rd title and automatic Champions League qualification.

How they play

With the obvious caveat that they've sold several important players and so things are a little unsettled at the moment, Jorge Jesus' Benfica sides have been slick, quick and fluid attackers. Going forward, a lone striker — likely to be Lima — is supported by Nico Gaitán, making play either from the No. 10 position or tucked in on one flank. Then, one or two flyers bring the pace: last season, Marković (now at Liverpool) and Rodrigo (now at Valencia) were charged with terrifying defenses. This season, former Ajax player Miralem Sulejmani will need to step up, along with perhaps Bebé; the ex-Manchester United transfer curiosity scored some spectacular goals for Paços de Ferreira last year, earning himself a move to Lisbon.

The retention of Argentine midfielder Enzo Pérez — who spent much of the summer being chased fervently by Valencia — means that Benfica haven't lost his energetic midfield presence. Things have changed at the back, however; veteran captain Luisão remains at the club but the departure of Garay breaks up a well-established pairing at the heart of defense. Towering Brazilian Jardel appears to be the nominated successor, but Garay will certainly be missed.

Key Player: Nico Gaitán

For all that this has been a summer of hard selling, nobody seems to have been that interested in picking up Nico Gaitán. Even Manchester United, who have been on the verge of swooping for the Argentine playmaker since records began, didn't seem particularly interested. This is good, since Gaitán is the creative heart of this Benfica side and, as such, perhaps the one player they couldn't afford to lose. And they didn't! Hurray!

Able to play off either wing as well as centrally, Gaitán is everything a South American playmaker is supposed to be: short, physically unprepossessing, skillful, visionary, tricksy, and blessed with one of those left feet that make people purr, swoon and grope blindly for words like "cultured" and "educated" when they mean to say "damn sexy." The dribbling skills are good, but the passing, long and short, booming and delicate, is better. Oh, and he once scored a Panenka free-kick. No, that doesn't make sense. But nonetheless, he did.

Anticipated finish: Third

Group C is arguably the least predictable of all the groups, but Benfica's high turnover of players suggests that they might miss out on the last 16 to Bayer Leverkusen and Zenit Saint Petersburg. They should be too strong for the ailing disaster that is Monaco, however, and so will likely drop into the Europa League.

Nebraska
2013-14 season performance

Last season, the Cornhuskers went 19-13 overall and 11-7 in the Big Ten.  Nebraska made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998 and was eliminated in the Round of 64 by Baylor.  In the Big Ten Tournament, Nebraska was eliminated by Ohio State in the 2nd Round.  Nebraska finished the season at #49 in RPI and #44 in KenPom.  Highlights of the season included a regular season finale win over Wisconsin, a win on the road against Michigan State, and a win at home over Ohio State.  Low points of the season included road losses to Penn State and Purdue and a neutral site loss to UAB.  Statistical leaders were Benny Parker, Terran Petteway, Shavon Shields, and Tai Webster.  Parker led the team in steals.  Petteway led the team in points, blocks, usage, and win shares.  Shields led the team in minutes and rebounds.  Webster led the team in assists.

Offseason exits

During the offseason, Nebraska lost a total of 7 players for a variety of reasons.  These players were Deverell Biggs, Ray Gallegos, Nathan Hawkins, Mike Peltz, Jordan Tyrance, Sergei Vucetic, and Tim Wagner.  The biggest losses are clearly Biggs and Gallegos.  They were the only players to leave the team from last season that had at least 200 minutes played.  Gallegos played in 30 games last season, averaged 28.2 minutes, 7.3 points, and 2.0 rebounds per game, and finished 4th on the team in total win shares.  Gallegos certainly didn't make the impact of Petteway and Shields, but he was certainly one of the best players on the team.  Biggs was certainly a contributor last season and averaged 20.5 minutes per game, but what's notable here is that he was dismissed halfway through last season.  His departure still impacts the team, but the loss of Biggs is limited considering that Nebraska played well without him last year.  The final impact departure is Hawkins, but considering that he played in only 16 games and averaged 7.3 minutes, the Cornhuskers aren't losing a ton here.  The final three departures are Peltz, Tyrance, and Wagner, who were all walk-on players and had few - if any - on court contributions.

New additions

This season, the Cornhuskers will be bringing in 2 new recruits, 3 transfers, and a new walk-on. The recruits are Jake Hammond and Tarin Smith.  Both players are 3-star recruits according to 247Sports.  Hammond is a power forward and Smith is a point guard.  Hammond is generally considered to be the better prospect, but he will face a significant challenge for playing time with Walter Pitchford, Leslee Smith, and incoming transfer Moses Abraham.  It might simply be a better option to redshirt Hammond given this depth.  Tarin Smith will certainly be behind Shavon Shields and Tai Webster on the depth chart, but he could be a decent backup option if Benny Parker struggles.  The transfers are Mose Abraham and Andrew White, III.  Abraham is coming out of Georgetown and is expected by many to be the team's starting center this season.  He never made a huge impact for the Hoyas, but a fresh start might help.  White is a transfer from Kansas, but will have to sit out this season due to NCAA rules.

Team strengths

Similar to last season, the strength of Nebraska's team this season will likely be on the defensive end of the court.  By any statistical measure, Nebraska had one of the best defenses in the country last season.  Not only was Nebraska ranked #25 in defensive efficiency according to KenPom, but they really came on at the end of the season.  In the last leg of the Big Ten slate, Nebraska held Michigan State to 51 points and did a nice job of slowing down teams like Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.  What is perhaps even more telling is that Nebraska didn't necessarily rack up blocks, rebounds, and steals.  This wasn't a case of having a disruptive rim protecter or an incredible backcourt defender.  This was simply good team defense that smothered opponents.  A slow pace helped Nebraska keep point totals down - #245 in pace nationally - but considering the offenses Nebraska had to face, this was a quality defense.  With Nebraska bringing back so much from last year's team, the defense might even be better.  Perhaps the best spot will be the frontcourt with a probable lineup of Moses Abraham (6'9") and Walter Pitchford (6'10").  Pitchford was one of the better defenders in the conference last year and will look to build on that this season.  The one challenge here is the loss of senior Leslee Smith, who tore his ACL over the summer.  He was expected to contribute significantly upfront for the Cornhuskers and this is one of the things that could lead to significant minutes for Abraham.

Team weaknesses

The biggest weakness of Nebraska's team will still be an inability to score.  Despite making the NCAA Tournament and finishing 4th in the conference standings, the Cornhuskers managed a mediocre 66.8 points per game, which was good for just 10th in the conference.  Nebraska struggled on this end of the court for a few reasons, but primarily because of the Cornhuskers' average perimeter shooting and inability to pass the ball.  Nebraska was 7th in the Big Ten in 3PT percentage last season, but considering that they were just 9th in attempts and had nobody average at least 2 makes from outside the arc, this was far from a great perimeter shooting team.  What was even worse for Nebraska was a complete inability to move the ball.  Nebraska was dead last in the Big Ten last season in team assists, dead last in the Big Ten in assists per game, and ranked #338 nationally in assist rate.  Again, you can debate pace for the total assist numbers, but Nebraska's assist rate shows that this wasn't pace alone.  It's hard to think that Nebraska doesn't improve in these numbers this season, but with the loss of Deverell Biggs and Ray Gallegos - two of the better players in assist rate last season - Nebraska is going to have to see improvement from the team's backcourt and particularly, Shavon Shields and Tai Webster, if the team hopes to improve in this category.

2014-15 storylines

The biggest storyline of the coming season for Nebraska is the fact that this will be the first season with expectations for the Cornhuskers in quite some time.  Not only is Nebraska coming off its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998, but it's also the first time that Nebraska finished in the top half of a conference since 2006.  This is an unusual spot for the Cornhuskers to be in recent history and what's significant is that their team could be every bit as good in the coming season.  Considering that Biggs was dismissed from the team before Nebraska made their NCAA run later in the season, Ray Gallegos was the only real loss for the team in in-court contributions.  Gallegos was certainly a solid player for the team last year, but he was just 4th on the team in total win shares, 11th on the team in win shares per 40 minutes, and was 8th on the team in usage rate.  In short, Gallegos' contributions were important, but last year's Nebraska team was certainly not built around Gallegos.  With another year under Tim Miles, more experience for the younger players, and a big group of new additions to the program, there are a lot of reasons to have high expectations for this team.  Whether Nebraska can live up to these expectations is unknown, but this will be the biggest story of Nebraska's 2014-15 season.

Team perspective from David McGee of Corn Nation:

The excitement is at an all-time high in Lincoln as the Huskers look to build on their surprise run to the dance. It's been nearly a generation since this program has had to handle any level of expectations. How they handle that will determine whether or not they return to the dance for another shot at notching that first victory in the tournament.

Adding some comfort to the fanbase and Coach Miles is the return of Terran Petteway, arguably the conferences top returning player, along with fellow juniors Shavon Shields and Walter Pitchford. That trio led the Husker charge at the end of last season and will be expected to continue that momentum into the 2014-15 campaign. NU will need increased contributions from their support players if they want to build off of last season and will look to Tai Webster, Benny Parker and David Rivers to help get them over the top.

Pinnacle Bank Arena, where Nebraska claimed a conference best 15-1 home record, is once again sold out and should remain as difficult a place to play as there is in the Big Ten. Nebraska basketball tshirts are no longer just used for Saturday morning yard work. There is no longer a need to make an excuse why you are a Nebraska hoops fan. Winning is now expected, not just a fancy wish. We could very well be entering the golden era of Nebrasketball.

Iowa
2013-14 Season Performance

Last season, the Hawkeyes went 20-13 overall and 9-9 in the Big Ten.  Iowa made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006 and were eliminated in the First Round by Tennessee.  In the Big Ten Tournament, Iowa was eliminated by Northwestern in the 1st Round.  Iowa finished the season at #55 in RPI and #28 in KenPom.  Highlights of the season included a blowout win at home against Michigan, a road win over Ohio State, and a win in the non-conference season over Xavier.  Low points of the season included a Big Ten Tournament loss to Northwestern, a Senior Night loss to Illinois at home, and nail-biter losses to Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin at home.  Statistical leaders were Mike Gesell, Devyn Marble, Abodunrin, Gabriel Olaseni, and Aaron White.  Gesell led the team in assists.  Marble led the team in minutes, points, steals, and usage.  Olaseni led the team in blocks.  White led the team in rebounds and win shares.

Offseason Exits

During the offseason, Iowa lost a total of 5 players for a variety of reasons.  These players were Melsahn Basabe, Devyn Marble, Zach McCabe, Kyle Meyer, and Darius Stokes.  Three of these players graduated and two of these players transferred.  Of these 5 players, the most significant losses come from the departures of Basabe, Marble, and McCabe.  In fact, neither Meyer not Stokes even averaged 5 minutes per game last year.  Of the 3 significant departures, Marble's should have the biggest impact.  Without a doubt, the most significant offensive playmaker on Iowa's team last season was Marble.  Not only was he on the court more than any other Hawkeye, but he also led the team in usage, field goal attempts, 3 point attempts, points produced, and offensive win shares.  Just think about this, Marble took nearly 200 more field goal attempts than any other Iowa player last season.  That is not going to be easy to replicate.  Outside of Marble, the departures of Basabe and McCabe should also be felt.  In minutes, Basabe was 5th and McCabe was 8th on the team last season.  However, the big dent is going to be felt on the boards.  Between these two, they averaged 8.6 rebounds in 33.8, so if their combined efforts was that of a starter, they would have led the team on the boards.  The lossses of Basabe and McCabe are primarily going to be felt as depth losses, which will put even more pressure on Aaron White to carry the load.

New Additions

This season, the Hawkeyes will be bringing in 2 new recruits and 1 transfer.  The recruits are Brady Ellingston and Dominque Uhl.  Ellingston and Uhl are rated as 3-star recruits according to 247Sports.  Ellingston is a shooting guard and Uhl is a power forward.  Uhl is regarded as the more college ready prospect of the two new recruits, but neither is believed to be a significant factor in their first seasons.  Due to the backcourt depth, Ellingston will likely play a small role.  With the departures of Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe, Uhl has the potential to make an early impact, but he will still have to battle for time behind Aaron White.  The lone transfer this year may be the most exciting addition.  Trey Dickerson is transferring from Williston State College in North Dakota.  Dickerson has a diverse skillset that allows him to create scoring opportunities not only for himself, but also his teammates.  Dickerson will have to battle for time with Anthony Clemmons, Mike Gesell, Peter Jok, and Josh Oglesby, but he is expected to be an immediate contributor this season and receive significant playing time.

Team Strengths

Despite the departures of both Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe, the strength of Iowa is still in the frontcourt.  Not only does Iowa's best returning player (Aaron White) reside in the frontcourt, but Iowa also has Adam Woodbury playing upfront, who many believe could be set for a breakout season.  Though Devyn Marble was the team's best player last season, one can make a pretty strong argument that White was right there with him.  He was a good defender, good rebounder, and had the ability to score.  He should be one of the best big men in the conference this season.  Woodbury still hasn't turned into the prospect that many thought he could be when he came to Iowa, but he still got playing time in a especially deep frontcourt last season and did show some sparks later in the year.  Maybe he never reaches his full potential, but he still should be a solid contributor.  On top of this, Iowa also returns Gabriel  Olaseni, who was an absolute blocking machine last season.  He should be a really nice defensive piece to bring off the bench when Iowa needs a defensive stop.  Finally, Dominque Uhl should provide valuable bench minutes when White does have to come off the court.  It's unlikely we will ever see big minutes from Uhl, but he should help alleviate depth concerns for Iowa upfront.  There will likely be far less rotating in Iowa's frontcourt than there was last season, but it's hard not to like the pieces that are in place.  This could be one of the better units in the conference.

Team Weaknesses

There are several weaknesses on Iowa's team for the coming season, but the biggest weaknesses are the lack of a true scoring threat and the perceived lack of depth in the backcourt.  With the loss of Devyn Marble, Iowa not only loses their best player in the backcourt, but also the team's best scoring threat.  Marble attempted nearly 200 more shots, averaged over 5 attempts per game more, and produced 235 more points than any other player on Iowa's team last season.  These are not small numbers.  The growth of players like Josh Ogelesby and Jarod Uthoff should take some of the shots Marble took last season, but the numbers lost to Marble are so large that even two players might not be able to make up for his departure.  Not only is Iowa going to need its remaining starters to pick up some of these shots, but it's also going to need more bench production in the backcourt if it hopes to keep its offensive production from last season.  The issue here is that although there is depth in Trey Dickerson and Peter Jok, it is uncertain depth. Dickerson brings hype from Williston State College and Jok was relatively productive in his brief playing time last year, but both are far from being "sure things" this season.  Iowa doesn't need these two to play at an elite level, but it does need them to be productive and score the ball.  Iowa has options to replace Marble, but the lack of a true scoring threat and a backcourt filled with question marks could lead to some problems for Iowa this season.

2014-15 Storylines

The top storylines for Iowa this season revolve around how the Hawkeyes plan to replace All-Big Ten player Devyn Marble and how the team responds to its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2006.  Iowa's frontcourt looks prepared for another solid season, but there are certainly doubts about the team's backcourt, which arise largely from Marble's departure to the NBA Draft.  Of course, Iowa is going to have to address these concerns while trying to build off its NCAA Tournament appearance last season.  Iowa has been relatively successful under coach Fran McCaffery, but has consistently struggled with reaching that "next level" of play.  Iowa made it into the Big Dance, but nearly fell out after a horrid finish to Big Ten play.  Can Iowa finally not just compete with top teams, but beat them consistently?  It's easier said than done, but it will be a major storyline to follow this season.

Team Perspective From RossWB of Black Heart Gold Pants

I think the biggest question for this Iowa team is seeing how they respond to two things: last season's 1-7 tailspin to end the season and not having Devyn Marble to lean on.  Iowa returns almost everyone of consequence other than Marble (although the absences of Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe will be felt in the post), but Marble was Iowa's leading scorer, distributer, and defender -- he leaves a pretty big hole to fill.  No one player is going to fill it, so seeing how the entire team re-orients in his absence is going to be fascinating.  It's also entirely possible that they became too reliant on Marble last year and they're going to feature a more balanced team this year, with Adam Woodbury and Gabe Olaseni providing some steel in the post, Jarrod Uthoff blossoming into a multi-talented scoring threat, while Mike Gesell, Josh Oglesby, and Peter Jok provide scoring punch from the backcourt and Aaron White does his elite garbageman routine and grabs rebounds and drops dunks on the entire Big Ten.

That's the hope, anyway.  Overall, though, this is going to look a lot like the Iowa teams we've seen for the past few seasons: they're going to play at the fastest tempo in the Big Ten and they're going to try and use their depth to wear down the opposition.

Anderlecht

Anderlecht may have captured the Belgian title 33 times, but they’ve yet to truly impress in Europe. They’ve made the semifinals twice, back in the mid-80s, but the last time they appeared in the quarterfinals was 1988.

While they’ve made it to the group stage for the third time running, they finished dead last in their group in their last two outings. Last time around, their great triumph was a 1-1 draw against Paris Saint-Germain – the only point Anderlecht collected.

Now they’ll have to contend with both Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund. And Galatasaray aren’t exactly a pushover either, especially in Istanbul.

How they got here

First place in the Belgian Pro League goes directly into the Champions League group stage. Anderlecht are likely relieved, as compatriots Standard Liège were thoroughly dismantled by Zenit Saint Petersburg in the playoff round.

Anderlecht have already proven their worth in tournaments, however – Belgium decide their title winners via a complicated playoff system. Anderlecht finished third on points on the season, but won seven of their 10 playoff games, winning the division for the third year straight.

How they play

Anderlecht play fun. They’re open, they’re attacking – and they’re vulnerable. This is a side of kids, with only two players in their 30s. The majority of the squad is around 20 years old. It’s working at home, as Anderlecht are top of the Belgian Pro League. They’ve won four and drawn two, scoring 11 goals along the way.

What’s more concerning is that they’ve conceded five. Yes, that’s less than one per game, but it’s a weakness that can be exploited by decent opposition. When Anderlecht get forward, as they so love to do, they’ll leave themselves open on the counter. Without an experienced defensive core, they’re almost certain to get ripped to shreds, particularly by Dortmund.

Key Player: Aleksandar Mitrović

He’ll turn 20 the day the group stage begins, but Mitrović is already thought to be going places. He moved from Partizan Belgrade to Anderlecht last season and went on to score 18 goals for his new club. This season, he’s already knocked in four, from just six matches. Mitrović is a typical center forward, tall and strong, while his speed also enhances the Anderlecht attack.

Mitrović is also famous for his exploits in last season’s group stage. In the final minute of the last round, when Anderlecht were already unable to advance, goalkeeper Silvio Proto got himself sent off, and Mitrović stepped into goal. He was unable to save the resulting penalty, however, and Olympiacos won 3-1.

Anticipated finish: Fourth

Life in the Belgian Pro League doesn’t prepare these youngsters to face the big guns. And when those big guns are Alexis Sánchez or a healthy Marco Reus, well … well, it’s likely Anderlecht will be exposed, caught out, torn apart. A point would be a good return, three would be impressive, and a third-place finish would be outstanding.

Minnesota
2013-14 Season Performance

Last season, the Golden Gophers went 25-13 overall and 8-10 in the Big Ten.  Minnesota made the NIT and won the NIT Championship with a win over SMU.  In the Big Ten Tournament, Minnesota was eliminated by Wisconsin in the 2nd Round.  Minnesota finished the season at #50 in RPI and #48 in KenPom.  Highlights of the season included a win over SMU for the NIT title, wins over rivals Iowa and Wisconsin at home, and a win over Ohio State.  Low points of the season included a loss to Northwestern at home, a loss to Purdue on the road, and a loss to Arkansas on a neutral court.  Statistical leaders were Elliot Eliason, Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins, and DeAndre Mathieu.  Elison led the team in rebounds and blocks.  Andre Hollins led the team in points and usage rate.  Austin Hollins led the team in minutes, steals, and win shares.  Mathieu led the team in assists.

Offseason Exits

During the offseason, Minnesota lost a total of 5 players for a variety of reasons.  These players were Maverick Ahanmisi, Wally Ellenson, Austin Hollins, Oto Osenieks, and Malik Smith.  Four of these players graduated and one of these players transferred.  Of these 5 players, the most significant losses come from Hollins, Osenieks, and Smith.  Neither Ahanmisi or Ellenson averaged 10 minutes per game.  Of the 3 significant departures, Hollins' should have the biggest impact.  Hollins averaged 33.1 minutes, 12.4 points, and 5.0 rebounds per game.  What's perhaps more significant is that he led the team in win shares by an impressive 1.1 games and was 2nd on the team in win shares per 40 and player efficiency.  Replacing him will not be easy.  Osenieks and Smith will also be significant departures.  They both averaged just shy of 20 minutes per game last season and neither put up huge numbers, Osenieks was still a key depth piece upfront and Smith was a solid defensive rebounder that was good from the free throw line.  Replacing Hollins will be the biggest challenge, but Minnesota certainly got a lot thinner on the wing and upfront with the loss of Osenieks and Smith.

New Additions

This season, the Golden Gophers will be bringing in 4 new recruits and 1 transfer.  The recruits are Gaston Diedhiou, Bakary Konate, Josh Martin, and Nate Mason.  Diedhiou, Konate, Martin, and Mason are all rated as 3-star recruits according to 247Sports.  Diedhiou and Konate are centers, Martin is a power forward, and Mason is a point guard.  Diedhiou and Konate are both international recruits and thus, are relatively unpredictable for this season given the questions about their competition.  Of the remaining two recruits, Mason is considered by many to be the more hyped prospect, but will likely receive little playing time behind Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu, since both averaged over 30 minutes a game last season.  The Gophers do appear to have set starters upfront in Elliott Eliason and Joey King, but with the departures of Oto Osenieks and Malik Smith, minutes will be available.  Depending on the international wildcards in Diedhiou and Konate, Martin looks like the recruit that could get the most time this season.  Finally, Carlos Morris is a transfer from Chipola College.  Morris was a significant contributor at Chipola and looks to be in the mix to start at small forward or receive heavy minutes off the bench.

Team Strengths

The biggest strength of Minnesota's team this season should be in the backcourt.  Not only do the Golden Gophers return two starters in Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu, but the team's ability to pass the ball and apply pressure to opponents is competitive with anyone in the conference.  Last season, Minnesota not only finished #23 in team assists, but also finished #10 in team steals.  Part of that is certainly the system that Richard Pitino runs, but the team was also #21 nationally in team steal rate and #57 nationally in team assist rate.  Losing Austin Hollins will definitely challenge this production, but these are signs of a productive backcourt.  As noted, the big names here will be Hollins and Mathieu, but there are other guys with potential too.  One player that isn't receiving a lot of attention, but could be in position to contribute is Daquein McNeil.  Last season, McNeil's contributions were limited, but he was a freshmen and was battling for time between Hollins and Mathieu.  If he is going to take that leap, most would expect it to be coming into this season.  Another player that may see time is newcomer Nate Mason.  It's going to be difficult for Mason to get time since he will likely begin his career a few spots back on the depth chart, but if McNeil doesn't perform or a player becomes limited, he could get some minutes.  Losing Austin Hollins is going to be a bit hit to the Gophers this season, but the backcourt should still remain a very good group.

Team Weaknesses

There are several red flags on this year's Gopher team.  One of the biggest is an inconsistent and unproven frontcourt.  Last season, the Gophers used several different players upfront, but the key players were Elliot Eliason, Joey King, Oto Osenieks, and Maurice Walker.  King and Walker led the scoring from these group at 7.8 and 7.1 points per game respectively, but both were inconsistent scorers.  Walker, who led the frontcourt in scoring would go for stretches without doing anything significant on the scoreboard.  For instance, over the last 14 games he played last year, he only scored at least 10 points in 4 of them.  Walker doesn't have to do a ton, but his role was certainly not that large offensively last season.  A big part of this was some trouble with fouling for Walker.  Eliason and King are guys receiving a decent hunk of attention this offseason, but they still have a decent bit to grow before they can compete with the top guys in the Big Ten.  King is the guy that might do something here as he really came on at the end of last year and could shape into a darkhorse breakout candidate.  Another area that is a bit concerning is in team rebounding.  Austin Hollins never got the credit he deserved as a rebounder, but he was a lot more effective than many believe.  We are talking about a 6'4" guy that was 2nd on the team in total rebounds.  That's hard to replace because it's unlikely that any player at the same position will be that type of rebounder.  This will also put more pressure on a frontcourt that has potential, but will face some big challenges.

2014-15 Storylines

The biggest storyline for Minnesota this season will undoubtedly center around Richard Pitino and the growth and direction of the program.  Pitino was not necessarily a proven hire for Minnesota last season, but he represented a young coach with a lot of potential.  He showed much of it last season by coaching the Golden Gophers to an NIT title, but Year 2 could arguably be even more challenging as the program looks to build off a successful first year.  The return of Andre Hollins and Deandre Mathieu highlight the roster, but young prospects like Joey King could represent where the program is headed under Pitino.  If King and some of the newcomers including transfer Carlos Morris can step up, Minnesota has the potential to get back to the NCAA Tournament and seriously challenge the top segment of the Big Ten this season.

Team Perspective From Matt Jessen-Howard from Rivals/Gopher Illustrated

Richard Pitino won the NIT in his first season with Minnesota, and the expectation for this years team is that they make the NCAA Tournament.

The Gophers are led by a talented and experienced backcourt of point guard Dre Mathieu and combo guard Andre Hollins.  The lightning quick Mathieu averaged 12.7 points and 4.2 assists last year.  Andre Hollins averaged 13.6 points per game last year, but was hampered with ankle and hip injuries last year.  Finally healthy, he should be in for a big year.  Another strength of the team will be center, where Mo Walker and Elliott Eliason are both more than capable and bring unique strengths.  Incoming JUCO transfer Carlos Morris or Pitino's "Most Improved Player" will replace Austin Hollins, who is now playing in France.  Pitino brought in four freshman this year and all of them should see playing time, with high-scoring guard Nate Mason probably becoming the 6th man.

All in all, progress is and will continue to be made under Pitino.  This is a fringe top-25 team that will be a fun, uptempo team to watch.

Schalke 04

Schalke had a rather tough time of things in last season’s Champions League. First, they had difficulty edging a narrow victory over Greek side PAOK. A weak group allowed them to progress to the knockout stages, despite a 6-0 aggregate loss to Chelsea, after which they were hammered 9-2 over two legs by Real Madrid.

That makes it all the more surprising that the Royal Blues went on to stage a comeback in the Bundesliga, overcoming Bayer Leverkusen and holding off Borussia Mönchengladbach. However, all that energy appears to have weakened Schalke. They haven’t lost any key players, holding on to both Julian Draxler and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, yet they looked dismal in pre-season, got knocked out of the DFB-Pokal by third-division side Dynamo Dresden, and lost their first league match after a comeback from Hannover 96. They somehow managed a point against Bayern Munich, but no one’s really sure how that happened, considering Schalke looked close to helpless throughout.

So this tournament should be fun.

How they got here

By virtue of Germany’s rise as a footballing power, the top three Bundesliga sides are now sent straight to the Champions League group stages. But Schalke nearly failed to make it this far, despite having gone through to the knockout rounds for the past two seasons. They were sitting seventh when the winter break rolled around, and only managed fourth in February. Bayer Leverkusen’s stumble helped them into third, but Schalke were only able to hold on by a mere three points.

How they play

There were rumors that the arrival of Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting would prompt Jens Keller to shift to a 4-4-2, but it looks like he’ll stick with a 4-2-3-1 instead, with the Cameroonian playing out wide when everyone is available. The center forward will, of course, be Huntelaar, provided he stays healthy. The 31-year-old made just 18 league appearances last season, but he scored in 12 times and was a big reason Schalke were able to secure their entry into the group stage.

Choupo-Moting can also move up top, depending on who Keller is attempting to wedge into his lineup. Sidney Sam came over from Bayer Leverkusen in the summer, Julian Draxler wants to prove himself once more, and 18-year-old Max Meyer, called upon after Schalke’s rash of injuries last season, also deserves a look. Keller will just be hoping everyone stays fit.

As you may have guessed, Schalke love an explosive attack. They’re sometimes lacking in the midfield, which means the opposition are able to catch them out. But with defenders that get forward, and the ability to rapidly transition from defense to attack, the Royal Blues are almost always good for at least one goal.

Key Player: Benedikt Höwedes

Huntelaar needs to keep demonstrating his nose for goal. Draxler needs to recover his form of two seasons previous, the form he had as an 18-year-old. But it’s Benni Höwedes that needs to set this Schalke side on the path to the knockout rounds.

Höwedes is well known for his versatility. He’s able to play all across the back line, and in a pinch can be played in midfield. Should any defensively minded player contract the injury virus that often seems so prevalent at Schalke, the 26-year-old will be able to step in, without a noticeable decrease in quality.

More than that, though, Höwedes is the leader of this team, and he may need to exercise that trait in order for Schalke not to lose their heads completely. Their first group stage game is at Chelsea, a side Schalke could do nothing against last season, and the Blues are even stronger now. Should they be overrun early, Höwedes is going to need to ensure they move on from defeat. Otherwise, they may be unable to recover, and forced to spend Thursdays traveling to distant European clubs.

Anticipated finish: Second

This Schalke side have yet to kick into gear, but they’ve got the strength to move into the knockout stages. They’ll not be thrilled to be drawn with Chelsea once again, but it may be best for them to shrug off their fellow Blues and concentrate on the other sides in Group G. Sporting’s defense is likely weaker this season than last, so Schalke should be able to knock in a few goals, while Maribor seem to be there just to make up the numbers.

Wisconsin
2013-14 Season Performance

Last season, the Badgers went 30-8 overall and 12-6 in the Big Ten.  Wisconsin made the NCAA Tournament and made it to the Final Four before being eliminated by Kentucky.  In the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan State eliminated Wisconsin in the semi-finals.  Wisconsin finished the season at #6 in RPI and #6 in KenPom.  Highlights of the season included a win over Arizona to advance to the Final Four, an early season win over #1 overall seed Florida, and a road win over Big Ten champion Michigan.  Low points of the season included a home loss to Northwestern and road losses to Indiana and Minnesota.  Statistical leaders were Ben Brust, Nigel Hayes, Traevon Jackson, and Frank Kaminsky.  Brust led the team in minutes.  Hayes led the team in steals and usage (minus Jordan Hill).  Jackson led the team in assists.  Kaminsky led the team in points, rebounds, blocks, and win shares.

Offseason Exits

During the offseason, Wisconsin lost a total of 4 players with 3 players graduating in some form and 1 player transferring.  Those departures were Evan Anderson, Zach Bohannon, Ben Brust, and George Marshall.  The only significant departure in this group comes from Brust.  Last season, Brust not only led the Badgers in total minutes, but he was 2nd on the team in scoring, 3rd in steals, 4th in assists, and 2nd on the team in total win shares.  Add in that he was one of the team's best shooters from 3PT range and this makes up a significant departure.  Brust was also a key part in Wisconsin's Final Four run as he scored double digits in 4 out of 5 NCAA Tournament games in 2014.  Outside of Brust, the Badgers aren't losing much in terms of on-court contributions.  Anderson, Bohannon, and Marshall combined for just over 75 total minutes during all of last season.  It also should be noted that Marshall left during the season, so his departure was technically not during the offseason.

New Additions

This season, the Badgers will be bringing in 3 new recruits.  The recruits are Matt Ferris, Ethan Happ, and T.J. Schlundt.  Schlundt is a shooting guard, Ferris is a guard, and Happ is a small forward.  Happ is rated as a 3-star and both Ferris and Schlundt are unrated according to 247Sports.  Happ is the only scholarship recruit in the group and as such, he has received the most attention.  Happ is widely known for his diverse gameplay that includes a nice handle, jump shot, passing abilities, and the ability to hit the boards.  Happ will have to fight for time in a deep Wisconsin lineup, but he could be a nice player in the future for the Badgers.  Ferris and Schlundt will have to fight for minutes themselves, but both are referred to as good 3PT shooters.

Team Strengths

The strength for the Badgers this season will come in the frontcourt.  Though there is talent all over this roster and in the starting lineup, Wisconsin very likely has the best frontcourt in the conference.  Not only do they have the media's prediction for Big Ten Player of the Year starting at center in Frank Kaminsky, but the Badgers will also have Sam Dekker, who was predicted to be All-Big Ten by the media starting alongside him.  Not only could Wisconsin very likely have multiple All-Big Ten players on their roster, but they could have them both in the frontcourt.  Add in that Wisconsin can move around Sam Dekker depending on when Nigel Hayes sees the bench and this position is absolutely deadly.  On the offensive side, Kaminsky should be a destructive force and Dekker has reportedly developed his jump shot.  Defensively, Dekker and Kaminsky were already an imposing lineup and without another offseason, they should be even better.  This as a complete of a unit as there is in the conference and it leads what is already a stacked Wisconsin team.

Team Weaknesses

It's difficult to find a weakness on what should be a serious Final Four contending team, but there are two things that could be concerns this season.  First, the team is losing a starter and a pretty good 3PT shooter in Ben Brust.  In fact, Brust attempted 30.8% of Wisconsin's shots from outside the arc last season.  Considering that he made 39.3% of his long range attempts, that's a pretty big hunk of the offense that's leaving.  The Badgers have other shooting options in players like Sam Dekker and Josh Gasser, but they'll need more than just these two to take over all those attempts.  Along with this, another concern may be depth.  It's easy to criticize a team's depth, but Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig were the only significant bench contributors last year that are returning.  With Hayes likely moving to the starting lineup, that leaves just Koenig off the bench.  Considering that Koenig was 9th on the team in player efficiency and scored double digits in just 4 of his 37 games, this doesn't give a ton of confidence about him providing a spark off the bench this season.  Perhaps one of the new additions like Ethan Happ or a younger player like Vitto Brown can step up, but this team does seem to rely significantly on the starting five.

2014-15 Storylines

The biggest storyline for Wisconsin this season will be whether they can live up to the preseason hype.  The Badgers were selected as the unanimous Big Ten favorite by the media during the preseason and many have them as a serious Final Four contender.  Bo Ryan and staff certainly have the roster to get the job done this year, but the expectations may be higher than ever before under Ryan.  People are expecting big things out of this team and it's going to put a lot of pressure on the players to perform on a nightly basis.  If Wisconsin can handle the pressure, this could be a very special team.

Team Perspective From Phil Mitten of Bucky's 5th Quarter

WHEREAS making it to the Final Four requires considerable skill and luck, and repeating the feat is very difficult;

WHEREAS Wisconsin returns all but one rotation player from last season (considerably more than any other league contender besides Nebraska), including preseason conference Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, and reigning Sixth Man of the Year Nigel Hayes;

WHEREAS the Badgers did not take a foreign basketball trip this summer as they did a year ago, but still have an intriguing non-conference slate to prepare them for a favorable Big Ten schedule;

WHEREAS Bo Ryan is still coaching;

THEREFORE LET IT BE RESOLVED that Hayes will be the fifth starter, Bronson Koenig will lead the team in assists, Kaminsky will not win B1G POY, but Wisconsin will win the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, then a Big Ten title; Trae Jackson will do something stupid, but send a game to overtime at the buzzer to make up for it; Dekker will go pro early; and Badger fans will throw caution to the wind and put their hopes in this group for the program's first national championship since 1941. If not now, when?

Bayer Leverkusen

It’s time for Bayer Leverkusen to prove to the world that they’re a much better side that stepped onto the Champions League stage last season. Leverkusen did manage to finish second in their group last time around, but a 9-2 aggregate loss to a Manchester United side that was the punchline to every joke in England took some of the shine off moving on to the knockout round. The resulting 6-1 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain didn’t help matters – although it wasn’t quite as humiliating as the 10-2 aggregate to Barcelona in 2011-2012.

But there’s no reason for anyone to be laughing at Leverkusen this season. Roger Schmidt, whose Red Bull Salzburg side won the Austrian Bundesliga with 110 goals scored and just 35 conceded, is now in charge. Leverkusen started their season with a goal against Dortmund after less than ten seconds played, going on to win 2-0. They then came from behind to beat Hertha Berlin 4-2. This team is all about the attack, and they’re not going to be shy, even when going up against big-name sides.

How they got here

Bayer Leverkusen finished fourth in the Bundesliga last season, putting them into the third qualifying round for Champions League play. They were drawn against FC Copenhagen, who’d managed to make their way to the group stages last season. This year, however, Leverkusen resoundingly beat the Danish side, coming back from behind to win 3-2 in Copenhagen, then administering a 4-0 thumping at the BayArena.

How they play

Last season, watching Leverkusen became something of a chore. Around December, the goals seemed to dry up, and Leverkusen managed just one win from twelve games. As a result, head coach Sami Hyypiä left, and Leverkusen barely clung on to fourth.

But this season, they’ve been given a new lease on life. Schmidt is an admirer of Jürgen Klopp and there’s nothing boring about this revitalized side, which plays a Klopp-esque 4-2-3-1 that’s hell-bent on attacking and applying plenty of pressure on the opposition.

Leverkusen have injected some creativity into the side as well, rescuing Hakan Calhanoglu from Hamburg. The 20-year-old is not only able to set up the goals, but score them as well, having notched 11 from midfield last season. Stefan Kießling, now 30, still leads the attack, and he’s already scored nine goals in all competitions. The defense may still be a little shaky, but this is not the sort of side that’s going to lose 9-2 to the weakened Manchester Uniteds of the world.

Key Player: Stefan Kießling

The forward scored just 15 goals last season, a shocking drop from the 2012-2013 campaign, when he knocked in 25 goals and provided ten assists. As Kießling’s goals dried up, so did his side’s wins, and Leverkusen plummeted from the comforts of second to having to cling on for fourth place.

This season, the 30-year-old has already scored five goals in a single match, albeit against opponents from the sixth division. But he also scored the last-minute goal against Dortmund in Leverkusen’s opener, as well as knocking in three goals in the two-legged Champions League qualifier against FC Copenhagen. Leverkusen have others that can get them on the scoresheet, including Josip Drmić, Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Karim Bellarabi, but Kießling continues to be the heart of this side.

Anticipated finish: Top

While Group C is a fairly balanced group, featuring Benfica, Zenit and Monaco, it’s one that Bayer Leverkusen should be able to top. Benfica did well in both Champions League and Europa League last year, but they’ve lost a number of their star players once again. Monaco, of course, are now without Radamel Falcao and James Rodríguez.

Zenit could well be the biggest challenger for the top spot in Group C. Under new manager André Villas-Boas, Zenit have yet to concede a goal in Champions League qualifying, beating AEL Limassol 4-0 over two legs, then doing the same to Standard Liège in the playoff round. In fact, Zenit are perfect over five games in the Russian Premier League, and have conceded just twice.

Still, it’s not a stretch to say that Leverkusen will present stronger opposition than Zenit have yet to face this season. The defense – as long as it’s not scoring own goals – should be able to contain the likes of Hulk and Andrey Arshavin, while Stefan Kießling, Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Josip Drmić and Karim Bellarabi provide a threatening enough attack to put the German side top.

Bayern Munich

Bayern Munich failed to defend their Champions League title last season, falling in the semifinals in rather shocking fashion against Real Madrid. The eventual winners from Spain dismantled Pep Guardiola’s side 5-0 over two legs, leaving fans of der FCB with smoke streaming from their ears.

This season, Germany’s biggest and richest club is prepared to prove they are still the best team in Europe. The core of the squad that won it all two seasons ago remains, so now it’s time for Guardiola to prove he can lift the trophy with another club. The addition of Robert Lewandowski, who scored 28 goals in all competitions last season, could well be the key.

How they got here

Bayern qualified for this season’s Champions League by winning the Bundesliga in record fashion, clinching first on March 25. Taking the title not only meant Bayern could coast through their remaining seven matches, but that they’d also won yet another place in the Champions League group stage.

How they play

Guardiola typically starts his team in a 3-4-2-1 formation that is fairly fluid, able to adapt depending on the given situation. It can morph into a 4-2-3-1 or look like a 3-4-3, or get even quirkier should the need arise. The basic idea is to control the match through possession, something Guardiola mastered with his tiki-taka system at Barcelona. Things haven't gone particularly smoothly at Bayern, however, forcing the Spanish head coach to tinker relentlessly with formations and player positioning. That leads to some strange-looking lineups. Expect central midfielders in defense, full backs in central midfield, and far more Rafinha than is good for any self-respecting club.

That said, when they're on, Bayern are more than capable of blowing opponents away. Weird isn't always bad.

Key Player: Robert Lewandowski

The prolific Polish striker was signed on a free transfer from rivals Borussia Dortmund with two things in mind: scoring LOTS of goals while being more involved with buildup play than predecessor Mario Mandžukić. Lewandowski was a monster for BVB when they made their run to the Champions League final in 2013, and now Guardiola is looking to him to be Bayern’s primary goal scorer this season. Lewandowski has proven he can score goals on the biggest stages, and Bayern will need him to be at his best if they hope to claim their second Champions League title in three seasons.

Anticipated finish: Second

For the second straight season, Bayern meets Manchester City in the group stages. If things play out as they should, City will be their primary rival for the top spot in the group and cases can be made for how either team could end up in first place. Ultimately, Bayern’s fate will be decided not by City, but by Roma and CSKA Moscow. Neither should derail Bayern’s march to the knockout rounds, but trips to Moscow and Rome won’t be certain victories for the Germans.

Roma are the real wild card in the mix, and should provide a more difficult opponent than Viktoria Plzeň did last year. It’s unlikely that Bayern and City will both end up with 15 points again, so the team that performs better against Roma will likely find themselves at the top.

Ultimately, Guardiola’s obsession with tactical tinkering might be enough to lead to a loss or draw at a key moment. That could be all City needs to take the top spot in the group away from Bayern.

Basel

Swiss giants Basel have become known as the Champions League’s giant-killers over the last few seasons, with Manchester United and Chelsea having both fallen at the hands of the Super League champions. However, this year they’ve been given their toughest test yet. Drawn in a group alongside reigning champions Real Madrid and Premier League runners-up Liverpool, Basel are going to have to pull off a few major upsets to stand any chance of progressing into the knockout stages.

Fortunately, coach-cum-style icon Paulo Sousa — who took over from club legend Murat Yakin in the summer — does have a talented team at his disposal. Through the years, the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Ivan Rakitić, Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Salah have all come through the ranks at the Swiss club, who’ve made a name for themselves as fine talent-spotters. The likes of Fabian Schär, Taulant Xhaka and Derlis González will be hoping to be the latest to hop off the prestigious production line.

If Basel are to stand any chance of progressing into next round, they’re going to need their youngsters to step up and deliver on the biggest of stages once again.

How they got here

Basel qualified for the group stages by winning the Swiss Super League for the fifth season running. As usual, they dominated throughout the season, and lost just twice en route to glory.

How they play

When coaching in Britain, Basel boss Paulo Sousa earned a reputation as an idealistic manager, placing an emphasis on innovative, possession-based football. Indeed, Swansea's standing as one of the Premier League’s most attractive sides is partly thanks to the Portuguese tactician, who picked up where Roberto Martínez had left off by combining their short passing style with a more solid defense during his time in charge.

It’s little surprise, therefore, that his Basel team like to have as much of the ball as possible. Shaping up in a 4-3-3, defensive midfielder Taulant Xhaka will drop between the center backs in possession; allowing his teammates to push forward and play out from the back. However, that can leave his midfield counterparts outnumbered in the center, and it invariably forces the Swiss champions into building their attacks out wide. It’s on the right they’re the most dangerous, with the offensively-minded fullback Philipp Degen overlapping the Paraguayan starlet Derlis González, whose trickery and movement can make him a nightmare to mark. However, if these players can be kept quiet, Basel will struggle.

Without the ball, they’re a pretty conservative, well-organized team. They’re quite happy to let their opponents have the ball in defense, with every player dropping behind the ball to cut off passing lanes. Only when the ball comes into their own half do they press with any intensity.

Key Player: Taulant Xhaka

There isn’t a more influential player in Paulo Sousa’s system than defensive midfielder Taulant Xhaka. Dropping between the center backs to distribute from defense when in possession, and pushing up to halt opposition attacks when Basel don’t have the ball, he’s vitally important in both phases of play. At just 23 years old, the new Albanian international could well be the next player to leave Switzerland for a bigger club. If he does so, he’ll emulate his younger brother Granit, who swapped Basel for Borussia Mönchengladbach two years ago.

Anticipated finish: Third

Basel are a team usually on the fringes of knockout stage qualification, though this group is, unfortunately, an impossibly difficult one. They should top Ludogorets Razgrad and make it into the Europa League, but there’s virtually no chance of them surpassing Real Madrid or Liverpool.

Juventus

One of the most illustrious sides in the world, Juve have, in recent years, not shone quite so brightly in Europe. The decline of Serie A is a debate well beyond a Champions League preview, but there’s no doubt that Italian sides have struggled in the 21st century, with even José Mourinho’s treble with Internazionale not coming from one of the greatest sides of all time but from a band of grizzled veterans enjoying their annus mirabilis. Juventus have the components of a great team, but they’re still a class below the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, and they’ll consider getting to the semifinals a huge plus.

How they got here

By cantering to a Serie A title, essentially. Italy is still struggling to produce a serious rival to Juve’s dominance, although with the Antonio Conte era at an end after the manager resigned this summer, that could change.

Yet despite their domestic dominance, Juventus have failed to set Europe alight. Last season they ended up shunted out of the tournament by Galatasaray in a blizzard-induced meltdown in the group stages. They’ll be expecting to do better, but Max Allegri has not been a popular appointment, and it’ll be intriguing to see how much farther he can take the talented squad he’s inherited.

How they play

Having kept their two big stars in Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba this summer, they’ll continue to be the identity of this team. Allegri will likely use several systems, but all of their play will be dominated and run through their powerful midfield. With Claudio Marchisio and Kwadwo Asamoah alternative options who are hardly shy of a tackle either, they can put central players on the field who can bring energy, dynamism and goals regardless of injuries or suspensions.

That, however, misses one key component. The reason that midfield is so powerful is that it has to be, because it also has to babysit Andrea Pirlo — a not-infrequent genius but also lightweight, frail and elderly. Allegri was the man who initially let him go to Juventus. The legendary playmaker is currently injured, but he could well find himself back in the side at some point in the group stages.

Juventus have a solid defense, with veteran campaigners marshaling their back line, but have typically struggled up front. The addition of Carlos Tevez has vastly improved their frontline, however, and their team has never looked better. Whether they’ll click under Allegri is another matter.

Key Player: Arturo Vidal

A throwback to a bygone era of box-to-box midfielders who tackled, scored goals, controlled games and created chances for their teammates, Vidal is probably the best central midfielder on the planet right now and easily the most complete. His partner, Paul Pogba, may well go on to eclipse him, but for now nobody can match Vidal’s dynamism and consistency. A knee injury led to him giving a sub-par (by his own high standards) display at the World Cup, but if he recovers fully, he’ll single-handedly make facing Juventus a terrifying prospect, particularly for any dainty playmakers.

Anticipated finish: Second

The battle for second place in this group is probably going to be fought between Juventus and Olympiacos. It’s tough to see the Old Lady managing to top Atlético Madrid, meaning they just have to avoid being upset by the reigning Greek champions. Juve certainly have the stronger squad, so providing they don’t let complacency get the better of them, they should make it through to the knockouts.

Roma

Before last season started, Rudi García was under immense pressure; Roma had finished a disappointing sixth, had been left in a mess by the chaotic ministrations of Luis Enrique and Zdeněk Zeman, and had just lost the Coppa Italia final 1-0 to loathed rivals Lazio. By the time last season finished, he was a hero: Roma had been brilliant all season, had finished second in Serie A, and were back in the Champions League for the first time since 2010-11. So what did they get as a welcome back gift? A group of death! Thanks, UEFA!

Still, if Roma won't be too pleased to have been drawn with Manchester City and Bayern Munich, it's unlikely that either of those two are particularly excited about visiting the Eternal City. Roma lost just once at home last season — to Juventus, obviously — and have managed to hold on to most of their players over the summer. While the outstanding central defender Mehdi Benatia has moved on to Bayern Munich, Roma have secured a direct replacement in Greek international Kostas Manolas. Last season's top scorer Mattia Destro has stuck around despite interest from Chelsea and Real Madrid, midfielder Miralem Pjanić has recently signed a new, long-term contract, and Kevin Strootman is soon to return from a serious knee injury.

How they got here

Last season began in record-breaking fashion, with Roma going seventeen matches unbeaten and only conceding one goal in the first ten games. Though they were overtaken at the top of the table by Antonio Conte's Juventus machine in November, they stayed second for the remainder of the season, comfortably superior to the 18 teams below them. Second place in Italy is still just about good enough to qualify straight for the group stage, but a recent lack of European football condemned Roma to pot four and earned them a nightmare group.

How they play

García, like almost every other manager in the history of football, claims to like playing attacking football with a solid defensive base; unlike most, however, he seems to have cracked it. His Lille side won Ligue 1 in fine style and his Roma side have continued that tradition, lining up in a fluid 4-3-3. In attack, the central striker often drops deep — you may whisper the words "false" and "nine" here if you like — in the hope of pulling the defense out of shape, leaving spaces for the wide forwards to exploit. Particularly Gervinho, who, freed from his Arsenal shackles, has rediscovered the art of reliable finishing.

Behind the attack, the midfield is versatile and flexible. Daniele De Rossi sits the deepest as the designated defensive midfielder, while in front of him two from Pjanić, Alessandro Florenzi, Radja Nainggolan and the currently injured but soon-to-return Kevin Strootman support the attack; Pjanić is perhaps the most conventional attacking midfield option, while Strootman is tall, powerful and an exceptional passer of the ball. Add to that lot two attacking fullbacks — including Ashley Cole — and the constant magnificence of Francesco Totti, and they're a formidable offensive unit.

Key Player: Daniele De Rossi

Though Francesco Totti shows no sign of stopping, his advancing years mean that the mantle of key giallorosso passes to Daniele De Rossi. Now a 31-year-old veteran embarking on his 13th season in the capital, with over 400 appearances for the club, De Rossi anchors the space in front of the Roma defense with a tigerish, slightly terrifying commitment that only occasionally spills over into actual violence and card collection.

That said, he's more just a destroyer. Way back in 2006, Claudio Ranieri dubbed him "the most complete central midfielder in Italy," and since then, De Rossi has matured into one of the world's very best box-to-box midfielders. If Roma are going to challenge City and Bayern then De Rossi will be key in both attack and defense, prompting his own players as much as inconveniencing his opponents.

Anticipated finish: Third

Groups of Death, hey. Faced with the twin juggernauts of Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich and Abu Dhabi's Manchester City, it would be a surprise if Roma beat either to a spot in the last sixteen. Not a shock — this is a good side with some great players, a sharp coach and the ability to score against anybody — but definitely a surprise, particularly in view of their failure to really trouble Juventus in their league games last season. They should certainly have enough about them to beat CSKA Moscow to the Europa League spot, and if they decide to take it seriously, could well end up running deep in the second-choice competition.

Maribor

Maribor, the winners of the Slovenia first division for the past four seasons, are the only team from the rather young country that’s made their way to the Champions League group stages. But the last — and only — time that happened was in 1999-00, when the Purples finished rock bottom. Still, the four points obtained last time, which include a narrow victory over Dynamo Kiev, may look like a positive bounty compared to this season's likely haul. Maribor may be dominant within Slovenia, but the squad certainly looks paltry, particularly when set alongside the likes of Chelsea.

However, historically Maribor have been implicated in a more nefarious route to the winners' podium. In 1960, NK Branik Maribor was involved in a fight for promotion with NK Karlovac, who won the first leg 2-0 but whose squad was ravaged by food poisoning ahead of the return game. Although Branik was eventually acquitted of any wrongdoing, the club was disbanded in the aftermath, and NK Maribor was formed to take their place.

How they got here

Maribor are one of four teams that remain from the second qualifying round, where they beat Zrinjski Mostar 2-0 at home to overcome a goalless draw in the first leg. Maribor then beat Maccabi Tel Aviv 3-2 to progress to the playoff round. The reward was a meeting with Celtic, who’d originally lost 6-1 to Legia Warsaw, but qualified on away goals when it was determined the Polish side had fielded an ineligible player in the second leg. It wasn’t much of a surprise, then, when Maribor won 1-0 in Glasgow, qualifying for the Group Stage for the first time in fifteen years.

How they play

Nothing fancy to be found here. Maribor follow the style that the Slovenian national team plays, namely a disciplined approach that doesn’t require too many risks, with any surprises coming from quick counterattacks. And yes, you’ve guessed it, Ante Šimundža usually sets his players up in a 4-4-2, although he’ll sometimes use a 4-2-3-1, and he likes to have Marcos Tavares sitting slightly deeper.

Key Player: Marcos Tavares

Like many of the lower-ranked sides hoping for a chance at glory, Maribor’s key player is a forward that’s pushing on in years. For the Purples, that player is Brazilian-born Marcos Tavares, who’s been with the club since 2008 and is now their all-time leading goalscorer. He’s the one that scored the winner against Celtic, pouncing on a loose ball to lift the ball in. As befits the stereotype of those raised in Brazil, Tavares is technically gifted and good with the ball at his feet.

Anticipated finish: Bottom

Maribor were never going to be anyone’s favorites in this tournament, so it likely matters little who the competition is. Perhaps they’ll be heartened by being drawn against Chelsea, who could easily win all their matches, leaving the remaining three to duke it out amongst themselves. But while Sporting doesn’t have a strong defense, their forwards will easily cut through Maribor’s back line. And while Schalke haven’t had the best start to their season, they’ve still got plenty of quality in their squad.

So while Maribor may be prioritizing the Champions League – they can win the Slovenian title easily – that doesn’t mean their hopes will translate to results. Honestly, finishing with three points may well end up being viewed as a success.

Malmö

Group A's official minnow, Malmö return to the European top table for the first time since the competition reinvented itself in 1992; they are the first Swedish side to make the group stage since Helsingborgs in 2000-01. By UEFA's reckoning they are the weakest team left in the competition, ranked a lowly 137th on the continent, but after coming through qualifying and dispatching two stronger teams in the process, they're well used to being on the wrong end of the odds.

That said, even if they do surprise a few people, they're unlikely to top their greatest European adventure. In 1979, under the management of Englishman Bob Houghton, Malmö defeated Monaco, Dynamo Kiev, Wisla Krakow and Austria Vienna on the way to the final. Though they didn't win the trophy — thanks to Brian Clough, Nottingham Forest and Trevor Francis — it remains the biggest impact any Swedish side has had on Europe's grandest tournament, and secured the club the Bragdguldet, the gold medal for the most significant Swedish sporting achievement of the year. Have some of that, cross-country skiing.

How they got here

Historically the Allsvenskan's bestest and most winningest side, Malmö won their 20th title in 2013 with a game to spare. But gone are the days when being champions of Sweden entitled a team to an automatic place in the European Cup. Into the second qualifying round they went, first defeating Latvian champions Ventspils 1-0 on aggregate, then toppling Czech champions Sparta Prague; after losing 4-2 in Prague, the Swedes won 2-0 back at home.

This set up a playoff tie with Red Bull Salzburg, the despised corporate monsters of Austrian football. Coach Åge Hareide took the unusual step of exiling his wife to the Norwegian mountains so that he could "be in peace and prepare", and while her reaction has not been recorded, it paid off: a 2-1 away loss in the first leg was overturned in spectacular fashion back home. Two goals from Markus Rosenberg bracketed a thirty-yard side-footed dipping lob-volley — a thirty-yard side-footed dipping lob-volley! — from Magnus Eriksson. Three nil, and into the group stages in fine style. Have some of that, modern football.

How they play

The 2013 league title was the culmination of a transformation process that saw Malmö move into a new stadium and completely revamp their youth development program; as a result, the victorious squad was the youngest to win the Swedish title since the turn of the century. Their coach doesn't lack for experience or confidence, however; when in charge of Helsingborgs in 2012, he caused something of a stir in Glasgow when, ahead of a game against Celtic, he pronounced that his side were "better than Celtic at everything". This despite having lost the first leg 2-0.

Hareide sets his side out to play 4-4-2, though against Salzburg defensive midfielder Markus Halsti spent a lot of time acting as an auxiliary center back. While the spectacular second goal took all the headlines, the first and third goals in the playoff second leg came from quick breaks following a turnover in midfield, and against stronger opposition the template seems likely to stay the same: defend deep, cede possession, and then advance into the spaces. That's the theory, anyway.

Key Player: Markus Rosenberg

Up front for the minnows, the herring. 31-year-old Markus Rosenberg — so nicknamed because he smells faintly of pickle — has returned to his hometown club for the 2014 season, following a profoundly unsuccessful spell with West Bromwich Albion. Signed in August 2012, and hailed as "a real coup for the club", Rosenberg played 24 league games for West Brom without scoring a goal. Not a good look for a striker, and his contract was terminated by mutual consent on 1 February 2014.

However, such profligacy isn't quite typical for the Swede. While he's never been exactly prolific, he's scored fairly regularly in Germany and the Netherlands and, since returning to Sweden, has notched 11 league goals in 20 games. Perhaps more importantly, he's been contributing in Europe as well, scoring the crucial goals in the playoff and the third qualifying round. Though he's not as quick as he once was, he's tall, versatile, and takes a decent free-kick. If Malmö are going to get anywhere, he'll need to be feeling more German, less Bromwichian.

Anticipated finish: Fourth

It's hard to see Malmö getting anything out of either Atlético Madrid and Juventus, and so the extent of the Swede's aspirations will probably be nicking third ahead of Olympiacos. The suspicion is that the more experienced Greek side, who reached last season's knockout stages and managed to embarrass Manchester United before exiting, will probably have too much for the young Swedes. Though don't be too surprised if one or two teams find visiting Malmö tricky: in three qualifying games, no opponent's managed to score a goal at the Swedbank Stadium.

Zenit Saint Petersburg

Despite having spent a ton of money over the past few seasons, Zenit have been a consistent disappointment in the Champions League. Thus head coach Luciano Spalletti, who’d led the team since December 2009, was out and André Villas-Boas arrived, tasked with trying to translate on-paper talent into European success.

While they’ve advanced to the knockout stages in two of the last three tournaments, they’ve failed to win their group on any of those occasions. Even in 2011-12, when a group win seemed like a certainty, they found a way to finish second to APOEL on goal difference.

How they got here

After finishing one point behind CSKA Moscow in the Russian Premier League, Zenit were forced to enter the Champions League in the third qualifying round against Cypriot side AEL Limassol. After losing the first leg 1-0, Zenit recovered with a 3-0 second leg win. Zenit next faced Standard Liège in the playoff round and had no troubles with the Belgian side, winning 4-0 on aggregate.

How they play

André Villas-Boas has used a 4-2-3-1 as his primary formation since taking over at Zenit in March. The former Spurs and Chelsea boss prefers to play an aggressive system with a high line, which often leaves them vulnerable to counterattacks. Villas-Boas also loves effective goal-scoring wingers, something he never really had at Spurs. Hulk has become a regular on the right wing for Zenit, but the left wing has remained unsettled with the coach having used Viktor Fayzulin, Danny and Oleg Shatov through qualifying.

Key Player: Hulk

After a rocky start to his career with Zenit, which saw him nearly leave the club last year, it appears that the Brazilian attacker has settled down. His 22-goal performance last season was a tremendous rebound from a tough 2011-12 campaign, and given Villas-Boas’s reliance on the wing position, Hulk will get a chance to shine under his new head coach. If the Russians are to break their impressive streak of second-place finishes in group play, they’re going to need their €60 million man to perform.

Anticipated finish: Second

Zenit could win Group C or they could finish third in Group C, but they most likely won’t finish last in Group C. Given recent history, the safest bet is to predict they’ll finish second. They’ve made being a runner-up in Champions League group play into an artform, and the real question is whether or not Villas-Boas can get them over the hump.

Leverkusen are the strongest side in the group, so the other knockout round place could come down to Zenit and Benfica. AS Monaco are not expected to be much of a threat after the summer departures of James Rodríguez and Radamel Falcao.

CSKA Moscow

Despite Zenit Saint Petersburg's recent rise to prominence in the Russian Premier League, CSKA Moscow are currently Russia’s most formidable outfit. Under Leonid Slutsky they’ve won the last two Russian titles, and despite a tough start to the current campaign, they’ve got a squad capable of making it three in a row.

However, they’ve struggled rather more in the Champions League, and, drawn in a group with Bayern Munich and Manchester City for the second year running, they’re unlikely to fare any better than last season. On that occasion they finished bottom of the group; even below Czech minnows Viktoria Plzeň.

This year, they’ve got an even harder task. Thanks to the silly quirks of UEFA’s seeding system, CSKA will face Italian giants AS Roma alongside the German and English domestic champions in what is this year’s Champions League group of death. The odds of the Russians making it into the knockout stages are as slim as ever.

How they got here

CSKA Moscow qualified for the group stages by winning the Russian Premier League. They eventually saw off second-placed Zenit Saint Petersburg by just a point after an exciting climax to the campaign.

How they play

Coach Leonid Slutsky invariably sets his side up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which is intended to combine a compact, disciplined defense with a fluid, creative attack.

The midfield pivot contains tough-tackling anchorman Pontus Wernbloom, though he's usually paired with a more offensively minded counterpart like Georgi Milanov or Bibras Natkho — the latter having scored four goals in his first three league games since joining from Greek side PAOK in the summer.

Meanwhile, the front four is a fluid unit, with coach Slutsky rotating his flexible attackers across all positions. Seydou Doumbia provides a powerful presence up front, though pacey winger Ahmed Musa has also been used to good effect as a striker, as well as out wide in his more natural position on the left. Roman Eremenko, Alan Dzagoev and Kirill Panchenko can all play various roles behind the center forward, while the direct running of Zoran Tošić causes problems on the right.

The positional versatility of these players means they can be extremely mobile in attack, and drag stubborn defenses apart with their intelligent movement. However, against the giants they’ll face in their Champions League groups, the pace of wingers Musa and Tošić will be most helpful, as they look to hit their opponents on the counterattack.

Key Player: Ahmed Musa

Since moving from Dutch club VVV-Venlo in 2012, Nigeria international Ahmed Musa has become one of CSKA's most important players, and he's still only 21. Though he's been used up front this season, he's arguably most impressive out on the left side, where his pace and superb technique means he's an excellent counterattacking outlet. His impressive performances throughout Nigeria's World Cup campaign earned him interest from the Premier League, though CSKA have managed to hold onto him for a while longer. If they’re to have any joy at all in this tournament, Musa will be a big part of it.

Anticipated finish: Fourth

Despite their domestic success, CSKA Moscow are significantly worse than every other team in their group. Anything other than finishing bottom would be a success for Leonid Slutsky’s side.

BATE Borisov

BATE are a relatively new club, but have already become familiar faces in European competition. This is the fourth time they’ve qualified for the Champions League group stages, and they’re also regulars in the Europa League.

That doesn’t mean these journeys are easy for the Belarusian side, however. The domestic league isn’t rated highly, so BATE enter the competition in the second qualifying round. Last season, they lost their first match to Kazakhstani side Shakhter Karagandy, and the early exit meant they missed out on a chance of Europa League play as well.

They struggled a bit in qualifying this season, too, but they held on to be rewarded with a rather easy group — unlike two years ago, when they were drawn with Bayern Munich. They’re favorites to go down, but they could still make a decent impression, especially on any side remembering their 3-1 victory over the Bavarian giants.

How they got here

Winning the Belarusian Premier League meant BATE entered Champions League qualifying in the second round, and they haven’t exactly impressed against fellow minnows. Albanian side KF Skënderbeu Korçë gave them a scare with a 0-0 draw in Belarus, but BATE drew the second leg 1-1 to advance on away goals.

The third qualifying round was even trickier, with BATE losing 1-0 away to Debrecen in the second leg, then giving up an early away goal in the second leg. But they rallied, completing their improbable 3-2 comeback with a 94th minute winner from star Sergey Krivets … who has since been transferred to FC Metz in France. Ouch.

BATE were much more convincing against a seemingly superior opponent in the playoff round, drawing away to Slovan Bratislava before winning handily in Borisov.

How they play

If you remember BATE from previous campaigns, not a lot has changed stylistically. They change formations and personnel a lot, but they're going to put men behind the ball, play defensively and look for opportunities on the counter. However, Alexander Hleb and Renan Bressan are long gone, while Krivets is recently departed, so this team will be more direct and less tricky than the one that upset Bayern Munich two years ago.

The side's midfield lynchpin is still, somehow, club legend and captain Dzmitry Likhtarovich. The 36-year-old has played for BATE since 2001 and remains the first choice defensive midfielder. His midfield mates — Edhar Alyakhnovich and Alyaksandr Valadzko in both legs of the Bratislava tie, the beginning of their post-Krivets world — are going to have to do a lot of running.

Key Player: Vitali Rodionov

Long-serving manager Alyaksandr Yermakovic, at the helm since the days when BATE surged past Dinamo Minsk in the Belarusian football hierarchy, knows better than to attempt to play too open against their superior Champions League opponents. That means striker Vitali Rodionov will spend most of the time ploughing a lone furrow in attack, with plenty of his teammates back behind the ball.

Rodionov is going to have to work very hard to help his team win the ball, then hold it up when they actually do win possession. Most of their sparse chances are going to fall to him as well, so he's going to have to be excellent in front of goal for BATE to have a chance to snag some points and challenge for third place in this group.

Anticipated finish: Fourth

Sorry, BATE fans. Your team is clearly the worst in this group and likely needs a miracle to get into a Europa League spot. But at least no other team in this group can claim a name as cool as Borisov Works of Automobile and Tractor Electric Equipment. Best team name in the Champions League, by a mile.

Shakhtar Donetsk

It's been a tough few months for Shakhtar Donetsk, with the political turmoil in the east of Ukraine having had big sporting ramifications. The Ukrainian champions started their season without six of their South American stars, who refused to return to Ukraine after a pre-season friendly in France because of the ongoing violence in the region. Eventually, the decision was taken to move the team as a whole more than 600 miles to the west, meaning Shakhtar are set to play their Champions League matches in Lviv.

The relocation at least means they’ll kick off their European campaign with a full complement of Brazilians back at the disposal of long-serving coach Mircea Lucescu. With Shakhtar’s business plan over the last few years based on buying young South Americans before looking to move them on for big profits, it’s just as well. They have a remarkable 13 Brazilians in their first-team squad, with many of them featuring regularly in their starting lineup.

Such a strategy has enabled Shakhtar to become one of the more intriguing teams in the Champions League over the last few seasons, their roster constantly jam-packed with technically-skilled youngsters. Willian and Fernandinho, now of Chelsea and Manchester City, are just two of many players who made their name at Shakhtar before moving on to bigger clubs.

They were both part of the Shakhtar team that reached the Champions League quarterfinals in 2010-11 — the farthest the team has ever progressed. This season, having been given about as even a group as they could’ve hoped for, they may well be optimistic of matching their previous best.

How they got here

Shakhtar qualified for the group stages by winning the Ukrainian Premier League for the fifth time in a row. They lost only five of their 28 matches, and eventually saw off closest challengers Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk by six points.

How they play

Unlike the majority of Champions League teams from outside Europe’s major leagues, Shakhtar come into the tournament looking to play exciting, attacking football. Mircea Lucescu’s side is expected to line up in a fluid 4-4-2, with an emphasis on quick combinations and wing-play, and a proactive pressing game in the defensive phase. Key to this style of football is the industry and pace of their front six players, which enables them to contribute with and without the ball.

Of course, it isn’t a style without weaknesses. Sometimes their central midfielders are a little too eager to press, leaving the deepest of the duo — usually Fernando — isolated and outnumbered on the counterattack, and forced to commit a tactical foul. Similarly, their fullbacks are relied upon to provide width, particularly down the left, with winger Taison spending most of his time roaming around the middle of the pitch. This can leave space in behind, and drag the center backs out of position. The best teams will undoubtedly be able to exploit such flaws.

Key Player: Taison

Though Douglas Costa is often seen as Shakhtar’s shining star, his compatriot Taison is arguably more influential for the team.

While Costa spends most of his time glued to the right wing, Taison loves to drift central from his nominal position on the left. It’s in this area that he can do the most damage, with his terrific eye for a pass ensuring he can always find the darting runs of strikers Luiz Adriano and Olexandr Gladkiy. Don’t be surprised if he picks up assists for fun during the group stages.

He’s also a useful player defensively, with his determination and workrate ensuring he’s a crucial part of Shakhtar’s high pressing. If opponents find a way through, he’s industrious enough to sprint back toward his own goal to cover. Much like his old teammate Willian, he has a terrific blend of technique and tenacity, and will be a big part of any success Shakhtar have in this year’s tournament.

Anticipated finish: Third

In such a tight group as Shakhtar’s, it’s very tough to predict whether they’ll be able to squeeze into the knockouts. In Porto and Athletic Bilbao they'll come up against two strong and fairly evenly-matched teams, meaning they can’t afford to have a single off-day. They’ll probably end up dropping down to Europa League, but expect the margins to be very tight.

Ludogorets

By now, you've probably seen the video of Ludogorets defender Cosmin Moți stepping into goal and guiding his team to a penalty shootout win after starting goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov was sent off in the second leg of the playoff round. If you haven't, go educate yourself. It was beyond a shadow of a doubt the best moment from Champions League qualifying.

If you've never heard of Ludogorets, that's because they're a tiny club that became a rich guy's hobby, and subsequently are on the rise. The team was founded in 2001, bought by Kiril Domuschiev in 2010 and went from the third division to winning the Bulgarian title in three seasons. They made the Europa League round of 16 last season, and this campaign marks their first in the Champions League group stage.

Ludogorets are from a town of under 100,000 people and play in an 8,000 seat stadium, but they've won the Bulgarian title four years running. They're competing with the two big Sofia clubs to poach the best players from the smaller Bulgarian clubs and have a lot of very solid foreign pros, like the aforementioned Moți. They have no history, and they probably don't care.

How they got here

Ludogorets had it pretty easy in the second qualifying round, demolishing F91 Dudelange from Luxembourg, but then things got tricky. Partizan held them to a scoreless draw, but when Ludogorets traveled to Belgrade, an early brace from Marcelinho meant the ultimate 2-2 result sent them through on away goals.

They came up against an even bigger challenge in the playoff round, when they faced Romanian giants Steaua Bucharest, and unsurprisingly lost the first leg 1-0. But a 90th minute equalizer took the game to added time, and then to penalties. With Vladislav Stoyanov sent off in the 119th minute, defender Cosmin Moți stepped between the sticks, and after his heroics, he’ll never be buying another drink in Razgrad.

How they play

Unlike a lot of the other smaller sides that made it to the Champions League by switching up their formation and personnel based on their opponent and available players, Ludogorets have stuck with the same style and formation throughout their qualifying campaign.

It might be basic, but it works. Ludogorets set out in a 4-2-3-1 with an all-around attacking midfielder behind a very active striker. Two true widemen exploit space on the flanks, and there’s usually a defensive player and a deep-lying playmaker in the center. It's very Rafa Benítez-esque, and it might lead to them getting some shock results if they can defend well enough.

Key Player: Svetoslav Dyakov

For any team in Ludogorets' spot — the minnow against huge clubs — positioning and decision-making at transition points is going to be key. They need to be very disciplined with their defensive shape, and they can't afford to waste the precious little time they have on the ball after winning it back. In both cases, most of the responsibility will fall on Svetoslav Dyakov.

The Bulgarian international and captain is usually the more defensive of Ludogorets' two midfielders, partnering the more attack-minded Fábio Espinho or Hristo Zlatinski. He’ll provide cover when they go forward, and he'll be the one providing the pass when Ludogorets win the ball.

Anticipated finish: Fourth

It's a bit of a bummer that the team who pulled off such a great win in the playoffs is completely screwed in the group stage. While Ludogorets have a pretty deep squad and went through tough competition to get here, they've never seen anything like Real Madrid and Liverpool.

Ludogorets could potentially sneak their way past Basel and into Europa League — they do own wins over PSV Eindhoven and Lazio from last season, after all — but there's no good reason to pick them to finish anything but last. And if you're one of those people who despise made-up teams with no long-standing traditions, you’ll be ok with that.

Galatasaray

Fenerbahçe’s loss is Galatasaray’s gain: last year’s second-place finishers in Turkey go into the group stage of the Champions League thanks to UEFA banning Fener for two years. That’s not about to put Gala off their lunch, however. After losing 6-1 to Real Madrid in Istanbul last year, Fatih Terim got the sack, replaced by Roberto Mancini. The Italian managed a draw with Juventus in Turin, and a win over Copenhagen, but again fell to Real, 4-1. However, a late win over Juve, on an absolutely atrocious pitch in Istanbul, lifted Galatasaray into the knockout rounds. They drew against Chelsea at home, but wound up losing 2-0 at Stamford Bridge, with even Didier Drogba unable to get past his former side.

Gala go into this year’s Group Stage boasting another Italian at the helm – this time it’s the man that most recently lead Italy to yet another rather embarrassing World Cup exit. But Cesare Prandelli is a pragmatic man, and should Galatasaray manage to progress, it will be due in large part to his tactical ministrations.

How they got here

Galatasaray finished second in the Turkish Süper Lig last season, but they went straight into the Champions League group stages regardless. How? Last June, UEFA adjudged Fenerbahçe to have been involved in a match-fixing scandal that helped them win the 2011 title. They were promptly banned from European competition for two years, and so despite winning last season’s title, it’s Galatasaray that go into the Group Stage.

How they play

Former Italy boss Cesare Prandelli is often hailed for his clever tactics, but that doesn’t mean they never come back to haunt him. Against Uruguay in the World Cup – a game in which certain other events came back to bite Prandelli, overshadowing his tactical approach – the manager played things too conservatively, knowing a draw would be sufficient. The azzurri defense nearly rescued the team, but once they were caught out, there was no firepower available to save the side.

While Prandelli is unlikely to use a three-man defense this season – despite it working out alright for Roberto Mancini’s Galatasaray – that’s not to say he won’t be erring on the conservative side. After all, the cimbom need to emerge from a group that includes Arsenal and Dortmund, both who’ll certainly need to be contained. If Galatasaray can hold them to draws, they just might edge through.

Key Player: Burak Yılmaz

Galatasaray’s key player remains Burak Yılmaz, who scored eight goals in the Champions League two seasons ago, when his side made it to the quarterfinals. That was the same number scored by Lionel Messi and Thomas Müller, but with significantly less minutes played. Surely Galatasaray didn’t think they’d be able to hold on to their star, but they’ve somehow managed it.

Last year, however, Yılmaz scored exactly zero goals in the tournament, helping his side not one bit. He did manage 16 in the league, however, so the goals are still there. From where else will they come? A random stunner from Wesley Sneijder, such as the one he pulled off against Mexico in Brazil? A hard-won penalty from new-boy Goran Pandev? Galatasaray can’t rely on these possible occurrences, so Yılmaz needs to be firing.

Anticipated finish: Third

It’s a tough call as to where Galatasaray might end up, but it’s almost certain they won’t be able to topple the star-studded squads of Arsenal and Dortmund, even if those sides are forced to travel long distances and play in snowy Istanbul. Seven points was enough to get them through last season, but considering BVB and Arsenal each took twelve, it’s highly unlikely Gala can get by on the same sort of luck this time around.

That leaves them battling with Anderlecht for the dubious honor of a Europa League place. Prandelli’s men likely have the edge, if only slightly, mostly because this team has shown itself able to wiggle points from tight positions.

Olympiacos

Olympiacos have made it into the last 16 of the Champions League on six separate occasions, and would've squeezed into the quarterfinals for only the second time in their history last season had they not thrown away a two-goal aggregate lead against Manchester United. They may not have the star names of many of the sides in this competition, but no one should make the mistake of underestimating them.

Under the leadership of Real Madrid legend Míchel, who took charge of the Athenian club last February, Olympiacos have looked as ambitious as ever. Playing a proactive, attacking game, the Spaniard has swept up two consecutive domestic titles, and has now set about gearing the team toward making a serious dent in European competition.

This summer they've lost a handful of first-team players, with talented defenders Kostas Manolas and José Holebas leaving to AS Roma, midfielder Andreas Samaris joining Benfica, and attacking loanees Joel Campbell and Hernán Pérez returning to parent clubs. However, the return of striker Kostas Mitroglou from Fulham, and the arrival of big names like Ibrahim Afellay and Éric Abidal should ensure they’re still competitive.

How they got here

Olympiacos qualified for the group stages by winning the Greek Superleague for the 41st time in their history, and the fourth year in a row. They were beaten just four times throughout the season, eventually finishing 17 points clear of second-placed PAOK.

How they play

Last year, Champions Matchday magazine asked Olympiacos boss Míchel which coach he’d most like to meet. He replied Arrigo Sacchi, saying he "changed football." Sacchi coached AC Milan in the 1980s and ‘90s, and swept up a Serie A title and two European Cups with a revolutionary game based on "controlling space," through intense zonal pressing and a high offside line.

Alas, at Olympiacos, Míchel doesn't have Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit or Frank Rijkaard at his disposal, but his admiration of Sacchi does reveal how he likes his side to defend. Without the ball, Olympiacos often press high up the field, looking to win back possession almost as soon as it is lost. In order to achieve this style, positional discipline is of paramount importance, and Míchel has drilled his team excellently.

With the ball, Olympiacos are a slightly less spectacular team. While they do try to dominate games by passing out from defense, their attacking play against the best teams largely relies on the success of a target man in attack, who can hold the ball up for deep runners like playmaker Alejandro Domínguez, or who can use their strength and aerial ability to attack crosses into the box.

Key Player: Kostas Mitroglou

Imposing striker Kostas Mitroglou earned himself a move to the Premier League last January, with Fulham snapping up the Greek international after an impressive few seasons at Olympiacos. However, Mitroglou’s English move turned out to be an expensive disaster for the Cottagers, who paid £12 million to bring the 26-year-old to London. He started just one game in an injury-ravaged few months, and Fulham ended up being relegated to the second tier.

This summer, Olympiacos moved to bring him back on loan for the season, and Fulham were only too happy to oblige. Mitroglou will likely immediately become Míchel’s first-choice striker, where his strength and hold-up play will enable him to pick up exactly where he left off last summer. Feasting on crosses from fellow summer signing Ibrahim Afellay, Mitroglou will be out to prove he’s better than his time in the Premier League suggests.

Anticipated finish: Third

Olympiacos are a good team, but just not quite as good as Atlético Madrid or Juventus. They’ll make life difficult for said duo, but they probably won’t have enough to squeeze into the knockout stages. Expect to see them in the Europa League before too long.

APOEL

APOEL have always been a big club in Cyprus, but the rest of Europe gave them little notice until changes to Champions League qualification made it easier for teams from smaller leagues to make the group stage. Then in 2011-12, they stunned everyone in their second appearance in the competition proper, getting out of their group and beating Lyon in the Round of 16.

Europe was rough on APOEL last season. They lost to Maribor on away goals, which dropped them into Europa League qualifying, where they lost once more. A match-fixing scandal at Fenerbahce meant APOEL were reinstated, but were then knocked out in the group stage.

But thanks to some decent offseason transfer business, APOEL are expected to be competitive this season. They added John Arne Riise and Rafik Djebbour from English sides, signed loanee Tomas De Vincenti permanently, stole Cypriot international Georgios Efrem from rivals Omonia and signed defender Carlão from Sochaux.

How they got here

APOEL won the Cypriot first division last season, albeit barely. They finished tied on points with AEL Limassol, and so had to rely on their superior head-to-head record to snatch the title. Both sides entered the Champions League in the third qualifying round, although AEL fell at the first hurdle. APOEL, however, downed Finnish side HJK 4-2 on aggregate in the 3rd round, then comfortably defeated Aalborg 5-1 in the playoff round.

How they play

APOEL's technical quality isn't too bad, but by nature of being a Champions League minnow, they're going to have to play slightly defensively.

If APOEL had one defining characteristic in qualifying, it's that they played a bit narrow, something they've done in previous Champions League campaigns as well. Constantinos Charalambides, Tiago Gomes and De Vincenti are all natural central attacking midfielders, but play on the wings for APOEL very frequently. It's not that they don't have natural wingers; Gustavo Manduca played in the second leg against Aalborg, and both Efstathios Aloneftis and the aforementioned Efrem are best on the flanks, but manager Giorgos Donis may well prefer to play with a more narrow, compact attack.

APOEL have a variety of forwards, but the consistent starter so far has been Irishman Cillian Sheridan, a classic target man. He's 6'5", amazing in the air, and not particularly quick or great technically. He's there to be large, which he's pretty good at.

Key Player: Constantinos Charalambides

Is that not the best name in this competition? Fawning over alliteration and nine-syllable names aside, Charalambides is APOEL's captain and most versatile player. The side remains unwedded to any particular formation, mostly because Charalambides can play anywhere. He's most commonly found on the right wing, but he can also play on the left, in central midfield and behind a striker. He creates, defends and is a threat to score goals from all positions. For a team of APOEL's size and resources, a player like Charalambides is a manager's dream.

Anticipated finish: Fourth

Unfortunately, after singing APOEL’s praises, we’re now tipping them to finish bottom, seeing as they’ve been stuck in one of the most difficult groups. An easier draw and they'd have a very legitimate shot at a Europa League place and an outside shot at finishing second. But Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain are two of the best teams in the world and they're going to finish above APOEL. The best they can hope for is beating Ajax to Europa League.

+Predictions

Storylines | Awards | Standings

1. This is Wisconsin's conference to lose

Quite frankly, the Badgers are the cream of the crop this year. This Wisconsin team isn't perfect, but they bring back more than any other team and have a capable starter are every position. The biggest storyline to Wisconsin's season will be whether they can live up to this season's hype and for the most part, this will be the main storyline of the Big Ten this season. Everybody will - and should - have their eyes on the Badgers on a nightly basis. Regardless of who they are playing, they are going to be the team to watch. The conference should be deep again, but Wisconsin looks to be the best team.

2. The Big Ten will look much different this season

This season will be one of change for the Big Ten. First, the additions of Maryland and Rutgers to the conference fold will mean new opponents and new venues. Seeing how the two programs fit into the conference fold will be interesting to watch. Along with this, the roster departures were also significant this year, especially among the conference's top teams. The most significant departures likely came from Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State. Each of these teams made the 2014 NCAA Tournament, but all three are losing at least 3 of the team's biggest contributors. These three teams have been at the top of the conference for the last few seasons, which could make this year a "changing of the guard" of sorts.

3. Good from top to bottom

The final thing to watch is the depth and strength of the Big Ten this season. Last year, the Big Ten was the nation's best conference and it was primarily because every team in the conference was at least decent. Purdue finished last in the conference standings and Northwestern finished the lowest on the KenPom efficiency ratings, but neither team was necessarily bad and both won at least 5 conference games. The additions of Maryland and Rutgers could shake things up, but it's not unlikely that every team in the conference is at least decent this year.

About the Author

Manager & Editor-in-Chief for SBNation's BTPowerhouse.

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