Big Ten again rife with contenders

May, 9, 2012
5/09/12
12:45
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This morning, my man Myron Medcalf honed in on the Indiana Hoosiers. He spoke with coach Tom Crean about Cody Zeller's similarities to Andrew Luck -- which go deeper than "they're both really good" -- and the massive preseason expectations the Hoosiers will face in the run up to the 2012-13 season. Crean is handling the preseason expectations how you'd, ahem, expect -- by trying to instill some perspective in his players, who he believes aren't "caught up" in the hype for next season:
"When you’re immersed in it, you stay in your own reality. And our reality is we’ve got a long way to go to get where we want to go. We’re going to have upwards of eight freshmen and sophomores on this team next year. Obviously, one of them is Cody [Zeller] but still, he’s only going to be a sophomore. And the bottom line for us is we’ve got to get a lot of guys meshed into this team."

Of course, he's right. That goes not only for Indiana's chances of competing for a Final Four spot or a national title, but also for winning the Big Ten, which will again be the nation's best conference in 2012-13.

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Richard Mackson/US PresswireCody Zeller and the Hoosiers are the early favorites in the talent-rich Big Ten.
Indiana is the early favorite to win the league, but it's hardly a guarantee. At least two other teams, the Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan Wolverines, are fully justified in having Big Ten title aspirations. Both teams will arguably have as much talent on their rosters as the Hoosiers.

As expected, Ohio State lost Jared Sullinger to the NBA draft, and shooting guard William Buford graduated this spring. But the Buckeyes -- thanks to Thad Matta's excellent 2011 recruiting class -- have big-time players waiting in the wings.

Center Amir Williams was infrequently used in his freshman season, but was the No. 4 center in his recruiting class. He should be ready, after a year of Sully apprenticeship, to take on big minutes and a major role on both ends of the floor. Swingman Sam Thompson could experience a similar sophomore boost, and point guard Shannon Scott will take on a bigger share of minutes playing behind and alongside starting point guard Aaron Craft. Sophomore small forward LaQuinton Ross missed his entire freshman season due to academic issues, but he could play a role as well.

Plus, the remaining starters are awfully good. Deshaun Thomas is one of the nation's most versatile scoring threats who rounded out his game throughout an excellent sophomore season, while Craft remains the nation's best perimeter defender, bar none. Offense may be a struggle for these Buckeyes early in the season, but their sterling ballhawking defense, a trademark of Matta's teams at OSU, isn't going anywhere.

Michigan will be no less talented. Coach John Beilein got the best news of his offseason when he learned that Big Ten Freshman of the Year (media) Trey Burke would eschew the NBA draft and return to school. Burke is a fantastically intelligent, savvy player, and his efficiency statistics (he posted a 105.3 offensive rating in 2012) will only get better as he improves his outside shooting and cuts down on the turnovers that occasionally marred his proclivity (as evidenced by his 28.7 percent assist rate) for the art of the dime. Shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. could be one of the nation's most polished perimeter scorers as a junior.

Beilein will mesh his leftover talent -- from a team that won a share of its first Big Ten title since the mid-80s, no less -- with the two best recruits of his Michigan tenure. Glenn Robinson III, the son of former NBA star Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson (we agreed we are calling Robinson III "Little Big Dog," yes?) is ranked No. 18 overall in the class of 2012. He has drawn raves from ESPNU's scouts Insider for his "freakish athleticism" and ability to score from the perimeter, off the dribble and in the mid-range. His longtime friend and fellow incoming freshman, power forward Mitch McGary, was once considered the second-best prospect in the class of 2012. He's slipped since then, but only to No. 27 overall in the class, and he promises to be a force in his first season for the Wolverines.

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Rick Osentoski/US PresswireWith Trey Burke returning the Wolverines will be another team vying for the Big Ten crown.
The loss of shooters Stu Douglass, Zack Novak and Evan Smotrycz, and the addition of Robinson and McGary (as well as the return of forward Jon Horford from injury) present Beilein with an interesting but altogether welcome problem: These Wolverines won't be a typical Beilein team. They will attack the glass and pound the paint far more often, if only out of necessity. And with all those weapons, they'll be very difficult to stop.

Then there's Michigan State. The Spartans lost their heart and soul in senior forward Draymond Green, but the rest of the picture is bright: Point guard Keith Appling is back, as are forwards Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix. Impressive freshman guard Branden Dawson saw his season end after tearing an ACL in early March; his return will be tentative throughout the year. The good news? Tom Izzo beat out Indiana and Purdue to land the No. 2-ranked shooting guard in the class, Gary Harris, and will add three top-100 players (power forwards Kenny Kaminski and Matt Costello and small forward Denzel Valentine) to a team positively brimming with big, tough, athletic players. If the Spartans can do without Green -- and that's a valid question, given how much he meant to this program -- and rebound the ball at a similar rate as in 2012, they're legitimate Big Ten contenders, too.

Then there are the usual suspects: Wisconsin is Wisconsin, and Bo Ryan still hasn't finished worse than fourth place, or missed the NCAA tournament, in any season of his 11 seasons at the school. Minnesota will get Trevor Mbakwe, one of the nation's most bruising power forwards (now on his sixth-year medical redshirt season), back from last year's season-ending ACL injury. Purdue coach Matt Painter will bring in three top-100 players (center A.J. Hammons, shooting guard Rapheal Davis and point guard Ronnie Johnson, all three of whom hail from Indiana), an influx of size and young talent to build around. Iowa coach Fran McCaffery hauled in his best recruiting class, including Iowa native Adam Woodbury, the No. 10-ranked center in 2012. Northwestern has Drew Crawford and a spate of solid guards to put around senior transfer Jared Swopshire, an athletic former Louisville forward who could be a perfect fit for Bill Carmody's Princeton system.

You get the idea. Not all of these teams will contend for the Big Ten regular-season title. But most of them will. At the very least, the conference is sure to have a deep spate of teams determined to make any path to the Big Ten crown less a sprint than a drawn-out, physical scrum. Remember when Kentucky went undefeated in its league, with a massive efficiency margin to boot? Yeah. That ain't happenin' here.

Indiana is the favorite, and an obvious pick to get to the Final Four, and for good reason. But before the Hoosiers can turn their attention to the glories of March, they'll have to test their mettle for months on a twice-weekly basis against the best league in the country. That can be a good thing, or a bad one. It can be galvanizing experience, or a humbling one. Either way, nothing will come easy.

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