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Thursday, October 25, 2012
What I can't wait to see: Big Ten

By Jason King

Editor’s note: For two weeks, we're rolling out Blue Ribbon previews for every team in the country. We'll also have comprehensive preview coverage of the nation's top 10 conferences. As part of that, we're asking our writers to share what they're most looking forward to in each of those leagues. Today we take a look at the Big Ten.

Can the Big Ten finally win a national title?

As strong as the league has been, a Big Ten team has hoisted the NCAA championship trophy just once in the past 23 years. That was in 2000, when Mateen Cleaves led Michigan State to an 89-76 victory over Florida in Indianapolis. This season the conference boasts as many as four Final Four-caliber teams. Indiana is ranked No. 1 or 2 in virtually every preseason poll. Michigan appears to have its best team since the Fab Five days. Ohio State and Michigan State should also be in the mix. In a season that should be defined by parity -- there appears to be a lack of truly elite teams -- there’s no reason a Big Ten school can’t win it all.

Will Cody Zeller separate himself in the national player of the year race?

Zeller, Indiana’s 7-foot forward, led the Hoosiers in points (15.6) and rebounds (6.6) as a freshman last season. He likely would’ve been a lottery pick had he chosen to leave school and enter the NBA draft. Instead, his decision to return makes IU a Final Four favorite entering the season. Zeller is on virtually every preseason All-America team, and deservedly so. But it’d be premature to pencil him in as the national player of the year. He may not be a future top-10 pick, but Creighton forward Doug McDermott averaged 22.9 points and 8.2 rebounds as a sophomore. Not many players in America have a higher basketball IQ or stronger fundamental skills than McDermott. I expect the national player of the year race between Zeller and McDermott to be a close one -- and others will surely emerge as well.

Will Minnesota flourish or implode in the face of adversity?

Year after year, the Gophers find ways to make headlines for all the wrong reasons. Trevor Mbakwe, who missed the 2009-10 campaign while awaiting trial on a felony assault charge in Miami, was convicted of DUI in September. The incident threatened to end his college career because it violated the terms of his probation from the earlier incident. Minnesota caught a break last week when a Florida judge ruled that Mbakwe wouldn’t serve jail time. Still, the incident was certainly frustrating for a program looking to shed its bad-boy image. Making matters worse was last weekend’s arrest of assistant coach Saul Smith, who has been suspended indefinitely. Saul is the son of head coach Tubby Smith. Minnesota is talented enough to do some damage in the Big Ten and contend for an NCAA tournament bid, but it won’t happen if the Gophers’ problems off the court lead to a lack of focus on it.

Where will Northwestern and Iowa fit in?

We say it every season, but one of these years, Northwestern is going to earn an NCAA tournament bid for the first time in school history. Could this be the year? With players such as Drew Crawford and Dave Sobolewski returning, the Wildcats are perhaps more talented than they’ve ever been under Bill Carmody. The addition of Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire also helps. Iowa came on strong at the end of last season to finish 18-17 overall and 8-10 in league play. The Hawkeyes return five of their top six scorers, but their roster features just one senior. Fran McCaffery’s squad will give a lot of opponents fits, but it may still be a year away from the NCAA tournament.

Can John Groce get Illinois back on the map?

The former Ohio coach wasn’t the school’s first choice to replace Bruce Weber, but that doesn’t mean he’s not the perfect fit. Groce served as an assistant to Thad Matta at Xavier and Ohio State and has already begun to make inroads on the recruiting trails in Champaign. Groce has landed commitments from three players in the Class of 2013, including two who are ranked among the nation’s top 100 prospects by ESPN.com. Illini fans will need to be patient with Groce in his first season. Illinois returns a pair of double-digit scorers in Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, and he added Coastal Carolina transfer Sam McLaurin shortly after his hiring last spring. Still, there’s an extreme lack of depth in the paint and at point guard. A hard-working, competitive team that contends for an NIT berth should be enough to please supporters of a program that lost 12 of its final 14 games last season.