Miss us? Well we’re back. This week we’ll be previewing the six major conferences, beginning with the Big Ten.
1- Indiana. Not only will they be the team to beat in the Big Ten, but they will likely begin the season ranked No. 1 in the country. The Hoosiers bring back most of their team, including some talented newcomers, that went 27-9 in a breakout year last season. Cody Zeller, perhaps the favorite to win the Naismith Award, is back to man the middle, with Indiana also returning three more players that averaged at least 10 points per game (Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls, Victor Oladipo). This is as deep as any team in the nation, as Indiana will have Yogi Ferrell compete for the starting point guard position with Hulls. In what will likely be a 10 or 11-man rotation, the Hoosiers will likely get back Maurice Creek, who has had his share of injuries three years removed from leading Indiana in scoring. This may be Indiana’s best chance at getting back to the Final Four, and anything less would be considered a disappointment.
2- Michigan. I’m a firm believer that the Wolverines have the best backcourt in the country in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. Those two led Michigan to a 24-10 record a year ago, both scoring over 14 points a game. With Burke opting to come back for his sophomore year, expectations will be high in Ann Arbor. The frontcourt is a different story, as they had several graduate, but Mitch McGary will likely start down low and I think he will be one of the best freshmen in the conference. Burke and Hardaway, Jr. will lead the way, but for the Wolverines to make a run this season they will need guys like McGary and Glenn Robinson III to not play like freshmen.
3-Ohio State. The Buckeyes come into the 2012-13 season with maybe more question marks than anyone. Graduating Jared Sullinger will certainly hurt, but they also lost another solid starter in Willam Buford. But if Deshaun Thomas does what he did in last year’s NCAA Tournament, then there may not be much of a reason to worry. Thomas scored at least 14 points in four of Ohio State’s five tourney games, including 31 in their opening-round win over Loyola. He will get the ball often from Aaron Craft, who may be the best floor-general in the country. For the Buckeyes youngsters, including Shannon Scott and Amir Williams, it will be trial-by-fire because Thad Matta will need them to contribute right away.
4-Michigan State. The Spartans return most of their team, except of course Draymond Green, who was an All-American last year in his senior season. Replacing a player of Green’s caliber is tough, but Tom Izzo will look to Keith Appling to step up his production for his junior year, as he is the leading returning scorer at 11.4 a game. Branden Dawson, Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix all averaged at least seven a game, but Nix is coming off a rocky summer as he was involved in a drug arrest. Michigan State has one of the deepest teams in the country, along with Indiana, and will also look from solid production from freshman Gary Harris. Losing Green won’t be the end of the world for a Wolverine team as deep as any they’ve recently had.
5- Wisconsin. Even without Jordan Taylor, the Badgers will still contend for a top-five spot in the Big Ten thanks to Ryan Evans, a swingman who averaged 11 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds a year ago. Jared Berggren (10.5 ppg., 4.9 rpg) will also be back, but Sam Dekker is who they’re really excited about in Madison. The talented freshman will likely make an instant impact, as he was rated the No. 17 recruit in the nation by ESPN.
Cody Zeller – The 7-foot big man did a little bit of everything last year, averaging over 15 points and six rebounds, while also getting one steal and one block per game. That was in his freshman year, and we can expect a big improvement for Zeller’s sophomore year. It has been said for five years that Cody is the most talented of the Zeller brothers, and with his older brothers graduated, the spotlight is on Cody to prove he’s not only the best Zeller, but the best player in the nation.
Trevor Mbakwe– Now in his sixth, yup sixth, year at Minnesota, this selection all depends on Mbakwe’s health. After already missing two years due to injury, he only played ten games last year, averaging a near double-double with 14 points and 9.1 rebounds. Last year it was his ACL, but he appears like he will be ready to go by the start of the season. If he’s fully healthy, a spot on the first-team Big Ten seems like a lock.
Aaron Craft– Is there a better point guard in the nation? You could argue Murray State’s Isaiah Canaan, but he is also counted on as the Racers’ go-to scorer.Pierre Jackson and Shabazz Napier are two more popular names, but I’m not sure if anyone brings what Craft brings. He’s not known for his scoring (8.8 ppg.) but with 4.6 assists to only 2.2 turnovers a game, Craft does a good job of managing the game. What he’s best known for is his ability to be a shut-down defender, averaging 2.5 steals a game a year ago. Thad Matta may count on more offense this season from Craft, but his defense will still be there.
Trey Burke– Perhaps the most talented freshman guard in the nation last year, Burke decided to come back for his sophomore year. He helped fuel a Michigan turnaround with nearly 15 points and five assists a game, and as a sophomore he will look to lead the Wolverines deep into the NCAA Tournament. He has a ton of weapons around him, and if he matures and improves on his decision maker, Burke could challenge Craft as the best point guard in the conference.
Deshaun Thomas– You can count on Thomas to provide the scoring that is lost for Ohio State after Jarred Sullinger’s departure. He scored 16 points a game a year ago with Sullinger, and for the incredibly athletic forward, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he upped that to the low-20s. Ohio State will need that out of Thomas, as they will be a very inexperienced team besides him and Craft.
Most Undervalued Team
Iowa– With 18 wins a year ago, I wouldn’t be surprised for the Hawkeyes to make a big splash this season. This will be a young team, likely starting two freshman, a sophomore and two juniors, and they lost their leading scorer in Matt Gatens, but the youngsters will carry them. The good thing for those young players is an easy schedule to begin the year. It would be tough for the Hawkeyes to go undefeated in their non-conference slate, but all of their games appear to be winnable. Iowa has a solid backcourt in Josh Oglesby and Roy Marble, and the frontcourt will be led by freshman center Adam Woodbury, a top-40 recruit, along with Aaron White. Iowa usually isn’t a team mentioned with the best of the Big Ten, but this team has all the talent to be in the top half of the conference and grab an NCAA Tournament berth.
Most Overrated Team
Northwestern– I don’t see Northwestern repeating their surprising year from last year when they went 19-14. 20-point per game John Shurma is gone, and starting two-guard JerShon Cobb has been suspended for the season for a violation of team policy. Drew Crawford will carry the scoring load, but I’m not sure if they have much behind him. They have two transfers manning their frontcourt in Jared Swopshire and Nikola Cerina, two guys who never did much impressing at their previous schools. David Sobolewski will be one quality big man for the Wildcats, but I just don’t think they have enough pieces to make a run at the NCAA Tournament. Even last year they didn’t impress me, only beating one ranked team all season. With losing their go-to guy, the 2012-13 season won’t be as pretty for Northwestern.
Sleeper Impact Player
Maurice Creek– The Indiana junior could be a huge x-factor this year for the Hoosiers. Three years ago when IU was the laughingstock of the Big Ten, Creek averaged 16 points a game in his freshman season. He got hurt just before Big Ten play began, and was out the rest of the season. He wasn’t his normal self for his sophomore season, clearly not at 100 percent. He only played half of that year, and none the past season. Creek appears to be healthy now, and no one expects him to average 16 points a game, but he still be a big weapon off the bench for the Hoosiers. If he stays healthy, Creek is a guy who provide 10 points a game in a reserve role. IU is a deep team, and to have a guy like Creek as your 7th or 8th man on the bench, they will be in good shape.
Michigan’s John Beilein, like Indiana’s Tom Crean, helped turnaround a dismal Michigan basketball program. But the thing with the Wolverines, no one quite expected it. They should be one of the top teams in the conference this year because a load of depth. They have stars in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., but also quality freshmen that will make this a special team. Michigan won their first Big Ten title since 1986 last season, and though they may not win it this year, they will be right in the thick of the race.
Photos courtesy of Fox59.com and whenlarrymetmagic.com