With five teams in the AP Top 25 preseason poll, the Big Ten looks to be the strongest conference for Division I men’s basketball. The upcoming 2012-2013 season could be the one to end the Big Ten’s 12-year NCAA Tournament championship drought.
1. Indiana – Preseason national rank: 1
It’s pretty easy to see why Indiana is number one in the Big Ten power rankings for three reasons. First, the Hoosiers are the No. 1 team in the nation according to the AP Top 25 poll. Second, they have Cody Zeller, who averaged 15.6 points per game last year and led the Big Ten in field goal percentage at 62.3 percent last season. He is arguably the best player in the country and a preseason All-American. Third, Indiana returns Victor Oladipo, one of the most feared defenders in the nation.
The Hoosiers also return all of their top five scorers from last season and the team brings in Top-50 freshman recruits Yogi Ferrell and Jeremy Hollowell.
Toughest non-conference games: vs. No. 11 North Carolina, vs. Georgetown, vs. No. 13 UCLA
2. Michigan – Preseason national rank: 5
Ohio State may be ranked higher in the preseason poll, but Michigan is a hard team not to love going into the season. While the Wolverines were hit hard with the loss of three seniors, including leader Zach Novak, there is hope for a bright season. The Wolverines have arguably the best backcourt in the nation with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. – Michigan’s leading scorers last season.
The Wolverines also bring in three Top-100 recruits, who will all immediately help out the frontcourt. Michigan has the potential to be a Final Four team, but will the Wolverines live up to expectations?
3. Ohio State – Preseason national rank: 4
The loss of Jared Sullinger is a big reason why Ohio State ranks lower than Michigan, but the Buckeyes do return one of the best players in the nation in Deshaun Thomas. He averaged nearly 16 points last year and 5.4 rebounds; those numbers are only expected to go up now that Thomas is the big dog in the frontcourt.
Ohio State also has one of the best point guards in the nation in Aaron Craft. While his numbers are not overwhelming – he averaged 8.8 points and 4.6 assists on average last year – the junior is a tremendous facilitator and probably the best defender in the nation.
The lack of young talent does hurt the Buckeyes moving forward, as the team did not manage to snag one Top-100 recruit.
Toughest non-conference games: vs. Marquette, at No. 8 Duke, vs. No. 7 Kansas
4. Michigan State – Preseason national rank: 14
Even with the loss of Draymond Green, Michigan State returns three of its starters from last year's Sweet 16 squad. Keith Appling should have a huge year for the Spartans. He was their second leading scorer last year at 11.4 points per game while shooting a respectable 78.8 percent from the foul line. However, the junior needs to get back on track from long range. After shooting an impressive 41 percent from behind the arc as a sophomore, Appling regressed to a lackluster 25 percent last year.
Watch out for Gary Harris, one of the best players coming out of high school. The 6-foot-4-inch shooting guard earned a starting spot within days of summer league basketball.
Toughest non-conference games: vs. No. 7 Kansas, at Miami (FL), vs. Texas
5. Wisconsin – Preseason national rank: 23
The Badgers lost their star player and NCAA tournament hero, point guard Jordan Taylor, so the question is who will step up? The point guard position is probably the hardest to replace. Head coach Bo Ryan is in a tough position as forward Mike Bruesewitz will be out for the beginning of the season with a leg injury and Josh Gasser, who was supposed to fill Taylor’s shoes, suffered a season-ending leg injury. While there are a few candidates for the job, the only natural point guard left on the roster is redshirt freshman George Marshall.
Expect the badgers to slip from their Top 25 ranking early on, but don’t expect the team to make it to a third straight Sweet 16 appearance.
Toughest non-conference games: at No. 10 Florida, at No. 16 Creighton, at Marquette
6. Minnesota – Unranked
The Golden Gophers got some great news in the offseason when Trevor Mbkawe was allowed to return for a sixth season. Last year the senior played in only played seven games after being sidelined with an injury. In 2011-2012, he averaged a double-double in points and rebounds. Mbkawe should dominate the low post in the Big Ten, especially with big men Draymond Green and Jared Sullinger leaving the conference.
The Golden Gophers are one of the more experienced teams in the Big Ten right now, so teams should be on upset alert against Minnesota.
Toughest non-conference games: vs. No. 8 Duke, at No. 25 Florida State, at USC
7. Iowa – Unranked
Last year was an improvement from head coach Fran McCaffery’s 2011 campaign, with the Hawkeyes finishing over .500. One of the most intriguing players on the roster is Roy Devyn Marble. He is listed as a point guard/small forward, an interesting combination. The 6-foot-6-inch junior creates matchup headaches for opposing defenses. With senior point guard Bryce Cartwright gone, expect Marble to run the offense.
The team needs to improve its free throw shooting. Last year, Iowa only had two players who averaged over 75 percent from the line, both of whom have graduated.
Toughest non-conference games: at Virginia Tech, vs. Western Kentucky, vs. Northern Iowa
8. Northwestern – Unranked
The Wildcats will dearly miss John Shurna’s production from last year. As a senior, Shurna averaged 20 points per game last season. Another blow was the loss of a junior guard and expected starter Jershon Cobb to a full-year suspension.
However, there is still hope for the Wildcats, who return three of their top five scorers from last season. Led by Drew Crawford, who averaged 16.1 points per game last year, the 'Cats look to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in the school’s history.
The 'Cats also acquired senior transferJared Swopshire from Louisville. The senior digressed from his productive sophomore season, but if he gets back on track, Swopshire could be one of Northwestern's premier players
Two 7-foot freshmen recruits should help add some size down low against some large Big Ten schools, as well.
Toughest non-conference games: at No. 19 Baylor, vs. Butler, vs. Stanford
9. Illinois – Unranked
Illinois returns its best player, Brandon Paul, a point guard who scores often and grabs rebounds. But the senior has a bit of a problem: last year, for every assist, he turned the ball over 1.2 times. That's a bad stat for a any player – but a horrible stat for a point guard.
New head coach John Groce has a tough test ahead of him. Senior center Meyers Leonard, and his 13 points per game, will be hard to replace.
Toughest non-conference games: vs. USC, at No. 21 Gonzaga, at No. 15 Missouri
10. Purdue – Unranked
The 2012-2013 season may be the first time since 2007 the Boilermakers do not make the NCAA tournament.
The leadership Robbie Hummel brought along with his 16.4 points per game will be hard to replace. Including Hummel, Purdue lost three of their top four starters to graduation and there is not a whole lot of talent to help put Purdue back on track.
On the 14-man roster, the Boilermakers only have five upperclassmen. Coach Matt Painter does bring a solid recruiting class with three Top-100 recruits, but a lack of experience won’t be for Purdue what it is for Kentucky.
Toughest non-conference games: vs. Villanova, at Eastern Michigan, at No. 22 Notre Dame
11. Penn State – Unranked
Take a look at the frontcourt, and Penn State is a NCAA tournament team – no questions asked. Tim Frazier is a stud, putting up 18.8 points last year and averaging over two steals per game. Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, basketball is played with five players on the court at all times.
Their best returning big man is Ross Travis. However, the sophomore takes too many three pointers, missing 93 percent of them, and is an awful free throw shooter. Teams with size and a solid presence on the block should have no problem beating the Nittany Lions.
Toughest non-conference games: vs. No. 6 NC State, vs. Penn, vs. Duquesne
12. Nebraska – Unranked
Five of the six leading scorers for the ‘Huskers last year are gone. The third leading scorer and returnee Dylan Talley is decent at best. Essentially, the Cornhuskers are Penn State without a decent frontcourt.
Someone who does stand out for Nebraska is new head coach Tim Miles. In his first year at Colorado State, he took a seven-win team to a 20-win team, leading them to an NCAA tournament.
While some teams might find themselves at a different place in the Big Ten standings at the end of the season, Nebraska will finish last – again.
Toughest non-conference games: at Wake Forest, vs. USC, vs. No. 16 Creighton