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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- With three teams ranked inside of the top five of most national polls- not including the conference's defending tournament champion- the Big Ten enters the 2012-13 basketball season with more hype than any other league in recent memory. Although conference play doesn't begin for almost another two months, with nine of the leagues top teams tipping off tomorrow.
Whether it's where teams are ranked, how many players they have returning, or the stars that their incoming recruits bring with them, numbers have played a big role in the big expectations that have been placed on the Big Ten this season. With that in mind, here is our preseason conference outlook, by the numbers.
5 All-Big Ten players
C- Cody Zeller, Indiana
F- Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State
F- Drew Crawford, Northwestern
G- Trey Burke, Michigan
G- Aaron Craft, Ohio State
Explanation: The first two on this list are givens. Both Zeller and Thomas passed on the NBA Draft last June in order to better their draft stocks, and many analysts are already projecting the former to be taken No. 1 overall in the 2013 draft. Zeller probably has the edge when it comes to naming a conference preseason player of the year, but regardless of how you view the two preseason All-Americans, it's hard to argue that neither player belongs on the preseason first team All-Big Ten list.
The second forward spot is a bit more debatable, but I ultimately decided to give the edge to Northwestern's Crawford, over Indiana's Christian Watford and Wisconsin's Ryan Evans. The fact of the matter is, Crawford is the undisputed most important player on his roster, while the same can't be said about Watford and Evans. Both of those players will likely see more team success than Crawford will, but if the Wildcats find themselves in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history, it will be because of the play of the senior swingman.
I'll be the first to admit that selecting two true point guards for both guard spots on the team is a bit of a cop out, but the reality is that it's just too difficult to choose one first-team player between Burke and Craft. What do you value you more: the 14.8 points that Burke provided the Wolverines with a season ago as a freshman or the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award the Craft earned as a sophomore? That debate is for a different day, but it's hard to say that either Burke or Craft are more or less valuable to their respective teams, as each are big reasons why both the Wolverines and Buckeyes have been projected as top five nationally-ranked teams.
4 freshmen to watch
Kevin Ferrell, point guard, Indiana
Nicknamed "Yogi," the five-star prospect from Indianapolis is the second signature recruit that Hoosiers coach Tom Crean has landed in as many seasons, and should combine with his first one, Zeller, to make for one of the deadliest duos in the conference, if not the nation. At 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, Ferrell is an excellent ball handler and should only add to the plethora of premiere point guards that exists within the Big Ten.
Mitch McGary, forward, Michigan
A four-star prospect from Chesterton, Ind., McGary is an athletic power forward who's decision to play for the Wolverines has helped Michigan earn a top five ranking heading into the season. At 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, McGary can play both inside and out of the post, and describes himself as a combination between Tyler Hansbrough and Lamar Odom. Paired with Burke, the high-energy forward could garner national attention early and often this season, as the Wolverines look to stay in the national title hunt.
Jeremy Hollowell, forward, Indiana
Even without Ferrell, the Hoosiers still could be looking at a top five team and potential Big Ten title contender, thanks to the addition of the 6-foot-8 swingman Hollowell. A native of Indianapolis, the four-star prospect ranks as the No. 41 overall recruit in the 2012 class and played a major factor in helping Crean secure the No. 5 overall rated class, according to Rivals. Having averaged 18.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game in his senior season at Lawrence Central high school, Hollowell will combine with Watford and Ferrell to give the Hoosiers a dynamic perimeter game to compliment the low-post threat Zeller.
Glenn Robinson III, forward, Michigan
The son of former Purdue star and the No. 1 overall pick in the 1994 NBA Draft, Glenn Robinson, Robinson III ranks as the No. 11 overall recruit in the 2012 class, and may be the most impressive recruit that John Beilein has brought to Michigan in his time in Ann Arbor. A 6-foot-7 swingman, Robinson is the No. 2 forward in the 2012 class, and will join McGary, Burke, and Tim Hardaway Jr. in what could be one of the most talented starting lineups in the country.
3 championship contenders
Notice how the previous two lists have been dominated by Hoosiers, Buckeyes, and Wolverines? There's a reason for that. All three of those teams find themselves ranked within the top five of both The Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today Coaches Poll polls, with each team making intriguing cases for their rankings, while still facing questions heading into the start of the season.
No. 1 Indiana
Why they're ranked where they are: One of only two teams to beat National Champion Kentucky a season ago, the Hoosiers have only gotten better, adding the No. 5 recruiting class in the country to a roster that already possesses an All-American center in Zeller, and an All-Big Ten caliber player in Watford. Crean will be without four-star prospect Hanner Perea and three-star center Peter Jurkin for the first nine games of the season, with both players suspended due to NCAA violations. but the talent that Indiana already possesses should be more than enough to make up for their absences before Big Ten play begins.
What needs to be answered: Blue chip talent typically translates better to the hardwood than it does to the gridiron, but the Hoosiers are counting on a lot of youth and inexperience to back-up their No. 1 ranking. As Jared Sullinger learned a year ago in Columbus, the Big Ten isn't always easier the second time around, and much of Indiana's success will depend on how Zeller responds to the added attention that he'll receive in the post this season.
No. 4 Ohio State
Why they're ranked where they are: Thad Matta's squad return eight scholarship players from last season's Final Four team, including starters in Thomas, Craft, and Lenzelle Smith Jr.. The Buckeyes are the most experienced and battle tested team in the Big Ten, and the return of Thomas will give them the best player on the floor on more nights than not throughout the season.
What needs to be answered: With the loss of Sullinger to the NBA and the program's third all-time leading scorer in William Buford, the Buckeyes have more than 32 points worth of production to make up for. Doing so will require Ohio State to get answers from several unproven, albeit talented, players, such as LaQuinton Ross and Amir Williams, but with Matta still unsure of his starting lineup less than a day before the Buckeyes' season opener, Ohio State could be in for some growing pains this season.
No. 5 Michigan
Why they're ranked where they are: With a projected starting lineup of Burke, Hardaway Jr., Robinson III, McGary, and Jordan Morgan, it'll be tough for opponents to match the talent that the Wolverines will be putting on the court, night in and night out. Burke was named a preseason All-American by a number of publications, and his return to Ann Arbor should keep Michigan on-track after what some would argue was an overachieving squad last season. If Robinson III and McGary can live up to the hype, then the Wolverines could be in line for one of its best seasons in program history.
What needs to be answered: As was often the case with Buford and the Buckeyes last season, Hardaway Jr. could hold the key to Michigan's success in 2012-13. The junior guard is a streaky shooter, who often goes for all or nothing, and can shoot his teams in or out of a game on any given night. Even with the talent he'll have surrounding him, Hardaway Jr. will need to rise to the occasion this year, and show more of what he did during his freshman season as opposed to his sophomore slump.
It's hard to believe that we've gotten this far into a Big Ten preview without mentioning Michigan State, but the Spartans have flown under the radar this offseason, earning the No. 14 ranking in both major college basketball polls. A big reason for the current lack of excitement surrounding East Lansing has to deal with the departure of Draymond Green, last season's Big Ten Player of the Year, but the Spartans still return key players Adreian Payne, Keith Appling, Branden Dawson, and Derrick Nix from last season's Big Ten regular season and tournament champion team. Given the success that Tom Izzo has found in his time at Michigan State, don't be surprised if the Spartans soon find themselves becoming the fourth top-10 nationally ranked team in the Big Ten.
Most would point to No. 23 Wisconsin or Matt Painter's always tough Purdue team as potential X-factors when it comes to conference play, but the one team that could really help add some depth to the league is IllinoisJohn Groce, who's just seven months removed from leading Ohio University to a Sweet 16 appearance, the Fighting Illini possess plenty of talent on their roster, especially with the backcourt of Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. If the Badgers and Boilermakers put together their usual solid seasons, and the Illini show signs of an instant turnaround under Groce, the Big Ten could truly be in for a special season.
1 Buckeye projection
While this is a Big Ten preview, the name of this site is, after all, Buckeye Grove, so why not try to predict how the Buckeyes season will play out?
With a tough preseason schedule that includes dates against Marquette, Duke, and Kansas, Matta's squad will certainly be battle tested heading into conference play. There, the Buckeyes will have to prove that they still have enough talent on their roster to hang with up and comers Indiana and Michigan State, as well as the established Spartans.
Having only watched the Buckeyes once this season, in their 83-71 exhibition win over Walsh, I feel confident in saying that they do have enough talent to compete for a fourth consecutive Big Ten championship, but I also expect some growing pains along the way, and would expect to see Matta's starting lineup shift at least once, as finding the right groupings on this team could take weeks, if not months.
I don't think that this year's Buckeyes have the star power to reach a second consecutive Final Four this season, however, I do believe that it will compete for a regular season Big Ten title until the final week of the season, and ultimately see this year's Ohio State team earning a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, en route to finishing the season with a Sweet 16 exit and a final record of 27-10.
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