Big Ten Primer: Indiana is league leader, but could others contend?
Cody Zeller will be in the running for Big Ten, national player of the year honors
The Super Bowl weekend showdown between Michigan, Indiana is a must-watch
Indiana will be tough to beat, but Ohio State could pose a challenge the Hoosiers
In preparation for the 2012-13 college hoops season, SI.com breaks down the best of the best in each of the six major conferences. Andy Glockner serves up his picks for Player of the Year, breakout candidate and more for the Big Ten.
With apologies to Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft, Trey Burke, and the rest of a deeply talented conference, it's hard to peg anyone as a better bet for this distinction than Zeller, who doubles as the favorite for national player of the year honors. The 7-footer's high-volume, highly efficient offensive game was more than advanced during his freshman season as he averaged 15.6 points on 62.3 percent shooting while grabbing 6.6 boards per game -- and now coach Tom Crean says Zeller is the Hoosiers' most improved player, which is bad news for the rest of the conference.
One of the top fits for Luke Winn's breakout sophomore formula, Hollins excelled in a permanent starting role down the stretch last season: In 10 straight starts, Hollins averaged 15.7 points (compared to 6.1 off the bench) on 41.0 percent shooting (versus 37.5 percent before). His already poor assist-to-turnover ratio dropped during that same stretch (0.81-to-1, down from 0.85-to-1), however, and he'll certainly need to take better care of the ball after his 25 percent turnover rate last year placed him 69th among the conference's 74 qualifying players. But a possible freshman-to-sophomore improvement to go with last year's strong finish would make for a big second year for Hollins.
The successor to Zeller as Indiana's Mr. Basketball is a 6-4, 205-pound, attacking scorer whom Tom Izzo described to ESPN as "one of those superstars who guards people," which sounds like a perfect fit for a team looking to replace the do-everything production of Draymond Green. How good of an athlete was Harris at Hamilton Southeastern High? He reportedly drew football offers from Notre Dame, Iowa, Indiana and Purdue. He should fit in well right away alongside Keith Appling in the Spartans' backcourt.
As usual, this conference offers plenty to choose from, but it will be hard to beat the atmosphere in Bloomington when Michigan visits on Super Bowl weekend. The teams split their two meetings last year and both bring back most of the key pieces from those squads plus two top-15 recruiting classes. Given the game's placement in the middle of the Big Ten slate, both should be hitting their stride as the regular season's stretch run begins. Factor in ESPN College GameDay's presence and a 9 p.m. start time and you should have an Assembly Hall that's ready to burst and a game that matches that energy level.
That's the Big Ten's winning percentage against other conferences last season, best in the nation. If that's too crude an estimation of the league's power for your tastes, perhaps its best-by-a-good-margin overall rating (bottom right here) based on Ken Pomeroy's tempo-free statistics will do the trick. It may not always be pretty -- a number of top-notch defenses and the 31st-ranking tempo of play can understandably turn off some viewers -- but this conference should remain the home of the best ball in the land.
The 13th-year coach's job is not necessarily in serious jeopardy, but several near-misses after flirting with the Wildcats' first-ever NCAA tournament berth only increase the pressure to finally come through. In a statement on Carmody's continued employment at the end of last season, athletic director Jim Phillips was sure to note that he was "not satisfied" with a fourth straight trip to the NIT. And given the program's even more restless fanbase, a disappointing season could prompt the administration to go in another direction.
This conference has a better chance than any to be well-represented deep into the tournament. It should be well-represented at the onset too, with Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State getting bids and Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Northwestern, and Purdue being in the mix as well. It's the first four that look like the contenders to make a run: The Hoosiers are the preseason No. 1, the Buckeyes and Wolverines have the ingredients to become special, and you could go broke betting against Tom Izzo in March.
1. Indiana: Nearly everyone who facilitated last season's sudden swing from incremental, sub-.500 improvement to the Sweet 16 team returns, which has spurred lofty expectations in Bloomington for the first time in a while. A fleet of big-minute returnees -- the all-everything Zeller, Christian Watford, Victor Oladipo, Jordan Hulls and Will Sheehey -- are joined by a top-10 recruiting class headlined by point guard Yogi Ferrell, a native Hoosier and McDonald's All-American who can run the break and initiate offense in the halfcourt. The Hoosiers' defense, which ranked 64th nationally and 41st among NCAA tournament teams in defensive efficiency, could use improvement, but this team is deep, talented, and well-coached enough to cut down some nets in the spring.
2. Ohio State: Craft is known primarily (and rightfully) as the nation's premier on-ball defender, but late last season he showed flashes of being a more assertive scorer, which would be a welcome development for a Buckeyes team which lost Sullinger and William Buford. Junior guard, Lenzelle Smith Jr. more than doubled his season scoring average (6.8 ppg) with 45 points in Ohio State's last three games and could be another offensive complement for player of the year candidate Deshaun Thomas. And don't sleep on the potential significance of sophomore Amir Williams, whose excellent rebounding rates in limited minutes as a freshman (a team-best 17 percent on offense and a second-to-Sullinger 22 percent on defense) will be pivotal if the Buckeyes are to continue their dominance on the boards.
3. Michigan: Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., the Wolverines' lone players to average double figures last season, are among the nation's most talented backcourts and will now be joined by a pair of highly touted freshman forwards in Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary. Despite his NBA pedigree, the 6-6 Robinson was not thought to be a major prospect when he signed two years ago, but now comes to Ann Arbor as a potential star who can score from multiple spots. The 6-10, 250-pound McGary, meanwhile, slipped from being near the top of recruiting rankings last summer to settling around the still-impressive No. 25 range, but should still offer a hard-nose post presence to aid Michigan's typically low offensive rebounding rate.