Conference Catchup: With Zeller back, Indiana looks like Big Ten's best

by | College Basketball Insider

Trey Burke's return to Ann Arbor makes Michigan a Final Four contender. (Getty Images)  
Trey Burke's return to Ann Arbor makes Michigan a Final Four contender. (Getty Images)  

The conference was strong last season with six teams reaching the NCAA tournament. That should be the case again despite the loss of guys like Jared Sullinger, Draymond Green, Robbie Hummel, Jordan Taylor, John Shurna, Meyers Leonard and Matt Gatens. Indiana is the preseason favorite following Cody Zeller's decision to return for his sophomore campaign, but the Hoosiers will have plenty of competition.

Michigan is a Final Four contender with Trey Burke back in the fold, Tom Izzo still has plenty of talent, Wisconsin will overcome the loss of Taylor and Ohio State brings back Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft and a bunch of talented young guys who waited their turn. Don't sleep on a Minnesota team that returns star Trevor Mbakwe.

Offseason headlines

1. Indiana as Numero Uno: Cody Zeller could have left Bloomington and been a lottery pick, but his return -- along with the arrival of a highly touted freshman class -- has many picking Tom Crean's Hoosiers as the No. 1 team in the land entering the 2012-13 campaign. Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls and Will Sheehey are all back, Mo Creek is set to return from his latest injury -- and incoming point guard Yogi Ferrell should step in immediately and provide a major upgrade in the backcourt.

2. Trey Burke's return in Ann Arbor: Michigan's freshman point guard was on the verge of leaving but decided to come back to school -- and the Wolverines went from a fringe Top 25 club to a Final Four contender. Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. will anchor the backcourt and coach John Beilein will add talent up front. The key may be replacing the leadership of Zack Novak and Stu Douglass.

3. Return of Mbakwe: Tubby Smith brings back just about everyone of note from last year's team, but the key is Trevor Mbakwe -- who will return after missing nearly all of last season because of a torn ACL. Mbakwe is a relentless rebounder who is a star if he returns at or near 100 percent.

4. Groce at Illinois: Bruce Weber was jettisoned and replaced by former Ohio University head man John Groce. The Illini lost big man Meyers Leonard, but still have decent talent -- and it'll be interesting to see how Groce and his staff fare on the recruiting trail. Navigating the perilous Chicago region is what kept guys like Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens from taking the job.

Big question that remains

How good is George Marshall? Marshall is the likely heir apparent to Jordan Taylor in Madison and the Badgers are extremely high on the redshirt freshman out of Chicago. Bo Ryan has enough experience and talent that Marshall could be the difference maker.

NBA Draft report

Could've gone and did: Meyers Leonard (Illinois); Jared Sullinger (Ohio State)

Could've gone but stayed: Cody Zeller (Indiana), Christian Watford (Indiana), Trey Burke (Michigan); Deshaun Thomas (Ohio State)


Coming: Sam McLaurin (Illinois from Coastal Carolina, eligible immediately), Rayvonte Rice (Illinois from Drake), Terran Petteway (Nebraska from Texas Tech), Jared Swopshire (Northwestern from Louisville, eligible immediately)

Going: Evan Smotrycz (Michigan to Maryland), Carlton Brundidge (Michigan), Colton Christian (Michigan), Chip Armelin (Minnesota to Southern Mississippi), Jorge Brian Diaz (Nebraska), Josiah Moore (Nebraska), Jordan Sibert (Ohio State to Dayton), JD Weatherspoon (Ohio State to Toledo), Peter Alexis (Penn State to Philly University), Matt Glover (Penn State to San Francisco), Trey Lewis (Penn State to Cleveland State), Kelsey Barlow (Purdue), John Hart (Purdue to IUPUI), Jared Utholff (Wisconsin)

Team commentary in 140 characters or less

Indiana: The Hoosiers have most of their key pieces back -- including Cody Zeller -- and also bring in one of the nation's top recruiting classes.

Michigan: Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. comprise one of the nation's top backcourts and John Beilein will add a heralded recruiting class that includes Mitch McGary, Trey Robinson and Nick Stauskas.

Michigan State: The loss of Draymond Green obviously hurts, but Tom Izzo still has talent with Keith Appling, Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson and gifted freshman Gary Harris.

Ohio State: Jared Sullinger is gone, but the Buckeyes have Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft back -- and look for LaQuinton Ross to emerge next season for Thad Matta & Co.

Wisconsin: Have I told you how much I love incoming freshman Sam Dekker? He's not a point guard, but he'll help make up for the loss of Jordan Taylor.

Minnesota: Trevor Mbakwe will be back -- and Tubby Smith returns just about everyone else of note for the Golden Gophers.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes return five of their top six scorers. That's the good news. The one loss, though, is star Matt Gatens -- who led Fran McCaffery's team in scoring last season. Iowa still has plenty of good, young talent.

Purdue: Robbie Hummel graduated after 16 seasons in West Lafayette. Now it's time for the young guys -- Terone Johnson and Anthony Johnson -- to step up.

Northwestern: The Wildcats will haves to find a way to replace John Shurna. Drew Crawford will have to do even more than he did a year ago -- and freshman point guard Dave Sobolewski will need to improve from a strong season a year ago.

Illinois: John Groce takes over an Illinois club that lost Meyers Leonard early to the NBA, but he'll have experienced guards with Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson to build around.

Penn State: Tim Frazier is a star, but he needs more help. Fellow guard Jermaine Marshall will need to produce even more than he did last year for the Nittany Lions to take a significant step forward.

Nebraska: Tim Miles took over for Doc Sadler and he'll have his work cut out for him this season. There's not a ton left in the cupboard.

Early guess at the top six in the league

1. Indiana
2. Michigan
3. Michigan State
4. Ohio State
5. Wisconsin
6. Minnesota

Early guess at the all-conference team

G: Trey Burke (Michigan)
G: Aaron Craft (Ohio State)
F: Deshaun Thomas (Ohio State)
F: Trevor Mbakwe (Minnesota)
C: Cody Zeller (Indiana)

Final thought

The top six are strong and there isn't much disparity. After that, there appears to be a significant drop-off. We'll see how Indiana does with the target on its back. How will Michigan's Trey Burke fare as the de facto leader in Ann Arbor? Who will step into Draymond Green's role in East Lansing? The Big Ten has lost some terrific veterans, but the league has also added talented youngsters to keep an eye on: Yogi Ferrell (Indiana), Gary Harris (Michigan State), Sam Dekker (Wisconsin).


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