|Tom Crean led his Indiana Hoosiers to a 27-9 record and a Sweet 16 berth in 2011-12. (Getty Images)|
Before I make the case for Indiana being the team most worthy of a preseason top ranking, let's take a minute to note that the program is even in this position. It's not that the Hoosiers have reached a point often hoped for under Tom Crean. No, this goes beyond Crean.
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So what makes these Hoosiers worth the hype? Why is Indiana the best heading into next year? For starters, almost every player of impact returns to the team. Though three seniors were lost, Verdell Jones was the only one of the three who had an impact, and even then Indiana fared well last season when he was hurt.
The biggest name returning for Indiana is Cody Zeller, who'll no doubt be named a preseason first-team All-American. Much has been made already of Zeller's offseason workouts. Already a multi-talented player, he's putting on the kind of muscle weight that will help him put some heft into his play around the rim. Christian Watford also passed up on the NBA to come back and give Indiana its best chance at a title since the 1980s. Watford, remember, hit one of the biggest shots in school history last December, when IU knocked off Kentucky at Assembly Hall. He and Zeller combined to average 28.2 points and 12.4 rebounds per game last season. Those figures will likely increase in 2012-13.
|Last season: 27-9 (lost to UK in Sweet 16)|
|Lost: Verdell Jones, Tom Pritchard|
|Return: Cody Zeller, Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls, Victor Oladipo, Will Sheehey, Maurice Creek, Remy Abell|
|Notable newcomers: Yogi Ferrell, Hanner Perea, Jeremy Hollowel|
Beyond that, Crean again will have athletic freak and wild card Victor Oladipo; few teams have a change-of-pace player the likes of this junior guard. Senior Jordan Hulls returns as a veteran sharpshooter, and last year's best sixth man in college basketball, Will Sheehey, is back as well.
All of this presents a strong case for Indiana going into the season as No. 1, but what really separates the Hoosiers from Kentucky and Louisville is its incoming class, which is nearly as strong as UK's. The big pickup is point guard Yogi Ferrell, who some believe is the second best point guard in the 2012 class. And providing Indiana with additional balance will be Hanner Mosquera-Perea at the four spot and four-star recruit Jeremy Hollowell at three. There's even promise in 7-foot freshman center Peter Jurkin.
So the team is positively stuffed with players. And that's all we can grade on right now, yes? It has experience and has won big games. And the Hoosiers' Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky last year? About as competitive and entertaining as a 102-90 finish could be.
A season later, Kentucky (again) has lost everyone from a team that had an incongruous mix of youth with good preparation, work ethic and talent. It's unclear whether John Calipari can mold this new group into something as cohesive and downright mature as last year's.
And Louisville? As with Indiana, a lot of pieces return -- but I think IU is more talented. We all remember how bad Louisville was on offense for much of last season. That was never a problem for Indiana, which was ranked fourth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. The Hoosiers were not stellar but good defensively, allowing .95 points per possession. Any improvement in that department and it won't matter what the preseason rankings say, because the Hoosiers will undoubtedly keep themselves atop the polls by attacking on both ends of the court.