The Hoosiers won't be back to their traditional level of excellence quite yet, but things are looking up in Bloomington. Highly regarded freshman Cody Zeller arrives this season and IU currently has the No. 1 rated recruiting class for 2012. Zeller will join a very young core -- one that includes efficient scorers Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls -- that gained significant experience last season. IU's overall efficiency numbers weren't bad last season, but they were hurt badly by opponents from the three-point and free throw line, which can happen to a young team without much size. IU foes took one free throw for every two field goal attempts and made over 70 percent of them. Losing Maurice Creek to injury didn't help, either. As long as Tom Crean can hold on to the 2012 recruits, this might not be a make-or-break season for him, but with the specter of Brad Stevens looming (at least in the eyes of the fan base), a little pressure on the coaching staff to deliver can't hurt.
The Hawkeyes' situation isn't that far from Indiana's (minus the forthcoming top class in the nation). They had an extremely young team that was adjusting to new coach Fran McCaffery's preferred up-tempo style after three seasons of Todd Lickliter. For a young, moderately undersized team that plays that kind of style, Iowa didn't foul very much while just falling short of a top-50 defensive efficiency rating nationally. That bodes very well for a roster that returns practically everybody from last season. The Hawkeyes went 2-7 last season in games decided by five points or less, including five losses by three points each. If Bryce Cartwright can be a bit more of an efficient scorer and Big Ten all-freshman team big man Melsahn Basabe continues to blossom, this version of the Runnin' Hawkeyes could be much improved.
The "Team Bubble Watch" moniker very well may be passed to a successor this season after two years of the Golden Eagles wearing the crown proudly. Marquette won 25 games and made the Sweet 16 last season despite well below-average statistical luck and has a chance to be really good this season. Most preseason projections have the Golden Eagles as a top-20 team with good reason. Despite losing Jimmy Butler and Dwight Buycks, there is ample returning talent, led by Darius Johnson-Odom, Jae Crowder, Junior Cadougan, Chris Otule and Vander Blue. The Big East will be its normal daunting gauntlet, although there isn't as much top-end firepower as some recent seasons. With this collection of experienced talent, perhaps coach Buzz Williams won't have to rely on such heavy preparation for end-game situations. The Golden Eagles should win more games more comfortably, which should help their luck quotient improve. Fewer close games means fewer chances for close losses.
The Lobos went through a bit of a transitional year last season, having lost Darington Hobson and Roman Martinez, only getting UCLA transfer Drew Gordon for the second semester and only getting 144 minutes from Tennessee transfer Emmanuel Negedu, who has had to quit basketball for health reasons. They were still a decent team that won 21 games while being statistically unlucky. Both of those things have a chance to improve this season if the Lobos can find a solid replacement for departed point guard Dairese Gary. Gordon should be very good again this season and keep an eye on sophomore Kendall Williams, who was an extremely efficient scorer for a freshman guard in a strong league last season. With BYU moving to the West Coast Conference and San Diego State suffering significant personnel losses, the opportunity is there for New Mexico to challenge UNLV for the conference crown.
The Billikens' misfortune began early when lead guard Kwamain Mitchell and center Willie Reed were suspended from school right before the start of fall practice. The Billikens also lost Aussie big man Cody Ellis during the season to a dislocated shoulder and coach Rick Majerus battled health complications as well. The end result was an extraordinarily young team, which had four freshmen with extremely high possession usage and shot rates, that lost a bunch of relatively tight games on its way to a 12-19 record. Now Mitchell is back and has been a strong contributor on their ongoing Canadian summer tour -- until an injury sidelined him last Friday night -- and the experience garnered by the youngsters last season should pay dividends in what should be a wide-open A-10 after the first three spots. The Billikens were expected to contend for an NCAA berth last season. Maybe that promise will be delivered one season later.