Big Ten Summer Roundup: Zeller, Thomas returns make big impact

Publish date:

There is no power conference more stable than the Big Ten. It retained its membership amid realignment chaos, and enough of its best players stayed out of the 2012 NBA draft to ensure that the league will have three Final Four contenders and at least six NCAA tournament teams.

Maybe next time: Because Cody Zeller decided that he "wasn't ready to grow up yet," he passed on being a Lottery Pick (and getting drafted ahead of his older brother Tyler) in favor of playing at least one more season at Indiana. The 7-foot sophomore is the lead candidate for preseason player of the year honors -- coaches in CBS' poll already tabbed him as the "most coveted" player -- and he'll make the Hoosiers the No. 1 or 2 team in most preseason polls. They already sold out of their full allotment of 12,400 student season tickets, which is the first time student sales have cracked the 7,800 mark since 2003. Indiana regularly sets student-attendance records, but still -- it helps to have a Cody Zeller.

Great minds think alike: A league that already boasted the best top-to-bottom collection of coaching minds added two more when Illinois hired John Groce to replace Bruce Weber and Nebraska brought in Tim Miles to succeed Doc Sadler. Groce just took Ohio to the Sweet 16 and knows the league from his days as a well-respected assistant at Ohio State, while Miles was savvy enough to build winners in the backwaters of North Dakota State and Colorado State. Getting the Huskers to the NCAA tournament will be Miles' toughest task of all; while he can't recruit much on tradition, he can sell a ridiculous practice facility and the promise of an equally nice arena in 2013-14.

Coincidence? Probably not: Jarrod Uthoff is the most famous redshirt freshman in America thanks to the publicity from his transferring-out-of-Wisconsin saga, which became a major Internet (then radio, then TV) debate topic during a slow news week in April. Badgers coach Bo Ryan took heat for the way it was handled at the start -- having too many restrictions and giving one rough interview -- but the curious ending didn't get enough attention. After UW pared down its transfer restrictions to the standard anywhere-but-our-conference plan, Uthoff chose ... to still go to a Big Ten school, Iowa, and pay his own way for a year. And a few of the coaches re-recruiting him believed that he wanted to go home to Iowa the whole time, which raises two reasonable questions:

Did the initial breadth of UW's transfer-ban list even matter? And, given Uthoff or any related third parties were restricted from communicating with Iowa before or during the transfer process, are we supposed to believe that a top-100 recruit chose to turn down scholarship offers from Creighton, Florida, Iowa State and Marquette in favor of paying his way at Iowa, without having exchanged a single word with the staff, or getting any assurances of how he fit into the Hawkeyes' plans for 2013-14 and beyond? That's about as difficult to digest as the notion that the NCAA's transfer rules have student-athletes' best interests in mind.

(But given that the Badgers' likely starting two-guard was a somewhat controversial gift from Iowa's post-Todd Lickliter transition ... I guess things have pretty much evened out between the two schools, personnel-wise.)

The league is lagging in early Class of 2013 recruiting, but that may be in part because only four of Rivals' top-50 recruits even hail from Big Ten country: No. 1 overall prospect Jabari Parker (Chicago, uncommitted), No. 8 James Young (Troy, Mich., uncommitted), No. 37 Kendrick Nunn (Chicago, uncommitted) and No. 42 Marc Loving (Toledo, Ohio, committed to Ohio State). Michigan State is the only Big Ten team still in the mix on Parker, and the Spartans are believed to have a realistic shot at landing him. He is, as his ranking suggests, a game-changing scorer on the wing.

In the meantime, would you believe that Northwestern, of all Big Ten teams, has landed the biggest Class of 2013 game-changer to date? That would be New Jersey point guard Jaren Sina, the first four-star recruit of the 13-year Bill Carmody era. New NU assistant Fred Hill, formerly seen at Rutgers, did the heavy lifting on Sina, who plays for his father in a Princeton offense similar to what the Wildcats run. Sina and David Sobolewski should give NU a seriously good point-guard duo in 2013-14.

In late March, the NCAA granted a sixth year of eligibility to Minnesota power forward Trevor Mbakwe, who tore his ACL in the ninth game of what he expected to be his senior season. If Mbakwe gets back to his old form -- he's still rehabbing from December surgery, but was a 14-and-9 guy when healthy -- he'll be the league's dominant four-man and make Minnesota a strong candidate for an NCAA tournament bid. He is, at the moment, the Big Ten's biggest X-Factor.

1. Indiana: The Hoosiers are not going to have the league's best defense; either Ohio State, Wisconsin or Michigan State is bound to claim that title. But IU should have such a potent offense -- it was already No. 4 in the nation last season, and if Tom Crean makes good on his plans to find more creative uses for Zeller, freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell can get him the ball, and junior Victor Oladipo continues to blossom, it will get even better -- that it'll finish as the league's most efficient team. (And that's synonymous with best team.)

2. Ohio State: Thank you, Deshaun Thomas, for staying in school so we can enjoy a season of you as the Buckeyes' unrestricted No. 1 scoring option. He never got the attention that Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft did last season, but Thomas is so shot-happy that he could lead the Big Ten in that category and emerge as a surprise All-America. OSU's success will ultimately driven by its D, though. Craft is the country's premiere backcourt defender and two-guard Lenzelle Smith creates plenty of turnovers, too -- it's just that, playing alongside Craft, it's hard for Smith to get much recognition.

3. Michigan: Its rival in East Lansing is a candidate for this spot, too, but Draymond Green was such a do-everything leader that I worry about what'll happen in the first season after his departure. (See UConn's post-Kemba Walker struggles as an example). The Wolverines have concerns of their own, chiefly that John Beilein's very three-point-dependent system just lost its two best long-range shooters, Zack Novak and Evan Smotrycz. But they've assembled so much talent -- including elite point guard Trey Burke and instant-impact freshmen Glen Robinson III and Mitch McGary -- that it's hard to imagine them not finding a way to be a top-15 team nationally.