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.
4. Michigan State: The backcourt of Appling and Harris pairs with a sizeable frontline in 6-9, 270-pound Derrick Nix and 6-10, 240-pound Adreian Payne, but the health of sophomore forward Branden Dawson, who tore his ACL in the Spartans' regular-season finale, could be the x-factor. While Dawson recently told reporters he's more explosive than he was before undergoing surgery, Izzo has said he is "leery" of the situation for now and it seems Dawson is unlikely to be rushed into a larger role than he can handle. Given his outstanding work on the offensive glass (his 13.3 percent offensive rebounding rate led Big Ten qualifiers last season) and ability to defend multiple positions, the Spartans will undoubtedly be a better team when Dawson is at full strength, whenever that may be.
5. Wisconsin: The Badgers have finished in the Big Ten's top four in each of Bo Ryan's 11 seasons, but the already-difficult task of doing so again got even harder with news that point guard Josh Gasser will miss this season with a torn ACL. Finding steady point guard play -- likely from redshirt freshman George Marshall -- to replace Gasser, who himself was replacing Jordan Taylor, will be imperative. The team's strength will be their senior-laden frontline, with forwards Ryan Evans and Mike Brusewitz (once he recovers from a leg laceration) and center Jared Berggren, who are joined by Sam Dekker, a 6-7 wing and rare five-star signee who could help right away.
6. Minnesota: Between an encouraging NIT finals run, the aforementioned emergence of Andre Hollins, and the return of forward Trevor Mbakwe, it's hard to imagine the Golden Gophers not improving on last year's ninth-place finish. If Mbakwe is healthy enough to be the player who has averaged 13.9 points and 10.3 rebounds per game since the start of the 2010-11 season and Hollins's strong finish carries over into a new season, this should be the best team of Tubby Smith's tenure. But the caveat for Hollins carries over to the Gophers at large: they will need to take better care of the ball, having ranked 301st nationally in turnover rate last season.
7. Iowa: Fran McCaffery's second season in Iowa City was an up-and-down affair in which the Hawkeyes beat Wisconsin (twice), Indiana, and Michigan, but finished 18-17 overall and dropped home games to Nebraska and Campbell. If Iowa can avoid similar let-downs this season, it has a chance to build early momentum with a soft nonconference slate as players like Devyn Marble (11.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.6 apg) and Aaron White (11.1 ppg, top-10 in the conference in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate) continue to improve. In bigger need of improvement is one of the country's most porous two-point defenses, which allowed opponents to score at a league-worst 51.8 percent clip last season.
8. Northwestern: Finally earning a spot in the NCAA tournament will be difficult unless the Wildcats improve a lackluster defense. But more troubling given that weakness might be their ranking in the bottom 30 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage last season. The Wildcats should get some help in that department from 6-8 Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire, who was 11th in the Big East in defensive rebounding percentage in 2009-10, but he can only do so much. The emergence of a second scoring option to pair with Drew Crawford (16.1 ppg, 41.2 percent from three) after John Shurna's graduation will also be needed for the Wildcats to finally get off the bubble.
9. Purdue: Can D.J. Byrd remain one of the conference's most efficient offensive players while being counted on as more than a complementary player? His offensive efficiency rating last year ranks second among Big Ten returnees -- thanks in large part to 43.0 percent three-point shooting and a low, low 8.3 percent turnover rate -- in 19.5 minutes per game. How he and junior Terone Johnson shoulder the load while a solid recruiting class -- including new point guard and Johnson's younger brother, Ronnie -- gets up to speed will determine whether the Boilermakers can stay on track in a rebuilding year.
10. Illinois: New coach John Groce has said he wants to establish an up-tempo attack, but conceded he might not yet have the ballhandling to do so. What he does have is guard Brandon Paul, who famously poured in 43 points against Ohio State but, to considerably less fanfare, also scored four points or fewer four times. Paul and fellow senior guard D.J. Richardson can be a nice duo, but the Illini need someone to emerge in the frontcourt to avoid a rough transitional season.
11. Penn State: With a void to be filled after Talor Battle's graduation, Tim Frazier came up in a big way last year, averaging 18.8 points, 6.2 assists, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.4 steals per game while ranking 10th nationally in possession usage and second in assist rate. The Nittany Lions will again need every bit of production they can get from Frazier, though some help arrives in the form of Southern Mississippi transfer D.J. Newbill, a 6-4 wing who was an efficient scorer and offensive rebounder in a limited role as a freshman in 2010-11.
12. Nebraska: Tim Miles is an exciting hire, but it took him a few years to win at Colorado State: His first Rams team went 7-25 before increasing its win total in each of his five seasons and reaching the NCAA tournament and winning 20 games last season. For his first season in Lincoln, Miles inherits a roster with just two returning regulars -- forward Brandon Ubel and guard Dylan Talley -- from last season's tied-for-last-place squad, which means a chance to turn the page but also plenty of growing pains before Miles gets the program trending upward.