CHICAGO — Six years ago, Big Ten basketball was perceived as too slow, too defensive and too boring, kind of like the current rhetoric surrounding its football counterpart.
The league was in the midst of its annual crushing in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. But the Big Ten brought in new coaches with winning pedigrees and aggressive recruiting styles in Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota and Iowa. The league started to beat the once-dominant ACC in the challenge, a streak that now reaches three straight years. Players were recognized among college basketball's best.
Entering the 2012-13 season, the Big Ten is considered the apex of college basketball. Three teams rank among the top five, and five are ranked in the top 21. Another received votes by national coaches.
"I would say this is sort of a culmination of a build," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said. "We've been pretty good over the last three of four years recruiting good players, coaching good players, retaining good players and so you know, we're going into the season with a lot of optimism."
Indiana is the consensus top-ranked team nationally, returning every starter on a Sweet Sixteen team and added a top-flight point guard in Yogi Ferrell. Last year's tri-champions — Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State — all bring back a nucleus of talent. Minnesota returns virtually its entire lineup from an NIT finalist and adds the Big Ten's 2011 's leading rebounder in Trevor Mbakwe, who earned a sixth year after tearing an ACL last December. Wisconsin, which also advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, returns its core — minus point guard Jordan Taylor.
"I think right now this league has the best coaches we've ever had," Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said.
Indiana Coach Tom Crean took over the Hoosiers amid massive turmoil in 2008. He features the league's preseason player of the year in sophomore center Cody Zeller. He also boasts depth, multiple scoring threats and solid defenders.
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Yet Crean, whose team finished 27-9 last year, won't admit to favored status. The Hoosiers were 11-7 in league play last year, two games behind the tri-champions.
"When you look at this league, I don't think you can do anything, in my mind, but look at the fact that Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State won the championship last year and until somebody unseats them, that's the way it is," Crean said. "It's a new season and all that, but those teams didn't get any worse. They're probably even a little bit better."
Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State all return their point guards and several key scorers from their program. Michigan brings back preseason all-Big Ten guard Trey Burke, streaky scorer Tim Hardaway Jr., and adds highly regarded forwards Mitch McGeary and Glenn Robinson Jr. Ohio State boasts two preseason all-Big Ten candidates — guard Aaron Craft and forward DeShaun Thomas — and unheralded but effective shooting guard Lenzelle Smith.
With point guard Keith Appling, post Adriean Payne and other pieces returning, Michigan State is poised to defend their league title. Sophomore guard Branden Dawson, who suffered a season-ending ACL tear last March, returns healthy. Freshman guard Gary Harris could be the nation's top incoming player and might replace NBA draft pick Draymond Green as the Spartans' top scoring option.
"He's been better than I thought he would be, shooting better than I he would, and picks up things so fast," Izzo said.
Minnesota slumped in the regular season but rallied to play for the NIT title and finished 23-15. The Gophers return every key player but one, and Mbakwe brings a toughness to rebounding.
"Once Minnesota got Mbakwe back, it puts them back into the mix," Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. "All those young guys last year really developed and went to the NIT finals. Now they get a pro back."
McCaffery earned praise from his colleagues for rebuilding the Hawkeyes into a competitor. Iowa finished 18-17 last year — its first winning record since 2007 — and beat four ranked opponents. With a solid core returning plus top-100 freshmen Adam Woodbury and Mike Gesell, the Hawkeyes are considered a league dark horse.
"Fran has done a great job at Iowa, and that's going to be a significant jump," Izzo said.
Instead of eschewing the expectations of jumping into the fray, McCaffery relishes it.
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"I think I would be foolish not to embrace that," McCaffery said. "I prefer to be much more optimistic. A lot of coaches try to temper any level of enthusiasm to take the pressure off themselves. I prefer to challenge or team and our players."
It's a challenge all right. The Big Ten, once considered stodgy, slow and uncool, now is the toast of the nation. That is, until tip-off next month.
"The only thing more unreliable than a halftime score is no score," Delany said. "But I think we've got a lot of programs in very good shape."