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Fast Break: Indiana back among nation's elite

Is Texas better without stars on the court this season under coach Rick Barnes?

When I was a young boy living in Tipton, Ind., you could pretty much count on three things: the corn harvest, Notre Dame football and Indiana basketball in the Top 25.


This was back when Bob Knight was Bobby Knight, of course. When people unironically wore neon-colored sunglasses. When it was cool to drive a Pontiac Fiero and blare Poison on the cassette player.


This was back when Indiana was still something to fear, and the Hoosiers lived off that 1987 national title for a good 10 years. It wasn't until Knight was gone that the Hoosiers stopped receiving the "courtesy ranking" in the AP poll every preseason.


It has been 20 years, give or take, since Indiana began its slide to the middle, and yet here the Hoosiers are, ranked No. 1 again. Apart from the occasional blip (2002, for example), the Hoosiers have become much like their football brethren in South Bend – even when they are genuinely awesome, people still doubt it.


They were overrated for so long they became underrated, and now they seem overrated all over again.


And it's about time.


It's not that there is no excuse for Indiana to not be among college basketball's elite programs — the school is, after all, in a small state that doesn't have quite the monopoly on high school basketball players that it did 50 years ago. But it is a traditional power in close proximity to Chicago and Indianapolis. That should be a Top 25 program every single year.


So welcome back, Indiana. I see you, even if it is through (neon) rose-colored glasses.


Speaking of national powers in small states …


Is this finally the year some school other than Kansas wins the Big 12?


Are we ever going to stop asking that question?


Here's how long it's been since Kansas didn't end up with a Big 12 title: Nine of the teams that competed for that conference title have changed coaches twice since then, and four have done it three times. That's one way of saying eight years is an eternity in college athletics.


On paper, this does not appear to be Kansas' best team in that period, although neither did last year's team, and it went to the national championship game. However, it does appear to be the most talented team in the Big 12.


The Jayhawks are young and don't return a proven creator in the backcourt. But coach Bill Self has faced bigger issues than those in the past eight years.


The Texas takeaway


I talked to Rick Barnes over the summer, and he expended quite a bit of energy making the case that this year's Texas team is going to be together and defensive-minded in a way the Longhorns have not been in years.


I don't want to go so far as to say he convinced me, because that won't happen until I see it on the floor, but I suppose I'm willing to take his word for it for one big reason: Texas doesn't have any stars.


Theoretically this should be a bad thing. But it might be a fresh take on Texas basketball, which has never had trouble recruiting, but has had trouble building a continuous, congealed, coachable roster.


Player of the Year watch


1.  Cody Zeller, Indiana


A nearly unanimous preseason All-America selection who happens to be the best player on the best team, Zeller has all the November mojo. These awards tend to go to big men, too, so he's the default choice.


2.  Trey Burke, Michigan


I consider Burke, a sophomore guard, a longshot to win this award. As mentioned, it is difficult for guards to win these things. Fourteen out of the past 20 Naismith awards have gone to big men, and only two of the past 20 have been point guards. Burke probably would have to lead Michigan in scoring and lead the country in assists (or get close to it) to win the award if there is a competitive big man in the race.


3.  One of the Kentucky guys


They got three more blue chips this year, including center Nerlens Noel, who was either the best or second-best high school player in his class, depending on which scouting service you trust most.


Ups and downs


Up: South Carolina


Let's not get carried away or anything, but the Gamecocks swept up the mess from an interpersonal conflict between Kansas State athletic director John Currie and coach Frank Martin, and landed one of the most reliable coaches in the country.


I use the word "reliable" because while can't predict how Martin will recruit at South Carolina — his once-free-flowing pipeline into Washington, D.C. appears to have been clogged to some extent — I can predict how the Gamecocks will play. They will play ferociously, especially on the glass, and that reality is absolute. I dare say South Carolina could not have made a better hire.


Down:  Missouri


The Tigers still have a solid roster, but what happened last year was a full four years in the making. The Tigers had a senior class that not only was full of moxie and leadership, but also the players were really good. You can do a lot worse than Michael Dixon and Phil Pressey in your backcourt — and plenty of SEC teams will — but Missouri is headed down before it comes back up again.


Up: Houston


Did you realize the Cougars signed one of the best classes in the country? Scout ranked it 24th, Rivals ranked it 15th. In any case, coach James Dickey talked a pair of hometown stars, Chicken Knowles and Danuel House, into staying in the Bayou City, and brought in a couple of juco guards to help out, too.


Down: Texas Tech


I don't know if you heard about this … but Texas Tech's head coach resigned … like five weeks ago. There was a player mutiny and everything. It was bad. And it wasn't like the Red Raiders had much talent anyway.


Up: UCLA


If Kentucky's Nerlens Noel wasn't the best player in the class of 2012, Shabazz Muhammad was, and his decision to play at UCLA should help the Bruins crawl out of the mud pit they created for themselves the past three years.


Down: UConn


We all could look past UConn's latest graduation rate (11 percent!) if the team was any good. But Jim Calhoun, who is really the only coach who ever has won much of anything there, has retired. Plus, did we mention UConn's graduation rate is 11 percent, because that seems almost impossible. The national average is 68 percent. The Huskies already are barred from the NCAA Tournament this year for their substandard academic performance.


Telling stats


0 – Points scored in the 2012 national championship game by current members of the Kentucky Wildcats.


1 – Number of upper classmen on the Texas roster (senior guard Dean Melchionni, a former walkon).


201 – Wins at UCLA, by Ben Howland, the most by any Bruins coach since John Wooden.

 

They said it


"Remember now for 20 years it was illegal to talk to them. You walk by them in the hallway and you can barely say hi because you're afraid somebody is hiding out behind the garbage can or something. " — Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, on the new NCAA rules allowing coaches to work with players during the summer.


"I know where to go eat." — West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, on whether his previous experience in the Big 12 will help him this time around.


"Technically, I haven't had my brains beat in yet, but I would like to thank the Big Ten for starting us at home against Michigan State." — First-year Nebraska coach Tim Miles on joining the Big Ten.


Crystal ball


Big 12 champion: Kansas

Don't bet against a streak.


Big Ten champion: Indiana

Best team in the country has the best player in the country.


SEC champion: Kentucky

Because if you think Cal can't coach 'em up, you haven't been paying attention.


Pac-12 champion: Arizona

UCLA isn't ready for all this yet.


ACC champion: Duke

When in doubt, go with the best coach.


Big East champion: Louisville

This would be a mighty leap for the Cardinals, but this isn't the Big East's strongest field.