Big Ten basketball strong, deep and scary

ROSEMONT, Ill. —Tim Miles hasn’t coached a Big Ten basketball game yet, but he’s well aware of the depth of talented teams waiting for Nebraska come early January. If a murderer’s row of consecutive opponents exists, his Cornhuskers have it.

Asked to assess the strength of the league during Big Ten media day Thursday morning, Miles turned to a conference official and sarcastically thanked him for the team’s post-New Year’s schedule. He promptly ran down the list of Nebraska’s first four league games.

At fourth-ranked Ohio State. Home against No. 21 Wisconsin. At fifth-ranked Michigan. At No. 14 Michigan State.

“Santa’s gonna give some coal over there at that house,” Miles said to the conference official.

Hey, no one said the league was going to be easy this year.

The Big Ten boasts five teams in the preseason coaches top 25 poll — Indiana, the lone ranked team not already mentioned, just happens to be No. 1 in the country. The number of ranked teams is more than any other conference in the nation, including the ACC (four teams), the SEC (three), Big East (three), Big 12 (three) and Pac-12 (two).

Preseason polls might mean nothing in the long run, but at the very least, they serve as an indicator of expectations for a team and a conference. And expectations this season for the Big Ten are as high as they’ve been in years.

“I think you will see more teams than we have ever had in the NCAA Tournament,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said.

Big Ten coaches agreed the strength of the conference could be attributed to two key factors: the quality of returning players and the number of years coaches have spent with one team, which creates more cohesiveness at programs.

Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, for example, is beginning his 18th season in charge of the Spartans. Northwestern’s Bill Carmody starts his 13th season with the Wildcats and Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan his 12th season with the Badgers. Eight of the league’s 12 coaches have been with their programs for at least the past four seasons.

“Early on when I was an assistant, I felt like the league was really good back then,” Izzo said. “You had incredible coaches, and I think right now this league has the best coaches that we’ve ever had.”

It doesn’t hurt to have talented players, and the Big Ten has plenty.

Indiana returns its entire starting five, including sophomore center Cody Zeller, the “best player in college basketball,” according to Purdue coach Matt Painter. Zeller averaged 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds as a freshman and helped pull the Hoosiers back into the national spotlight.

At Ohio State, point guard Aaron Craft and forward Deshaun Thomas are the catalysts. Thomas is expected to make a huge leap after averaging 15.9 points and 5.4 rebounds last season as a sophomore, when the Buckeyes reached the Final Four.

Michigan returns sophomore point guard Trey Burke, who could have left for the NBA Draft following last season. Guard Tim Hardaway Jr. serves as a nice complement, and the Wolverines also claim a top-10 freshman recruiting class.

Michigan State brings back three starters, led by point guard Keith Appling, and nabbed a solid recruiting class that includes shooting guard Gary Harris.

Wisconsin has four starters back from a team that finished 26-10 and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

And that doesn’t even include Minnesota, which has four of its top five scorers returning and could join the top-25 early in the season.

“We could be better teams this year, but I don’t know if the records will show it with everybody in the league,” Ryan said. “I think there is going to be a lot of parity. I haven’t said that every year, but I think this year it’s going to be pretty obvious.”

Interestingly, the juxtaposition of the Big Ten’s basketball and football teams could not be more starkly contrasted. While basketball now appears on the rise, football has taken a nosedive. No Big Ten team is listed in the top 20 of the latest BCS rankings. And undefeated Ohio State is ineligible for postseason play, as is Penn State.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany noted the cavernous gaps in the two sports on Thursday.

“I think we’ve got a lot of programs in very good shape,” Delany said of basketball. “We’ve got a lot of returning players. You know, I would say this is sort of a culmination of a build. …

“As far as the football is concerned, I didn’t play it and I didn’t coach it, so my insights into it are less. But I think we have programs in transition. We have new coaches at a number of institutions. We have multiple coaching staff changes at one institution. We have two institutions that are not eligible for postseason play. I think that creates issues.”

Those issues are less of a problem for the Big Ten’s basketball teams as the season approaches. In hoops, the conference is as strong as ever.

 “It’s going to be fun for the fans, fun for the media,” Izzo said, “and hard on the coaches.”

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