Thursday, October 18, 2012

Big Ten Preview: Can Cody Zeller Lead Indiana To A Big Ten Championship?

The long wait will soon be over when the first official NCAA basketball game of the 2012-13 season will tip-off on Nov. 15. Some of our favorite players have moved on the ranks of professional athletes, new recruits have been polishing their games in gyms with recognizable logos on the court, and schools have switched conference allegiances. Through a series of conference previews, the BDD crew will do its best to prepare you for the next 4.5 months of collegiate hoops.

Jared Sullinger isn't around to guard Indiana's Cody Zeller any more. (USA Today)

Conference Champion: Indiana Hoosiers

Last season, Indiana earned the designation of being the only team to beat eventual NCAA champion Kentucky. The regular season victory was a precursor to the Hoosiers' Sweet 16 run, both of which could serve as standards for the team this season.

Tom Crean's group of veterans is comprised of eight returning players, including all five starters. The No. 5 recruiting class won't hurt things either, with five-star point guard Kevin Ferrell and four-star small forward Jeremy Hollowell setting the Hoosiers up for success in the foreseeable future.

Stocked with talent, they should breeze through the non-conference schedule with the only potential exceptions coming on team buses with North Carolina and Butler — before setting themselves up for official re-anointment as the class of the Big Ten.

Indiana needs to shore up their collective defensive inabilities, and dropping games to Michigan State and a resurgent Michigan Wolverines squad is not out of the question, but the Hoosiers will take advantage of the rest of the conference during a season in which teams 4-12 could end up almost anywhere in the Big Ten rankings come the end of regular season play.

Dark Horse Team to Watch: Ohio State Buckeyes

Outside of the conference's clear-cut top three teams, the Big Ten is a bit anomalous, but not so much so that Ohio State reigning over its peers is out of the question. Jared Sullinger is no longer around to be an All-American security blanket in the paint, and this will be the first season in four years that the Buckeyes play a game without newly-graduated shooting guard William Buford, but Aaron Craft is one of college basketball's most reliable point guards. He'll have to provide the bulk of leadership in his junior year and Craft's commitment to defense should inspire younger teammates.

Ohio State's default on-court second-in-command is forward Deshaun Thomas who averaged 15.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game last season. Expect Thomas to up the stat line as some of the touches that formerly belonged to Sullinger come his way.

Seven other players from last season's Final Four team return, but if the Buckeyes are to truly contend, Thomas will have to simultaneously ascend to clutch performer status and be more willing to spread the ball around instead of trying to shoulder the scoring load. In turn, the Buckeyes' role players must elevate their respective games.

It sounds like a hypothetical title run depends on many changes, and it would if Ohio State is to get the best of the Hoosiers, Spartans and Wolverines. If Thad Matta is the coach and recruiter he is believed to be, though, a Big Ten championship is not out of the question just yet. 

Player of the Year: Cody Zeller, Indiana 

True seven-footers are rare. That alone tells you that Zeller is something special, but his dedication to working out and adding muscle over the summer is indicative of a motivation that goes beyond brawn.

Crean’s plan to mix in more pick-and-roll plays bodes well for Zeller, who could demolish his freshmen year watermark of 15.6 points per game if the coaching reins are loosened. The same goes for the 6.6 rebounds per game he established last season if he really has added proper bulk.

Zeller’s already a National Player of the Year candidate based on his performance over 33 games on the collegiate level, so there’s no way a conference POY award is a hard sell.

Newcomer of the Year: Sam Dekker, Wisconsin

Any Big Ten team that brings in noteworthy recruits already seems to have an established hierarchy amongst players, but Badgers head coach Bo Ryan works magic with small forwards and while Wisconsin is returning most of the key parts from a Sweet 16 team, Dekker will instantly add a new layer to the dynamics.

He’ll play big minutes as a freshman and be expected to bear the scoring load on occasion. After all, his offensive prowess is what earned the in-state recruit a Mr. Basketball title and a No. 17-overall ranking in the ESPNU 100. Add the trademark defensive-mindedness that Ryan requires of his players and Dekker could be the Big Ten’s best all-around freshman.

Coach of the Year: Tom Crean, Indiana

If Indiana lives up to expectations – and given the nature of college basketball, let alone the Big Ten, that could be a big if – they could have a conference championship and a national title to tout when the 2012-13 season is done.

A potent offense. Team chemistry that allows players to excel more as a collective than as individuals. These are characteristics the Hoosiers will possess. They do not have to play blustering defense, but if the team makes even mild improvements on that end of game, they will be applauded.

If Crean is to win this accolade, it will be for his work over multiple years of recruiting and bringing a program with storied history back to the forefront of college basketball. The Hoosiers could achieve only 75 percent of what pundits are predicting and that would still be enough to bring Crean COY recognition.

Follow @BeatsDimesDrive on Twitter

No comments:

Post a Comment