If a poor non-conference performance coupled with Indiana controlling its own destiny for the Rose Bowl has turned Big Ten football into a punchline, then at least the league figures to avenge those jokes in basketball this winter.
No conference appears to be stronger at the top or deeper in the middle than the Big Ten, which should produce six or seven NCAA bids again this season and boasts eight or nine teams with legitimate hopes of getting there.
For the first time since the days of Bob Knight patrolling the Assembly Hall sidelines in a red sweater, Indiana is the Big Ten’s headliner again. The preseason top-ranked Hoosiers bring back All-American candidate Cody Zeller and nearly every other significant player from last year’s Sweet 16 team and add one of the nation’s best recruiting classes.
Fittingly, it’s the players who came to Indiana at the depths of Tom Crean’s rebuilding efforts who have led this revitalization. Zeller and high-scoring Christian Watford form one of the nation’s best frontcourt duos, Victor Oladipo is an elite perimeter stopper, Jordan Hulls shot 49 percent from behind the arc last year and versatile sixth man Will Sheehey provides scoring off the bench.
Whether Indiana is a national title favorite entering March or merely just one of many contenders will likely depend on how freshman Yogi Ferrell adapts to the role of starting point guard and how much better the Hoosiers defend this season.
Ferrell provides the creativity off the dribble and the ability to pressure the ball that Indiana lacked at point guard last season, but the highly touted freshman must play in control and make good decisions with the ball in his hands. He should help a defense that surrendered the most points and the highest field goal percentage in the Big Ten last year and did not cause many turnovers, forcing Indiana to outscore the opposition.
The list of teams capable of challenging Indiana begins with last year’s co-Big Ten champs: Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.