CHICAGO, Ill. – Michigan State is the unanimous Big Ten title favorite, which follows its preseason No 2 national ranking, which is what you'd expect from a team returning a ton of talent from a Sweet 16 team.
Coach Tom Izzo buys that -- to a point.
“I think we deserve to be up there,” he said during Thursday's Big Ten media day, “but I'm not sure we deserve to be where we are. I'm not sure anybody does at this time because of the parity that is in college basketball.”
Parity or not, the Spartans were picked by a Big Ten media panel to win the conference ahead of Michigan and Ohio State. They also received 22 first place votes in AP's preseason poll, five behind No. 1 Kentucky
The Spartans have size, experience and, perhaps, the conference's best player in sophomore guard Gary Harris. The former Indiana Mr. Basketball, who was voted the conference's preseason player of the year, is healthy after battling shoulder injuries last year. He averaged 12.9 points.
“He could be one of the best guards I've ever coached,” Izzo said.
Add point guard Keith Appling (13.4 points, 3.3 assists), plus Denzel Valentine, Travis Trice and former Blackhawk Christian standout Russell Byrd (fully recovered from three foot surgeries), and you have the Big Ten's best backcourt.
Also back are forward Adreian Payne (10.5 points, 7.6 rebounds) and swingman Branden Dawson (8.9 points, 5.9 rebounds).
“We've got a good team,” Izzo said. “We've got a veteran team. We've added some pieces. We've got guys back healthy. You put all those things together and it gives you a shot if guys handle the things that go with being ranked high and continue to get better. It we do that, it will be a good year.”
Last year's Big Ten race went to the final game. IU won the title with a last-second victory at Michigan. This season could bring similar drama, Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.
“I don't think it will be any different in terms of the grind. The Big Ten is about having the ability to get knocked down, get back up and fight again.
“It's a great league. You've got great players and coaches. There are going to be challenges.
“You look at teams that can get on a roll, that stay healthy. You look at how the schedule plays out and who plays who.
“The last couple of years shows it has the potential to come down to the wire, basically the last shot, the last second. How fitting is that?”
Purdue coach Matt Painter said Ohio State, with veteran guard Aaron Craft, “will be one of the best defensive teams in the country.” He said the Big Ten could send “seven or eight teams” to the NCAA tourney.
The Big Ten was considered the nation's best conference last year, and its depth showed when Michigan, which finished fifth during the regular season, made the national title game. It sent seven teams to the NCAA tourney.
Izzo wondered if the conference could be even better this season, not because the top teams are improved, but because the others are.
Iowa has what coach Fran McCaffery calls his deepest team. Purdue has a strong mix of veterans(including sophomore Rapheal Davis, a former South Side standout) and newcomers (former Northrop standout Bryson Scott has looked very strong) to bounce back from a rare losing season, Northwestern, with new coach Chris Collins, finally seems to have health with its talent. Minnesota's new coach, Richard Pitino, promises to bring the pressing, frenzied style his father, Rick, has used to win national titles at Kentucky and, last year, at Louisville.
“What's happened is teams like Iowa that weren't as good the last couple of years are getting better,” Izzo said. “For the rest of us, Indiana losses a couple of good players, but they've got good players (Yogi Ferrell, Will Sheehey) back, and they're well coached. Michigan is going to be very good. Ohio State, with Aaron Craft and that crew, will be very good.
“Wisconsin will take another step up. Really, does it matter who (Badgers coach Bo Ryan) has? Face it, they're going to win 25 games either way.
“A couple of years ago, we were ranked and we played one ranked team in the league. This year it could be seven or eight ranked teams. You play them twice, so that's 14 to 16 games against ranked teams. That's pretty awesome.”
For now, the Big Ten has four ranked teams in the AP poll: Michigan State, No. 7 Michigan, No. 11 Ohio State and No. 20 Wisconsin. Indiana, which brings in seven highly touted newcomers, is No. 24 in the coaches' poll.
“We're trying to get our guys to understand what it takes to practice at a championship level,” coach Tom Crean said. “There's a real want-to and it's going to take a while to get to the whole how-to. That's what we're going to be in the midst of trying to get accomplished, but I love coaching our team.”
Painter loves coaching his team, but he's not happy with sophomore center A.J. Hammons, who is suspended for three games over an unspecified “violation of team rules.” Painter was asked if Boiler fans should be concerned about Hammons and his attitude.
“I don't know if it's an attitude,” Painter said. “He obviously stubbed his toe, and he'll have to pay for that. Can he learn from it? The question is really for him, not me. A lot of times in our business when you deal with young people is you get a lot of lip service. They learn to say the right things. Will they do the right things? He's got to show action. ”
One way or another, the Big Ten is certain to provide plenty of action.