BLOOMINGTON – Make no mistake. Indiana is, by far, the Big Ten basketball favorite.
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan concedes that – to a point. But he's a competitive guy who always has his Badgers in contention no matter what his talent level.
So while you have IU as the preseason No. 1 team nationally, with Ohio State and Michigan projected in the top five, and Michigan State in the top 15, you have Wisconsin lurking in the top 25.
“There are certain teams now in our league that have that 'X' mark on their backs,” Ryan said. “That's good. That quality competition, that interest, that outside interest of people saying, 'We think this team is pretty good.' That's OK. That's great for the league.”
The Big Ten has emerged as the nation's most powerful conference. Returning players who project as All-America or all-league choices include Indiana's Cody Zeller (the national player of the year), Christian Watford and Victor Oladipo; Michigan's Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway; Penn State's Tim Frazier; Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas (the former Bishop Luers standout) and Aaron Craft; Northwestern's Drew Crawford; Michigan State's Keith Appling; Purdue's D.J. Byrd; Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe; and more.
Then there are strong incoming freshmen who include Indiana's Yogi Ferrell, Purdue's A.J. Hammons, Michigan State's Gary Harris, Michigan's Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, and Wisconsin's Sam Dekker.
Add it all up and you have a conference expected to dominate the regular season as well as March Madness.
“It's a good league,” Ryan said. “The league earned (the recognition).
“Where you start is one thing, as we all know, but to get that kind of information out, knowing the tournaments we're in, our non-conference schedules, the teams we're going to play. We're going to have to back it up. We're going to have to play well, that's for sure.”
Those non-conference schedules include Indiana hosting North Carolina, Ohio State playing Duke and Kansas, Michigan playing North Carolina State and West Virginia, and Michigan State playing Kansas and Texas.
The basketball buzz is welcome relief for Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who has endured a couple months of football criticism.
“There's a lot of optimism about basketball, but not one game has been played,” he said. “We've got a lot of programs in very good shape. We've got a lot of returning players.
“This is the culmination of a (building process). We've been pretty good over the last three or four years recruiting good players, coaching good players, retaining good players.
“It's a good time of the year in basketball.”
Delany gets no argument from Purdue coach Matt Painter, whose youthful team hopes to challenge its more experienced Big Ten opponents.
“Last year I felt we had the best league in the country, but you've got to prove yourself all over again. You have to go from a non-conference standpoint and solidify yourself.
“We have talent from top to bottom, and I think that's what separates us. There are no easy outs. I think the teams at the bottom of the rankings can push to the top and put themselves in good position come March.”
No team is better positioned than Indiana to win it all, or at least make the Final Four.
“There's no question (our players) are receiving a lot of attention,” coach Tom Crean said, “and we're trying to keep our business-as-usual approach as much as we can inside the halls of the building.
“The bottom line is when these guys hit the practice floor or the weight room, or when they go to the film room, none of that matters. What matters is, are they challenging each other? Are they competing? Are they hungry to get better? I don't see any sign of that not being the case.”