The conference landscape of college sports is changing by the week, but one constant over the last several seasons has been the preeminence of the Big East in basketball. Although that league may still be the nation’s deepest and most competitive, no conference will be stronger at the top in 2012-13 than the Big Ten.
No conference in the country can touch the level of returning talent that the top Big Ten contenders will carry into next season.
Indiana—a No. 4 seed this past March and one of the two teams to beat national champion Kentucky—returns all five starters from its Sweet 16 squad, led by rising-star center Cody Zeller. Michigan couldn’t match the Hoosiers’ postseason success, but the Wolverines bring back the superlative backcourt of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. from a team that won 24 games and shared the conference title in the regular season.
Even Ohio State, which is losing All-America PF Jared Sullinger, returns a pair of bona fide stars in versatile forward Deshaun Thomas (a hero of the Buckeyes’ Final Four run) and PG Aaron Craft, the country’s most dangerous backcourt defender.
Most of the power conferences have one team—Duke in the ACC, Louisville in the Big East—bringing back multiple proven standouts, but no other league has three such squads. On top of that advantage, the Big Ten was among the biggest winners in this year’s recruiting season.
The aforementioned Wolverines supplement their terrific guards with freshman forwards Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, while the Hoosiers bring in star point guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell to feed their terrific post players. Meanwhile, Michigan State offsets the loss of its own All-American, PF Draymond Green, with stud SG Gary Harris, who will join rising junior Keith Appling to give the Spartans a first-class backcourt of their own.
There are other leagues with even more impressive recruiting hauls—especially the Pac-12 behind surprising UCLA and Arizona—but most of that talent is going to programs without much to build on. It’s the combination of incoming and incumbent stars that give the Big Ten its edge over any and all competitors.
Indiana, an early preseason No. 1 by some estimates, isn't even a lock to win its own conference. The Big Ten has a serious shot at earning two No. 1 seeds in the 2013 tournament, and nobody can touch the league’s quartet of Final Four contenders heading into the new season.