The Indiana Hoosiers have been tabbed by the USA Today Coaches Poll as the No. 1 team for 2012-13. They are the favorites to win the Big Ten and 21 of the 31 voters have labelled Tom Crean's Hoosiers as the best team in the country. Star player sophomore Cody Zeller has been tabbed as the best player in the country and could be the top pick in the 2013 NBA draft.
However, before the Hoosiers can think about a national title and national player of the year awards for Zeller, they must first worry about the Big Ten, probably the toughest conference in the country and a conference who's title goes through Columbus, Ohio.
Indiana was once the premier program in the Big Ten, but that label has since been passed and it is now Thad Matta and Ohio State's league until proven otherwise.
In his eight seasons at Ohio State Thad Matta has won at least a share of five Big Ten titles. Overall, in 12 seasons as a head coach, Matta has won eight conference regular season titles—one with Butler (Horizon League), two with Xavier (Atlantic 10 Conference) and five with Ohio State (Big Ten).
Meanwhile, Tom Crean has only managed one conference title. He led Marquette to the Conference USA title with the help of Dwyane Wade in 13 seasons as a head coach.
Crean and Matta have coached against each other eight times, all in the last four seasons. Matta has dominated the matchup with a 7-1 record against Crean.
Crean's only win came last season in a sloppy, tightly-called, painful-to-watch game in Assembly Hall last season. When Ohio State got the return visit, they exacted revenge against Indiana winning 80-63.
Matta's in-game coaching has been questioned, especially in regards to the use, or misuse, of his bench. But you can't question the man's ability to win games.
He is 329-96 (.771) as a head coach and has won 20 or more games in every season. He has also made it to 10 NCAA tournaments, in the two years he didn't make the Big Dance, his team was either ineligible (2004-05 season) or he won the NIT Championship (2007-08 season)
Crean has made the one Final Four but has only made the NCAA tournament five times in 13 seasons and holds a career record of 245-171 (.589).
Yes, Ohio State lost two-time All-American forward Jared Sullinger and the third highest scorer is school history William Buford. Matta also only brought in one recruit, a three-star spot-up shooter named Amedeo Della Valle who is unlikely to have a large impact on the Buckeyes' season.
Everyone knows the Buckeyes return plenty of defensive firepower with the 2011-12 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Craft and fellow defensive stalwart Lenzelle Smith Jr. in the starting backcourt and a former McDonald's All-American center in 6'10'' shot-blocker Amir Williams patrolling the paint. But the Buckeyes will be able to score as well.
Thanks to his performance in March, DeShaun Thomas won't sneak up on anyone in 2012-13, but his numbers in the NCAA tournament—21.8 points a game—were not a fluke and he has a good chance to average over 20 points a game this coming season.
But Thomas won't be alone. With another 2011 McDonald's All-American in Shannon Scott taking over some of the ball-handling responsibilities as a sophomore. Craft and Smith Jr. should be able to play more freely on the perimeter and helped free up space for Thomas to work inside.
Another highly-rated member of the 2011 recruiting class, LaQuinton Ross, is another one to watch for Ohio State. Despite hardly playing in 2011-12 due to academic and weight issues, the Buckeyes are expecting big things from their 6'8'' forward.
The good news is that Indiana only lost one starter in guard Verdell Jones III. They also lost reserve guard Matt Roth and reserve forward Tom Pritchard. Combined those three averaged 13 points a game.
The bad news is that last year's team wasn't as close to championship-caliber as most think.
Indiana is getting much of their hype because they were able to knock off two of the best teams in the country last season when they beat Kentucky and Ohio State. Too much of the focus is on those two games and not enough on the rematches.
In both cases when the Indiana met Ohio State and Kentucky for the second time, they were handily beaten.
Perhaps more concerning, those weren't the only bad performances the Hoosiers had last season. They suffered double-digit losses at Michigan and Michigan State, they dropped a home game to a Minnesota team that went 6-12 in conference play and also managed to lose Nebraska, who finished 4-14 in conference play.
In Assembly Hall, the Hoosiers went 4-0 against ranked opponents. However, away from Assembly Hall they were 0-6 against ranked opponents. Until Indiana proves they can win a game away from Assembly Hall, they can't be considered favorites to do anything.
Don't get me wrong, there is a wealth of talent returning to Bloomington with Cody Zeller. Jordan Hulls is a dead-eye shooter, Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey provide athleticism and transition scoring on the wings, and Christian Watford is perhaps the second best scoring forward in the Big Ten behind DeShaun Thomas. Plus their new crop of freshman and returning sophomores provide depth.
But they haven't proven themselves to be anything more than a second-tier Big Ten team with a couple NCAA tournament wins over double-digit seeds.
I know it sounds cliche, but it is the truth. During a long basketball season in which every team has their off nights shooting the ball, titles are decided by which teams play the better and more consistent defense.
According to Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency ratings, only Louisville played better defense than Ohio State last season. It stands to reason that Ohio State will improve on their defensive numbers from last season for several reasons.
First, as I have mentioned, Ohio State returns their best defensive starters in junior guards Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. But at Ohio State's media day, Thad Matta dropped a surprising statement saying that he believes reserve guard Shannon Scott is the "most disruptive defensive player in college basketball."
Coming from a coach who has had a front-row seat to what Craft has done to opposing guards the last two seasons, that is high praise.
Secondly, while the loss of William Buford and Jared Sullinger will sting offensively, neither were great defenders. This season those minutes will go to defensive-minded players like Scott, guard/forward Sam Thompson, forward Evan Ravenel and center Amir Williams. The presence of Williams could give Ohio State something they didn't have last season—a shot-blocker.
Meanwhile, Indiana finished 64th in defensive efficiency last season and plays a much more offensive-minded game.
Of the projected starters junior guard Victor Oladipo is the only defensive specialist. He is long, athletic and extremely disruptive. Cody Zeller did average 1.2 blocks a game last season, but is not what you would call a typical shot-blocker. Plus I'm not sure Crean wants his most important offensive player swiping at shots and getting into foul trouble often.
The Hoosiers won't leave the friendly confines of Assembly Hall to play a ranked team until Feb. 10.
Thad Matta has put together a non-conference schedule that could almost rival something Tom Izzo would do to prepare his Michigan State squad.
The Buckeyes have neutral court dates with Marquette—on a ship—Rhode Island and either Washington or Seton Hall and they also take a trip to Cameron Indoor to play the Duke Blue Devils. The key non-conference home games will be against Long Beach State and Kansas.
Tom Crean took a bit of a different route when scheduling Indiana's non-conference games. The Hoosiers' only game against a Top-25 team will be against North Carolina at home. Their only road test will be at Georgia. The only other game worth mentioning will come Dec. 15 when in-state rival Butler visits Assembly Hall.
In the conference schedule, each team in the conference plays 18 games, which means each team plays seven teams twice and four teams once. Indiana's four single-game opponents are Wisconsin, Nebraska, Northwestern and Illinois. Ohio State's are Iowa, Minnesota, Purdue and Penn State.
Neither team really gets an advantage from their schedules. They both avoid a trip to a tough environment, Ohio State doesn't travel to Minnesota and Indiana doesn't travel to Wisconsin, but neither avoid the conference's other top teams of Michigan and Michigan State.
Indiana should be ahead in late January because their first six conference games are very friendly. In fact, their first road game against a tough conference opponent doesn't come until Feb. 10 against Ohio State. By that time, Ohio State will have already made a trip to both Michigan schools.