- Erin Kirkland/Daily
By Colleen Thomas, Daily Sports Writer
Published October 25, 2012
ROSEMONT, Ill. — For sophomore guard Trey Burke and the rest of the Michigan men’s basketball team, last year’s Big Ten Championship clincher came down to the last game of the season.
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The Wolverines had to watch Michigan State and Ohio State play the final game to determine whether the Big Ten would crown either one or three champions, and thanks to the Buckeyes, Michigan was able to bring home part of a conference title for the first time since 1986.
And the 2012-13 season seems to be heading in the same direction.
The Big Ten is now widely considered the best basketball conference in the nation, boasting three teams in the preseason top-five and five total in the top-25. Indiana is ranked No. 1, Ohio State is No. 4 and Michigan is ranked fifth.
But for Hoosier coach Tom Crean, the preseason rankings — and the hype for his team and preseason player of the year Cody Zeller — don’t mean anything.
“When you look at this league, I don’t think you can do anything, in my mind, but look at the fact that Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State won the championship last year and until somebody unseats them, that’s the way it is,” Crean said in his press conference at Big Ten Media Day. “It’s a new season and all that, but those teams didn’t get any worse, they’re probably even a little bit better.”
For Michigan, at least, it’s added a loaded freshman class that’s brought the national spotlight back to Ann Arbor. The 6-foot-10 Mitch McGary will bring a significant post presence to complement redshirt junior Jordan Morgan, and guards Glenn Robinson III, Caris LeVert, Nik Stauskas and Spike Albrecht will relieve some pressure on Burke and junior Tim Hardaway Jr.
But all the attention has been on Indiana. And even with the Hoosiers headlining the stacked conference, Burke still feels that the young Michigan squad, projected to finish second in the Big Ten, will be targeted.
“I feel like we definitely have a target on our back and are capable of living up to that target,” Burke said. “I say this because with all the preseason recognition we’re getting, no one on our team is letting it get to them. ... Everyone’s going to come at us with their best shot and it’s going to be different than last year because we weren’t really getting the recognition that we have this year. But honestly I think we’re capable of living up to it.”
And for both Burke and Michigan coach John Beilein, the attention the Big Ten has received this preseason is well-deserved. Beilein compared the Big Ten to the SEC in football. Burke expressed a similar sentiment, noting the depth the conference has and that many teams aren’t getting the praise they deserve, even calling the Big Ten a “toss-up” this season.
The reigning co-Big Ten freshman of the year compared Wisconsin and Minnesota to Michigan last year, saying that both teams are under-the-radar and have the potential to surprise people.
“(Wisconsin and Minnesota) are two teams that aren’t getting the type of praise that we are getting, but they have the talent to make it (to the NCAA Tournament),” Burke said. “It’s a toss-up and it’s early in the season.”
In his sixth year, Beilein has been in the Big Ten long enough to see the conference transition to the powerhouse it’s become. Last year, the Big Ten sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament, and Beilein sees that number increasing this year.
“If you look back, there were five or six programs, maybe Thad (Matta of Ohio State) had it really going,” Beilein said. “So get to the sixth, the seventh, the eighth spot, which we were able to get to, is one step, now making that next step is really hard.
“I think anybody building a program has to understand, it is difficult, because people weren't stepping back and saying, ‘Hey, let's let Michigan have their turn.’ It’s hard to get there. If you establish the culture and get the right breaks here and there, anything can happen.”