FORT WAYNE – Indiana returns all five starters from last year, led by Cody Zeller.
The Hoosiers add one of the top recruiting classes in the country. They have experience winning close games against top-caliber competition.
And did I mention they have Cody Zeller?
Those are a few of the reasons I put the Hoosiers at No. 1 in my top 25 preseason men’s basketball ballot. Forty-two other voters agreed as Indiana landed at the top of The Associated Press preseason poll, which was released Friday.
It’s the first time Indiana has been the preseason No. 1 in the poll since the 1979-80 season, which saw IU win a Big Ten title. The only other time the Hoosiers were the preseason No. 1 was in 1975-76. That IU team finished 32-0, the last team to go undefeated.
Louisville finished second in the voting with 20 first-place votes. Kentucky, last year’s national champion, is third with two first-place votes.
Ohio State and Michigan round out the top five. The Big Ten is the first conference since the Big East in the 2008-09 season to have three teams ranked in the top five of the preseason AP poll.
The Buckeyes lost Jared Sullinger and William Buford but still have Bishop Luers graduate Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft. Thomas and Craft were named to the Preseason All-Big Ten team Thursday. Trey Burke, another Preseason All-Big Ten pick, leads the Wolverines.
Which players decided to return, which players decided to leave, new additions and last year’s results often factor into the slotting of the preseason poll.
I also had the Cardinals second and Wildcats third on my ballot. Fresh off a run to the national semifinals, Louisville returns three starters, including guard Peyton Siva. Kentucky is starting fresh but again has talented freshmen.
North Carolina State was fourth and Michigan fifth on my ballot. The Wolfpack, which finished first in the ACC preseason poll, has four starters back from a team that made the Sweet 16 last season.
N.C. State is sixth in the AP poll. Kansas, Duke, Syracuse and Florida make up the rest of the top 10. I had Ohio State, Kansas, Syracuse, Duke and Arizona in spots 6 to 10.
There were five Big Ten teams in the Top 25 – Michigan State came in at No. 14, Wisconsin is No. 23. I had the Spartans at No. 13 and the Badgers at No. 20. I added a sixth school from the conference, Minnesota, at No. 25.
Virginia Commonwealth, at No. 24, and the Gophers were the only two teams in my poll that did not appear in the Top 25.
There wasn’t much variation between my ballot and the actual poll. There were times where the difference was one slot, like No. 22 Notre Dame. I had the Irish at No. 23.
But back to Indiana’s rise.
According to ESPN, IU is just the fifth team to sit atop the preseason AP poll after being unranked at the start of the previous season.
I know it feels good for us to be back in that conversation, to be back and mentioned in the same breath of other great teams, IU coach Tom Crean said Thursday when asked about the strength of basketball in the Midwest.
If the preseason poll is any indication, this could be a special season for a number of teams in the Midwest.
Let the games begin.