There have been several ‘way too early’ 2012-2013 basketball polls released thus far and it has made for some entertaining reading. Iowa fans are paying more attention to these items this offseason than they have in six years because many feel they might see the Hawks name pop up on the radar.

Yet in nearly every instance, Iowa is nowhere to be found. Indiana has been a chic preseason #1 and I’ve seen Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State garner Top Ten mentions in various polls with Wisconsin in the Top 25. Andy Katz of ESPN updated his early April Top 25 to adjust for early entry declarations to the NBA draft and even included Minnesota in his Top 25, but no mention of Iowa.

CBS published a Tempo Free analysis of each conference and they project Iowa to finish 6-12 in Big Ten play next year, good for 9th place. That doesn’t exactly scream ‘We’re Back!’ now, does it?

Uber-nerd Joe Lunardi has posted an early Bracketology and the Hawks did not make the bubble.  He has Indiana as a 1-seed, MSU as a 2-seed, Michigan as a 3-seed, Wisconsin & Ohio State as 4-seeds, Minnesota as an 8-seed and Purdue as an 11-seed.  That’s seven Big Ten teams in the dance and no Iowa or Illinois, so Lunardi also sees Iowa fighting for an 8th place finish at best.

So amidst all of this Hawkeye Hoops euphoria many us have been enjoying (me included), what gives? Here is my ‘way to early’ look at the Big Ten for the 2012-2013 season.

1. Indiana: Yeah, I’ll jump on the Hoosier bandwagon too. While I don’t think they will wind up being the best team in the nation at season’s end, I do feel they have the most compelling returning cast in the nation. They were 11-7 last year which was two games out of a first place tie and they return more than anyone else. Keep in mind that Maurice Creek will have another shot at playing a full season. He can’t get hurt again, can he? As a freshman, he was averaging over 16 points per game through the non-conference before going down. As a sophomore, he was recovering and was pushing 10 points per game before he got hurt and then last year he was lost for the season before it even began. He is a 6-5 combo guard who could add more quality depth for the Hoosiers, who are also welcoming in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes. Heck, I might have just convinced myself that they COULD be the best team in the nation by late February.

2. Michigan: It’s risky picking these two teams as my top two, two teams who have barely begun to show consistency winning away from home in the Big Ten.  But Michigan is so talented.  With Trey Burke returning, point guard is not a problem.  Tim Hardaway Jr is back and Glen Robinson Jr will be part of a talented recruiting class and could give this team the most exciting backcourt in the league come January. Toughness may be an issue for this team, which is not a good question mark to have in this league if you are a would be contender.

3. Michigan State:  It almost doesn’t matter who leaves the the program; Tom Izzo has things rolling, another solid recruiting class to add to a program that does that every year.  Draymond Green is gone but Derrick Nix has been reinstated to the program.

4. Ohio State:  You can say the same thing about Ohio State now that Thad Matta has things rolling.  Jared Sullinger turned pro but they have post players in waiting at Ohio State. I could see them stumbling a bit in January but putting things together over February and early March.

5. Minnesota: I am higher on the Gophers than some.  Trevor Mbakwe will return and that is a big, big deal for the Gophers.  He was averaging 14/9 before getting hurt midway through the non-conference game.  He was on pace for 60 blocks and teammate Rodney Williams had over 50 himself this season.  They only lose Ralph Sampson, a player Tubby Smith never took a shining to.  This is going to be  one of the best defensive teams in the Big Ten IF they can find chemistry, something that has eluded Tubby Smith coached Golden Gopher teams.  Good luck scoring points in the paint against this team, good luck beating them in transition and stopping them at the rim.  I think they could finish higher than 4th if Mbakwe is 100% and expect 1st place and 5th place to be separated by two or three games again this season.

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6. Wisconsin:  This program is getting preseason rankings and mentions based upon their style, not their personnel.  They don’t have Top 25 personnel in my opinion, but the way they play makes them better than the sum of their parts.  Frankly, I find them incredibly boring to watch but they are typically in the thick of things.  Newcomer Sam Dekker is going to be an immense nuisance for the next four years.  The kind of kid you love to have on your team but hate when you are the opposing fanbase.  He’s fun to watch and could galvanize the Badgers the minute he walks in as he plays like Aaron White of Iowa; relentless.

7. Iowa: This is where I see Iowa sliding in.  Losing Matt Gatens is big and they will need Josh Oglesby to step up and fill some of that three-point shooting void.  If Melsahn Basabe has a renaissance season, that would go a long way to helping this team fight for an NCAA bid.  Devyn Marble is an emerging star in this league and Aaron White will be improved, too.  The freshman class will have a hand in things and I expect Mike Gesell to get a lot of minutes at the point and flourish in Fran McCaffery’s uptempo style.  More on Iowa here in a bit.

8. Illinois:  Losing Meyers Leonard is big, but they do have some young talent on the bench.  Brandon Paul has the ability to be a force in the league and DJ Richardson can be a deadly scorer. They have more gross talent than Iowa but this program is starting over on the chemistry front; the players voted a lightly used freshman as the team MVP a few weeks back.  Will the new coach be the ticket?  Did not hiring Jerrance Howard, a player favorite, create too big of a rift?

9. Purdue: I just don’t see this team holding it together to reach next year’s tournament.  They went 10-8 last season, but nine of those ten wins came against teams who were below .500 in conference play.  They lose three of their four best scorers, including Robbie Hummel and point guard Lewis Jackson.  Using the linked tempo free stats from above, Purdue returns fewer possessions per minute than any other team in the league save Nebraska.

10. Penn State:  I think they will win six games next year, which will keep them out of 11th and 12th.  Tim Frazier is fun to watch with one of the prettiest floaters in the league.

11. Northwestern: John Shurna, the school’s all time leading scorer, is gone.  They will still be pesky enough to stay out of the cellar.

12: Nebraska:  They were the second-oldest team in the nation last year, out of over 340 schools.  They lose all of their firepower, have had other players leave the program and have a new coach.  Next year’s Nebraska team may challenge for one of the worst Big Ten teams in the last decade.  Not a good thing in a league as good as this one will be.

IOWA’S PATH TO THE NCAA TOURNAMENT:  Iowa went 8-10 last year.  Four of those eight wins came off of sweeps over Minnesota and Wisconsin.  You can’t expect that again and if Iowa can play those teams 2-2, it would be a good sign for this team.  Iowa lost both games against Purdue last year and need to be at least 1-1 this year with a shot at 2-0.  The Hawks split with Nebraska but must sweep the Huskers next season.  Iowa also split with Penn State and were swept by Northwestern; they need to be 3-1 against those clubs.  Iowa hosts Illinois, a team it lost to last year and that could prove to be a big, big game for their NCAA chances as they only play the Illini once this year.  Iowa’s other ‘one off’ foes this year are at Michigan, at Ohio State and home against Michigan State.  If Iowa can get to 2-2 in those games, that would be about as good as you can expect; they were 1-3 against those teams last year, with the one win against Michigan in Carver-Hawkeye.

Here is a quick and dirty projection that is certainly subject to change before we do this for real next November:

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Indiana: 0-2
Wisconsin: 1-1
Minnesota: 0-2
Nebraska: 2-0
Northwestern: 2-0
Penn State: 1-1
Illinois: 1-0
Ohio State: 0-1
Michigan State: 1-0
Michigan: 0-1
Purdue: 1-1


Could Iowa split with Minnesota?  Sure they could.  They could also lose both games against Wisconsin.  Could they sweep Purdue?  Yes, I think they could but wins at Mackey Arena have been few and far between.  They could lose both against Illinois and Michigan State or split them.  In the end, I feel a 9-9 look is in the ballpark.

In the out of conference, we know Iowa will host Iowa State, play UNI in Des Moines and host Central Michigan coached by Keno Davis.  Iowa is in the Cancun Challenge with Austin Peay, DePaul, Gardner-Webb, Howard, Western Carolina, Western Kentucky and Wichita State.  Iowa will also play against an ACC team in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and may play a PAC 12 team given the two leagues agreeing to schedule more games against one another in football and basketball.

Iowa needs to beat both Iowa State and UNI.  Winning three games in the Cancun Challenge seems possible given the field.  They simply cannot afford to have another loss to a Campbell, however.

Go 10-3 or 11-2 in the non-conference along with a 9-9 record in the Big Ten and win the opening round Big Ten tournament game?  Given that the Big Ten is shaping up to be the #1 RPI league in the nation again next season, that is probably enough to get a 10 or so seed in the Big Dance.  Purdue was 21-11 after going 1-1 in the Big Ten tournament one year ago and received a 10-seed.