ROSEMONT, Ill. (AP) — Given how good Michigan State was last year and the core players returning, coach Tom Izzo can envision big things for his team.
Is it the best in the Big Ten, though? He's not sure.
Michigan State was a unanimous pick to win the conference, and guard Gary Harris was selected Preseason Player of the Year, making it a Spartans sweep in a vote by conference media.
With four starters back from a team that went 27-9 and advanced to the Sweet 16, expectations are once again soaring. The Spartans beat out NCAA runner-up Michigan, with Ohio State picked third.
"I think we deserve to be up there," Izzo said at the conference's media day on Thursday. "I'm not sure we deserve to be where we are. I'm not sure anybody does at this stage in time because of the parity that still is in college basketball. We've got a good team. We've got a veteran team."
Leading the way for Michigan State is Harris, who averaged 12.9 points and shot over 41 percent on 3-pointers last season while taking Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. Izzo said he could be one of the best guards he's coached with his ability to shoot and defend, not to mention his humility.
"I don't see the celebrity side of it bothering him as long as he stays healthy, which he's had no issues at all," Izzo said. "This kid has gotten better and better and I think will get better and be one of the all-time great guards at Michigan State."
It's high praise, given some of the guards that have played at Michigan State. From Magic Johnson to Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson, the list is impressive.
"I don't feel like I'm anywhere compared to some of the great guards that we've had at this school," Harris said. "For Coach to mention that is just an honor in itself, but I still have a long ways to go in my opinion."
How far the Spartans or any other Big Ten team can go is another issue.
The conference produced three top 10 picks last year in Indiana's Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller Michigan's Trey Burke. But only one NCAA champion has come from the Big Ten since Michigan won it all in 1989 — Michigan State in 2000. Five times since that run by the Spartans a team from the conference has come up short in the title game, with Michigan falling to Louisville last year.
"College basketball's full of parity," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "Look long-term winning of the league — and I've only been in the league six years. Look at the long-term winning of it. Look at the way people achieve in the non-conference. Look at the different people who have played in those games, and you've got to say it's a very strong league."
Michigan State has been to the Final Four six times since Izzo took over in 1995, and with Harris and center Adreian Payne back, the Spartans are eyeing another big run. Both are potential first-round picks who decided to return to school. And like Harris, Payne made the first team in the preseason vote. Rounding it out were Michigan's Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, Ohio State's Aaron Craft and Penn State's Tim Frazier. Six players were selected because there was a tie.
Michigan has three starters back from a team that came within a few points of the NCAA championship. The Wolverines also have two big holes to fill, with National Player of the Year Burke and backcourt mate Tim Hardaway Jr. gone.
But with McGary back after coming on strong down the stretch and Robinson still in the mix, the Wolverines should be in contention for the conference championship.
Ohio State has to replace leading scorer Deshaun Thomas after he decided to forgo his senior season and jump to the NBA. But with four starters back after a run to the Elite Eight, the Buckeyes have plenty of experience.
Craft and backcourtmate Lenzelle Smith Jr. have won 94 games in their career already. Both are excellent defenders, but the Buckeyes will need more consistency on offense from Smith.
"Deshaun Thomas had the ability to make difficult shots, and we gave Deshaun a lot of opportunities to score," coach Thad Matta said. "The thing that I've seen to this point so far is everybody on the team has made drastic improvements offensively. And that's exciting for me. I think the dynamics of our offense will be very unselfish play."