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Zeller, Watford, Burke announce returns, helping make Big Ten college hoops’ top league again in 2012-13

Ryan Greene
The Dagger

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Cody Zeller (40) and Christian Watford (2) are returning to Indiana for another season, helping make the Big Ten …

The Big Ten was hands-down the best league in college basketball during the 2011-12 season, and as the days go by, it appears more and more likely that will be the case again in 2012-13.

The latest chips to fall into place all did so within a crucial 24-hour window.

First, on Monday, Michigan announced that standout point guard Trey Burke will return for his sophomore season. Burke had flirted with the idea of parlaying his successful freshman campaign for the co-Big Ten champs (14.8 ppg, 4.6 apg, 3.5 rpg), especially given the relatively weak NBA draft pool in terms of point guard depth.

Then, Tuesday morning, Indiana announced that freshman big man Cody Zeller (15.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and junior wing Christian Watford (12.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg) will also be back.

And, with that, the league's preseason top two are likely set more than six months before next season begins.

[ Related: Yahoo! Sports underclassman tracker ]

Indiana is considered by some as a legitimate contender for the preseason No. 1 ranking, as Tom Crean gets his top five scorers back from a 27-win team and will fit in a pair of elite recruits in McDonald's All-American point guard Kevin Ferrell and freakishly athletic 6-foot-8 forward Hanner Perea.

Michigan should also be looked at as a contender to make its first Final Four run since 1993, with Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. making up arguably the top backcourt in the league, while its own stellar recruiting class is headed up by big man Mitch McGary, ranked No. 3 in the 2012 class by Rivals.

Depth shouldn't be an issue for the league, either.

• Off of a Final Four run of its own, Ohio State caught a big break with sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas opting to return to school. He'll pair with junior-to-be point guard Aaron Craft to give the Buckeyes a formidable duo of their own.

• Michigan State loses Big Ten Player of the Year Draymond Green to graduation — arguably one of the most valuable individual players in the nation last season — but has three starters back, including promising freshman guard Branden Dawson coming back from a late-season ACL tear. McDonald's All-American Gary Harris should add some more scoring punch immediately, too.

• Can Wisconsin make it 12 straight top-four league finishes under Bo Ryan? Losing Jordan Taylor will hurt, but four of five starters are back, and the Badgers should remain a tough out … especially at home.

[ Related: No. 1 prospect Shabazz Muhammad ready to make his choice ]

It doesn't end there, as the likes of Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue should all be strong in the middle of the pack.

But, despite the depth, the last two days have solidified Michigan and Indiana as the cream of the league heading into what should be another big year for the Big Ten.

Ryan Greene also covers UNLV and the Mountain West for RunRebs.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanmgreene.

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