Every year it's the same.
At the beginning of the college basketball season, everything seems fresh and undecided. The first snows in Minneapolis are threatening, and the time when the eventual piles start to melt as the season concludes seems very far away.
So, like always, it's hard to believe that March is here, that the 2012-13 season is just weeks from being wrapped up, with a new national champion to be crowned and the memories tucked away for just a while.
But that's where the similarities end. Despite talk this season of college basketball being in a "down" year, filled with offensive struggles and unpredictability, it was also one of the more exciting ones in recent memory, if only because of the unforeseeable peaks and valleys that have shaped this year's story. Every year is unique, which is what makes college basketball great.
Here are my picks for this season -- knowing full well that unexpected things could happen and change in the next two weeks.
Coach of the Year:
How do you not pick Jim Larranaga? The 63-year-old Miami coach has taken the Hurricanes from irrelevant to a national championship contender in just two years, with this season coming out of nowhere. His players play poised and smart, and though the team doesn't have a lot of superstars, he's gotten the best out of all of them.
Player of the Year:
Trey Burke is Michigan, and Michigan is Trey Burke. He's propelled the Wolverines to another level, running this team to great heights despite some preseason doubts of Michigan's strength, by some. The sophomore point guard has scored in double digits in every game, and hasn't scored fewer than 16 since January. Victor Oladipo is trendy and extremely talented, but how do you pick someone who is still subject to the debate of whether he's even the best on his team? Burke's résumé is more than worthy -- and he is the one who makes the Wolverines tick.
Freshman of the Year:
Without Marcus Smart, where exactly would Oklahoma State be? The Cowboys should shudder to think about that. Smart can do just about it all. His decision-making, passing and overall terrific play on both ends of the floor make him one of the favorites.
Projected national champion:
I was tempted to name Gonzaga because quite simply I've really enjoyed watching the Zags this year and, well, who doesn't love an underdog? But I just can't do it with their weak schedule. Duke came to mind as well, but then I thought, "Would that mean I'd have to subliminally root for Duke to substantiate my pick?" I can't have that. So at long last, I settled with Miami, the team that has picked apart the ACC and rushed its way to the top. The loss to Wake Forest only takes off the pressure and keeps this bunch playing loose.
It's tough to consider any conference but the Big Ten, which has had at least three teams in the top 10 for most of the season, while beating up on everyone else. The question is whether the league's teams will be able to keep up the pace after wearing one another out for two months.
RAYNO'S SHORT TAKES
• Ever wonder when and why those giant heads started showing up at college basketball games? SI.com writer George Dohrmann reports that it all started in 2002 with a student section ringleader at San Diego State, who was watching the news when a close-up of the face of Michael Jackson -- who was in court at the time -- appeared on the screen, causing the 25-year-old Connor Mongan to shudder. Inspired, Mongan went to Kinko's to create a giant Jackson face with the hopes that free-throw shooters might have the same reaction. I wonder if he thought the trend would become as prevalent as it is today?
• Not content to simply debate whether Indiana coach Tom Crean is specifically instructing his players to flop, as it has been suggested by many, Deadspin took it to another level, hiring a lip-reader to try to determine what was said in a late-game huddle in the Hoosiers' loss at Minnesota. Soon after, Will Sheehey visibly faked getting elbowed in the eye by Andre Hollins, a hit that simply wasn't made. The lip-reading didn't find anything conclusive, except that Crean appeared to be saying "try to get a foul," while swinging up his elbow in demonstration, but the incident further opened a debate on flopping. There's nothing in the rules against it -- is it strategy or poor sportsmanship? The answer often depends on which team one is a fan of.
• Give it to Wisconsin's Ryan Evans for doing whatever it takes. After becoming the worst free-throw shooter in college basketball in January -- averaging just 38 percent from the stripe at that time -- Evans was desperate for some shred of change. Thus came the jump-shot free throw, which Evans unveiled in Wisconsin's game against Nebraska on Tuesday, in which Evans sank both opportunities he got from the line with a jumper -- a move that's perfectly legal and has been used by a few other struggling shooters over the years.
BIG TEN POWER POLL
1. Indiana: Who ISN'T coming off a loss this week? The Hoosiers didn't play badly, but Cody Zeller needs to step up.
2. Michigan State: Comparatively, the Spartans' two losses didn't look bad. They still haven't lost to an unranked team in the conference schedule.
3. Wisconsin: The Badgers have quietly put together quite the résumé.
4. Michigan: Get it together, Wolverines. Four consecutive road losses -- most recently at Penn State! -- do not spell "national champion."
5. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have rebounded nicely and worked their way back into the picture.
6. Minnesota: A win over No. 1 Indiana could give the Gophers the edge they need.
7. Illinois: A loss at Michigan doesn't stop the forward movement.
8. Iowa: Losing at Nebraska is something this team can't afford.
9. Purdue: Finishing at Wisconsin, against Michigan and against Minnesota isn't going to make life any easier.
10. Northwestern: When your spot is being threatened by Nebraska and Penn State, that's not good.
11. Penn State: Yes, it was their first, but that momentous win over Michigan gives them their first nod out of the basement.
12. Nebraska: The Huskers are showing they won't be a pushover forever.