CHICAGO — When Trevor Mbakwe looks at the men's basketball preseason polls and sees the Gophers consistently ranked in the bottom half of the Big Ten, he isn't convinced.
Sure, the Gophers are coming off a disappointing season, lost some talent and will have to depend on new faces. But from the way he sees it, if you take out heavy favorite Ohio State, most other Big Ten teams are in the same boat.
"I think we're underestimated," he said at Thursday's Big Ten media day. "But I think we're definitely going to surprise people. We're just going to come out and prove ourselves and show it. I think there's a lot of teams in the mix. We could easily finish second or we could finish ninth; that just shows how good our league is this year."
Mbakwe is not the only one that feels that way. In a conference that boasts more parity than in recent memory, coaches are viewing the season as a dogfight: bitter until the end and anybody's game.
"I think the Gophers could do a lot better than people think if their guard play is good," Michigan State Tom Izzo said.
The Gophers are one of several teams that could be a little short of this, just a little inexperienced at that. The group is so close that even reporters covering Big Ten teams have trouble ranking them.
In a 24-member media poll released Wednesday, Ohio State was the unanimous selection for first place, while teams in the murky middle ground were tabbed all over the place. The Gophers received votes as high as No. 3 and as low as 10. Indiana was tabbed between 5 and 12; Purdue between 2 and 9.
"It's not as set anymore and it's a little more wide open, but you'd better come ready every night, I know that," said Iowa's Fran McCaffery, coach of one of the teams crammed somewhere in the middle.
This year, just like last year, the Buckeyes are expected to take control. A team with Jared Sullinger, William Buford and Aaron Craft, coached by Thad Matta, will do that.
McCaffery says what makes the rest of the crowd so tight is not the lack of talent, but the even spread of it. Last year, he points out, there were a few teams that were heavier than most in experience and top players. This year, the goods are more evenly distributed: Jordan Taylor at Wisconsin, Tim Hardaway Jr. at Michigan, Robbie Hummel at Purdue, Draymond Green at Michigan State, exciting freshman Cody Zeller at Indiana, Brandon Paul at Illinois, Melsahn Basabe at Iowa.
"Last year, if you were at the bottom, you thought, 'How do you move up? Who are you going to have to beat?' " McCaffery said. "A lot of [the best players] graduated. So that gives you a little more room for hey maybe we can get up in the mix. It's going to be fun."
What will distinguish other teams from the rest of the pack, Izzo said, is defense and leadership. But Michigan's John Beilein said he envisions conference records to simply look diminished as teams beat up on each other.
"No. 2 through 10 or 11 could be anybody in any order," Beilein said. "I think we're all motivated. Very rarely are you going to have the 14-2 type of teams. And we've had a few of those for the last few years. There's going to be a lot of 8-8's out there."
But that, coaches say, is a more exciting season and better for fans. Even an "underestimated" team such as the Gophers has a chance to do some damage on any given night. At least, that's the perception.
"I do think there's a lot more parity in the league this year than there was last year," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "It's a matter of whose teams are playing best at a particular time."