Steve Fisher holds back when talking about his top-ranked Michigan Wolverines. He has no qualms about telling the world about his conference.
The Big Ten has four teams in the preseason Associated Press college basketball poll, and Fisher's band of sophomores was on top, with Indiana fourth, Iowa 11th and Michigan State 20th. Three other leagues -- the Big Eight, Atlantic Coast Conference and Big East -- have four teams each, but Fisher wasn't biting.
"I think the conference will be much better than it has been in years. We had two teams in the Final Four last year and this is the strongest the league has been since I came to Michigan," said Fisher, an assistant at Michigan since 1981. "Without question we are the No. 1 league in America. You can make a case for even putting another team in the Top 25. It's a great league."
Michigan lost to Duke in the NCAA title game last season and Indiana fell to the Blue Devils in the semifinals. Nine of those Big Ten Final Four starters are back, including Michigan's Fab Five freshman class.
"I think it says a lot of people recognize the quality of our players and program and the strengths are perceived to be that good," Fisher said. "But there are 10 or 12 teams good enough to be considered the No. 1 team. I think we are one of those teams, but how good? I don't know."
Michigan, which was last ranked No. 1 in the 1977 final regular-season poll, received 23 of the 65 first-place votes and 1,536 points from the nationwide panel of sportswriters and broadcasters. Kansas, second in the final regular-season poll last year, had 19 first-place votes and 1,513 points to take the same spot eight months later.
Two-time defending champion Duke, which lost Player of the Year Christian Laettner to graduation, was named first on 15 ballots and had 1,504 points, 15 more than Indiana, which was No. 1 on six ballots.
The top four teams will have a tournament of their own on Dec. 5 when Michigan is at Duke and Kansas is at Indiana.
Michigan, led by Chris Webber and Jalen Rose, was never higher than No. 11 last season and entered the NCAA tournament ranked 15th.
"We got hot, white hot, at the right time last year and still only finished tied for third in our conference," Fisher said. "I think our players are smart enough to realize we haven't scored a basket or stopped one yet and those are the things we have to do consistently and very well to be as good a team as I'd like us to be."