Monday , Nov , 08 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Big Ten Conference

*** College Basketball Preview – Big Ten Conference ***

The Sports Network

By Frank Haynes, College Basketball Senior Editor

OUTLOOK: The usual suspects should all be in the hunt for the 2004-05 Big Ten
title, with the preseason edge going to Bruce Weber’s Illinois Fighting
Illini. The defending conference champs return all five starters from a team
that won 26 games and reached the NCAA Tournament Atlanta Regional semifinal
last year. Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans are loaded with talent and
should certainly be there at the end, while the defensive-minded Wisconsin
Badgers will once again cause fits for any team that opposes them. Michigan is
coming off a NIT championship and coach Tommy Amaker has the luxury of having
a solid core in place for what he hopes is a NCAA Tournament run. Iowa,
Indiana and Purdue could all make some noise, but more realistically are
little more than middle-of-the-pack teams at this point. Ohio State is an
interesting squad as former Xavier coach Thad Matta is now in control of the
Buckeyes, and Minnesota, a team that many thought would be on the rise last
year with the multi-talented Kris Humphries wearing a Gopher uniform, is
likely to find itself looking up at the rest of the Big Ten for much of the
season. Well, all except for the Penn State Nittany Lions who certainly look
the part of league doormat once again with just two returning starters and a
glaring lack of offensive firepower.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Illinois

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Illinois; 2. Michigan State; 3. Wisconsin;
4.Michigan; 5. Iowa, 6. Indiana; 7. Purdue; 8. Northwestern; 9.Ohio State; 10.
Minnesota; 11. Penn State

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

ILLINOIS – The Illini have arguably the best backcourt in the Big Ten with
Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head all expected to produce big
offensive numbers and solid defensive stats. Williams is the preseason pick to
earn conference Player of the Year honors, and is coming off a season in which
he averaged 14.0 points and 6.2 assists per game. A 40.8 percent shooter from
the floor last year, Williams was nearly as effective from three-point range
(.394). Brown (13.3 ppg, 4.5 apg) and Head (11.0 ppg, 2.6 apg) provide a solid
complement and all three guards are excellent at the defensive end, while
James Augustine (9.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and Roger Powell (11.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg) are as
solid as they come up front. Knowing that the guards will certainly produce,
the effort of the UI big men could be the difference between a successful
season and one for the ages. Injuries will play an important role as well, but
if the Illini stay healthy and perform up to expectations there is no reason
to doubt their ability to repeat as league champs and go deep into the NCAA
Tournament.

MICHIGAN STATE – Producing at the offensive end shouldn’t be a problem for
coach Izzo’s Spartans this season, as the team welcomes back all five
starters, including three who averaged double-digit points last season. The
backcourt trio of Chris Hill (13.8 ppg, 3.9 apg), Kelvin Torbert (10.7 ppg)
and Shannon Brown (7.9 ppg) are highly skilled and should be that much better
with another year of experience, while the frontcourt of senior forward Alan
Anderson (8.1 ppg, 3.2 apg) and junior center Paul Davis (15.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg)
should be able to make solid contributions at both ends of the court. Davis is
the centerpiece of what Spartan fans hope is a return to national prominence,
while Hill is a proven scorer and Torbert the returning Big Ten leader in
three-point shooting (48 percent). The team’s top newcomer is point guard Drew
Neitzel, last year’s Mr. Basketball in the state of Michigan. When MSU was the
team to beat in the conference just a few short years ago, rebounding was its
claim to fame. However, the Spartans are coming off a year in which they
ranked eighth in the conference on the glass, so you can bet Izzo will have
his team crashing the boards with reckless abandonment in an effort to regain
that lofty status.

WISCONSIN – With defense being the Badgers’ mantra, this year’s UW squad
should once again be in a position to challenge for the Big Ten title. Foes
have found it difficult to score points against Wisconsin, whether it be
inside or out on the perimeter, and this season should be no different. Bo
Ryan’s Badgers come into the new campaign missing their top scorer from a year
ago, 2003-04 Big Ten Player of the Year Devin Harris, but there is still
plenty of talent left in place, including returning starter Mike Wilkinson.
Maurice “Boo” Wade was being looked upon as a guy who could really help this
season, but he has taken a leave of absence from the team to take care of some
personal business. Wilkinson was tabbed a preseason All-Big Ten First
Team selection and is coming off a year in which he averaged 13.1 points
and 6.8 rebounds per game. The Badgers get a boost up front with the addition
of 6-11 redshirt freshman Brian Butch, a former McDonald’s All-American who
can score as well as defend. Sharif Chambliss is eligible after sitting out
last season following his transfer from Penn State, while returnees Zach
Morley (8.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Alando Tucker (medical redshirt last year) will
both be asked to make significant contributions.

MICHIGAN – The Wolverines return four of five starters from last year’s NIT
championship team, including leading scorers Lester Abram (13.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg)
and Daniel Horton (12.2 ppg, 3.6 apg). Joining that duo in the starting lineup
are Dion Harris (10.1 ppg), Courtney Sims (7.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and Graham Brown
(4.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg). Horton, who has played in 64 straight games, was named the
Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year in 2002-03, and is expected to raise his level
of play considerably and become one of the league’s premier players. Coach
Amaker likes his team to play something of a free style, relying on pure
athleticism and big plays at both ends of the court. Horton is their best
player, but the Wolverines have talent up and down the roster, so it shouldn’t
surprise anyone to see them challenge for the league title. Rebounding and
limiting turnovers will be paramount to their success, as will getting
consistent effort from the guys in the frontcourt.

IOWA – The pressure is on coach Steve Alford, as his Hawkeyes prepare for what
they hope will be their finest season in some time. The starting lineup will
feature three guys who averaged in double digits last season, including junior
guard Pierre Pierce (16.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 3.7 apg). Pierce is considered one of
the better all-around players in the Big Ten and for good reason. There isn’t
much he can’t do on the basketball court, but for Iowa to be truly successful,
juniors Jeff Horner (13.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.2 apg) and Greg Brunner (10.8 ppg,
8.2 rpg) are both going to have to continue their solid play, and in fact,
kick it up a notch. Transfers Adam Haluska and Doug Thomas have already proven
their worth at the college level and will be counted on to add support at both
ends of the floor, and some of the youngsters who could make an immediate
impact include guard Carlton Reed and forward Alex Thompson. Iowa has just one
winning Big Ten season in the last five years to its credit, so keeping close
to the top of the conference standings all season is crucial for Alford to
maintain his favorable status with both the fans and administration alike.

INDIANA – This could be coach Mike Davis’ best year at Indiana, but it is
imperative that the Hoosiers get off to fast start, get contributions from a
host of guys and play consistent basketball at both ends of the floor. The one
guy Davis doesn’t have to worry about is junior guard Bracey Wright, as he is
arguably one of the premier scorers in the Big Ten and is coming off a season
in which he averaged 18.5 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. Wright, who could
be headed for the professional ranks a year early with another stellar
campaign, is expected to contend for Big Ten Player of the Year honors, but he
will need help to make this a memorable season in Bloomington. Junior guard
Marshall Strickland (10.8 ppg, 2.7 apg) will be Wright’s partner in crime,
while frontcourt players like sophomore Patrick Ewing Jr. and freshman D.J.
White will be counted on heavily to provide the kind of inside presence the
team lacked last year.

PURDUE – The Boilermakers are hoping that the final year of Gene Keady’s
tenure in West Lafayette will be one for the record books. Keady, the Dean of
Big Ten coaches now in his 25th season, is stepping down but not before one
last run at the Big Dance. Former Southern Illinois head man Matt Painter will
be Purdue’s head coach next season, but this is Keady’s swan song and if it’s
going to be successful, the Boilermakers are going to have to play well above
their means. The frontcourt is where the team is likely to struggle most, as
junior forward Matt Kiefer retains his starting spot after averaging just 6.5
ppg last year. Help has arrived in the form of 6-7 juco standout Carl Landry,
but rebounding and offense on the low blocks are likely to be the club’s
Achilles’ heel. The PU backcourt features a pair of returning starters in
junior David Teague and senior Brandon McKnight. The duo combined for 20.5 ppg
last season, but Teague is expected to miss some time to start the year as he
recovers from a broken hand. Keady likes his team to be intense at both ends
of the floor, but an apparent lack in overall talent, particularly in close
the basket, could make for a long season.

NORTHWESTERN – Expectations are high in Evanston this year, as coach Bill
Carmody’s Wildcats are coming off their best Big Ten finish in more than three
decades. NU went a solid 8-8 in conference, earning Carmody Coach of the Year
honors, and the team welcomes back four of five starters. Unfortunately the
one guy who won’t be in uniform is Jitim Young (17.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg), who was
clearly the club’s best player a year ago. This season, that honor will likely
go to junior forward Vedran Vukusic, who averaged 14.3 points and 4.3 caroms
per contest in 2003-04. Junior guard T.J. Parker (8.8 ppg, 4.0 apg) is said to
be stronger this year and will be the team’s floor general, and productive
players like Mohamed Hachad (8.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.3 apg) and Davor Duvancic
(6.3 ppg) could enjoy breakout years. That said, the ‘Cats will likely
struggle on the interior at both ends of the floor, making the perimeter game
that much more important. Expect Northwestern to live and die with the three-
point shot, and some fresh faces who could make their presence known include
Duke transfer Mike Thompson and former St. John’s recruit Tim Doyle.

OHIO STATE – The Buckeye have seen more than their share of turmoil in the
last year or so, and with the ousting of former coach Jim O’Brien, the
administration feels it brought in the guy who can turn the program around and
get it back to not only Big Ten prominence, but nationally as well. Coach
Matta brings an impressive .767 winning percentage to Columbus and he will
certainly have some talent with which to work, primarily in the form of junior
forward Terence Dials (10.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and senior guard Tony Stockman (13.6
ppg, 2.6 apg). J.J. Sullinger (10.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg) can score from his spot in
the backcourt, while talented newcomers Jamar Butler and Je’Kel Foster could
make a splash if given the opportunity. Helping Dials up front, 6-8 sophomore
Ivan Harris, a former McDonald’s All-American, will be asked to contribute
much more than he did as a freshman last year when he averaged just 3.4 ppg.
Overall, expect the Buckeyes to run the floor tirelessly, meaning that the
Buckeyes’ top athletes could have a chance to flourish.

MINNESOTA – With Humphries (21.7 ppg, 10.1 rpg) gone after just one season in
which he became the first freshman to lead the Big Ten in both scoring and
rebounding, and just one starter returning to the fold, coach Dan Monson has
his work cut out for him if the Golden Gophers are to be anything more than a
speed bump on the way to another win for all who oppose them. The team doesn’t
have one double-digit scorer back, although senior Adam Boone was close in
netting 8.4 ppg last season. Boone has an arm injury, however, and he is
expected to be out for the first half of the season at least. The hope is
that some of the new faces, 11 in all, will give the team a fresh look
and perhaps help steal some big wins along the way. Freshman Spencer
Tollackson was named Mr. Basketball in the state of Minnesota last year,
while big things are expected from former Boston College Eagle, and high
school teammate of Humphries, Dan Coleman. A lack of obvious scoring punch
could hurt the Gophers, but where the team really needs to improve is at the
defensive end as it was ranked last in the conference last year in points
allowed.

PENN STATE – Having won just eight league games over the past three seasons,
the Nittany Lions couldn’t be much worse. Second-year coach Ed DeChellis
doesn’t have much to work with this year, although the continued progress of
youngsters Marlon Smith and Ben Luber will certainly help. Smith led the team
in scoring last year (13.4 ppg), but he needs to develop a more consistent
shooting touch, while Luber contributed 6.8 ppg but really earned his keep by
getting his teammates involved with a team-high 4.1 apg. In addition to those
two, look for junior Aaron Johnson to become a force following a year in which
we averaged 9.7 points and 6.5 caroms per contest. Johnson has good size at
6-9, 240, and will get help in the frontcourt from 6-5, 240-pound juco
transfer Travis Parker. Taking care of the basketball and scoring were the two
key areas Penn State needed to address in the offseason. While DeChellis and
his staff did their best to add some integral pieces, it remains to be seen
whether or not that will translate into wins.