Tuesday , Nov , 08 , 2005 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: Balance is expected to be the order of the day in the Big Ten this
season, as the race for the conference crown figures to involve as many as six
or possibly seven teams. The usual suspects will almost certainly take the
lead, with Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans the pick to be left standing
when the dust settles in early March. MSU, owners of 10 Big Ten titles, hasn’t
hoisted the league’s regular season trophy since 2001, but is coming off its
sixth Final Four appearance and with the return of three double-digit scorers,
the Spartans will be a serious force on both the Big Ten and national scenes.
Mike Davis should have his Indiana Hoosier primed for a run at the league’s
top prize after reaching the NIT a year ago and getting an infusion of help
from both younger players and talented transfers. Illinois, which was hit hard
with the loss of several key figures from last year’s stellar 37-2 team that
won both the Big Ten’s regular season and conference tournament titles, and
lost to North Carolina in the national championship game, should still have
enough in the tank to make a go of it with the super-talented Dee Brown back
in the fold. Could this be the year Tommy Amaker gets his Michigan Wolverines
to the top? There are some who think so, while squads at Ohio State, Iowa,
Minnesota and Wisconsin will attempt a run at Big Ten supremacy but will
likely fall short in the end. While anything can happen, and likely will, the
only thing that is nearly a guarantee is that Purdue, Northwestern and Penn
State will battle to stay out of the league basement all season long.


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


MICHIGAN STATE – In addition to the accolades bestowed upon the Spartans
mentioned in the opening, MSU has won two national championships, the most
recent coming in 2000. In order for them to claim their third title, the
second under Izzo, the Spartans will need big-time efforts from a slew of
highly-skilled players, the most notable being guards Maurice Ager and Shannon
Brown as well as center Paul Davis. All three scored in double figures on a
consistent basis for Michigan State in 2004-05, with Davis (12.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg)
being the cornerstone to what the Spartans hope to accomplish this season,
which is bang the boards and score easy baskets in transition. Ager (14.1 ppg,
3.9 rpg) and Brown (10.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg) make up one of the top backcourts in
the Big Ten, but key guys like 6-8 forward Marquise Gray and efficient point
guard Drew Neitzel will also be looked upon to produce rather than simply fill
a role. Rebounding will be the key to the Spartans’ success this season, as
the once dominant team in the Big Ten in terms of cleaning the glass, gets
back to what it does best. Davis is one of the top big men in the country, and
if the team stays healthy, there is no reason to think this won’t be another
banner year in East Lansing.

INDIANA – Mike Davis finally has some players with which to work, meaning this
is the year the Hoosiers need to challenge for the Big Ten title and earn a
NCAA Tournament bid. The loss of former standout Bracey Wright definitely
hurts, but the hope is guys like D.J. White, Marshall Strickland and Robert
Vaden, along with top-flight newcomers Marco Killingsworth and Lewis Monroe
(both ex-Auburn Tigers), will return Indiana to its rightful place in the Big
Ten hierarchy. White and Killingsworth should give IU a bruising inside
presence as both can score and bang with the best of them. In fact, White is
coming off a year in which he averaged 13.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.2
blocks per game, while Killingsworth led the SEC in field goal percentage as
both a sophomore and junior, and is one of only 10 players in Auburn history
to amass 1,000 points and 500 rebounds. Vaden (10.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.1 apg) and
Strickland (7.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.4 apg) give the Hoosiers options, something
Davis will need if he is to keep his team fresh and in contention all season
long. Guard A.J. Ratliff was recently lost for an undetermined amount of time
due to a thumb injury, but the hope in Bloomington this season is that should
one guy go down, others will be chomping at the bit to fill his shoes.

ILLINOIS – How good have the Illini been the last few years? Well consider
that head coach Bruce Weber, now entering his third season at the helm, owns
an eye-popping 63-9 record. While this should be a down year by UI’s
standards, the team should still contend in the Big Ten. The Illini’s hopes
rest squarely on the shoulders of superstar guard Dee Brown and solid forward
James Augustine. As the only two holdovers from last year’s incredible
starting five, Brown (13.3 ppg, 4.5 apg) and Augustine (10.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg)
will be asked to lead by example and help raise the overall play of several
fresh faces, including former Illinois State Redbird Marcus Arnold and
sophomore Shaun Pruitt, both of whom are looking forward to helping in the
frontcourt. Joining Brown in what was once the premier backcourt in the
country, is expected to be sophomore Brian Randle, who missed last season with
a hand injury. The 2004-05 Illini set a school record with a whopping 344
three-pointers, but getting anywhere near that number this year will prove
extremely difficult as the team simply lacks the long-range threats it has had
in the past. Still, Weber’s club will almost certainly be in the thick of
things so long as Brown stays healthy and is up to the enormous challenge of
carrying a team that while talented, lacks the electricity of last year’s

MICHIGAN – With their dismal 13-18 record (4-12 in the Big Ten) from last
season hopefully behind them, the Wolverines are the trendy pick to challenge
for this year’s Big Ten title. Amaker has arguably his best team since
arriving in Ann Arbor five years ago, with guys like Dion Harris (14.3 ppg,
3.5 apg) and Daniel Horton (12.4 ppg, 4.2 apg) ready to lead the Maize and
Blue to the lofty heights many expect it will reach this season. Horton is
apparently back in the university’s good graces following a 12-game suspension
last season, while Harris and Lester Abram (coming back from injury) round out
what promises to be one of the Big Ten’s best backcourts. Up front, Courtney
Sims and Graham Brown are the team’s top options, but both averaged fewer than
10 ppg last year in playing more than 23 minutes per contest. 6-11 senior
forward Chris Hunter is a guy who could enjoy a breakout campaign after
netting 9.3 ppg last season, but the Wolverines will have to start the year
without 6-8 junior Brent Petway who is academically ineligible for the first
semester. The hope is that Harris, Abram, Brown and Hunter will all be healthy
this year, and if that is indeed the case, there is no reason to think
Michigan can’t take the next step in its climb up the Big Ten ladder.

OHIO STATE – Year two of Thad Matta’s tenure in Columbus should be even better
than his first when the Buckeyes finished a solid 20-12 overall, but just 8-8
in conference. A self-imposed ban for past indiscretions cost OSU a shot at
the postseason, but Matta has done a sensational job in his short time at the
school, setting the program up for years to come by recruiting a slew of top-
notch players. For now, the Buckeyes will rely heavily on the talents of
returning contributors Terence Dials (15.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg), J.J. Sullinger (9.7
ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Matt Sylvester (8.0 ppg). Dials is the focal point of the
OSU offense, but he will get help from any a number of players, including
forward Ivan Harris and guard Je’Kel Foster. Add former juco ALl-American
Sylvester Mayes and sharp-shooting rookie Ron Lewis to the mix and Ohio State
could certainly finish in the upper half of the Big Ten standings this season.
Rebounding will be the key to the Buckeyes’ success, as the team needs to do a
much better job of clearing the glass than it did last year when it finished
with a negative rebounding margin. The Buckeyes will probably be better next
year and even better the year after, but another 20-win season here in 2005-06
is certainly within reach.

IOWA – This may be Steve Alford’s best team in his six years at Iowa, but
duplicating last year’s 21-12 mark may by tough to do. More importantly,
however, finishing on the plus side of things in Big Ten play is the goal
after going a disappointing 7-9 last season. With plenty of experience and
some gifted athletes, Alford may finally get the credit he has been longing
for. But in order for the Hawkeyes to claim their first Big Ten regular season
title since 1979, guys like Greg Brunner (14.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg), Adam Haluska
(14.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and Jeff Horner (14.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 5.5 apg) will need to
carry the team most nights. Sure, there will be help from others, but it will
be up to UI’s big three to lead by example. 6-11 senior Erek Hansen will
likely start at center, but brings little more than defensive prowess to the
table, while versatile forward Alex Thompson is expected to continue his
development and become one of the team’s go-to guys at some point. The key to
Iowa’s success this season lies in its ability to stay healthy. With little
room for error, the Hawkeyes need to perform at the level expected to make a
return trip to the NCAA Tournament.

MINNESOTA – 2004-05 was a remarkable year for Dan Monson’s Golden Gophers, as
the posted a solid 21-11 mark, which included a 10-6 ledger in the Big Ten
Play. What’s so remarkable you ask? Well, when you consider Minnesota was just
3-13 against its league brethren the year before, that’s one impressive
turnaround. With the past now, well in the past, it’s time for the Gophers to
turn their attention to the 2005-06 season. This isn’t likely to be as
enjoyable a campaign for Monson’s crew, as only Vincent Grier possesses the
kind of star potential to carry a team. Grier has been tabbed by several
sources as a potential All-American, and rightfully so after the 6-5 swingman
averaged 17.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game last season,
shooting 47.1 percent from the field in playing 36 minutes per contest in all
32 games. The return of Dan Coleman (8.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg) will help, as will the
possible emergence of 6-9 sophomore Spencer Tollackson, but where Monson and
his Gophers really hope to get a shot in the arm is in the backcourt, as
seniors Adam Boone and Maurice Hargrow are back after both sat out last
season. The two have combined for more than 1,200 points in their careers and
will join Grier to give the Gophers a rather formidable offensive attack. Keep
an eye on sophomore guard Rico Tucker, an athletic guy who can do a lot of
different things on the floor, but who could get squeezed for minutes by the
numbers the Gophers have in the backcourt.

WISCONSIN – The Badgers, under the watchful eye of fifth-year head coach Bo
Ryan, will once again be among the better defensive teams in the Big Ten, but
outside of star forward Alando Tucker, where is the offense going to come
from? Tucker (15.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg) teamed with Mike Wilkinson last year to give
Wisconsin a solid one-two punch. Unfortunately, Wilkinson is now playing his
ball in Greece, leaving Tucker and guys like Kammron Taylor (8.4 ppg) and
Brian Butch (3.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg) to lead the way, the latter of course needing
to raise his level of play significantly now that it appears he will log more
than the 9.7 minutes per game he did as a freshman last year. Additional help
is likely to come from 6-11 sophomore Greg Stiemsma as well as the club’s lone
senior, 6-7 forward Ray Nixon, but Tucker is obviously the key component to
any and all success the Badgers achieve this season. A supremely gifted
athlete, Tucker lives for the big game, shooting 50.5 percent from the field
against ranked foes last year. Ryan is the first coach in Big Ten history to
win at least 11 games in each of his first four seasons in the conference,
while also guiding the Badgers to two regular season league crowns and four
straight NCAA Tournament appearances — meaning, as long as he is on the
bench, Wisconsin has a chance at greatness.

PURDUE – The Matt Painter era gets underway in West Lafayette this season, as
the former Southern Illinois head man takes over for the legendary Gene Keady.
Painter, a Purdue alum, spent last season as Associate Head Coach during
Keady’s farewell tour, which was anything but memorable from a “success-on-
the-court” standpoint, as the Boilermakers won just seven of 28 games,
including a dismal 3-13 tally in Big Ten play. That said, Painter helped
Purdue land some top-notch recruits and the future is likely to become
brighter. The Boilermakers’ hopes for the 2005-06 season rest on the
surgically-repaired knee of senior forward Carl Landry, who wound up ranking
second in the Big Ten in both scoring (18.2 ppg) and field goal percentage
(.677) last year. David Teague (14.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Matt Kiefer (9.0 ppg,
4.9 rpg) will both be asked to stem the tide until Landry gets his feet under
him, while a guy like former juco All-American Tarrance Crump is expected to
lead the team at the point. Painter will have his Boilermakers playing an up-
tempo style, serving some of the more athletic players on the roster very
well. And while the fruits of their labor may not be evident from the outset,
expect Purdue to play more competitively once league play rolls around in
early January.

NORTHWESTERN – Although they finished four games under .500 in Big Ten play
last season (6-10), there is reason for optimism heading into the 2005-06
campaign for the Wildcats, as a pair of double-digit scorers return as well as
a couple of players who transferred in from two of college basketball’s truly
elite programs. Former Kentucky recruit Bernard Cote’ is expected to give the
Northwestern frontcourt a serious boost, as he will join 6-8 senior Vedran
Vukusic (16.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.3 apg) in giving coach Bill Carmody some options
with which to work. Former Duke Blue Devil, Michael Thompson, is hoping this
is the year he lives up to his vast potential after averaging 10.2 points and
4.8 caroms per contest with the ‘Cats last season. In the NU backcourt, expect
Mohamed Hachad, Michael Jenkins and Evan Seacat to play integral roles, and
while Hachad was the leading scorer in that bunch at 8.6 ppg last year, all
three will need to produce at both ends of the floor for the team to enjoy any
kind of sustained success. Carmody preaches a free-flowing passing game in
order to set up the best shot possible, and this season isn’t likely to be
much different. It just remains to be seen whether the Wildcats will have
someone step forward to take over the point guard duties from departed
standout T.J. Parker.

PENN STATE – The proverbial doormat in the Big Ten the last few years, The
Nittany Lions are a team big on heart, but short on talent. Ed DeChellis
certainly had his work cut out for him when he abandoned his post at East
Tennessee State and took over at his alma mater three years ago, and while few
expected a dramatic turnaround, things continue to look pretty bleak in Happy
Valley. Penn State has won a grand total of nine league games the last four
seasons combined. So with that in mind, the guess is that the Lions can only
go up from here, right? Well, not quite. DeChellis has just two returning
double-digit scorers at his disposal, and neither averaged more than 12.7 ppg,
that being 6-5 swingman Geary Claxton. Senior forward Travis Parker (11.4 ppg,
5.4 rpg) is expected to see the bulk of the touches in the PSU frontcourt now
that Aaron Johnson has taken his game to New Mexico, but help also comes in
the form of sophomore Brandon Hassell and potentially from 6-6 freshman
Jamelle Cornley. Ben Luber is back to direct the team from the point, while
Claxton and Mike Walker return for their sophomore seasons. The Lions recently
lost second-year shooting guard Danny Morrissey (7.7 ppg) to a serious knee
injury, and his absence will certainly be felt.