Big ten conference preview

Michael Dougherty

Buckle up folks, the college basketball season is underway, and along with it comes ESPN’s Big Monday, Super Tuesday, Oh Dear God it’s Wednesday, Tape-Friends-and-ER-Cuz-it’s-Thursday and every other wacky names the cable channel gives its impressive lineup of college basketball telecasts.
But with the basketball season just a few games into its infancy and the college football season winding down, most people are just getting refreshed in College Hoops 101.
We have yet to get sick of Dick Vitale euphemisms like “dipsy-doo dunkaroos,” “diaper dandies” or “trifectas.” Nor has that “Happy Action Fun Time” ad on ESPN entered the realm of annoyance.
Subsequently, with the gradual transfusion of college hoops into our blood comes a bevy of predictions. And we would feel left out here at the Daily if we did not offer up some sort of prediction for the upcoming Big Ten season.
Thus, we provide a prognostication which is (all apologies to Dicky V.) “Awesome baby, with a capital A.” However, we also “Advise baby, with a capital A” not to bet all of your meal money on the following picks, which are in projected order of regular-season finish.

1997-98 record 22-8 overall, 13-3 Big Ten, T-1st.
Key returners: Mateen Cleaves, G, 6-2, jr., 16.1 ppg, 7.2 apg; Jason Klein, F, 6-7, sr., 11.2 ppg; Charlie Bell, G, 6-3, so., 9.2 ppg.
Outlook: After losing to North Carolina in the Sweet 16 of last season’s NCAA tournament, the Spartans are everyone’s pick to win the Big Ten.
With all five starters and 11 letter winners returning, Michigan State lost only DuJuan Wiley (6.3 ppg) and Ken Miller (0.7 ppg).
Cleaves, a first team All American, has another year of maturity behind him, but Spartans coach Tom Izzo said he still has a way to go.
“His shooting and his consistency have to improve, and I think he knows that,” Izzo said.
When asked to compare Cleaves to former Spartans point guard Magic Johnson, Izzo said analogies like that are a little off-base because of one important thing.
“His (Cleaves) biggest strength is his defense, with leadership second and wanting to win third,” Izzo said, “compared to Magic Johnson, who had winning first and foremost.”
Izzo said the focus on his team, which is currently ranked ninth in the country, has shifted from being the hunter to being the hunted, and Cleaves said he agrees.
“A lot of teams will be shooting for us,” he said. “We’ve got a big bull’s-eye on our uniforms.”

1997-98 record: 28-8, 12-4, 3rd
Key returners: Jaraan Cornell, G, 6-3, jr., 12.8 ppg; Brian Cardinal, F, 6-8, jr., 12.0 ppg; Alan Eldridge, G, 6-1, sr., 7.6 ppg.

Outlook: After losing to Stanford in the Sweet 16, and with the loss of more than 34 ppg when Chad Austin and Brad Miller graduated, coach Gene Keady said he isn’t worried about replacing the points from Miller and Austin on his 14th-ranked squad.
“Everybody on our team thinks they can replace the scorers,” he said.
Keady said with vast improvements on teams like Ohio State, Northwestern and Minnesota, the title is up in the air.
Eldridge, meanwhile, who played on the 1996-97 Big Ten championship team, said he has just one worry.
“We’re just not very tall,” he said. “We have excellent ball handlers, though, and I know what it takes to win a Big Ten championship.”
Cardinal is the emotional leader, and Gophers coach Clem Haskins said, “Cardinal just knows how to win games.”
Keady is an intense coach, who has a knack for getting the most out of his players. Look for sophomore guard Carson Cunningham to make an immediate impact after sitting out a year upon transferring from Oregon State.

1997-98 record: 20-15, 6-10, 8th.
Key returners: Kevin Clark, G, 6-2, sr., 11.6 ppg; Quincy Lewis, F, 6-7, sr., 14.5 ppg; Miles Tarver, F, 6-8, sr., 6.3 rpg.
Outlook: Haskins has a deep team that rivals the 1997 Final Four team, as well as potential Big Ten Freshman of the Year 7-foot-1 center Joel Przybilla.
With Przybilla, 6-foot-11 F/C Kyle Sanden and 6-foot-10 F/C Antoine Broxsie, Haskins has the tallest and arguably the most talented front court in the conference.
Racehorse Clark has the ability to take over a game single-handedly, and Lewis has an extremely accurate jumpshot. The duo showed what they are capable of in leading the team to last season’s NIT Championship.
With transfer guards Terrance Simmons (LSU) and Mitch Onhstad (Cal Poly SLO), the Gophers have good ball handlers who can hit the jump shots when needed.
But the key to the team’s success will be the ability to adjust for Przybilla.
“He will be the best center I’ve ever coached in my 20 years,” Haskins said of Przybilla.
Combine the height, the speed and the depth, and there is no reason this team cannot compete for the title and advance far in the NCAA tournament.

1997-98 record: 20-12, 9-7, T 5th.
Key returners: A.J. Guyton, G, 6-1, jr., 16.8 ppg; Luke Recker, G/F, 6-6, so., 12.8 ppg; William Gladness, F, 6-8, sr., 8.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg.
Outlook: Hoosiers coach Bobby Knight concedes his No. 13 team has a lack of a big man, joking that 6-foot-4 freshman guard Dane Fife “might be our center.”
But the controversial coach was not joking when he talked about the importance of a presence in the middle.
“Nobody is ever going to win big relying on the perimeter game in basketball,” Knight said. “You’ve got to rebound and play under the basket to win.”
Guyton has proved he is worthy of All-American talk when he was part of Haskins’ gold medal-winning Goodwill Games team. But Knight said he needs to improve his play away from the ball.
Senior guard Rob Turner’s return from academic troubles last spring will help the team, as will the addition of Antwaan Randle El, who was recently named the Big Ten football freshman of the year for the Hoosiers.
“I would have bet the farm in March that he wouldn’t play basketball this year,” Knight said of Turner. “But he made a helluva turnaround academically.”

1997-98 record: 8-22, 1-15, 11th.
Key returners: Michael Redd, G, 6-5, so., 21.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg; Jason Singleton, G/F, 6-6, sr., 10.7 ppg; Jon Sanderson, F/G, 6-7, so., 9.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg.
Outlook: The key to Ohio State’s turnaround from a horrible year as the conference doormat will be Redd’s scoring coupled with point guard Scoonie Penn’s leadership.
Coach Jim O’Brien said the addition of Penn, who came to Ohio State with O’Brien from Boston College after the 1996-97 season, will take some of the pressure off defending Big Ten scoring champ Redd.
“The perception of Redd is that he’s a good player who scored a lot of points on a bad team,” O’Brien said.
Many consider the Buckeyes to be the most improved team in the conference, and the team’s move into its new arena, the Jerome Schottenstein Center, is creating a lot of excitement around the Ohio State campus, especially now that the football team is out of the national championship hunt.

1997-98 record: 10-17, 3-13, T 9th.
Key returners: Evan Eschmeyer, C, 6-11, sr., 21.7 ppg, 10.7 rpg; Julian Bonner, G, 6-1, sr., 9.0 ppg; Sean Wink, G, 6-2, so., 12.1 ppg.
Outlook: Coach Kevin O’Neill stated the obvious when he said, “We’ll be as good as Eschmeyer is.”
Eschmeyer, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility in the off-season because of a stress fracture in his leg which caused him to miss his first two seasons, is one of the premier big men in the country.
O’Neill said, “Esch did as good of a gob at getting better in the off-season as anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Eschmeyer agreed with his coach, adding he is stronger than ever.
“I knew if I put the time in, I could put the weight on,” he said. “Anytime you can be stronger than someone else it’s an advantage.”
O’Neill said his team will have to rely on freshmen like point guard David Newman for his team to improve.
“Obviously there will be some days when I feel like killing him, and there will be days when he feels like killing me,” O’Neill said of Newman. “He looks like he’s in eighth grade and he acts like it in practice.”
However, O’Neill admits if a proposal to make freshman ineligible was passed, his squad would be in trouble.
“If we couldn’t play our freshmen this year, we’d have the same (horrible) team we had last year,” he said.
O’Neill also said Michigan State is not a lock to win the title by any means.

1997-98 record: 19-13, 8-8, 7th.
Key returners: Calvin Booth, C, 6-11, sr., 11.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg; Jarrett Stephens, F, 6-7, sr., 13.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg; Dan Earl, G, 6-4, sr. 8.4 ppg.
Outlook: The Lions lost leading scorer Pete Lisicky to graduation, but gained guard Dan Earl, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility.
Earl seems to have recovered from a back injury that kept him out of the 1996-97 season, and a knee injury which sidelined him for all but five games last year. In three games so far, he is averaging 14.3 ppg, and his presence along with Booth and Stephens should allow Penn State to win some big games.
Booth is the key. His height and athleticism should enable him to be a dominant force, but he continues to underachieve. But Booth said he is ready to accept a leadership role.
“I feel I’m underrated offensively,” he said. “I’m glad to finally be the number one option offensively.”
The Lions were NIT runners-up last season, losing to the Gophers 79-72 in the championship game. And Lions coach Jerry Dunn said Booth has finally developed into a leader.
“He’s playing with more confidence and is starting to become a go-to guy,” he said.
Dunn spent the off-season as an assistant on Haskins’ Goodwill Game team, and if Earl and Stephens (ACL injury) stay healthy, the Lions could surprise.

1997-98 record: 20-11, 9-7, T 5th.
Key returners: Kent McClausland, G, 6-3, sr., 9.6 ppg; Dean Oliver, G, 5-11, so., 8.8 ppg; J.R. Koch, F, 6-10, sr., 6.9 ppg.
Outlook: The Hawkeyes lost three starters and a combined 37 ppg with the graduation of Ricky Davis, Ryan Bowen and Darryl Moore.
However, coach Tom Davis will have emotion on his side as he enjoys his 13th and final year as Hawkeyes coach.
A key to Iowa’s success will be the ability of Jess Settles to return from an injury which occurred in November of 1996, and the possible return of former Wisconsin standout Sam Okey.
Okey transferred to Iowa after getting into some trouble while at Wisconsin, and he has struggled to gain eligibility academically. But Davis said if Okey stays on track he could return for the Minnesota game in mid-January.
Settles has played sparingly in Iowa’s first two games (both wins), but he has shown an ability to be able to contribute.
Center Guy Rucker and Koch lead the team in scoring so far at 13 ppg and 10 ppg, respectively.
Davis said he expects some contributions from 7-foot-2 center Antonio Ramos of De LaSalle high school in Minneapolis.
“You need patience with a big guy like that who needs to be developed,” he said of Ramos.

1997-98 record: 12-19, 3-13, T 9th.
Key returners: Sean Mason, G, 6-2, sr., 15.5 ppg; Ty Calderwood, G, 6-0, sr., 8.8 ppg; Hennsy Auriantal, G, 6-1, sr., 7.2 ppg.
Outlook: With four guards returning, coach Dick Bennett’s squad will be relying on perimeter play to win.
“Last year stung all of us,” Bennett said. “But they’ve all acted appropriately.”
Bennett said his team needs some help in the middle, but admits without it the guard play will be vital.
“If you don’t have a dominate center you’re better off with mobility,” Bennett said. “In a game of quickness you can find ways to play. You can never have too many point guards on the floor at one time.”
Calderwood has been slowed by injuries in the past, but Bennett said he appears 100 percent healthy.
Bennett also said he agrees that Michigan State is the best team in the conference, admitting, “they have earned it.”

1997-98 record: 25-9, 11-5, 4th.
Key returners: Louis Bullock, G, 6-3, sr., 17.1 ppg; Robbie Reid, G, 6-2, sr., 8.2 ppg.
Outlook: What a difference a year can make. Michigan won the inaugural Big Ten Tournament last season, but lost Robert “Tractor” Traylor, Maceo Baston, Jerod Ward and Travis Conlan to graduation.
Second-year coach Brian Ellerbe finally had the interim removed from his title, and for some strange reason he said he is “extremely excited about the season.”
Bullock will be a study scorer on this team, and also the only one. Ellerbe said he expects scoring help from sophomores Josh Asselin and Brandon Smith.
Bullock said he knows how important of a leadership role he and Reid will have to assume, and downplays the significance of the four players who graduated.
“Other teams have losses too,” he said. “If we go saying what we don’t have, instead of what we do have, we won’t win.”

1997-98 record: 23-10, 13-3, T 1st.
Key returners: Sergio McClain, G/F, 6-3, so., 3.5 ppg; Arias Davis, G, 6-2, sr., 3.2 ppg; Victor Chukwudebe, F, 6-7, jr., 2.0 ppg.
Outlook: Ouch! Illinois lost all five starters from last season’s co-champs, and coach Lon Kruger said he knows it will be a tough year. That is the understatement of the year.
“There’s not many faces returning,” he said. “I have as many new faces as any team I’ve been around.”
With only 10 scholarship players on the team, McClain and Chukwudebe will have to carry the load.
The Northwestern team of 1990-91 is the only team since World War II to go winless in the conference. The fighting-for-your-life Illini are likely to join them.

Big Ten Player of the Year
Mateen Cleaves has the definite inside track to win the award, but A.J. Guyton and Evan Eschmeyer could challenge. It’s not as risky as Linda Tripp going out on a dead limb of an oak tree, but we’ll go with Cleaves.

All-Big Ten Team
Cleaves, Guyton and Eschmeyer are locks. Louis Bullock will put up some good numbers on a bad team, and 1997 Big Ten scoring champ and Freshman of the Year Michael Redd, will round out the top five. Minnesota’s Lewis and Clark expedition will find its way to a spot on the second team.

Big Ten Freshman of the Year
At the risk of sounding like a homer, Minnesota’s Joel Przybilla will take home this hardware.

Big Ten Coach of the Year
With regrets to Clem and Coach Izzo of Michigan State, Ohio State’s Jim O’Brien will get this award for turning around a team that went 1-15. Haskins and Izzo will fight it out for second.