Minnesota picked to finish 10th in Big Ten

Zach Eisendrath

Big Ten basketball media day provided Minnesota’s men’s basketball team with plenty of motivation as it gears up for the 2006-07 season.

Coach Dan Monson, junior guard Lawrence McKenzie, junior center Spencer Tollackson and junior forward Dan Coleman made the trip to the Chicago Marriott O’Hare, and they likely left with an extra chip on their shoulder.

That’s because the Gophers have been picked by the media to finish 10th in the Big Ten, edging out only Northwestern, which is picked to finish last.

McKenzie said hearing about where the media has Minnesota projected to finish motivates him to prove the critics wrong.

“We have a lot of guys who don’t get enough respect,” McKenzie said. “I look at the magazines, I look at the readings and it is a motivator. It’s a big motivator. Any competitor is going to see that and will want to do their best to prove everybody wrong.”

Being picked to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten is nothing new to Tollackson, however. Two years ago, during his freshman campaign, Minnesota was also left for dead by the media. But he said the people involved with the team on a day-to-day basis know what it’s capable of.

“I think that the guys on this team this year and that are associated with our program Ö are really confident and know what we are doing,” he said.

Tollackson said he sees a lot of similarities between the team that was picked to finish 10th two years ago, then surprised everybody with a fourth-place finish in the conference and an NCAA Tournament berth.

However, Monson said he doesn’t necessarily want to compare this year’s team to that team. First, he said, this year’s team needs to learn the level of commitment that team had.

If the Gophers are going to prove their doubters wrong, Monson said he is going to have to create new stars.

“We need to get some guys that aren’t household names in Minnesota, let alone in the Big Ten, to step up and compete at this level,” he said. “That’s a daunting task.”

Reunited

Familiar faces got an opportunity to share the same room on Sunday when McKenzie joined his former coach, Kelvin Sampson, at media day.

Sampson is about to begin his first year at Indiana after a 12-year stint at Oklahoma where he compiled a 279-109 record.

McKenzie played two years for Sampson at Oklahoma before choosing to transfer to Minnesota.

Sampson said McKenzie was a large reason why the Sooners won the Big 12 championship in 2004-05 and he should make an immediate impact for the Gophers.

“Lawrence has no fear in taking a big shot,” Sampson said. “He’s fearless. He takes big shots and makes them. I think he’s going to have a good year for Minnesota. I think Minnesota will be better with Lawrence McKenzie on the floor.”

McKenzie said he has no ill-will towards his old coach.

“There is not any bad blood between me and coach Sampson at all,” he said. “It’s great to hear that from a guy I formerly played for.”

Tucker named top player

Wisconsin’s Alando Tucker was named preseason Big Ten Player of the Year on Sunday.

The versatile 6-foot, 6-inch senior, who plays both guard and forward positions, averaged 19.0 points and 5.7 rebounds per game last season.

Tucker said he has high expectations for himself and the Badgers.

“I always set my goals high,” he said. “With the team that we have now, I can truly say its one of the deepest teams, as far as depth at every position, that I’ve played on.

“I never put in hard work to try and gather any individual accolades. It just came because over time I’ve also been devoted to helping Wisconsin win.”

Indiana sophomore forward D.J. White, Iowa senior guard Adam Haluska, Penn State junior guard Geary Claxton and Ohio State freshman center Greg Oden round out the Big Ten Preseason All-Conference Team.

Wisconsin senior guard Kammron Taylor, who averaged 14.2 points and knocked down 67 three-pointers last season, said the preseason rankings won’t allow the Badgers to surprise anybody.

The ninth-ranked Badgers (236 votes) are the preseason pick to win the conference, edging out the fourth-ranked Buckeyes (223) by thirteen votes.

“It definitely feels good, but that just means we have a target on our back now,” Taylor said. “We’re not going to sneak up on anybody this year and we don’t plan on sneaking up on anybody this year.”