Foes not underestimating Smith, Gophers

Zach Eisendrath

.CHICAGO – Speaking at Big Ten Basketball Media Day in Chicago on Sunday morning, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo sounded, at times, more like Tubby Smith’s campaign manager than a college basketball coach.

Izzo had nothing but good things to say about Smith’s arrival to Minneapolis and the Big Ten when repeatedly asked about the new Minnesota men’s basketball coach.

“He brings instant creditability, respect and toughness (to Minnesota). And he’s demanding,” Izzo said.

“Talk about tough, people think I’m tough, he’s tougher than I am, I promise you that; he’s crazy, in a good way.”

When informed the Gophers had been forecasted to finish ninth in the Big Ten by the media, Izzo quickly dismissed those predictions.

“No way,” Izzo profoundly said. “I think it’s going to take them some time, but they aren’t going to be ninth, you can etch that in stone.”

Izzo wasn’t the only coach at the conference who promoted Smith’s arrival in Minnesota. Seemingly every coach in the Big Ten agreed Smith will be able to revitalize a Minnesota team that suffered a program-worst 22 losses last season.

“He’s an established coach, he’s been through it, he’s a veteran,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “His kids will play tough, they will value the basketball. I’m sure he’ll bring some new energy, new excitement to the program.”

Ohio State coach Thad Matta, who watched his, at the time, No. 1-ranked Buckeyes walk into Williams Arena last year and be tested for the majority of the first half against the Gophers, said Smith can make an immediate impact in the Twin Cities.

“The guy wins wherever he goes. From Tulsa to Georgia to Kentucky, he’s done a great job.”

“I think (the Gophers) have that ability (to surprise). I really do think he’s proven he’ll get guys to play his way. I think Minnesota is a team that will be a force to be reckoned with, I really do.”

Predictions bring motivation

Minnesota senior guard Lawrence McKenzie likely agrees more with Matta’s view on the Gophers than the media.

McKenzie, who made the trip to Chicago with senior center Spencer Tollackson and senior forward Dan Coleman, saves negative news clippings about the Gophers and uses them as motivation.

Hearing for the first time Minnesota had been picked to finish once again at the bottom of the Big Ten (ninth) by the media, McKenzie wanted to know where he could find the proper documentation.

“It’s definitely motivation. I use it as fuel for my tank. Every day it’s something to look at,” he said. “As an athlete, as a competitor, if that doesn’t burn your heart, burn your soul and make you want to go out there and work hard, you shouldn’t be out there.”

Comfortable in new surroundings

A popular question for Smith at media day was how his transition from the helm at Kentucky to the head coaching position at Minnesota has gone.

“It’s been wonderful,” Smith said. “My wife is happy, I’m happy.”

When asked about how the stress level compares between being the head coach of the Wildcats and the Gophers, Smith said he tried not to put strain on himself while in Lexington.

“I don’t know if (my wife Donna) felt that way, but I didn’t feel it was pressure. I was kind of disappointed sometimes when comments were made.

“But we never felt we had to apologize for anything, we accomplished quite a lot,” he said

Familiar faces, new places

Along with Smith, Michigan coach John Beilein and Iowa coach Todd Lickliter, formerly of West Virginia and Butler, are freshmen Big Ten coaches this season.

Experienced conference coaches were all in agreement that the additions of Smith, Beilein and Lickliter will benefit the conference as a whole.

“Those three guys are proven winners,” said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan. “You don’t get a Big Ten job if you haven’t won somewhere. They are going to bring a lot and they are going to bring their brand (of basketball).”

All-Conference team

Michigan State senior guard Drew Neitzel was named the Preseason Player of the Year in the Big Ten by the media.

Neitzel was elected by a 22-member media panel after a breakout junior season in which he averaged 18.1 points per game, earning himself first-team All-Conference accolades at the end of last year.

The Spartans’ senior captain said he is honored to be recognized as the best player in the conference, but understands he will now have a target on his back this season.

“I guess that talks about my previous success, but that’s something I want to have at the end of the year,” he said.

“You’ve got to take it for what it’s worth. Right now it doesn’t mean a whole lot. Teams are going to be trying to shut me down every game, so I’m definitely going to have to come to play and stay focused every day.”

Joining Neitzel on the Preseason All-Big Ten Team are Illinois center Shaun Pruitt, Indiana forward D.J. White, Ohio State guard Jamar Bulter and Penn State guard Geary Claxton.

Spartans picked first

Perennial Big Ten powerhouse Michigan State is back at the top of the Big Ten – at least for now anyway.

The Spartans, ranked eighth in USA Today/ESPN Top 25, have been selected as the preseason Big Ten favorite for 2007-08, despite finishing seventh in the conference standings last season with an 8-8 record.

“We’re excited about the ranking,” Neitzel said. “After last year, not having many expectations, getting back to the way it’s usually been at Michigan State with a high preseason rank is a good feeling.”

Indiana, with the addition of freshman sensation Eric Gordon, was picked to finish second. Gordon, who was born and raised a Hoosier in Indianapolis, was rated the nation’s top prospect his senior year of high school.

In spite of losing NBA Draft lottery picks Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr., defending Big Ten Champion Ohio State and NCAA runner-up the Buckeyes were picked to finish third in the conference.