Big Ten men’s hoops to gain respect

by Todd Zolecki

Two straight years of NCAA tournament disappointment hasn’t helped squash the idea that the Big Ten has taken a big step down from the nation’s top men’s basketball conferences. Coaches hope this is the year they can break that trend and return to tournament dominance for the first time since Michigan reached the Final Four in 1993.
Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett is certain the league will return to its former self. So are the other coaches. As far as talent, the Big Ten seems capable of fulfilling Bennett’s prophecy. Four of the five first-team all-conference players return, as do eight of the 15 selected for the first three teams.
It is a conference loaded with junior and sophomore talent. Teams are more experienced than last year, and they hope it will give them a better chance in the postseason.
No team stands out as a clear-cut favorite for the conference championship. A few freshman players could make huge differences for their teams, like Indiana’s Jason Collier and Purdue’s Michael Robinson. A severe back injury to Penn State’s Dan Earl has really hurt the Lions’ outlook, who finished second in the Big Ten last season.
Michigan and Minnesota are being mentioned as the class of the Big Ten. The Hoosiers and Boilermakers are always favorites, and Illinois, Iowa and Penn State are mentioned as contenders depending on who is talking.
The following is a preview of every team in the league, in order of predicted finish.
Coach Steve Fisher couldn’t win the Big Ten title with Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose and Chris Webber. What makes people think he can do it with Maurice Taylor, Louis Bullock and Maceo Baston?
It’s simple. The Wolverines have the league’s most talented roster and Fisher’s luck is bound to change after not living up to preseason expectations in the past.
The only thing that might hurt Michigan down the stretch is its lack of depth.
Forward Willie Mitchell transferred during the offseason and sophomore forward Albert White left school earlier this month after Fisher suspended him in October. That leaves Michigan with a seven player rotation.
If the Wolverines can stay healthy and handle its rotation without problems, it should live up to its billing. Before White left, the Wolverines had almost 90 percent of their scoring and rebounding back.
Wolverines top gun: Taylor. The junior forward scored 13.3 points and grabbed seven rebounds per game last season. He’s one of the nation’s top players, and those numbers should go up. His experience with the USA men’s 22-and-under select team, which played against the Dream Team in July, should help.
The Gophers made a late season push toward the NCAA tournament last March but fell short, settling for a NIT berth. Don’t expect that to happen this year. Coach Clem Haskins said this is his most talented team since he came to Minnesota in 1986.
He’s excited because his team is experienced — all five starters return — and he has the one thing that Michigan lacks: a deep bench. Quincy Lewis, Charles Thomas, Russ Archambault and Trevor Winter are capable backups. Haskins calls Lewis the team’s best all-around player.
If that’s true, it says something about the starting five. The frontcourt of John Thomas, Courtney James and Sam Jacobson possesses size and scoring ability. The backcourt of Bobby Jackson and Eric Harris is also solid.
The Gophers should use their experience and depth to their advantage. If they do, they might be ready for the top if Michigan stumbles.
Gophers top gun: Do they have one? Haskins doesn’t want a star on his team, but it seems Jackson is the team’s most potent threat. At the end of the last season, the senior’s clutch play lifted Minnesota close to an NCAA berth. A full season from Jackson should get the job done.
Bob Knight said he couldn’t find a solid player on his roster during the first few weeks of practice this season. He said the best player he had seen was Brian Evans, who stopped by one day to watch practice.
Of course Evans, last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year, graduated and is now with the Orlando Magic.
But don’t be fooled by what Knight said. The Hoosiers should give every Big Ten team lots of trouble this year. They have a talented freshman class and a solid veteran cast. Mix juniors Andrae Patterson, Charlie Miller and Neil Reed with freshman Jason Collier and A.J. Guyton, and Indiana is a title contender.
Collier could wind up being the Hoosiers’ top scorer by the end of the year. He’s a seven-foot center who earned Ohio’s Mr. Basketball award and McDonald’s All-America honors.
With Knight at the helm, the Hoosiers always contend. Before last season, the Hoosiers survived the losses of Calbert Cheaney, Damon Bailey and Alan Henderson in consecutive years and still challenged for the championship. The Hoosiers should survive the loss of Evans.
Hoosiers top gun: In the early going it’ll probably be Patterson. The forward averaged 11.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game last season. But by the start of the Big Ten season, Collier — if he’s as good as people say he is — might be the guy. In his senior year, he scored 24.3 points and grabbed 14.3 rebounds per game, manhandling his competition.
This might finally be the year Purdue doesn’t win the Big Ten title. Of course, that’s what everybody said last year when the Boilermakers had a cast of unknowns leading Coach Gene Keady’s team on the floor.
Never count out Purdue, especially with Keady. The Boilermakers might have lost six seniors, but they have two talented juniors in Brad Miller and Chad Austin, and a highly touted freshman in Michael Robinson — no relation to former Boilermaker Glenn Robinson.
Keady will look to Miller, Austin and Robinson to lead the team.
“I like this team, I can tell you that,” Keady said. That’s enough reason to put Purdue among the Big Ten’s top five. He hasn’t been wrong too often in the past three years.
Boilermakers top gun: Miller. The junior forward came off the bench last year but still provided some offensive punch to the Boilermakers. Miller was the top scorer and rebounder on the Big Ten’s All-Star team which toured Italy this summer. And he averaged 9.6 rebounds last season.
Coach Tom Davis sure was glad when Jess Settles decided to come out of the NBA draft and return for his senior year. If Settles would have left, this season could have been marked up as a rebuilding year.
But with Settles back, the Hawkeyes have a chance. Otherwise, senior point guard Andre Woolridge and friends would have struggled to surpass the likes of Michigan and Minnesota. Now it’s not unthinkable.
“I don’t think I’ve had two better seniors to lead a ballclub,” Davis said of Settles and Woolridge. “But replacing four people from last year’s ballclub will be tough.”
The Hawkeyes lost Kenyon Murray, Russ Millard, Mon’ter Glasper and long-range shooter Chris Kingsbury. Kingsbury won’t be missed, but the others will. Kingsbury was a cancer on the Hawkeyes with his selfish attitude.
Hawkeyes top gun: Settles, the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year. He was supposed to win the postseason award last year, but he averaged 15.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, well below preseason expectations. He should be primed for a big year.
Lou Henson stepped down as coach after 21 years and gave way to Lon Kruger, who led Florida to the Final Four in 1994. Kruger brings optimism to a team that started out hot last year, but finished 7-11 in the Big Ten and didn’t make the NCAA tournament.
As always, Kiwane Garris leads the Illini offensively and defensively. The senior guard, along with small forward Jerry Hester, provide the outside scoring.
“We’re a group that’s not big on size,” Kruger said. “On the perimeter we do have a lot of experience.”
No Illinois player stands over 6-foot-9, which puts them at a disadvantage. But Hester, Bryant Notree and Jerry Gee all return as starters in the frontcourt which should help.
Illini top gun: Take a good guess. Garris was an All-Big Ten selection last year when he averaged 15.4 points. Illinois touts Garris as an All-America candidate. If he gets to spend more time on the wing, instead of playing point, he might be more of an offensive force.
Penn State
Disclaimer: If point guard Dan Earl can return from the back injury, which has sidelined him all preseason, and not let it hinder his performance this season, expect the Lions to jump up from a seventh place finish to a top five finish.
Without Earl, things will be tough for Penn State. He lead the league in steals (1.86 per game) last year, ranked third in 3-point field goal percentage and is one of the league’s top returning scorers.
Penn State looks strong with Earl, guard Pete Lisicky and center Calvin Booth in the lineup. Lisicky is a legitimate 3-point threat. He made 47.1 percent of his long range attempts last year, but without Earl getting him the ball, he might not get as many chances.
Lions top gun: Earl. That’s why Penn State is in a world of hurt without him. They have a solid supporting class, but when a team loses its best player, it takes away something both mentally and physically on the court.
Sam Okey is back for his sophomore season. Last season’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year is looking better — he’s now sporting a Billy Idol style do instead of the buzz haircut — and is more experienced.
Okey should improve on last year’s statistics. He was only the ninth player in Big Ten history to register 400 points, 200 rebounds and 100 assists in a season. Some of the others included in that group were: Magic Johnson, Steve Smith and Chris Webber.
The Badgers should be stronger with two junior college transfers, center Paul Grant and point guard Ty Calderwood, and the return of guards Sean Mason and Duany Duany.
Badgers top gun: Mr. Idol himself. Okey is by far the greatest talent Bennett has at his disposal. He averaged 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. The Badgers will make sure to get him the ball.
Mich. State
Coach Tom Izzo hopes his team will improve from last season’s offensive woes. The Spartans averaged only 59 points per Big Ten game last season, shooting 41 percent from the floor. If Michigan State expects to move up in the conference standings, it must shoot the ball better.
One solution to that problem might be freshman Mateen Cleaves. The guard is considered one of the nation’s top backcourt players coming out of high school.
But the losses of Quinton Brooks and Jamie Feick won’t help the Spartans chances. Jon Garavaglia, Ray Weathers and Thomas Kelley will need to step up.
Spartans top gun: Cleaves seems destined for the role, so we’ll make him the top player. A Parade All-American selection, he averaged 26.8 points and 8.3 assists as a senior in high school.
Ohio State
Thank goodness for Northwestern, otherwise the Buckeyes would find themselves looking up at every team in the Big Ten. Ohio State was young last year — they had six freshman — but they’re still too inexperienced to challenge some of the upper echelon teams in the conference.
Buckeyes top gun: Sophomore point guard Damon Stringer. He averaged 11.3 points and 4.6 assists per game. Coach Randy Ayers expects him to improve this year.
The Wildcats hope Coach Ricky Byrdsong’s new philosophy toward basketball will help them crawl out of last place for the first time since 1994. Byrdsong said he has found Christ, which has him believing Northwestern can win the conference title.
Probably not this year.
Wildcats big gun: The league’s top returning scorer Geno Carlisle. He averaged 19.7 points per game on a weak Wildcats team. Carlisle said his experience with the USA 22-and-under select team has made him a better player.