Big Ten basketball: 11 things to watch in the Big (Eleven)
The Big Ten last season was like the tale of two seasons. During the regular season, many considered it to be the top conference in America, with the RPI ranking the Big Ten #1. After being considered “down” for a few seasons, it was a welcome change for the conference. There were six teams that had the potential to win the regular season title at some point in the season, and seven clubs were in the Top 25 at one time or another. In the end, Ohio State took the championship at 12-4, finishing one game ahead of Illinois and Iowa. Wisconsin was in the mix until the stretch run, while Indiana was in contention early. At the midseason mark, Michigan was in first, and, of course, Michigan State is always competitive. However, once the NCAA Tournament came, it was a different story. After getting six bids to the Big Dance, no team made it past the first weekend into the Sweet Sixteen. Michigan State and Iowa were upset in the first round, while Wisconsin also bowed out in the opening game. Ohio State was prematurely knocked out in the second round, and Illinois and Indiana were also bounced in the Round of 32. In 2006-2007, the Big Ten is going to be down compared to last year, but there might be more potential NCAA Tournament contenders than last season. Either way, it is going to be a very exciting season for the conference.
Is there anyone even close to Wisconsin and Ohio State on the preseason totem pole? Considering the Badgers and Buckeyes are both consensus Top-15 teams and no other Big Ten team is getting much consideration for the Top 25, I’d say no. There simply aren’t any other teams as complete as Wisconsin and Ohio State. Michigan does not have a proven point guard; Illinois could have a lot of trouble scoring; Michigan State is too young; I don’t trust Penn State or Purdue to finish that high; and Indiana does not have too many proven players. On the other hand, Wisconsin and Ohio State have all the necessary parts to compete for the league title—as long as the Buckeyes’ freshmen are as good as advertised.
Who are some of the top impact freshmen this season? Any conversation about Big Ten freshmen has to start with the obvious one—Greg Oden. The consensus #1 recruit in the country, Oden is considered the best center prospect since Shaquille O’Neal or Patrick Ewing. He is the popular choice for National Freshman of the Year. However, his teammate, Daequan Cook may make a similar impact this season. He is extremely athletic and is an outstanding offensive player. Two more OSU frosh, guards Mike Conley and David Lighty, are also expected to see extended time this season. Outside of Ohio State’s group, the incoming freshmen class is still pretty solid. Iowa’s Tyler Smith is very athletic and is a good shooter—he is going to step into the starting lineup immediately. Michigan brings in a star recruit in DeShawn Sims. He is a very good offensive player. Brian Carlwell of Illinois is expected to be a key contributor down low for the Illini. In a rebuilding year, Michigan State brings in Raymar Morgan, Tom Herzog, and Isaiah Dahlman, three frontcourt players who will add depth and talent up front for the Spartans. Preseason favorite Wisconsin will need contributions from incoming guards Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon.
With the losses of guys like Dee Brown, Paul Davis, Marco Killingsworth, etc., what star power does the Big Ten have this season? Compared to most of the other major conferences, the Big Ten is headed for a down year, in terms of All-American-caliber players. Alando Tucker is the favorite for conference Player of the Year. He is one of the top five players in the country. Oden gives the Big Ten one of the best big men in the nation. Indiana’s D.J. White and Purdue’s Carl Landry hope to put together a full season so they can show the country their abilities. This could also be Penn State forward Geary Claxton’s breakout season. He is one of the best players in the conference, but it is relatively unknown outside of the Big Ten. Outside of those five—all frontcourt players, coincidentally—the individual talent level of the conference takes a sharp nosedive before the next group of players like Courtney Sims, Jamar Butler, Kammron Taylor, etc.
Does Wisconsin have enough offensive firepower to win the conference? Every season, Wisconsin does not look all that impressive on paper. However, once January and February roll around, the Badgers are near the top of the Big Ten. This season won’t be any different. The only difference this year is that they are coming into the season with high expectations. Some doubt them as a result of their lack of offensive weapons, though. Alando Tucker is one of the most versatile scorers in the country, while Kammron Taylor is a very good section option on the perimeter. Brian Butch has excellent potential down low. Outside of those three, another scoring option needs to step up. Sophomores Marcus Landry and Joe Krabbenhoft could be the answers. Both have very good ability on the offensive end.
How much will Greg Oden’s injury stunt Ohio State’s growth? What will be the newcomers’ impact? Without Oden, the Buckeyes are going to be very perimeter-oriented. That will hinder them during much of the non-conference season, including games against North Carolina and Florida. However, OSU still has a lot of talent on the perimeter, including returnees Jamar Butler and Ron Lewis, and freshman Daequan Cook. Those three should be able to carry the Bucks to a couple of non-conference victories until Oden returns. The newcomers are going to need to have a huge impact. Only four players come back from last year’s club, meaning Oden, Cook, Mike Conley, and David Lighty are all going to have to contribute mightily every night for Ohio State.
Is this the year Michigan finally takes the next step to the NCAA Tournament? I would say yes, but one could say that nearly every year—and it never seems to happen. Last year, Michigan had a great start to the season, and was even leading the Big Ten at one point. However, they collapsed down the stretch and ended up losing in the NIT championship game. This year should be the season they make the Big Dance. The Wolverines will miss Daniel Horton, but the guard combo of Lester Abram and Dion Harris should be potent enough. Post player Courtney Sims needs to play to his potential every night, while role players like Ron Coleman and Brent Petway have to step up.
How will the new era of Illinois basketball begin without Dee Brown, James Augustine, etc.? The Illini are going to look like a completely different team than last season. They have several solid players that will keep Illinois in the conference race, but they are not going to be nearly as explosive on offense as last season. Brown and Augustine handled the majority of the scoring load, and with those two gone, players are going to have to step up on the offensive end. Chester Frazier is more of a distributor, while guards Jamar Smith, Rich McBride, and Trent Meachem are all shooters, not guys that can get to the basket consistently. Frontcourt players Brian Randle and Shaun Pruitt might be the best options. It will be an interesting season in Champaign, but an NCAA Tournament bid should be in their immediate future.
What sort of impact will new coach Kelvin Sampson have on Indiana? Will D.J. White be the dominant player he showed flashes of before his injury? The first thing one will notice about Sampson and the Hoosiers is that they will be a lot tougher than they were under Mike Davis. He will immediately instill the same tough, defense-first mindset that was so successful at Oklahoma. How the players react to Sampson, not exactly a "players" coach, will be the key. As for White, he has the potential to be one of the best inside players in the country. If he stays injury-free, he might fulfill that potential this season. He is very athletic, giving him the ability to block plenty of shots near the basket. He is one of the top post scorers in the country. If he can improve his rebounding, look out for White this season.
How much will Michigan State have to rebuild? Are they in danger of missing the Big Dance? The 2006-2007 season looks very bleak for the Spartans. They lose everyone of note except Drew Neitzel, and did not bring any blue-chip recruits. However, you can never count out coach Tom Izzo and Michigan State. Looking at their team, it is very easy to say that they won’t make the NCAA Tournament, but I wouldn’t bet on it. When my Big Ten preview comes out, I doubt I’ll have them in the Big Dance, but they can easily be this season’s version of North Carolina. And that’s what every Big Ten team is afraid of. Freshman Raymar Morgan is expected to make a major impact, while Neitzel and Travis Walton form a decent backcourt. Goran Suton and Marquise Gray showed flashes of solid play last season down low, and there are plenty of role players to provide depth. Not very impressive on paper, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this team finish 4th or 5th in the conference.
Can Purdue or Penn State break into the upper division of the Big Ten and make a move at an NCAA Tournament? If I had any sort of backbone, I’d have Purdue #5 in the conference and Penn State as a bubble team. However, it’s tough to trust these two teams. On paper, the Boilermakers look very good. David Teague and All-American candidate Carl Landry come back from season-long injuries, while all-Big Ten freshman Nate Minnoy is also back after missing the second half of the season due to injury. Throw in talented JC point guard Tarrence Crump, and this team could be tough. Penn State has one of the better frontcourt duos in the conference in forwards Geary Claxton and Jamelle Cornley, two of the top ten players in the Big Ten. Ben Luber is a solid point guard, while Mike Walker and David Jackson provide scoring from the perimeter. If Claxton breaks out as expected, this Nittany Lions team might make a run at the Field of 65.
by Jeff Borzello
BigTen-fans.com Basketball Writer