2001-02 Big Ten Conference Preview
by Mark McGrath
It’s been the convenient benchmark in recent history to judge conference strength by the amount of teams invited to the big dance in March. However, here at the ‘Ville, we like to do things a bit differently. Our goal, at least my goal, is to provide you, our valued readers with enough thoughtful information so as to allow for your own independent thought on conference strength. No longer will you rely on the so-called experts to tell you what to think. When March comes around, and those mysterious selectors of tournament teams are locked away in some vaulted conference room at the Hilton, you’ll know for yourself who they will pick. Or, at least you’ll know who should have been picked.
Having said that, I will now tell you that the Big Ten will have precisely five teams invited to the tournament. No more, no less.
In the months preceding the tournament selection, we’ll discuss who’s deserving of a tournament invitation and which teams will have to win the conference championship to be included. We’ll try to grasp the importance of All-American candidates such as Frank Williams, Luke Recker, Jared Jeffries, and Reggie Evans for their respective teams. The first year coaches, Tommy Amaker and Bo Ryan, will be put under close, yet fair scrutiny. We’ll discuss whether Michigan State’s home winning streak should be credited to Tom Izzo’s coaching or just blind luck. The head-coaching job at Indiana is securely in Mike Davis’ pocket this year. We’ll see how successful he can be now that he’s not looking into the past at Knight’s legacy or over his shoulder at Steve Alford’s supposed eventual homecoming. Iowa looks to have a healthy Luke Recker this year. It makes you wonder what more they could have accomplished last year if he hadn’t fractured his kneecap. We’ll even look at the lesser teams in the conference. Everyone gets a fair shake in the ‘Ville.
Although people would never readily admit it, is there anyone who really knows what the Big Ten season has in store for us? Dickie V? Billy Packer? Quinn Buckner? As knowledgeable as all thse guys are, the Big Ten is nothing if not unpredictable. The only thing we can be sure of, and you can take this to the bank, is the number of invites to the dance the Big Ten will get. It’s five. We’ll see who, and why as the season progresses.
1. Illinois: This could be a special year for the Illini faithful. After a 27-8 finish last year that included a visit to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament, Illinois is poised for a run to the Final Four. After one of the most successful inaugural runs as a head coach for the Illini, Bill Self expects nothing less than a conference championship and a lengthy stay in the NCAA tournament. Frank Williams, last year’s Big Ten Player of the Year, has NBA written all over him. One of the nation’s best when the game is on the line, Williams has the ability to score 30, unload ten assists, or shut down the opposing team’s star with his defensive play.
Matched alongside Williams in the backcourt is former Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Cory Bradford. After a long, injury plagued season last year; Bradford is ready to reclaim his spot as one of the Big Ten’s best shooters. Junior forward Brian Cook has the ability to score from inside and out, and with an increase in muscle mass, should be able to bang with the big boys in the paint this year. Robert Archibald can give Illinois some size in the paint as well. With a soft shooting touch, he’s capable of 10 points per game. The only question mark for Illinois is if they’re able to live up to the lofty expectations that they’ve been given. If they play to the their level of ability, a trip to the Final Four is possible.
2. Iowa: After the constant speculation that he was destined to be Indiana’s next head coach, Iowa’s head coach Steve Alford surprised everyone by signing on with the Hawkeye’s through the 2009 season. Such a strong commitment from the coach is a great sign for everyone involved with the Hawkeye program. One of the coach’s best moves so far was his ability to hold onto the nation’s best rebounder in Reggie Evans. After averaging 15 points per game along with 12 rebounds, no one would have been surprised to see Evans leave for the NBA.
Like his coach however, Evans saw that this year’s team could be great. After their improbable Big Ten Tournament championship a year ago, Hawkeye fans have even higher expectations. Returning from last year’s team is a strong senior class that includes along with Evans, Luke Recker and Duez Henderson. Recker, who has All-American ability, was averaging 18.1 points per game before going down with a knee injury in December. If he stays healthy and someone is able to fill the shoes of point guard Dean Oliver, the Hawkeyes could be fighting Illinois for the Big Ten’s top spot in March.
3. Michigan State: The rumors of the Spartan’s demise are just that, rumors. Yes, Tom Izzo lost five seniors to graduation and two underclassmen to the NBA. Yes, the loss of such talent would have most programs struggling to put together just a semblance of a competitive team. But this is Michigan State, and as the cliche goes, they don’t rebuild, they reload. Marcus Taylor and newcomer Kevin Torbert have the necessary skills to lead this team to the top of the Big Ten. Torbert, one of the nation’s top recruits, is expected to make an immediate impact for the Spartans with his scoring, rebounding, and strong defensive play.
Junior forward Adam Bollinger has a chance to increase his scoring with more minutes this year. Izzo would like to see a stronger effort in the paint from Adam, as he has tended to drift to the outside. Izzo has no such problems with Al Anagonye. In fact, the powerful forward has had problems staying out of foul trouble. Look for him to become more of a force in the frontcourt as the year progresses. The one facet of the Spartan team that may prove to be problematic is their leadership. With such a big vacuum left by last year’s team, everyone will be looking for Marcus Taylor to step up. If Taylor is able to become more assertive as a leader for the Spartans, they could make a strong charge toward their fourth straight Final Four.
4. Indiana: Life does exist after Bob Knight, just ask Mike Davis. Succeeding a coaching legend never proved easier, as the Hoosiers surpassed all expectations by finishing with an amazing 21-13 record. Now that the interim label has been removed from Davis’ title, he can get down to the business of winning championships. The biggest challenge he’ll face this year is to fill the huge void left by the conference’s leading scorer, Kirk Haston. His twenty points and nine rebounds per game will be sorely missed.
Fortunately for Davis, the Hoosiers have Jared Jeffries, an explosive sophomore who captured the title of Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2001. Tom Coverdale was forced into learning the point guard position last year and struggled early, but showed signs of improvement as the year progressed. Look for Coverdale’s scoring chances to increase as his backcourt partner, Dane Fife, continues to struggle with his shooting stroke. Although Davis is looking for a more balanced attack, this is Jeffries’ team. If he continues to improve at the rate he did as a freshman, look for the Hoosiers to play a big factor in the NCAA tournament.
5. Purdue: Gene Keady admits that last year was one of the toughest he’s encountered as head coach of the Boilermakers. Purdue missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine years. After returning almost the entire team from a year ago, the Boilermakers are intent to prove that last year’s absence was an aberration. The key this year will be the health of Rodney Smith, who returns after breaking his foot halfway through last year’s season. Coupled with the loss of John Allison, who suffered a stress fracture, Smith’s injury turned a strong 13-6 start into a disappointing 17-15 finish.
With both players healthy again, and JuCo transfer Darmetreis Kilgore able to step in and make an immediate impact, the Boilermakers could surprise a lot of people by moving up in the Big Ten standings. Keady has said that he will place a higher emphasis on the press because of the team’s speed and athleticism. If all goes according to plans, the Boilermakers will return to the NCAA tournament and last year’s absence will be forgotten.
6. Minnesota: The Golden Gophers surprised everyone last year with an amazing 15-3 start out of the gate. Then the injuries to key players started to mount. After the dust had cleared, Minnesota was left with an 18-14 finish, a fully respectable season right? Wrong. Coach Dan Monson has the Gophers convinced that last year’s start can be extended to last the whole season this year. With the return of Michael Bauer from a broken arm a year ago, Minnesota is poised to make another run for a tournament bid. Bauer was impressive as a freshman before his injury, averaging 11 points and almost 5 rebounds per game. He should continue to improve as Monson has surrounded him with a plethora of incoming talent.
Rick Rickert and Jerry Holman are both expected to contribute immediately for the Gophers. Dusty Rychart is a beast in the paint, and will improve on last year’s performance now that he returns to his natural post position. The backcourt could prove to be problematic, but with such depth at the forward and center positions, Minnesota should improve on last year’s record.
7. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have become acclimated to not getting their proper credit. Jim O’Brien isn’t too concerned about the perceived lack of respect given to them. In fact, he relishes in their ability to surprise other teams. Eventually the critics will give them their proper due, but in the meantime, O’Brien is content in letting others think that the loss of Ken Johnson will leave a hole in their team’s chemistry.
The Buckeyes will have no problem scoring from the outside. Brian Brown, a senior guard, has the ability to carry the team, but with such a strong supporting cast in the backcourt, he won’t have to win games by himself. Brent Darby compliments Brown nicely, and with the emergence of point guard Brandon Fuss-Cheatham, Ohio State will not have problems with their guards. The post positions will struggle however, and the loss of Johnson’s shot-blocking presence from a year ago may cause some defensive problems.
8. Michigan: Tommy Amaker takes over this year for a Michigan program that hasn’t made much noise since the departure of the Fab Five. Although last year’s team struggled to a 10-18 finish last year, Amaker’s arrival has given the Wolverines an optimism that has been absent for quite a while. Michigan’s unquestioned leader is LaVell Blanchard, a 6-7 junior who averaged close to 18 points and 9 rebounds per game last year. These numbers are lower than what most people expected from Blanchard, and it will be up to Amaker to motivate his star player. If Blanchard does improve to the degree that many think he can, his name could be mentioned in the same sentence as other All-American candidates.
Blanchard isn’t the only blue chipper on the Michigan roster. Bernard Robinson Jr. could help the Wolverines move into the upper echelon of the conference with his natural abilities if he learns to play with greater composure. Rarely lacking for talent, the Wolverines have a number of other players who have great abilities, however the lack of discipline has always plagued Michigan. Amaker supposedly had his share of disciplinary problems with his Seton Hall teams and it will be interesting to see how he handles the Michigan program. If he is able to harness the talent found on the roster, the Wolverines’ rise to the top of the conference is inevitable.
9. Northwestern: Keeping star players from transferring to other programs has always been a problem at Northwestern. The strict academics and historical ineptitude of the Wildcats has always kept them from achieving any sustained success. Potential stars bolt from Evanston’s campus as soon as rival programs take notice. With this kind of history, it’s little wonder that Northwestern is a perennial bottom feeder in the Big Ten.
This year may be different, however. Coach Bill Carmody has four returning starters from a year ago. The key for the Wildcats may be senior Tavaras Hardy. Carmody has been working with the big center on his outside shot, and has been encouraged by his development as a shooter. Add Winston Blake’s long range scoring ability, and the Cats could provide their fans with a reason to leave the library.
10. Wisconsin: The Badger’s first year coach, Bo Ryan may have his hands full this season. After an illustrious career at UW-Platteville and UW-Milwaukee, he finally gets his shot at the big time in Madison. Unfortunately for Ryan, the talent pool that he inherits is shallow at best. Graduation ravaged the team, as only one starter returns from a team that finished 18-11 a year ago.
The one fortunate aspect for Ryan is that the returning starter is junior Kirk Penney. Penney, a native of New Zealand, can hit from anywhere on the court as last year’s 70 three-pointers can attest. He’ll get plenty of opportunities to improve on that this year as his surrounding cast learns their role on a team desperate for scoring punch. One of the newcomers to the Badger team that could have a huge impact is freshman guard Devin Harris. The highly touted Harris is said to have all the tools of a potential star. Ryan will have no qualms in giving him the playing time necessary to become a force in the Big Ten.
11. Penn State: The cupboards are bare in Happy Valley. Jerry Dunn knew that he was losing one of Penn State’s greatest players in Joe Crispin to graduation. What he didn’t expect was to lose Joe’s younger brother Jon, who transferred to UCLA after last year’s run to the Sweet 16. Add the loss of starters Gyasi Cline-Heard and Titus Ivory to the mix and you’re left with a team that will struggle to stay out of the Big 10 basement.
Tyler Smith, a senior forward for the Nittany Lions, is the only returning starter and will be forced to lead a team that lacks experience and depth. Brandon Watkins saw limited playing time last year and will attempt to fill Joe Crispin’s shoes at point guard. As for the rest of the team, three big freshmen will battle for playing time in the trenches. Look for Penn State to improve as the year progresses, but last year’s 21-12 final record will be impossible to match.