Big Ten Conference Preview
by David Mosse
Parity marked the Big Ten last season as four schools (Ohio State, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin) claimed a share of the conference crown and it seemed on any given night anything could happen. While Illinois was expected to carry the mantle nationally for the Big Ten, it was Indiana, behind second year coach Mike Davis, who stormed to the NCAA Championship Game.
The off-season was good to the league’s 11 coaches, as everyone retained their job, and some at substantially higher salaries. While the schools enjoy continuity on the bench, the conference underwent its usual turnover with several stars taking their games to the next level and a host of highly touted freshmen hungry to take their place.
With the majority of the teams tackling difficult non-conference schedules, fans should know more about this league come January but at the outset the Big Ten appears a bit lacking at the top, yet capable throughout. There is no juggernaut, expected to compete for a national title but there is also no patsy. Just about every school has a realistic chance at postseason play and another Indiana may just be lurking.
1. Michigan State Spartans
For the first time in four years the Spartans failed to capture the conference crown. After the season, Michigan State lost its floor general in Marcus Taylor, who inexplicably opted to leave school for the NBA Draft. For most coaches this would spell trouble but not for Tom Izzo, who has created a pipeline of All-Americans to East Lansing. Freshman forward Paul Davis figures to be an instant star and alongside Aloysius Anagonye and Adam Ballinger should form an imposing frontline. Sophomores Chris Hill and Kelvin Torbert give the Spartans a perimeter threat and look for another freshman, Maurice Ager, described by some as a Morris Peterson clone, to provide a spark off the bench.
2. Indiana Hoosiers
The Hoosiers must guard against a hangover from last season’s remarkable run to the National Championship Game. Duplicating that success will be a tall order without Conference Player of the Year Jarred Jeffries, who is playing alongside Michael Jordan in a Washington Wizards uniform. Indiana does return plenty of talent. Gritty point guard Tom Coverdale and sweet shooting Kyle Hornsby form one of the best backcourts in the league and as he did throughout last year’s tournament, A.J. Moye should see plenty of minutes. The Key for the Hoosiers will be the emergence of Jeffrey Newton, who showed flashes of brilliance last season, and could give the Hoosiers a powerful presence in the middle.
3. Wisconsin Badgers
First year coach Bo Ryan engineered one of the most improbable seasons in school history as the Badgers captured their first Big Ten Title since 1947. Of the top four teams from last year, Wisconsin arguably has its roster the most intact. The Badgers will miss guard Travon Davis but Freddie Owens, a defensive specialist, should fill in nicely and versatile sophomore Devin Harris could also see minutes at the point. The other significant loss is that of lunch pale forward Charlie Wills, but the return of big men Dave Mader and Mike Wilkinson should stabilize the Badgers frontline. The player to watch for Wisconsin will be junior Kirk Penney, arguably the most complete player in the conference, who will hope to lead the Badgers to a repeat of the conference crown.
4. Illinois Fighting Illini
After two years of using Lon Kruger’s players, Illini coach Bill Self gets to work with a team consisting mostly of his own recruits. By season’s end, Self may be wishing he had another year with Kruger’s troops. Despite falling short of some preseason expectations, Illinois still won 26 games and captured a share of the conference title. Gone are point guard Frank Williams and record-breaking sharp shooter Corey Bradford. Their departure means the focus will move to the frontcourt and forward Brian Cook, the premier interior player in the conference. Cook, along with seniors Sean Harrington and Blandon Ferguson, will try to maintain the program’s winning ways.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
Last season the Buckeyes overcame the absence of shot-swatting Ken Johnson and stunned prognosticators by cracking 20 wins and winning a share of the Big Ten title. The catalyst for their success was the play of guards Brian Brown and Brent Darby, who emerged as the premier backcourt tandem in the league. With Brown lost to graduation, the onus will be squarely on the shoulders of Darby if the Buckeyes are to surprise once again. Ohio State will also miss sharp-shooting Slobodan Savovic but Jim O’Brien will hope guard Sean Connoly and forward Terence Dial can take some of the heat off Darby.
6. Minnesota Golden Gophers
After flirting with a Big Ten title for much of the conference season, the Gophers faded down the stretch costing them a tournament bid. Nevertheless, Minnesota enjoyed a stellar season under Dan Monson and further distanced themselves from the embarrassment of the Clem Haskins episode. The Gophers finished over .500 in the conference and produced the league’s best freshman, Rick Rickert. Rickert scored over 14 points per game and is a prime candidate for conference player of the year. However, if the Gophers are to take that next step Rickert must receive help from forward Michael Bauer and Northwestern transfer Ben Johnson.
7. Michigan Wolverines
The rebuilding project continues for Tommy Amaker in his second season in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines return their two most talented players in LaVell Blanchard and Bernard Robinson, both of whom struggled in their first year under Amaker. Their ability to adapt to the coaches up tempo system will be key but the biggest x-factor for this squad will be the play of four freshman whom Amaker is banking on to make an immediate contribution. Guards Daniel Horton and Lester Abraham may very well start on opening night while Chris Hunter and Graham Brown will be called upon to fill the gaping hole left by the departure of Chris Young.
Due to university imposed sanctions stemming from the Ed Martin investigation, the Wolverines will not be eligible for the post season in 2003, and have forfeited 114 games in the 1990’s that Chris Webber, Maurice Taylor, Robert Traylor, and Louis Bullock participated in, including the two NCAA Finals appearances for the Fab Five. The university also returned over $400,000 to the NCAA in winnings from these games.
8. Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes were unequivocally the biggest disappointment in the league last season. Expected to build upon their 2001 Big Ten Tournament title, Iowa was picked by many to capture the conference crown. The Hawkeyes stumbled from the start, as star players Luke Recker and Reggie Evans feuded with head coach Steve Alford, who is quickly watching his boy genius label disappear. Evans and Recker are gone and Alford, 18-30 in the Big Ten the past three years, enters this season on the hot seat. On paper, Iowa has far less talent than last year but this scrappy bunch may suit Alford better as forward Glen Worley and guard Chauncey Leslie will team with a talented freshman class in the hopes of regaining respect for the program.
9. Purdue Boilermakers
It may come as a surprise to some but the school with the most Big Ten Championships (21) is Purdue. The Boilermakers have fallen on hard times recently, sparking speculation that 66-year old Gene Keady’s days may be numbered. Purdue has dropped 21 of their last 32 conference games but there is some cause for optimism. The Boilermakers return top scorer Willie Deane who averaged 17.3 points per game and Keady will count on a pair of newcomers to contribute. The addition of Junior College transfer Chris Booker and Notre Dame defector Ivan Kartelo should make for an improved interior game. Look for Keady to do everything in his power this season to stop the bleeding.
10. Penn State Nittany Lions
The Nittany Lions served as the Big Ten’s punching bag last year, suffering through the third worst season in school history (7-21). Fortunately, Jerry Dunn’s squad was also very young and returns virtually intact so better times may lay ahead. Dunn will lean heavily on guards Shariff Chambliss and Brandon Watkins to duplicate last season’s performance. Chambliss averaged 14.6 points per game while Watkins chipped in 13.3. The key will be the development of big men like junior Ndu Egekeze and sophomore Daren Tielsch as well as the play of German import Jan Jagla who should provide the Lions with some interior scoring and take some pressure off the talented guards.
11. Northwestern Wildcats
For one of the few times in school history, the Wildcats actually flirted with a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Head Coach Bill Carmody worked wonders last season guiding Northwestern to its most conference wins (7) since 1984. The Wildcats return nine players and with their patented slow down style should once again be one of the best defensive teams in the league. Yet, with forward Tavaras Hardy gone Carmody’s team may be one scorer short. Guards Winston Blake and Jitim Young will try their best to carry the load but don’t be surprised to see some slippage.
G – Tom Coverdale, Indiana
G – Brent Darby, Ohio State
F – Brian Cook, Illinois
F – Rick Rickert, Minnesota
F- Kirk Penney, Wisconsin
Player of the Year:
Kirk Penney, Wisconsin
Newcomer of the Year:
Paul Davis, Michigan State
Defender of the Year:
A.J. Moye, Indiana
Coach on the Hot Seat:
Steve Alford, Iowa
The 2002-2003 season promises to be wide-open with each of the defending championship teams suffering significant losses and schools like Minnesota and Iowa hungry to break into the league’s upper echelon. With Indiana forward Jarred Jeffries departed, the race for player of the year will also be hotly contested. Illinois’ Brian Cook, Minnesota’s Rick Rickert, and Wisconsin’s Kirk Penney figure to be the frontrunners.
When the dust settles the conference should produce its typical five or six tournament teams and perhaps even a bonafide final four contender. Look for Kirk Penney to be chosen to league’s top player and for Michigan State, behind freshman sensation Paul Davis, to return to the top of the standings, squeezing past the Jeffries-less Hoosiers.