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Big Ten Notebook

February 23, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Big Ten Conference Notebook

by Alan Rubenstein

With two weeks left in the conference season – and another week until the Big Ten tournament – it will be a three-week sprint to Selection Sunday as Big Ten teams strive to earn an invitation to the Big Dance. The Big Ten’s top three of Wisconsin, Michigan State and Illinois should be secure in receiving a bid to the tournament. How they finish in the conference standings and play at Conseco Fieldhouse will go a long way towards determining their seedings and where they are playing in the tournament.

Ohio State, Penn State and Minnesota bring up the rear in the Big Ten and hope to make an improbable run in the conference tournament to capture the title and earn the Big Ten’s automatic bid to the dance. That is the only way those three will have a chance to compete in the NCAA. Iowa is the only team to have worn the Big Ten’s postseason crown with a four day run to the title. The Hawkeyes accomplished the feat in 2001. Ohio State in 2003, Iowa in 2002, and Illinois in 1999 had Cinderella runs to the title game before losing.

The remainder of the Big Ten teams will spend the next three weeks with every game being important. Some teams have greater margin for error than others as each tries to distinguish itself and make its season by playing in the NCAA’s.

The season to date has produced great coaching efforts, some teams being led by superstars and others using a more ensemble approach. Although not one of the Big Ten’s best seasons, there have still been great individual performances, exciting games, thrilling upsets and some surprises.

Coach of the Year

Wisconsin was picked to be among the Big Ten’s best in the preseason poll. Few could have imagined the Badgers living up to that promise with the injuries and suspensions that they have had to deal with. Bo Ryan has done an exceptional job keeping his team together and has them in the driver’s seat to capture their third straight Big Ten Title with two-and-a-half weeks remaining in the regular season.

Player of the Year

Devin Harris was tabbed as the Pre-Season Player of the Year by the coaches. Few could have imagined that he would have improved his game to the level he has. Harris has picked up his play with the commencement of the conference season. Harris has increased his scoring average from 21.5 PPG, to 19.6 PPG overall, has upped his three point percentage from 35 to 41.9, and has an increased his free throw percentage and assist to turnover ratio.

Harris has become the face of Wisconsin basketball. With Freddie Owens and Boo Wade out earlier in the season, Alando Tucker missing all but four games and Brian Butch deciding to redshirt, the Badgers would likely be a middle of the pack team without their leader. The only way Harris will not be awarded the Big Ten Player of the Year for 2004 is if votes trickle in mysteriously from Florida.

Freshman of the Year

Last season the Big Ten’s Big Freshman of the Year could have been awarded to handful of players. This season Kris Humphries has left no doubt as to whom the conference best rookie is. He took the country by storm with a 26 point, 15 rebound performance on national television in the preseason NIT. He followed that up with 20 points and 10 rebounds against Utah and their highly touted frosh Andrew Bogut. Humphries has been a bright spot in what has been a disappointing season in the Twin Cities. He has a chance to become the first player to lead the Big Ten in scoring and rebounding since Glenn Robinson in 1994 and the first freshman since Jerry Lucas in 1958 (Check on this to verify). Humphries has posted 14 doubles-doubles and is putting up 22.5 points and 10.4 rebounds per night.

Sixth man of the Year

In a season that started with promise but has taken a turn for the worse, Aaron Johnson has been a bright spot for Penn State. A former walk-on, the sophomore has provided Ed DeChellis with a reliable and consistent performer on the interior. Overall Johnson has averaged 9.4 PPG and 6.7 rebounds. He has really stepped up his game during Big Ten play. During the conference schedule Johnson has put up 13.9 PPG and 8.6 RPG. He set career highs in amazing performance against Indiana with 28 points and 15 rebounds.

Surprise of the Year

In most preseason publications Northwestern was picked to finish tenth, just above expected to be woeful Penn State. After upsets at Iowa and Purdue and home wins over Big Ten title contenders Wisconsin and Illinois, the Wildcats have forced their Big Ten brethren to take them seriously.

The Wildcats have to finish in the upper division of the Big Ten by slowing the tempo, using outstanding defense and riding the duo of Jitim Young and Vedran Vukusic. Young is putting up 17.6 point a night, while Vukusic averages 14.5. Combined they lead the team in 16 statistical categories.

NU averages 63.3 points per game while giving up 63.7. In conference contests, NU has been ever better. The Cats put up 62.2 PPG and give up 61.5. Their ability to take care of the ball has also proven to be important. Northwestern has forced 2.6 turnovers per game more than they commit.

The Wildcats emergence in the Big Ten is particularly surprising considering their numerous stumbles during the preseason. Losses along the way before father time made his appearance included a home loss to open the season versus Colorado, blowout losses to area rivals De Paul and Illinois-Chicago and losses to Rutgers and Mississippi Valley State at the Sun Classic in El Paso. A three game losing streak to end the non-conference part of the schedule and a 24 point loss at Michigan to begin the begin season indicated a long winter was in store in Evanston. NU’s second game of the conference season turned the year around.

After the humiliating loss in Ann Arbor, not much was expected of Northwestern’s visit to Iowa City. Riding Vukusic’s 22 and Mohamad Hachad’s 18 the Cats pulled a 77-68 shocker. Gaining confidence with the Iowa win, Northwestern knocked off Illinois in its next game and seemed to be on its way. With a 6-5 record through its first 11 games, Northwestern has its best conference record this late in the season since 1999. That Evan Eschmeyer led NIT crew inaugurated it Big Ten season at 6-4.

Big Ten Wish List

Every college basketball season takes on a life of its own and this season has been no different. Many Big Ten coaches have been left to wonder how the season would have unfolded had a few things gone differently. Injuries, defections, academic causalities and surprise losses have dotted the Big Ten landscape.

The Big Ten-ACC Challenge reached a new low for ineptness. The Big Ten had lost the Challenge by a 5-4 outcome in each of the previous incarnations. The teams from the right coast hit the Big Ten with a 7-2 blitz in three days of competition. Wins by Michigan and Purdue over NC State and Clemson saved face. Some teams have been able to shore up their problems, have players step up for players who are out or no longer competing and balance untimely losses with surprise wins. Other teams are having seasons below expectations. The wish list for Big Ten coaches includes better defense and shooting, a full roster for the entire season and a better schedule.

Better Long Distance Service

Ohio State’s ability this season has been their inability to both shoot and defend the three-point shot. The Buckeyes have converted only 32.9 percent of their shots from long distance while giving up threes at a 42.3 percent clip. Their rivals have also made 7.3 three-point shots per game from long distance. The barrage began early in the season. At the Maui shootout, the Buckeyes opponents shot 29-60 from long distance. Can you hear me now? Apparently, the Buckeyes couldn’t see their opponents dropping bombs. Four Buckeyes opponents have hit over ten from the launching pad this season. Those four don’t exactly bring to mind the history of college basketball. San Diego State, Furman, Samford and Northwestern are not exactly mentioned when great programs come to mind.

An Order of Cupcakes

Michigan State spent the majority of their non-conference schedule challenging six of the nations all time great programs. Losses to Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, Oklahoma, UCLA, Syracuse and Kentucky put the Spartans into a sub .500 hole entering conference play. In a watered down Big Ten, Michigan State has been able to battle their way out of it and should be inline for a tournament bid.

Dr. Scholl as a Sponsor

Big things were expected from Wisconsin this season and they have held together amazingly considering the injury problems they have had. After earning Big Ten All-Freshman honors a season ago, Alando Tucker was expected to be Devin Harris’s main running mate this season. Tucker never fully recovered from a stress fracture suffered during preseason practice. After competing in four games, Tucker was forced to the sideline again. At the end of January, the decision was made to redshirt Tucker. In the four games Tucker played he was second on the team in scoring and led them in Field Goal percentage.

The foot problems didn’t stop with Tucker however. Junior guard Freddie Owens missed three games with a foot injury as well. He is putting up 7.4 points per game this season.

Iowa might also want to consider negotiating with Dr. Scholl’s. Senior center Jared Reiner who led the Big Ten in rebounding in 2003 suffered a stress fracture in his foot in December. When it did not heel properly, Reiner required surgery and if he comes back at all it won’t be until early March.

All Conference Team

Although not a vintage year by Big Ten standards, we have still seen some outstanding individual performances this season. Harris and Humphries have set the bar for the Big Ten this season and have kept fans interested. It addition to those two, Bracey Wright of Indiana, Deron Williams of Illinois and Jitim Young of Northwestern have all led their teams to some level of success this season.

Wright had one of the Big Ten’s best performances this season when he put up 39 points in the Hoosiers win at North Texas. The sophomore from the Colony, Texas has been leaned on an inordinate amount on an offensively challenged Hoosier team. (19.8 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 38.7 3PT%, 79.9 FT%)

Williams, Wright’s high school teammate has been the spark for the Illini in Bruce Weber’s first season. He courageously returned early after missing three games with a broken jaw. Williams has outplayed higher touted teammate Dee Brown. Brown was tabbed by the media as the conference pre-season player of the year. Williams is bidding to lead the Big Ten in assists for the second straight year and leads the Illini in scoring, three- point shooting and free throw shooting in addition to assists. (13.9 PPG, 5.8 APG, 3.0 RPG, 38.4 3pt%, 89.1 FT%)

Young and Vedran Vukusic have been the primary reason that Northwestern has had a say in the Big Ten race this season. Playing an undersized small forward at 6’2, Young has three double-doubles and led NU is scoring 13 times in 22 games. When he leaves Bill Carmody at the end of the season, the Chicago native will be among the leaders at Northwestern in several categories. (17.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 2.3 APG)


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