Monday, November 08, 2004

Big Ten Predictions

11) Minnesota
Quick, name someone on the Gopher basketball team. Adam Boone, you say? Okay, that's one, but his torn bicep is probably going to keep him out for the year. Jeff Hagen? Okay, he's a fan favorite, and a big, goofy looking guy in the Minnesota tradition of Joel Przybilla and Kyle "No Chin" Sanden, but he's never going to be a superstar. That's where the name players end for Minnesoat, though. Eight freshmen join the roster, along with a handful of transfers. A team hasn't looked this bad on paper since Kevin O'Neill was still wondering how the hell he ended up at Northwestern four years ago. This team should finish 11th, but I won't put a miraculous 9th place finish past Dan Monson. For all of the crap that Monson gets these days, he's still the guy that came in after the infamous Clem Hasins debacle and guided a horribly depleted team to a middle of the conference finish. Along the way he made a star out of Walk-on Dusty Rychart, so anything is possible, I suppose. I just need to get Penn state out of the cellar for a year, and these should be the guys to help me out.

10) Penn State
Look out--while you weren't paying attention, the Penn State basketball team decided to start getting good. Sure, Jan Jagla's gone and the Nittany Lions still shouldn't be much to watch this year, but they appear to be building towards respectibility next year. When Ed DeChellis took over the program one and a half years ago I, like many others, assumed that Penn State was just trying to make Joe Paterno feel good by hiring a fall guy to make the basketball team look worse than the football team. Well, it turns out that old Ed seems to know what he's doing. Though remarkably young and untalented, his team looked reasonably well coached en route to a disapointing 3-16 season. The good news for DeChellis is that while he played his guys out of necessity last year, he'll play them with vast experience this year. His backcourt of Ben Luber and Marlon Smith played plenty last year as freshmen and were forced to grow up. Junior Aaron Johnson also logged key minutes and should be a team leader this year. Look for some slight, subtle improvement from Penn State this year, but expect a breakout year in 2005-6. What Ed DeChellis couldn't do with freshmen, he will be able to do with juniors, and some game tested sophomores.

9) The Ohio State University
The mention of Ohio State basketball brings about thoughts of such great figures as Jerry Lucas, Bobby Knight, Jim Jackson, and yes, even Lawrence Funderburke (well, at least he had a great name). The Buckeyes have no players that are likely to make a list of grats this year, ande they've lost Velamir Radinovic, their best threat last year, to graduation. Interior mate Terrance Dials should patrol the lane effectively, but that's where it ends fo the Buckeyes. some would argue that there is talent in the Buckeye backcourt, but where they see talent, I see a group that was in constant flux last year and has a Burkemper-level point guard in Brandon Fuss-Cheatham. That is not to say he's bad--he's a nice enough player, but probably isn't a guy that would generally start on a Big Ten team. It's also worth noting that former Milwaukee King standout Jermyl Jackson-Wilson joins the team, fresh off a year of prep school. Jackson-Wilson wasn't making local coaches or other big names fight for him while he was in Milwaukee, so it remains to be seen what he will do at Ohio State. The wildcard for the season will be new coach Thad Matta, from Xavier. Will Matta's proven coaching ability whip the team into shape, or will his public denial that he was interested in the Ohio State job shortly before accepting the job undermine any credibility that he has with his players? Only time will tell.

8) Iowa
Iowa confuses me. Because of their terrible flame out a few years back with Luke Recker and Reggie Evans, two of the best teammates I can recall in recent Big Ten history, I’m heavily biased against Steve Alford. Yet, I find myself liking the Hawkeye team, in spite of my lack of confidence in Alford, a thin frontcourt, and the severely lacking fan support in Iowa City. The guards on this team are what leave me very excited. Pierre Pierce, when he’s not embroiled in sexual assault controversy, has to be considered one of the elite guards in the league. His returning backcourt mate Jeff Horner is no slouch either. And the loss of Brody Boyd would sting a lot more if Iowa State transfer Jeff Haluska wasn’t joining the team. These three will have to be good, since there are questions with the big guys. Jared Reiner and Sean Sonderleiter, while funny to look at, brought some consistency to the area around the hoop. At least Reiner’s injury and Sonderleiter’s bizarre move of quitting the team for no apparent reason gave Greg Brunner a chance to take on more interior responsibility, and gave the Hawkeys some experience playing without solid big guys. Brunner should have help from one of the numerous big bodies that join the team as freshmen this season. I generally like this talent, and I’d like it even more if someone else were at the helm. I want to like Steve Alford, but after he did with the best rebounder in the Big Ten and the best shooter in the Big Ten a couple years ago, I refuse to trust him. If he ever gets things going, though, watch out. After my first game there two years ago, I think Carver-Hawkeye Arena would be one of the most difficult places in the country to play if it ever got loud. Thankfully for the rest of the conference, that won’t be happening for a couple of years.

7) Purdue
I'll level with you--I had a nice paragraph prepped about Purdue and how Gene Keady deserves better in his final year. I lost it, and I don't to try to figure out what Purdue's going to do again, since they're not going to be a major player in the conference. The abridged story is that the Boilermakers return very little experience, except at the guard spot, where they have plenty. Junior college transfer and former Milwaukee Vincent standout Carl Landry should be the best juco transfer since Reggie Evans, and brings a ton of athleticism to the table. It won't be enough to help out Keady in his last year, though, and one of the alegedly nicest guys in the Big Ten (in spite of his on-court demeanor) has a rough final year.

6) Indiana
Ah, Indiana, the team that could go either way. Last year the cupboard wasn't bare, but it wasn't stocked to standard Indiana levels, either. A 6'3" A.J. Moye at power forward was the most mis-cast role since Pat Farley plajed Jim in his junior high production of Huckleberry Finn. The Hoosiers have three big things going for them this year: 1) A midget will not be called upon for 6 rebounds a game this year (okay, to be fair, Moye, much like Farley, did the best with what he was given), 2 Bracey Wright, my favorite non-Badger Big Ten player is back to fill the hoop, and 3) the recruiting class is reportedly stellar. Aside from Wright, there's nothing returning to get excited about. Marshall Strickland will continue to see backcourt minutes, though all frontcourt players will lost minutes to D.J. White, the team's top freshman, and his other classmates. Patrick Ewing, Jr. will continue to amaze all with the relatively small size of his jaw in comparison to that of his father. Though I haven't seen the freshman (Note to self: Order that college sports channel on cable that seems to be showing nothing but high school basketball all-star games and women's lacrosse so that I can rectify this for next year), I have to believe they'll help out a lot. In the end, though, the same thing that heas held the team back before will do it again--Mike Davis. While he's not a terrible coach, his vast overrating following his Final Four run had a reverse psychological effect on mere where I came to consider him as "poor" rather than merely "mediocre." I also can't get that shot of him running onto the court while slapping his head out of my mind. I know that I've just explained that my "poor" ranking of Davis is totally irrational, but I'm standing by it. This team breaks even, and Davis continues to be exposed for the fraud that he is.

5) Northwestern
Yeah, that's right. Northwestern. You read that correct. As those of you who know me well are aware, with Northwestern, I'm caught in a constant struggle between my hatred of the school itself, and the overwhelming joy that I get from watching Bill Carmody coached teams make back door cuts and precision passes. While I wish that Bill Carmody would go somewhere else so that I could commit to liking his team, I'm putting aside my reservations about Northwestern itself and picking them this high because, quite simply, I think they have the talent to go with the talented coach. And that's a bold statement, since last year Jitim Young was among the conference's most underrated players. Young's gone, but his backcourt mate, T.J. Parker is still around. Like the entire team, he's not flashy, but he won't turn the ball over, so the point guard spot should be in good hands. Vedran Vukusic might be the only guy in the league who averaged 14+ points per game who you haven't heard of, and his crisp cuts will cause opponents fits. I like Vedran so much that I won't even take the opportunity to make my yearly cheap joke about how 2 seasons ago he dislocated his shoulder more times than Beau Sanders received technical fouls in the Madison rec league (okay, so I couldn't resist my favorite annual joke). And of course, the big news in Evanston is that former McDonald's All-American and Duke Blue Devil Michael Thompsonjoins the team one the second semester gets underway. How a Duke refugee landed at Northwestern, I'll never know. If he was playing the entire year, these guys could be even better. However, Bill Carmody, some legitimate talent, and a deep frontcourt mean that rejection letters from the journalism school will no longer be the only scary thing about Northwestern.

4) Michigan
I like Michigan, I'm just not sure how much. Daniel Horton had a phenomenal freshman year, and was mediocre for most of 2003-4 before exploding in the NIT. Courtney Sims shows flashes of being the next major Big Ten superstar, but he may not be there yet. Brent Petway is allegedly the best athlete in the Big Ten, but apparently can't figure out how to actually play the game of basketball. Tommy Amacker is regarded as a great recruiter, but had two of his three recruits back out on him this year. I won't draw this point out any more: Michigan has the tools to be really, really good, but for some reason it's not clear that they can use those tools. Consistency was a problem last year, and last year's most consistent perfomer, Bernard Robinson, has used up his eligibility. About the only thing that is certain on this team is Graham Brown, and given that he averaged 5 points and five rebounds last season, that might not be a particularly comforting thing to rely on. If Michigan plays like it did in the NIT again, it could shoot up among the conference leaders and start returning to the glory days of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Wolverines could easily tank a few games and slip to the bottom. Either way, you can still expect that Graham Brown will give you his five and five, and Tommy Amacker will continue to look smooth in his mock turtle neck and blazer combo. And for the record, I am expecting a breakout year from Courtney Sims.

3) Wisconsin
See the Marquette and Wisconsin section.

2) Michigan State
Wow, I can't believe that I'm picking these guys second. this is one of those teams that doesn't win its own conference, but could go on to win the national championship. Let's start with Paul Davis. Last year I said he was over-hyped. I'm a big enough man to admit when I'm blantantly wrong, and this was one point where I could not have been more off base. If not for Mr. Davis' untimely fit of leg cramps last year in East Lansing, Michigan State state probably beats Wisconsin and clinches a share of the conference championship. Davis is one of the best approximations of a true center in all of college basketball, and is my choice pre-season choice for player of the year in the Big Ten. How's that for reassessing my position? Chris Hill, one of the only players in the preview who probably had higher SAT scores than me, returns for one last year. He's not the star that many had thought he would become after his stellar freshman year, but he's a solid leader and is still among the best guards in the conference. How's the rest of the team? Well, if you want guards, Michigan State has Shannon Brown, Kelvin Torbert, Maurice Ager and freshman Drew Neitzel, who Tom Izzo is giving his highest praise to. That's five starting-caliber guards (though Torbert will likely play the 3 spot). That could wear on opposing teams, and if Paul Davis is making power moves on the blocks, look out for Michigan State in March.

1) Illinois
Illinois has, as most of you know, everyone back from last season's Big Ten champion squad. Everyone. So by default, they have to be the pick to win it this year, even if I think that Michigan State may be just as good on paper. Let's run down why this team is solid. You have to start with Deron Williams, who emerged last year as an all-conference-type performer. While I disagreee with those predictiong pre-season Player of the Year honors for him, he'll be a steady player, and should have another excellent season. Next on the list is Dee Brown, who was deemed disappionting by some last year after his being named co-pre-season Player of the Year following a phenomenal freshman season. In reality, Brown adjusted well (though not initially easily) to a new role, teaming with Deron Williams instead of running the show himself. Brown is lightning quick and seems to have a better attitude than most anticipated when his first burst onto the scene. He may very well re-emerge as the star of this team again, but this time he'll do it within the team concept. After him comes James Augustine, a solid, yet unspectacular post player. Augustine showed few signs of improvement last year as a sophomore, but givnet that he played with the savvy of a junior furing hsi freshman campaign, this isn't the worst thing in the world. Augustine will be among the top three rebounders in the league this year--you can take that to the bank. Roger Powell and Luther Head capably fill out the starting 5, with Head earning this year's annual Even Eschmeyer Memorial "Will This Guy Ever Graduate?" Award. The players are good, but the big reason why these guys will repeat is coach Bruce Weber. He's got guys buying wholeheartedly into his system this year, he's know's the Big Ten, and he's from Milwaukee--all of these things point to success. It should be a dog fight with Michigan State, but I'll take Illinois for now. And before I close this evaluation out, no passage about Illinois would be complete without making fun of Nick Smith. He's still a 7'2" guy with biceps as large as my wrist, but I'm happy to report that his bad teenage mustache is now gone. Now if we can just get Mr. Smith to start playing insde the 3-point arc, all would be rosy for him.

All Big Ten First Team
Paul Davis
Chris Hill
Bracey Wright
Alando Tucker
Deron Williams

All Big Ten Second Team
Dee Brown
Mike Wilkinson
Vedran Vukusic
Courtney Sims
Pierre Pierce


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