2004 BIG TEN PREVIEW
by George Vieu
Big Ten Looks to Return to the Final Four
Every year the Big Ten beats up on each other, and every year they seem to have teams reach the Final Four. Call it balance or parity but don’t mistake it for a weak conference. To the surprise of many office pools, six Big Ten teams have made it to the third weekend of March Madness in the last five years. This anomaly can’t be easily explained. Maybe the close competition makes teams learn how win the close games better. Maybe playing on the road in tough venues prepares teams better for any atmosphere that they might have to endure. Whatever the reason, just make sure you don’t count out the Big Ten. Last year was supposedly a down year in the Big Ten with many young teams and only five of them making the tournament. With that said, Michigan State was still only one win away from reaching the Superdome. This conference is now a year older and seems to be loaded with big time players ready to wreak havoc on the college basketball world and on each other.
1. Michigan State
The Spartans look to be loaded this year and Tom Izzo’s squad is a cut above every other team in the Big Ten. State’s only weakness last year seemed to be the need for a true point guard to run the show, but the arrival of Shannon Brown and Brandon Cotton should resolve that problem. If Shannon Brown is as good as advertised then the point guard position will be a strength. The addition of Brown and Cotton will also relieve Chris Hill of the point duties and free him up to do what he does best which is to score. The wing position on this year squad seems to be the most crowded with talent from many viable options. Alan Anderson and Maurice Ager both were playing their best basketball at the end of the year. Along with Kevin Tolbert, who finally started to show consistency that Spartan fans have been waiting for ever since this highly touted recruit came to East Lansing. Even with all that talent in the backcourt, the most important player on this team is with out a doubt center Paul Davis. The Spartans are unusually thin in the frontcourt with the losses of Aloysius Anagonye and Erazam Lorbeck from last year. Paul Davis should be terrific this year and he has to be because the other post players are young and unproven. Jason Andreas will be able to give minutes but after that there are two freshmen in Drew Naymick and Delco Rawley will be count on. In final analysis, the Spartans will be best of a very good Big Ten this year and will be a Final Four favorite come March.
The Illini have as much talent as anyone in the Big Ten, including Michigan State, but they will have to deal with life after Bill Self. Bruce Webber did a wonderful coaching job at Southern Illinois, but the question will be if he can recruit as well as Self and Kruger who preceded him. This year Weber will have lightning quick point guard Dee Brown leading this talented squad Self left for him. Brown is one of the Big Ten’s best, but needs to exhibit more patience and control in his game to be able to be considered one of the nation’s elite. Deron Williams is a solid ball handler and defender, but needs to become more consistent with his outside shoot. The high flying Luther Head is a spark plug and freshman Richard McBride will provide outside touch for the Illini. Junior Roger Powell will play on the wing and proved at the end of the year that he can be a star. The Illini might have the best and deepest frontcourt in the Big Ten. James Augustine played great as an unknown freshman last year and 7’2” Nick Smith has great touch for someone his size. Furthermore, freshman Brain Randle, Warren Carter, and Aaron Spears will provide plenty of depth. In final analysis, the Illini should enjoy a good year but replacing Brian Cook and Bill Self might be tougher than expected.
The Wolverines were probably one of the best stories last year. Dealing with the a ban from post season play and a 0-6 start, Tommy Amaker’s bunch rallied together to win 13 straight and finish tied for third in the Big Ten. The Wolverines have a young but experienced team of players back and Amaker will enjoy his first fairly deep team since he took the job at UM. Michigan is lead by its point guard and last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Daniel Horton. Horton can score with the best of them but look for to him distribute more this year because of a stronger supporting cast. Lester Abram is quiet but consistent and will be pushed at the guard position by last year’s Mr. Basketball in Michigan, Dion Harris. The wing position will be lead by Bernard Robinson Jr., who might be the most versatile player in the Big Ten. In Amaker first year at Michigan, he only had one player over 6’7” but this year group will include six players 6’8” or taller. Graham Brown and Virginia transfer J.C. Mathis will hit the boards and bang with the big boys. Chris Hunter is a finesse player in the post along with a human pogo stick in freshman Brent Petway. The key player for Blue will be Courtney Sims, the 6-10 freshmen that could take over the center position and never give it back up. In final analysis, Michigan is a wild card this year that might make a run come tourney time and is probably a year away from national prominence.
The Badgers are coming off last year’s Big Ten title and finally are getting recognition in the preseason polls and magazines. The problem is that Bo Ryan and his team will not sneak up on anyone this year. Every good team in college basketball has a good point guard and the Badgers are no exception. Devin Harris is a wonderful floor leader and will the lead UW this year without the services of Kirk Penney. Freddie Owens will be at the other guard position, and freshman shooter Kammron Taylor will provide another perimeter option. Alando Tucker probably has the biggest upside of any player on the squad and will be tough on the wing. Mike Wilkerson was solid last year in the post and McDonald’s All-American Brain Butch will bring another dimension to the Badger attack. This might possibly be the most talented team Bo Ryan has had at UW. In final analysis, the Badgers will be tough to beat but will experience a bulls-eye as one of the teams to beat in the Big Ten.
5. Ohio State
The Buckeyes are primed to be the surprise team of the Big Ten, if not the country. Last year Conference Tournament run to the championship game was reminiscent of the one a young Illinois team made a few years back. Jim O’Brien has a good group of players back with experience along with an arrival of a solid recruiting class. The Backcourt will be lead by two transfers in J.J. Sullinger from Arkansas and Tony Stockman from Clemson who will come and start immediately. Both of the players had to sit out last year and will chopping at the bit to get out there and show what they can do. Freshman Ricardo Billings along with Brandon Fuss-Cheatham should supply help and minutes for the guard positions as well. On the wing will be the big time recruit Ivan Harris, who is the first McDonald All-American to come to Columbus in O’Brien’s tenure. The frontcourt will be vital for the success of Bucks, and is manned by Velimer Radinovic and Terrence Dials. The 7-footer Radinovic is the leading returning scorer and shows a good touch around the basket, while Dials is uses his size and strength to muscle other players. In final analysis, the Buckeyes will be a dangerous team and will never be out coached as long as they have O’Brien on the sidelines.
The Hoosiers are a thin team and Mike Davis will lean heavily on Bracey Wright to carry them. Wright is definitely capable of leading his team as long as he can stay healthy. When at his best Wright is one of the nation’s best scorers. IU will have to find a point guard to go along with Wright and will probably go with Marshall Strickland. High-flying freshman Roderick Wilmont and Donald Perry will provide options of the bench. A.J. Moye, who always does the little things, will play on the wing and mix it up in the post some despite being 6’3”. The frontcourt is a major concern for the Hoosiers and the only experienced returning player is the inconsistent George Leach. When Leach comes to play he is a defensive force, but other times he is lethargic. Freshman Pat Ewing Jr. will need to play like his father for the Hoosiers to think of any titles this year, and fellow freshman Jessan Gray-Ashley will try to provide bench help. In final analysis, the Hoosiers are in a little bit of a rebuilding period, but Bracey Wright and Ewing will ease the process.
The Boilermakers and Gene Keady will look their seniors to lead the way this season. Guard Kenneth Lowe is the catalyst and last years Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Lowe is not flashing but solid in all aspects of the game including scoring and free throw shooting. Brandon Knight will be the point, while David Teague will come off the bench. Melvin Buckley is an athletic, lengthy player who should come into his own on the wing this year. Chris Booker will need to become a force down low for Purdue to have a chance at being a good team. Brett Buscher along with freshman Matt Carroll and Ije Nwankwo will aid Booker in the frontcourt. In final analysis, the Boilers don’t have as much talent as other teams in the Big Ten, but with Keady and strong team play they could over achieve expectations.
The Hawkeyes might be playing for the coach Steve Alford’s job. The once highly regarded up and coming coach has endured four straight losing Big Ten records. Hawkeye fans are also concerned with the way he has handle Pierre Pierce, who pleaded guilty to assaulting a female Iowa athlete. Alford allowed Pierce to stay on the team and redshirt last year, now Pierce will be the starting point guard. Jeff Horner will be the two guard, with Brody Boyd and freshman Mike Henderson will provide minutes. Glen Worley is a solid contributor at forward and will be pushed by newcomer Nick DeWitz. Sean Sonderleiter and Jared Reiner are not difference makers in the post, but Iowa will have settle for what they get out of them. In final analysis, the Hawkeyes and Steve Alford need to get of to a good start or it will be a long season.
The Golden Gophers and Dan Monson will have to play this year without Rick Rickert, who made a terrible decision to leave school early. The Gophers will be lead be guards Maurice Hargrow and Ben Johnson. Adam Boone transfered from North Carolina and will see time at the point. McDonald’s All-American Kris Humphries and Michael Bauer will make Minnesota solid at the forward position. Jeff Hagan and freshman Aliou Kane will battle for center. In final analysis, the Gophers always are tough in the “Barn” but will not climb higher than the middle of the Big Ten.
The Wildcats will need to run Bill Carmody’s offense to perfection for them to be able to compete with the big boys night in and night out. T.J Parker and Jitim Young are the wildcats only real threats. They will have to play extremely well because NU doesn’t have a proven post player. Freshman Vince Scott might the Wildcats only center option.
In final analysis, the Wildcats and Bill Carmody are usually good for one upset a year but don’t expect much more than that.
11. Penn State
The Nittany Lions and new coach Ed DeChellis are in a major rebuilding period. The Lions don’t have much talent coming back from last year. The starting guards might be freshman Ben Luber and Marlon Smith. These two will have their good and bad times, but they allow Penn State fans to get a glimpse of the future. DeForrest Riley is the Lions best returning player and could become the leader of this team. Jan Jagla and freshman John Kelly will try to provide a post presence. In final analysis, the Nittany Lions and their new coach will be in the Big Ten basement for another year.
All Big Ten
First Team Second Team Third Team Freshman Team
Dee Brown Devin Harris Kenneth Lowe Shannon Brown
Daniel Horton Chris Hill Maurice Hargrow Dion Harris
Bracey Wright Bernard Robinson J.J. Sullinger Ivan Harris
Alando Tucker Roger Powell Lester Abram Kris Humpries
Paul Davis Terrence Dials James Augestine Brain Butch
Player of the Year
Freshman of the Year
Defensive Player of the Year
Coach of the Year