A 22-member media panel voted in the Big Ten's preseason poll, and then the league released the top three vote-getters. Not one through 11. Just the top three. And while I've never understood the practice, I actually get it now because if I was in charge of the Big Ten I'd cease talking about anything other than the top of my league, too.
Seriously, this conference -- No. 5 in my countdown of basketball leagues -- is simple to breakdown.
|Expect Bo Ryan's Badgers to make it to their 10th straight tourney. (Getty Images)|
And the funny thing is how it works just as well with football.
The good: The return of Drew Neitzel, Raymar Morgan and every relevant player (besides Maurice Joseph) from last season's 23-win team would be enough to make the Spartans a Big Ten contender. But when freshmen phenoms Chris Allen, Durrell Summers and Kalin Lucas -- the last of whom had 29 points in a Sunday scrimmage -- were added to the equation they turned Michigan State into a legitimate Final Four threat.
The bad: Though Allen, Summers and Lucas are great, they are all guards. So in the spirit of nitpicking, it would be nice if the Spartans could've also added a high-level big man who can score. But again, I'm just nitpicking.
The bottom line: How Tom Izzo won 23 games last season is still a mystery given the talent level he possessed, and it's evidence that he's one of the best coaches in the business. But there is no longer a talent problem that'll require Neitzel to play 36 minutes a game. So expect the Spartans' All-American to get a breather every once in a while, and the Spartans to make another deep NCAA Tournament run.
The good: Eric Gordon and D.J. White give the Hoosiers arguably the best inside-outside duo in the country. Jamarcus Ellis provides a third possible pro, and that's a good number to have if the goal is to win a national title.
The bad: Kelvin Sampson's phone call drama has turned almost all of the attention off basketball in Bloomington. Consequently, anything the Hoosiers accomplish will be tainted in some way, if only because writers, radio hosts and TV talking heads -- not to mention opposing student sections -- won't cease bringing it up.
The bottom line: Regardless of your opinion on Sampson, there is no denying he can coach basketball. He's averaged 25 wins the past eight years, and if you're a gambling man I'd advise taking the over on '25' and sleeping well.
3. Ohio State
The good: Thad Matta secured a nice class to replace the mass exodus. Kosta Koufos is the star, and Jamar Butler, David Lighty, Othello Hunter and Matt Terwilliger provide a quartet of veterans from last season's national runners-up.
The bad: Greg Oden is gone. So is Mike Conley. And Ron Lewis. And Daequan Cook. There isn't a program in America that could endure such losses and not slip.
The bottom line: Matta has averaged 26 wins in seven years as a coach, but matching that record could be difficult. He's high on talent, low on experience. So anybody wanting to get a win over the Buckeyes had better do it this season, because with the way recruiting is going Ohio State seems destined to be competing for Final Fours again as early as 2008-09.
The good: Bo Ryan is still the coach, and the frontline remains solid. That should be enough to help the Badgers keep on keeping on, particularly with the return of Brian Butch, whose junior season was cut short by a terrible elbow injury that in turn damaged Wisconsin's Final Four hopes.
|1. Michigan State||NCAA|
|3. Ohio State||NCAA|
|9. Penn State||none|
The bad: Ryan was prepared for the losses of Alando Tucker and Kammron Taylor, but Michael Flowers missing comes with a twist. The senior guard who started every game last season is on a 'medical' leave of absence with no timetable for a return. Consequently, the Badgers are even more short-handed in the backcourt, and that's not good in this league.
The bottom line: Wisconsin has made nine straight NCAA Tournaments, and I'm predicting a 10th based on nothing more than Ryan. On paper, he probably shouldn't get there. But he's so good at what he does it's difficult to pick against him.
The good: Shaun Pruitt wisely chose to return to school. He's one of the better big men in the league, a nice anchor for Bruce Weber.
The bad: It must be frustrating for Illinois fans to know that with Eric Gordon the Illini would probably be picked no worse than third and possibly second in this league. The suspension of Jamar Smith stemming from last season's alcohol-related car accident that injured teammate Brian Carlwell doesn't help things either.
The bottom line: Weber is good at getting the most from his rosters, whether it's taking a team of pros to the national title game (like in 2005) or taking a team of good, but not great, prospects to the NCAA Tournament (like last season). Rest assured there will be no Final Four appearance this March. But if Weber continues to out-coach the opposition his parts are good enough to muster another trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The good: Matt Painter's stellar recruiting class is on campus, and it's highlighted by E'Twaun Moore, Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson and Scott Martin. Expect at least three of those four to be starters, and as a group they'll have the Boilermakers competing for Big Ten titles again soon.
The bad: The top two scorers from the team that beat Arizona in the NCAA Tournament are gone, namely Carl Landry and David Teague. That's 33.2 points and 12.3 rebounds per game missing, and asking freshmen to take on that kind of scoring load can be dangerous through an 18-game league schedule.
The bottom line: Purdue's program is heading in the right direction. The only question is whether things can come together quickly enough to make another trip to the NCAA Tournament this season. As you can see, I'm guessing they will.
The good: Michigan's hiring of John Beilein gives the school an accomplished coach who won't miss the NCAA Tournament as many times as Tommy Amaker did regardless of the players he has at his disposal. Freshman Manny Harris is a dynamic wing and a nice piece for Beilein to build around.
The bad: Had Alex Legion joined Harris in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines would be ready to win right away. Alas, the 6-4 guard asked for a release from his letter of intent after Amaker was fired. He's now a freshman at Kentucky playing for Billy Gillispie.
The bottom line: Beilein has talent good enough to compete, and he'll shock somebody at home (perhaps UCLA on Dec. 22 or Indiana on Jan. 8). But to ultimately challenge for Big Ten titles he'll have to lure a better caliber prospect to campus or risk forever being out-manned by Michigan State, Indiana, Ohio State and Purdue.
The good: Minnesota showed a stunning financial commitment to its program with the hiring of Tubby Smith. Meanwhile, every relevant player is back, and the addition of sharp-shooter Blake Hoffarber will help the Golden Gophers do better than the 3-13 record in the Big Ten they accumulated last season.
|G - Drew Neitzel, Michigan State|
|G - Eric Gordon, Indiana|
|F - Geary Claxton, Penn State|
|F - D.J. White, Indiana|
|F - Shaun Pruitt, Illinois|
|G - Jamar Butler, Ohio State|
|G - Lawrence McKenzie, Minnesota|
|F - Raymar Morgan, MSU|
|F - Kosta Koufos, Ohio State|
|F - Brian Butch, Wisconsin|
| Player of the Year |
Drew Neitzel, Michigan State
| Newcomer of the Year |
Eric Gordon, Indiana
| Breakthrough Player |
David Lighty, Ohio State
The bad: It's nice to have a lot of experience. Nobody denies that. But when the experienced players are coming off a nine-win season it's difficult not to wonder whether it's truly a positive.
The bottom line: Smith will be good at Minnesota, but being great will require him to recruit at a high level. In other words, he's in the same boat as Beilein at Michigan, but if he somehow gets the players on campus -- and a few recent recruiting victories indicates it's possible -- there's no doubt Smith can eventually coach them to a Big Ten title.
9. Penn State
The good: Geary Claxton is back and coming off a season in which he averaged 16.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. He headlines a group of five players who started at least 21 contests last season.
The bad: You know all those veterans? They went 0-11 away from home last season and finished 2-14 in the Big Ten. So even if they improve, it's unclear whether they can improve enough to earn the at-large berth some are predicting.
The bottom line: The fact that there were in excess of 110,000 people on the Penn State campus Saturday and only about 3,000 bothered to show up for a free scrimmage featuring the basketball program is proof apathy still surrounds the program. It's unfortunate, because this could be a decent team. But the most likely scenario has the Nittany Lions again finishing in the lower third of the Big Ten.
The good: The love-hate relationship Iowa fans had with Steve Alford is over. He left for New Mexico and was replaced by Butler's Todd Lickliter, whose transition will be tough, though eased by the presence of veteran Tony Freeman.
The bad: Not only did the Hawkeyes lose Alford, but Adam Haluska and Tyler Smith are also missing. Haluska is with the New Orleans Hornets, Smith with the Tennessee Volunteers. So I'm not sure if it's possible to go from the Horizon League to the Big Ten and inherit a roster with less talent than the one you left behind, but Lickliter has probably come as close as anybody ever has to doing it.
The bottom line: The word was that if Alford didn't have a good season this season he'd be fired. That's one of the reasons he jumped at the opportunity New Mexico presented, because with this roster he wasn't going to be able to have a good season, and Lickliter won't be able to do it either.
The good: Kevin Coble gives the Wildcats a returning starter on the roster who averaged 13.4 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. He's a real-life Big Ten-caliber player, which is noteworthy because Northwestern doesn't usually have too many of those.
The bad: Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Coble isn't currently on campus. He's tending to his ailing mother in Arizona, and there's no timetable for a return.
The bottom line: This is the place every year where it's written that Northwestern has never made the NCAA Tournament. After another terrible campaign this season, I'll be able to write it again in October 2008.
|2007-08 Season Preview/Conference Countdown Schedule|
|Monday, Oct. 15||Preseason Top 25 (and one)||Thursday, Oct. 25||No. 7: Missouri Valley|
|Tuesday, Oct. 16||Preseason All-Amercia Team||Friday, Oct. 26||No. 6: Big 12|
|Wednesday, Oct. 17||No. 13: West Coast||Monday, Oct. 29||No. 5: Big Ten|
|Thursday, Oct. 18||No. 12: Colonial||Tuesday, Oct. 30||No. 4: SEC|
|Friday, Oct. 19||No. 11: Mountain West||Wednesday, Oct. 31||No. 3: ACC|
|Monday, Oct. 22||No. 10: Western Athletic||Thursday, Nov. 1||No. 2: Big East|
|Tuesday, Oct. 23||No. 9: Conference USA||Friday, Nov. 2||No. 1: Pac-10|
|Wednesday, Oct. 24||No. 8: Atlantic 10||Monday, Nov. 5||Preseason Projecting the Field|