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October 29, 2006

Big Ten notes: Future looks wide open

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Ohio State surprised to be favorite

CHICAGO - When it comes to Big Ten basketball, the general consensus is there is Ohio State and Wisconsin and then there's everybody else.

With the loss of 16 of the top 20 scorers from last season, nearly every team in the conference is trying to replace at least one outstanding player. That includes the Buckeyes, who have the benefit of what may be the greatest recruiting class in school history.

It also includes traditional powers like Michigan State and Illinois. The Michigan State trio of Maurice Ager, Shannon Brown and Paul Davis (who combined for 54 points and 17.6 rebounds per game last season) are gone. So are Dee Brown and James Augustine, who played key roles during the Illini's run to the 2005 national title game.

With the Spartans and Illinois looking weakened, many of the traditional middle-of-the-pack teams feel they have a better chance of being the league's next dark horse.

"I think (the league) is wide open, and somebody is going to be the surprise and finish at the top or near the top," Michigan senior guard Dion Harris told Rivals.com. "It's somewhat equal and balanced because so many great players have moved on."

Iowa coach Steve Alford can relate. Expectations have been lowered for the Hawkeyes because of the losses of Greg Brunner and Jeff Horner. Brunner averaged 14.1 points and 9.2 rebounds per game last season, and Horner was one of the Big Ten's top guards. After winning 25 games and finishing in a tie for second last season, Big Ten beat writers and columnists picked the Hawkeyes to finish ninth in 2006-07.

Still, Alford says he doesn't see much difference between the third-best team and the 10th-place team in the league.

"There's eight of us that have a lot of question marks," Alford said. "We're all counting on freshmen. How will all these newcomers handle the road? Sometimes they like the road better than home, it's just one of those odd things. I do know it's going to make for a very interesting league race."

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has finished in first or second in seven of the last nine years. This season, he thinks not being a favorite will create more interest in the Big Ten. He's fine with that - as long as it doesn't become the norm.

"If it happens once or twice every eight years I'm OK with it," Izzo said. "I think it helps the league. Wisconsin and Ohio State are (the favorites) because they deserve it."

Like Redick was to Duke, ____ will be to the Spartans

Where will the Spartans get their scoring and leadership from with the departure of the veteran trio of Ager, Brown and Davis? Izzo says junior point guard Drew Neitzel will be the main source of both.

The 6-foot Neitzel averaged 8.3 points a game as the fourth scoring option last season, but Izzo has plenty of faith that his floor general can carry the team offensively.

"He is our leader," Izzo said. "He is imperative to our team, like (J.J.) Redick to Duke or (Dee) Brown to Illinois.

"People forget that he started the Final Four. You can't have that many players putting up big stats on a team like that. That's the way it works. When you have three great receivers you only have so many passes to throw."

Neitzel put together some gigantic scoring nights in high school, averaging 33 points a game as senior and racking up 57 points in a single game.

McBride on a Mission

Add Illinois senior guard Rich McBride to the growing list of players who lost significant amounts of weight this past offseason (see Georgetown's Roy Hibbert and LSU's Glen Davis). He recently tipped the scales at 208 pounds, a loss of nearly 20 pounds since the start of the summer.

McBride will serve a four-game suspension for a September DUI arrest before he can show off his new frame.

"The No. 1 thing Rich must overcome is the embarrassment and missing games," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "The No. 2 thing is keeping his weight down and increasing his stamina."

The Illini are counting on McBride, who averaged 10.3 points as a junior, to have a career season. He is one of a handful of veterans in line to get several more touches and shots.

"We are working hard to try and figure out who is going to be the go-to guy or go-to guys," junior forward Brian Randle said.

Randle, McBride and junior big man Shaun Pruitt are the early favorites to be that next go-to guy. Sophomore guard Jamar Smith is also in the mix.

Michigan Guard Growing Up

Remember all that talk of Michigan shooting guard Dion Harris having a breakthrough season a couple years ago? Maybe it was a little premature.

After seeing his scoring average dip from 14.3 to 11.1 and his minutes go from 36.5 to 31.2 last season, the senior rededicated himself in the offseason and appears to be in the best shape of his life.

"I really worked in the gym and on my conditioning on and of the court," Harris said. "In the past I took days off, but not anymore. It's my last year and I don't want any regrets about if I should have worked harder. I feel it's my time to emerge individually and my team's time to emerge as well."

Harris, who was ranked the No. 3 shooting guard in the class of 2003, has as much talent as almost any Big Ten guard. With the loss of the trigger-happy Daniel Horton and his 17.6 points a game, Harris could fill a big offensive void.

Full-Speed Ahead for Buckeyes

Look for the Buckeyes to use one of the Big Ten's smaller lineups. At least until league play starts.

With 7-foot freshman Greg Oden out until early January, the Buckeyes only have two other eligible players that are 6-foot-7 or taller: Junior college transfer Othello Hunter (6-9) and reserve Matt Terwilliger (6-8).

"We know we probably aren't going to get Greg back until January," junior point guard Jamar Butler said. "We are going to play a lot of guards and try and bust the scoreboard."

That style of play should fit ideally with the game of former five-star wing Daequan Cook, one of the four highly touted freshmen who showed up on campus this summer.

"Daequan is an all-out scorer," Butler said. "Like most freshmen, he needs a little work at the defensive end, but he can put up lots of points."

Heralded Hawkeye

Iowa pulled off one of one of the most shocking recruiting moves of the year when it landed four-star prospectTyler Smith. The forward turned down scholarship offers from Kentucky and Pittsburgh in the late signing period, and Alford doesn't shy away from showering his prize recruit with heavy compliments.

"He has a chance to be really special," Iowa coach Steve Alford said. "He is strong and extremely athletic. He's got a good jump shot. He's got to continue to defend and improve on that end, but he's definitely a special kid."

Smith will have to special for the Hawkeyes to be a contender. They are counting on him to possibly start and contribute in several areas immediately.

Commissioner Gives His Blessing

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany addressed one of the hottest topics at the media day, the one that coaches couldn't comment on directly due to NCAA rules.

More than two weeks have passed since Indianapolis shooting guard Eric Gordon, the No. 2-ranked prospect in the class of 2007, switched his verbal commitment from Illinois to Indiana. Despite the passage in time, the controversy hasn't subsided.

Was it ethical for Indiana to keep recruiting Gordon after he committed to Illinois? Did it break some sort of unwritten rule between coaches? Wasn't it unfair to the coaches who did back off?

Delany says he doesn't see any problem with it, but does plan to ask all the head coaches for their view on similar situations down the road. The league may consider some sort of policy when it comes to how verbally committed players are or aren't recruited.

"Some coaches respect verbals and some don't," Delany said. "I think (Illinois football coach) Ron Zook said publicly he recruits players right up to signing day. This was clearly the exception to the rule, and I think the coaching change probably mattered. But, it was clearly legal."

Illinois coach Bruce Weber said he would like to see players able to sign their letters-of-intent when they make their commitment, thereby doing away with the early and late signing periods. However, Delany said he doubted that would be feasible considering some players are committing before their ninth grade seasons begin.

Notes: Izzo said that Illinois and Wisconsin are the two toughest places to play in the Big Ten . Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan needs just five wins to reach 500 all-time victories a number that only 16 other active Division-I coaches have achieved . Delany will not support any move to expand the NCAA Tournament field of 65, saying "I think every team that can win it is in the field now."

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