Expectations APTommy Amaker is eager to get the Wolverines to the NCAAs for the first time since '98.
Ohio State is the Big Ten's buzz team this season because of incoming center Greg Oden.
Wisconsin ultimately could be the league favorite with the core of its team returning behind player of the year candidate Alando Tucker.
Michigan State and Illinois are consistent winners. Indiana might be the league's most storied program -- and certainly has had the biggest soap opera feel with the Mike Davis era and now Kelvin Sampson as head coach.
No Big Ten program, though, is as befuddling as Michigan. And no one wants to end the Wolverines' eight-year NCAA Tournament drought more than Tommy Amaker. No one has told him that his job is on the line. He just wants to win -- badly.
Over the decade or so, Michigan has been the most star-crossed program in the league, maybe even the country. The Fab Five changed the culture of the game in the early 90s, but the scandal that arose out of the stars' recruitment brought the program to its knees.
When Amaker took over the program in 2001 from Brian Ellerbe, the expectations were to clean up the mess, recruit and win. He has done two of the three exceptionally well, and he has won -- just not at the right time of the season.
Amaker (86-71, 35-45 in the Big Ten) won 11 games in his first year, 17 in year two and then won 23 and the postseason NIT his third season. After numerous injuries and a suspension set the program back in 2004-05, last season should have been Michigan's breakthrough season, but Lester Abram couldn't stay healthy and the Wolverines never reached their potential.
They went 8-8 in the Big Ten but missed out on the NCAAs again after blowing the regular-season finale at home to Indiana and then falling to Minnesota -- just a month after beating the Gophers by 22 -- in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. Michigan made it to the NIT final again, but lost this time, to South Carolina.
So what's next for Amaker's program?
"I know we're right there," Amaker said. "[Last season] was disappointing for us. We had the nucleus I'm optimistic, but I'm realistic. We came up short.
"The last phase of this [rebuilding] is to get to the NCAA Tournament, and there's no question that's where we're going and where we should go," Amaker said. "It's a fair analysis for us."
The Wolverines should be an NCAA Tournament team this season, although they should have been last season, too. This was a good team a year ago, even with the Abram injury. The Wolverines actually started 16-3 (6-2 in the Big Ten). They lost by only seven to UCLA and beat Michigan State and Illinois.
Once again, Michigan should have experience, too. Abram is healthy and is heading off on the Big Ten's trip to Australia later this month on a squad coached by Amaker. Dion Harris should anchor the backcourt and Michigan has big men who can block shots and rebound in Courtney Sims and Brent Petway.
Amaker said this team has to defend better, and obviously it has to finish games late in the season.
"We've put in an infrastructure, built the program, improved the student section, built an in-state relationship and done everything but get to the NCAA Tournament," Amaker said. "That's where we need to go. It's obvious and fair. I'm not running from it. We've done a lot of things the right way and been hit with a lot of things from injuries to academics. I know we're right there."
There isn't much left to say. Michigan needs to be in the NCAA Tournament. Amaker isn't making any excuses. It just has to happen. And he will be surprised if it doesn't.
The Hot Zone
Remember Michigan's Fab Five? Well, the Ohio State Buckeyes of 2006-07 could be referred to as the "Thad Five," with Greg Oden leading the most celebrated class to hit Columbus in hoops in the last 30 years.
Oden would have been a great test case had the NBA not employed new age-limit rules for the draft. He said from the beginning of his recruitment that he wanted to go to college. With the new rule, he had no choice, but it would have been interesting to see if he still went to Ohio State with the lure of the No. 1 overall pick dangling in front of him.
Now that Oden's arrived (even with a current wrist injury), coach Thad Matta will have a hard time keeping expectations in check. They're already too high.
ESPN.com quizzed the majority of the league's coaches about the one player on another team they would want on theirs and the uniform answer was Alando Tucker.
Coaches said Tucker was "a bear to deal with" and that "he defends, he scores, he rebounds and he's a finisher."
"I think he's already busted out, but if he hasn't, put me down to say he will," added another.
Claxton was described as "one of the better perimeter players in the league" and "a competitive kid that hates to lose and simply makes plays."
Coaches said Butler "just makes the right pass" and "doesn't get credit for his defense. He's a tough kid."
The Kohl Center (Wisconsin), Assembly Hall (Illinois) and the Breslin Center (Michigan State) have set the standard for the league. Of the other eight arenas, though, which one is the toughest according to the coaches? The answer: Carver-Hawkeye in Iowa City. Iowa didn't lose at home last season.
The two teams that were the consensus choices for a program ready to make a major move were Purdue and Penn State. Penn State finished strong (won three of five) to earn an NIT berth last season and the Nittany Lions return the core of their team. Purdue won only three games in league play, but didn't have Carl Landry and David Teague (out with injuries). The Boilermakers have their leaders back and no one expects them to be down. In fact, no coach would be surprised if Purdue made a run for an NCAA berth. It would be quite a turnaround.
Due to a broken foot, forward D.J. White played in only five games last season (the Hoosiers won them all). He's back, rested, and getting in shape, and the consensus is that White will be a star in the Big Ten. He has a chance to be an NBA lottery pick if he continues on this current trajectory. He was the second choice to Tucker when coaches were asked who they'd love to coach.
Side Dishes Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesLast year, Tucker put Wisconsin on his back. This year, he'll have help.
Alando Tucker is the face of Wisconsin and gives the Badgers a look most fans nationally aren't used to seeing.
The biggest misconception is that Wisconsin is a bunch of plodding big men who are boring to watch. Well, remember Devin Harris, now thriving for Dallas in the NBA? Tucker is even more athletic than Harris and can do just about everything on the court.
He can sky as high as any player in the country. He can defend. He passes well inside, outside, from the elbow, from out of bounds, basically wherever you need him to deliver the ball. He is a leader in every sense of the word for the Badgers.
He's also your favorite for Big Ten player of the year and has a shot to lead the Badgers to a Final Four berth.
"Let's face it, we made the NCAA Tournament last year on Alando's back," Ryan said. "He basically carried us."
This is Tucker's fifth year of college basketball. That simply doesn't happen with a player this talented without reason. Tucker was a redshirt in his first year. Then he broke his foot in 2003-04, playing in only four games.
"I usually don't oversell my players and I didn't with Devin, but I will with Alando," Ryan said. "The only question is can he consistently hit the outside shot. All the other stuff he does -- like scoring in traffic, rebounding, taking charges and working hard at the defensive end. He does it all.
"If he were somewhere else, he'd be the guy I'd want on my team," Ryan added.
The 6-6 Tucker played power forward in high school, but nobody could match up with him. Playing inside then has made him the most versatile player in the swing offense at Wisconsin.
"If you ask anyone in the league who they would want in a pickup game first, they would say him," Ryan said.
Actually, they did.
"I think I've earned the respect from players and coaches," Tucker said. "That comes from playing in tough situations and coming up when the game is on the line. I want to be the guy who takes the big shot."
Tucker spent this past offseason working on his dribble drive so he can create his own shot. Ryan implored him to do that so he could be even more effective.
Tucker was a key part of Wisconsin's surprising 2005 Elite Eight team that lost to eventual national champ North Carolina. That team was a veteran team with plenty of role players. Besides Tucker, this squad has point guard Kammron Taylor and a developing bench, but the Badgers know who their main man is.
"He's a warrior," Taylor said. "He gets most of his buckets in the paint, where a guy his size normally wouldn't. He's unmatched in the Big Ten. It's going to be hard to stop him."
* * *
Tom Izzo doesn't want the streak to die. He wants a 10th straight NCAA Tournament berth. If it's going to happen, though, he'll need more scoring from point guard Drew Neitzel.
Neitzel wasn't brought in to be a scorer, but he can be -- and will have to be this season with Shannon Brown off to the NBA.
The seeds were planted last season, when Neitzel pushed his scoring from 3.5 to 8.3 points a game. He started taking more shots, going from 16-of-49 on 3s as a freshman to 46-of-114 as a sophomore. He also got to the free throw line more, sinking 41 of 44 from the stripe after attempting only 20 foul shots his first season.
Expect those numbers to climb this season.
"I've never had the opportunity at State to be one of the go-to guys as far as scoring, and I'm looking forward to it," Neitzel said.
After the loss to George Mason in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told Neitzel he'll have to be more of a combo guard. He told him he'll get more open shots, with a few more set plays designed for him.
Michigan State is comparing the 2006-07 squad with its team in 2001-2002, and it's a fair parallel.
In 2001, the Spartans returned just 19 percent of their scoring and 18 percent of their rebounding, bringing back only one starter to a team that eventually finished 19-12 (10-6 in the Big Ten). This season, 22 percent of the scoring and 30 percent of the rebounding return, along with two starters.
If Neitzel, Marquise Gray, Goran Suton, Travis Walton and Drew Naymick, who sat out last season with a shoulder injury, can duplicate what the crew in 2001-02, the Spartans will be an unqualified success.
"We'll still run, but we may not run after made baskets as we have been accustomed to the last few years," Izzo said. "Our goal is to get back to the NCAAs. We've had a phenomenal recruiting year and we could be really good for the next three to four years. But this will be our toughest job."
It will be made a lot easier if Neitzel comes ready to score early and often.
* -- NCAA Tournament
Illinois: The Illini are going through a transition period not seen in Champaign in five years -- there's no Dee Brown, Roger Powell, Luther Head, Deron Williams or James Augustine around. That group was the core of the most successful run for the Illini since 1989. How are the Illini adjusting? The staff is emphasizing that the returning players must take ownership of this team. There is considerable hope that Jamar Smith can be the leader the Illini need this season. There also is confidence in Warren Carter and Shaun Pruitt. That hasn't stopped the Illini coaches, though, from going hard after what could be the most critical recruiting class of their tenure. They have a verbal commitment from Eric Gordon of Indianapolis and are also trying to land his AAU teammate, Derrick Rose of Chicago, to be anchors for 2007-08.
Indiana: D.J. White continues to make strides since coming back from breaking his foot twice last season and playing in only five games. He played well and without injury at the Nike Camp in Indianapolis and was doing just fine at the Michael Jordan Flight School in Santa Barbara, Calif., last week. All the talk in Bloomington isn't about White, though. It's not even about head coach Kelvin Sampson being kept off the recruiting road because of violations in his former stint at Oklahoma. Instead, Sampson is jazzed about his guards who got little love last season -- especially point guard Earl Calloway. The junior college guard was a bit erratic at times last season and seemed to be out of control, but Sampson sees a point who has settled down and will be his eyes, ears and brain on the court. The two have bonded, with Sampson praising his leadership. "He just needed to wait for the game to come to him, instead of trying to speed up the game," Sampson said. "He's still got to learn the [different speeds at which to play], and that's something we talk about often."
Iowa: Don't even think that it's going to be a down year in Iowa City. Quietly, Iowa pulled off a major recruiting coup this spring when it landed Tyler Smith. He originally signed with Tennessee under Buzz Peterson, but didn't want to play for Bruce Pearl, so he went back to prep school for a post-grad year. Smith gives the Hawkeyes a big-time, athletic, productive scorer on the wing who could cause matchup problems for opposing teams. Iowa's staff was abuzz over Smith. Assistant Craig Neal said he doesn't see how there are many freshmen more talented than Smith, not just in the Big Ten but in the country. The Hawkeyes might not be as gritty or as tough at the season's outset, but they'll be quicker that they have been and that could change the way this team plays.
Michigan: One of the small things that has gone unnoticed during Tommy Amaker's tenure is his commitment to changing the atmosphere at Crisler Arena. Michigan's facilities pale in comparison to Michigan State's, but Amaker is trying to make the most of it by getting more involved with the students. "We've worked our butts off to change it here, with the seating and moving the students down," said Amaker. It is noticeable, at least on TV, how much more vocal the maize-colored student section has become. "Every year, we're picking two road games for students to go on buses, usually two busloads," Amaker said. "I'm hoping the spirited mind-set comes across on TV, because we've worked hard to create that. We've had to revive that spirit."
Michigan State: The plan was for Shannon Brown to get his name out, to be a player that NBA personnel had atop their lists this upcoming season. "I thought there was a chance we could lose him, but I thought he was 80 percent coming back," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "And then he played so well in workouts. You can't recruit to that." Izzo thought Brown could have been the bridge to what could be shaping up as a stellar recruiting class for 2007. Now, the Spartans will rely heavily on newcomers Isaiah Dahlman and Raymar Morgan.
Minnesota: Dan Monson said a report that had him gone after last season didn't hurt him as much as he thought it would this summer. "I had never been through that," Monson said. "But the kids in the state and the coaches have all been good." The reality, though, is that this season could be a difficult one and could mean that he's feeling heat again. There are no seniors on the team, so there is a leadership void. In an effort to give the Gophers some toughness, Dan Coleman has added 12 pounds so far this offseason, which should allow him to throw his weight around more, even if that's not really his game. "This could be like two years ago, where we didn't know who was going to evolve and Vincent [Grier] comes out of nowhere," Monson said. "We don't have a star [yet], but it will be fun." The other key will be how well Oklahoma transfer Lawrence McKenzie adds to the mix.
Northwestern: The Wildcats aren't giving up on the idea but let's be honest -- the transfer thing hasn't worked out for Bill Carmody. Sure, St. John's transfer Tim Doyle is serviceable, but the Wildcats expected more out of Duke's Michael Thompson, who never was able to be a major contributor on a consistent basis, and Kentucky's Bernard Cote. "Put it mildly, it hasn't been good," Carmody said. "We'll still have to examine [transfers, though]." Carmody said he expected the Wildcats to finish .500 last season in the Big Ten but they ended up at 6-10 (14-15 overall). "I'd love to go 8-8," Carmody said. The reality is that the Wildcats are looking like they'll be a tough out at home, but might struggle on the road. Their style of play will remain hard to defend, but the Wildcats' streak of not making the NCAA Tournament -- ever -- should continue.
Ohio State: Remember the name Daequan Cook. He gets lost a bit when discussing the Buckeyes, because so much attention is focused on Greg Oden's arrival and when Oden will be healthy to play after suffering a wrist injury. The buzz from the Ohio State players this summer, though, was that Cook has been one of the most consistent players during pickup games. If Cook is knocking down shots while Ron Lewis, Jamar Butler and Mike Conley set up Oden in the post, this squad does have a shot to be in the top 10 come February.
Penn State: Ed DeChellis simply had to weed out a few players who didn't get it. The ones who didn't understand that if you don't listen to Coach D, you're out. "We had a great summer here with an unbelievable work ethic," DeChellis said. "It was tough to get my hands around it here. There were those here who looked at [basketball] as a hobby rather than thinking about a Big Ten championship. I knew we had to upgrade the talent, and we have in back-to-back years. But guys weren't committed to winning. The level of commitment was there that we needed. Guys weed themselves out. We've lost four or five [players] and none really hurt our program." Players have left Penn State to go to West Virginia, Iona, IUPUI and New Mexico, although Aaron Johnson's move to the Lobos could be one that has a major impact. Johnson "weeded" himself out with disruptive behavior. "I feel like we've got a core group of kids now," DeChellis said. Reaching the NIT (first-round loss to Rutgers) and finishing 15-15 overall (6-10 in the league) was a major accomplishment for a program that appeared to be as down as it had been in years when DeChellis took over in 2003, even though it hadn't been too far removed from a Sweet 16 appearance under Jerry Dunn in 2001.
Purdue: The Boilermakers are getting all kinds of national and regional love for their recruiting class of 2007. Purdue is wrapping up the top players in the state not named Eric Gordon. Still, the Boilermakers are as confident heading into a season as they've been since Matt Painter arrived as Gene Keady's replacement in waiting two years ago. Getting Carl Landry and David Teague back from injuries means they have the experience they lacked last season. The good vibes this summer only can help going into fall practice. The cloud over this program has been lifted. There is a renewed sense of optimism for next season and beyond, as Purdue becomes a hoops destination again.
Wisconsin: The Chris Rock-Kammron Taylor comparisons don't stop. Why should they? They look so much alike. "It's crazy," Wisconsin senior Alando Tucker said. "It's hilarious. My whole family doesn't even know his real name. My grandmother just asks me how Chris Rock is doing. I remember they put their pictures up on ESPN and I didn't know which one was which." Taylor said he still hears it on the road all the time, but now it doesn't bother him. He said he was supposed to have a meeting with the comic but nothing has happened yet. "I do look like him," Taylor said. "It was bad my freshman year, but now I'm used to it. It's funny now. I'm funny, but not as funny. He's making money being funny. I'm not."
What a weird two years it has been for the tradition-rich Big Ten.
Two years ago, it was top heavy and maligned nationally, yet three teams made the Elite Eight, two went on to the Final Four and Illinois nearly won the whole thing.
Fast forward to last year and the argument over the best conference had to include the Big Ten, yet none of the big boys from the Midwest played beyond the first weekend of the NCAAs.
With the last two years as the backstory, this season appears to be one of the weaker ones in recent Big Ten memory. Michigan State lost all three of its studs to the NBA draft, Michigan had another NIT team that included mostly graduated talent, Illinois has young talent, but loses its heart and soul with Dee Brown and James Augustine now in the NBA. Defending conference tourney champ Iowa lost several starters.
Needless to say, this will be a different Big Ten.
While Ohio State clearly has made the most noise in the conference with the signing of an unbelievable class, the Buckeyes probably are not the true favorite. That would go to Wisconsin, an experienced team that lost Greg Steimsma and Marcus Landry in midseason last year and more or less fell apart. With Alando Tucker returning, Bo Ryan's Badgers have a player of the year candidate who can score inside and out, and a system in place that allows him do so.
Illinois does have rapidly improving Brian Randle and Shaun Pruitt, along with its own stellar recruiting class and with the home court advantage in Champaign, and you can never count out a Bruce Weber team. The spoiler of the league, though, could be Penn State, which returns Geary Claxton, Jamelle Cornley and Ben Luber.
Indiana has new energy under Kelvin Sampson, and while most of the world will wait to see if D.J. White is healthy, watch for juco transfer Mike White to have an equally big impact.
The rest of the league appears a notch below, with Minnesota losing Vincent Grier and Mo Hargrow (although it gets Lawrence McKenzie), Northwestern graduating Vedran Vukusic, Michigan State and Michigan suffering big losses and Purdue still in the thick of a massive rebuilding job.
With a big new TV contract and every coach except Mike Davis returning from last season, there is a lot of hope for the future of the league. Unfortunately, the future seems brighter than the present.
In his very early look at the 2007 NCAA Tournament, resident Bracketologist Joe Lunardi thinks six Big Ten teams will be dancing come March. Of those six, he likes Ohio State to nab the league's highest seed (a No. 2).
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