Big Ten Men’s Basketball 2010-2011

By Etheria Modacure

With the NCAA Men’s Division I basketball season about to kick off, the Big Ten conference is ahead of most of its competition, with five schools ranked in the top 25 ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll. The conference hopes to send a handful of schools to the NCAA Tournament in March as it remains one of the most competitive leagues in college basketball.

The Big Ten leads all conferences with three teams ranked in the top 10 of the same poll and also have Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota receiving at least one vote outside of the top 25, giving the conference seven teams cited in the rankings.

For the top 25, Michigan State University is ranked second, Ohio State University is fifth, Purdue University is eighth, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is 16th and the University of Wisconsin-Madison is 24th.

The basketball rankings are compiled by the USA Today Board of Coaches, which is made up of 31 head coaches at Division I institutions. All are members of the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

The Michigan State Spartans have represented the Big Ten in the Final Four the past two seasons as the conference sent five teams to the NCAA tournament last season. The Big Ten is expected to be  stronger this season with 14 of the top 20 scorers and rebounders returning from the 2009–2010 season.

During Big Ten Media Day, on Oct. 28 in Park Ridge, Ill., coaches and select players from 10 of the conference’s 11 schools were present to speak about the upcoming season. Penn State didn’t make the trip to Park Ridge because of travel problems.

One coach started off the day speaking about the conference’s quality and depth before the

season starts.

“[There are] numerous teams in the top 25, [and] I think [there’s] great depth as a [conference],” said Bruce Weber, head coach of the Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball team. “And again, besides our seniors, you’ve got a lot of seniors throughout the conference, which should lead to one of the most competitive conference races in many years.”

Last season, three teams won a share of the Big Ten regular season championship after finishing with conference records of 14-4. Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State  shared the honors before the Buckeyes eventually won the conference tournament championship.

Joining those three teams in the NCAA tournament were Wisconsin and Minnesota. Illinois missed the tournament for the second consecutive season after finishing with a 10-8 conference record but struggled down the stretch and lost three games in a row to Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin.

“This year we’re by far the best conference in the country because we have so many returning players,” said Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith.

Northwestern, the University of Michigan, the University of Iowa, Indiana University and Penn State University finished in the bottom half of the conference last season. For Indiana, the Hoosiers will look to build on their experience within the Big Ten referenced by their head coach Tom Crean.

“I think our [players] are starting to look physically more like Big Ten players, and we’ve got to build that mindset now that you have to have to compete in this [conference] at the highest level,” Crean said.

Purdue head coach Matt Painter noted his team will have a tall task this season in the conference because the Boilermakers will be without forward Robbie Hummel, who averaged 15.7 points per game last season. Hummel injured his knee during practice in mid-October, which will cost him the season.

Painter said the team is excited about the season,and he acknowledged the quality of coaches in the Big Ten for the upcoming season. Five coaches in the conference have had Final Four experience: Bruce Weber, Illinois; Tom Izzo, Michigan State; Tom Crean, Marquette University; Bo Ryan, Wisconsin; and Tubby Smith, University of Kentucky.

“I think we’ve got the chance to have a special season this year from a conference standpoint,” Painter said. “There’s going to be a lot of people banging heads and going after each other.”

For this season, Weber began to emphasize defense early in practice. He noticed his offensive philosophy was vague because the team still needs to prevent scoring on the other end of the court.

“If you’re going to win championships, you’ve got to guard,” Weber said. “I don’t care what sport you’re in.”

The Fighting Illini made it to the National Invitational Tournament but were trounced by Dayton University on their home court 77-71. Weber said the loss to the Flyers was a microcosm of the team’s season.

Weber said it’s key for his team to have the drive, motivation and consistency to become a good team, and he needs that to stem from his seniors. The Illini will have three returning senior starters (Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Demetri McCamey), who have bought into the defense-first mentality the coach has begun to instill within the team.

“If we can teach [the] freshmen to do the right things ,and they have the talent, we can be successful,” said center Tisdale. “Every team in the conference is going to be tough this year. It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be exciting and every game is going to be a battle.”

The Illini begin their season on Nov. 8 against the University of California-Irvine, Toledo University on Nov. 10 and Southern Illinois on Nov. 13. The team will then travel to New York City to play the University of Texas and the University of Pittsburgh in the 2K Sports Classic benefitting coaches

fighting cancer.

Davis said defense will be key as the Illini can’t rely on trying to outscore its opponents every game. He is the team’s power forward and noted this will be a big season for Illinois.

“Defense is going to be there every night,” Davis said. “You’re working on defense, getting rebounds, running the floor [which] leads to offense.”

With the team having promising freshman in Jereme Richmond from Waukegan, Ill., and 7-foot center Meyers Leonard from Robinson, Ill., Davis knows the athleticism present should help the Illini as the freshmen have started to push the upperclassmen in practices.

“We’re so athletic,” Davis said. “We have guys [who] can run the floor, [who] can defend and we can be a great defensive team, we’ve just got to put our minds to it.”

Crean and Izzo shared the same sentiments about Illinois; both noted it as a team to be reckoned with.

“I think Illinois could be knocking on the door of a Final Four national championship type of program, if [Weber] gets his young guys to understand what his older guys understand, with how hard it is to win

in this [conference].”

For Izzo and the Spartans, depth is an important issue because starters can’t play a full 40 minutes each night, and the strength of any college basketball team is heightened by the quality of its bench and the team’s adaptability on the court.

“I think depth and versatility have been the two keys to 90 percent of the teams I’ve coached that have gone to the Final Four,” Izzo said. “I think if you have depth, you overcome injuries. Sometimes you have to be a little lucky in that NCAA Tournament to make a run, too. But our depth did help us. I think we’ve got more depth this year, and I think that’s going to be a plus.”

Izzo said when a team has versatility, it can mix and match between playing big or small against its opponents, giving it an advantage over its opponent. Izzo said when teams play in the NCAA tournament, certain teams match-up well.

Michigan State was ousted by national runner-up Butler University in the Final Four in Indianapolis

last season and will look to make its third consecutive trip to one of the most coveted championship

tournaments in sports. The Spartans have been to six final fours in the last 12 years and join UCLA

(2006–2008) as the only schools to make three consecutive trips to the championship round.

Izzo said he didn’t think the Spartans were a final four team last season. Purdue and Ohio State were favored to go further in the NCAA tournament but lost in the sweet sixteen. Izzo said the senior players haven’t talked about reaching another Final Four because it isn’t good, as the mentality of always being there begins to creep in.

“Draymond [Green], Lucas and Durrel [Summers] all understand probably a little bit more has to be done if you’re going to win another national championship,” Izzo said.

One program that hasn’t enjoyed the success of other teams in the Big Ten is Northwestern. The Wildcats haven’t reached the NCAA Tournament in school history but have been on the rise in the last couple of seasons.

Under head coach Bill Carmody, the Wildcats have been improving their win totals throughout the last two seasons. They won 17 games during the 2008–2009 campaign and posted a school record of 20 wins

in 2009–2010.

Regarding never making the tournament, Carmody said his players don’t care about what hasn’t happened for the program in the past.

“We were going pretty strong for a while but, then we faltered in February,” Carmody said. “Now the focus for us is just to recognize it’s a long season and, you have to finish the race.”

Northwestern’s guard Drew Crawford was a breakout freshman for the team last season. He scored a season-high 35 points against North Carolina A&T State University and averaged 10 points per game, but his coach would like to see more constant play from him this season.

Crawford said the team needs to be consistent as it usually lost games after notching a big victory similar to when it beat Purdue at home and then lost to Ohio State in Columbus.

“That was something we struggled with, and that’s what we’ve got to improve on,” Crawford said.

For the Wildcats to make their first trip to the NCAA tournament making plays late in the season will be key, and an approach to defense and rebounding will help that cause.

“It seems like at the end of the [season] there’s a couple of plays we don’t come up with,” said Wildcats forward John Shurna, who averaged a team best 18.2 points per game last season. “This year we’re focusing on defense and rebounding.”