INDIANA -- Oh, how the mighty
have fallen. Growing up in Champaign, two things were true every
year: 1. Lou Henson would wear an ugly Orange blazer; 2. Indiana
would field one of the best teams in the conference, if not the
best. This year, Indiana will be lucky to finish .500 in conference
play. Bracey Wright is struggling to carry the load, and the
Hoosiers don't appear to have any legit post players with George
Leach injured. I wonder if Crimson and Cream Nation has noticed
Bobby Knight is 12-2 in Lubbock, Texas. ILLINOIS plays at Indiana on
IOWA -- Steve Alford was
supposed to be everything Dr. Tom Davis wasn't when he took over the
reigns of the program five years ago. And he may be, but this much
is true -- Iowa is not good again this year and is not an NCAA
tourney team yet again. Despite having a veteran team, the Hawks
were blown out Saturday by a Missouri team that lost to Belmont
(who?) just four days earlier. Alford needs a miracle, and it
doesn't look good for the Hawks (and that really breaks my heart).
ILLINOIS plays Iowa at home on Jan. 17 and at Iowa on Feb. 25.
MICHIGAN -- Former Dukie Tommy Amaker
has the program turned in the right direction after serious problems
the last several seasons, and Michigan should be an NCAA team once
again. Led by senior Bernard Robinson Jr. and sophomore Daniel
Horton, last season's freshman of the year in the Big Ten, Michigan
can score with the best teams in the nation. The question will be
defense and the ability to win on the road, something not really
seen in the recent past. ILLINOIS plays Michigan at home on Jan. 31.
MICHIGAN STATE -- I love Tom Izzo,
coach of the Spartans. He has no fear and showed it by playing the
toughest non-conference schedule of the year, maybe in the history
of college hoops. Only two problems: First, he also has no point
guard and the talented Spartans show this deficiency almost every
time out. Second, MSU didn't win a single "good" game in
November-December and heads into the conference season below the
.500 mark at 5-6. MSU needs 11 or 12 wins in the conference and
tourney just to make the NCAAs -- may not happen and MSU could be
NIT-bound for the first time since 1996. Illinois plays Michigan
State at home on Feb. 10.
MINNESOTA -- They have the best
freshman in America in Kris Humphries and little else. Coach Dan
Monson needs a big surprise from his unheralded Gophers to finally
make the NCAA tourney, something he has never done at Minnesota.
Michael Bauer is a streak shooter who can kill a team from long
distance, but he has yet to find consistency. ILLINOIS plays at
Minnesota on Feb. 8.
NORTHWESTERN -- Give former Princeton
coach Bill Carmody credit -- his Wildcats play as tough as anyone in
the conference. Senior Jitim Young is a good scorer and point guard
T.J. Parker is a nice player. But the Cats just don't have the
talent to match up with Wisconsin, Michigan or Illinois. Finish
higher than ninth and I say Carmody should be coach of the year.
ILLINOIS plays at Northwestern on Jan. 14 and the Cats at home on
[to top of second column in this
OHIO STATE -- Picked by most media
experts to be the sleeper conference team of the year, the Buckeyes
have instead just played like they are asleep most of the time.
Coach Jim O'Brien lost his voice in the preseason (literally) and
has struggled to find chemistry with his two transfers and
stud-freshman recruit. Talent is not a problem, but losses at San
Francisco, versus San Diego State and at home to former Buckeye
Bobby Knight and Texas Tech have left the fans in Columbus asking
one question: When does spring football practice begin? ILLINOIS
plays the Bucks at home tonight, Jan. 7, and at Ohio State on either
March 6 or 7.
PENN STATE -- The Lions should think
about leaving the conference and going back as an independent ASAP.
They are definitely the worst team in the conference yet again. The
Lions best player, Deforest Riley-Smith, just quit, and things are
looking bad for a Penn State renewal. ILLINOIS plays Penn State at
home on Jan. 21 and on the road Feb. 21.
PURDUE -- The Boilers stunned the
basketball world by knocking off Duke during Thanksgiving weekend
and announced they were a force to be reckoned with this season.
However, losses to SMU at home and at Colorado State showed America
they may not show up ready to play every night. Kenneth Lowe is a
great scorer and leader, but it looks like their center Chris Booker
didn't hit the books enough in the fall and will probably be
academically ineligible for the rest of the season. Bad break for
Gene Keady and crew. ILLINOIS plays Purdue at home on Jan. 10 and in
Boiler-land on either March 2 or 3.
WISCONSIN -- Trying to win their third
straight Big Ten title, the Badgers lost their best player Kirk
Penney to graduation, but Devin Harris has stepped right in and
filled the void. I really like what Bo Ryan has done with the
Badgers, but the key may be the health of power forward Alando
Tucker, who is battling a sore foot and has missed several games as
of late. ILLINOIS plays at Madison on Jan. 24 and at home on Feb.
Illinois is as good as anyone, and the
schedule really is a positive for the Illini. No trips to the state
of Michigan is a plus. Facing Indiana and Minnesota on the road is
usually bad news, but this year both games should be Illinois
victories. I like where Illinois is right now and think the Saturday
scare against ISU will bring focus and intensity for the next two
months of Big Ten action. Before we know it, we will be getting
ready for the seventh annual conference tourney, which this year
shifts to Indianapolis, as Illinois prepares to defend their tourney
Here are the LDN predictions for the
2004 conference season in the Big Ten:
Wisconsin-Illinois -- flip a coin