Wednesday, Jan. 7

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By Greg Taylor

[JAN. 7, 2004]  The conference has really taken some shots from the "know-it-alls" on the national level, but nonetheless, it is time for Big Ten hoops to begin. Today, we will look at a brief capsule of the conference teams minus Illinois and share our predictions for the season.

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 Feb. 3.

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 Feb. 28.


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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. 18.

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 title.

Here are the LDN predictions for the 2004 conference season in the Big Ten:

  1. Wisconsin-Illinois -- flip a coin
  2. Illinois-Wisconsin
  3. Michigan State
  4. Purdue
  5. Michigan
  6. Ohio State
  7. Iowa
  8. Minnesota
  9. Indiana
  10. Northwestern
  11. Penn State

[Greg Taylor]

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