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October 26, 2008

Big Ten notes: Purdue officially the favorite

MORE: Hustle, chemistry key to Purdue's success

CHICAGO Purdue officially is the favorite in the Big Ten.

The Boilermakers were picked to win the conference by a 22-member media panel, and Purdue sophomore forward Robbie Hummel was voted the preseason player of the year.

The latter may be a better indication of just how good the Boilermakers can be. A year ago, Purdue finished second in the conference and won 25 games with a young squad that was coined the "Baby Boilers." On top of that, it was junior guard Keaton Grant not Hummel who was selected the team MVP last season.

Even Purdue third-year coach Matt Painter said he isn't sure Hummel is the best player on his team.

"You can come to our practice on Monday and Robbie may look like the best player," Painter said at the Big Ten's annual media day. "On Tuesday it may be Keaton, on Wednesday it may be (sophomore guard) E'Twaun Moore and Thursday it may be (junior guard) Chris Kramer.

"It's a very good problem to have."

Painter isn't exaggerating. Moore (who joined Hummel on the league's preseason team) led the team in scoring at 12.9 points per game. Hummel was close behind at 11.4, followed by Grant at 11.2. The hard-nosed Kramer was voted the Big Ten's 2007-08 Defensive Player of the Year and led the league with 2.3 steals per game. The Boilermakers also return two big men who split starting time: senior Nemanja Calasan (6.4 ppg) and sophomore JaJuan Johnson (5.4 ppg).

Michigan State and defending league champ Wisconsin were picked to finish second and third, respectively. The Spartans and Badgers each return three starters from teams that advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament.

The rest of the preseason team: Michigan guard Manny Harris, Michigan State forward Raymar Morgan and Wisconsin forward Marcus Landry.

"I've said all along there are always 14 to 15 teams (that could make the Final Four) each year," said Tom Izzo, who enters his 14th season at Michigan State. "I think we're one of those 14 or 15 teams that has a chance."

The league only releases the top three in the preseason poll, but Ohio State almost assuredly was voted fourth. Indiana is the only other team in the league that finished above .500 in league play last season, and the Hoosiers are facing a vast rebuilding project.

The Hoosiers are led by former Marquette coach Tom Crean the only new coach in the league and have only one returning scholarship player, little-used forward Kyle Taber.

The Buckeyes lost their three leading scorers, but coach Thad Matta has reeled in yet another stellar recruiting class, highlighted by the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2008 class, 7-foot center B.J. Mullens.

Badgers face familiar situation

The idea of matching the success of a Wisconsin team that won a school-record 31 games and captured the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles last season doesn't seem to daunting to the Badgers' Landry.

Landry is aware that his team lost leading scorer and rebounder Brian Butch (12.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and All-Big Ten defender Michael Flowers, but he's not worried.

That's because at this time last year, the Badgers were being asked how they would replace two other starters the school's leading career scorer (Alando Tucker) and their second-leading scorer (Kammron Taylor).

"We lost Tucker and Kam and did just fine," Landry said. "We'll do just fine again. I think we have a great team this year. We can do a lot of big things. I'm trying to be a leader and show the guys how to do things, just like Alando and other guys taught me."

The return of junior point guard Trevon Hughes, savvy senior forward Joe Krabbenhoft and Landry gives the Badgers a solid nucleus. The key is getting significant improvement from young players, namely sophomore forward Jon Leuer and sophomore big man Keaton Nankivil.

"We are going to need some pleasant surprises and some consistency from the veterans," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "That's what it's going to take."

Buckeyes go for balance

Ohio State's Matta gladly would trade one or two go-to scorers for a widespread scoring attack.

"I hope we can score from a lot of different angles," Matta said. "I like it when a team has a lot of guys that can score. You look at Florida, the team that beat us in the national title game two years ago, and you look at Kansas last year and they were exactly the same way just a lot of different guys that can score."

The Gators had five players average between 10.3 and 13.3 points in 2006-07. Kansas had five players average between 9.3 and 13.3 last season.

Mullens gives the Matta and the Buckeyes their third 7-footer in as many seasons. He follows in the footsteps of Kosta Koufos (23rd pick in 2008 draft) and Greg Oden (first pick in 2007 draft), but size may be where the comparisons end among the trio of giants.

"To put B.J. in the same category as Greg and Kosta is doing a disservice," Matta said. "The only thing they have in common is they are 7-footers. B.J. is more of a low-post guy who plays with his back to the basket."

Mullens likely will be the fifth one-and-done player in the past three seasons to leave Ohio State early, joining Koufos, Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook; Conley and Cook also were first-round picks in 2007.

"B.J., Daequan and Kosta were all from Ohio, and Mike and Greg were from Indianapolis where I have a lot of ties (Matta coached at Butler in Indianapolis)," Matta said. "We are always going to recruit those kind of guys. If it means going to Los Angeles to get that kind of player, I might have thought twice about it."

Knee injury shakes up Spartans

The biggest factor in Michigan State's Final Four hopes could be the health of freshman forward Delvon Roe, who was a five-star recruit. Roe suffered a knee injury during his senior year of high school that required microfracture surgery the same kind of procedure that forced Oden to miss his entire NBA rookie season. Izzo said he hopes Roe will be "85 percent" by the time Big Ten play begins.

"We'd be a different team the last 10 months if Delvon hadn't gotten hurt," Izzo said. "I thought he would be a starter coming in, to be honest. It's not that the injury is career-threatening, but it's time-consuming. He didn't do much for 9 1/2 months. He's been practicing some, but he can't go six days a week yet."

There is some good news for the Spartans when it comes to their newcomers. Izzo believes freshman guard Korie Lucious, a 5-11 four-star recruit, is ready to contribute. Lucious has been particularly impressive in practice.

"Korie's got speed like (sophomore point) Kalin Lucas and is a phenomenal shooter," Izzo said. "He's too small, but he competes. He's a street fighter. He's exceeded my expectations where he'd be at this stage. I questioned where he'd be able to help us this summer. Now, I think he can. He's going to have a heck of a career."

Legion of one

Illinois guard Alex Legion, who must sit out the fall semester after transferring from Kentucky last season, could be eligible as early as Dec. 20 the last day of fall classes -- when the Fighting Illini play host to Detroit. Legion will begin playing no later than Dec. 28 in a home game against Eastern Michigan. The Illini face Missouri in an annual rivalry game in St. Louis in between on Dec. 23.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber is concerned about the 6-5 Legion making a smooth transition, regardless of the date of his debut.

"If we get off to a good start, then he's got to work to blend in," Weber said. "If not, then there's pressure to save the team."

Legion, who was ranked the No. 44 prospect in the 2008 class, has the physical tools to do the latter. Weber says Legion has the best work ethic of any player on the team, although it's not always focused in the right area.

"Alex is really talented offensively," Weber said. "But he's got to work on better shot selection. Sometimes it seems like the ball touches his fingers and goes up right away. He didn't want any part of defense at first, either which I think put him in some struggles at Kentucky. Now that another coach is saying the same thing, maybe it's sinking in."

Scary schedule

Not only did Indiana's Crean inherit a nearly invisible roster seven players were either kicked off the team or transferred but he also has perhaps the toughest schedule in the Big Ten. The depleted Hoosiers will face five non-conference teams that went to the 2008 NCAA tournament, the most of any in the league.

Indiana will play in the Maui Invitational, starting out against Notre Dame. The Hoosiers will play either Texas or Saint Joseph's in the second round. IU also faces Gonzaga in the first basketball game played at Lucas Oil Field (new home of NFL's Indianapolis Colts) in Indianapolis as part of the Hartford Hall of Fame Showcase. Crean's squad also will travel to Kentucky and play host to defending Ivy League champ Cornell.

Notre Dame, Gonzaga and Texas likely will each be in the preseason top 20. The Hoosiers also travel to Wake Forest, a potential top-25 team.

Keeping it in the family

Michigan coach John Beilein has added his son, former West Virginia guard Patrick Beilein, to his staff as a graduate assistant. A 3-point specialist, Beilein was the sixth man on the WVU team that reached the Elite Eight in 2004-05. He has spent the past two seasons playing professionally overseas.

"Patrick is proof of what a player who can pass and shoot can do," said the elder Beilein. "I think he's really going to help because we have a couple of guys just like him. If we can develop some prolific 3-point shooters, it will really open up things."

Michigan's practice court not only includes the new college 3-point line at 20 feet, 9 inches, but also the NBA 3-point line (23-9 around the arc and 22-0 along the sidelines).

"If our guys can knock down shots from (NBA) range, it can really stretch the floor," Beilein said.

Etc.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber said 7-1 center Mike Tisdale gained 45 pounds in the offseason. Tisdale now is listed at 235 pounds. Taber, who is Indiana's lone returning scholarship player, currently is sidelined with a knee injury. Crean will be his fourth college coach. The other three were Dan Dakich, Kelvin Sampson and Mike Davis. When asked about presidential candidate Barack Obama, Minnesota coach Tubby Smith compared Obama to a young, fast-rising coach, saying, "Barack is a pretty sharp guy. He's been superb in the way he's prepared." Wisconsin's Ryan recently released an autobiography, and Izzo joked that he would like a copy because he has a "good fireplace that could use some kindling." Northwestern coach Bill Carmody says forward Kevin Coble has increased his shooting range and will shoot more 3-pointers Penn State's Jamelle Cornley is the only active player in the Big Ten to break the 1,000-point barrier. Cornley ranks 22nd on the Nittany Lions' career scoring list with 1,048 points. Illinois guard Chester Frazier compared junior college transfer Dominique Keller to former Georgetown big man Jerome Williams, who was known as "the junkyard dog" for his tenacious rebounding.

MORE: Hustle, chemistry key to Purdue's success

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.



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