Greg Oden, Ohio State bring new talent to fresh-faced conference

By Lucas Deal

Last season was not a great one for Big Ten basketball. No team in the league won more than 26 games, six teams made the NCAA Tournament, and all were headed home before the first weekend had ended. In the conference tournament, only one team reached 70 points in a game.

Needless to say, things could have gone better.

This year, they should.

With the arrival of stud recruit/man-child Greg Oden at Ohio State, the Big Ten has added some flash and flair. The losses of senior leaders at Iowa, Michigan State and Illinois will give the league some unpredictability and the recruiting war between Illinois and Indiana will give the Big Ten a much-needed rivalry.

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    Ohio State will enter the year as preseason conference favorites as they attempt to defend their surprising regular-season title from last year.

    The Buckeyes lost four key players from last season to graduation, but head coach Thad Matta’s top-ranked recruiting class should keep the Bucks on top of the league.

    “We have a tremendous challenge ahead of us because we are so young,” Matta was quoted in an Associated Press story. “We have a lot of new guys and a short time to figure out what we can and can’t do without sacrificing teaching the fundamentals.”

    In addition to the Buckeyes, perennial contenders Wisconsin and Michigan State are also expected to be in the top tier of the conference.

    The Badgers return, arguably, the best player not named Oden in the league in senior forward Alando Tucker. Tucker is the only player from last season’s first or second all-Big Ten teams to return to school.

    Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said in an Associated Press article Tucker has done a lot of work on his game recently – and its beginning to pay off.

    “Tucker’s still (going to be) tough to stop,” he said, adding that Tucker’s developing outside game will make him even harder to stop. “In order to be a good perimeter shooter you can’t shoot line drives and he’s worked on that and looked pretty good.”

    Michigan State enters this season with a huge void in its offense, having lost seniors Maurice Ager and Paul Davis to graduation and Shannon Brown to the NBA last spring. The Spartans do return point guard Drew Neitzel, however, and head coach Tom Izzo expects Neitzel and his team to have another successful year.

    “Expectations are a little different this year and that usually happens when you lose four seniors that produced a high percentage of your points and rebounds,” Izzo said recently. “But we’re going to try to prove that we can be a good basketball team.”

    Illinois and Iowa both enter the season in search of new team leaders after losing several key players to graduation.

    Weber expects junior forward Brian Randle to become Illinois’ new team leader, while Iowa head coach Steve Alford will look to senior Adam Haluska for leadership.

    “In the scrimmage Wednesday (Randle) had a three-minute stretch where he just dominated; that’s how he should play all the time,” Weber said last week. “I think he’s used to watching some other guys, watching Dee (Brown), watching James (Augustine), watching Deron (Williams). He’d just float around and get his dunk (last year). Now he’s got to be more than just highlights; he’s got to have continuous, consistent play and be productive.”

    Indiana and Michigan should also be better this season, while Penn State continues to improve as it works its way out of the league’s cellar.

    But every team will have their eye on the Buckeyes, and Matta said his team will be okay with that.

    “Obviously we have some tremendous challenges ahead of us early on, but those things are going to do nothing but strengthen us later,” he said. “We want to play our best basketball in February and March.”