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Mutka: Need help in Big Ten? Recruit Hoosier helpers

Updated: December 20, 2012 6:29AM



Unfortunately, when I proclaim “they’re No. 1,” I’m not talking about Big Ten football. We’re talking hoops.

Hoops as in W-hoop-ie for maestros like Ohio State’s Thad Matta, who continues to loot Indiana high schools to keep the Buckeyes in the limelight. Or Michigan’s John Beilein, who recently signed 6-6 guard Zak Irvin out of Fishers, which means next year’s roster will be stocked with four Hoosiers.

Not to be outdone, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo can turn to Gary’s Branden Dawson, Fisher’s Gary Harris and 6-6 Russell Beard from Fort Wayne Blackhawk. And let’s not forget Northwestern’s Bill Carmody, who is pinning his hopes for that elusive NCAA bid on guys like Reggie Hearns, a senior from Fort Wayne Snider.

My point is if at first you don’t succeed, try recruiting the state which produced NBA stars Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Glenn Robinson and Junior Bridgeman, just to name a few with a Hoosier heritage.

But I digress. In order of finish here’s how the premier conference in the country shapes up:

1. Indiana — Going from eight conference victories in three years to a 27-9 record was a remarkable bump. The dramatic turnaround raised the bar so much higher. Now the Hoosiers will be analyzed and criticized by second-guessers every step of the way.

Returning starters Cody Zeller, Christian Watford, Victor Oladipo and Jordan Hulls accounted for 48.4 of IU’s 72.8 scoring average. Watford, an unsung hero, was IU’s leading rebounder and should benefit from the attention centered on Zeller, the preseason player of the year.

The Hoosiers won’t be as physical without injured Derrick Elston, but it’s hard to see them slipping below 14-4 in the conference. Coach Tom Crean’s toughest task will be to distribute minutes among Yogi Ferrell, Hulls, Will Sheehy, Jeremy Hollowell and Remy Abell.

Coaches don’t need aspirins for this kind of headache. Adding Maurice Creek to the mix really complicates matters. Since signing on, the highly touted redshirt junior has played just 32 games in three years. Hopefully he’ll shake off knee surgery and a ruptured Achilles tendon to survive a full season of Big Ten rigors.

2. Michigan State — Lew Wallace’s Dawson, a master on the offensive boards, accentuates the Spartans, who routinely dominate Big Ten rebounding. Coming off ACL surgery, the rehabilitated 6-6 Lew Wallace grad, 6-10 Adreian Payne and 6-9, 270-pounder Derrick Nix should pound the glass. Point guard Keith Appling and Gary Harris revealed MSU’s potential in an early upset of No. 7 Kansas.

Dawson, who seems fully recovered, logged 33 minutes in that game. That’s good news for Izzo, who considers him MSU’s best overall rebounder. With the departure of Draymond Green and Valparaiso transfer Brandon Wood, the Spartans’ most prolific 3-point gunners, Appling must be more productive from the arc than an unacceptable 25 percent.

3. Michigan — Playmaker Trey Burke acknowledged that the Wolverines will no longer be able to sneak up on unsuspecting opponents. “We’ve got a target on our back,” he said at Big Ten media day.

Burke, who opted against the NBA draft, recently celebrated his 20th birthday by scoring 22 against IUPUI. The Wolverines are relying on a NWI freshman trio of Glenn Robinson III, who’s averaged 13.3 points and seven rebounds through three starts; 6-10 Mitch McGary, who is coming off the bench (averaging 13.3 minutes, 7.7 rebounds) and reserve guard Spike Albrecht.

4. Ohio State — Fort Wayne’s DeShaun Thomas is closing in on 1,000 points. Pickpocket Aaron Craft led the Big Ten in steals and averaged 4.6 assists. A strong sophomore class headed by LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith improve Matta’s chances of creating a high tournament seed for the sixth time in eight years. The Bucks may falter without All-American Jared Sullinger and four-year standout William Buford.

5. Minnesota — All five starters return, but much depends on muscular Trevor Mbakwe, a 6-8, 245-pounder who was the Big Ten rebounding king two years ago. Last season he missed 31 games with a torn ACL. The recovered sixth-year senior averaged 14 points and 9.1 rebounds through three games. Guard Andre Hollins led the Big Ten in free throw marksmanship (90.4 percent) and dependable Rodney Williams chalked up 12.2 points and 5.6 rebounds for the Gophers, who collapsed after a 13-1 start, then rebounded for NIT runner-up honors.

6. Wisconsin — Losing point guard Josh Gasser to a knee injury put an early damper on the Badgers’ customary challenge for Big Ten honors. Jordan Taylor’s heir apparent was their top perimeter marksman. They’re also nursing dependable Mike Brusewitz, who started 36 games last year. The 6-6 senior suffered a deep gash which exposed a bone in his leg in a freakish preseason collision before Gasser’s injury. Coach Bo Ryan is gunning for his 15th consecutive NCAA bid and 10 conference wins for the 11th time in 12 seasons.

7. Northwestern — Lack of depth cost the Wildcats their first NCAA bid, but underrated coach Bill Carmody welcomes back four starters, including Drew Crawford (16.2) and Hearns, who scored a career-high 22 points last week. Dave Sobolewski, who led the Big Ten in assist/turnover ratio last season, is a savvy floor leader. The Wildcats must compensate for the loss of Big Ten scoring champ John Shurna. Transfer Jared Shropshire, a 6-8 graduate student from Louisville where he was a two-year starter, could fill that void. Physical teams will still manhandle NU unless Alex Olah, a 7-footer from Romania, delivers.

8. Iowa — The Hawkeyes will miss leading scorer Matt Gatens, but he is their only significant loss from an 18-17 season. Returning starters Roy D. Marble (11.5 ppg) and Aaron White (11.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg) head a cast of 10 returning lettermen from their first postseason (NIT) team in six years. If the Hawkeyes tighten up defensively they could become one of the Big Ten’s biggest surprises.

9. Purdue — Gone from the 2007 class are Robbie Hummel, E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson, which means the Boilermakers will be nursing a new crop of freshmen, blending them with senior D.J. Byrd (8.9 ppg) and junior Terone Johnson (9.2 ppg). Big question: Who will be the go-to guy on a team that appears offensively challenged? The Boilers may score by committee, having placed four in double figures in an overtime loss to Villanova.

10. Illinois — Last year the dysfunctional Illini cost Bruce Weber his job just seven years after he guided them to a 37-2 record and national runner-up honors. Seven-footer Meyers Leonard took the NBA money and ran, but new coach John Groce inherited veterans Brandon Paul (14.7 ppg) and D. J. Richardson (11.6 ppg, 96 career starts). Groce won 85 games in four years at Ohio University, moving up to the Big Ten by guiding the Bobcats to a 29-8 record and a Sweet Sixteen appearance.

11. Penn State — Classy guard Tim Frazier led the Big Ten in assists and finished second in scoring (18.8 ppg). With any kind of a supporting cast he would have been named the Big Ten preseason player of the year, but a suspect front line will keep the Nittany Lions from making much noise.

12. Nebraska — After rejuvenating Colorado State basketball new coach Tim Miles needs more than 6-10 senior Brandon Ubel to inflate a program that plays second fiddle in the Big Red football symphony. Miles gets style points for enthusiasm and wittiness.



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