While the Big Ten has been getting plenty of attention thanks to its early-season success, the league teams have done this despite a wave of injuries.
While IU fans are very aware of the ailments that have sidelined D.J. White for the entire non-conference and A.J. Ratliff for a portion of it, they are just two of a slew of players who have landed on the injured list. Minnesota's Vincent Grier missed five games with a broken finger, while Iowa recently lost Jeff Horner with a torn knee ligament for 2-5 weeks.
At Purdue, Carl Landry and Jeff Teague have been lost for the season with injuries, while Penn State and Northwestern are a couple of other teams that have been battling the injury bug in the early going.
"We had 11 guys on scholarship, and I had four walk-ons and three aren't playing," said Northwestern Coach Bill Carmody. "It's crazy, walk-ons that can't walk."
All joking aside, it's been a problem in the early going for a handful of league teams, and no one can put a finger on why so many players have been going down as of late. Michigan Coach Tommy Amaker, who was mired with injuries a year ago, sees it as nothing more than coincidence, but Penn State Coach Ed DeChellis has another theory.
"I'm not sure we don't over-train," said DeChellis, who lost shooting guard Danny Morrissey for the year with a knee injury. "We have our guys here all summer, we're running and lifting and playing every day. I've got to take a look at that. It's a constant, 12 months out of the year. Sometimes I think we'd be better off letting them go home and hang out for a month or two and themselves back together."
While Amaker might disagree with that assessment, one thing he is well versed in is the challenge of bringing once-injured players back into the rotation. A year ago, the likes of Lester Abram, Daniel Horton, Chris Hunter and Graham Brown were all lost for at least a portion of the season, and working them back into mix if and when they were healthy wasn't easy.
"I learned last year is it's so hard to implement those players back in," said Amaker, whose team is off to a 7-0 start after going 13-18 a year ago. "You're asking certain players to change their roles (when others get injured). Then when you get those kids back…there's a grace period to work themselves back in, back into conditioning, mentally are they back. There's a lot that goes into it. It's a tough situation."
Another thing that has stood out about the Big Ten in recent years is the influx of players from overseas. Indiana has gotten a big contribution this season from Australian Ben Allen, while Cem Dinc is another overseas player who appears to have a bright future in Bloomington.
But the Hoosiers are far from the only team to look outside the country's borders for talent. Michigan State, Northwestern, Iowa and Penn State are among the programs that have players from overseas on their rosters.
Carmody has probably looked abroad more than any other Big Ten coach. In recent years, the likes of T.J. Parker, Mohamad Hachad and Vedran Vukusic have made the Wildcats much more formidable, and the Northwestern coach doesn't see changing his strategy anytime soon.
In fact, he says he has no choice.
"I have to do it at Northwestern," said Carmody. "If there's a kid in the Midwest and the other schools in the Big Ten want him, I might be third or fourth on (his) list. So I have to go elsewhere. It's not necessarily the best teams that have to (look for players overseas)."
In most instances, a coach's connection or contact has paved the way to bring in a player from overseas, simply because the expense of recruiting a player from scratch is likely above and beyond what most programs can absorb. But those contacts have produced plenty of players, many of whom have made an impact during the last 5-10 years.
But Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo is among those who had a very good foreign player leave early – Erazem Lorbek. Lorbek left Michigan State after just one season to play professionally in Europe, an experience that soured Izzo to a degree on going that route with recruiting.
"It bothered me, because he had an average year and a great year at the same time," said Izzo. "We thought with another year or two he could have really been special…it made me question a little bit – I don't see any sense if you have to get three or four players a year…that you wouldn't recruit in the (United) States for us."
In fact, if Izzo had his druthers he'd limit is recruiting to states like Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio, four places that he's had a great deal of success, and four states that have traditionally turned out a great number of quality players. The Michigan State coach says sometimes people put too much into where a player is from instead of what he can do.
"Sometimes fans and media and everybody else get more caught up, the farther the kid is away," said Izzo. "I said one time that if I signed a 7-footer from California I'd be canonized just because people get caught up in height, maybe where kids are from and distance. I think for the most part you should be caught up more if they can play and if they can help you win championships."
MORE ON BIG TEN SCHEDULING
Illinois coach Bruce Weber said he expects the conference's scheduling to be one of the hot topics when the coaches and athletic directors get together for conference meetings in the spring of 2006. One of the issues will be whether or not to expand the Big Ten slate to either 18 or 20 games.
While the most obvious reason for expanding the schedule would be to produce a true regular season conference champion, another reason to consider the move relates to scheduling, and the challenges facing most league teams.
Whether it's the difficulty for some schools to get major conference schools to schedule home-and-home series or the rising costs of "buy" games, it's becoming a much more difficult task for many teams to fill the 11 non-conference games on their schedule.
"Scheduling is one of the hardest things we do in college coaching," said Ohio State's Thad Matta.
Matta said that the costs of "buy" games – where a college program brings in school to its home arena without a return trip to their arena in the future – is now in the "$70,000-$75,000 range." Illinois' Weber, meanwhile, says the cost of those games is only going up.
"The cost of guaranteed games continues to rise, $5,000-$10,000 per year, and it's tougher and tougher to get those games," said Weber.
Big Ten Basketball Banter, Part II
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