What has Ohio State done to kind of surprise teams because they weren't picked in the Top 3 in the preseason?
Well, there's a lot of us…we weren't either. This was a strange year to make those picks. Michigan State has lost some tight ones. I don't think anyone would have picked that they would have seven Big Ten losses. I still think they're one of the better teams in the country and yet they've got seven Big Ten losses. (Ohio State) has been fortunate. They've lost one home game but they've been able to go on the road and win, I think, five (actually four) road games, the biggest really being at Michigan State. I don't think they had to play at Illinois. But they got t a big win at Michigan State and that's really the difference of their separation of Illinois, ourselves and Wisconsin.
Would there be a way for all of the Big Ten teams to play each other twice and would you be in favor of that?
Yeah, if there were 10 teams; if it was the Big Ten again. It's really hard with 11 because you're looking at a 20-game schedule. As the NCAA rules state now, you can play 28 games with your 29th being the Big Ten Tournament. There's legislation that looks like it will change that. We might get one extra game now. People, us included, could be scrambling here in the spring if all of that goes down. The exempt tournaments will still be in place, but now you're going to have to add another game. I just don't know if you could ever go to 20. There's been a lot of talk about going to 18. Maybe you wouldn't have as much of who played who and where. But, you're still going to have those two. If they fall outright to where the champ at the end of the year ends up playing at the 11th place team and at the 10th place team and the second place only got to play them at home, those are maybe a couple of road wins that maybe you get. As long as you have it like this, there's going to be disparity. That's what makes it so difficult. We don't have enough to separate the league into two (divisions) like the Big East, which is way too much, or the SEC or the Big 12. With one division like this, I'm not so sure 16 isn't the best. Coaches have bantered back and forth of whether it's 16 or 18. It's hard.
What do you think Jeff's and Greg's legacy will be here?
Well, I hope that we're getting into the final chapter. Any good book, that final chapter is what really is the kicker. You can read the first seven or eight chapters, but when you get to that final chapter, that's what you're really looking for. They're right in the midst of that final chapter. They've had a very special career, four postseason tournaments, four straight winning seasons. There's not an enormous amount that can say they've had four straight winning seasons because we're setting a record now with six straight. They've done it with incredible character and integrity. They've represented themselves so well. And I've said it 100 times and I truly mean it, if you research teams with academic problems or bad injuries or law issues like we've had, the majority of those teams have not had winning seasons. That's just the way that it is. We've been able to win and it's because of the two guys that you've mentioned. They've not only kept everybody together, but they've kept it fun. Their coaches have had fun. Their teammates have had fun. And they're such great winners. They give you absolutely everything. They may not make all of their shots. They may not end up defending the way that I want them to defend every time. But they give you 100 percent of all that they've got on that given night. I will remember them as individuals that got the most out of their ability and they did it every day. A lot of players can't say that.
How much credit to you think they deserve for getting the students and getting the fans back to Carver?
A lot of it. It starts with those two, but team with what they've done. I've always said it, the players are the ones that get it done between the lines. It started with those two. Obviously being in-state kids that's helped with the situation. But also they see Erek's development. You've probably seen Erek's development. When he got here if you put a mic in front of his face and asked him a question, you'd get a blank stare. Now, he'll at least give you a sentence. If he gets fired up, he'll give you two sentences. Doug brings excitement. Mike, another in-state kid, his development has been huge. It definitely starts with those two. The addition of Adam has really helped because Adam, Jeff and Bru kind of grew up in the same era high school wise. They competed against each other, but there was a tremendous respect among those three.
What does it say about Erek's progression that he's leading the conference in blocked shots?
He's been somebody that not only waited his turn but while he's waited his turn he's gotten better. Kurt Looby is in that same situation. In Kurt this year, we've used a lot of what Erek's done in that we tell him don't take a redshirt year or don't take a year where you're not playing a lot…Seth Gorney is going to fall into that same…we really think Seth is going to have a good career. He's starting to get better and better. He's getting spot minutes. He's doing a lot of good things in practice. Next year, we lose an awful lot of bigs and Seth is going to be in that, Kurt is going to be in that. We'll see very similar things in those two individuals that's happening with Erek; being patient; staying the course; working you're tail off. And now he's had two really productive seasons.
Did it help Greg and Jeff to have each other during the tough times?
Yeah. I think all of it. With Adam transferring in, that's helped. Having Mikey, who's another in-state guy. Carlton is an in-state guy. Having a lot of those in-state guys of understanding…sometimes when you have a team that doesn't have a lot of in-state on your team, it's hard to explain what the front of the jersey is. We haven't had to do that with this group. They understand the front of the jersey.
Are you a big Northwestern fan this week?
(Laughs) You know, Northwestern hasn't helped us in a long, long time. I guess it would be nice if they would help. They're fighting to have a .500 season. Our game with Penn State, they're fighting to get to seven wins in the conference, which hasn't happened in a while for them and gaining momentum going into the Big Ten Tournament. Northwestern is fighting like crazy to stay above .500 to get postseason for the first time since, I think, '99. Ohio State is trying to win an outright championship. Every team is playing for something here in this last week. I don't know if that's always the case every year in the Big Ten.
How do you turn around the inside matchup with Penn State? They pretty much had their way in the first game.
Well, we're going to be watching a lot of tape here in the next couple of days. They really hurt us on the boards. They really hurt us in transition. We're a better transition defensive team now than where we were in January. But it will be a nightmare game for us if we don't take care of the backboard and we don't take care of transition. The backboard is the big issue because the last two teams have beat us up on the boards. We've got to get back to be a more dominant rebounding team.
Do you try to front them a little more?
Yeah, you know, they don't have anybody over 6-6. Cornley at 6-6 is the matchup with Erek. You've got Parker, who's a guard-forward, that you end up either matching Bru or Adam with. Claxon is a small forward at 6-5. But we didn't keep the guards in front very well. We got driven hard. Their bigs drive us hard. It wasn't one of our better defensive games. More than anything, it was a big offensive game for us. Regardless of the defense they played, we were able to do a lot of things. We shot the ball well. Adam had a huge game. We've got to do a much better job at the defensive end.
Would you like to see Adam break out again?
Yeah, that goes in cycles. His numbers are still good. I've tried talking to him about just his activity. His board play has been down. I don't worry so much about him missing shots. I don't need him taking three shots a half. I need him taking five or six shots a half. But he's got to rebound. He's got to get back to doing those things. He did take his first charge of the year, of his career. That was great to see. But I told him I would come up with an award at he awards banquet in April if he only takes the one. If he takes more than one, than it's not an award. If he only takes one, he's going to get an award for that. Hopefully he can continue that process.
What is the mood of the team?
I think it's great. You never like to lose. Obviously we played in two tough environments that are hard to play in anyway. Minnesota is playing at a high level. And Illinois is as good of an environment as there is in the Midwest of not the country. That's a special venue. They're 96-4 in the last 100. They've got the whole thing in orange. That's a really neat place to play. So, you never like to lose, but because of the loss the guys know what they have to do, not that they weren't going to know if they won. There's more a sense of urgency. They've been together. They've been unified this whole time. I sense more excitement and enthusiasm over the weekend than I have any kind of feeling any kind of pressure.
You don't worry about a letdown with Penn State coming in here?
No. Penn State got our attention at Penn State and with what they've done. Our guys just played in Champaign. They know how difficult it is to play in Champaign. Penn State won in there. If you can win in Champaign, you're very capable of winning here as well.
What has Craig Neal brought to the program?
Well, he's my best buddy for one. We grew up together. We know each other. We've had similar careers as players and coaches. He brings great enthusiasm, great excitement. He allows me to concentrate on maybe one or two items instead of 15 items. We've gotten better because of that. Whether he's got the offense and I've got the defense or we flop that some, there's a big trust factor there. It's very similar to when I had with my father on staff. That's one guy in the bunker, in the tough situations, I know who has my back and who I can trust. Noodles is one of those guys. We've been friends since we were in about the third grade. We've grown up together. We've grown up being coaches' kids. He played in the ACC when I played in the Big Ten. We've been friends ever since. And we're big competitors. We're big time golfers and we go at it in the spring and summer and fall. It's fun to compete together then during the winter months of basketball. But he's been a tremendous addition for us.