Cincinnati players started pressing Illini buttons even before either team had played their first-round games. Big mistake.
As the Illini left the court following a practice session, Cincinnati players urged the Illini to bring their "A" game when the two teams would meet in the second round.
The trash-talking continued during the weekend — Illinois advanced with a first-round win over Murray State — and all the way through warm-ups.
Some of the nervy talk was pointed at guard Deron Williams, who was told he was "too pretty" to play hoop and that Cincinnati was ready to play Duke in the third round of the tournament. Bearcat players also knocked down an "Illinois" sign outside the locker room.
But instead of quivering, the Illini came out with a purpose.
Illinois had a lights-out shooting game and buried the Bearcats 92-68. The Illini were simply off the charts, connecting on 35-of-55 shots from the floor — including 11-of-19 from beyond the arc. Williams lit up the Bearcats with 31 points, seven assists and no turnovers.
Williams said the comments from the Cincinnati players did nothing but fuel his fire.
"I kind of got a little mad about it," Williams said. "But what are you going to do? I did feel good as the game went on. I'm not going to lie. When they started to talk, it just got me in a zone."
In addition to Williams, Roger Powell added 22 points, Dee Brown had 14 and James Augustine had 11. It was the kind of performance that head coach Bruce Weber was dreaming of when he showed his team videotape of Cincinnati's Feb. 18 loss at UAB.
"We watched UAB pressure them, spread them out and just push the ball up the court," Weber said. "Those are the things we did. We really got in the groove."
With five days to prepare for Duke, the Illini needs to muster the same kind of effort to have a chance against the powerful Blue Devils. Duke won't trash-talk like Cincinnati, but the chances are the Illini won't be lacking for motivation.
THE GOOD NEWS: There was a lot of talk that the Illini would lose to Murray State in the first round and then if they got past the Racers, they would lose to Cincinnati or even East Tennessee State in the second-round. The theme was a lack of respect and the result was a solid 72-53 win in the first round and a 24-point blowout in the second round over Cincinnati. The Illini go into the Duke game having won 14 of 15 games and with more confidence than they have had in years.
THE BAD NEWS: The Illini are going up against college basketball's best program of the past 20 years. Duke has lost in the regional semifinals each of the last two years and the Devils are hungry to get back to the Final Four. Duke beat Illinois 78-77 on Nov. 28, 2000 in Greensboro, N.C.
PROBABLE LINEUP: Forward James Augustine — Brings toughness and determination to a unit that needs his intangibles. At 6-10 and 225 pounds, Augustine will throw his body to the floor to come up with loose balls and also bang for rebounds. He averages 9.3 ppg and 7.5 boards per game. He was impressive while scoring 11 points against Cincinnati in the second round of the tournament.
Forward Roger Powell — In a season in which the Illini has had some great highs and some painful lows, Powell has been solid from start to finish. He averages 11.8 ppg and seems to rise to the occasion in big moments. Powell is a very consistent performer who is connecting on 59.8 percent of his shots from the field.
Guard Luther Head — While he was suspended on two occasions earlier in the year for off-the-court problems, Head has turned his season around and been an extremely valuable competitor. Usually one of the best athletes on the court, Head has a brilliant touch and a pretty shot. Head averages 11.1 ppg and can also go to the boards. He led the Illini with five rebounds against Cincinnati.
Guard Dee Brown — The X-factor for the Illini. Brown has lightning quickness and can always outrun his opponent from point A to point B. It's what he does at point B that will play a huge role for Illinois. In the last month, he has been shooting the ball well from the outside and dominating games. Brown is averaging 13.3 ppg and is connecting on 40.6 percent of his shots.
Guard Deron Williams — Williams is probably the most consistent player on the team and head coach Bruce Weber depends on him to set the tone for his teammates. When Cincinnati questioned him by saying he was too "pretty," the angered Williams responded with 31 points. If he can keep his fire going against Duke, the Illini have a chance to survive and advance.
BENCH: The Illini get excellent contributions from their bench. Gangly Nick Smith is a seven-footer who is much more of a factor from the outside than he is in the paint. Smith can hit the mid-range jumper consistently, but is too skinny to do much on the boards. Guard Richard McBride can provide an offensive spark. Jack Ingram is a moderately aggressive forward who can take advantage of opponents' defensive lapses.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm definitely not intimidated by Duke. I'm looking forward to going in and butting heads with them." — Illinois forward Roger Powell on the third-round meeting with Duke.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UPCOMING GAMES: vs. Duke in the third round of the NCAA tournament, Atlanta, March 26
KEYS: The Illini were at their best against Cincinnati, and they will have to be even better if they want to compete with Duke for 40 minutes. Duke beat Alabama State and Seton Hall by a combined 63 points and the Blue Devils are playing with a sense of purpose. The Blue Devils may be the most confident team in the nation, and that's one area in which the Illini can't falter. Another hot-shooting game could be the equalizer for head coach Bruce Weber.
— Guard Deron Williams is coming off a sensational 31-point game against Cincinnati. He has been the team's most consistent player all season and jumped up with a huge performance vs. the Bearcats. He needs to stay at that elevated level against the Blue Devils.
— Forward Roger Powell is a solid defensive player, but his abilities will be tested to the limit by Duke forward Luol Deng, who is tough all over the court, inside or off the dribble.
— Guard Rich McBride came off the bench against Cincinnati and hit 2-of-3 from beyond the arc. He could be a key weapon against Duke, since the Blue Devils might not pay much attention to him.
Head coach Mike Davis was hoping that he could turn around a miserable season with a memorable run in the conference tournament, but the Hoosiers had nothing left in the tank after beating Ohio State in the first round.
The Hoosiers actually fell behind by double digits to the Buckeyes before turning things around late in the first half. The Hoosiers found their outside shooting against the Buckeyes and ran Ohio State out of Conseco Field House by an 83-69 margin.
Mike Davis wanted to take some of that momentum into their second-round game against Illinois, but the Illini was just too athletic and determined. The Hoosiers hung in well into the second half, but Illinois slammed the doors with a 71-59 victory.
The result left the Hoosiers with a 14-15 record and on the outside looking in as far as the postseason is concerned. No NCAA berth ... not even an NIT slot for one of college basketball's storied programs.
As Davis tries to keep things together, Indiana fans are frustrated at the direction the team is going. It could make for some difficult moments during the offseason for the head coach.
One of the most troubling aspects to Indiana's season was a lack of hustle and fundamental inadequacies. In years past, the Hoosiers would set screens, dive for loose balls and hit the boards hard. This year, none of those things happened.
Davis should survive and return for the 2004-05 season, but the offseason will not be a pleasant time.
THE GOOD NEWS: If sophomore guard Bracey Wright comes to his senses and decides to come back to the Hoosiers, Mike Davis has something to build on. Wright has the ability to get open and get rid of his shot quickly. He averaged 18.5 ppg this season, but he had a rough time shooting the ball, connecting on 37.4 percent of his shots. He should do much better next year. Forward Patrick Ewing Jr. should be much more effective as a sophomore. Marshall Strickland also gives the Hoosiers another scoring option.
THE BAD NEWS: For the first time in 19 seasons, the Hoosiers are not coming off a run in the NCAA tournament. That will make recruiting more difficult and it also leaves doubt in the minds of Indiana supporters. Mike Davis will have very little peace in the offseason.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I thought Mark Johnson, Ryan Tapak and Mike Roberts did a great job of bringing some energy and emotion to this basketball team. We have all of those guys back next year, so it should be a great summer for them knowing that their coach is going to give them an opportunity to play if they really work hard." — Indiana head coach Mike Davis on the contribution of his young players in the Big Ten tournament.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
KEY RETURNEES: If Bracey Wright returns, the Hoosiers have a good nucleus. Wright, Marshall Strickland, Ryan Tapak, Mike Roberts and Mark Johnson can all play and all seem to want to hustle. That's much of what Indiana was missing this season.
THE COACH: Mike Davis now has four years under his belt following the end of the Bob Knight era. This will be his most difficult offseason, considering the Hoosiers were below .500 and did not go to the postseason. Hoosier fans are very upset and could turn up the heat in the ensuing weeks.
— Guard Bracey Wright averaged 18.5 ppg this year and was the key to the Indiana offense. However, he shot only 37.4 percent and needs to improve his accuracy if Indiana is going to become a prominent program once again.
— Guard Marshall Strickland also had major problems with his accuracy. He converted just 35.9 percent of his shots from the floor and that won't get the job done. Strickland needs to improve his release and his footwork.
— Senior center George Leach was a liability all season. His interior defense varied between poor and non-existent and he was a major disappointment.
The pressure on Steve Alford is growing. Making the NIT and finishing with a winning record in the Big Ten is nice, but this team needs to get back to the NCAA tournament.
Athletic director Bob Bowlsby would not come out and say that Alford's job security depends on making the tournament, but it is a factor to consider.
"I wouldn't say making the NCAA Tournament is the only measure of whether we're making progress, but it's certainly one of them," Bowlsby told the Des Moines Register.
"I think there's more to it than identifying a goal on the floor. I think we want to see progress in a lot of different areas, and in some areas, we're doing very well. In some, we've got to move forward."
Alford has been the coach of the Hawkeyes for five seasons, and this year marked the first time that the Hawkeyes had a winning conference record under his leadership. The Hawkeyes played Saint Louis in the first round of the NIT and built an 18-point lead before succumbing on a late three-point shot.
Alford is well aware that there is pressure on his team to get to the Big Dance, but believes the team is making progress. If it doesn't happen at a fast enough rate to please Bowlsby, Alford believes his coaching resume speaks for itself and that he will be able to get a new job.
Alford is under contract through 2009, and if the Hawkeyes were to buy him out they would owe him $500,000 for each of the next five seasons.
"I think I surround myself with good people," Alford said.
"We tried doing things the right way. We're not going to short-corner and get ourselves in a position where we're winning at all costs. Sometimes that takes longer doing it that way, but I know that whether it's here or somewhere else, that's the way I am and that's who I'm going to be."
While the talk-shows continue to examine and pick apart Alford for real and imagined reasons, he's got another full year to get this team to the NCAAs before the heat gets to a truly uncomfortable level.
THE GOOD NEWS: The Hawkeyes were overachievers this season with a 16-13 overall record. Injuries and academic problems left Iowa short-handed in the second half of the season, yet they were regularly competitive late in the year. Pierre Pierce, Greg Brunner and Jeff Horner return next year and that should be the core group of a fairly hungry and competitive team.
Among the newcomers next season will be sophomore guard Adam Haluska, who sat out this season after transferring from Iowa State. A 6-foot 5-inch guard, Haluska started 31 games, averaging 9.2 points and 3.6 rebounds for the Cyclones during the 2002-03 season.
THE BAD NEWS: Guard Brody Boyd moves on after a solid career. He averaged 11.2 ppg this year and was a solid leader. Boyd usually had the ball in crunch time and the Hawkeyes will have to find a new leader. Horner appears destined to fill that slot.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You look at next year and you have the possibility of putting Pierre, Jeff and Adam out there at the same time. You're big, you're strong, you're athletic and you're fast. You can shoot it and you can slash." — Head coach Steve Alford discussing the possibilities for the 2004-05 Hawkeyes with the Des Moines Register.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
KEY RETURNEES: Guard Pierre Pierce is the best athlete on the team and he has the speed and quickness to become a dominant player. Guard Jeff Horner is a solid passer who has leadership skills. Greg Brunner is a hard worker who will go to the glass and get the rebounding job done. Former Iowa State guard Adam Haluska has a chance to be a special player because of his size (6-5) and talent.
THE COACH: The honeymoon is definitely over for Steve Alford. It's not that the marriage between the school and the coach is on the rocks, but it is definitely entering a critical phase. If the Hawkeyes don't make the NCAA tournament next year, athletic director Bob Bowlsby may have some critical decisions to make.
— Guard Pierre Pierce was the key to the Iowa offense this season, averaging a team-high 16.1 ppg. He appears to be the go-to guy for the offense next season.
— Guard Brody Boyd will be hard to replace. He averaged 11.2 ppg this season and took on a leadership role for the Hawkeyes.
— Guard Michael Henderson averaged 3.2 ppg and 13.2 minutes per game this season. Alford will look for him to take on an increased role next season.
It's the time of year when a lot of teams couldn't care less about playing, if they aren't in the NCAA tournament.
The Wolverines had high hopes of going to the Big Dance themselves, but losing in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament cost Tommy Amaker's team whatever chance they had.
As a result, the Wolverines had to show their talent in the NIT. Instead of saying who cares, the Wolverines have been playing hard.
After beating Missouri in the first round, the Wolverines showed no mercy in beating an undermanned Oklahoma team to advance to the third round. Michigan made the key plays down the stretch to come up with a 63-52 victory.
Dion Harris had 17 points to lead the Wolverines, while Daniel Horton had 12 points to help put the game away. It was the kind of balanced scoring effort that Amaker has been looking for throughout the season and the Wolverines seem to be getting it in the postseason.
Amaker wants to see his team get to the NIT semifinals, which would mean a trip to New York's Madison Square Garden. Of course, it would also be nice if the Wolverines could win the "other" tournament, but Amaker wants to see his team gain the experience of moving deep in a tournament.
"The fact that we are in the NIT is a great accomplishment for this team," Amaker said. "We are very proud to be invited into the NIT. To win our tonight and have the chance to move on, I think will be very beneficial for us in the future."
Michigan will face Hawaii on March 24 at home for the right to go to New York.
After beating Oklahoma in the second round of the NIT, Michigan is now 9-0 in home NIT games all-time.
— Michigan won the NIT in 1984 and 1997. The Wolverines beat Notre Dame in 1984 and Florida State in 1997. The '97 title was later vacated due to NCAA violations.
PROBABLE LINEUP: Guard Daniel Horton, forward Bernard Robinson, forward Graham Brown, center Courtney Sims, guard Dion Harris.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It was a tough game, but it was a great atmosphere out there. I give them a lot of credit, they were hard to stop. I think our guys stepped up and made some big plays down the stretch." — Forward Bernard Robinson on Michigan's first-round NIT victory over Missouri. The Wolverines beat the Tigers 65-64 and then beat Oklahoma in the second round.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UPCOMING GAMES: vs. Hawaii in the third round of the NIT, March 24.
KEYS: The Wolverines historically have dominated at home in this tournament, having won nine games without a loss. After beating Nebraska on March 22, Hawaii has to take a very long flight to play at Ann Arbor two nights later. Ouch.
— Guard Dion Harris scored 17 points in the NIT win over Oklahoma. He was especially dependable on the free-throw line, making 8-of-10 attempts.
— Forward Bernard Robinson had only eight points against the Sooners, but had a game-high nine rebounds.
— Freshman forward Brent Petway made all three of his attempts from the field against Oklahoma.
The good-news, bad-news season of Michigan State ended with some bad news.
Make that embarrassing news. But not necessarily surprising news.
The Spartans never made it to a second-round matchup with Gonzaga. Instead, they were taken to the woodshed by a very opportunistic Nevada squad that came back from a second-half deficit to register a 72-66 victory.
The Spartans, one of the best shooting teams in the country, rode that hot shooting to a 43-34 halftime lead over the Wolf Pack. The Spartans were expected to lock it down to a degree in the second half and put the win in the bank, but it did not happen like that. Nevada had too much energy and too much firepower while the Spartans ran out of gas.
Head coach Tom Izzo was never overly happy with this year's team. While it appeared they might be able to trump their lack of muscle with their sensational shooting in the second half of the season, the inability to trade blows with their opponents was painfully clear in the Big Ten tournament loss to Wisconsin and the season-ending loss to Nevada. As a result, look for the Spartans to present a new front next season.
"I think all of the problems are fixable if people buy into it, leave us alone and let us get this team tougher," Izzo said. "Finesse doesn't work in anything if you're trying to be the best."
Don't expect a complete reversal of form. Izzo enjoyed his team's offensive firepower this season and was pleased with their ability to shoot the ball. However, that's not enough. Michigan State has to get back to the toughness that it displayed throughout much of the last decade when the Spartans were clearly the best team in the Big Ten and one of the best in the nation.
THE GOOD NEWS: This is a team that has a very high skill level. The Spartans usually excel at the game's fundamentals and players rarely make mental errors thanks to Tom Izzo's coaching skills. With players like Paul Davis, Chris Hill, Maurice Ager and Kelvin Torbert all slated to return next season, Michigan State should be an upper-echelon team once again.
THE BAD NEWS: The Spartans are coming off a painful loss in the tournament to Nevada. The Wolfpack were decided underdogs, yet they had more left in the tank down the stretch and found a way to put the Spartans away. Izzo has concluded that his team has to be tougher next year. That won't be easy to achieve. He can put them through all the drills and make practices miserable, but that may not get the job done. If the players have the wherewithal to make the sacrifice, they would have done it this season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This year, I showed in a couple of games who Paul Davis is, and it's obviously not enough. Next year, without a doubt, it has to be a double-double every game. I've got to get that killer instinct. I'm going to get that over the summer. I'm going to work on dribble moves and just get the whole game polished." — Center Paul Davis to the Detroit Free Press on what he has to do in the offseason to show some significant improvement.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
KEY RETURNEES: Maurice Ager, Chris Hill, Paul Davis and Kelvin Torbert all return to what may very well be the preseason favorites to win the Big Ten next season. Davis appears to be motivated to show significant improvement — and he was already one of the top big men in the conference. Hill and Torbert are outstanding outside shooters and Ager has the speed and athleticism to become an impact player.
THE COACH: Tom Izzo is one of the best coaches in the country. While he was frustrated with his team's lack of toughness this season, nobody does a better job of teaching the game's fundamentals. During this offseason he will emphasize a return to toughness for his squad. He may be able to get his point across to his players, but it may be difficult to get toughness out of players if they don't have it in them to begin with.
— Center Paul Davis averaged a team-high 15.8 ppg and connected on 56.8 percent of his shots. Davis has an amazing array of skills, but by his own admission needs to get significantly tougher.
— Guard Maurice Ager plays hard, but he needs to improve his shooting. On a team of sharpshooters, his lack of accuracy stood out. Ager averaged 8.5 ppg but connected on 38.7 percent of his shots from the field.
— Backup center Jason Andreas can also shoot it well. He connected on 55.1 percent of his shots from the field and could take on a much bigger role next season.
The Wildcats aren't going to the NCAA tournament, aren't going to the NIT and didn't even finish with a .500 record. But, all in all, it was a successful season for Northwestern.
Head coach Bill Carmody is attempting to turn around a program where expectations are always low. The Wildcats finished with a 14-15 record overall and went 8-8 in the Big Ten. The latter mark is one worth celebrating.
But because the Wildcats could only split two Big Ten tournament games, that left the Wildcats with a losing record and ineligible for postseason play.
But this was a team that played hard and consistently. With Jitim Young leading the way, the Wildcats were perhaps the most efficient team in the Big Ten.
Carmody did an excellent job of getting the most out of his team on an every-night basis. Young set the tone with his aggressiveness and his ability to take the ball inside. Young averaged 17.9 ppg and shot 53.4 percent from the field. He was a solid rebounder and passer, and the Wildcats will have to find a way to get by without him next season.
''I like some of the guys in our program,'' Carmody told the Chicago Sun-Times. ''We have some good guys coming in, guys who are going to help us and have been practicing with us this year but not playing. So I'm optimistic.
''Having said that ... who's going to be the leader? How are we going to keep fighting and competing? I think there are some guys with some possibilities."
Vedran Vukusic, T.J. Parker and Mohamed Hachad should provide the leadership next year. All three are good players, but the Wildcats may have a difficult time summoning the toughness to persevere in the Big Ten without Young.
THE GOOD NEWS: Forward Vedran Vukusic is a solid scorer who can fire away from the outside. He averaged 14.3 ppg and connected on 45.1 percent of his shots from the field. Guard T.J. Parker is an outstanding ballhandler and Mohamed Hachad gives the Wildcats a dose of toughness. If guard Evan Seacat can continue his development as a shooter, the Wildcats may be able to continue to improve.
THE BAD NEWS: Not only was Jitim Young the Wildcats' best player, he was their leader as well. Head coach Bill Carmody must make up for his offense and leadership. Even if they can find players to make up for his absence, Young had a way of inspiring his teammates. They simply did not want to let him down. Whether anyone can take on that role is open to question.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Somebody's going to have to step up, and I'm ready for that. I'm going to work as hard as I can in the offseason to take responsibility for everything that happens next year.'' — Forward Vedran Vukusic on how he plans to step up with Jitim Young moving on.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
KEY RETURNEES: In addition to Vedran Vukusic, T.J. Parker, Evan Seacat and Mohamed Hachad, head coach Bill Carmody will look to center Davor Duvancic to get the job done next year. Duvancic can get the job done from the outside, but he needs to get bigger, stronger and tougher in the offseason. If the Wildcats can get over Jitim Young's departure, this team could take a step or two up the ladder.
THE COACH: Bill Carmody is one of the best coaches in the Big Ten. He's done a nice job of maximizing his talent ... the key now is to recruit more talent.
— Guard Jitim Young was a solid player all season, averaging 17.9 ppg and shooting 53.4 percent from the floor. He was also a tremendous leader who will be missed next season.
— Forward Vedran Vukusic is a big-time outside shooter. As long as he continues to put forth the effort in practice, he should take over the leadership role for the Wildcats.
— Guard T.J. Parker had a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio for the Wildcats this season and is one of the most underrated ball handlers in the Big Ten.
Sluggish and slow.
That's the way Ohio State played basketball most of this season.
It was no different in the Big Ten tournament. After pushing Illinois to the wall in the last game of the regular season March 7, the Buckeyes thought they were more than ready for the Indiana Hoosiers in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. Instead, the Buckeyes were ready for an 83-69 beating.
Ohio State did what few teams in the Big Ten did this season. They made the Hoosiers look like a good team. The problem — as usual — was a defense that lacked quickness and aggressiveness.
"We could not guard them," coach Jim O'Brien said. "That's something we've struggled with all year."
That defense let the Buckeyes down all season. They allowed 68.1 ppg — ninth in the Big Ten — and gave their opponents makeable shots on a regular basis.
Guard J.J. Sullinger put it rather succinctly when assessing the Buckeyes' issues this season.
"We found ourselves behind the eight-ball, and instead of responding and taking it head-on, we collapsed and folded," Sullinger told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "That's been our story all year long."
O'Brien will have to find a way for this team to improve next year — and most of that work needs to be done on the defensive end. However, St. John's is rumored to have an interest in O'Brien and they may make a run at him in the offseason.
THE GOOD NEWS: If coach Jim O'Brien is back next year — and he has said that he will return — he'll have some size to work with in Terence Dials and Ivan Harris. Tony Stockman and J.J. Sullinger both struggled at times for the Buckeyes in the backcourt, but that could change with a year under their collective belts.
THE BAD NEWS: The program appears to be in a state of flux. O'Brien had a hard time asserting himself in practice because of difficulties with his throat. He brought in Stockman and Sullinger to fortify the outside shooting, but both players were inconsistent. The Buckeyes lose center Velimir Radinovic, who is a major force in the middle.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I am not interested in talking about other situations. What I am interested in is telling you I am not a candidate for the St. John's job." — Jim O'Brien on his status at Ohio State. He has five years remaining on a contract that pays $900,000 per year.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
KEY RETURNEES: The Buckeyes need more consistency from their talented guard duo of Tony Stockman and J.J. Sullinger. Both can fill it up but both make too many mistakes. Terence Dials can dominate up front with his ability and length. Ivan Harris has the talent to become an impact player.
THE COACH: Does Jim O'Brien want to return to the Big East? If he does, the door is open for him at St. John's. O'Brien is a New York City native who spent time in the Big East at Boston College. O'Brien says he wants to stay in Columbus, but if the Johnnies make him an offer he can't refuse, would Bob Knight have any interest in returning to his alma mater? Just a thought.
— Guard J.J. Sullinger connected on 44.1 percent of his shots from the field.
— Forward Terence Dials averaged 10.1 ppg and led the team with 6.6 rebounds per game.
— Guard Tony Stockman finished as the Buckeyes' leading scorer with 13.6 ppg, but shot just 38.1 percent.
The Nittany Lions made a brave attempt to end their 10-game losing streak in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. Despite turning the ball over 26 times against Northwestern, Penn State hung in for 40 minutes before losing 57-52 in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament.
Head coach Ed DeChellis probably didn't like it, but he had to take it as somewhat of a moral victory. Throughout the final month of the season, the Nittany Lions were regularly beaten by double-digit deficits.
Against the Wildcats, Penn State played a very active defensive game and contested nearly every Northwestern shot. That's the way DeChellis's team played through most of the first half of the season. However, the Nittany Lions seemed to grow discouraged in late January and were not as competitive as the season rolled along.
During the offseason, DeChellis needs to upgrade his talent through recruiting. That's true of nearly every team, but Penn State has had a difficult time measuring up to the competition the last three years. If power forward Jan Jagla decides to join a professional league in Europe, the Nittany Lions will be desperate to upgrade their talent level.
THE GOOD NEWS: That centers on head coach Ed DeChellis. He took over a disorganized and ineffective team last year and got Penn State going in the right direction. The Nittany Lions split their first six Big Ten games before the bottom fell out. Look for Aaron Johnson to play a key role for the Nittany Lions. He closed the season by hitting 7-of-8 shots in the loss to Northwestern.
THE BAD NEWS: The Nittany Lions have a few good players and had a few good moments during the season. However, they lack cohesiveness and overall talent. This unit needs to find some guards who can handle and protect the ball. That's been an issue for too long. Big men Jan Jagla and Rob Summers have both decided to leave the team. Jagla will play pro basketball — either in Europe or the United State — while Summers is planning to transfer.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've been down a lot of times, but the kids have never quit. Our kids tried to play as hard as they could today and that gave us a shot at winning. We emphasized earlier today that we had actually won three of four quarters against Northwestern, and if we had hit some shots, we probably could have won the game."-- Ed DeChellis on his team's effort in the season finale vs. Northwestern
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
KEY RETURNEES: Forward Aaron Johnson has the potential to be a solid scorer next year for the Nittany Lions and so does guard Ben Luber, who averaged 6.8 ppg this season. Marlon Smith has plenty of talent at the guard slot, but he needs to cut down on the mistakes and turnovers.
THE COACH: Ed DeChellis may not be happy with the way his team played in the second half of the season, but he has a plan to return the Nittany Lions to respectability. Now all he needs is the players.
— Aaron Johnson averaged 9.7 ppg and shot 48.1 percent this season.
— Forward Jan Jagla will play pro basketball next season. He may play in the U.S., but he is much more likely to play in Europe. He was the key to the Penn State offense, scoring 13.4 ppg.
— Freshman guard Ben Luber needs to improve his shooting next year. He connected on just 31.4 percent of his shots.
It was one-and-done for Purdue in the NIT.
The first-round 71-59 loss to Notre Dame should have been expected. The Boilermakers had a brilliant start to the 2003-04 season but fell apart in the second half of the year. Injuries had much to do with Purdue's painful finish, but head coach Gene Keady does not look for excuses and is not willing to accept them.
But the elbow injury suffered by guard Kenneth Lowe in late January was a major problem for the Boilermakers.
Lowe was the team's leading scorer as well as its emotional leader. However, after he dislocated his elbow and missed three games, he was not the same player. Lowe appeared to lose some of his aggressiveness as well as his confidence after the injury. He had plenty of guts and integrity to return in three games, but he seemed just a bit hesitant with his shot and his decision making.
"Kenny's elbow never did get healed," Keady said. "It really bothered him."
Keady will meet with athletic director Morgan Burke to discuss his future. Keady, 67, has one year remaining on his contract. However, it appears the Boilermakers may have to go through a major rebuilding process and both the school and Keady will have to look at the possibilities before making a decision for the long term.
THE GOOD NEWS: Few teams in the Big Ten can match Purdue's basketball tradition. Gene Keady has taught his team to play with consistency and toughness and the Boilermakers can always be expected to bring those qualities to the table. The Boilers have four solid players returning — guard David Teague, point guard Brandon McKnight and forwards Matt Kiefer and Ije Nwankwo — and Keady will build his team around that group.
THE BAD NEWS: Kenneth Lowe and center Ivan Kartelo are both moving on. Those two starters may have been the best players on the team. Austin Parkinson and Brett Buscher played key roles off the bench and they have finished their eligibility as well. The Boilermakers are also banking on three junior college transfers. Keady has not had success with transfers in the past, so there's no guarantee that Carl Landry, Gary Ware and Bryant Dillon will work out.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Unfortunately, we had some tough breaks this year. We just couldn't get over the hump." — Purdue guard David Teague on the team's finish after a very solid start.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
KEY RETURNEES: David Teague, Brandon McKnight and Matt Kiefer are all coming back and are all solid players. Ije Nwankwo was also a major contributor as well and he gives Gene Keady quite a bit to work with. However, the Boilermakers don't have a lot of depth and could be in for a rebuilding year.
THE COACH: Gene Keady has seen his team miss the NCAA tournament three times in the last four years. He will meet with Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke to discuss his future. Keady has one year remaining on his contract, but whether he signs an extension to coach beyond the 2004-05 season is not clear.
— Guard Kenneth Lowe did not play as well after injuring his elbow in late January. However, he still led the Boilermakers with an average of 13.6 ppg
— Guard Austin Parkinson did a great job of setting up his teammates this year. He led Purdue with 3.8 assists per game.
— Guard David Teague figures to be the team leader in 2004-05. He is Purdue's leading returning scorer after averaging 11.5 ppg.
They may have hit a lull in early and mid-February, but most Big Ten observers thought Wisconsin had the best chance of any Big Ten team to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament and beyond.
The Badgers had the advantage of playing at home in the first two rounds of the tournament — or at least very close to it. Playing in Milwaukee — a little more than an hour's drive from the Madison campus — the Badgers beat Richmond in the first round before lining up against a very tough Pitt squad from the Big East.
Wisconsin struggled early against Richmond and was in deep trouble in the second half as it faced a 13-point deficit against a very strong defensive team. But the Badger defense went into lockdown mode and forward Mike Wilkinson and guard Devin Harris took over. When it was all said and done, the Badgers had a double-digit win.
Wisconsin came into the second round with a ton of momentum and played Pitt even until the final stages. However, in the last two minutes, the veteran Panthers executed down the stretch while Wisconsin struggled to get open shots. In the end, Pitt's toughness and strength won out and the Panthers emerged with a 59-55 victory.
"We've played teams that are big," said Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan. "But these guys are big, strong and active all the time. We thought we could bang with them; we thought we could hang with them."
But it was not to be.
Wisconsin had every reason to think it could hang with Pitt because the Badgers were probably the most physical team in the Big Ten. In most years, that would have been enough for them to advance but the Badgers were not as strong as Pitt. The Badgers could not match up with Chevon Troutman, who came away with 14 rebounds. Zach Morley had nine boards for the Badgers, but Troutman was just a little too strong.
The Badgers have nothing to be ashamed of since the Panthers are among the strongest teams physically in the nation. Ryan's team had another solid year and if Harris decides to come back next year, they will likely be the favorite to come away with the Big Ten title.
THE GOOD NEWS: Wisconsin is a versatile team that can play the game in any style. The Badgers are still known for defense and toughness, though, and can bang with any team in the Big Ten.
THE BAD NEWS: The Badgers have to be somewhat disappointed because they had "homecourt" advantage in the NCAA tournament and couldn't make it stand up against Pitt. The physical Badgers were outfought by a more physical Pitt team. Guard Devin Harris is clearly Wisconsin's best player, but he was not able to convert his opportunities in the last 10 minutes of the game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I made some passes I shouldn't have made and they capitalized off them." — Wisconsin guard Devin Harris, who had six turnovers in the NCAA tournament loss to Pittsburgh.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
KEY RETURNEES: Devin Harris was the Big Ten player of the year. If he thinks about his situation clearly, he will return to school and improve his skills. Harris can do it all and plays with quickness and determination, but he needs to work on his discipline. He averaged 19.7 ppg during the season, but got harried in the late stages of losses to Illinois, Michigan and Pittsburgh. Mike Wilkinson is one of the most underrated players in the nation. He will return for his senior year and should give the Badgers a tremendous one-two punch. Zach Morley, Boo Wade and Alando Tucker all return next season to give the Badgers a formidable lineup.
THE COACH: Bo Ryan is one of the best coaches in the Big Ten. In a conference with Tom Izzo, Gene Keady and Bruce Weber, that's high praise. Ryan can play in any one of a number of a different styles and gets the most out of his players. As long as Ryan stays put in Madison, the Badgers will have an outstanding leader.
— Guard Devin Harris is one of the finest players in the country. He led the Badgers with an average of 19.7 ppg and also led them in 4.4 assists per game. Harris is considering moving on to the NBA, but another year at school would make him an even better player.
— Guard Boo Wade had nine points in the season-ending loss to Pittsburgh and was very aggressive. He promises to be a dominant player next season
— Forward Mike Wilkinson is the personification for a tough Big Ten player. He excels as a scorer, rebounder and tough guy. He would gladly eat an elbow to come up with a rebound, and that attitude has been a big key to Wisconsin's success the last three years.
Big Ten men's basketball report
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