Senior guard Freddie Owens
How do you handle the expectations this season?
As far as fulfilling those expectations, we look at those magazines but we really don't worry about it. We just focus on getting better as a team and just playing one game at a time as far as, ‘we are ranked No. 5, we have to keep this ranking.' On any given night an unranked team can beat a ranked team and that is how we approach it that we are playing the No. 1 team every night.
Do you worry about Alando and the chemistry that isn't going to be there for a while and then all of sudden you guys are going to get close to Big Ten play and he is going to jump back into that lineup?
Well, it is a little bit of a concern but we can't worry about that too much. He is hurt. What happened, happened. We just have to get better as a team and just try to make up for what we are missing. He is a great player and obviously we can't wait until he gets back.
When you came here to play basketball, this success couldn't have been in your wildest imagination could it?
No, but at the time I committed I just felt something there. I don't know. I can't really explain it. There was just something there and this is where I wanted to be. And through God's goodness everything just turned out.
We have heard other people mention that you are one of the leaders. What do you do as a leader?
There is a lot of ways of being a leader. Vocally—just showing your action, your play. I try to be a leader off the court as well, just be around for the guys because I knew how it was when I was coming in to my freshman year just to have somebody there helping me out. It makes things, it makes the transition between high school and college a lot easier.
Is there anyone you have taken under your wing?
Nobody in particular—it is pretty much all the new guys. Even the guys who were freshman last year and are sophomores this year. We are so close as a team and we bond closer and closer together each day.
With Alando out is it going to be a couple guys who step in to replace him?
It could be a number of guys. Everybody is working hard, everybody is showing improvement (compared to) this time last year: that is the great thing, that is where we want to be—everybody better than they were last year. Whether we play or not is coach's call we are just ready to go out there and play as best you can.
On changes this season:
Me, as far as from a personal standpoint, I'm (playing with) a lot more aggression than I did last year. This is my last go-round. We want to win and I know that we are just coming into it with a lot more aggressiveness this year. We worked out harder over the summer, we made sure we conditioned harder. Everything is stepped up a notch because we were so close last year and we want to get over that hump and experience the things that Marquette did and the other teams who were in the Final Four.
Does that loss to Kentucky stick in the back of your mind as motivation?
Yeah, it does. Because those guys were the No. 1 team and we came so close to beating them last year. It just gives you motivation coming into the next year. Like, well, we can play with these guys, we can play with the best in the country.
Strength and maturity. On the court those guys are looking a lot better than they did last year; not that they were bad last year, but you can just see what a year, what a difference that makes, the transition between your freshman and sophomore year. They look a lot more comfortable out there and they are just relaxing and playing.
When you step on that court as back-to-back champions, is that supposed to mean something to the teams you are playing or do you have to earn it all over again?
I wouldn't necessarily say we have to earn it all over again. It kind of puts the mark on your back I would say. Those guys are coming after us hard and they are trying to take what we have pretty much and we are trying, meanwhile, to hold what we have. We don't want to give that up. That is the beauty of it all—two teams competing and they are both trying to take that from each other.
Junior point guard Devin Harris
On Brian Butch:
He is going to help us out a lot. He is another big body that I think we are going to need. He is a tremendous competitor that is going to get that much better.
Is he strong enough?
He is getting there. He is starting learn what the physical-ness is like in practice and he is coming along, slowly but he is (coming along).
Do you go into this season saying, ‘we can win this thing again.'?
I think that is the only way we can go about it: with no doubt in our minds that we can do it again. We just need to take the necessary steps now in order to get there.
Despite winning two straight Big Ten titles and having almost the entire team back coach (Bo) Ryan still said he is spending practice building up bit by bit and starting with basic drills just like in years past?
How do you guys view that.
Coach knows what he is doing, we are not going to challenge him. Obviously he knows what he is doing. We are just going to follow him wherever he feels we need to get better at first before we get to that other stuff. We are just going to do what he tells us.
Is it tough to grind through that though?
It is not always the funest part but it is something we need to work on, something we need to get better at.
Are you trying to take on a lot of the leadership on this team?
I'm trying to—we have two other teammates who are doing a lot of that but I just have to fit myself in with the team.
What does that all entail?
Well, you know, if something needs to be said to a couple guys that you go and say it. Or if the team is…you try to get these guys motivated and go to work.
How concerned are you with Alando Tucker's injury?
It concerns me, but not that much. I think we have guys who will be able to step up and take the things that he can do and, not do it as well, but kind of fill in his role until he gets back.
Who are those guys?
Butch, Zach (Morley), a little bit of Andreas (Helmigk), all of those guys, I think can step in and do some things for us.
Do you guys have a swagger a little bit as the two-time defending Big Ten champs?
Not at all. No, not at all. We just have to come in knowing that what we have done in the past it means absolutely nothing to us now. Coming into a new season, we have a new team, a new identity to prove so we are coming out to try and prove something.
You were so close last year to getting beyond Kentucky. How close are you guys to competing for a national championship?
I don't know. That is a different season for us now. We have to worry about the non-conference right now. I can't worry about the tournament and how far we are. We just have to get together as a team and try to do find out what we need to do better.
How about the depth of this year's team as opposed to last year. Do you like going seven-deep or would you like maybe eight-, nine- or 10-deep?
I like the eight-, nine-, 10-deep because I think we can do a lot more things, push the ball a little bit more when we have got that many. When we have seven, guys can play tired. We get that 10, 11, 12, then we have guys that are fresh all the time and can give us a lot more energy.
Do you feel that guys are going to be looking to you, as the point guard, as one of the upperclassmen, to kind of lead the way?
I think so. Being a little bit more experienced, the upperclassmen guys, you know we have Freddie (0wens) and we have Dave (Mader) and there is me and we are just trying to show the young guys the ropes.
There has been a lot of talk about being more up-tempo. What are you guys going to do to push the ball up court?
Hopefully we will press and get more turnovers and hopefully speed the game up a little bit. But we are only going to take it when we get it. We are not going to start pushing the ball until we see that it is there. If it is there we are going to take it, if it is not than we will just run the offense like normal.
What areas does this team need to improve upon?
Defense. Everything on defense—defensive rebounding, those are things that we work on, stopping penetration, being in position.
Is that for yourself too?
Yes. For everybody. Everybody needs to improve.
Can you talk about how Kammron (Taylor) is coming along?
He is struggling with some of the things that we do on defense and some of the way we play certain things because he is used to doing it a certain way coming in from high school. But he is struggling and battling; struggling with some of the same things I struggled with my freshman year and guys helped me out.
What has been the key to limiting turnovers?
Just playing smart and guarding the basketball. There are passes that sometimes you are scared to make so we kind of hold back. But there are passes that sometimes you have to make—so just making the right pass at the right time.
Junior forward Mike Wilkinson
When is it realistic to start talking about a national championship?
Every team has a shot at it. I think we have as great a shot as a lot of teams do. We can't start talking about that until after the season is over. First thing is first, you have to get ready for the first team, and you've got the conference and the regular season to contend with first. If you don't make it through your regular season you have no chance to get to the national championship. You just have to start with each game and you have to take it one game at a time. If you get the chance to play for a national title it would be great.
What does this team need to do to get better?
I think right now the biggest thing is if we just come together as a team. We have played together a lot, all summer and everything and we have gotten a little bit of preview of everybody. That is the biggest thing. We have the individual talent that we can play one-on-one, but in this conference you can't do that—you have to play as a team offensively and defensively. We are just trying to get better right now.
How hard is it to block out the expectations?
It is something we have never even talked about as a team. It is something that doesn't bother me. I know me, I have a lot of things just individually that I need to work on to get better and there are so many good players in my league that I have to be the best otherwise I will be made to look bad. That is something that personally I can't handle. So I just have to get better personally so that I can prevent that.
How do you look to as the leaders now that Kirk is gone?
A lot of people look to Devin (Harris). He is the point guard and he has been that for the last year and he has really stepped up his leadership this year. Freddie (Owens) has been a great leader this year. There are different guys. It is not just one single person. Everyone is asking each other for help. You do something wrong you just go up and tell them. This is a real unselfish team and that is something that is really to our benefit.
With Tucker out who among the other post players do you think will step up?
I don't know. We have a bunch of young freshmen and then we have a junior college transfer (Zach Morley) who has looked pretty good so far. This is everyone's chance to show up and show what they've got. We have a bunch of young guys that haven't really proven themselves yet, but now have an opportunity to get out there and play. Like we just say, ‘this is your chance, now you need to step up and do it.' When (Tucker) comes back we will just be that much better come Big Ten season.
Are you pretty physical with the young guys in practice? What do you try to teach them?
Oh you have to be (physical). Being an older guy and facing the battles of the Big Ten you have to teach the freshmen what it is like. You just kind of beat them up a little bit the first week and say, ‘welcome to college. This is Big Ten basketball.' The more you beat them up early the faster they learn. You don't degrade them or anything, they learn from it and they become a better, stronger person.