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  • Fear The Boilers

    With March Madness upon us and all the fervor surrounding the Big Ten as a power conference in both men’s and women’s basketball, one member school decided to fire up a little reminder.

    In case you had forgotten, Purdue University knows a thing or two about roundball.

    The men ended up finishing sixth in the league standings and lost their regular-season finale to rival Indiana, which isn’t exactly headline-inducing. However, many believe head coach Matt Painter did an admirable job this season.

    In fact, prior to the loss to IU, the Boilermakers won five of six games including an upset of ranked Michigan in Ann Arbor to secure a 20-win season and winning mark in arguably the best conference in the country. That’s pretty good production for a team that lost superstars JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore to the NBA and also dealt with the dismissal of junior guard Kelsey Barlow due to a violation of team rules.

    Purdue still holds the Big Ten standard with 22 league titles and has the only men’s basketball program in the conference that owns a break-even or winning mark against every other member school.

    The women, meanwhile, also came to the forefront on Sunday when they cut down the nets at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis after triumphing at the Big Ten Tournament in thrilling fashion.

    Rranked No. 21 coming into the week, PU got 19 points from KK Houser and hung on to defeat No. 24 Nebraska 74-70 in two overtimes in the tourney final.

    Houser, ironically who hails from Lincoln, Neb., also had five steals against her hometown team. Chantel Poston had 10 points and 11 rebounds, and Sam Ostarello added eight points and 10 rebounds for the Boilermakers (24-8), who won the tournament for the eighth time in 17 years.

    The win was a bit of a payback as Purdue lost its regular-season matchup with the Cornhuskers, 93-89 in triple-overtime.

    Nebraska, which had dumped Ohio State in the semifinals, also left Indy at 24-8. Lindsey Moore scored 27 points and Jordan Hooper added 25 for the ’Huskers, who caught fire during the week. They had lost four of six heading into the tournament but averaged 82 points in their three wins to reach the final. The Big Ten newbies came up just short in their bid to become the first women’s team to win the conference tournament with four wins in four days.

    At the end of the first overtime, Nebraska’s Kaitlyn Burke missed an open three-pointer with fives seconds remaining and the score tied.

    Purdue entered the postseason as the 4-seed for the conference tournament. In the semifinals on Saturday, the Boilermakers eliminated top-seeded Penn State. Brittany Rayburn, who scored nine points and hit the game winner against the Nittany Lions, was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

    Penn State earned the top seed for the fifth time in program history after winning the outright regular-season crown with a 13-3 mark in conference play. The Lady Lions will head to the NCAA Tournament with an overall mark of 24-6

    Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue all put together 11-5 conference records, creating a four-way tie for second place. The Buckeyes earned the 2-seed by virtue of their 3-0 combined record against the other three teams. However, OSU could not add to its run of three consecutive tournament titles after losing grip of a double-digit lead in the first half against Nebraska.

    Six conference teams have taken home the Big Ten Tournament title since the event’s inception in 1995, led by Purdue’s record seven titles (1998-99-00-03-04-07-08). Ohio State is next with four tournament titles (2006-09-10-11) while Iowa (1997-01) and Penn State (1995-96) have each won the title twice. Indiana earned the crown in 2002 and Michigan State took home the title in 2005.

    The Big Ten sold all-session passes for $70 and single-session tickets were either $10 or $16 depending upon seat location.

    Located in downtown Indianapolis – and formerly known as Conseco Fieldhouse – Bankers Life Fieldhouse also will host the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament March 8-11 with an unprecedented four games on the first day and four more for the Friday quarterfinals. CBS will nationally televise the Saturday semifinals beginning at 1:40 p.m. Eastern and the Sunday championship game beginning at 3:30 p.m. Eastern.

    Tickets can be purchased through Ticketmaster at www.ticketmaster.com or by calling (800) 745-3000, and through the Bankers Life Fieldhouse box office.

    Stay tuned to SportsRappUp.com for a preview of the men’s tournament including predictions for each game.

    For a look at postseason awards for Big Ten men’s basketball, click here.

    Bucks And Wolves Tops Again

    After Urban Meyer was hired as Ohio State’s new football coach and Brady Hoke was a smashing success in his first year heading up the program at Michigan, Big Ten fans had reason to believe that the rivalry between the two schools and their level of play would soon be on the rise and back to an elite level.

    If the results of 2012 recruiting are any indication, The Game is about to be loaded with quality players on both sides once again. In fact, according to Rivals.com, only two Big Ten schools closed on classes that ranked among the top 25 in the country – Ohio State at No. 6 and Michigan at No. 7.

    Rivals, like many sites that analyze football recruiting, tabbed Alabama’s class as tops in the country followed by Florida State, Texas, Florida, and Georgia. Joining Ohio State and Michigan in the top 10 were Miami (Fla.), Clemson, and Notre Dame.

    The rest of the Rivals top 25 is as follows: 11) Oklahoma, 12) Stanford, 13) Southern Cal, 14) LSU, 15) Texas A&M, 16) South Carolina, 17) Auburn, 18) Oregon, 19) UCLA, 20) Texas Tech, 21) Tennessee, 22) California, 23) Washington, 24) Rutgers, and 25) Virginia Tech.

    Meyer’s initial OSU class was headlined by bookend defensive ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, each considered five-star talents. Analysts were amazed that he was able to land the top haul in the Big Ten considering Ohio State’s current plight with NCAA sanctions including a postseason ban that goes into effect this year.

    Conversely, Hoke and his staff pinned down 20 of their commitments in the spring and summer prior to the 2011 season, although four-star running back Dennis Norfleet was added on National Signing Day. The class is balanced and loaded. Defensive tackle Ondre Pipkins is among those expected to make an immediate impact.

    The remainder of the Big Ten was ranked thusly by ESPN.com: 3) Nebraska, 4) Purdue, 5) Michigan State, 6) Iowa, 7) Penn State, 8) Northwestern, 9) Illinois, 10) Wisconsin, 11) Minnesota, 12) Indiana.

    The Hoosiers not only ranked last compared to their league brethren, they also were left to lament the loss of in-state quarterback Gunner Kiel, a five-star talent who originally committed to IU. However, Indiana was put in topflight company when LSU also was spurned by Kiel, who finally signed with Notre Dame.

    Recruiting Tension

    Indiana coach Kevin Wilson, who lost grip of Kiel, wasn’t the only Big Ten coach who came away less than elated from the entire experience.

    New Penn State coach Bill O’Brien – who left his post as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots to help guide the Lions through troubled waters – blasted critics of the PSU class.

    “I could care less about player rankings,” O’Brien said on conference call from the Patriots team hotel in Indianapolis the week of the Super Bowl. “What I care about is that we found the right fit for Penn State with all these prospects.”

    Scout.com has Penn State’s class ranked No. 49 nationally and No. 6 in the Big Ten, while Rivals.com ranks the group No. 50 nationally and, as previously mentioned, No. 7 in the conference.

    Rivals only ranks two prospects in the class, wide receiver Eugene Lewis and defensive tackle Jamil Pollard, as recruits worthy of at least four stars. Scout had only Lewis attaining a four-star rating and everyone else falling in line as a three-star or lower.

    But O’Brien’s testy response was nothing compared to the firestorm that surrounded Meyer’s recruiting tactics. The former Florida coach, who cited the dog-eat-dog approach of the SEC as a concern when he took time away from coaching, came out guns a-blazin’ on the recruiting trail and actually flipped no less than seven prospects who previously had committed elsewhere.

    The two that caused the most reaction were offensive lineman Kyle Dodson – an original Wisconsin commitment who ended up announcing a change of heart and inking a letter-of-intent with OSU on signing day – and defensive end  Se’Von Pittman of Canton McKinley, who appeared to be a solid verbal to Michigan State for months but changed his mind and opted for the homestate Buckeyes.

    “Se’Von Pittman had a relationship with Luke Fickell,” Meyer explained as the keynote speaker of the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association clinic in February. “I think we helped it when I made that phone call. He recruited us after a little bit. The phone call went something like this: ‘Are you interested?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Come on down for a visit.’

    “I get a phone call the next few days. ‘Come on up, we’ve got good news for you.’ Can’t say I had a lot to do with that other than, Hey, let’s go. He always wanted to be an Ohio State Buckeye.

    In response to comments by Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema, Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio and MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, Meyer also reportedly said, “You’re pissed because we went after a committed guy? Guess what, we’ve got nine guys who better go do it again. Do it a little harder next time.”

    Bielema made pointed remarks after signing his class, which forced Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany to bring up the issue while meeting with the football coaches in Chicago days later and asking them to play nice.

    That discussion was somewhat productive.

    “There are a few things that happened early on that I made people aware of that I didn’t want to see in this league,” Bielema said, “that I had seen take place in other leagues, other recruiting tactics, other recruiting practices that are illegal.”

    Bielema went on to mention Meyer specifically.

    “I was very up front and was very pointed to the fact, actually reached out to Coach Meyer and shared my thoughts and concerns with him,” Bielema said. “The situation got rectified.”

    Meyer, though, doesn’t sound like someone who is backing down.

    “We’re hired to go after recruits as hard as we can,” Meyer said. “I mean as hard as we can.”

    OSU also received signatures from two players who originally committed to Notre Dame – including well-rated OL Taylor Decker – and three who once had pegged Penn State. It’s long been suggested that there’s an unwritten agreement within the Big Ten that once a recruit commits to a school, all other Big Ten coaches will leave the player alone.

    Two coaches who steadfastly adhered to that policy, Dantonio and former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, were especially careful about how they contacted prospects that were committed to MSU and OSU.

    “(The agreement) has been between the coaches,” Narduzzi said while speaking at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Luncheon Club in Canton, Ohio, according to the Canton Repository. “Jim Tressel and Mark Dantonio would never call or talk to each other’s commitments. People coach Dantonio knows well don’t come in and take players away. When you do, you lose friendships over that.

    “It sets a tone and starts a recruiting rivalry. I guess it’s fair game. You don’t want it to be that way, but that’s how it is.”

    Meyer intimated that he believes there is an ethical way to recruit committed players.

    “There are some people that say, ‘How can you go and recruit a young guy that’s committed to another school?’ ” he said. “You ask a question, ‘Are you interested?’ If they say no, you move on. If they say, ‘Yes, very interested,’ then you throw that hook out there. If they’re interested, absolutely, especially if they are from your home state.

    “Is it gratifying to go a take a guy from another school? Not at all. Is it gratifying to know that we got the two offensive tackles that we went out (for) from day one? That amazes me.”

    Furthering his point, Meyer added, “We went after a young guy in Cleveland, Ohio. I asked him if he was interested in Ohio State. He said no. I wished him the best of luck, do well in school, move on. If a kid isn’t interested, we’re done. We move on.”

    Meyer likely was referring to five-star OL Kyle Kalis of Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward, who signed with and pledges his allegiance to Michigan.

    Meyer did receive some support during the controversy, including a comment from, of all people, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez.

    “Recruiting is recruiting until they sign,” the AD said. “If we had somebody who changed their mind and came to us, that’s OK.”

    Ohio State AD Gene Smith also had his coach’s back.

    “I am disappointed that negative references have been made about our football coaches, and particularly head coach Urban Meyer regarding recruiting,” Smith said in a statement. “In our league appropriate protocol, if you have concerns, is to share those concerns with your athletic director. Then your AD will make the determination on the appropriate communication from that point forward. The ADs in our league are professionals and communicate with each other extremely well. Urban Meyer and his staff have had a compliance conscience since they have arrived.”

    Hot Streaks

    Northwestern forward John Shurna, the Big Ten’s leading scorer this season, was particularly warm in wins over Nebraska and Illinois at the outset of the Wildcats’ February schedule.

    He played all but two minutes in those victories and scored 52 points on 20-of-28 shooting (71.4 percent). He also was 5 of 10 from three-point range in the two contests.

    Penn State leading scorer Tim Frazier had a four-game blitz this year in which he scored 81 points, which is 37.2 percent of the Nittany Lions’ total points in that span. The junior guard also added 17 assists in the four games.

    Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas was held under double digits in a home loss to Michigan State on Feb. 11 but caught fire after that in the Buckeyes’ remaining six league games. He scored 12 points in a win at Minnesota on Feb. 14 then followed that up with 25 points – and a career-high 13 rebounds – against Michigan on Feb. 18. He closed out the regular season with 19 points, 23, 19 and 12 to give him a scoring average of 18.3 ppg in those final six games.

    In those game, the 6-7 left forward hit 41 of 76 shots, good for 53.9 percent from the field.

    Quick Hitters

    * Ohio State’s victory at Wisconsin was the Buckeyes’ 20th of the season, giving Thad Matta’s Buckeyes their eighth consecutive 20-win season. That is the longest active streak in the Big Ten and also the second-longest in conference history, trailing only Illinois, which did it nine times (1983-91).

    * On Feb. 17, Painter announced that Barlow had been dismissed from the program and that junior guard/forward D.J. Byrd had been suspended for the team’s subsequent game against Michigan State. Both actions were a result of violation of team rules.

    “This is an unfortunate situation, but we will move forward as a program,” Painter said. “We expect our student-athletes to live up to a high standard, and when their actions become detrimental to the program, there are consequences.”

    The West Lafayette Police Department is investigating allegations that Byrd assaulted a bouncer at Where Else bar near campus. Byrd, 21, was under suspicion of public intoxication at the time of the incident.

    A spokesperson for local police said Barlow had been at Where Else earlier but either left or got kicked out of the establishment. Barlow then came back, believing he left his wallet there. Where Else, however, refused to let him back in.

    Barlow left and returned later accompanied by Byrd, teammate Robbie Hummel and other members of the basketball team. This resulted in some type of confrontation, during which Byrd is suspected of assaulting a bouncer.

    Byrd was booked into the Tippecanoe County Jail and released five hours later.

    * Several Big Ten players were named as members of the United States Basketball Writers Association All-District team for District V, which includes student-athletes in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The USBWA unveiled all of the all-district coaches and players on March 6.

    The District V winners were as follows:

    PLAYER OF THE YEAR
    Draymond Green, Michigan State

    COACH OF THE YEAR
    Tom Izzo, Michigan State

    ALL-DISTRICT TEAM
    William Buford, Ohio State
    Trey Burke, Michigan
    Jae Crowder, Marquette
    Draymond Green, Michigan State
    Robbie Hummel, Purdue
    Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette
    John Shurna, Northwestern
    Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
    Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin
    Cody Zeller, Indiana

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  • BKB Races, Pre-Spring FB Outlook

    And down the stretch they come.

    It’s a three-horse race for the Big Ten men’s basketball crown – and Ohio State is in the lead by a full head – but there is still a lot of jockeying for position going on, especially in the middle of the pack.

    After the first-place Buckeyes took down Illinois on Tuesday night at the Schottenstein Center, Minnesota was trying to take down suddenly feisty Michigan State later that evening. A win by the Gophers would have created a five-team tie for fifth place as MSU and Minnesota would have joined Illinois, Penn State and Michigan with 7-8 conference records.

    That didn’t happen as Minnesota lost grip of a six-point lead and was outscored 12-1 in the final minutes of a 53-48 loss to the Spartans. That damaging defeat at Williams Arena dropped the Gophers to 17-10 overall and 6-9 in league play. Meanwhile, Michigan State (16-11, 8-7) inched up to fourth place.

    The following night, Wisconsin edged Michigan 53-52 as Josh Gasser banked in a three at the buzzer to turn Crisler Arena into a funeral home.

    The win kept faint hopes alive for the Badgers (21-6, 11-4) to grab a share of the Big Ten prize. Wisconsin needs to beat Northwestern at home on Sunday, take down Indiana in Bloomington on March 3 – and get some help from either IU or Penn State against Ohio State – to set up a showdown with OSU (26-2, 13-2) in Columbus on March 6.

    Ohio State, meanwhile, could secure a co-championship as soon as this weekend if Purdue (23-5, 12-3) loses at Michigan State on Sunday afternoon and the Buckeyes take care of Indiana, which hasn’t won a league road game all season, in a home game later that afternoon.

    The Boilermakers (23-5, 12-3), though, are still very much alive at the moment. They took down the rival Hoosiers (12-16, 3-12) on Wednesday night, 72-61, and can keep a lot of pressure on OSU with wins down the stretch at MSU Sunday and at home against Illinois (March 1) and Iowa (March 5).

    At this writing, though, no one team has locked down a particular spot in the standings, which, of course, corresponds to seeding in the Big Ten Tournament. Even Indiana and Iowa (10-17, 3-12) are in a battle to avoid last place.

    If Ohio State wins the regular-season title, either outright or shared, it would mark the fourth Big Ten championship for the program in six years. Only three conference teams have won as many titles in as sort a span: Ohio State (1960-64), Indiana (1973-76) and Michigan State (1998-2001).

    Paint By Numbers

    Also taking shape are some very interesting team and individual races for leadership in statistical categories for men’s basketball.

    For example, heading into Thursday night’s game between Penn State and Northwestern, PSU senior guard Talor Battle had a slight lead in scoring among Big Ten players at 20.8 points per game compared to Purdue center JaJuan Johnson’s average of 20.4 ppg. In the mix behind those players were Wisconsin forward Jon Leuer (19.1 ppg), Purdue guard E’Twaun Moore (18.6), Wisconsin guard Jordan Taylor (17.9), Ohio State post man Jared Sullinger (17.8) and Northwestern forward John Shurna (17.3).

    In the rebounding department heading into the penultimate weekend of the regular season, Minnesota big man Trevor Mbakwe was the only Big Ten player in double figures (10.4 per game), but Sullinger was right behind at 9.9 rpg. Michigan State’s Draymond Green was third at 8.4 rpg.

    Michigan had some league leaders as well with center Jordan Morgan atop the conference in field-goal percentage (63.2) and point guard Darius Morris ranking first in assists per game (6.8).

    The battle for top free-throw percentage (minimum 2.0 made per game) was tight with Iowa swingman Matt Gatens in first at 87.5 but Leuer (86.3) and Penn State’s David Jackson (86.2) within striking distance.

    Interestingly, with three regular-season games to go teammates Aaron Craft and David Lighty of Ohio State ranked 1-2 in the league in steals per game, 1.89 to 1.82. Green was a hair behind at 1.81. Johnson appears on pace to lead the league in blocked shots per game (2.25) but Minnesota’s Ralph Sampson III is not far behind (2.07).

    Shurna was the only Big Ten player to that point making at least half his three-point attempts – he was a league-leading 56 of 112 for a percentage of 50.0 – but Illinois guard Demetri McCamey (61 of 127, 48.0), OSU’s Jon Diebler (76 of 159, 47.8) and Wisconsin forward Keaton Nankivil (48 of 101, 47.5) also were above 45 percent.

    As a team, Ohio is on pace to shoot right around 40 percent from long range. The Buckeyes lead the league at 202 of 506 for a mark of 39.9 percent. OSU also leads the league in overall field-goal percentage at 49.3 as a team. Minnesota was the only league team holding foes below 40 percent from the field (39.5) and Illinois was the only Big Ten squad holding teams under 30 percent from long range (29.7).

    Not surprisingly, Ohio State has led the conference in scoring (77.1 ppg) and scoring margin (+17.6) while Wisconsin was tops in scoring defense (57.4 ppg) and Minnesota, which has the biggest front line in the league, was best in rebounding margin (+5.4) and blocked shots (5.6).

    Spartan Women Claim Title

    The Michigan State women lost for the first time at home all season on Thursday night as the Spartans were nipped 54-53 at the Breslin Center, but there was still reason to celebrate that evening.

    By virtue of Penn State’s home loss to Purdue, 51-49, Michigan State had secured the outright Big Ten regular-season championship. It was the first such title for MSU, which shared the conference crown in 1997 and 2005.

    MSU clinched at least a co-championship with a win over Illinois on Sunday. The Spartans (24-4, 12-3) had a chance to win the league in style but missed a last-second shot against the Buckeyes (18-9, 9-6). Ohio State had its string of six straight league titles snapped but moved into a tie in the standing with Iowa (21-7, 9-6) and Michigan (16-11, 9-6), one game behind second-place teams Penn State (21-8, 10-5) and Wisconsin (15-12, 10-5).

    Purdue (19-10, 9-7) also has a winning record in league play, leaving just Northwestern (17-11, 6-9), Minnesota (12-16, 4-11), Indiana (9-18, 3-12) and Illinois (7-21, 2-13) on the wrong side of .500 in conference play.

    Michigan State advanced all the way to the NCAA title game in 2005 under head coach Joanne P. McCallie, who left in 2007 to take over the controls at Duke. The Spartans have found recent success under her replacement, fourth-year head coach Suzy Merchant.

    This season marked the eighth straight the Spartans have won 20 or more games and  it is also the ninth straight year they have won 10 or more conference games. The 24 wins are a program high under Merchant.

    The Spartans look to become the sixth No. 1 seed to win the Big Ten Tournament, which begins March 3.

    Football Fever

    Snow and freezing temperatures still blanket most of the Midwest, but that hasn’t quelled optimism for 2011 football across the Big Ten.

    Several programs will start their spring practice sessions in less than five weeks, including defending Big Ten co-champion Ohio State. The Buckeyes begin their 15-practice spring season on March 31 and have scheduled their annual Scarlet and Gray Game for April 23 in the Horseshoe. That is the Saturday of Easter weekend.

    Ohio State (12-1, 7-1 last season) has won at least a piece of the conference crown for a record six straight years and came through with a gutty 31-26 win over Arkansas in the Jan. 4 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

    Still, the Big Ten finished just 3-5 in bowl games thanks to a rough New Year’s Day. League co-champion Wisconsin was nipped by TCU in the Rose Bowl while the other title sharer, Michigan State, was massacred by Alabama in the Capital One Bowl. Likewise, Penn State and Michigan lost to SEC teams Florida and Mississippi State and Northwestern couldn’t get past Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl.

    The league, however, should be noticeably stronger in the game of pigskin with Nebraska now set to join the conference. The arrival of the Cornhuskers swells the conference to 12 teams, which will now be split into two divisions. The new divisions will be The Leaders (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin) and The Legends (Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern).

    The new format brings a new outlook and hopes suddenly are high again at Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan with newly hired coaches in place. Minnesota canned Tim Brewster in October and after the season filled the void by hiring Northern Illinois’ Jerry Kill. Indiana ousted Bill Lynch in November and tabbed Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson as his replacement.

    Michigan waited until January, after the Wolverines were bombed 52-14 in the Gator Bowl and were still smarting from a seventh straight loss to Ohio State, to fire embattled head coach Rich Rodriguez. After a very unsuccessful three-year run under RichRod, UM is now putting its trust on former assistant Brady Hoke, who ushered turnarounds at Ball State and San Diego State.

    Also looking to turn their fortunes are the Iowa Hawkeyes. Head coach Kirk Ferentz thought he had a title contender but instead endured a disappointing 8-5 season that included losses in the final three games of the regular season. That includes a defeat at the hands of lowly Minnesota.

    After that, Iowa’s top receiver (Derrell Johnson-Koulianos) and running back (Adam Robinson) were suspended for off-field issues, although the Hawkeyes did rally to upset No. 12 Missouri in the Insight Bowl, 27-24. Still, the bad news continued in the off-season as 13 Iowa players were hospitalized in January with a rare muscle disorder.

    Iowa will try to stay with Nebraska, Michigan State and Michigan in The Legends division with the loss of several key players including defensive lineman Adrian Clayborn and quarterback Ricky Stanzi. James Vandenberg will be under the microscope at QB with Stanzi departed.

    Ohio State also lost a slew of starters on defense and some offensive linemen but the Buckeyes did not have a junior leave the program early to head off to the NFL for the first time in the Tressel era.

    Key underclassmen from the Big Ten who are now at the NFL combine or planning a professional career include Wisconsin running back John Clay, Indiana wide receiver Tandon Doss, Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt, and three standouts from Illinois – running back Mikel Leshoure, defensive tackle Corey Liuget and linebacker Martez Wilson.

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  • Conference Expands Its Mind

    To expand or not to expand. That, apparently, is not the question.

    Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has thrown enough hints out there to drown Heloise.

    The conference clearly wants to grow from its current 11 member institutions. The only questions remaining are who and when – and how if any of the candidate universities end up dragging out the process through involved meetings by their boards of trustees.

    For now, though, the Big Ten is in the denial business. In fact, Delany e-mailed conference officials May 11 to quash a rumor that four schools had already been offered a chance to join the league. The communication was reported by the Columbus-based Associated Press and confirmed by Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith.

    A Kansas City, Mo., radio station went so far as to report that Delany already had made at least an informal offer to officials at Missouri, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Rutgers, but Smith told AP, “There’s no truth to it whatsoever. Actually, Jim sent us all an e-mail telling us there’s no truth to that, which we knew. There’s no extensions of offers that have been made, so that’s not true.”

    Still, speculation remains strong that Big 12 participants Missouri and Nebraska are being courted. The Big Ten’s infatuation with adding Notre Dame was been ongoing basically throughout Delany’s tenure as league commissioner and it’s no longer a secret that the conference would love the panache and potential television ratings bonanza Notre Dame would bring.

    But what has changed in recent years – partly because of the success of Big Ten Network as a viable sports cable television station – is that the conference appears very interested in upping the ante to 14 or even 16 teams instead of following the old superconference model of 12.

    One report suggested that Rutgers, currently a Big East member, is backup plan number one in case Notre Dame opts to stay independent. Other reports claim that Missouri, which would strengthen the Big Ten’s tie to the St. Louis market, and Nebraska, which boasts outstanding tradition in football and a few other sports, are already prepared to accept.

    Rutgers, meanwhile, would enhance the conference’s academic profile and bring in the New York City market.

    Other schools that have been mentioned as possible targets include Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia of the Big East, Vanderbilt of the SEC and, believe it or not, Maryland and Georgia Tech of the ACC.

    Originally, even Big 12 power Texas appeared to be in the discussion but those rumors have died off of late.

    Still, the league’s attempts to branch out could be far-reaching.

    “We have a little bit of a central location,” OSU football coach Jim Tressel said recently. “There’s people to our west and people to our south and people to our east that might have interest in being part of this group. It’s, in my mind, the finest group of academic institutions in the country. I think it’s (also) the fact that we have the Big Ten Network, which has proved to be so successful. I think that’s obviously something that someone would want to be a part of.

    “If it makes sense, let’s go. I’m sure whatever rationale they come up with, we’ll be on board and we’ll be excited to be a part of it.”

    Tressel said it’s his understanding and that of the Big Ten’s other football coaches that expansion would be beneficial to their sport and others.

    One of the allures, of course, would be to use BTN to televise a championship game in football, which alone would net the Big Ten millions of dollars a year in advertising revenue.

    “I assume if we expand we would end up with a championship game,” Tressel said.

    But the OSU coach said he is not privy to all the behind-the-scenes involvements by the conference and isn’t sure what the future will bring.

    “Coaches aren’t really in that level or echelon that gets involved in many of those discussions at the conference level, so I’ve been in no discussions with anyone, whether it be my AD or with the commissioner’s office or anything in terms of expansion,” he said.

    “What do I sense? I sense in collegiate athletics as in most things the status quo does not last forever, and there’s constantly change, there’s constantly tweaking to find out what would be a better way to do things. The minute you think, ‘Oh, everything’s fine, it’s going to be that way forever,’ is just when someone else passes you by. So I would expect there will be significant discussion about expansion and I think the Big Ten sits in an enviable position, honestly.”

    The Big Ten athletic directors are scheduled to meet May 17-19 in downtown Chicago. Also on hand will be several faculty representatives, senior women’s administrators and the head coaches in football and men’s and women's basketball. However, Smith said the meetings were routine and nothing would be decided in terms of expansion.

    “This is our normal meetings, the ones we have every year,” Smith said. “Jim (Delany) will probably give us an update on what the consultant has shared, and I don’t even know if the consultant report is done. He’ll give us an update and then move on doing what he’s been doing.

    “I think they meet with the (university) presidents in June or something like that. So the timeline hasn’t changed, but there won’t be any action next week.”

    Hoops Hysteria Underway

    The 2009-10 NCAA Tournament just ended a few weeks ago but already there is great excitement for what the Big Ten could showcase in men’s basketball next season.

    All six teams that made the Big Dance have reasonable hope to repeat the feat next spring, especially defending regular-season co-champs Ohio State, Michigan and Purdue.

    The Buckeyes lost the services of national player of the year Evan Turner, a 6-7 do-it-all performer, but Ohio State still projects as a power team in 2010-11 with the return of the team’s other four starters and the arrival of the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class.

    Meanwhile, Michigan State superstar point guard Kalin Lucas, who injured during the team’s NCAA tourney march to the Final Four, has announced he will return for his senior season, which makes Tom Izzo’s Spartans look very dangerous on paper once again.

    And then there is the very encouraging news in West Lafayette, Ind., and Champaign, Ill., as top players yanked their names from the NBA early entry list and also are set to return to their teams.

    At Purdue, seniors E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson withdrew from draft consideration in time, meaning they will make another run at a title with forward Robbie Hummel and the Boilermakers, who tied the school mark with 29 wins last season.

    “We’re obviously happy to have two players of the caliber of E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson returning to our team,” Purdue head coach Matt Painter said in a statement. “Their dedication, leadership and work ethic are key components of our team, and we’re looking forward to helping them develop as both people and basketball players over the next year.”

    A 6-3 guard, Moore was an honorable mention Associated Press All-American and a first-team All-Big Ten selection after leading Purdue in scoring (16.4 points per game) and assists (2.7). He was the definition of tough and consistent, scoring in double figures 32 times last season including 28 in a row at one point.

    “I can’t wait to get back and start preparing for a great senior season at Purdue,” Moore said.

    Johnson enjoyed a highly productive junior season 15.5 ppg and 7.1 rebounds per game, which led PU. He also bested the conference in blocked shots (2.0 per league game), which earned him election to the Big Ten All-Defensive Team for the second straight year.

    The 6-10 Johnson is one of just 20 Boilermakers with 1,000 points and 500 rebounds in his career and he has a chance to move up significantly on the school’s all-time list in those categories.

    “We have a chance to be very successful this season at Purdue, and I’m excited to be a part of that,” Johnson said. “Being able to play one more year with E’Twaun and Rob (Hummel) will be special because we came in together, and hopefully we can make the most out of the opportunity we have.”

    Similarly, Illinois coach Bruce Weber welcomed back 6-3 point guard Demetri McCamey and 6-9 power forward Mike Davis after that duo pulled out of the draft just before the May 8 deadline. They also will be seniors.

    Turner’s former high school teammates, McCamey also is coming off an All-Big Teb season. He led the Illini in scoring (15.1) and assists (7.1), the latter figure tops in the Big Ten and second-best in the nation. He also added 3.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game.

    McCamey is the only player in Illinois history to reach career milestones of 1,200 points as well as 500 assists in three seasons of competition. But he decided not to try to join his buddy Turner at the professional level – at least not yet.

    “This was a great experience, a blessing for me to follow my dream of playing in the NBA,” McCamey said. “After going through workouts and talking with my family and Coach Weber, I feel that it’s in my best interest to return to school for my senior season. Point guards are judged on victories. I think our team can do big things next year so I’m coming back to help us compete for championships and at the same time keep getting better so I can challenge for a first-round spot in next year’s draft.”

    Davis was the Big Ten’s top rebounder at 9.2 boards per game. He also averaged 10.7 ppg and logged 15 double-doubles on the season. Only Turner had more.

    “I put my name in to hear from NBA personnel which areas of my game I need to make improvement,” Davis said. “Deep down I knew another year of school was best for me, but having the chance to workout and get that feedback were helpful so I’m thankful for that opportunity. Now I’m motivated to work harder than ever so that we can have a great year next year, get back to the NCAA Tournament and make a run.”

    Also, it is worth noting that point guard Talor Battle also pulled out of the draft and will return to Penn State. The Nittany Lions finished in last place in the Big Ten but Battle was a bright star, averaging 18.5 ppg. He will rejoin a PSU squad that features four returning starters.

    With so many key players returning to top teams, the Big Ten figures to be be on prominent display in the national rankings next season. In fact, FOX Sports recently came out with a preseason top 25 and it featured Purdue, Michigan State and Ohio State in the 2-4 slots behind defending national champion Duke. Also in that projection was Illinois at No. 15 and Minnesota at No. 25 while Wisconsin and Northwestern were on the “Twenty More To Watch” list.

    ACC/Big Ten Challenge Field Set

    It looks like Michigan State one-upped Ohio State again in men’s basketball.

    The Buckeyes, defending Big Ten co-champs and the winner of the 2010 conference tournament, had reason to believe they would be paired with reigning NCAA champion Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge later this year. Instead, organizers opted to send MSU, fresh off yet another Final Four run, to Durham, N.C.

    Ohio State will rematch Florida State on Nov. 30 in Tallahassee while the Spartans will face Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Dec. 1 in what undoubtedly will be billed the marquee matchup of the 11-game competition.

    The Big Ten won last year’s Challenge for the first time, 6-5, thanks in large part to OSU’s win over Florida State and Wisconsin’s upset of Duke on the final evening of play.

    For the sixth-consecutive year, the Challenge will feature 11 games and include two telecasts on ESPNU with ESPN and ESPN2 combining to televise the remaining nine games. ESPN3.com, the broadband sports television network from ESPN, will simulcast the ESPN and ESPN2 telecasts.

    Minnesota hosts Virginia to open the Challenge on Nov. 29.

    The Nov. 30 games are as follows: Iowa at Wake Forest, Michigan at Clemson, Ohio State at Florida State, North Carolina at Illinois and Georgia Tech at Northwestern.

    The following night, Dec. 1, five more games will commence: Indiana at Boston College, Purdue at Virginia Tech, Michigan State at Duke, North Carolina State at Wisconsin and Maryland at Penn State

    QB Controversy?

    Michigan fans obviously have been in agony of late and waiting for something positive heading into the college football season.

    According to reports, many in the spring game crowd of approximately 35,000 who endured wind and cold in the Big House on April 17 had reason to be somewhat encouraged.

    “There was a lot to like and some not to like,” UM coach Rich Rodriguez told reporters afterward.

    Rodriguez and his staff used a complex scoring system for the game, which ended with the Blue defeating the Maize, 49-37.

    What many fans may not have expected to see but got instead was reason to believe that sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson is now just as worthy of the starting spot as incumbent Tate Forcier, also a soph.

    Forcier started every game last season and was electrifying early in the season. However, his play dropped off significantly in November and Robinson, tabbed as an athletic changeup to the position, appears to have closed the gap.

    Robinson wasn’t considered much of a throwing threat last season but he connected with receiver Roy Roundtree for a 97-yard touchdown in the spring game on a perfectly lofted pass that carried about 30 yards in the air.

    Robinson also led the offense to two other TD drives, running for one and throwing for another to Roundtree.

    “He’s really improved from last year,” Roundtree said. “Last year he tried to throw everything too hard. Now, he has better touch on the ball and he’s really working hard.”

    Forcier had a solid performance and threw a touchdown pass but he also lost a fumble.

    Rodriguez did not make any of his quarterbacks available for interviews after the game. Instead, he fueled a possible QB controversy for the fall by saying, “I’ve played with two No. 1 starters in the past and I could do it again.”

    The spring game raised $300,00 for Mott Children’s Hospital.

    Hoops Helping Hands

    Ohio State head coach Thad Matta had to deal with a the loss of a topflight assistant coach for the second straight year but once again came up with a renowned addition.

    Last offseason, longtime Matta aide John Groce left the program to become the head coach at Ohio University and Matta quickly moved in to swoop up well-regarded Akron assistant Jeff Boals, ironically a former Ohio U. player.

    Recently, another coach who had been with Matta since his Xavier days, Alan Major, accepted the head coaching position at Charlotte. Matta’s response was to hire Dave Dickerson, once considered one of the elite assistant coaches in the country.

    Dickerson built a stellar reputation as a recruiter and right-hand man during his nine years as an assistant to Gary Williams at Maryland. He left to take the head coaching spot at Tulane in 2005 but was relieved from that post this spring.

    Meanwhile, Major already is looking to turn a corner at Charlotte and wants to up the ante on the 49ers preconference schedule. One potential matchup of note in the near future would be with Ohio State.

    “Coach Matta and I have actually talked about that because it could be very possible,” Major said. “Here’s the thing: You only know how good you are until you play the high-level people. You also want to be smart enough to have balance in your schedule and I don’t know a lot about the schedule right now to make a comment. You need to know what you are made of and you need to schedule some games once in a while to find out what you are made of. There’s a very good possibility that could happen.

    Miscellaneous Notes

    * New Iowa men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffrey brought aboard a couple of his assistants from Siena soon after accepting the job in Iowa City. The question about his third assistant lingered, though, and produced a plea from former Iowa point guard Andre Woolridge, a Hawkeye star of the mid-’90s.

    Woolridge, though, did not get his wish as McCaffrey went in a different direction.

    On May 12 it was announced McCaffery completed his staff by hiring former Indiana State and James Madison head coach Sherman Dillard.

    A former standout guard at James Madison, Dillard was a head coach at his alma mater from 1997-2004 after serving in the same capacity for three years at ISU. He also has been an assistant at Maryland, California and Georgia Tech.

    * ESPN/ABC-TV recently selected six Big Ten games for the 2010 season and three of them are marquee matchups involving defending conference champion Ohio State. More such telecasts will be announced at a later date.

    The games already tabbed follow (all times are Eastern):
    Sept. 11, 3:40 p.m. – No. 13 Miami at No. 2 Ohio State (ESPN)
    Sept. 18, 8 p.m. – Notre Dame at Michigan State (ABC)
    Oct. 2, 8 p.m. – No. 19 Penn State at No. 8 Iowa (ABC, ESPN or ESPN2)
    Oct. 16, 7 p.m. – No. 2 Ohio State at No. 11 Wisconsin (ESPN or ESPN2)
    Oct. 30, 8 p.m. – No. 2 Ohio State at Minnesota (ABC, ESPN or ESPN2); Michigan at No. 19 Penn State (ABC, ESPN or ESPN2)

    * The Chris Allen transfer rumors are swirling.

    The future of the Michigan State guard has been in question for months and speculation that he might leave the program gained steam in early May when Izzo addressed the transfer of backup center Tom Herzog to Central Florida.

    “There is still one other player that’s up in the air and I have to make some tough decisions – and I will – and he’s got to make some tough decisions,” Izzo said. “So there might be one more coming or going. But to honest with you, that’s just the way it is right now. We should be able to make that decision in the next couple of days because we’ll do it before he leaves.

    Izzo made that comment on May 5 but still there is no word on Allen, who would be a senior if he returns to play for the Spartans.

    Allen came through at times in the wake of Lucas’ Achilles’ tendon injury and started 27 of 36 games last season, averaging 8.2 ppg. He also led the team in three-point percentage at 39.8 and showed the capability of being a top perimeter defender.

    However, the Lawrenceville, Ga., native, caught Izzo’s ire several times during the season and he was suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules in Indianapolis before the Spartans’ Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal loss to Minnesota.

    Allen also dealt with an injury at the end of the season – a torn arch ligament he suffered in the NCAA Tournament opener with New Mexico State.

    Izzo said he likely would not pursue more immediate help if another scholarship opens up/

    “I don’t think we’d do that unless there’s some phenom out there,” he said. “I’ve never been really big on transfers unless it’s for the right reason.”

    * Single-game tickets are now on sale for the Big Ten Baseball Tournament.

    The tournament, set for May 26-29, will be held at Bill Davis Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.

    There was interest in returning it to Huntington Park downtown but the regular inhabitants, the Columbus Clippers of Triple-A, have a homestand that begins May 27 and runs through to June 2.

    Tickets to individual games for this year’s event are $10 apiece, plus service charges, and are available at www.ticketmaster.com. All single-game tickets are general admission.

    All-Tournament passes are $100 each. Group tickets (minimum 20) are available for $7 per ticket. All-Tournament and group tickets are available at www.ColumbusSports.org or www.bigten.org.

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