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Unfamiliar starting spot for Spartans

Michigan State needs more leadership from Marcus Taylor this year.
 Tom Hauck/Allsport
1   Illinois
2   Iowa
3   Michigan State
4   Indiana
5   Minnesota
6   Ohio State
7   Purdue
8   Michigan
9   Wisconsin
10   Northwestern
11   Penn State
Number of national titles won by league favorite and national contender Illinois in its basketball history. Only once in the past 50 years have the Illini visited the Final Four, in 1989.
"There are three groups of people out there. The ones who are going to wait and see, the ones who support me and the ones who are waiting for me to fail -- and they want me out of here as soon as possible. But no one can get my job if I win."

-- Indiana coach Mike Davis, on his comfort level with the interim tag removed.

By Brian Hamilton, Special to CNNSI.com

Tom Izzo sat at his table at the Rosemont Doubletree like the other coaches at Big Ten media day, surrounded by the usual pack of interested parties that gravitate to one of the most successful and affable coaches around, but something else was there, too. And something else wasn't.

Uncertainty loomed. His leader wouldn't be a savvy, well-heeled veteran, but the sophomore point guard sitting nearby whose green streak may still go beyond his jersey. Two of his top players may be true freshmen, and one may be his leading scorer.

What wasn't there were the words "Michigan State" anywhere in the top preseason picks for the league race. By coaches or media. Izzo smiled. He maybe thought that would feel OK, like people were underestimating him and his team. Actually, for a guy seeking a fourth straight Final Four, it felt, well, not OK.

"I'm looking at it as we don't deserve to be picked one or two in this conference," Izzo said. "If somebody picked us three or four, I'm not even sure if we deserve that. With the inexperience we have, we're in the earning stage."

It will be an intriguing study in 2001-02, this Michigan State team. The seemingly omnipresent sturdiness from the Cleaveses and Petersons and Bells of recent Spartans vintage is extinguished. There is but one senior on Izzo's roster. The foundation for the future was razed with two early departures to the NBA after last season, the price that talent and success combined exacts on any program.

In all, six players departed from last year's roster alone. So now Izzo is faced with the prospect of -- would you believe it? -- rebuilding. He hands the team over to still unproven but promising sophomore Marcus Taylor. Heralded freshman Kelvin Torbert is expected to make an impact. The good thing is, teams can win with youth these days, because sometimes that's all anyone has.

The bad part is, no one, even perhaps Izzo, quite knows what to expect. Indeed, a Big Ten power now has to cope with the tab for its own success. And even the mastermind behind it all is searching for the solutions.

"The reality to it, yeah, we lost five seniors and two underclassmen, but we also lost three kids from the year before, so I've been saying our program has taken a bigger hit in a two-year span than any team in the country," Izzo said. "This is a new area for me, kind of uncharted waters.

"I don't have all the answers to where we're going to be. I like our approach. I like our young kids. I like what they're doing. I don't like our inexperience and our depth. The depth thing could really hurt us if we have injuries. If we can survive our early schedule and can get better, we could be a very good team in the future...We'll have to be prepared to take some lumps."

That schedule will certainly let the Spartans know where they lay. They get Virginia, Arizona and Stanford at home. There is a road trip to Florida that may be the most severe test. No one, least of all Izzo and his crew, will be fooled by what comes before the Big Ten slate opens.

At the crux of all this is Taylor, who embodies everything this team is about. The sophomore is one of the most talented players in his class nationally, but had a very freshman-like freshman year. He played internationally during the summer. For Taylor, like the rest, age doesn't matter. He need play and act like those veterans in whose footsteps he follows.

Taylor is already taking the lead, though. A short distance from Izzo, he spoke of the hunger that Michigan State will need to rely on this year. There is, of course, little else.

"A lot of people are picking us to finish in the middle," Taylor said. "That takes pressure off of us. If we were ranked at the top, any mistake we make, people will doubt us. We're trying to use this as motivation to make sure we get to the top again."

Jared Jeffries weighed the options, and then probably weighed himself, and made a wise move by returning to Indiana for his sophomore season. At 6-10, the Hoosiers' sophomore has skills for all five spots on the floor, but he's also got all of 215 pounds (being generous) spread out on that frame.

Still, in the Big Ten this year, Jeffries should be a very weighty presence. As a freshman, he averaged 13.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, and those were solid enough numbers. But enough flashes of brilliance came from those numbers to suggest they'll skyrocket this year.

They might have to. Kirk Haston is gone. There are few proven, reliable scoring outlets elsewhere. Jeffries will be depended on in a big way and thus could come through with an all-Big Ten campaign. It would take a tremendous team season to make the leap to All-American, but if he sticks around again and sticks more meat on his bones, that could very well be on the horizon.

HOT: Multi-talented big men

Indiana's 6-10 Jeffries, Illinois' 6-10 Brian Cook and Michigan's 6-7 Lavell Blanchard can do it inside and out. Watch for 6-10 Minnesota freshman Rick Rickert to follow suit.

NOT: Veteran Big Ten coaches

Eight of the 11 coaches in the league have spent four or less years at their school. Only Purdue's Gene Keady has been around for more than a decade.

HOT: Ohio State G Brian Brown

Will be the focal point of everything the Buckeyes do and should see scoring (14.5 ppg) and even assists (4.1 apg) improve.

NOT: True table-setters

The top returning assist man in the league, Indiana's Tom Coverdale, dished out a modest 4.9 per game. Besides Illinois' Frank Williams and maybe Michigan State's Marcus Taylor, point guard playmakers are few.

For some reason, the administration in State College decided to give coach Jerry Dunn a five-year contract extension. Apparently, they believe Dunn is the man to reconstruct the program he's already been in for six years.

Besides catching some lightning in a bottle with the Crispin clan and a couple other senior contributors last year -- all of which got Penn State a Sweet 16 trip -- Dunn hasn't put together outstanding teams. Even last year's crew finished only 7-9 in league play. Now, no one returns to this year's team with a double-figure scoring average. The one Crispin that was supposed to be back, Joe, bolted for UCLA.

Not exactly a vote of confidence as to where the program is headed.

Michigan State G Marcus Taylor

Sophomore must become leader in a hurry, even after a limited freshman campaign. Too many important new faces to involve for Taylor to be shaky.

Iowa G/F Luke Recker

If he stays healthy, the Hawkeyes have a shot at the league title and going deep into the NCAAs. If not, it's just another decent NCAA-bound year.

Minnesota coach Dan Monson

Has depth and talent that he didn't have in his first two years. Got 18 wins a year ago, anyway. Could be NCAA tournament or bust season.

There will of course be the league matchups of note, like two Michigan State-Illinois meetings, two Indiana-Iowa matchups -- though you get only one shot to witness the titanic Feb. 16 meeting of Northwestern and Penn State.

But concentrating on what's directly ahead, there are intriguing pre-conference tilts aplenty that, especially this season, will reveal to several would-be contenders how close -- or far away -- they are. Illinois' Nov. 27 trip to Maryland could pit two Final Four teams against each other just after Thanksgiving, with the Illini hosting Arizona just a few days later on Dec. 4. Those should indicate just how high the bar should be set for Bill Self's crew.

The Iowa-Duke game on Nov. 27, also part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, will be a litmus test for both teams. Michigan State will learn just how far its freshmen have to go -- or not -- with a trip to Florida on Dec. 5. The ACC-Big Ten slate also gives Minnesota a chance to see what it's made of on Nov. 27 against a solid Wake Forest team.

And how's this for interesting: New Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan will take on his former squad, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, on Dec. 27.

Whatever you do, don't underestimate the impact that losing F Lucas Johnson to an ACL tear will have on Illinois. Bill Self certainly doesn't, addressing the subject as though he has a lump in his throat. Beyond the 5.0 points and 3.3 rebounds a game, Johnson provided an annoying, scuffling inside presence and unabashed leadership. Frankly, his antics took attention from the Illini's big guns, and that toughness will be lacking. The question is, will it cost Illinois anything? "I understand why the expectations are high," Self said. "But I don't think losing Lucas helps our cause at all."... That also doesn't take into account the sprained wrist of preseason Player of the Year Frank Williams, though that injury isn't expected to linger. ... For the first time in recent memory, Minnesota's Monson has substantial depth. So of course, the one place where there isn't much room for dropoff takes a hit in the preseason, with shooting guard Shane Schilling suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. Schilling was the only true 2-guard with any kind of experience, which may mean Monson will have two combo guards -- Kevin Burleson and Kerwin Fleming -- on the floor an awful lot. ... Indiana coach Mike Davis got a lot of notoriety for the changes he made to the Hoosiers' offensive scheme, but consider this: Indiana was actually better on defense in Davis' first year, allowing 62.9 points per game, down from 68.4 in 1999-2000. ... Fila's lawsuit against new Michigan coach Tommy Amaker includes an interesting allegation that Amaker was trying to wrangle out of his deal in July 2000 to get the Wolverines job. Michigan AD Bill Martin said he never spoke with Amaker about the position until March of this year, when Amaker actually took the job. ... Penn State senior Tyler Smith is his squad's leading returning scorer (7.6 points per game), making the Nittany Lions the only team in the league that returns no double-figure scorers from a year ago. ... Maybe one of the most critical spots up in the air is the point guard spot at Iowa, where the Hawkeyes have juco transfer Chauncey Leslie and sophomore sparkplug Brody Boyd. A floor general with some pop, like the departed Dean Oliver , makes this team complete. A hole at point guard may just make them rattled at big moments, Luke Recker notwithstanding. ... It may just be idle chatter, but there is some sentiment around the league to up the conference schedule from 16 games to 20 games, thereby eliminating the chance of contenders meeting just once per year. At the Big Ten's annual media day, commissioner Jim Delaney said he hadn't heard of the prospect of moving to 20 games, but didn't rule it out.

Brian Hamilton covers the Big Ten for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. His "This Week in the Big Ten" column will appear weekly during the season.


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