Indiana won the championship, but I'm not sure they were the best team in the country," says Ohio State coach Gary Williams. "Any one of four teams from our conference could have won it last year." Sadly for the rest of the nation, the same is true this season—only more so.
Once a conference of linebackers masquerading as forwards, the Big Ten bears no resemblance to those days of yore. With the arrival last season of two up-tempo coaches, Tom Davis at Iowa and Williams, the conference took on a sleek and speedy look. And Indiana, known as a half-court club under Bob Knight, shifted gears and played end-to-end against UNLV and Auburn en route to the NCAA title.
The conference is rich in new talent. Not only has the league cashed in on blue-chip recruits, as usual, but it also has a slew of Bylaw 5-1-(j) sitouts from '86 now eligible, such as Rumeal Robinson and Terry Mills of Michigan (see box). Then there's the trend toward juco entrants, courtesy of Knight. With all this, plus some impressive transfers—well, it hardly seems fair.
Schematically, the Big Ten lines up like the pins at your local bowling alley. The kingpin, once again, is Indiana. Knight has kept a low profile since winning the title in March. He did agree to make a series of motivational speeches for Paine Webber, but it was his own motivation to win that led him to sign up Indiana's co-Mr. Basketball, Lyndon Jones and Jay Edwards, as well as juco Mark Robinson.
Knight is looking to turn Keith Smart (see page 14) loose this season. "He has athletic ability, and he's got to use it," Knight says. "There's a difference in putting a harness on a greyhound or on a poodle." Jones, a chunky penetrator, and Edwards, a bean pole with a dead eye, will yap for playing time alongside Smart in the backcourt. Up front, Indiana has the Big Ten's best center in 6'10" Dean Garrett. Rick Calloway may determine whether there's a Final Four encore. "The more Calloway contributes," Knight says, "the better we're going to be."
Poised behind the head pin, Michigan and Purdue will pose different challenges to the champs. "This will be the quickest team I've ever seen at Michigan," says coach Bill Frieder. Frieder, who seems to pick up McDonald's All-Americas as easily as Quarter Pounders at the drive-thru, will unwrap Mills and Robinson, as well as 6'9" freshman Sean Higgins, to go with explosive forward Glen Rice. The leader of these callow troops is Gary (the General) Grant, the best point guard in the land. "Gary told a friend of mine that Michigan is awesome," says Purdue coach Gene Keady. "He said it was scary how good the team is going to be."
Purdue will frighten some people, too. Keady returns a rugged, ripened cast that tied the Hoosiers for the conference title last season. But for the past four years, the bruising Hydes of regular season have turned to Jekylls at tourney time. "We need some people to come forth and lead us down that trail of mental toughness," says Keady. But Purdue's seniors have problems: Sharp-shooting but slow-footed guard Troy Lewis has been further decelerated by foot surgery, and forward Todd Mitchell is recovering from recent knee surgery. Perhaps a relative child shall lead them. During a spring swing through Australia, Keady inserted junior center Melvin McCants at power forward, and he led the team in scoring.
Three other well-endowed teams stand behind the lead pins. Iowa lost a lot to graduation, but Davis still has the marvelous Roy Marble, an MVP in three tourneys last season, a fine back-court of B.J. Armstrong and Jeff Moe, the conference's most deadly three-point shooter, and power players Ed Horton and Al Lorenzen up front. Illinois has everybody else in the league nervous. Junior Ken Battle, a talented transfer, will replace Ken Norman, coach Lou Henson's only significant missing person. The Illini add Nick Anderson, a Bylaw 5-1-(j) sitout, but lose the services of Marcus Liberty, the No. 1 prep player in the nation, to the same rule. Last season, Williams and his aggressive style brought Ohio State fans to their feet. Leading the way was Dennis Hopson, gone to the NBA, but there's still talent to root for in forward Jerry Francis and guards Jay Burson and Curtis Wilson. Freshman Perry Carter, a bruiser, and Grady Mateen, a transfer from Georgetown, add size.
The Big Ten's back row of four practically topple on contact—they were a combined 2-46 against the front six last season. Michigan State is hoping for better things from freshman guards Jesse Hall and Steve Smith, a glider with a touch of Magic. Minnesota adds guard Melvin Newburn, a Bylaw 5-1-(j) victim in '86-87. "He can play with anybody," says coach Clem Haskins. Northwestern went the juco route to get backcourt help in Rob Ross and Phil Styles. On the front line the Wildcats have Shon Morris. Last season Steve Yoder thought Wisconsin had its best talent in his four years as coach, and the Badgers won only four league games. This year, Yoder will be yearning for last year. Can there be any worse place than at the bottom of the Big Ten looking up?
If nobody else takes charge for the Boilermakers, Keady hopes McCants can.