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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Depatures from the Big Ten

Players transferring after a head coaching change is nothing new. But when I heard that Iowa released super-frosh Tyler Smith from his scholarship on Friday, it was a little surprising. Moving closer to home, where his father is dealing with cancer, is understandable. His change or heart puts Iowa in an even tougher position as Todd Lickliter attempts to rebuild the program.

Although Iowa expected to say goodbye to only two seniors following the season, the Hawkeyes now must replace over 60 percent of their per-game scoring from 2006-07.

Smith is just one of several Big Ten departures so far this spring. Sophomore Maurice Joseph is leaving Michigan State. Purdue was hit with transfer requests from three young players, including guard Chris Lutz who led the conference in 3-point shooting percentage. Unlike Iowa, however, both MSU and Purdue have highly-rated incoming recruits to offset the losses and build upon.

With a mediocre freshman class expected next year, Iowa is one team in the Big Ten anticipating a much tougher season in 2007-08. Northwestern will again be the sludge of the conference. Although early-entry candidates have weakened Ohio State, the Buckeyes will be competing for Big Ten titles annually under Thad Matta. Wisconsin's personnel losses were to graduation, but the same high expectations apply to Bo Ryan's bunch.

Indiana, like Michigan State, is an early favorite at the top of the league. Guard phenom Eric Gordon's arrival coupled with D.J. White's surprise return for a senior season will make Kelvin Sampson's second year in Bloomington a special one. Michigan and Minnesota will be better through coaching upgrades alone.

Penn State also returns four starters, including the now-seasoned Geary Claxton-Jamelle Cornley duo that ranked 1-2 on the team in both scoring and rebounding. Of course, they were supposed to be improved last season as well ... I don't think 11-19 qualified as a breakthrough. The other team I cannot figure out is Illinois. The karma feels quite bad in Champaign, where off-the-court issues continue to mount in addition to the team dropping to ninth in the Big Ten in scoring offense. Shaun Pruitt is considering the NBA Draft for some odd reason, but the Illini did just add junior college star Rodney Alexander to their incoming class.

For what it's worth, Wisconsin teams have seemed to thrive in the underdog role, rather than as a favorite. Expect the conference to be much more balanced next season, unlike the Big 2/Little 9 look that we've seen so often in football. Purdue served reasonably well as my sleeper pick last season, but I'll take a little more time to make a pick this season. You never know who else will jump ship between now and the next tip-off.

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