ROSEMONT, Ill. - Big Ten men's basketball coaches finally agree with the media on one thing - Michigan State is the team to beat this season.
Coach Tom Izzo's Spartans, who return three starters from last year's squad that finished 22-13 and reached the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Tournament, were tabbed yesterday as preseason favorite to win the conference crown.
The coaches and media also picked Illinois to finish second and two-time defending champion Wisconsin third during the Big Ten's annual media day at the Westin Hotel.
First-year Illini coach Bruce Weber inherits four starters from a team that won its first Big Ten Tournament title, finished 25-7 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive year.
Meanwhile, coach Bo Ryan's Badgers, aiming for their first three-peat since 1914, return four starters from a team that captured its first Big Ten title outright in 56 years and reached the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I'm not surprised that Michigan State was chosen No. 1, because I think they are going to be very good,'' said Ohio State associate head coach Rick Boyages, whose was subbing for ailing head coach Jim O'Brien, who recently had neck surgery. “Really, though, I think the top three teams are interchangeable.''
Michigan State, which will play powerhouse programs Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, Syracuse, Indiana and UCLA during the regular season, has qualified for the NCAA Tournament six consecutive seasons, including winning the national championship in 2000.
“We want to get our program to the point where we're going to the NCAA Tournament every year, just like Michigan State does,'' said third-year Michigan coach Tommy Amaker, who found out late last month his team will be eligible for postseason play this year after winning an appeal with the NCAA's infractions committee.
“We're excited about this season. We think we have a chance to be pretty good.''
The coaches and media differed in their selections for Big Ten preseason player of the year. The coaches tabbed Wisconsin junior guard Devin Harris, the media Illinois sophomore guard Dee Brown.
Harris, a second-team all-conference selection last season, led the conference in steals a year ago (2.03 per game), averaged 12.7 points and shot 46.3 percent from the field. Brown, also a second-team pick last season, averaged 12.0 points and was the first freshman to lead the conference in steals (1.82) since 1992.
Brown and Harris were chosen for the preseason all-conference teams by both media and coaches, as were Michigan sophomore guard Daniel Horton, Indiana sophomore guard Bracey Wright and Michigan State junior guard Chris Hill.
The coaches, though, selected Hill and MSU sophomore center Paul Davis for their fifth spot due to a tie in the voting, while the media tabbed Hill for its final slot.
Horton was the Big Ten's freshman of the year last season after averaging 15.2 points and 4.5 assists, and joined Wright and Brown on the conference's all-freshmen team. Hill was a second-team all-conference pick and Davis was named to the NCAA all-regional team.
“We think Horton can be a pretty special player,'' Amaker said.
The Wolverines haven't been to the NCAA Tournament since the 1997-98 season, when they lost to UCLA 85-82 in the second round of the South Regional in Atlanta.
A year ago, Michigan finished 17-13 overall - the program's best record in five years - after an 0-6 start. Four starters return, including Horton, senior swingman Bernard Robinson, sophomore swingman Lester Abram and sophomore forward/center Graham Brown.
“We're not going to sneak up on anybody this year after what we did last season, but that's OK,'' Robinson said. “We'll be very disappointed if we don't make the NCAA Tournament.''
Boyages, who has rejoined O'Brien's staff after a three-year stint as head coach at William & Mary, said he's in constant contact with O'Brien and meets with him a few hours every day.
“It's day-to-day with Jim as far as his return goes,'' Boyages said, “but we've been together 10 years, so it's not like we're not on the same page. We discuss philosophy, practices and strategy all the time.''
The Buckeyes, 17-15 last season, must replace leading scorers Brent Darby and Sean Connolly, but 7-0 senior center Velimir Radinovic (9.3 points, 6.1 rebounds) returns on the block along with 6-9 sophomore forward/center Terence Dials, who missed most of last year with a back injury. Junior point guard Brandon Fuss-Cheatham is back, too, after being hampered by a knee injury a year ago.
Boyages also sees plenty of athleticism in newcomers J.J. Sullinger, Tony Stockman, Ricardo Billings and Ivan Harris. Stockman is a transfer from Clemson; Sullinger a transfer from Arkansas. Both sat out last season.
“I think we're going to surprise some people,'' Boyages said. “We have some really good players who sat out last year that people have forgotten about, and I think they are going to make some noise.''