Conference Expands Its Mind

By Jeff Rapp, May 15th, 2010

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.