Chicago Colleges: Tom Izzo

The state of the Big Ten

November, 5, 2013

In recent years, the Big Ten has boasted an assembly of athletes who have boosted the league to the top of college basketball’s conference rankings.

Players who could’ve turned pro returned and granted the league a lineup of experienced players who carried their respective squads for multiple seasons. Evan Turner, Trey Burke, Cody Zeller, Draymond Green, Deshaun Thomas, Jared Sullinger, JaJuan Johnson, Tim Hardaway Jr. and others had opportunities to sign NBA contracts a year or two earlier than they did. Instead, they stayed and strengthened their teams and subsequently, the entire conference.

Prior to changes at Minnesota and Northwestern this past offseason, only four of the 12 Big Ten schools (Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Penn State) had changed head coaches in the previous five seasons. That continuity has fueled immense success for a league that has earned 20 total bids in the last three NCAA tournaments.

There are, however, more questions now.

Other than Michigan State, the Big Ten’s membership enters the season possessing promise but also dealing with a rare uncertainty. Michigan and Ohio State return elite talent, but you can’t ignore what both lost from last season. Indiana could blossom behind some youngsters, but how many teams improve after a pair of top-five picks turn pro? A fleet of seniors have left Madison. Iowa is still a “maybe” to many.

Illinois and Purdue? They’ll either surprise or spend the year at the bottom of the league.

Even with four teams cracking the Associated Press’ Top 25 preseason poll, the Big Ten is somewhat of a mystery as this weekend’s tipoff to the 2013-14 season approaches. Still, there’s plenty of hope for many squads in this league.

There’s just a lot we don’t know (yet) about the Big Ten.

The Contenders

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
AP Photo/Andy ManisTom Izzo has a Michigan State team with enough talent to return to the Final Four.
Michigan State: Tom Izzo has another capable crew in East Lansing this season. Adreian Payne and Keith Appling anchor the Big Ten favorite and national title contender. Gary Harris is a future lottery pick who could campaign for All-American honors. Whenever Izzo has this much talent and experience, his teams usually reach the Final Four.

Michigan: The answer is no. No, the Wolverines won’t replace Wooden Award winner Burke no matter how productive Derrick Walton Jr. is in his freshman season. But John Beilein’s pillars -- Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary -- and his stellar recruits should give Michigan State a serious shot at the Big Ten crown.

Ohio State: Somehow, Aaron Craft is still eligible and available to squash the dreams of perimeter players throughout the country. Without Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes will probably spread the ball around more than they did last season. But LaQuinton Ross -- assuming we see the same player who lit up the Big Dance a few months ago -- might be the star Thad Matta needs to make a postseason run and snatch another Big Ten crown.

The (Possible) Contenders

Indiana: If exhibitions are to be believed, then Yogi Ferrell has become a more dangerous threat from the field since registering a 45.4 effective field goal percentage last season. That matters, but not as much as the maturation of the rest of the roster does (will). How much production will Noah Vonleh and a bunch of inexperienced youngsters give Tom Crean? We’ll find out soon.

Wisconsin: Say it with me three times: “I will not doubt Wisconsin, I will not doubt Wisconsin, I will not doubt Wisconsin.” Once again, however, there are a few reasons to doubt the Badgers, simply because they’re entering the season without a trio of seniors (Mike Bruesewitz, Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren) who made a major difference last season, and they’re depending on a point guard who's returning from a serious knee injury (Josh Gasser). Sam Dekker and Co. will probably maintain Bo Ryan’s streak of 20-win seasons (10 in a row) and top-four finishes in the Big Ten.

Iowa: The rebuilding phase is over, folks. The Hawkeyes return every meaningful player from a team that won 25 games and finished 9-9 in conference play during the 2012-13 season. It’s time for Iowa to finally make some noise in the Big Ten race and get back to the NCAA tourney. Fran McCaffery has the pieces to achieve both.

The Questionable

Purdue: The last thing Matt Painter needed was a bout of early drama involving young star A.J. Hammons. But that’s exactly what he’s facing after Hammons was recently suspended for three games after violating team rules. If Hammons gets his act together -- it’s always if with him -- the Boilermakers could sneak into the at-large mix.

Illinois: Same for John Groce’s squad. Groce adds eight new faces to the program. This is a much different team compared to the one that reached the NCAA tournament last year. But if Groce can help transfer Rayvonte Rice become the star he was at Drake two seasons ago, Illinois might make a case for another berth.

The Bottom

Minnesota: Richard Pitino has his father’s last name and hair, but nothing resembling the players Rick Pitino used to win the national title with Louisville in April.

Northwestern: Chris Collins is already making strides in recruiting, but he doesn’t have the beef inside to compete in the Big Ten yet.

Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have a new arena, but Tim Miles’ squad has the same problems.

Penn State: Tim Frazier will have to carry a very heavy load. Again.

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo went on PTI to discuss why he was so upset when Illinois fired Bruce Weber.

Davide Curletti sparks Northwestern upset

January, 14, 2012
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern senior Davide Curletti doesn’t know precisely when he stopped caring whether he started or how many points he scored in a given game, but it happened sometime during the last four years.

Part of that came with Curletti dealing with reality. Northwestern coach Bill Carmody has never seen him as a starter and his job for the Wildcats hasn’t been to contribute a double-double like he did as a high school senior. His role has been to be an energy player off the bench, or as Carmody puts it, “the Energizer Bunny.”

It’s not the most glamorous of roles, but then again, the 6-foot-9, 230-pound Curletti isn’t the most glamorous of players. He doesn’t out-jump opponents for rebounds; he out-works them. He doesn’t out-maneuver defenders for buckets; he out-thinks them.

[+] EnlargeDavide Curletti
David Banks/US PresswireNorthwestern's Davide Curletti scored 17 points in a rare start on Saturday.
Curletti has embraced that role and been consistent in it. He averaged 2.9 points, 1.7 rebounds and 0.9 rebounds in 11.9 minutes over 91 career games before Saturday, and his numbers this season hadn’t been much different. He averaged 3.7 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 16.8 minutes in his first 16 games.

So no one, not even Curletti, could have predicted his performance on Saturday. Making only the second start of his career, Curletti scored 17 points, grabbed six rebounds, dished out four assists, stole two balls and blocked one shot in 36 minutes while helping Northwestern to an 81-74 upset of No. 7 Michigan State.

Because Curletti has become such a team-first kind of guy throughout his career, he was even careful of how he accepted everyone’s praise on Saturday. Although inside he was feeling pretty good about himself, he made sure everyone knew he wanted the win to be about the team’s play, not his own.

“It’s not about trying to be cocky or anything like that, but it’s just that it feels really good and I’m glad it happened,” Curletti said. “Obviously, I hope it happens again, but at the same time you got to think beating the No. 7 team out-trumps all of that.

“Last year my best game was against Wisconsin where I had a similar game, but we lost. When someone asked me of my favorite game of my career, I said last year’s loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament. I later realized I didn’t even think about Wisconsin. Big wins do really matter in the long run.”

Curletti did confirm that Saturday’s game leaped that overtime loss to Ohio State and became his No. 1 career highlight. And of all the individual plays Saturday, Curletti will never forget his backdoor cut which led to a wide-open dunk to give Northwestern a 57-50 lead with 12:27 remaining. As he flushed the ball, Northwestern’s bench and nearly everyone wearing purple jumped off their seats at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“It was great,” Curletti admitted. “It was really awesome.”

So how did Curletti go from being a career role player to a star in one of the program’s biggest wins? He claimed he did nothing different.

“It’s kind of like you work hard and some games you’ll get only one offensive rebound and you’ll get maybe two points, but other games, if you stick with it, you’ll have a night like this,” Curletti said. “For me, coming off the bench, you always have to have energy. That’s what I try to do. That’s kind of what my role was the last couple years, so that’s what I’m just going to keep on doing.

“I like working hard, and I consider myself a hard worker. I feel my best way of contributing on this team is do that. You always need a guy like that on a team.”

You also need stars like Northwestern’s Drew Crawford and John Shurna, and those were the names rolling off Michigan State’s tongues leading up to Saturday’s game. Afterward, it was all about Curletti. Spartans coach Tom Izzo took a stab at pronouncing Curletti’s first name (DAH-vuh-day), but he got his last name perfect.

“Curletti was the difference in the game if you ask me,” said Izzo, who had been quite pleased with his big men prior to Saturday’s game. “He’s the one who snagged those [rebounds] when we had them, and he took them and scored on them. Curletti was a big difference in the game and deserved the play and credit he got. I thought it was a brilliant move by Bill to start him.”

Carmody’s brilliance actually was a last-second decision. He opted against starting a smaller lineup with Shurna at center and went with Curletti at the 5. Curletti’s one and only other start came against Ohio State as a freshman on Feb. 18, 2009. He finished with two rebounds on that day.

When Curletti discovered just before the game he was starting, he didn’t jump for joy. He understood he needed to play as he’s always played.

“To be honest, it didn’t really matter to me,” Curletti said. “It has been a while [since I started.] I’m also a senior now. I have to put the team ahead. I can’t be nervous. I have to play my game.”

And so he did.

Weber, Izzo dislike rule that helped them

October, 27, 2011
ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo know they sound hypocritical, but they are actually against the rule that allowed two probable starters to transfer to their respective teams this season.

Read the entire story.