Don't discount Bucks and Illini in Big Ten race

October, 30, 2009
10/30/09
10:23
AM ET
ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber didn't dismiss Michigan State's or Purdue's chances to win the Big Ten title or compete for a Final Four.

But he said it would be a mistake to dismiss Ohio State as a contender.

At Big Ten media day Thursday near O'Hare Airport, Weber reminded those sitting close to him that the Buckeyes are loaded. And they are, albeit with guards who will be somewhat interchangeable throughout the season.

Ohio State coach Thad Matta said he will start junior Evan Turner at the point. But don't really call Turner a point guard. He's a playmaker who will handle the ball, initiate the offense and ensure that fellow guards William Buford, Jon Diebler and David Lighty get their hands on the ball as well, before Turner likely gets it back on many a possession.

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Evan Turner
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe ever-versatile Evan Turner will shift primarily to the point for the Buckeyes this season.

Turner was strictly a wing for the bronze-winning U.S. World University Games team this summer, with Penn State's Talor Battle and Villanova's Corey Fisher as the primary playmakers. But Turner was quick to remind me Thursday that he led that team in assists. He had 18, two more than Purdue's Robbie Hummel, five more than Battle and six more than Fisher. He also had only six turnovers, six less than Battle and 13 fewer than Fisher.

"I grew up as a point guard," said the 6-foot-7 Turner, who had team highs in assists (131) and turnovers (117) last season for the Buckeyes. "I'm out there trying to make plays. It's basketball."

Matta said he's already seen tremendous improvement in the six weeks since Turner arrived back on campus. He's handling the position without hesitation.

"He's a very good passer and he can get to the foul line," Matta said of Turner's ability to generate points with his team highs in free throws made (175) and attempted (222) last season. "He'll get other guys in position to succeed. The ball will come back to him."

Matta said Turner was used quite a bit as a point toward the end of last season. The coach said he doesn't care about labels.

"I'm not thinking of what could go wrong here as if I can't come up with anything else," Matta said. "It's not like, 'Oh man this is scary.' I like him being out there. It gives us great size, too."

The Buckeyes are in a position of flexibility because of the return of Lighty, who played in only seven games last season because of a broken foot.

"No pain at all," Lighty said of his current condition. "I've got my bounce back and I can cut without hurting."

Lighty said teams may have to double-team Turner at the point, opening up shots for the other guards like himself, Buford and Diebler. The Buckeyes will be a shooting team this season, with all four of these guards having the ability to knock down 3s, especially Buford and Diebler.

But for this to work well, OSU forward Dallas Lauderdale has to be playing.

Lauderdale broke a bone in his right hand in the preseason and had surgery to insert three screws in it. Matta said Lauderdale has been conditioning of late and should be back in practice next week with a cast, as well as a "quarterback jersey" so he doesn't get hit. But Matta said Lauderdale should be ready to play in the Nov. 9 opener against Alcorn State, and the coach would be stunned if Lauderdale isn't playing when the Buckeyes take on North Carolina at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 19 in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.

• In addition to Ohio State, don't discount Illinois' chances to contend in the Big Ten.

Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said it was "scary" how good freshman guard D.J. Richardson was during a scrimmage the first weekend. He said Richardson put up 34 points in a 22-minute scrimmage.

But the last week or so has seen Richardson's numbers settle a bit as the "daily grind" of practice takes its toll. Illinois plays an exhibition game Friday night, and Weber said he was looking forward to seeing how much the Peoria, Ill., native produces.

The expectation is that Richardson will start for the Fighting Illini. Expect fellow freshman Brandon Paul to have a major impact as well, alongside guards Demetri McCamey and Alex Legion in the rotation. The Illini also return scoring forwards Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale, prompting one Big Ten coach to say he thinks Illinois may be the most talented team in the league. The coach, who didn't want to dismiss his own team, said that people don't understand how talented Richardson and Paul will be for the Illini. They're skilled enough to put Illinois in contention for the conference title.

For that to happen, though, the Illini can't have scoring droughts like the dreadful 38-33 loss to Penn State last season. Weber said that was more of an anomaly; the Illini did score 70 points in the next game at Ohio State. Still, Illinois needs production from a variety of sources. Clearly, Richardson is delivering, but more is expected of Davis, too.

"I need Mike to get some layups, some free throws, some putbacks and let-outs and then he can make his little jump shot," Weber said of Davis, who made 41 of 60 free throws last season. "We have good shooters. We saw that in the intrasquad scrimmage last Sunday. The score was 90-81. So we can score. The question is will we be able to stop anyone."

That's usually not an issue for a Weber team.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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