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COLUMN: College hoops back-and-forth

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With the college basketball season set to tip off this week, Daily Reporter sportswriter Grant Freking and columnist Ben Boldt partake in a pick-and-roll discussion centered on the prospects of Indiana, Purdue (and Big Ten basketball as a whole) plus Butler.

Grant: The arrival of college basketball brings forth a two-fold response for me. No. 1, before doing homework for this article, I hadn’t given much thought to the upcoming season. Hancock County teams have enjoyed widespread success across many fall sports —always a good thing — thus, the sports department’s focus has almost entirely been on the local scene for the last month. And No. 2, I’ve now realized the start of the hoops year can’t come soon enough. I’ve become more and more of an NBA observer with each passing year, yet my growing interest in the Association can’t replace Big Monday, Super Tuesday or spending Saturdays on the couch watching college basketball for hours on end. Don’t get it twisted, a few aspects of the college game boil my blood (Dick Vitale, the one-and-done rule, the possession arrow), but one of the main differences between the college and pro game is passion: the college kids (and their fans) bring it every night; the same can’t be said of their NBA counterparts. But, I’ll step down from my soapbox and let Ben explain why he picked Indiana to finish last in the Big Ten (wink, wink).

Ben: I’m an Illinois grad, so I can’t pick IU to win anything (it’s written in fine print at the bottom of my diploma). But I don’t know how anybody can pick against the Hoosiers. They have an All-American in the post (Cody Zeller), a versatile scorer who isn’t afraid to take big shots (Christian Watford), a guy who can get to the rim and is willing to accept any defensive assignment (Victor Oladipo) and a freshman class that arrived in Bloomington with 12 credit hours of swagger. Two questions: 1. Can a Jordan Hulls-Yogi Ferrell backcourt survive defensively? 2. Even after beating Kentucky, last year’s team was considered to be “a year away.” Now that “next year” is here, how will this group handle the sky-high expectations of its starving fan base?

Grant: To answer your first question, yes, the Hulls-Ferrell twosome doesn’t exactly evoke defensive comparisons to Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, but that’s a liability that the Hoosiers probably won’t face until they run into good teams with quality guard play (Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, NC State) in the NCAA tournament. And as you mentioned, college basketball’s version of Revis Island (Oladipo) is readily available. The “next year” observation is interesting. If Tom Crean’s crew falls in the Final Four, will the season be considered a failure by fans? As far as the hyped batch of newcomers, are we even sure any of the freshmen aside from Yogi will play? In any case, Indiana will take at least a few lumps in the Big Ten, a conference that should be among the best in the nation. Hey Jim Delany, there’s something you can be proud of (insert B10 football joke here).

Ben: I would rate Michigan’s backcourt as one of the best in the country, which is why I think the Wolverines will give IU problems. But I’ve got the Hoosiers finishing first, followed by Michigan and Ohio State. There are probably four teams that could finish as high as fourth, but I’ll go with Minnesota. With Trevor Mbakwe rejoining a group that played in the 2012 NIT title game, the Gophers will surprise a lot of people. You’re right, the Big Ten is absolutely loaded this year. Back to IU’s expectations, I think it’s reasonable for fans to expect a Final Four appearance. I’ve never been a championship-or-bust guy when it comes to college hoops. The NCAA tournament is just too unpredictable. But if the Hoosiers can get to the Final Four (four years after going 6-25), I don’t know how fans could consider it anything other than a successful year. Now, we better talk a little bit about Purdue before my Boilermaker wife throws a fit.

Grant: I’m happy to oblige. Robbie Hummel, the last of Matt Painter’s Baby Boilers 2007 recruiting class, is out of eligibility and is playing in Spain, leaving the Boilermakers with a nearly empty cupboard. While black-and-gold enthusiasts might already be looking to next year, I think Painter hasn’t been this excited for a season in years. He’s not burdened with Big Ten title expectations, and receives a chance to prove that landing JaJuan Johnson, E’Twaun Moore and Hummel wasn’t just a lightning-in-a-bottle recruiting coup. With a surprise season, Painter could offer merit to talk that he deserves to be mentioned in the same breathe with the league’s other elite coaches: Tom Izzo, Thad Matta and Bo Ryan. Now, can Painter finish in the top five of the Big Ten with D.J. Byrd, the Johnson Brothers (Terone, Ronnie), unrelated Anthony Johnson and freshmen bigs Donnie Hale and A.J. Hammons? I can’t see it, and the Boilermakers will need a few breaks to make the NCAA tournament.

Ben: The fact that we’re talking about Purdue like this — Can they finish in the top five? Can they make the tournament? — is, I think, an indictment of Matt Painter’s inability to recruit top talent. After the 2007 class, it’s been so-so results. Lewis Jackson, Ryne Smith, Kelsey Barlow (before he got kicked off the team), D.J. Byrd, Terone Johnson … They’re good players, but they’re not game-changing talents. And these are the guys Purdue got while IU was losing to Boston University and Loyola of Maryland. If you go by the rankings, this year’s class is really pretty good. So maybe there’s hope. But I don’t see anybody who looks like a build-around guy (a Zeller type, for example). The fact that Purdue failed to cash in on the Hoosiers’ temporary stay in basketball hell has to frustrate fans and leave them feeling uneasy about the future.

Grant: Speaking of temporary stays, Butler enjoyed a two-season ride at the top of the college basketball world with its back-to-back national title game appearances in 2010 and 2011. Last year, a young Bulldog squad crashed back down to Earth with a 22-15 record and spent its postseason playing in something called the College Basketball Invitational. Coach Brad Stevens has to like the look of his team right now, though. Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke (44 percent from three in 2010-11) will have Hoosiers debating whether he or Hulls is the best shooter in Indiana (actually, former Pendleton Heights star and current Butler freshman Kellen Dunham could give both a run for their money). Bouncy forward Khyle Marshall, blooming defensive stopper Roosevelt Jones and veteran center Andrew Smith are back, and the Bulldogs will need all of them to compete accordingly in their first season in the Atlantic 10. By the way, any discussion of the nation’s best college basketball conferences must include the A-10. That reality is further proof that we’re in for a wide-open season a year after Kentucky dominated from start to finish. Fans: Pick your horse, and enjoy the race to Atlanta.

Freking is a Daily Reporter sportswriter. Contact him at (317) 477-3230 or at gfreking@greenfieldreporter.com. Boldt is a Daily Reporter columnist. Contact him at boldt79@yahoo.com.

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