Thursday, March 09, 2000

Big 10 teams on guard for tourney title

Outside players considered key for contenders

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Scoonie Penn knows exactly what it takes to win this time of year: Guys like him.

        “This is where I put the pressure on myself,” Ohio State's senior point guard said. “This is where you separate the good players from the great players.”

        And the Big Ten has plenty of good players — most of them guards like Penn. Which ones will be great this weekend will help determine who wins the conference tournament, which starts today at Chicago's United Center.

        At this time of year, it is said that good guard play wins games. Top-seeded Ohio State, with Penn and high-scoring Michael Redd, made last year's Final Four. So did Michigan State, with point guard Mateen Cleaves, swing man Morris Peterson and shooter Charlie Bell.

        There's a reason those teams tied for the Big Ten regular-season title this season and earned the top two seeds for the tournament. And a reason the No.3-No.5 seeds — Purdue (with Jaraan Cornell), Illinois (Cory Bradford and Frank Williams) and Indiana (A.J. Guyton) — could stand in the way of an Ohio State-Michigan State championship game on Sunday.

        It's their guards.

        “The ball's in their hands most of the time,” Penn said. “Games get tight. The level of competition rises. Guards are leaders. There's no coach on the floor, so the guards step up a little more.”

        Eleven guards who could be the difference in the Big Ten:

        Penn, Redd and Brian Brown, Ohio State. Penn shot only 37 percent from the field, but ran the offense so well that forward George Reese was open for enough good shots to score 20-plus points three times in league play. Penn scored 30 points to keep OSU in the game in its loss at Michigan State.

        Redd, who struggled with his shot early, burst out three weeks ago and finished the Big Ten season with two double-doubles in five games. He averaged 17.2 points a game for the season and 20 points in his last eight games, and is probably the best pure driver in the league.

        Don't forget Brown, who can slash or score if necessary but whose true value comes as a defensive stopper. His shut-down of Bradford lifted the Bucks over Illinois three weeks ago.

        Cleaves, Peterson and Bell, Michigan State. This trio has it all — the penetrating point guard (Cleaves), the spot-up shooter (Bell) and the pure scorer who can slash or shoot (Peterson).

        Cleaves and Penn have a two-year competition for the league's best point man; Cleaves boosted his case with a Big Ten-record 20 assists in Michigan State's 51-point victory over Michigan last week.

        Peterson, a 6-foot-6 swing forward who scored 46 points in two games against OSU and averaged 16.6 points for the season, had 12 points and nine rebounds in the Michigan win. Bell, who averaged 12.6 points, had 31 on 13-of-19 shooting. He was held to six points when Ohio State beat Michigan State in Columbus, but came back with 23 points when the Spartans won in East Lansing.

        Guyton, Indiana. The 6-1 senior guard is the league's most dangerous shooter and its top scorer in regular-season play at 20.5 points per game.

        Guyton can drive create his own shot off the dribble, but is most effective as an outside shooter. He led the league by shooting 43 percent from 3-point range and hit 47 percent of his shots overall, good for fifth in the conference. The top four players in shooting percentage were centers or forwards who weren't launching 3-pointers.

        When Guyton's hot, Indiana can play with the big boys. He scored 31 points in IU's upset of Michigan State two weeks ago, but had just three against Illinois — a game the Hooisers lost by 24 points.

        Bradford and Williams, Illinois. Last year Illinois made a shocking Big Ten Tournament run, going from 11th seed to the championship game. That had a lot to do with Bradford, a quick 6-2 guard whose best weapon is his pull-up jumper. He averaged nearly 16 points for the second straight year and shot 39 percent on 3-pointers.

        Adding the 6-4 Williams, a freshman who was a McDonald's All-American in high school, has given the Illini a 1-2 punch to rival Ohio State and Michigan State. Williams who averages 11.3 points, doesn't shoot as well as Bradford, but is a better point guard.

        Cornell, Purdue. Boilermakers forwards Mike Robinson and Brian Cardinal had higher scoring averages, but Cornell averaged 13 points a game and if it comes down to outside shooting, he'll be the man with the ball.

        • Joe Crispin, Penn State. What hope the ninth-seeded Nittany Lions have of winning the conference tournament title probably rests on Crispin, who led them in scoring at 18.8 points a game.

        “When he's on his game, he can easily put 30 on the board,” Brown said.

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