Pacers, Pistons clash in Indy

Central Division rivals kick off their respective seasons at Conseco Fieldhouse on Monday when the Indiana Pacers host the Detroit Pistons.

If you are searching for a surprise team in the Eastern Conference you may want to take a long look at the Pacers.

Armed with perhaps the best young core in the league, head coach Frank Vogel begins his first full season with the club as they attempt to build on an impressive finish to last season, as well as an even more impressive first round postseason series that saw them give the mighty Chicago Bulls all they could handle despite losing in five games.

Vogel changed the fortunes of the club when he took over for the deposed Jim O'Brien, as the Pacers ended the year 20-18 with him at the helm and found themselves back in the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

"I want expectations," Vogel said. "I want them having the bar set high. This team is capable. We've got pieces in place to do some really special things, to take this league by storm."

Former Hornets All-Star David West has joined the fray in Indy to help ease the scoring burden from Danny Granger, while the team expects improvements from 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert as well as point guard Darren Collison, who began his NBA career in the Big Easy with West.

Meanwhile, it's a new era in Detroit, which enters the 2011-12 campaign with a new head coach, as Lawrence Frank takes the helm from John Kuester, who was fired after going 57-107 over two contentious seasons, including a 30-52 mark last season. That's a long way from the six straight Eastern Conference finals appearances the Pistons made from 2003-08.

"We have to represent what this Piston organization has stood for, for the majority of the time since its existence," Frank said. "We know we have to win our fans back."

Kuester's reign was punctuated by disagreements with veterans like Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince and his inability to integrate some of his younger players into the lineup. Frank will be a welcome addition in that regard and has already won over some of his players just with the way he runs practices.

Prince tested free agency but re-signed with Detroit as did restricted free agent guard Rodney Stuckey. Hamilton, however was waived earlier this month and signed with the Bulls.

Much of the rebuilding process for the Pistons will revolve around the team's young talent, specifically second-year center Greg Monroe, who showed a lot of progress in his freshman campaign, explosive rookie guard Brandon Knight and promising Swedish forward Jonas Jerebko, who missed all of last season with a torn Achilles.

Detroit will be without veteran forward Charlie Villanueva tonight. The UConn product will continue serving a four-game suspension for an on-court altercation with Cleveland's Ryan Hollins last season. Villanueva already served one game of his suspension last season, so he will sit the first three games of the 2011-12.

These two teams split a four-game season series a year ago but Indiana has won eight of 10 overall against the Pistons.