Big Ten Wonk
Monday, November 29, 2004
The Iowa Caucuses of hoops!
The sixth edition of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge kicks off tonight and Wonk says: enjoy the spectacle! (Previews here, here, and here.) Sure, it's an artificial early-season contrivance that moves pundits to lay out arbitrary and mutually contradicting measuring sticks. (How many wins does the Big Ten need to achieve respectability? Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News holds the envelope to his forehead and solemnly says: four!) What of it? Anything that can give us Wake Forest against Illinois and Duke against Michigan State is a worthy cause in Wonk's book.

Stats you will hear quite often this week: The ACC has won the Challenge all five years (by a 5-4 count three of those years) and is 27-17 overall. Duke and Wake Forest are both undefeated. Illinois and Wisconsin, by notable contrast, are both 1-4.

Illinois resorts to voodoo: When NFL teams wear throwback jerseys on Thanksgiving, they're harkening back 60 or 70 years. When college basketball teams do it, appropriately enough, they are going back just 15 years, which to a college player is the functional equivalent of 60 or 70 years. For Wednesday's home game against Wake Forest, Illinois will wear "throwback" jerseys in honor of the 1989 Final Four "Flyin' Illini."

Does a 15-year-old jersey really qualify as a "throwback"? Isn't it more of a "tossback"?

How good is Illinois?
No one knows. Yet. One thing we do know is that Gonzaga had no business being in the top 25. ("If Gonzaga is a top 25 team," says Copley News Service columnist Mike Nadel, "I'm the next President of United States." Other links here, here, here, and here.) The Zags are young, with four new starters playing alongside proven star Ronny Turiaf. (Kind of like Illinois two years ago with newbies Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Roger Powell, and James Augustine alongside Brian Cook.) Adam Morrison showed he's got both game and heart, though, and the Bulldogs will improve markedly as the season progresses.

As for the Illini, if they turn out to be as good as they looked Saturday it will be in large part because of their unselfish blink-and-you'll-miss-it ball movement. The Illini's three guards are averaging nearly 19 assists a game. Luther Head (7.5 assists per game), Deron Williams (6.5) and Dee Brown (4.8) are pleasing the purists with that kind of passing. "I thought that was one of the finest performances I've seen in a while, especially in the first half," said the tournament's namesake, John Wooden. ("It's like God talking," the SportsCenter guys said when they played that clip.)

How good is Michigan State?
No one knows. Yet. One thing we do know is Tom Izzo will never again schedule Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse, UCLA, and Oklahoma, as he did last year.

The Spartans' latest triple-digit self-esteem booster came Saturday at the expense of Nicholls State, 102-52. (Links here, here, here, and here.) Wonk knows it's only November, but: the Spartans are leading the nation in scoring offense, averaging 103.3 points a game.

How bad is Purdue?
Bad (headline on Sunday's autopsy by Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz: "Painter might inherit large-scale project at Purdue"), but....

Wonk was impressed with Carl Landry despite Landry's best efforts to the contrary--he had a terrible day in the loss against Cincinnati. (Links here, here, here, and here.) Wonk knew, of course, of Landry's beastly 25-point 16-board effort in a losing cause against Miami of Ohio but did not know that the big guy can dish the rock. He's no Vlade Divac, mind you, but if David Teague can get healthy these two can put up some assists and points.

Speaking of Teague, the junior guard, apparently aiming for an inspiring Willis Reed kind of thing, came back earlier than expected after suffering a broken hand and played in Saturday's game--and shot very much like someone who'd come back earlier than expected after suffering a broken hand.

How bad is Indiana?
Bad, surely, and the Hoosiers are about to post numerous L's (North Carolina, Connecticut, Notre Dame, Kentucky), but....

Wonk was heartened by one aspect of what was the otherwise disheartening spectacle of a 64-60 struggle at home over Western Illinois Saturday night. (Links here and here.) What was encouraging was the complete and utter invisibility of Wonk All-Head-Case first-teamer Bracey Wright. Wonk feels strongly that Indiana's improvement lies squarely in the direction of diversifying its offense beyond watching Wright miss shots (see 2003-04). Saturday night, for all its ugliness, that is pretty much what happened. Wright was ineffective on the offensive end (1-of-7 shooting) but Indiana did not force the ball to him anyway like they did so many times last year. This represents improvement Wonk thought may not occur until the post-Wright era.

Additional encouraging note: Wonk was impressed by Patrick Ewing, Jr. So much so that Wonk herewith introduces the Ewing Paradox: if this guy were with a better team, he'd be starting. Ewing has no post moves, no driving ability, and no shooting touch so, on an offensively-challenged team, coach Mike Davis can't afford to start him. (Actually Ewing did start Saturday night but only because Sean Kline was in Davis's doghouse for some reason.) But Ewing's defense and tenacious rebounding would be highly valued on any team with plenty of scoring but little inside presence (say, Illinois or Michigan State). If the Hoosiers get some scoring from some non-Wright types, watch for a sudden and deserved upswing in the ink and pixels devoted to Ewing.

Wonk reprints old posts only when he's right
Wisconsin lost at Pepperdine late Saturday night, 75-61. (Links here and here.) How did the Badgers come to post their first L? Here's what Wonk said last Monday, referring to Wisconsin's easy win at home over Penn:

What will be interesting to watch this year is whether or not Bo Ryan is able to continue his winning formula or will have to find a new one. Ryan's teams have relied on rock-steady guard play, specifically the ability to not turn the ball over....And so Wonk notes with interest that even against the hopelessly overmatched Quakers, the Badgers turned the ball over a fairly un-Ryan-like 16 times....

Two seasons ago Wonk started a running tally of conference games in which Wisconsin was outrebounded and outshot and still won handily. They did it by not turning the ball over and by shooting many more free-throw attempts than their opponent. Keep an eye on this.

Now note the box score from the Pepperdine game here: 22 turnovers. Vintage Bo Ryan teams go about three games before turning the ball over that many times.

Two concerns for Ryan's team moving forward this year: valuing the ball and outside shooting. On Saturday night they still outrebounded the Waves and attempted nine more free throws. But while shooting basically the same number of three's (Wisconsin shot 17, Pepperdine shot 18), the Badgers yielded 15 fewer points from the effort, going just 3-of-17 while the Waves drained 8-of-18.

Note to members of the Orange Crush, Izzone, Grateful Red, Gene Pool, and the 117 socially-challenged undergrads who attend Penn State home games. The Pepperdine home crowd, all 3,024 of them, chanted "Chris Rock" every time Kammron Taylor touched the ball, referencing an alleged resemblance between the Badgers' sophomore guard and the once-funny SNL performer who (Wonk knows this will come as a surprise) has gone on to do a string of undistinguished movies. Wisconsin lost. Can't argue with results.

In yesterday's less Wonk-ish venues....
Ohio State cruised against Tennessee-Chattanooga Saturday night, 84-67. Link here. St. John's Arena is a wonderful old venue (and the Buckeyes' current home, Value City Arena, is fully blessed by every fault its very name foreshadows) but when one's old home floor has since been lined and painted for volleyball it's just too visually disconcerting to come home again. Verily, Wonk sayeth to the Buckeyes: stay in your cold and sterile new home.

Penn State defeated Sacred Heart Saturday, 69-61. Link here. Wonk knows it's only November, but: Penn State's Aaron Johnson is third in the nation in rebounds, averaging 14.8 a game.

Minnesota lost to Oklahoma, 67-54, in the third-place game of the Great Alaska Shootout Saturday night. Links here and here.

Michigan's Daniel Horton was the subject of a Sunday feature-length/multiple-header think-piece in the Ann Arbor News, the kind of ponderous spelunking-in-print usually reserved for the Mideast peace process or Cher. Verily, Wonk says: when you're so inscrutable you attract headlines like "The Education of Daniel Horton," you deserve your spot on Wonk's All-Head-Case team.

Announcing the "Leopold von Ranke Rolls in His Grave Tonight" Award
Presented in honor of notably dubious statements about past events.

The winner is: Brandon McKnight, Purdue's senior guard. Asked about his team's challenging schedule (one that includes upcoming games against North Carolina State, Memphis, and Oklahoma), McKnight offered the following: "Michigan State had this type of schedule last year and they went pretty far in the NCAA tournament."

Define "far." Wonk and McKnight have different notions about this vexing term, apparently, for the Spartans lost in the first round last year to a scrappy Nevada squad, 72-66.

Brandon, Wonk salutes your knack for defining success down! You'll go far!

Runner-up: Jeff Washburn of the Lafayette Journal and Courier, who printed McKnight's adventurous historiography without comment.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Colorado defeated Northwestern in Boulder yesterday, 66-57. Links here and here.

Purdue kicks off the ACC/Big Ten Challenge tonight in Raleigh, NC, against North Carolina State. Game previews here, here, and here.

He's-a-work-in-progress piece on Michigan's sophomore guard Dion Harris here.

(EXCLUSIVE Wonk warning to journalism students: you major in journalism, you graduate, you get a job with the Detroit Free Press, and your assignments editor tells you to write a he's-a-work-in-progress piece on Dion Harris. Wonk thinks the above sentence should be printed in the college catalogue, next to Journ. 101.)

What the heck happened to Wisconsin? Get your day-after head-scratching here.

Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline says Illinois has the best guards in the country (but that still won't be enough some nights) here.

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