Big Ten Wonk
Wednesday, December 08, 2004
The All-Wonk Team has a vacancy
Michigan' s Lester Abram is out for the season. Who merits Abram's spot on the All-Wonk Team? Send in your nominations here and remember the criteria: not necessarily the biggest talents or gaudiest stats; just guys you'd want in your foxhole.

Game of the year? Maybe. Not.
On Monday your intrepid blogger said he was really looking forward to last night's Syracuse-Oklahoma State contest, a game the Cowboys ended up winning by the deceivingly comfortable score of 74-60. (Recaps from the national commentariat here and here.) Despite being a hard-fought defensive struggle--too ugly to be a "classic"--the game left Wonk very impressed with OSU, a senior-heavy team whose best pure talent may just be freshman JamesOn "Not a Typo!" Curry. When you see a freshman in December making passes that are Magic-esque, verily Wonk says: remember the name. And the Cowboys' veterans--John Lucas, Joey Graham, Ivan McFarlin, et. al.--play with the comfortably weary complementary mastery of the 2004 Pistons. Wonk is a Big Ten fan but he'll find time to watch when Kansas goes to Stillwater and when the Cowboys visit Lawrence.

Link out of this blog and read this. Now.
Wonk doesn't usually tout today's other articles in the top-half of the blog (official blog motto: poor-man's Tuesday Morning Quarterback on the top; slavish mimicry of The Note on the bottom) but Kyle Veltrop and Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News have written a gem: an account of the preparations of both teams leading up to last week's Wake Forest-Illinois game.

A taste:

Monday, Wake Forest 1:05 p.m....There still is some cleanup to do from the Deacons' tight victory over Arizona in the Preseason NIT title game. Chris Paul went 2-of-11 from the field, his poorest offensive game, and assistant Dino Gaudio wants to show him why.

He runs clips of 11 plays for Paul, showing him each time how he overpenetrated. Gaudio asks a simple question: How many of their guys are in the lane? Clearly, the answer is three. "You can't beat all of them," Gaudio says.

Bloggers moan and wail about the mainstream media but if Wonk had the access, mission-statement, and expense account of a card-carrying MSM'er, this is the kind of thing I would want to write: informative and perceptive but built on legwork. Well done, Kyle and Mike.

Better than 1?
With Illinois perched atop the polls as a consensus number 1, Wonk indulges in some parlor-game speculation and poses the following scary question: would the Illini be even better today had Bill Self chosen to stay as head coach in April 2003 instead of leaving to take the Kansas job? (Or, if you like, think of it in even more O. Henry-esque terms: would Illinois be even better if North Carolina's Sean May had not injured his foot in practice in December 2002, which resulted in a catastrophic 17-15 season for the Tar Heels, which resulted in the firing of Matt Doherty, which resulted in the hiring of Roy Williams, which resulted in the vacancy that lured Self away from Illinois--the only such vacancy that could have done so, if Self is to be believed?)

Would Illinois be even better? The arguments on either side might run like this:

No. First of all there is nothing better than number 1. Second, the precise qualities for which the Illini are being praised--selfless (har!) ball movement on offense and hustling help defense--were somewhat or even greatly diminished under Self, whether because of the different system (Self ran a high-post offense with lots of high-low action; Bruce Weber runs a motion offense wherein the 5 can be and often is out by the arc setting screens) or merely the different developmental stages of the players (today's starting five all played under Self and they all--most strikingly Luther Head--play much better defense today than two years ago).

Yes. For one thing Connecticut's Charlie Villanueva would be wearing an Illinois jersey. He'd committed to Illinois and when Self took the Kansas job Villanueva looked long and hard at Kansas before choosing the Huskies. His play is often listless, it's true, but it's at least the listless play of a 6'11" former McDonald's All-American. And who's to say that Self would not have landed Missouri's Kalen Grimes? Or that--before bolting to the NBA, which he doubtless would have done in any event--Peoria product and current LA Clipper Shaun Livingston would not have at least declared for Illinois, as he did for Duke, giving the Illini the resulting prestige and in-state recruiting hegemony? Lastly, the Illini almost certainly would not have suffered as they did last December and January. Without struggling to learn a new system and adapt to a new coach, Illinois would have suffered fewer losses, secured a higher seeding in the tournament, and gone further, thus resulting in an even stronger program going into this season.

Wonk doesn't know one way or the other. No one does. But I'll close with the following words on behalf of both coaches.

In defense of Self: though not putting up the gaudy assist-to-field-goal percentages that are currently the talk of the national hoops commentariat, Illinois teams under Self did lead the Big Ten in assists. As for defense, the 2002-03 team was young and young teams, generally, don't play defense well. But Self's other two (older) Illinois teams did defend well--just ask Kansas, completely shut down in the 2001 regional semi's, despite starting three future NBA players: Drew Gooden, Kirk Hinrich, and Nick Collison. (Wonk still remembers what Frank Williams did on defense to Hinrich in that game, with Bill Walton doing the commentary and raving in Walton-esque hyperbole all the while, and wonders how Williams can't find a starting spot in the NBA.)

In defense of Weber: Villanueva is no loss--better to have him jogging up the court, missing three's and getting into foul trouble in Storrs than in Champaign. And Self was able to land recruits like Dee Brown and Deron Williams in large part because they saw, rightly, opportunities for playing time. (Conversely, with Brown and Williams established in the program and projected for minutes far into the future, legendary recruiter Self lost Brown's high school teammate Shannon Brown to Tom Izzo and Michigan State.) The test for Weber is who he can land now that those minutes are once again becoming available in the near future.

Beware the Hoyas
The always interesting Ken Pomeroy blogged
yesterday on Georgetown, whom Illinois will face tomorrow night in Washington DC. Thus far this year the Hoyas rank fourth in the nation in fewest possessions per game, meaning they play a slow game--to be expected, perhaps, when your coach is John Thompson III, late of Princeton.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
First Michigan lost Lester Abram for the year. Then Graham Brown went down for four to six weeks. And now comes news that Wonk All-Head-Case first teamer Daniel Horton suffered a knee injury in practice Monday and was scheduled to have an MRI last night. Still, even a depleted Michigan team was able to handle a not very scrappy High Point squad in Ann Arbor last night, 67-53. (Links here and here.)

Iowa held off an unsurprisingly scrappy (see yesterday's post) Northern Iowa team in Iowa City last night, 76-73. (Excellent recap over at the Hawkeye Hoops blog. Mainstream links here and here.)

Wisconsin beat Wisconsin-Green Bay in Madison last night by the not-as-close-as-it-sounds score of 65-55. (Links here and here.)

Indiana hosts Notre Dame tonight. Bold Wonk prediction: close game--see yesterday's post. (Game preview here.)

Purdue hosts Oklahoma tonight. Bold Wonk prediction: bad second half for the Boilers--see Saturday's post. (Links here and here. Wonk hesitates to say the water's out of the tub but Gene Keady really is going to start former walk-on Andrew Ford tonight.) The Sooners will be without the services of sophomore guard Lawrence McKenzie, ruled indefinitely ineligible due to his actions off the court during the Great Alaska Shootout. McKenzie was bailed out of an Anchorage, Alaska, jail by an assistant coach at 2 in the morning that weekend after he allegedly tried (i.e., failed) to enter a bar there using a fake ID. (More here.)

Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline says it's too bad Gene Keady's illustrious Purdue career has to end with this particular group here.

Minnesota plays at Nebraska tonight. (Links here and here.)

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