Big Ten Wonk
Wednesday, December 22, 2004
The debate
Yesterday Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline posted what he said was "a question, not a declarative statement." Without going to the trouble of hacking into Doyel's Outlook, Wonk can guarantee that such minute distinctions were lost on the writers of the many irate emails that Doyel has no doubt received. (The mini "discussion board" at the bottom of cbs.sportsline articles tops out at 200 posts. As this is written there have been 200 posts just since 7pm last night. BONUS actual quote from the discussion board that Wonk swears he is not making up: "You guys are a bunch of retards." And your intrepid blogger doesn't even want to think of what Illiniboard must look like right now.)

But Doyel's right: his question merits discussion. His question is this: "Is Illinois' three-guard lineup of Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head clearly, unmistakably better than Iowa's trio of Jeff Horner, Pierre Pierce and Adam Haluska?" For his part, Doyel, an apparent Oasis fan, ends up with a "definitely maybe," after having made the following points:

Iowa's guards average more points (45.8), rebounds (14.6), and steals (5.7) than Illinois' guards (43.1, 9.9, and 3.7).

Illinois' guards average more assists (17.6) than Iowa's guards (12.6).

Iowa's guards are bigger: average 6'4", 197, vs. 6'2", 187 for Illinois.

Illinois' guards don't shoot as many free throws (55) as Iowa's (129).

So much for Doyel's post. What of his question? Who's better? Only you, the informed Big Ten fan, can settle this question! Doubtless you'll do so by meeting and deliberating in the public sphere like the good Habermas types you are and exercising your own civic hoops responsibility. To help you make this terribly weighty decision, Wonk offers the following walk-around of the matter. (BONUS full disclosure: your intrepid blogger is an Illinois fan.) Call it Wonk's voter information guide....

This entire discussion is brought to you by Deron Williams. Ironically, the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year is perhaps the least discussed player of the six so far this year. Simply put, if Williams had the kind of numbers thus far this year that he had last season in scoring efficiency, this question of whose guards are better would never have come up. If Williams were shooting .394 on his three's (last year's number) instead of .308 (this year's), Illinois would be beating opponents by an average of 23 points a game instead of by an average of 22--um, which itself is pretty good. Which is Wonk's way of saying: while it's true that Williams' shooting has dropped noticeably (and his turnovers have increased from 2.5 to 3.1), he is also, lest we forget, the leading assist man on the leading assist team in the nation.

Dee Brown and Jeff Horner are both having years rivaled only by Arizona State's (strangely under-hyped) Ike Diogu and very few others nationally. (Or they were until an impostor wearing Horner's jersey snuck onto the floor of the United Center last night and coughed up this line: 3-of-14 from the field, 1-of-6 on three's, seven points.) Wonk was impressed with Horner's year as early as November 26 and with Brown's by December 2. Brown reminds Wonk a little of Wayne Gretzky (albeit on a much smaller scale) in the sense that both guys comfortably excel in what are usually two mutually contradictory categories: value as a brand name and statistical excellence. The University of Illinois, the Big Ten, ESPN--they all love Brown, his jets, and his smile. Even to an Illinois fan it sometimes feels like you can't swing a cat without knocking down a poster or two of Brown. But so far this year Brown is walking the walk: first in the conference in points per weighted shot (PPWS), averaging 14 points and 5 assists a game, and shooting .520 on his three's. And as for Horner, again, his numbers speak for themselves: this side of Oscar Robertson, Wonk can't remember anyone putting up such stellar marks for scoring (16.5), assists (6.7), and rebounds (5.4).

Different teams, different roles. Iowa's guards score and rebound more, yes, but then again, Iowa's other two starters score and rebound less (22.4 points, 10.3 rebounds) than Illinois' other two (23.2, 12.2). (Strong rebounding by guards can make one say "Wow!" as indeed Wonk does above. It can also, however, make one say "Wow! How in the world can Erek Hansen only be getting three boards a game?")

Follow the ball. Illinois leads the nation in assists. The assists are coming from the three guards (Roger Powell has five all year). Assists are definitive of and dispositive for the 2004-05 Illini. If Illinois is going anywhere it's going to be with assists and defense, period. In both categories they're superior to Iowa's guards--Luther Head is a notch above any of the other five on D; Adam Haluska is, right now, a notch below the others.

Doyel has simply missed, badly, on Pierce. And how appropriate! For Pierce himself is a guy who misses badly and often. I don't know if Doyel's read is a simple case of seeing stats and not actual games or perhaps a result of seeing only the Texas game in Maui, capped off by Pierce's thrilling game-winning three. Certainly for Doyel, as for most of us, a guy who averages 16 points with almost six boards and four assists is, say no more, a stud. But the truth here is more interesting: Doyel's high opinion of Pierce is not widely shared even among Iowa fans, one of whom wrote in last week to commend Wonk on including Pierce on the All-Head-Case Team:

Pierce is also a great selection, for things that "don't show up on the scoreboard." For instance, his turnover margin doesn't reflect the 5 or 6 times per game when he flies out of control to the basket in front of 3-4 defenders and puts up a circus shot, or tries to take a 26 footer with 15 seconds left on the shot clock during a close game. The best examples of the former was against Iowa State with a couple minutes left in the game, and of the latter was against Texas (which he actually made). This also doesn't take into account the fact that in the last two games he has been involved in shoving matches with Northern Iowa's John Little (during the game) and Iowa State's Curtis Stinson (post-game). He's no Jacob Jaacks, but he's easily the Hawkeye's biggest head case since Luke Recker.

And then there's the consistently outstanding Ryan at the Hawkeye Hoops blog, who recently ranked players "who miss a lot of shots, stay in the lineup for one reason or another, and continue to miss a lot more shots." To evaluate these players Ryan came up with what he calls the Pierre Pierce Rating "in deference to his willingness to lead his team in shots while trailing at least five teammates in shooting effectiveness." And, as it happens, the "top" players according to the Pierre Pierce Ratings will be familiar to readers of this blog and fans of PPWS: David Teague, Dion Harris, Brandon McKnight, Pierce--the usual suspects, as it were.

Speaking of the latest PPWS numbers, let us not forget the following:

Give any player the same number of shots--FGA's and FTA's--that Pierce shoots and 54 Big Ten players would score more points.

That includes who-dat's like Marlon Smith, Warren Carter, and Rico Tucker. That includes offensively-challenged bigs like Matt Kiefer, Brent Petway, and Zach Morley. And that includes every player on the Iowa roster currently averaging more than 15 minutes a game: Mike Henderson, Doug Thomas...even Erek Hansen for goodness sake--all would score more points than Pierce with the same shots. (Pierce had a characteristically Piercian line last night: 15 points on 6-of-14 shooting from the field and 3-of-6 from the line.)

BONUS Wonk hunch. Doyel's point about the free throw attempts--or lack of them by Illinois--actually echoes some thoughts Wonk's been having for a while. My working assumption has been that FTA's are undervalued simply because, until the last minute, they're boring to watch. (Free throws are important the other 39 minutes, too. This is not unlike sabremetrician Bill James's point about "closers" in baseball: why in the world would you wait to bring in Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning if the game is about to be decided in the sixth?) Still, Bo Ryan has been doing weird and wonderful if little noticed things in Madison for a few years now by maximizing his own FTA's and minimizing those of his opponent. So Wonk is predisposed to look kindly on Doyel's FTA's = "aggressive" premise. And yet....

The 2004-05 Illini may give the lie to Wonk's cherished little theory. The question to Doyel would be this: why is it any more "aggressive" to drive to the basket than to execute a six-pass series where you get a back-door or open three? Wonk's hunch would be that assists may even be inversely correlated to FTA's. Teams with lots of assists (think 2002 Kings) don't go to the line very much because the primary mode of ball movement is the pass rather than the dribble.

BONUS Wonk note on steals. As a stat it needs to be taken out behind the shed and put out of its misery. Today if we can. It's almost as subjective as an error in baseball but much more numerous, meaning its squishyness is compounded. Plus, as Ken Pomeroy's pointed out, Connecticut won a national championship last year despite being the fifth worst team in the nation at forcing turnovers. Abolish this stat.

So much for Wonk's voter information guide. The decision is now in your hands! Whose guards are better? Send in those votes today!

The wonderful game with the annoying name
Illinois plays Missouri tonight at the Savvis Center in St. Louis in the annual Braggin' Rights game. (Links here, here, here, and here. Count the number of times "wary" appears in the headline on these links.) This will be the 24th game in the series (Illinois leads 15-8) and it's a great tradition: the Savvis Center (superb venue for a college game) is split 50-50, Santa hats are everywhere, two bands are competing, and there's a constant loud roar such as Wonk hears in no other game or arena. (Beer sales, rare at college games, may have something to do with this last item.)

True, Missouri is "down" this year--for anyone who's missed the last two years of soap opera in Columbia, Skip Myslenski of the Chicago Tribune connects the dots here. Missouri's average attendance is 8,710 in the new 15,061-seat Mizzou Arena. Meantime, Mizzou fans have been known to shop for a new coach in their chat rooms. For a while UAB's Mike Anderson was drawing particular interest from the Tiger faithful.

But Wonk still eagerly anticipates tonight's game. It says December and the holidays to many fans of the two schools, particularly in the St. Louis area.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Erek Hansen blocked six shots as Iowa smoked Texas Tech 83-53 at the United Center in Chicago last night. (Links here, here, and here.) The "game flow" graphic on the write up illustrates how the Hawkeyes bolted out to a lead in the first half that was never seriously threatened for the remainder of the game. Bobby Knight, to-the-point as always, said simply, "We're just a team that isn't very good right now. Iowa had something to do with the way we played tonight, but I'm not sure anybody could be forced into playing as poorly as we did in the first half."

Michigan State beat UCLA 76-64 in East Lansing last night. (Links here, here, here, here, and here.) The palpable hunger for Drew Neitzel to do well can be gauged by the fact that eight points, one assist and no turnovers netted him this headline in the Detroit Free Press: "Reserves Trannon, Neitzel add extra energy." Todd Schulz of the Lansing State Journal echoes the "Trannon" part of the headline here.

All good news for the Big Ten, right? Back-to-back lopsided wins on ESPN2 over major-conference competition. What could possibly spoil the evening....

Buffalo beat Penn State 72-70 in State College last night. (Links here and here.) There was a mini Nittany-Lion-boomlet just waiting to boom in the wake of their surprisingly stout performance against Pittsburgh. Not after last night: 19 turnovers, 4-of-20 on their three's. Ye gods....

Indiana hosts Charlotte tonight (Link here.) Bracey Wright had his nose surgically repaired on Monday and will wear a Rip Hamilton-esque protective mask tonight. Wright's nose was broken in Sunday's game against Missouri when Spencer Laurie delivered an elbow to the Hoosier guard.

Minnesota hosts St. Francis (PA) tonight. (Links here and here.) St. Francis boasts both a gaudy no. 33 in the RPI and one of the five coolest nicknames in college sports: the Red Flash.

Ohio State hosts Mercer tonight. (Link here.)

Also tonight: Northwestern hosts Robert Morris.

Frank Burlison of the Sporting News offers up "five surprising Wooden Award candidates," including Luther Head of Illinois.

Wisconsin freshman Greg Steimsma has returned to practice after suffering an injured right foot five weeks ago but is not expected to see game action any time soon.

Jeff Washburn of the Lafayette Journal and Courier says Carl Landry has been a bright spot in an otherwise dark year for Purdue. What, no mention of Landry's inclusion on the All-Wonk team? That does it. Washburn doesn't get a Wonk Holiday Greetings card this year.

BONUS coverage of Michigan State transfers: in his first game since transferring to Detroit from Michigan State, Brandon Cotton scored 27 points to lead his team over Eastern Michigan Monday night.

Wonk back!
Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me!


Thanks for the explanation and tracking of PPWS. It'll help me win dinner! Why? Because, as a big fan of all things Illini, I made a comment to a fellow alum that watching Nick Smith play was frustrating. Now it's more than just some "dumb chick" shooting her mouth off.

Read up, Petey-boy. The PPWS says more than I can say. Stats really do speak louder than words! Nick's "great perimeter shot" just won't seal the deal for me (or for the stat books).

Beth R.

Yeah, Petey-boy, read up!

Thanks, Beth!

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