Big Ten Wonk
Monday, December 06, 2004
George Washington 96, Michigan State 83
Does the Spartans' loss Saturday to GW look a little better this morning knowing that the Colonials went on to beat Maryland yesterday? Yes, a little, but Michigan State's loss to George Washington in the BB&T Classic in Washington DC is still the most disappointing loss yet for the Big Ten. (Link here.) Disappointing because on paper State is the conference's best shot at at least a second top-10 team. Maybe disaster/injury will befall Illinois and we'll be talking no top-10's. Maybe Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan will stun the world and we'll be talking five. I don't say never to either. What I do say (and said, on this blog's second day of life) is that a Michigan State team that was ranked a preseason #3 in the nation last year and, in effect, returns everyone this year has legitimate top-10 potential. Spartan fans, who thus far have been Wonk's most diligent and insightful correspondents, agree.

But their performance Saturday was far from top-10. "I'm going to have to find lineups that are going to play harder," Tom Izzo said afterward. "The best players don't always play the hardest." His comments were pointed at multiple targets but bulls-eye number 1 was being sported by Wonk All-Head-Case selection Paul Davis, who posted an anemic line of seven points and four boards in 19 minutes.

Proof it's not 2000 anymore: the Colonials grabbed 15 offensive boards. Against a Tom Izzo team.

Don't get me wrong. GW is a good team. They beat Maryland yesterday and they gave Wake Forest a game in the Preseason NIT. They're expected to be at or near the top in the A-10 this year.

But this loss hurts. It hurts Michigan State most obviously and directly. But it also hurts Illinois. And Wisconsin. And Iowa and Michigan and any other team whose shot at the dance is real enough to worry about its seeding. The trap that the Big Ten has found itself in for the past couple years is that teams lose games like this, games that drive the RPI down. Then, when your NCAA-bound Big Ten team loses at Iowa or at Purdue or at Indiana, that shows up as a "bad loss" on the resume come early March because losing on the home floor of the fifth- or sixth-best team in the conference is no longer viewed as pardonable. And then your conference champion gets a 4- or 5-seed. Even if you win a couple tournament games in impressive fashion, you get Duke in the regional semi's. (Can you tell it's a bitter Illinois fan talking?)

Inside-the-Beltway coverage-of-the-coverage note: The Detroit Free Press had their troops deployed in aloha-land for the football Spartans' season-ending game against Hawaii. Any sentient being would prefer Oahu in December to DC, surely, but it did reduce the Freep to the humiliation of running only this wire story on the biggest story in Spartans basketball thus far this year. And the Detroit News doesn't even have that excuse for running the same story because it ran the wire story on the Hawaii game, as well. Not the MSM's best day.

The All-Wonk Team loses a member
As first reported by the aforementioned Detroit News yesterday, Michigan's Lester Abram has decided to undergo surgery on his injured left shoulder, meaning the All-Wonk selection will miss the rest of the year and will take a medical redshirt. As alert readers know, Wonk believes Abram is the Wolverines' single most important player--in ways that go beyond the fact that he is their leading returning scorer. (Translation: he's not young and he's not a head-case.) Losing him will be a blow.

While not a comparable loss, having center Graham Brown miss four to six weeks due to a hernia will also hurt the Wolverines' depth.

Remember the Hogs
Illinois beat Arkansas 72-60 Saturday in North Little Rock. (Links here, here, here, and here. Views from the Razorbacks' turf here and here.) The Illini saved their worst eight minutes of basketball for the start of the second half, turning the ball over five times on five unforced errors. Arkansas guard Ronnie Brewer has NBA potential, yes, but during that stretch Illinois made him look like he was already there. On a day when the Illini guards were bothered by the length of the young Hogs, Roger Powell came to the rescue, posting a double-double with 19 points and 11 boards. The Hogs have talent, a good coach in Stan Heath, and they are young. You'll be hearing from them.

How bad was Connecticut Saturday?
Fairly bad if they could only beat Indiana by five at the friendly confines of the Hartford Civic Center: Saturday's final was Huskies 74, Hoosiers 69. (Links here and here.) Who'd-a-thunk the Huskies would miss Ben Gordon more than Emeka Okafor? Apparently they do. They've still got plenty of athletes and shot-blockers down low (two words: Rudy Gay; third word: wow) but they showed zero ability to run a half-court set--or a break when they got a chance--on their own floor (in effect) against a struggling opponent. Indiana, meanwhile, jacked up a notable 71 attempts which helped Connecticut record a notable 53 rebounds. Hoosier beat writers raved about the sudden emergence of an allegedly potent Indiana offense--which shot .324 from the field. Wonk All-Head-Case first-teamer Bracey Wright scored 28, yes, but he needed almost as many attempts (24) to do it and went just 3-of-12 on his three's. What's that spell? With no disrespect to our Big Ten brethren Hoosiers, it spells an abysmal day for Connecticut, one on which they were fortunate to win.

Deja-vu alert: Wonk moonlights on another blog
Yoni Cohen, the hoops polymath behind the industry-standard College Basketball Blog and, not to put too fine a point on it, the hardest working man in college-hoops blogging, is taking a much deserved vacation. So he's asked Wonk, and five other dudes with free time, to do some guest-blogging on his site in his absence. From time to time over the next couple weeks, then, you'll be seeing items in this space labeled as appearing simultaneously over there. Think of them as BONUS non-Big-Ten notes. Such as this....

Game of the year. Maybe.
Last week's Wake Forest-Illinois game drew an almost Final Four-esque plurality of the national hoops commentariat. When Jay Bilas, Bill Raftery, Mike DeCourcy, Andy Katz, and Luke Winn are all under one roof, something is afoot.

What was not afoot, alas, was a good game. But there's a little get-together tomorrow night that, for my money, has all the promise of last week's game, if not more. I can't wait for Syracuse-Oklahoma State, the nightcap at the Jimmy V. Classic in Madison Square Garden.

A non-Big-East type such as your intrepid blogger turns his gaze upon this year's Orangemen and discovers with a start that they still have the same 4 and 5, Hakim Warrick and Craig Forth, that created such match-up problems for an extremely talented Kansas team in a national title game that seems like ten years ago now. Warrick and Forth were to 'Melo what Ortiz is to Ramirez: the talent that surrounds you alters how the opponent plays you. Forth may seem like a 7-foot water heater but he is 7 feet: in the aforementioned national title game he was guarded by the equally tectonic Jeff Graves. Nick Collison drew Warrick, which left a certain 3 for the Orangemen being guarded by Keith Langford, giving up four inches and claiming no advantage in quickness. The Jayhawks, knowing their man needed help, swarmed to Anthony with multiple defenders whenever he touched the ball. So Anthony dished assists and the 'Cuse got big games from Gerry McNamara, Billy Edelin, et. al. With the exception of a certain Denver Nugget, every name in the paragraph is still there. The Orangemen are clearly one of the top six teams in the nation.

So are the Cowboys and, I swear, I felt that way before they beat a major-conference foe by the score of 81-29. The hosannas currently raining down on Illinois--their execution on offense, their patience, their efficiency that outstrips their personnel on paper--have been, or should have been, directed to Stillwater, Oklahoma, for longer than the past ten days. This is a team, after all, that led the nation in field goal percentage last year. And that's just on offense. Having watched his Washington State team score just 29 points against OSU, Cougars coach Dick Bennett (no slouch he when it comes to D) said simply: "I have not run into, in my 40 years, that kind of defensive intensity for as long as they played it."

Should be a great game.

In yesterday's less Wonk-ish venues....
Michigan beat Notre Dame 61-60 in Ann Arbor Saturday afternoon. (Links here and here.) The Irish led and controlled this game for much of the second half but Daniel Horton made the play of the day in the final minute: making a steal, driving to the other end, hitting the layup, drawing the foul, and sinking the freebie. With one last shot at the win, Irish coach Mike Brey, oddly, went with a 1-4 isolation set for the struggling Chris Thomas (two points all afternoon), instead of giving the ball to the emerging Arizona transfer Dennis Latimore (18 points).

Minnesota defeated Holy Cross in Minneapolis Saturday afternoon, 72-56. (Link here.) Wonk knows it's only December, but: Vincent Grier, the Gophers' juco-transfer wing, is leading the Big Ten in scoring with 19.8 points per game.

Wisconsin beat Rutgers in Piscataway, NJ, Saturday night, 70-62. (Links here and here.)

Northwestern defeated Chicago State 78-53 in Evanston Saturday night. (Links here and here.)

Iowa beat UNC-Greensboro Saturday night 83-58 in Iowa City in the title game of the hosts' Hawkeye Classic. (Good recap at the Hawkeye Hoops blog. Mainstream links here and here.)

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Michigan State beat George Mason 66-60 in the consolation game of the BB&T Classic in Washington DC yesterday. (Links here, here, and here.) As threatened in the aftermath of Saturday's loss to George Washington (see above), Tom Izzo pulled both Paul Davis and Shannon Brown from the starting lineup for this game. "I didn't change the lineup, they did," Izzo said. "There are standards they have to meet and if they don't meet them, they change the lineup." Said it before and will say it again: Wonk likes Izzo.

Meanwhile, Andy Katz of trods a very, very well-worn path and tries to figure out Davis here.

Penn State plays at Georgetown tonight. (Links here and here.) Wonk knows it's only December, but: the Nittany Lions' Aaron Johnson is fourth in the nation in rebounding, averaging 12.4 boards per game.

Illinois hosts Chicago State tonight. (Links here and here.) The Cougars are 0-4, with losses against UCLA, Texas Southern, Wisconsin-Green Bay, and Northwestern.

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