Big Ten Wonk
Tuesday, January 25, 2005
38-1 or 19-1?
Illinois plays at Wisconsin tonight and unless you've been trapped in a cave for the past month you already know the numbers worth knowing. The Badgers own Division I's longest current home winning streak: 38 straight since December 2002. Illinois has started the season 19-0 and been ranked number 1 in the nation since early December. A nice run is going to end tonight, one way or another.

Both teams appear content and confident, despite arriving at tonight's game in almost diametrically opposed fashions. Wisconsin comes in on a roll, having won three in a row since faltering badly at Indiana on January 8 (a game Wonk watched: for a coach whose team was letting Bracey Wright score at will, Bo Ryan was oddly serene that night). Most impressively, the Badgers rallied in Madison to beat a very good (this blogger doesn't think the hoops world realizes how good) Michigan State team and then went out on the road and defeated Michigan with surprising ease.

Illinois, conversely, was last seen playing by far its ugliest game of the year (uglier than Longwood!). Yet somehow they got the W in overtime at home against Iowa and kept that gaudy "0" in the L column into late January. This has allowed coach Bruce Weber to tout his team as the underdog coming into tonight's game and indeed it must be the sweetest left-handed compliment of all for Badger fans to see game-day write ups (below) on what Illinois--undefeated and number 1, mind you--will have to do tonight to pull off this epochal feat.

At the risk of sounding unfashionably obvious, this blogger says to pull off the epochal feat Illinois will have to make shots. They're good at doing this on paper. But they didn't do it Thursday night against Iowa. And visiting teams have a tough time doing it in the Kohl Center. The best news for Illini fans at 9:15 or so Eastern time tonight would be Roger Powell making his first shot. If Powell and James Augustine can lay claim to even a small portion of Wisconsin's attention defensively, the fabled Illinois offense may again look fabled: fluid, methodical, precise. If not, it likely won't.

On the Badger side of the ball, Wisconsin was never exactly fleet afoot to begin with--add a hobbled Alando Tucker to the mix and you're looking at a team with serious speed limits. But lightning-fast Michigan State wasn't able to exploit this chink in the Badgers' armor--the Spartans thrived for the opening 92 percent of the game by feeding Paul Davis in the post--and thus Wonk doesn't expect this to come into play tonight, not in the Kohl Center in January (maybe in the United Center in March).

One thing that may come into play is turnovers. Last year Wisconsin committed a mathematically convenient 320 turnovers in 32 games. This year their turnovers are up a bit (over 12 per game) and their opponents' turnovers are down slightly (over 13). Neither of those numbers may sound earth-shaking but adding "a bit" to "slightly" adds up to this year's rub-your-eyes stat: Bo Ryan, guru of valuing the ball and maximizing the number of possessions, presides over a team that ranks only seventh in the conference in turnover margin (and third in the conference, behind Illinois and Ohio State, in Ken Pomeroy's nifty new possession-based turnover percentage stat). And, for its part, Illinois has declared in favor of a trapping defense that seems to coincide with both a high number of turnovers and a high shooting percentage for the opponent. Keep an eye on this.

As for Wisconsin's scoring, the attention paid to Bo Ryan's "swing offense" is, in one sense, eloquent testimony to the power of branding. Wisconsin has the 43rd best offense in the country according to Pomeroy's points-per-possession-based efficiency ratings. Among the teams above the Badgers on this particular scale are UTEP, Niagara, and Northern Iowa, and Wonk hasn't noticed many hoops pundits booking flights to El Paso, Lewiston, or Cedar Falls to owlishly deconstruct the offensive sets in those venues.

And yet....

The very fact that it's universally and correctly recognized as fruitless, reigning Player of the Week Mike Wilkinson notwithstanding, to speak of Wisconsin's offense exclusively in terms of "match ups" highlights the fact that this is indeed a "system" team. And the system gives its players a confidence that can trump both schemes and talent. Bo Ryan's men drank this particular Kool-Aid long ago and they believe. When thinking about the Badgers in general and Bo Ryan in particular, just keep in mind the following: a) Devin Harris is in the NBA; b) Alando Tucker is injured and severely hampered; c) Boo Wade is gone; d) McDonalds All-American Brian Butch has been a non-factor; e) Greg Steimsma has been a non-factor due to injury; and f) Wisconsin is right where they were expected to be, playing for the conference lead. It all adds up to one conclusion: say what you will (and Wonk has) about Bo Ryan. The man can coach.

Best offense in the Big Ten against the best defense (again, using the Pomeroy scale).

A zero is about to expire. That "1" has to alight somewhere.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Michigan guard Daniel Horton was charged yesterday with one count of domestic violence for allegedly choking his girlfriend on December 10. During yesterday's weekly coaches' teleconference, Wolverine assistant coach Charles Ramsey (filling in for the traveling Tommy Amaker) appeared to continue a venerable tradition of proactive verbal cluelessness by coaches in similar situations by blindly siding with his player and his own personal interest (rather than, oh, "truth" or "what's right"). "We stand behind Daniel 100 percent," Ramsey said, eerily parroting the inflammatory words Steve Alford uttered with regard to Pierre Pierce under similar circumstances two years ago. Wonk's seen this movie before: campus protests, heat on the coach, abuse on the road, etc. Meantime a pretrial hearing is scheduled for February 9. If convicted Horton faces a maximum of 93 days in jail. (More here. Anticipating a likely issue, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo says he wants the Izzone student section to conduct itself in a "clean and nasty" manner when Michigan comes to East Lansing Thursday night.)

Coverage of Illinois-at-Wisconsin is plentiful....

Paradigmatic is-you-is-or-is-you-ain't-an-underdog write up here. Wisconsin State Journal columnist Tom Oates says Bruce Weber would be more believable positioning his team as the underdog if said team were not in fact undefeated and number 1. Badger players avoid bulletin-board material and say all the right respectful things about the Illini here. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says a record number of accredited media types will be on hand. Journal Sentinel columnist Michael Hunt says this "truly is the golden age of Wisconsin basketball, which sort of skipped over the bronze and iron ages after being mired so long in the Stone Age." Oddly architecture-heavy article on the Kohl mystique here ("The seats are Badger red, the walls Standard Parking gray and the airy symmetry worthy of a state maintenance garage"). Discussion of what makes a tough home-court here. Meanwhile stories circulate about tickets offered on the internet for fantastic sums.

Columnist Mike Downey of the Chicago Tribune says word on the street ("and where is this street, by the way?") is that Illinois is finally going to lose. Bruce Weber says he expects Wisconsin to overplay the perimeter and to make James Augustine and Roger Powell prove they can score. (He also says flatly that if his team doesn't play the way it played against Wake Forest and Cincinnati, they will lose.) Nick Smith says he expects the Grateful Red to continue their tradition of heckling him with chants of "feed the hungry." Many observers have noted how Weber has limited media access to his team in preparation for this game--Lindsey Willhite of the Daily Herald has the long memory and temerity to point out that Weber did the same thing last year before the Illini went to Madison and that the strategy didn't pan out so well that time.

Sagacious Illini observer Mark Tupper blogs that Brian Randle's return from a broken hand in November is not looking very likely this season. More here.

Iowa plays at Northwestern tomorrow night and, after going 0-2 against the Wildcats last year, the Hawkeyes reportedly aren't overlooking Bill Carmody's team. Hawkeye fans who take their prose a little purpler will appreciate this profile on Greg Brunner. ("People tend to see Greg Brunner from the prism of their own mindset." Oh. Um, OK, the prism of Wonk's mindset is: wow, that guy's tough.) Meantime Northwestern's leading scorer, Vedran Vukusic, injured his left shoulder at Penn State on Saturday and his status is in doubt for tomorrow night's game.

Good sum-up of Penn State's freshman-heavy struggles and success (singular) here.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo says seeing his Spartans win Saturday by shutting down Minnesota's Vincent Grier reminded him of the good old (read as: Final Four) days.

Minnesota big man Jeff Hagen continues to struggle with his injured knee and is again listed as a definite maybe for tomorrow night's game against Indiana. Gopher's-eye preview of the Hoosiers and tomorrow night's game here.

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FTA's, W's & L's

You wrote:

“After turning the ball over in waves of late, the Wolverines actually did a good job of holding on to the ball and gave the Badgers only ten turnovers--but got hammered on the boards (47 to 32) and at the free throw line (where the visitors launched 14 more attempts than the home team--so much for getting the calls at home).”

I’m not sure if you are saying that the Badgers get the calls, both home and away, or whether you are saying this game shows that the fouls called at the Kohl Center aren’t just a matter of “home cookin.’” I’ll make the case for the latter. The number of free throws shot by each team has far more to do with how they play than with how the refs call the game.

For example, Dick Bennett’s teams played a very physical style of defense using lots of body checks and lots of hands. They always got called for lots of fouls, as one would expect. Bo Ryan’s teams play a much less physical style of defense. In particular, Ryan teaches his big guys to body up with their lower body, not their upper body. Mike Wilkinson is a master of this. Refs rarely call post contact when it is with the lower half of the body. In addition, Ryan teaches his players not to hack a guy once they are beat. Thus, they very rarely give up 3-point-plays. Furthermore, when the Badgers run their offense well (as they did at Michigan), they get the ball in the post a lot. When they pound the ball inside, they get fouled a lot. When they shoot too many outside shots, as they did at Indiana and Purdue, they shoot very few free throws.

David L.

Thanks, David! Actually, Wonk was talking about Michigan and their lack of FTA's on their own floor. But amen to everything else. Rare and egregious extremes notwithstanding, this blogger stands shoulder-to-shoulder with you, David, in having no time for whiny coaches who translate a disparity in FTA's into a sinister conspiracy worthy of Oliver Stone.

Good explication of the Dick Bennett D vs. the Bo Ryan version, as well.

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