Big Ten Wonk
Wednesday, January 05, 2005
88 games, 11 teams, and Wonk
The Big Ten season tips off tonight with a full slate of five games (see below). Wonk herewith marks the occasion by issuing a State of the Team address for each Big Ten team, listed in reverse order according to current winning percentage:

Purdue (4-6)
The Boilermakers have a record as bad as Indiana's and, though no one's really talked about it, the Boilermakers' alibi is almost--almost--as good as that of the Hoosiers. Indiana's lost to North Carolina, Connecticut, Notre Dame, Kentucky, Missouri, and Charlotte. Purdue's lost to Miami of Ohio, Cincinnati, North Carolina State, Memphis, Oklahoma, and Baylor. Alas, the suffering for the Boilermakers may continue. Their first six games in conference are: at home against Wisconsin and Illinois, at Minnesota, at home against Indiana, and at Michigan State and Iowa. No easy wins there. Moreover Gene Keady's final season coincides, sadly, with a notable lack of horsepower. Glenn Robinson notwithstanding, the Boilermakers were never exactly renowned in the Keady era for talent but they did inflict punishment on their opponents with a blue-collar ethic. This year's squad punishes mostly Purdue fans. (And just imagine if Carl Landry hadn't come to West Lafayette. Ye gods.) The team's struggles on offense (ninth-best in the conference and 168th nationally according to Ken Pomeroy's rankings) are plain: if Wonk's numbers for PPWS are to be believed, opposing teams should literally encourage the Boilermaker backcourt to shoot as much as possible. Nor are they much better on D (tenth in conference, 105th nationally). Opponents are shooting .458. Yikes....

Indiana (5-6)
Easily the toughest team to read in the Big Ten. They had (all together now) "a brutal non-conference schedule" and they lost some games. Yet they were surprisingly competitive in many of the losses. Has Bracey Wright put his shooting woes behind him? (Was it his bad back all along?) Has D.J. White really emerged or will he wilt on the road--in January, at least--as so many freshmen do? The Hoosier half-court D has looked great all year--no opponent's hit 75 points--but then they take (at least half of) the air out of the ball on offense. Yet even with their deliberate style they have the worst assist-turnover ratio in the conference. Incredible. Which brings us to the Hoosier backcourt. Robert Vaden is young; Marshall Strickland is Marshall Strickland--put it all together and you get minutes for Errek Suhr. Wonk thinks guard play tends to be over-hyped by nattering TV-heads come March. But your backcourt does have to at least meet a threshold of minimum performance for your team to function. Indiana, like Purdue, is struggling to clear that threshold.

BONUS heretical thought. Everyone pities Indiana for their brutal non-conference schedule. But how brutal was it, really? Carolina's tough, OK. That's one game. What about the rest? Connecticut's been listless and disappointing. Kentucky is deep and talented as always but young; calling them the class of the SEC appears, this year, to be kind of like saying they're the tallest midget in the circus. Notre Dame has struggled....How tough was that schedule, really, compared to the visits the Hoosiers will make to Iowa City, Champaign and Madison?

Penn State (6-7)
It bears repeating: Aaron Johnson is the only player in the Big Ten who averages a double-double. But he needs help. And, as has been the case, seemingly, ever since Joe Crispin led the Nittany Lions on a surprising run to the Sweet 16 in 2001, PSU is again the worst team in the league on D. By far. Punchless on offense (no player in the top 30 on Wonk's PPWS) and leaky on defense. Could be a long year.

Northwestern (7-5)
For every year of the current millennium Wonk's read on the Wildcats has been as follows: tough win for opponents in Evanston; Mildcats on the road. This was to be the year that changed, if the preseason buzz were to be believed. Maybe this will indeed be the year--but the signs thus far are not encouraging. To invoke Ken Pomeroy's rankings once again, no team in the Big Ten does anything--offense or defense--worse than Northwestern does offense (240th nationally). As a result, even their home games against intended cupcakes have been uncomfortably close (not to mention the mauling they suffered against Arizona State). And this is the vaunted Princeton system? Wonk demands a congressional investigation.

Michigan (8-5)
Without Lester Abram (even before Daniel Horton was injured) this team has looked too young. And even with the impending return of Horton, Wonk is not sure this look will really change that much. True, they played Arizona tough in the preseason NIT and they notched that win at home over Notre Dame. But your intrepid blogger searches in vain for a player or a team skill that promises to propel the Wolverines this year. Courtney Sims shows promise but he's not there yet. Team stats on both sides of the ball are in the bottom half of the conference. Dion Harris's struggles have been noted and quantified in this blog. And Daniel Horton is, well, Daniel Horton: you don't know what you'll get. Mind you, Tommy Amaker's team, even without Abram, is too long and too athletic to bury the first week in January. But to get to the tournament Michigan's going to have to develop. Now.

Minnesota (10-3)
The book on Dan Monson's teams in Minneapolis has been: shoot quick, shoot a lot, pass never, block a lot of shots, foul a lot, give up a ton of FTA's and points to the opponent, lose a lot. Thus far this year, however, there have been encouraging signs that this may be changing. Assists are up, as are hands on defense in the half-court. Vincent Grier's been a very welcome surprise, scoring prodigiously and efficiently while notching a goodly number of trips to the line. And so the Gophers have won eight in a row....It's the loss before that win streak that still scares Wonk: how in the world do you lose at home to Florida State? (Oops, Maryland only beat the Seminoles by two in College Park. Man, what does that say about them and this oh-so-scary and oh-so-deep ACC?) And so the question becomes: which team will we see? The one that currently ranks third in the conference in rebounding? The one that's currently the top-shooting team in the Big Ten (including a notably robust .644 from current PPWS leader Brent Lawson)? Or the woefully underperforming road team of years past?

Michigan State (8-2)
Imagine for a moment where we'd be if Michigan State had not lost to George Washington in the BB&T Classic in Washington DC. Their only loss would then be at Duke and no one would begrudge them that. State would be ranked in the top ten nationally right now. Everyone would be talking about the Spartans as the team to challenge Illinois. (It bears repeating: State does not play at Champaign this season.) Their stats are, as always, beautiful (the only team in the Big Ten that resides in the top 25 nationally on both offense and defense in the Pomeroy rankings). They are deep, talented, and experienced. And their coach is named Tom Izzo. So, really, a lot of the thinking on this team comes down to that one loss. Well, what's so bad about losing to GW? Their only losses have been at Wake Forest and at West Virginia. Wonk's conclusion: we are hearing far too little about the Spartans.

Wisconsin (9-2)
Since losing to Pepperdine and Marquette, Bo Ryan's team has shown signs of rounding into form: stingy on D (opponents are shooting .288 on three's) and opportunistic on offense. Mike Wilkinson has had a surprisingly quiet year thus far but the way this team limits its own turnovers and its opponents' points the Badgers can win anyway. Give Bo Ryan this: he's now had complete turnover in personnel since he arrived in Madison and yet no team has put its coach's philosophy into play on the floor with the same level of consistency and success. The only question is how many games Wisconsin can win on the road. We'll find out in a hurry: they play a fourth of their season's road games in the next four days, at Purdue tonight and at Indiana Saturday. (Unsolicited suggestion to fans of Illinois, Michigan State, Iowa, et. al.: root for the Boilermakers tonight.)

BONUS shocking stat: Illinois is turning the ball over even less than Wisconsin.

Ohio State (11-2)
Wonk is going to keep this fairly brief because, as chance would have it, your intrepid blogger posted on this very topic Monday in response to an email from an alert reader. Terence Dials has been a beast down low and his mates have been filling it up from outside. But they lost to Clemson. The Buckeyes sport surprisingly good numbers on both offense and defense. But they lost to Clemson. The players appear to be buying in to Thad Matta's system with surprising speed and ease. But they lost to Clemson. Wonk concludes: need more data against a known quantity like, say, Illinois.

Iowa (12-1)
The Hawkeyes have been playing up-tempo and shooting the ball extremely well. Their only loss is to North Carolina--no shame in that. Jeff Horner, while cooling off a little of late, has been simply phenomenal at times and even the oft-maligned-by-Wonk Pierre Pierce has put up some nice numbers recently. Add Adam Haluska to those two and you have some weapons. Your intrepid blogger still frets, however, about the Hawkeye defense and rebounding, or lack thereof. Will the D and the boards be there for Steve Alford's team when they need it, on the nights (and there will be such nights) where the transition three doesn't fall?

BONUS Iowa note: the Hawkeyes have an extremely friendly schedule, with no game at Michigan State and no visit from Wisconsin.

Illinois (14-0)
The offense, of course, has been spectacular (even with Deron Williams' cold shooting). The Pomeroy numbers suggest no Big Ten team does anything--offense or defense--as well as Illinois does offense. And Wonk has posted at length on Illini assists, the leadership of Dee Brown, etc. So assuming that level of performance, for the most part, continues, the key variable for Illinois then becomes defense. The Illini have made a bad habit out of playing down to their opposition on D. Yet the game they played on defense against Gonzaga (well, until it became a blowout) continues to look better and better, even with the Bulldogs' loss at Missouri a few days ago (insta-consensus: the 'Zags were over-scheduled and ran out of gas). If Illinois can bring that same swarming intensity to East Lansing, Madison, and Iowa City, this can be a memorable year in conference for the Illini.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Illinois hosts Ohio State tonight and the Buckeyes' Terence Dials continues his streak of impressing Wonk, this time off the court. Striking exactly the right balance between no-fear and no-bulletin-board-material, Dials says simply: "Let's do it." (Another Buckeye link here. Illini links here, here, here, and here.)

Iowa hosts Michigan tonight. (Hawkeye links here and here. Wolverine link here.)

Penn State hosts Michigan State tonight. (PSU link here. MSU links here and here. More from the Drew Neitzel beat here.)

Purdue hosts Wisconsin tonight. (Boilermaker link here. Badger links here and here.)

Northwestern hosts Indiana tonight. (Wildcat link here. Hoosier link here.)

The Detroit Free Press sneaks its Big Ten preview in under the wire today and says "Illinois looks poised to run away with the title."

The Lansing State Journal sneaks its Big Ten preview under the wire today and says Illinois has "the look of a team that could stay perfect through 16 league games." BONUS spelling kudos! The LSJ puts Jeff Horner on its "All-Underrated Team" and spells his name correctly! Unlike, ahem, a certain national sports site which continues to post "Hoerner" for, ironically enough, a similar honor.

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Of Springfield, Durham, and Boston....
Yesterday your intrepid blogger noted the rampant Illini-mania he'd observed first-hand in central Illinois during his trip to the Wonk Boyhood Home over the holidays and wondered aloud whether or not the residents of Durham, North Carolina, still respond the same way when their team's number 1 or if they're too used to it by now to make a fuss. Wonk's readers respond!

Hey, Wonk,

Love your blog, read it daily.

As a Duke alum, I thought I'd comment on your thoughts about whether or not Durham pays attention to whether or not Duke is #1. I don't think either Durham or Chapel Hill notice whether or not their team is #1. It has happened to both teams enough that it really isn't important unless it is very late in March, or the other team is #2 and you play later in the season.

That being said, the entire triangle (including Raleigh) is as you describe for pretty much the entire basketball season, particularly during conference play. It doesn't matter where the teams are ranked. It's the best time of the year, really. Everyone knows where the teams are ranked, assuming they are at all, and if they aren't ranked, everyone discusses exactly when the coach is going to be fired. There are no Bears, no Bulls, no Blackhawks, etc. to compete for attention, so everyone follows the ACC. I'm told that "back in the day" schools would pretty much shut down for ACC tournament Friday, and certainly lots of adults take the day sick (a tradition I've continued in Boston.) It is a pretty deep obsession, one not shared in Miami or Boston, which is why a lot of people are deeply unhappy about expansion.

(Boston is actually similar about the Red Sox, though with a more depressive tinge.)

Anyway, two cents--hope you find it interesting. Thanks again for writing a really great blog.

Luis V.

Thanks, Luis! Bet that depressive tinge in Boston brightened ever so slightly this year though, huh?

BONUS note to wonk-backers! Your intrepid blogger received many high-quality emails off yesterday's post and will work them in this week. Promise.

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