Big Ten Wonk
Friday, January 14, 2005
Game of the year. So far.
Michigan State plays at Wisconsin Sunday in the first collision of heavyweights of the conference season and it's a game Wonk can't wait to see.

To restate what may not require restating:

Wisconsin enters the game with the nation's longest home winning streak, 37 games.

No current Michigan State player has ever played in a game (home, away, or neutral) against Wisconsin and won (although Tim Bograkos at least attended such an event, watching from the bench in street clothes during his redshirt freshman year).

Even before the infamous t-shirts started appearing in Madison ("Bo 5, Izzo 0"), Bo Ryan and Tom Izzo have long been rumored not to like each other all that much, which, in the relentlessly lodge-brother post-Knight paradigm of Big Ten coaches, is saying something. (To quote some vintage Wonk from November: Izzo has explicitly denied any animus toward Ryan. The need to explicitly deny animus toward someone, of course, tends to arise when you previously implied the exact opposite—this is also a good link, by the way, on conference-wide suspicions that Ryan has something of a Spurrieresque fondness for running up the score.)

Wisconsin enters the game looking as vulnerable as the Badgers have looked in a while. Last week they were pasted by Indiana at Bloomington and then beat Ohio State in Madison by just six. And their top scorer, Alando Tucker, missed the Ohio State game with an injured foot. Yet the Badgers are still the best defensive team in the Big Ten according to Ken Pomeroy's points-per-possession-based efficiency ratings.

Michigan State enters the game on a roll, having won seven in row, averaging a margin of victory over that stretch of nearly 21 points a game. Subsequent to Wonk raving about the efficiency of the State offense on Wednesday, the inactive Spartans actually slipped a couple places in Pomeroy's ratings. No matter. Tom Izzo's team is still a model of efficiency on offense, fourth best in the nation behind only Gonzaga, Illinois (whose numbers benefited tremendously from a game against Penn State--but then so too, of course, did State's), and North Carolina.

Reasons why the Badgers will win. They're inside the heads of this generation of Spartans. And Michigan State, with the possible exception of a little-noted third-place-game victory over George Mason in the BB&T Classic the first Sunday in December, has not had to gut out a tough victory yet this year. When a team doesn't just blow away at the sight of the Spartans (which the Badgers will not), there are still question marks as to the fortitude and particularly the floor leadership of Tom Izzo's team.

Reasons why the Spartans will win. Minus Devin Harris, the Badgers have gone as far as they can go on the fumes of this home winning streak. To parrot a fellow Illinois native and writer of some repute, these things always end in two ways: gradually and then suddenly. Look across the state to the Packers and the once-fabled Lambeau advantage: the Pack's lost at home in the playoffs two years in a row now. More to the point, a slow-footed group that looked lost against Indiana (a team that, in turn, looked lost against Northwestern) poses little threat to the track team that is the 2005 Spartans, whether the game's played in Madison, Milwaukee, or Menominee.

(Watch for Wonk to reprint only one of the above two paragraphs on Monday under the headline: "Wonk correctly predicts outcome!")

Should be a great game.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Iowa hosts Minnesota tomorrow and Ryan at Hawkeye Hoops breaks down the matchups with consummate (nay, almost Pomeroy-esque!) skill and precision here. Ryan read up on the works of stats legend Dean Oliver over the holidays and we, as readers, benefit, as Hawkeye Hoops dishes out current numbers on things like floor percentages (which Wonk eats up with a spoon) and individual player offensive ratings (which is yet to win over your intrepid blogger--but then Oliver himself emphasizes the aleatory nature of seeking certitude in numbers). Ryan's level of analysis is winning plaudits from the man himself, Ken Pomeroy, and while Wonk certainly isn't in that particular weight class when it comes to stat chops, he nevertheless happily adds his tiny amen to the chorus: keep it coming, Ryan! (In mainstream Hawkeye coverage, the struggling Erek Hansen is profiled and his love of cars is detailed (har!) here. And Steve Alford says the Hawkeyes are wiping the board clean and starting fresh with what they view as a 14-game season.)

Indiana freshman Robert Vaden says he expects to hear it from the Purdue crowd when the Hoosiers play the Boilermakers in West Lafayette tomorrow. Vaden committed to Purdue as a freshman in high school but changed his mind when Gene Keady told him that there would be a change in coaches during Vaden's time in West Lafayette.

Northwestern hosts Illinois tomorrow and at least one headline writer for the Chicago Sun-Times would apparently go any distance to reach a pun, no matter how labored or feeble. Actual headline which Wonk is not making up: "Illini look to avoid Catty shock rerun." Oh....For his part, Northwestern sophomore Tim Doyle wins this week's Bracing Dose of Candor award for this admission: "I'm so glad we're playing this game [in Welsh-Ryan Arena] instead of at the United Center. Because even if we had the white jerseys on there, I'd be like 'Oh, [shoot]!' because we just don't win on the road or at neutral sites." More game hype here, here, and here.

Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Michigan "may be playing the best of anyone in the league." Wonk says the Wolverines turned the ball over 25 times and yet still somehow beat Iowa and then won a home game against Northwestern. Nothing more, nothing less. Yet. (Preview of the Wolverines' game tomorrow at Penn State here. Meanwhile PSU sophomore Marlon Smith is still hospitalized with an undisclosed condition.)

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More on Michigan State's backcourt

One thing I would add to your discussion of the assist-to-turnover ratio is that part of a PG's job is to get easy baskets for his teammates. This is not easy to do and a good PG will probably rack up a few turnovers in the process of getting easy baskets for his teammates. On the other hand, a PG who just distributes the ball, doesn't drive the lane much, and consequently doesn't make many passes in a half court set resulting in a dunk, is probably going to have a higher assist-to-turnover ratio than say, a Mateen Cleaves, but in the end would not provide as big of a boost to his team.

Chris Hill's gaudy assist-to-turnover ratio this year is probably a product of him just distributing the ball to teammates who can really fill it up, rather than him creating lay-up or dunk opportunities with the dribble drive, which is not to take anything away from Chris Hill, but, as you say, assist-to-turnover ratio can be greatly overemphasized.

Marcus S.

Interesting hypothesis, Marcus! Though even a curmudgeonly skeptic of the assist-turnover ratio like Wonk must admit that Hill's A-T ratio of 4.0 is a tad on the eye-popping side.

Brush with greatness, vol. 1

Though I haven't written in a while I do still take in a little bit of the Wonk with my morning coffee. I also have a good college hoops anecdote from Christmas break.

I attended a high school game here in Chicago which pitted Brother Rice against Hales Franciscan. Hales has a baby Charles Barkley (Nate Minnoy) who is Purdue-bound while Rice has a point guard heading for North Carolina.

The game was good but the company beside me was even better: Roy Williams. I told him the ACC is overrated and that he'll get his butt handed to him when he runs into a Big Ten team....

Well, actually, I didn't but, then again, I am not one to pick fights.

Keep up the good work.

David N.

Thanks, David! Wonk is surprised Williams didn't turn to you and say, "Right now I don't give a [blank] about the Big Ten." If he did it on national TV he'll do it in the stands at a high school game.

Brush with greatness, vol. 2
Yesterday Wonk posted an interview of Terry Hutchens, Indiana beat writer for the Indianapolis Star. In recounting his early days covering the Hoosiers, Hutchens spoke of his dealings with Bobby Knight: "There was always this funny feeling you would get walking the halls of Assembly Hall, wondering if you might bump into him coming around the next corner. And it's hard to describe, but it was just a feeling that he was larger than life."

Wonk's readers respond!


Hutchens perfectly captures what it was like to walk around Assembly Hall and run into Coach Knight. As a student in the late 70's I once saw him in the halls and he said, "Hi Vince." My jaw dropped as at 19 I didn't think he'd remember me or know that I worked for Doc.

At that time there were two great Deans of IU coaching: Bobby Knight and Doc Counsilman (Swimming). I worked for Doc as Head Manager and Assistant Coach (paid for three years of tuition...a pretty good deal).

The two of them had a tremendous amount of respect for each other; although their motivational styles differed greatly (to say the least). I would always invite Bobby to at least one swim meet a year and he'd show up. So, he knew me by name...and just as Hutchens states, it always put a spring in your step when Bobby would say "Hi."

Great stuff today.

Vince S.

Thanks, Vince!

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