Big Ten Wonk
Tuesday, January 04, 2005
No NBA, No NC?
Yet another good link unearthed by alert blogger Yoni: Mike McGraw of the Arlington Heights, Illinois, Daily Herald points out that, in marked contrast to recent NCAA National Champions, Illinois is led by no sure-thing first-round NBA draft picks such as, say, Emeka Okafor or Carmelo Anthony.

Wonk has two reactions: 1) well, duh; and 2) does anybody have an Okafor or an Anthony?

1) Your intrepid blogger has assumed all along that the applicable dynamic here is plain to see: if Illinois were by some chance to actually go far it would of course be a Detroit Pistons whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts kind of thing, not a Shaq-and-Kobe paradigm. Not even the most ardent Illini fan imagines, say, Luther Head (now attracting his first notice from NBA scouts), inflicting his will Okafor- or 'Melo-like on a plucky but overmatched Carolina or Kansas or Oklahoma State in St. Louis. It's not the Illini's game.

2) If there's an Okafor this year Wonk is yet to see him. Maybe Ike Diogu but are the Sun Devils really the equivalent of Connecticut '04 or Syracuse '03? And, lest we forget, while Emeka entered his final season at UConn universally acknowledged as the preeminent force to be reckoned with, Anthony emerged during the year.

Your intrepid blogger cheered Syracuse's run to the title in '03 largely because, in a year in which nattering TV-heads told us time and time again that the Big 12 was dominant (which of course they were that year but it was tiring to hear every three seconds, like a Norah Jones single) and that veteran leadership, especially in the backcourt, was essential, the national championship was won by a team led by a dominant freshman 3 that beat Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas.

BONUS Daily Herald note. The paper's motto (Wonk is not making this up!) is to "fear God, tell the truth, and make money."

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Michigan's Daniel Horton practiced Monday for the first time since injuring his knee last month and says he may even be ready to play tomorrow in the Wolverines' conference opener against Iowa. (More here.)

Wisconsin opens its conference season tomorrow night at Purdue and Jeff Washburn of the Lafayette Journal and Courier has the temerity to point out that the Badgers have a 29-game losing streak in Mackey Arena. Gene Keady is 21-0 against Wisconsin at home. The last game the Badgers won in West Lafayette was played February 15, 1972. Meanwhile the attendance-challenged Boilermakers have thus far managed to sell out but two home dates: against Illinois and Indiana. Don't blame the empty seats on Carl Landry, who has impressed both Wonk and Mark Stewart of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (here).

Indiana's D.J. White nets Freshman of the Week honors from Andy Katz of here.

Terry Hutchens of the Indianapolis Star says hold off on the coronation and keep that banner furled: Illinois may be number 1 nationally but they have work to do if they want to win the Big Ten. Inveterate iconoclast Dave Dye of the Detroit News pretty much says the exact opposite (head: "Big Ten might be a breeze for Illinois") here and here. Meanwhile, Marlen Garcia of the Chicago Tribune notes the Illini have won four Big Ten titles under three different coaches in the past seven seasons. (More Illini-gazing here. Brian Randle injury update here.)

It's been a rosy year thus far for Iowa (summed with glee here) but one minor thorn has been the less-stellar-than-anticipated performance of Doug Thomas, put under glass here.

Northwestern coach Bill Carmody frets about his 7-5 team here.

On yesterday's teleconference of Big Ten coaches, Minnesota coach Dan Monson was asked about Minnesota weather. When one reporter pointed out that the national forecast predicted a high of 4 degrees for Minneapolis, Monson replied, "All that gets exaggerated. You know, I'm in my car right now and it says 7. So it's almost twice as warm as you're claiming." By the way, the Gophers beat Loyola Marymount 93-67 in 7-degree Minneapolis last night. (Links here and here.)

Big Ten season preview from Lindsey Willhite of the God-fearing truth-telling money-making Daily Herald here.

More previewing here.

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

BONUS all-Illini-Dave edition of wonk-back!

Read this hatchet job on Illinois, from Elton Alexander in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

I think he proves his own idiocy when he uses the RPI to support his argument that Illinois is headed nowhere. He also doesn't appear to have a clue about how the NCAA builds its bracket, saying that the NCAA loads the overall #1's region with cupcakes.

Some of the things he says are true, citing past failures of the program. But they are also completely irrelevant to this season. I fail to see how the inability of the 1987-88 Illini to make free throws (or any other past Illini disappointment, take your pick) somehow makes this team more vulnerable.

Thanks for giving me something new to read every day,
Dave C.

Thanks, Dave!

For those leery of linking, this is what Alexander writes:

The undefeated:

With conference play set to begin, there were eight teams around the country that ended 2004 undefeated. Some of those are solid, such as Duke's 8-0, the only unblemished team in the powerful ACC. Some are fool's gold, such as Texas A&M's 11-0 against a pillow-soft schedule.

And some, like 14-0 and No. 1 Illinois, are disappointments waiting to happen. First, history shows going unblemished in a strong Big Ten, currently No. 1 in conference RPI, is doubtful. But a Final Four run by the Illini is just as suspect.

We're not talking about a Michigan State, Michigan or Indiana. We're talking about Illinois, a program that -- regardless of the consistent wealth of prime Chicago-area talent at hand -- fades in March.

Since 1985, Illinois has advanced to the NCAA Tournament 16 times. Of those 16 teams, 12 have been seeded No. 5 or higher. But the Illini has won more than two NCAA Tournament games only twice in 16 appearances.

Bad news/good news:

Several NCAA tourney Web sites currently project Illinois as the overall No. 1 seed and headed to Cleveland or Indianapolis for the first round. That's not good for Cleveland, because the NCAA protects its No. 1 by putting the weakest lower seeds in the same bracket. That in turn leads to fewer potential early-round upsets.

On the other hand, if you are an Illinois fan, the two times the Illini did advance beyond the Sweet 16 in the last 20 years, it was seeded No. 1. Illinois (No. 7) isn't even among the top 5 in CBS Sportsline's latest RPI. That would be Kansas, Oregon, Arizona, Oklahoma State, and Wake Forest.

Odd last paragraph, eh? Starts out conciliatory then rises angrily yet one more time--like a friend who's the proverbial happy drunk one minute and the proverbial angry drunk the next.

When you know the tail is wagging the dog: two of the teams that Alexander cites as "above" Illinois in RPI were defeated by the Illini by an average of 17.5 points. (What is this totemic power that "RPI" holds over otherwise sentient beings? Like the object in 2001.)

And Wonk loves the test employed here: seeded 5 or higher and "winning more than two games." Maybe "reaching the Elite Eight" would be a better phrasing. Your intrepid blogger knows from painful personal experience that the majority of those 5-or-higher seeds were 3's, 4's, or 5's, pitting Illinois against many 1's and 2's in the regional semi's (see: last year)--if they made it that far.

Truth be known, the 1980's-era Illini did have a rep for flaming out in the tournament (two words: Austin Peay) which made 1989's Final Four run all the more tense and, ultimately, thrilling. However, Wonk emphasizes the key adjective here: 1980's-era.

Another alert reader, another Dave

Where are you from? As a fellow downstater (Champaign), I'm curious about these sorts of things.

Go Illini,
Dave S.

Wonk grew up in Springfield, Illinois, and, as a matter of fact, was just there for the holidays. (The Wonk Wife grew up in Athens, just outside Springfield.) While back in the hometown your intrepid blogger was struck, unavoidably, by the hold that this year's Illinois team appears to have on much of central Illinois, including and especially people who did not themselves attend Illinois.

Your intrepid blogger has wondered if Durham, North Carolina, has grown blase over the years and now no longer notices if their local team is ranked number 1. Central Illinois, by notable contrast, has not had the opportunity to grow blase. Two true stories....

1. During a family gathering populated with Wonk Relatives seen but once a year, your intrepid blogger found himself temporarily between bustle, alone at a table with an uncle approaching 80. Said uncle did not attend Illinois, sent no kids to Illinois, has no connection whatever with Illinois. Nor does he know about this blog or, indeed, what a "blog" is. Anyway, conversation is friendly, halting, and random: the doings of Wonk's cousins, the activities of Wonk's parents, etc. Then a pause. And then without any conversational segue of any kind, the Wonk Uncle perks up, leans forward, grabs my hand and, with a new light in his eye, says, "Hey...hey, how about Illinois?!"

2. To commemorate the retirement of the Wonk Father-in-Law, your intrepid blogger attended a dinner in his honor at Springfield's (warning: plug ahead) very fine Chesapeake Seafood House the night of the Illinois game against Northwestern State in the Las Vegas Holiday Classic. The game was televised by Fox Sports Chicago and as we were leaving our table Wonk ducked into the bar to check on the game. Keep in mind two things: this is Northwestern State, not Michigan State. And Wonk did not utter a word upon entering the bar. Your intrepid blogger simply looked silently up at the TV. Instantly an intent semi-circle of watchful men accosted Wonk with: "Illinois won if that's what you're wondering," along with detailed break-downs of the second half, and tart critiques of Messrs. Williams, Brown, Powell, et. al.

This Illinois team carries with it the accumulated hopes of a very large extended family of fans. Maybe all teams do.

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