Big Ten Wonk
Monday, January 31, 2005
Wonk's first whack at a predictive rule
Alert readers know that Wonk ordinarily avoids predictions (finds he looks smarter that way) but your intrepid blogger is nevertheless always on the look-out for the best postulate or series of postulates that will correctly predict outcomes in Big Ten games.

For example:

1. Penn State and Northwestern will lose.
2. In all other games the visiting team will lose.
3. If Penn State and Northwestern play each other, see (2).

Let us term this the State College/Evanston Futility Predictive Rule and see how she does for a week or two. Granted, Illinois threatens to render our SCEFPR useless by rudely continuing to win games regardless of venue, thus blowing (2) away.

But this past weekend, with Illinois conveniently at home, the SCEFPR did quite well....

Purdue beat Michigan 84-55 in West Lafayette yesterday. Was this the beginning of a resurrection for Gene Keady's team or the beginning of the end for Tommy Amaker's? Wonk inclines toward a mushy kinda-neither interpretation (go figure)....

Your intrepid blogger doesn't want to be like some observers and make entirely too much of a single road loss for a Big Ten team from the state of Michigan. While only 3-4 in conference presently, the Wolverines will play six of their last nine games at home. And who knows but that Daniel Horton may be present for some or all of those. So it's too early to declare season-over in Ann Arbor.

But the Wolverines have work to do. Wonk has already noted their disturbing habit of coming off the floor at the end of every Big Ten game having either a) been beat senseless on the boards, or b) coughed up at least 20 turnovers. Yesterday it happened to be (a)--plus they sprang a new leak, in the form of good shooting by the opponent. The visibly puzzled Boilermakers found themselves shooting .521 from the floor. With all due respect to Purdue: Wonk looks at the men in the road blues, sees them losing the battle of the boards and allowing their opponent to make most of their shots, and places the lion's share of the responsibility for this outcome at their door. (Boiler links here, here, here, and here. Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz says the win brings "joy to a coach whose farewell tour has lacked a certain fuzzy sentimentality." Wolverine links here, here, and here.)

Playing in front of more than 350 former Illini players, coaches and support staff on hand to celebrate the program's 100th anniversary, Illinois beat Minnesota 89-66 in Champaign Saturday. Wonk tuned in eager to see, among other things, how the Illini perimeter D (which this blogger and Illinois fan has termed a bit too porous against dribble penetration for comfort) would hold up against relentless dribble-penetrator Vincent Grier. Alas, the landslide was on well before the first TV timeout and not much could be learned along those lines. Deron Williams had a strong day from behind the arc and if that continues Illinois opponents, previously faced with multiple scoring threats and a Peyton Manning-like QB in Williams, may have to resort to Brian-Butch-on-Paul-Davis-style tackling to stop this team.

BONUS Wonk "that's entertainment" moment. Your intrepid blogger very much enjoyed the scene that occurred in the first half when the Gophers went on a 7-0 mini-run and cut the deficit to ten or so. A disgusted Bruce Weber called timeout and the Minnesota players charged off the floor bumping chests, exchanging high-fives, etc. Not to be outdone in this department, however, was freshman backup big man Spencer Tollackson, who, at 6'9" 250, charged off the floor and, to the wonderfully apparent bewilderment of his teammates, began to push the diminutive and eerily Jeff Bezos-like Dan Monson around like a hapless intruder in a bar fight. When the slo-mo replay of this bizarre scene ran, former Illinois standout Doug Altenberger dead-panned with admirable aplomb, "I'm not sure I would have been comfortable doing that to Lou Henson."

Fifteen Illini links and, um, one Gopher link. Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper gets Dee Brown and Luther Head to confess they're too young to remember the Flyin' Illini but they do remember Kiwane Garris. Peoria Journal Star columnist Kirk Wessler takes time out to remember the first African American member of an Illinois basketball team, Walt Moore. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Greg Couch says "Illinois finally seems to have made it but needs to keep going"--meaning they need, as returning Illini legend Kendall Gill put it so succinctly, to "finish the job" and win a national title. (No pressure here.) Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Downey wonders what the reunion will be like in 2055 and what they'll be saying about this year's team in 50 years. St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell says Illinois "may not get to 39-0 but they look at '39-0' and smile. It is not a pressure-packed task to this group of players. It is a joyful journey." Illini game recaps here, here, here, and here. Coverage of Illini centennial celebration here, here, here, here, and here. Gopher link here.

Iowa beat Indiana 72-57 in Iowa City Saturday. In the wake of last Wednesday's debacle at Northwestern (where the Hawkeyes blew a 12-point lead with less than three minutes to go and lost in overtime), Steve Alford benched four of his starters for the opening tip and serenely watched a squad of relative who-dat's for the game's opening two-and-a-half minutes. (Excellent recap at Hawkeye Hoops, defining state-of-the-art in team blogs since 2004. Des Moines Register columnist Sean Keeler says tough love seems to work with this group of Hawkeyes. (Wonk says if having to sit on the bench for 150 seconds constitutes "tough love," your intrepid blogger logged a lifetime's worth of tough love as a powerless forward on the sophomore team back at Springfield (IL) H.S.) Keeler also professes to have seen "frothing pit-bull" defense from this Iowa team in December. He apparently beheld a different Hawkeye D than what Wonk saw, both empirically and in the equally if not more trustworthy impressionistic seat-of-the-pants sense. More Hawkeye links here, here, and here. Hoosier links here and here.)

Wisconsin beat Penn State 76-50 in State College Saturday. (Badger links here and here. PSU link here.)

Ohio State beat Northwestern 65-52 in Evanston Saturday and did it early enough in the day for Iowa's players to see it whole before the start of their own game against Indiana and to kick themselves for not being able to beat put away a team the struggling Buckeyes could glide past by 13. (Buckeye link here. Wildcat link here.)

Michigan State beat Oakland 92-75 Saturday night in East Lansing. Paul Davis did not play, resting an ankle he'd injured in practice earlier in the week.

Oakland has now played both the Spartans and Illinois this year and Grizzlies coach Greg Kampe was inevitably asked his thoughts on Tuesday night's game between the Illini and Michigan State. His answer: "Tom [Izzo] might get mad at me for saying this...I live in the state of Michigan and I'm a Michigan person, but Illinois is the best basketball team we've ever played in all my years of doing this. And I mean that far and away....Does that mean MSU won't beat them Tuesday? No, I bet MSU does beat them." (Links here, here, and here.)

Forget PPG. Remember PPWS.
There's no trick to putting up a nice number for points per game (PPG). Just shoot a lot. But who would get the most points from the same number of shots?

To answer that question we turn to the handy stat that not only measures scoring efficiency, it also captures more than just points from the field (unlike, say, points per shot or "PPS"). This stat takes in both FGA's and FTA's. It's points per weighted shot (PPWS), developed cannily by John Hollinger (The Basketball Prospectus) and renamed brazenly by Wonk. Here are the latest Big Ten PPWS numbers, including yesterday's Michigan-Purdue game:

Top 20 PPWS
1. Kelvin Torbert, Michigan State (1.47)
2. James Augustine, Illinois (1.38)
3. Carl Landry, Purdue (1.34)
4. Dee Brown, Illinois (1.33)
5. Luther Head, Illinois (1.33)
6. Brent Lawson, Minnesota (1.32)
7. Alan Anderson, Michigan State (1.32)
8. Aaron Robinson, Minnesota (1.31)
9. J.J. Sullinger, Ohio State (1.27)
10. Jeff Hagen, Minnesota (1.27)
11. Adam Haluska, Iowa (1.27)
12. Maurice Ager, Michigan State (1.26)
13. Roger Powell, Illinois (1.26)
14. Je'Kel Foster, Ohio State (1.26)
15. Jeff Horner, Iowa (1.25)
16. D.J. White, Indiana (1.25)
17. Chris Hunter, Michigan (1.25)
18. Clayton Hanson, Wisconsin (1.24)
19. Vedran Vukusic, Northwestern (1.24)
20. Paul Davis, Michigan State (1.23)

Bottom 20 PPWS
1. Nick Smith, Illinois (0.83)
2. Brandon McKnight, Purdue (0.85)
3. Ben Luber, Penn State (0.87)
4. Drew Neitzel, Michigan State (0.87)
5. Spencer Tollackson, Minnesota (0.92)
6. David Teague, Purdue (0.92)
7. Jamar Butler, Ohio State (0.92)
8. Dion Harris, Michigan (0.94)
9. Ray Nixon, Wisconsin (0.95)
10. Marshall Strickland, Indiana (0.95)
11. Tim Doyle, Northwestern (0.97)
12. John Andrews, Michigan (0.97)
13. Mike Thompson, Northwestern (0.97)
14. Mike Henderson, Iowa (0.97)
15. Brian Butch, Wisconsin (0.98)
16. Dan Coleman, Minnesota (0.98)
17. Andreas Helmigk, Wisconsin (0.99)
18. Robert Vaden, Indiana (0.99)
19. Xavier Price, Purdue (1.00)
20. Mohamed Hachad, Northwestern (1.00)

What it means. Give Kelvin Torbert 12 FGA's and six FTA's and he'll likely score about 22 points. Give Nick Smith the same number of shots and he'll likely score about 12.

What it really means. In his own ruminations, Wonk has taken to using PPWS not so much as a ranking but as more of a character reference. With all due respect to Kelvin Torbert and James Augustine, the two top players on this week's list are both roughly the fourth or fifth scoring options on teams with multiple offensive threats. Thus Torbert and Augustine are able to get open looks (often from beyond the arc, in Torbert's case). And, again, your intrepid blogger gives them credit: they're knocking down those shots.

But look at the next three players on the list: Carl Landry, Dee Brown, and Luther Head. While scoring about 100 more points than Torbert or Augustine, these three are performing at virtually the same level of efficiency. Incredible. And Landry in particular merits a new adjective. This guy is not only scoring lots of points, he's somehow doing so efficiently without any--and Wonk means ANY--other scoring threat on his team (yesterday notwithstanding). What a gamer. Your intrepid blogger is proud to have these three competitors on the All-Wonk Team.

COMING tomorrow....
Complete game-day coverage of Illinois-Michigan State, featuring an interview with Dave Dye, Spartan beat writer for the Detroit News. Dye will share his insider's view of Tom Izzo, Paul Davis, and the rest of the Spartans--and give us his prediction on who's going to win the big game. Tune in tomorrow!

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Pat Forde of gives out "conference midterms" here and says, among other things, that Minnesota is better than advertised, Purdue is worse, and Luther Head of Illinois is Big Ten Player of the Year so far.

Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline rates Illinois' W at Wisconsin last Tuesday as a "Best Win" in his weekly recap.

Lansing State Journal Spartan beat writer Joe Rexrode grants that tomorrow night's game between Michigan State and Illinois will spur much unavoidable talk of this State team's legacy, mettle, and all that, but, more importantly, it will define the Big Ten race one way or another.

There are off-days for Illinois players but not for Illinois beat writers. Herb Gould of the Chicago Sun-Times says the Illini and Michigan State are "friendly rivals." Bruce Weber says the Spartans are "probably a better team than Wisconsin." Lindsey Willhite of the Daily Herald says "Illinois seems to be embracing" the challenge posed by facing Michigan State in the Breslin Center. John Supinie of the Copley News Service says, for better or worse, Illinois "fans are already focused on the Final Four."

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

A Boiler lets off some steam
One of this blog's most alert readers and most faithful emailers has been die-hard Purdue fan and fellow intrepid blogger Matt May. Wonk thought about Matt yesterday, as the Boilermakers cruised to victory, and wondered what was on the mind of such a true fan in the face of unprecedented good fortune.

Wonder no more:

Hi, Wonk,

Yes, it was against a shorthanded Michigan team that handles the ball like a live grenade, and, yes, the Boilers were due for a victory. But it still feels great, not unlike setting back on the couch after Thanksgiving meal, unbuckling the belt and letting out a sigh.

Matt May

Thanks, Matt!

Make yourself Wright at home
Dear Wonk,

Can you please explain Bracey Wright's road/home splits this year? As a Badger fan, I thought he looked like the second coming in IU's home win. But he's shooting something like 10 percent from three on the road. What's the deal here?


Brian H.

Brian, the deal is this: Bracey Wright has not been hitting three-pointers--at home or on the road. Let's go to the numbers....

This season Wright has hit just 31 of 107 three-point attempts, meaning he's shooting .290 from behind the arc. Contrast this with Purdue's David Teague, whose notoriously poor (yet oh so frequent) shooting has launched a thousand emailed laments to Wonk from Purdue fans and which indeed has landed him at or near the very bottom of Wonk's PPWS rankings for as long as they've been around.

Sit down--this will come as something of a shock....

David Teague is a better three-point shooter than Bracey Wright.

It's true. Where Wright is 31-of-107 (.290), Teague is 33-of-111 (.297).

Now, as you point out, it's also true that Wright is especially inept away from Bloomington--just 9-of-47 (.191). But he's no Kelvin Torbert at home, either--just 22-of-60 (.367), and that includes a 1-of-6 in Bloomington against your Badgers. (Wonk watched that game and Wright did his damage--to the tune of 30 points--by moving without the ball inside the arc and by shooting 10 free throws.)

Plus: Wright is still yet to record a made three on the road in conference play.

More from the "What is this PPWS?" desk
Hi, Wonk,

I greatly enjoy your writing, links, and stats--my ten minutes daily Wonk browsing is time well spent!

A vexing (for me, at least) question has moved me to write you. You are quite taken with the PPWS statistic. It certainly works better than points per game as a measure of offensive efficiency, both for teams and individuals, and I've been convinced that it is a useful measure. I am not convinced, however, that the fancy weighting tells you very much. Why not simply points per shot (PPS)?

What does PPWS tell you that PPS doesn't? PPWS appears to downweight the contribution of guys that take it strong to the hoop and go to the line a lot. PPWS is also hobbled by that 0.44 parameter that seems, well, a little arbitrary. Why not .45 or .43? Could it vary by team, conference, strength of schedule, or lunar cycle? And in the end, isn't a point a point, whether it is scored beyond the arc, in the paint, or at the line?

What am I missing here?

Yours in B10 hoops,
Ashton S.

Ashton, Wonk is thinking seriously of using PPWS only in the company of a USDA-like "part of a complete statistical breakfast" disclaimer. PPWS is basically the sliced banana on the points-per-possession (PPP) corn flakes supplied by Ken Pomeroy and his indispensable PPP-based team efficiency ratings for every D-I team. And that may even be giving PPWS too much credit.

Still, your intrepid blogger likes three things about this particular stat: 1) its ease of use (Wonk is at root lazy), requiring as it does just three readily available numbers--points, FGA's and FTA's; 2) its applicability to individuals (I've stopped using it for teams---PPP surveys the same terrain with greater acuity); and 3) its scope, which encompasses all points scored and not just points from the field.

Points per shot (PPS) is an erstwhile friend, to be sure, but a recurring theme in Wonk's wall-to-wall coverage of this Big Ten season is the following hunch: free throws are undervalued by we bystanders precisely because (Carl Landry at the end of the first OT against Indiana notwithstanding) they are so very dull. Dull, yes, but they count. Just ask Iowa, who outscored Illinois and Northwestern from the field and lost both games.

Is PPWS unfair to the player who takes it strong to the hoop? Don't know. Good question for the off-season, perhaps. Two purely impressionistic bits Wonk will note even in busy January, however: 1) Carl Landry (who goes to the line a lot) is intriguingly side-by-side in PPWS with Dee Brown (who never goes to the line); and 2) Arizona State's Ike Diogu out-Landry's even Landry (Diogu goes to the line an absolutely absurd 9.4 times per game) and the oft-hacked Sun Devil--surely the reductio ad absurdum of going to the line a lot--sports a healthy 1.37 PPWS, which in the Big Ten would put him ahead of Landry and behind only Kelvin Torbert and James Augustine.

And as for the 0.44, that--or something close to it--is the number you dance with unavoidably when you come to the Efficiency-Based Measures Prom that is hoops stats. (And what a prom that is, by the way, populated by a veritable firehouse calendar of beefy hoops-stat-nerd eye-candy.) Wonk uses 0.44 because the creator of the stat, John Hollinger, used it. For his part, stats legend Dean Oliver prefers the more aesthetically pleasing 0.40. And some folks choose to split the difference and use 0.42. (And to think you called it arbitrary!) They're all attempts to get at the un-get-at-able: a free throw is half (0.50) a two-point field goal, yes, but then sometimes you get a free throw after a made two (or even three) and sometimes you get a free throw on a technical foul. Thus the vaporous but essential multiplier.

Housekeeping note
Wonk is going to take a few days off this week after posting on the outcome of the Illinois-Michigan State game.

He'll return fresh as a daisy next Monday to take this blog straight through to April and the rollicking-good soap opera supplied yearly by post-Final-Four coaching changes....

And then he'll shut her down for the off-season like a Bar Harbor lobster pound....

Only to descend visigoth-like upon your free time yet again come November.


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