Big Ten Wonk
Monday, February 14, 2005
And then there were six
Just six teams left still talking about NCAA bids. Three will certainly go: Illinois, Michigan State, and Wisconsin. Any one or, possibly (but it's a stretch), two of the following three teams could also go: Indiana, Minnesota, or Iowa. As for Michigan and Northwestern, they officially fell into the abyss this weekend, the one where you have to win the Big Ten tournament to go to the big dance.

Illinois beat Wisconsin 70-59 in Champaign Saturday. Reading postgame accounts, Wonk was surprised to see how often this was referred to as an "ugly win" for the Illini. Let's come to a right understanding on this "ugly win" stuff once and for all, shall we? The win at Michigan was ugly because Illinois did not play well. Defense, on the other hand, is not ugly. Bo Ryan's teams--including this year's relatively undermanned edition--play defense. Badger opponents beware: this is a different team with a healthy Alando Tucker. The Badgers are on track to be under-seeded in the NCAA's and Wonk would love nothing so much as to see Wisconsin topple some overrated Sweet 16 opponent not used to seeing some strange quirky thing known as, oh, what's the word...defense.

As for the Illini, for those who say they like offensive execution Bruce Weber's team is doing things with screens that are truly instructional-clinic-video worthy. Recall the last time these two teams met and how one of the game's decisive plays came in the last four minutes on a beautiful middle cut by James Augustine: faking a screen on Deron Williams' defender and then cutting to the rim for the feed from Williams and the dunk, Augustine left Mike Wilkinson (no slouch on D he) and various parts of the Badger's athletic equipment helplessly and haplessly on the floor.

Similarly beautiful if less noticed was the teamwork between the same two players on Saturday on the second of two consecutive big three's drained by Williams early in the second half. Williams was on the right wing being guarded by Sharif Chambliss. Moving without the ball as though he were headed to the top of the key, Williams guided Chambliss into a screen set at the free-throw line by Augustine. Anticipating Williams' desired spot at the top of the key, Chambliss worked to go under Augustine's screen--and Augustine let him (kind of like a trap play in football) because Williams, meanwhile, had stopped dead in his tracks on the right wing and was now wide open for the three, which he sank. Nice.

And, of course, Luther Head continues to be the challenge for which Bo Ryan simply has no answer. Clayton Hanson is a solid player but Head's eyes get big every time he sees this match up, which is pretty much whenever Hanson's in the game. (Hanson, by the way, leads the conference in three-point FG percentage but it's noteworthy that, in both the games these teams have played this year, chasing Head around the court has reduced Hanson to total silence as an offensive option.) In two games against the Badgers, Head's averaging 22 points a game.

BONUS pedantic 20-20 hindsight. With 55 seconds left in the first half and Illinois up by three, Bruce Weber called timeout to diagram a play. The ensuing action revealed the Illini had intended to run an alley-oop to Head but the lob wasn't even attempted because: Hanson easily got through the screen Nick Smith was setting for Head at the top of the key and, besides, Zach Morley had left his man, Augustine, alone on the right wing (correctly diagnosing that Augustine was no threat out there) and was camped out in the lane to foil any lobs to the rim. Why weren't the roles of Augustine and Smith reversed? Augustine sets better screens and Smith's more of a threat from 17 feet.

Illinois-Wisconsin links. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Michael Hunt scoffs at those who still doubt Bruce Weber's team: "No one beats Bo Ryan twice, except the Illini. They broke the Badgers' 38-game home winning streak 18 days ago in Madison, and then eventually broke their will Saturday before a record-setting sea of orange at the old concrete spaceship Illinois still calls home." Mark Stewart, Hunt's colleague at the Journal Sentinel, says Wisconsin was "good on a day when they needed to be great." Wisconsin State Journal columnist Tom Oates tees up a postgame quote from a Badger in order to make a more substantial point: "'We know we can play with anybody in the country,' UW guard Sharif Chambliss said. 'It's as simple as that.' Actually, it's not quite as simple as that. You see, this season's outcomes also tell us that Illinois' perfect storm of a backcourt can take over a game at any time and UW, even at this late date in the season, doesn't have an antidote." Wisconsin forward Alando Tucker says simply, "You have to be as tough as cement when playing a team like this."

Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey says the Illini's "ability to win in different ways is one of the reasons Illinois is undefeated and No. 1. That's what North Carolina or Kansas or any other team is going to have to contend with in the NCAA tournament." Copley News Service columnist Mike Nadel compares Deron Williams to Raymond Felton, Chris Paul, Jarrett Jack and Travis Diener and comes to this conclusion: "Although those four--and probably a few others--have gaudier stats than Deron Williams and might (or might not) go on to have better pro careers, I wouldn't trade him for any of them in crunch time with an NCAA tournament game on the line." Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti says Bruce Weber "has whipped and polished these players into a better, crisper and more hardened team than perhaps even [Bill] Self would have produced." Indefatigable Sun-Times Illini beat writer Herb Gould says "only an upset of major proportions" can derail Illinois now. (Perhaps running out of new angles from which to cover these intensively-covered Illini, the Sun-Times grabbed former Michigan coach Bill Frieder--the one who lost twice to Illinois during the '89 regular season and was replaced for the tournament by Steve Fisher--and got his thoughts down on paper here.)

Following up on his very good Saturday profile of Bruce Weber, Pete Thamel of the New York Times files a recap on Saturday's game here. And Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline says "the Illini wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament" with their win Saturday. (Doyel still thinks Illinois doesn't shoot enough free throws, calling their FTA numbers "atrocious." Wonk has filed an amicus brief for the chill-out side of this particular dispute on more than one occasion but start here.)

Indiana beat Minnesota 71-56 Saturday in Bloomington. The Hoosiers cruised to a 15-point victory despite the fact that Bracey Wright (sprained ankle) did not play and D.J. White logged only 18 foul-plagued minutes--which tells you correctly that the Gophers not only missed out on a golden (har!) opportunity, they missed badly. Indefatigable Indiana beat writer Terry Hutchens of the Indianapolis Star says this "was a big victory for IU." He's right: this was a match up that Wonk had called in advance "the weightiest game of the year so far in the Big Ten in terms of bubble-ish consequences." The Hoosiers are the only team in the Big Ten besides Illinois that has not yet lost a home game in conference. Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz looks to the future and declares himself "convinced [that] IU needs to win four of its final six regular-season games to ensure a bid" to the NCAA Tournament. He's right. (Additional Hoosier link here.) Meanwhile, indefatigable Gopher beat writer Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune says while it's true "the Gophers lost by a bigger margin two weeks ago at No. 1 Illinois, this was the team's poorest performance and most complete loss of the season." BONUS insightful stat: Shelman also points out that in its last two games (both losses) Dan Monson's team has recorded more turnovers (38) than field goals (32).

Michigan State beat Michigan 64-49 Saturday in Ann Arbor. Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski says: "This wasn't a game. This was U-M clinging to MSU as long as it could, which wasn't very long. The Spartans' 64-49 victory Saturday was their 12th in 13 meetings in the series, which says it all." Wojnowski's colleague at the News, indefatigable Wolverine beat writer Jim Spadafore, says simply: "Michigan State's dominance continues." Tommy Amaker says the difference was the Spartans' transition game: "I'm disappointed in our inability to, kind of, put a damper in that part of their game. They got easy basket after easy basket early, put us on our heels." Lansing State Journal columnist Todd Schulz says "these Wolverines were not impressive, even allowing for the absence" of Lester Abram and Daniel Horton. Schulz's colleague at the LSJ, indefatigable Spartan beat writer Joe Rexrode, forecasts State as being "a potential top-4 seed in the NCAA tournament." (Additional Spartan link here.)

Iowa beat Northwestern 64-54 in Iowa City. Adam Haluska had a nice post-Pierce line, putting up 20 points, eight boards, and five assists. "This is a very big win," Steve Alford said afterward of a home victory over the Wildcats. Oddly, he's correct: a loss would have dropped the Hawkeyes into the same forget-a-bid abyss that swallowed Michigan (and these selfsame Wildcats) this weekend. Preserving the eerie parallels to his own college coach (only without the wins), Alford failed to play Doug Thomas for so much as one second of game clock, saying after the game, "It's all on Doug. He's got to prove in practice he wants those minutes." Randy Peterson of the Des Moines Register says the "once-ranked, once-struggling Iowa men's basketball team is alive and, for now, well." Pat Harty of the Iowa City Press-Citizen says, "It seems reasonable to think that an 8-8 Big Ten record would get Iowa into the NCAA tournament." Wonk disagrees, even though Harty's scenario would indeed give Iowa a nice 20-9 record overall. Your intrepid blogger feels 4-6 Iowa needs to win out, including and especially a victory over Illinois Saturday, to have a totally worry-free Selection Sunday. On the Wildcat side of the ball, coach Bill Carmody put it succinctly: "I thought we were sloppy," he said of his team's 17-turnover effort.

Ohio State beat Penn State 66-56 Saturday in State College, the day's only game without NCAA implications. Even in defeat, however, freshman Geary Claxton (14 points, 12 boards) continues to inspire dual reactions from this blogger: 1) great future; 2) what in the world is he doing at Penn State (i.e., what did Ed DeChellis put in Claxton's drink)? (Links here and here.)

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Michigan guard Daniel Horton has a preliminary court hearing scheduled for today. If the charges pending against Horton are thrown out the Wolverine junior could in theory be back in action in time for Wednesday's game against Wisconsin. And if not, well, the scenarios fairly run the gamut. (Also in this link: Indefatigable Michigan beat writer Jim Spadafore of the Detroit News gets a jump on the competition and offers up his picks this morning for the 2006 Big Ten race: Michigan is the early favorite by Spadafore's lights.)

Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline has this to say on the topic of bubble-ish teams: "You're not out, Minnesota--but you're no longer in, either."

Illinois coach Bruce Weber says he's neither as smart as his fans think nor as dumb as his critics say: "Ten days ago, we beat Michigan State and scored 12 [baskets] in a row, and I was called a mastermind genius. A week later, people are asking, 'What's happened to your offense?' Nothing. Teams are playing us different." (Weber also wins this week's Left-Handed Compliment Award for this characterization of his team and of one player in particular: "They have become much more cerebral. Even a Jack Ingram.") Dee Brown says the Illini are unsafe for opponents at any speed: "If you want to run, that's our game. We can play your style and slow it down also."

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One Gene Bartow reference per year
On Friday Wonk posted a link to an excellent article by Herb Gould of the Chicago Sun-Times. Gould's piece niftily chronicled 30 years of Illinois basketball and did so in one convenient (big-) bite-sized package. Wonk's readers respond!

Thanks for the Herb Gould link. His article brought back to mind a question that I’ve never really been sure about, and that is this: “How in the hell did Gene Bartow get the UCLA job in 1975?”

I know he had taken Memphis State to the final game in 1973 (where they were Bill Walton’s punching bag for 40 minutes). I would assume that taking the Illinois job a year later would even then be considered a step up (MVC to Big 10). But how does an 8-18 coach in his first year at a new school, with no apparent ties to UCLA or even the region, get tapped for THE most prestigious job in the country, following a legend into a program that was coming off of their 10th title in 12 years?

I don’t know, just seems like any kind of real search by UCLA would have led in some other direction (possibly confirmed by the fact that he booked--or was pushed out? fired? not sure--just two years later).

Any recollection or knowledge of what happened there?

LOVE the blog.
Dave G.

Excellent question, Dave! You may recall, however, that Wonk studiously cultivates a showy ignorance of anything before last Saturday based upon a wholly irrational fear that he may otherwise start to sound like the eerily Mr. Burns-like Billy Packer ("that '54 Siena team beat Clyde Hartsetter and the Hussies in the Garden and went all the way to the quarterfinals in Shibe Park before falling to a very good Hofstra team," etc.).

So how 'bout it, alert readers? Are any of you Gould-esque Illini historians? Or perhaps--what's the euphemism--"50 or better"? Care to enlighten Dave and Wonk and the rest of us? Let's hear from you!


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