Big Ten Wonk
Tuesday, February 08, 2005
Are point guards necessary? (part 2)
Long-time readers (i.e., those from before last week) will recall Wonk once headlined a post with the whimsical and multiple-email-generating title, "Are point guards necessary?" At the time your intrepid blogger certainly did not intend for the headline to be taken literally. He merely wanted to suggest that Michigan State was doing quite well, even absent much in the way of help from much-ballyhooed point-guard-in-perpetual-waiting Drew Neitzel.

This time, however, Wonk asks the question in earnest and points to the Minnesota Golden Gophers for your judicious consideration. Dan Monson's team is fairly a walking refutation of every cliche you hear nightly on ESPN. They have no "true" point guard (their assist leader, Aaron Robinson, averages less than three of the things per game). They are loaded to the brim with freshmen. Yet, after their 10-point victory at home over Wisconsin Saturday, they are the team du jour for everyone looking with increasing fervor for at least one non-Illinois topic, however fleeting. The Gophers are a surprising 16-6 overall and, at 6-3 in conference play, are tied for third in the Big Ten with the Badgers. That perch is rightly being recognized as NCAA-worthy, should they hold it.

Granted, Minnesota's stock is likely about to dip--after tomorrow night's game at home against Northwestern the Gophers face consecutive road games at Indiana and at Michigan State. (After that, however, Dan Monson's team could conceivably finish 4-0, with home games against Ohio State and Iowa and road games at Purdue and at Penn State.) Still, no one in the preseason was projecting Minnesota to come this far. How are they doing it?

1. With defense. Stats caliph Ryan at the Hawkeye Hoops blog rates the Gophers as the best defensive team in the Big Ten by a considerable margin in conference play.

2. With independence. Let the rest of the hoops world slavishly imitate guard-heavy Illinois and owlishly monitor things like assist-turnover ratios and turnovers-per-possession. The wing-and-Hagen-heavy Gophers rank comfortably in the middle of the pack in such stats and win anyway. (Minnesota opponents turn the ball over at a prodigious rate but the Gophers cough up a few TO's themselves, thus evening out the turnover margin to a middling number.)

3. With luck. Minnesota's won two close games and lost only one squeaker in conference play.

Surprising and iconoclastic Golden Gophers of Minnesota, Wonk salutes you!

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Michigan hosts Illinois tonight in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines have lost six in a row, as well as coming up short in their last nine games against the Illini. John Eligon of the Detroit Free Press says "the Wolverines are doing everything the Illini are not: turning the ball over, playing out of sorts ... and losing." Jim Spadafore of the Detroit News says this "could be one of the biggest mismatches of the season." For their part Illini beat writers seem somewhat less assured of tonight's outcome, citing the short turnaround time since Illinois' win on Sunday over Indiana and the fact that Crisler Arena is sold out for only the second time this year (thanks in part to specially-priced $8 tickets): see here, here, here, and here.

Brian Hanley of the Chicago Sun-Times looks at those surprising and iconoclastic Minnesota Golden Gophers here. So does Reid Hanley of the Chicago Tribune, here. The Minneapolis Star Tribune looks at the new buzz around the team here.

Steve Alford says if his Iowa team "continues to fight the way it fought against Michigan State, good things will happen." Meanwhile, Adam Haluska, perhaps campaigning for his share of the many FGA's suddenly available in the absence of Pierre Pierce, says: "I'm a lot stronger than I was when I was at Iowa State." Susan Harman of the Iowa City Press-Citizen suggests Erek Hansen and Doug Thomas will need to score more in the new Pierce-less paradigm. In anticipation of tomorrow night's game between the Hawkeyes and Wisconsin, indefatigable Badger beat writer Mark Stewart of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel looks at Iowa's post-Pierce situation here. So does equally indefatigable Badger beat writer Jon Masson of the Wisconsin State Journal, here. All of this discussion of the post-Pierce world has left Pierce himself saying: yoo-hoo, still alive; he has appealed his dismissal from the team.

Profile of Badger big man Andreas Helmigk here.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo says, upon further review, he wishes he had not removed Shannon Brown from the game at Iowa on Saturday late in the first half after Brown received a technical foul. Izzo was told by referees that Brown had been "yapping" the whole game but after looking at the tape Izzo has decided a little more yapping and emotion may be a good thing for his team. (More on Shannon Brown and the benching of renown here.)

Ohio State coach Thad Matta and his players say they know they have a big challenge ahead of them tomorrow night when they play at Michigan State.

Stewart Mandel of wins this week's Strunk & White award for clarity of sparse verbiage. Mandel says, Illinois notwithstanding, "the Big Ten stinks." Mandel also rates this week's Blinding Flash of the Obvious Award for this nugget: "Big Ten followers should savor Illinois' current run, because there may not be another one like it for a while." Given that there has not in fact been such a run for the last 29 years, Wonk had assumed we all assumed that already.

Wonk back!
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Facts, schmacts! Wonk stands by his original indignation!
Yesterday, in his latest bit of shameless Pulitzer pandering, Wonk inveighed mightily against the failure of the Detroit Free Press to send a beat writer to Columbus Saturday for Michigan's game against Ohio State or, for that matter, to Iowa City for Michigan State's game against Iowa. Many, many alert readers (particular shout-outs to longtime correspondents Matt M. and Dave N.) emailed to point out that the Free Press and the Detroit News share a common ownership and publish under a "joint operating agreement" wherein one has sports coverage on Saturday and one on Sunday.

You know, a little of the late Chris Farley went a long way for Wonk--yet for some reason your intrepid blogger now finds himself thinking: well, lah-dee-frickin-dah!

All newspapers share common ownership. Anyway, that's what Wonk's professor for "Hermeneutical Hegemony and Late Capitalism" said in grad school and he knew whereof he spoke because the license plate on his BMW said "MARX 1." Therefore, Wonk, reared within a Chicago paradigm that puts multiple reporters from competing locals at every event, henceforth swears off trying to comprehend the bizarre ways and mores of Detroit media, whose internecine grudges and convoluted practices are as needlessly incomprehensible to an outsider as Florence under the Borgias--um, but without the art.

Wonk misses some games--but Wonk's readers see all!
Your intrepid blogger has a shocking confession to make: Wonk did not see any of the Indiana-Illinois game on Sunday.

Oh, make no mistake, Wonk tried. At that hour your intrepid blogger was at Gate 43 in Terminal 1 of San Francisco International, on his way back to Minneapolis. Having arrived at the gate with time to spare, Wonk honed in on the unmistakable siren call of airport sports-bar TV, rounded a corner eager to check the score, and saw....

The Super Bowl pregame show--three and a half hours before kickoff. (If memory serves correct the niece of the person who was going to work the game clock was being interviewed.) This discovery--and the fact that, of course, no one in the bar was watching this filler--triggered the following conversation between your intrepid blogger and the friendly customer service technician plying travelers with liquor at 11:30am on a Sunday:

Wonk: Hi, could you turn on the Indiana-Illinois game?
Bartender: It's not on.
Wonk: Yes, it is. It should be about midway through the second half now.
Bartender: It's not on here.
Wonk: But it's on nationally.
Bartender: We don't have that station.
Wonk: You don't have CBS?
Bartender (suddenly louder): Look, do you want to order or not?

Suffice it to say Wonk missed out on this game in its entirety. But Wonk's readers rise to the occasion!

Hello, Mr. Wonk,

I'm enjoying your blog along with the amazing run the Illini are having.

In the Indiana game, I loved the Dee Brown rebound, no-look flip over the head to Deron Williams, who then knocked the ball on to Augustine volleyball-style for the dunk. All the stupid announcers could talk about was the Deron bump, but the whole series was great. While I greatly prefer college hoops to pro, I've always enjoyed the passing in the NBA. Still, nothing I've seen in the NBA could top that series.

I also enjoyed the Illini defense forcing Indiana into taking really poor shots as the shot clock expired on three successive possessions (only the refs called a cheap foul on the third one.)

Keep up the good work!

Eric W.

Thanks, Eric! Sorry I missed that play.

Nominations now being accepted for one open spot on Wonk's All-Head-Case team
Big Ten Wonk,

I'm not sure if getting kicked off your team disqualifies you for the All Head Case Team or actually makes a stronger case for being included. If it does disqualify you, then I think Mike Thompson of Northwestern should replace the now departed Pierre Pierce.

Thompson got suspended for skipping classes, makes Shaq look like J.J. Redick at the free throw line, and has "Paul Davis disease" (disappearing during important stretches). Seems to me he has all the ingredients....

Even more telling is the fact that when I was at the Illinois-Northwestern game in Evanston, a "Please don't do anything stupid" hush came over the Northwestern fans around me every time Thompson touched the ball--much like the hush that comes over Assembly Hall in Champaign when Nick Smith touches the ball there.

Cliff A.

Thanks, Cliff! And Wonk loves your use of the home crowd as the veritable canary in the head-case coal mine. Wish I'd thought of that.

Other nominations?

Old business
Speaking of nominations, Wonk is about to close discussion on Jeff Horner's replacement on the All-Wonk Team. So far we've heard from persuasive supporters of both Kelvin Torbert and Deron Williams. Others?

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