Illinois plays at Michigan State tonight and, while of course anything can happen over the next two months, right now the Illini and the Spartans are clearly the two best teams in the Big Ten--statistically and, more importantly, in the standings. Thus the winner of tonight's game will lay claim to being the top team in the conference, period. If Illinois wins they will, of course, be undefeated both overall and in conference, two games up on both the Spartans and Wisconsin in the loss column. If it's State, they'll be tied with the Illini in the loss column but they'll "own" the tiebreaker, having beaten Illinois head-to-head in the year's only scheduled meeting between the two teams. On paper the two teams are close to indistinguishable. Ken Pomeroy's points-per-possession-based efficiency ratings tell us that Illinois and Michigan State are the second and fourth best teams in the nation, respectively, on offense and 28th (Illinois) and 31st (MSU) on D. In other words, tonight should feature even match ups on both sides of the ball. Should, yes--but will it?Illinois shoots just a little better than State and also takes care of the ball better (especially of late--see below). But the Spartans narrow this difference to the point of virtual non-existence with superior rebounding. Illinois, at third in the conference (or, if you wish, second in conference games only), is actually better on the boards than is commonly realized. But State's the best rebounding team in the Big Ten by a considerable margin. Their numbers on the boards are up noticeably from last year with virtually zero change in personnel, suggesting that prolonged exposure to Tom Izzo alone is enough to make one a better rebounder. (The only question here would be the traditional one: whether committing to the boards can lead to opportunities for your opponent in transition. This has not been an issue to date for the Spartans--but they haven't played a team as fast as Illinois.) The only blemish on State's performance on offense has been a sudden and uncharacteristic knack for turning the ball over. Over their first four conference games they averaged just 10 TO's per game--over their last two they've averaged 18.5. (And the main culprit is even more surprising: Kelvin Torbert, sweet-shooting sixth man and defensive stopper, coughed the ball up seven times in just 40 minutes of combined PT in those two games.) Tom Izzo's team has been able to notch W's against Minnesota and Michigan while giving the ball away 20 and 17 times, respectively. Whether they could do the same against Illinois is open to question.(Bonus fun fact, apropos of not much: Michigan State and Illinois are two of the least successful teams in the Big Ten at getting to the free throw line, ranking seventh and eighth, respectively, in FTA's per game in conference play. These same two teams are also, however, at the top of the conference in assists per game. Long-time alert readers (meaning those from before last week) may recall Wonk has wondered aloud whether assists, once some vague but outstanding level is reached, may actually be inversely related to FTA's. Are teams who move the ball via the pass rather than the dribble simply fouled less often?)One welcome feature of tonight's game: there should be zero talk of "controlling the tempo." Neither team fears running with the other. MSU is the deeper team but thus far this season no Illinois opponent has been able to exploit the Illini's eight-man rotation. Both teams put multiple offensive threats on the floor. For Illinois, of course, this is seen as their strength and indeed their identity. For Michigan State, ironically, this same characteristic is sometimes termed a flaw: which Spartan, it is asked, will come up big? Make no mistake--when you hear this question, what's really being asked is: "Will a Spartan come up big?" Look at Illinois. No one really knows which Illini player or players will have the big game (although Luther Head is becoming an increasingly safe choice). But after 21 straight W's there is a widespread feeling, for better or worse, that someone will.Whether or not they'll have the "big" games, the big men down in the paint on both teams appear to Wonk to hold the greatest potential for surprise--for good or ill. Your intrepid blogger thought Paul Davis looked as dominant in the first eight minutes of the Duke game as Wonk has seen any Big Ten player look this year. If State can get this kind of spurt from Davis tonight (though he's coming off a sprained ankle), it could be a game-changer. As for Illinois, they look to reigning conference Player of the Week James Augustine, whose abysmal scoring against Iowa (oddly coinciding with simultaneous beastly rebounding) was widely noted and critiqued but whose late dunks against Wisconsin almost single-handedly quieted a crowd that had seen 38 straight home wins.Almost single-handedly. For Augustine had a partner in crime that night named Jack Ingram. Here's a comparison that just three short weeks ago Wonk never would have dreamed he'd be using: Ingram now reminds your intrepid blogger a lot of former Purdue Boilermaker and current Sacramento King Brad Miller. Like Miller, Ingram will never be termed gifted athletically. But also like Miller, he plays a game that is methodical, self-contained, and, at its best, lethally effective--even if he doesn't realize it. Ingram comes in, of course, when Augustine or Roger Powell gets into foul trouble. When it's Powell that comes out, the Illini put a team on the floor that, for all the talk of Illinois being "thin" on the interior, suddenly looks much bigger while, somehow, not sacrificing much in speed.And so February opens with the Big Ten's two best teams playing for perhaps the only time this season. Two evenly matched track-team-fast lineups. The nominal "1-seed" playing on the home floor of the "2." One of the finest venues in college hoops.It's big.A talk with Dave Dye
Dave Dye covers the Michigan State Spartans for the Detroit News and also contributes to the News' Big Ten Weblog. In anticipation of tonight's game between the Spartans and Illinois, Dave talked to Wonk about Michigan State's season, its players (past and present), and a certain coach who, with the retirement of Gene Keady, is about to become the "dean" of Big Ten coaches....
Q. I've said this enough that the readers of this blog are probably tired of hearing it, but just so you know, Dave: I think Michigan State's really underrated nationally. They had one horrible game against George Washington, I'll grant you. But aside from that the Spartans have lost only at Duke and at Wisconsin--not too much shame there. So I think State's tougher than people realize. Am I wrong?
A. They're definitely flying under the radar. I think there's the potential that they're a top-10 team. They look like that at times. But here's the catch: They've got to show they can win a big game. They always compete, but they've had trouble the last couple years closing out the big games. They've lost 11 straight to ranked teams going back to the 2003 NCAA Tournament. They had that game won at Wisconsin a couple weeks ago before collapsing at the end. Was it a fluke? Maybe. But I also think there's a good possibility that some past failures late in games have gotten into the heads of these players.
Q. Well, let's talk about that game. Michigan State's players really took some heat in the wake of Wisconsin's come-from-behind win. And Tom Izzo seemed genuinely angered by some of the comments made about his players. To what extent do you think the criticism's fair?
A. One columnist wrote that the seniors had "no heart." That was just a stupid column. But I didn't think Izzo should've given a lecture on the topic considering he basically initiated the perception that these seniors aren't tough enough, etc., and then perpetuated it over and over and over again the last couple years. It was Izzo who was constantly critical of them in the past. He opened last season saying that these guys--Chris Hill, Alan Anderson and Kelvin Torbert--really hadn't accomplished anything because they hadn't won any championships like their predecessors. Izzo put enormous pressure on them and that became a season-long theme for the media and the fans after that. I think that burden has hurt them, perhaps overwhelmed them.
At the same time, I wouldn't count them out yet. They have a tremendous opportunity tonight against No. 1 Illinois. A victory there and who knows what could happen to their confidence.
Q. Did Tom Izzo create unrealistic expectations among Spartan fans by making three consecutive Final Four's? Or is that ancient history?
A. There's no doubt he created a monster. But I also think Tom's expectations at times are the most unrealistic. Reasonable fans and media don't expect MSU to win the Big Ten and go to the Final Four every year. Tom is so driven that there's a part of him that almost does expect that. That's a great trait to have--it's the reason he's so incredibly successful--but it can also be a negative at times. As a reporter, you have to try to explain what happened and why, write about the good and the bad, etc. But if I were a fan, I wouldn't be disappointed at all with the last few years. They've been "down" seasons by Izzo's standards, but this team is still in contention for the conference title and going to the NCAA Tournament every year. That's not too bad. They'll be back cutting down the nets sometime soon.
Q. Izzo became known for defense and rebounding with those Final Four teams. These days it seems like he's winning more with scoring and good shooting (although the rebounding numbers are up this year). Assuming he didn't change his philosophy (which would be pretty hard for me to believe), will we ever see another Tom Izzo team that defends and rebounds like the "Flint-stones" did?
A. He was able to start recruiting some of the more highly rated players and those players are typically more gifted offensively. I think he believed he could teach those guys to play defense and rebound, too. Just recently, that's starting to happen a little more. Their defense is definitely improving. Look at Maurice Ager. In three recent games, a good defensive play by Ager has led to some of his scoring outbursts. They look like they're buying into this defense-leads-to-offense mentality.
Q. Is Paul Davis inconsistent or is that just a misconception based on the fact that he plays on a deep and balanced team?
A. I think he's definitely inconsistent. He's had some of his best outings in big games (Duke, for example), but he doesn't dominate in other games when he probably should. Izzo has tried to push his buttons in a lot of different ways. Sometimes it's worked, sometimes it hasn't. I think the word "enigma" is appropriate.
Q. Kelvin Torbert really intrigues me. His stat line is gorgeous (he leads the conference in three-point FG percentage) and, of course, coming out of high school he was hailed as the next Jason Richardson (if not MJ). Yet he comes off the bench. Do you know, is he OK with that?
A. K.T. is a total team player. I don't sense that it bothers him at all. He's been amazing to watch. A foot injury and horrible shooting fundamentals hampered him early in his career. But he worked hard to become MSU's defensive stopper for his first two years. He corrected his shooting flaws and now is an exceptional shooter. I can't believe how much he's improved in that area. His defensive tenacity is also starting to emerge again. One of the interesting aspects about covering college athletes is watching them mature. Torbert suddenly seems much more comfortable doing interviews. It happens a lot of times with seniors. He seems like he is becoming more of a leader for this team.
Q. Drew Neitzel got an awful lot of press (and Mateen Cleaves' number) in the preseason and my sense is that if you'd told fans at that point that he'd be averaging just 15 minutes and three points a game come February they would have been really disappointed. Yet State seems to be doing just fine anyway. Do the Spartans even need Neitzel this year? What's the future look like for him?
A. I guess there were a lot of unrealistic expectations for a 6-foot kid who wasn't playing against the greatest competition in high school. But he's a smart guy. He's accepted this role. Some freshmen get impatient and want to leave. He seems like he's dealing with it just fine. Chris Hill has done better than most expected at the point. That's given Neitzel time to develop. They need him to be solid but only in limited minutes right now. I think he'll be a pretty good sophomore and a really, really good junior and senior.
Q. Let's say you can have any non-Spartan Big Ten players for the new Dave Dye University team. Who's your starting five?
A. I'll start with a guy I respect a lot, Wisconsin's Mike Wilkinson. It's fun to watch someone who is so intelligent and such a gamer. Plus, his fiancee can come sing the national anthem every game! After that, I'll take the easy way out: just give me Illinois' Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Luther Head, and Roger Powell.
Q. Forget conference. Who's flat-out the best player you've ever covered or seen in person?
A. Well, I saw Michael Jordan in person, so I guess that's an easy one. But perhaps the guy I enjoyed watching the most might have been Scott Skiles at Michigan State. I was a reporter for the State News, MSU's student newspaper, at the time. I was amazed by Skiles' intelligence and toughness. You knew right away he was really underrated and going to be a special player. I certainly didn't realize he'd be an NBA player at that point, but I really appreciated the way he played the game from day one.
Q. Off the floor: have any favorite coaches, past or present?
A. Can I say a football coach? Q. (Puzzled) "Foot--ball"? Funny, we alumni of Illinois rarely bring up that particular sport. But go ahead.A. Well, I really liked Morris Watts, who was Michigan State's offensive coordinator and an interim coach after Bobby Williams got fired. Here's what I liked about Morris: You could ask him a question about why he did this or why he did that and he didn't get defensive and think you were automatically second-guessing him. Sometimes we're just curious, sometimes we just need a quote to explain it, sometimes we're just trying to understand their thinking. Morris could deal with that. Some coaches can't. Sorry about mixing in some football, but I really, really liked and respected that about Morris Watts.
Q. Alright, back to the sport with a legitimate national champion--have any Final Four picks for us?
A. I'll go with Illinois, North Carolina, Wake Forest and Oklahoma State. My sleeper would be George Washington, which beat Michigan State and Maryland earlier this season. GW has fallen off a little since then, but it has some tremendous athletes who could make a strong tournament run.Q. Prediction for tonight's game?
A. I don't think Michigan State would win at Illinois--and I think Illinois can win at Michigan State. But it's hard to imagine the Illini going undefeated. Tonight seems like the logical stumbling block. Still, for MSU to win, I think Ager has to have a huge game and perhaps Chris Hill will need to break out of his shooting slump.
The Breslin Center was nuts on Thursday for the Michigan game and it is going to be absolutely out of control tonight. That will be the difference.In today's less Wonk-ish venues.... Iowa guard Pierre Pierce is under investigation in connection with a reported case of burglary, assault, and vandalism that is alleged to have occurred late last week at the West Des Moines home of an ex-girlfriend. No charges have yet been filed. Referencing charges brought against Pierce in 2002 for sexual assault, Des Moines Register columnist Nancy Clark says: "If Pierce is charged, he's done. The trust is broken. The goodwill of his university, his athletic director, his coach, his teammates, his fans, has been abused....There's no way he takes the floor at Carver-Hawkeye Arena again, even if the legal system allows for it." More here, here, and here.Coverage of Illinois-Michigan State is plentiful--but not as abundant as it otherwise would be if not for media day at the Super Bowl and the Sammy Sosa trade....Tom Izzo says if his Spartans play "very well" at home, they'll win, end of story. "I don't think we have to play phenomenal and they have to play poor." Lansing State Journal columnist Todd Schulz says a win tonight for the Spartans "would be the big break for a program that's endured its share of tough breaks and broken dreams the past few years." (Good grief: you'd think he was talking about Michigan.) Schulz's colleague at the State Journal, Rob Schlissberg, apparently read Wonk's game preview even before Wonk did, for Schlissberg says he too will be watching Paul Davis vs. James Augustine. Dave Dye of the Detroit News says if Illinois wins tonight they stand a good chance of going undefeated in the Big Ten. Jemele Hill of the Detroit Free Press says tonight's game is "perhaps the most important regular-season game in Tom Izzo's 10 seasons as head coach."Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper joins the estimable company of Wonk and Rob Schlissberg and trains his attention squarely on tonight's match ups in the paint. (Augustine profile here.) Lindsey Willhite of the Daily Herald says Bruce Weber deviated from his routine and began running his team through the Spartans' offensive sets a day early. Illini's-eye views of the Spartans here, here, and here. As long as he's in East Lansing anyway, Herb Gould, indefatigable Illini beat writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, sounds out Tom Izzo on who should be Big Ten Player of the Year here.Yesterday Illinois became the first unanimous number 1 in the AP poll since Duke in 2001-02.Purdue is still basking in the afterglow of Sunday's surprisingly decisive win over Michigan.Northwestern coach Bill Carmody is puzzled by his own team. "The guys seem to work pretty hard, but just don't seem to have that much life," Carmody said. "I don't know if it's just the personality of the guys, or what. It might just be in the DNA and I can't do anything about it." Wonk back! Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me! STILL accepting nominations for the All-Wonk Team's replacement member! Last week in a fit of unreflective adolescent pique worthy of a California ballot initiative, Wonk unceremoniously dumped Iowa's Jeff Horner from the All-Wonk Team (3.0). Alert readers will recall the pivotal role the Hawkeye guard played in his team's loss at Northwestern last Wednesday night, a game in which Iowa might fairly be said to have come apart like the proverbial cheap suit in the rain. Horner capped a multi-game shooting slump by missing two crucial free throws in OT. Worse, he inexplicably left Wildcat walk-on Michael Jenkins wholly uncovered for the game-winner. Thus the sudden opening on the All-Wonk. (But wait! This very same Horner, ladies and gentlemen, went out Saturday against Indiana and--after doing time in Steve Alford's doghouse and sitting on the bench to start the game--recorded a very strong 16-point, nine-assist, one-turnover outing, leaving open the possibility that Jeff Horner may yet replace himself!)The early balloting clearly favored Kelvin Torbert of Michigan State. But that was before fans of a certain undefeated team (and Wonk don't mean BC) got busy....Wonk,
Deron Williams, Vedran Vukusic, and Aaron Johnson all fit in the "do one thing, but do it well" category, be it passing, scoring, or rebounding. Chris Hill does a lot of important things well too. If you actually want somebody to replace Horner as a point guard, I think Williams is the obvious choice, but then you've got three Illini guards on the All-Wonk team, and that's a lot.
Tom R. Thanks, Tom! Others share your vote but without your hedges and qualifiers....Hi, Wonk,
I'd like to state the case for adding the third guard of the Illini's celebrated trio, Deron Williams, to the All-Wonk team.
Although it's now become an overused cliche to describe great players, Williams can control and change the game without ever taking a shot. He does whatever it takes to win the game.
In the Wake Forest game he went to the bench early with two fouls. His final stats for that game? Eight points, 11 assists, and five rebounds. All the other Illini were shooting well and he was more than willing to deliver the ball.
He is averaging 13 points, four rebounds, and seven assists per game (likely wrapping up his third consecutive Big Ten assist title). His scoring might seem a little low but what other player has as many capable scorers on his team as Deron?
The Illini trio plays so well together that it is impossible to separate them. Williams deserves to be on the All-Wonk team. To leave him off is like separating triplets.
Keep up the great blog,
Thanks, Jeff!Other nominations?Housekeeping note Wonk is going to take a few days off this week after posting on the outcome of tonight's Illinois-Michigan State game. He'll return fresh as a daisy 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.