Big Ten Wonk
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
Catch 22
This will come as cold comfort to Michigan State fans but Illinois played its best game of the year last night in defeating the Spartans, 81-68. Early-season Illini blowouts against Gonzaga and Wake Forest were impressive but they occurred in November and December in friendly environs. Last night Illinois won in February in East Lansing.

In the wake of this remarkable game there will doubtless be (and, for all Wonk knows, already is) added scrutiny of and commentary on the Spartan perimeter defense. With a few first-half exceptions (mostly on ball screens--State has to hedge on the ball with more oomph), Wonk says: don't believe it. When the Illini shoot like they shot last night (.569 from the field, .542 from three) they put opponents in an untenable position.

Sure, it's easy for fans to shout "defend the three!" Well, with four minutes left in the game, Kelvin Torbert did defend the three. Torbert, arguably Tom Izzo's best defender, was assigned to Luther Head. The Spartans had closed to within seven, 73-66, and the Izzone was back in the game. Head faced Torbert on the left wing. The Illini senior had been draining three's all night and Torbert received--what? Not a ball fake, exactly, as much as a pause. And then Head was off to the tin. Book it: two points on Tom Izzo's senior lock-down defender. Put yourself in Torbert's shoes--what do you do? Body up on Head and he'll blow past you and dunk. Body up on Dee Brown and he'll blow past you and lay it in. Body up on Deron Williams and he'll blow past you and dish for a dunk. What do you do?

Teams get a night or two like this per season, a night when the shots are falling. Illinois had theirs last night. With a little more than 11 minutes to play in the second half, Deron Williams found himself on the left wing with the shot clock at 8. He violated every rule of sound offensive execution and dribbled around without apparent purpose or escape. With 2 left on the shot clock and Maurice Ager all over him, Williams launched into a jump stop and leaned back for a Bracey Wright fadeaway jumper. Wright was a teammate of Williams' in high school and his version of this shot usually misses. But Williams' went in and Illinois led 64-47. It was that kind of night. (Michigan State actually recorded more assists than did the Illini--eloquent testimony to the unanswerable power of good shooting.)

Now, don't get Wonk wrong. Illinois won with more than kismet. No one wins in Breslin without earning it. The point is not that the Illini got lucky but rather that Michigan State caught the peak performance of what right now is the best team in the nation. Illinois may yet lose during the regular season. (Ponder the point we've reached--one where such a statement need be stated.) But, barring injury or collapse, last night erased any last lingering doubts as to the true potential of this team.

They are 22-0. And they are making history.

BONUS observation #1: Jack Ingram gets better and better. He bothered Paul Davis on D and he shoots the rock. Why no one can understand this second piece of info, Wonk doesn't know. Last week Mike Wilkinson left Ingram alone and got six big points for his trouble within 60 seconds. Last night, with 12 minutes left in the game and Ingram free on the right wing, Paul Davis did the same thing. Score three points for the Illini. (But Davis is more demonstrative than Wilkinson and could be seen shaking his fists at himself. Guess he did get the scouting report--just didn't follow it.)

BONUS observation #2: With 12:20 to play in the first half, Illinois guard Rich McBride dribbled into the lane and fed Nick Smith for a layup. (That sequence again: McBride to Smith.) Dick Vitale's narration of the replay: "Powell with the dish, Ingram with the finish."

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Coverage of Illinois-Michigan State is plentiful....

Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp says the Spartans "were again served up as helpless prey, overwhelmed this time by an even more powerful force than their own self-destructive tendencies--a wrecking ball disguised as the nation's No. 1-ranked team." Sharp's colleague at the Free Press, Jemele Hill, says the Illini "put on a shooting clinic." Detroit News columnist Rob Parker says this game "should have convinced you that [MSU is] not capable of winning a big game anymore." Parker's colleague at the News Dave Dye says "Michigan State looked mesmerized at times." Tom Izzo says of the Illini: "They pass up good shots to get great shots." Lansing State Journal columnist Todd Schulz says Illinois is a "Final Four contender" but, still, "the Spartans are better than they showed." More Spartan links here, here, and here.

Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper blogs that he'll never again make the mistake of picking an Illinois opponent to win. Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey says Illinois "is a team that plays with as much effort and pride as talent." Fellow Tribune columnist Skip Myslenski says Chris Hill's hesitation on State's opening possession foreshadowed his team's loss. (Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News says pretty much the same thing.) Chicago Sun-Times columnist Greg Couch says Illinois "is going to go undefeated in the regular season." Copley News Service columnist Mike Nadel says the Breslin Center "crowd repeatedly was reduced to respectful groans ." More here, here, here, here, here, and here. Coverage of the obstacles faced by Illinois fans abroad trying to follow their team in London here.

Andy Katz of says "Michigan State was just more roadkill in Illinois' path toward an undefeated season." Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline says "Illinois' biggest opponent now is the ghost of 1976 Indiana."

Iowa's Pierre Pierce continues to be investigated by police in West Des Moines, Iowa, but police now include assault with intent to commit sexual abuse among the possible charges. More here, here, and here.

Michigan hosts Minnesota in Ann Arbor tonight. (Wolverine link here. Gopher link here.)

Ohio State hosts Purdue tonight in Columbus. (Buckeye link here. Boiler links here and here.)

Indiana hosts Penn State tonight in Bloomington. (Hoosier link here. PSU link here.)

Wisconsin hosts Northwestern tonight in Madison. (Links here, here, and here.)

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BONUS all-Spartan-fan edition

My goodness. MSU didn't play its best game, but they sure didn't play poorly either. I'm not sure anyone could have beaten the Illini tonight. This is clearly the best B10 team since Cleaves & co.

Shawn M.

Thanks, Shawn!


What a performance by the Illini! 12 minutes without missing a shot and against pretty good defense.

I thought the Sparties were giving way too many easy looks in the first half but in the second half the defense was solid and Illinois couldn't friggin miss. Kudos to the Illini, they were impressive.

BTW, I hear Weber yakking about how they share the ball but tonight it was clutch shooting as the shot clock ran down that was the difference.

Dave N.

Thanks, Dave!

Housekeeping note
Wonk is now going to take a few days off.

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.


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