Big Ten Wonk
Thursday, February 17, 2005
COMING tomorrow....
A talk with Mike DeCourcy, Senior Writer on college basketball for the Sporting News. Mike will talk to Wonk about college hoops in general (why is Lute Olson complaining about "east coast media bias"?) and the Big Ten in particular (do any other conferences play defense or is this just a quaint regional artifact peculiar to the Big Ten, like Gene Keady's comb-over?).

Mike will also share his thoughts on:

Indiana. True or false: the future's bright in Bloomington?

Iowa. What's the deal with these seemingly yearly swoons in conference?

Wisconsin. Can they make some noise in the tournament?

Michigan State. Is their record against ranked teams the best measure of how far the Spartans can really go?

Illinois. Are the Illini the favorites to win the national championship?

Tune in tomorrow!

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Led by 29 points on 11-of-15 shooting from Carl Landry, Purdue beat Iowa 66-63 in West Lafayette last night, saving Wonk the trouble of doing a "From Here to March 13" write-up on the Hawkeyes. Iowa fans trying to keep hope alive for an NCAA bid point to the Hawkeyes' glittering 12-1 non-conference record: finishing, say, 8-8 in the Big Ten would therefore leave the Hawkeyes (RPI 51) a very respectable 20-9 overall. True, but the tournament selection committee is unlikely to skip over a team in the final Big Ten standings (i.e., Minnesota, RPI 63) to cherry-pick Iowa. (And the committee is very unlikely to give out five bids to this year's Big Ten.) So this is a big loss for the Hawkeyes, now 4-7 in conference and 0-5 in conference road games. Two of those road losses have come in overtime and the total margin of all five losses is just 24 points. They're still L's. Wonk is not going to say Iowa misses Pierre Pierce's perimeter defense, but: Purdue, featuring a backcourt that is hardly the second coming of the '73 Knicks, only gave away seven turnovers. Meanwhile, Jeff Horner engaged in his own moving silent tribute to his absent comrade--not by marking Pierce's number on his shoe, mind you, but by putting up an eerily Pierce-like stat line: 4-of-16 from the floor and five turnovers. "We're just not finishing games," says Iowa coach Steve Alford. "We're just a pretty quiet team and that really hurts us late in games because you just get confused. There was a lot of confusion out there."...Boilermaker beat writer Michael Pointer of the Indianapolis Star says last night's victory was "the most memorable win of a mostly miserable season" for Gene Keady's team. Purdue has now won three straight home games.

(Pierre Pierce news. Documents released yesterday show that Pierce removed a camera and laptop from his ex-girlfriend's home in her presence. The woman told police that Pierce "threw her to the floor and stated words to the effect: 'If you scream, make a sound, or take a breath, it will be your last breath.'")

Michigan State beat Minnesota 81-62 in East Lansing last night. Sometimes stats really do tell you what you need to know: the Spartans shot just .304 on their three's (7-of-23) but .571 (32-of-56) overall. Translation: lots of transition, lots of dunks. Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune says the Gophers were "unable to counter either the pace or the depth" of the Spartans. Tom Izzo says: "Our break is so much better. We're pushing it better." Dan Monson agrees: "They just ran the ball by us." Todd Schulz of the Lansing State Journal says he and his brethren and sistren in the media have perhaps "been a tad tight with the credit" when talking about a Spartan team that's 18-4 and on-track for its highest tournament seed in four years. Schulz's colleague at the LSJ, Mark Feather, writes that State's 45 first-half points were "the largest first-half total in Big Ten play this season." Technically true! Then, about an hour later, Illinois went out and put up 52 first-half points against Penn State. Alas. (Additional Spartan links here and here.)...What does this do to the Gophers' chances for an NCAA bid? Dan Monson's team finishes with home games against Ohio State and Iowa and road games at Purdue and Penn State. Rick Alonzo of the St. Paul Pioneer Press says: "It's not a daunting finish, but for a team that appears to be running out of gas, the next four games are critical."

Wisconsin beat Michigan 76-50 in Madison last night. The Wolverines scored just 17 first-half points. "We collapsed mentally," said Michigan big man Courtney Sims. "It's hard to sustain that energy defensively when you're struggling to score," said Tommy Amaker afterward. Mike Wilkinson scored 22 for the Badgers. "We wanted to make a statement where we still are an in-the-paint, low-post kind of team," explained Alando Tucker. Columnist Tom Oates of the Wisconsin State Journal says the injury- and suspension-riddled Wolverines are "a classic example of how quickly things can go south in college basketball." After a 3-0 start in conference, Michigan's now lost nine straight.

(Daniel Horton news. Horton practiced with the Michigan team Tuesday for the first time since his January 25 suspension. But Tommy Amaker says Horton's playing status is still yet to be determined.)

Illinois beat Penn State 83-63 in State College last night and it wasn't that close--the Illini led 52-30 at the half. "The overriding feeling was one of a marquee act come to a tiny stage," writes David Jones in this morning's Harrisburg Patriot-News. "The Illini were Tom Hanks visiting summer stock and playing with the wide-eyed community theater." (Indeed, Illini write-ups this morning read like theater reviews. And the show's a hit: "Awesome," says Neil Milbert of the Chicago Tribune. "Brilliant," adds Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.) Like the "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" quintet descending on a dingy apartment, the Nittany Lions take your stats on offense and instantly make them beautiful. Here's Wonk's favorite: Illinois recorded 19 assists--in the first half (27 for the game, on 34 field goals). "They're the most unselfish team I've been around in a long, long time," marveled Nittany Lion coach Ed DeChellis. Roger Powell, primary beneficiary of many an extra-pass, had a pretty nice stat line: 21 points on 10-of-10 shooting. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Greg Couch says "this was more scrimmage than actual game." Having watched number 2 Kansas and number 3 Kentucky fall on the road this week, Dee Brown explained the dominating performance thusly: "We didn't want nobody storming the court on us." The 26th consecutive Illinois victory sets a new school record. (More Illini links here and here.)...Yesterday Wonk chronicled how a new Penn State campus eatery, Wings over Happy Valley, was offering a free order of seven jumbo wings to each attendee of the Illinois game in the event that the Nittany Lions pulled off the upset. After last night's Illini victory Bruce Weber admitted: "The first thing they said in the locker room was 'No wings, no wings.'''

Indiana guard Donald Perry has quit the team for undisclosed reasons.

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Latest report from alert reader and die-hard Illini fan Jason

I read Mark Tupper's article on Powell in which he detailed the Illini's run of five consecutive years with 25+ victories. Now, while that is an accomplishment certainly worthy of note, it feels...well, hollow. Golf analogy: the Illini now are like Mickelson before he nabbed his green jacket, the best to never win a major (for the sake of argument, let's assume the Masters is the golf's national title equivalent). They've piled up a bunch of wins at tournaments whose names begin with "Greater," but have yet to win the granddaddy in April. Phil finally did; will Illinois follow suit?

Still anxiously awaiting my trip to Columbus next month for the U of I's final Big Ten game, and possibly, to partake in their undefeated Big 10 regular season. Expect full reportage and my best percentage based estimate of orange vs. red clad fans in attendance (early O/U line, orange = 35%).

Pursuant to your quest to analyze Big Ten bubble teams, I'm not sure any of them will make it. Iowa has the best RPI and possible the best overall resume of the three squads, but they need to start winning (preferably after Saturday) or the committee's peculiar weighting of the last 10 games will doom them. (If the last ten are so important, then shouldn't everyone only play ten?) The Hawkeyes sub-.500 league marks isn't helping much either.

Minnesota has the curious ability to lose at all the wrong times (Florida State, Northwestern) and, with middling RPI numbers (63 overall, two wins vs. RPI top 50 per Pomeroy's team page), your calculation that they must win out after tonight is shared in this quarter. But if Monson's team is truly tapped, should we realistically expect them to do so?

IU could produce the nightmarish scenario you describe, sending the committee chair into late night screaming and coursing through posh hotel hallways, but they aren't equipped to do so. This group can't win on the road, just can't. Two more road losses in their final five games means they'll likely finish 8-8 or 9-7 in the Big Ten, and that won't be enough to get IU into the conversation, let alone the tournament. They need to win the Big Ten tournament.

In the end, the league will probably get four bids. But it will take strong finishes from Iowa and Minnesota, including good showings in the Big Ten Tournament, to get one or both into the dance. Hopefully one or both will make a run and erase the potential of being a three-bid league. Even if the three bids are 4 seeds or better, that would be a significant embarrassment for Big Ten fans.

Jason H.

Thanks, Jason!


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