Big Ten Wonk
Saturday, February 12, 2005
In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
It's official: Illinois is a media phenomenon. The gray lady herself has taken notice, as seen in today's profile of coach Bruce Weber in the New York Times.

Illinois hosts Wisconsin today in Champaign. Badger forward Zach Morley is questionable for today's game, having missed all of Wednesday's game against Iowa with an injured leg. Wisconsin big man Brian Butch is still out with mononucleosis. Mark Stewart of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says the Badgers "appear to represent the last big hurdle remaining between Illinois and the Big Ten's first undefeated regular season since Knight's Hoosiers accomplished it." Profile of Wisconsin forward and Joliet, IL, product Alando Tucker here.

Over on the Illinois side of the ball, oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper points out that this time it's Illinois that has a nation's-best winning streak on the line in an Illini-Badger game, having won 24 straight games....Bruce Weber downplays the notion that he's lost faith in his bench and instead chalks up the lack of PT for Rich McBride and Nick Smith in the Michigan game to the style of play executed by the Wolverines that night. "When the other team holds the ball, there are fewer possessions. You can play longer."...Does Weber really care, deep down, about running the table, even though he says he doesn't? Lindsey Willhite of the Daily Herald considers the possibility here....Most importantly, after last year's widely discussed color-clash in the Wisconsin-Illinois game in Champaign (Badgers in red, Illini in orange), Illinois has announced they will wear their seldom-seen white jerseys in today's game....He's made 24 of his last 32 shots: Profiles of James Augustine here and here.

Indiana hosts Minnesota today in Bloomington, a game Wonk has called "the weightiest game of the year so far in the Big Ten in terms of bubble-ish consequences." The Hoosiers and the Gophers are tied in the loss column for fourth in the conference. A fourth-place finish is much more likely to get an invitation to the big dance than is a fifth-place record. A win for Minnesota would be especially huge given that it'd be a road win and that the Gophers have to go to Michigan State for their next game. Dan Monson says his Gophers simply "have to go back to who we are." For Indiana, Bracey Wright is listed as doubtful, having sprained his ankle in last week's Penn State game.

Michigan hosts Michigan State today in Ann Arbor. Detroit Free Press columnist Michael Rosenberg puts Michigan coach Tommy Amaker's numbers over four seasons next to former Wolverine coach Brian Ellerbee's numbers over the same span and finds less difference than one might imagine. Eerily similar Amaker summa here from the Detroit News. Profile of Michigan big man Graham Brown here. Profile of new Michigan State starter Drew Neitzel here. Spartan guard Chris Hill needs 40 more three-pointers this year to become the leading three-point shooter in Big Ten history.

Penn State hosts Ohio State today in State College. In recent games Buckeye coach Thad Matta has replaced his starting backcourt of Tony Stockman and Brandon Fuss-Cheatham with new starters Jamar Butler and Je'Kel Foster. Stockman does his best to sound supportive here. (More on PSU-OSU here.)

Iowa hosts Northwestern tonight in Iowa City. Wildcat big man Mike Thompson will not play due to an injured foot. Hawkeye coach Steve Alford says an Iowa win today is "crucial and necessary." Northwestern has won three straight against the Hawkeyes. Adam Rittenberg of the Daily Herald says the "Wildcats' recent mini-surge in Big Ten play is clearly linked to" their defense.

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Annoyed by all the Illinoise, day 3
On Thursday Wonk posted an email from alert reader William L., who said he was "so tired of hearing" that Illinois is the second coming of UCLA under John Wooden. Yesterday your intrepid blogger posted some readers' responses to William. Today we hear from longtime alert reader and die-hard Michigan State fan Shawn.


As the storm grows around William L.'s incendiary and probably widely-held thoughts, I figured I'd strike while the iron is kind of cooling down.

I come to you (and to William) as an Illini convert. Not because they're a great team, or because they beat UW, MSU, and Wake, but because it appears they are about to do the unthinkable: run the table in the Big Ten regular season. Winning ugly is not only a skill, it's an absolutely essential skill for champions and the Illini have got it. My beloved Cleaves-era Spartans had it something fierce, and the upshot is this: All Illini opponents know that regardless of the score with five minutes remaining, the Illini are almost certainly about to beat them. It doesn't matter if the game's in Madison, or if Illinois is shooting 30%, or if Nick Smith is on the court. The opponent's fate is virtually sealed.

To me, this "winning ugly" once in a while isn't indicative of a slump but rather of how a great team deals with life in the depths of the Big Ten season. Who cares about their gaudy assist stats and statement-game blowouts? It's the winning ugly that is going to take them where they want to go.

Shawn M.

Thanks, Shawn!

In honor of Lincoln's Birthday, part 1
Wonk has a pet theory about our nation's 16th and greatest president: his rhetoric was at its most sublime when he was responding to a particular text, whether in reverence (the Declaration of Independence) or in critique (the words of Stephen A. Douglas).

In that spirit if not in that league, Wonk closes today's post with two exercises in assertion and rebuttal. First, here's William's email from Thursday, reprinted here in its entirety:

I am so tired of hearing that this team is the second coming of the Wooden Gang. They are a very nice top-ten type team, currently ranked second in the country by Sagarin. Their only monster game, against Wake, occurred at home. They beat Missouri by only six on a neutral floor, barely beat Iowa at home, had trouble with Purdue and would have lost last night if Michigan had not made unforced turnovers in the last ten minutes.

It is unfortunate if their conditioning is so bad that they cannot travel two hours and play twice in two days, but to excuse their performance based on that factor is tenuous. Illinois has no impressive out of conference road wins, unless you count Georgetown and have scored 60 or less in their last two wins. One Illinois paper defended their performance against a depleted Indiana team by noting that the Illinois had beaten Indiana by more than UNC, apparently not understanding the distinction between playing at home and on the road, perhaps understandable since the Illini seem to have a pathological fear of playing difficult non-conference games on the road.

I like this team. I think that they have great personality, especially Powell and I expect them to go at least to the Elite 8, if not win it all. But you know what? They really stank up the joint last night and they have several times this season. You call it an ugly win. No, Illinois played poorly and would have lost against better opposition. Lucky for them that they do not face the same level of competition that teams in the Big 12 and Big East face.

William L.

William's email has occasioned the following rebuttal from alert reader Matthew F.:

I feel that I must write to dispute, point by point, the email submitted by William L. regarding the Illini.

I will start by saying that I am an Illinois graduate and an unabashed Illini fan (I happen to live in Ann Arbor and attended the ugly win on Tuesday night, and was happy to get the win). I don't know where William's allegiance lies, nor does it really matter.

First, by using Sagarin or the RPI or any other "objective" measure to define the current ranking of Illinois is pointless. These rankings are clearly no more or less meaningful than the AP or Coaches ranking. When a factor such as strength of schedule is used to influence the ranking, it doesn't make it better. I could go on but the point has been made by others.

Second, it would be easy to go to any highly ranked team in the country and point to questionable wins or losses. Kansas barely beat Nebraska in Allen Fieldhouse and Iowa was, at the time of the Illinois game, one heck of a lot better than Nebraska. North Carolina lost to Santa Clara (RPI 131). Duke might have questionable wins, but they haven't played any road/neutral non-conference games of any note either.

Third, as everyone who watched the game could tell, the most important of Michigan turnovers down the stretch were hardly unforced as Dee Brown had three straight steals that led to fastbreak layups, and gave Illinois the lead.

Fourth, you'd be hard pressed to find a team in better condition than Illinois. The guards played an average of 39 minutes in that game and none of them looked fatigued, despite playing high pressure defense for the final eight or nine minutes of the game. It wasn't conditioning that caused the problems, it was a general lack of enthusiasm. They didn't appear to be concerned about how the game was flowing during the late stages of the first half and it led to poor shooting and poor execution on offense and defense.

Fifth, I defy William L. or anyone to better the following: Illinois has posted a 14-0 record against RPI top 100 teams, 10-0 vs. RPI top 50. Of those, 9 (top 100) and 6 (top 50) are road/neutral. Illinois has beaten Gonzaga, Arkansas, Georgetown, Oregon, Missouri, Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Michigan, all in road/neutral settings. Who would you like to compare that to? Kansas, who didn't even leave Allen fieldhouse for their first 11 games? Duke who played only Oklahoma, in MSG? Kentucky, UNC, Syracuse? I can guarantee that there is only one other team in the country that might come close to that kind of record against top-level teams and that's Wake Forest (enough said). To imply that Illinois has "a pathological fear of playing difficult non-conference games on the road" is completely and utterly laughable.

Sixth, the Big East is a very solid conference and I would argue that it is tougher than all but the ACC. I still think that Illinois would be doing fine in the Big East as Georgetown is clearly a contender in that conference and Illinois did play them on the road and we know how that came out. The Big 12 is a different story. I haven't looked it up, but the Big 12 is not what I would consider to be a quality conference, any more so than the Big 10. Outside of Kansas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, they're struggling. You're talking about a conference where Texas is dropping quickly and Texas Tech (the same Tech team that got BLOWN APART by Iowa) is a contender. Please, I would offer that Illinois would be doing as well as Kansas is in the Big 12, if only because they are undefeated as well (quick, who has Kansas played on the road in the Big 12 conference: Iowa State, Colorado, Baylor, Nebraska and Kansas State, not exactly a murderer's row

Is Illinois the "second coming of the Wooden Gang"? No, but I don't think anyone except William L. has said that they are. I think they are a very good basketball team who has met all of the challenges placed in front of them to date. To suppose that they would've lost Tuesday night against better opposition is to suppose that they would've played the same way against better opposition. As the season has shown, they've played better opposition both at home and in road/neutral settings, and the record is the same, undefeated.

"And that's all I have to say about that."

Matthew F.

In honor of Lincoln's Birthday, part 2
The whole point of having a blog, of course, is to give yourself the last word in all such lively discussions as this. But for some strange reason Wonk is feeling charitable this morning and so I'm going to give the much-critiqued William the final say. First, let's start off with Wonk's original response to William's email as seen in this blog's Thursday post:

William, Wonk loved your email because, although I suspect you might disagree, this blogger felt like you took a couple elements implicit in yesterday's post and, in Spinal Tap terms, turned up the volume to 11.

By way of explanation, your intrepid blogger herewith offers five easy theses on Illinois:

1. Illinois has recorded the best start of any Big Ten team for 29 years.
2. In light of (1) there are sure to be rhetorical excesses.
3. The egregiousness of (2) will peak in the aftermath of strong performances (e.g., road wins at Wisconsin and Michigan State).
4. Conversely, there will be rhetorical excesses to the opposite extreme after weak performances (see Iowa and Michigan).
5. Thank heaven this ain't football and it will all be settled definitively come April.

Wonk nails these theses to the blogospheric cathedral door, as it were, merely to suggest that the sentiments in your email, William, are largely propelled by Thesis 2--and on that score you and I can find much to agree on. Most notably, Wonk fully understands and yet at the same time becomes somewhat fatigued by the "road to perfection" meme. Your intrepid blogger is an Illinois graduate. Obviously I would be deliriously happy if the Illini went 39-0 and won the national championship. But you know what? Call me deranged but for some strange reason I feel like I would be deliriously happy if they went 38-1 and won the national championship. Or even (horror of horrors) 37-2.

(In closing, two emendations: Wonk bravely stands by his "ugly win" label for the Michigan game, pugnaciously defying any and all to show how it was neither "ugly" nor a win. This blogger sees no cognitive collision between "ugly win" and stinking up the joint. In fact, the two often go hand in hand. And Wonk always smiles when he sees the "nonconference road win" test employed. What's the best nonconference road win for any team in the nation this year? Maybe Gonzaga's win against Oklahoma State in Oklahoma City. Though not played on the Cowboys' home floor in Stillwater, this game made a big impression on Wonk and on others. Only problem being: the Zags have since stunk up the joint, as it were, losing to the likes of Missouri, St. Mary's, and San Francisco. So include me out as far as making nonconference road wins the dispositive litmus test.)

Now, here is William's rebuttal to Wonk's response.

I really enjoyed your posting today. Just a few comments.

You are correct that I may have succumbed to this media fixation on "quality road wins." I am not sure if it is for monetary reasons or if it is "the same as it ever was," but very few teams in the top ten have impressive out-of-conference road wins. Perhaps, Kansas' win at Kentucky and Wake's win at Cincy are the two biggest that I have found. North Carolina plays at UConn on Sunday. It would have been interesting if the Illinois matchup with the ACC had been at Wake but it was not to be. Georgetown is not bad, but they are not really much of a danger. The Gonzaga win looked better at the time, but then again so did UNC's win at Indiana. Because Wake has not played at North Carolina or Duke yet, it is impossible to determine whether or not they are a "bad" road team. They have lost on the road to soft Georgia Tech and Florida State teams. It may be that Illinois does not need the extra test since they are likely to be playing close to home, but it is good to see different playing styles.

Second, in some ways, the polls do a better job of picking the top team than the tournament. For example, if Illinois comes out of the Big Ten undefeated and ranked number 1, they probably are the best team this year. Now let's see what happens in the tournament. I will give them a 99% chance of winning the first game, followed by an 88% chance, then a 77% in the 3rd, down to 55% in each of the final four games. Now I know that odds will vary, but for illustrative purposes we get (.99*.88*.77*.66*.55*.55)= .13. Thus, it is quite unlikely that the NCAA tournament will crown the "correct" team, unless the talent disparity they possess is extreme, something rarely happening since 1976.

Although we did not get many Big Ten games in my area in 1989, Illinois was probably the best team that year. North Carolina was number one every single week in 1984, and Duke most of 1999, but the winners those years, Michigan and Georgetown and Connecticut were not that far behind those teams.

What the single elimination tournament does do well is make sure mediocre teams are not crowned national champions. Thus, at some point, the Illini are likely to get a true test of their meddle and the rest of us will just have to wait. Many of us basketball fans sure wish there was a Fab 5 or even a decent Bobby Knight team to see them play against in conference, however. I also note that after Carolina's implosion against Duke, Illinois has nudged slightly back ahead in Sagarin.

Finally, as a point of logic, you are unassailably correct that something can be ugly and stink at the same time.

William L.

BONUS unsolicited suggestion for a Lincoln's Birthday activity
Crack open that Lincoln anthology (both the Library of America collection and the Basler compilation are arranged chronologically) and read. Just open the book to anything between, say, 1854 (the Peoria Speech) and early 1860 (Cooper Union). Wonk will be joining you, even on a busy Big Ten hoops day.


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