Need a fourth?Just 20 days to go until selection Sunday and, like a desperate threesome on the first tee, the Big Ten is still tapping its foot nervously and watching for a fourth team to join Illinois, Michigan State, and Wisconsin as sure-thing's for tournament bids. Don't get Wonk wrong: a fifth such team would be wonderful--as would a sixth and indeed (like the old days) a seventh. But your intrepid blogger, dedicated blogospheric servant that he is, deals in facts and the fact right now is that only three teams have secured bids. As a matter of appearances, a fourth would be nice.And so your intrepid blogger has a suggestion for fans of the conference: come Thursday morning, root for the winner of Wednesday's Minnesota-Iowa game. Now, let Wonk be plain: this blogger has nothing at all against, say, Indiana and, indeed, would be thrilled to pieces if all three of the above made the tournament. But....1) As of this morning Indiana has an RPI (81) that makes on-lookers turn away in Edvard Munch-level horror--doubtless the selection committee will do the same (if they even get as far as looking). And their 7-5 record in conference is nice (as was their road win at Ann Arbor yesterday--see below) but keep in mind that to this point far they've played the big three of Illinois, Michigan State, and Wisconsin a grand total of...twice. That's about to change as the Hoosiers host the Spartans and then journey to Madison in the next eight days. (Minnesota and Iowa, by teachable contrast, have each played four games against those three teams and are safely past that section of their schedules.)2) At 67, Iowa's RPI is but 14 places higher than the Hoosiers'--less horrifying at first blush, granted, but still in the highly-questionable 60s. Not to mention the following NC-17 fact that's going tactfully unmentioned but that Wonk feels should be brought before the public in a responsible and mature fashion: as of this weekend Iowa is actually a game behind Northwestern in the Big Ten standings. So Wednesday's game between the Hawkeyes and the Gophers (RPI 54) is shaping up as a true Bubble Bowl: the loser will not make the tournament (unless they win the Big Ten tournament).Here's how we got to this point.... Indiana beat Michigan 70-63 in Ann Arbor yesterday in a game that bids fair to win this blogger's 1997 Florida Marlins Commemorative Fluke Award. Stat-watchers such as Wonk don't wish to admit that such things exist but here, truly, was a game indicative of absolutely nothing, to wit: the Hoosiers shot .609 on their three's (not a typo--they were 14-of-23). Not bad for a team that entered the weekend as the worst team in the conference at shooting three's. (This single game lifted them to ninth.) And inside the arc Indiana was just 7-of-23 (.304). Errek Suhr (yes, Errek Suhr) entered the game with six career points. He was 3-of-4 on his threes. Marshall Strickland came in shooting .265 on his three's. He went 4-of-6 from behind the arc. Tommy Amaker wins this week's Bob Newhart Award for outstanding achievement in the field of understatement for this sum-up: "Indiana's ability to hit three-point shots was a key." "Amazing," Hoosier beat writer Terry Hutchens says of IU's sudden accuracy in this morning's Indianapolis Star. Hutchens' colleague at the Star, columnist Bob Kravitz, says this Indiana team is still alive: "Barely." At least until tomorrow night's game between the Hoosiers and Purdue, Michigan is all alone in tenth place in the conference, above only Penn State. "It's been a motivating factor every time we lose a game," said Wolverine big man Brent Petway after the game. By that metric, Michigan--having lost ten straight--is now one of the most highly motivated teams in the country. Former Wolverine great Glen Rice was honored at halftime of yesterday's game and his jersey was retired. Michigan played having just learned that guard Daniel Horton's suspension will be carried through to the end of this season. Columnist Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News cries foul: "I'm impressed by the way [Michigan] stood up for a principle. I'd be more impressed if they also stood up for the player, who had never been in trouble with the law." Illinois beat Iowa 75-65 Saturday in Iowa City. This game's being compared to the one played between the same two teams in Champaign January 20. It shouldn't be. The Hawkeyes may "match up well" with the Illini and it certainly looked that way a month ago when Steve Alford's team limited the men in orange to .328 shooting from the field. Funny thing about Saturday's game, though: with the exceptions of rebounds and opponent FTA's (see below), Illinois pretty much had its normal numbers. Bruce Weber will take 10 turnovers and 75 points on .481 shooting on the road any day. So why was this contest so close (just a two-point game with four minutes left)?1) Because Illinois, a slightly better rebounding team than Iowa, got absolutely hammered on the boards, 36-21. Watching this strange twist of fate occur, Wonk thought of the CSTV behind-the-scenes look at the Illini (due to be aired next month), in which Bruce Weber is seen going ballistic in practice and screaming: "Is it written somewhere that Illinois guards don't have to rebound?" Nor do the non-James-Augustine Illini bigs escape blame: Augustine had eight boards; no one else in orange had more than three. Roger Powell has an excuse: he played just 11 minutes. But Jack Ingram, Nick Smith, and Warren Carter (given minutes due to Rich McBride's flu-like symptoms) between them totaled 37 minutes and only four boards. Unconscionable.2) Iowa shot 26 free throws. Which doesn't sound like all that many (and indeed Illinois shot 23) until you remember that the Hawkeyes attempted only 43 field goals (even with all those rebounds) in a game with 140 total points. If they hadn't given the visitors 21 turnovers, Iowa was on course to shoot an honest 30-plus FTA's. (By "honest" Wonk means uninflated by late hacking by an opponent trying to come from behind.) And, make no mistake, they need those trips to the line. Wonk suddenly understands Alford's owlish fascination with FTA's and his ritual complaints after road losses about his team not getting enough of them. But your intrepid blogger worries about the effect this stratagem is having on the Hawkeyes: they play very much like a team looking to outside forces (e.g., refs) to help them out--instead of like a team (e.g., Illinois) looking to get the damn W no matter what. BONUS puzzling over Haluska. Wonk has already been known to wonder aloud about Adam Haluska's strange lack of court sense. Well, your intrepid blogger herewith wonders again. I am told the guy is an Iowa high-school hoops (and track) legend but at times he looks for all the world like some Belgian prodigy who was just introduced to the game two years ago. The latest example being his two very odd fouls on Dee Brown on breakaways. These Basketball 101 lapses were more aesthetically jarring than truly harmful (together the two miscues cost the Hawkeyes one point) but, still, in what Iowa was hoping was going to be a close game they were very prominent indeed.Steve Alford does Wonk's job! Check it out: "We threw about everything we had at them. We made more free throws than they did and we outrebounded them by 15, but they still beat us by 10. They just don’t seem to feel any pressure.” So how'd the Illini do it, Coach? "One team turned it over 11 more times. You can't give the No. 1 team 11 more times to score; that's too much for our team to overcome." Briskly done, Steve! That about sums it up. Columnist Pat Harty of the Iowa City Press-Citizen, conversely, does not share Wonk's high opinion of Alford's skills at summation. "Just when you think [Alford] has said the wrong things at the wrong time for the last time," Harty writes, "he does it again." Specifically, Harty thinks Alford is deflecting blame when he utters the following observation: "Good teams, good players, they find a way to make plays, and we've got to learn those things." Meanwhile Harty's colleague at the Press-Citizen, Hawkeye beat writer Susan Harman, says Illinois "met every challenge with poise born of experience, talent and confidence."Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper blogs that Saturday's game included what for him will be remembered as the play of the year for these Illini: with three minutes to play in the game, Luther Head deflected a Hawkeye inbound pass and then saved it from going out of bounds by flipping it back over his head. From there Augustine outjumped two Iowa players to tap it to Deron Williams. Williams bumped it ahead to Brown. Brown made the fast-break layup and was fouled by Haluska. Not a bad choice by Tupper....The indefatigable Tupper doesn't just blog, he writes a column! In yesterday's piece, Tupper talks about Nick Smith: inappropriately loquacious with his laments of too little playing time earlier in the week, needlessly silent in heroic victory Saturday afternoon. Alas. (More coverage of the strong silent Smith here and here.)Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Downey says this game "was a little more exciting than the Exciting Illini would have liked it to be. It was one of their poorest performances and one of their tightest games from beginning to end." "Credit Dee Brown, who's hot," says Herb Gould of the Chicago Sun-Times, "and Nick Smith, who has been feeling left out in the cold, for making the big plays down the stretch." Steve Alford says the Hawkeyes have been able to hang with the Illini and their "war-tested" backcourt twice this season largely because they've contained Roger Powell....Deron Williams admits he, too, has been surprised by this team. "At the start of the year, I don't think there was any way to think we'd be undefeated at this point."...Bill Liesse of the Peoria Journal Star says he knows Illini-mania is reaching truly Beatles-in-'64 proportions because "half the autograph seekers in Saturday's postgame wore gold and black." Liesse also says the adulation is deserved because the Illinois guards are without equal: "Be honest, now. Can anyone picture any of Illinois' guards panicking like UNC's Ray Felton did on the last possession at Duke?" Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti still thinks it would be best for Illinois to lose a game before the big dance. This time he advances the theory that the media coverage of an undefeated team (including scrutiny of its less sunny aspects--see next paragraph) will quickly intensify to the point where it could engulf the heretofore happy Illini. David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune takes another look at the November 2003 "incident" in which Luther Head allegedly participated in a break-in at an off-campus apartment. "The contrast," Haugh notes, "between the way Illinois coach Bruce Weber handled the incident—he suspended Head and two teammates for four games but welcomed them back to the team—and the disposition of criminal cases involving other Big Ten basketball players is still bothersome to some people." WANTED: An Iowa media guru, to explain to Wonk how in the world the Des Moines Register could have only this wire story on its website as late as mid-day Sunday when the number 1 team in the nation has played a road game against the state's flagship university. (Since then, the Register has at last posted this write up from its beat writer--but why the delay?) The last time your intrepid blogger noted such a coverage anomaly in our Big Ten hoops world, it had taken place in the byzantine world of Detroit media and the explanation (befuddling to the not-very-bright Wonk yet transparently obvious to many alert readers who chimed in with an avalanche of emails) involved something about overlapping newspaper ownerships, joint operating agreements, the Bretton Woods Agreement, and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. I'm sure something equally odd yet locally understood is at work in this instance. But what is that exactly? Clue me in!BONUS note about the showers. Just about every story on this game mentions the fact that the Illini had no hot water at their Iowa City hotel Saturday morning. Wonk demands a full investigation! Three years ago your intrepid blogger lived in Sacramento when the Lakers came to town for the Western Conference Finals and Kobe Bryant was seriously slowed for game 2 because of a bad cheeseburger he ordered from room service at a downtown Sacramento hotel. The subsequent coverage and investigation of this episode was perhaps equaled in modern times only by the Starr Report. Wonk confidently awaits the similarly-sized onslaught of second-wave stories here.Minnesota beat Ohio State 52-50 in Minneapolis Saturday. The Buckeyes shot just .358 from the field, were outrebounded by 13, and attempted (per usual for Thad Matta's team) only eight free throws. Yet they only lost by two. For their part the Gophers recorded a notable eight blocks. Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan says the Gophers are OK with winning ugly, which is why Jeff Hagen "is their perfect poster player." Souhan's colleague at the Star Tribune, Jeff Shelman, says "when a game is seemingly played in mud, the Gophers probably are going to win." Michigan State beat Purdue 68-57 in West Lafayette Saturday. Carl Landry was hobbled by an injured knee suffered in practice the day before and was limited to just seven points, a season-low. Gene Keady termed his team's performance "embarrassing." "We lacked making that one big play," said Purdue guard David Teague. The home loss ensures that the Boilers will post their first losing season at home in the history of the 38-year-old Mackey Arena. (The game served as a reunion for many former Boilers who returned to Mackey to honor Keady. No-shows included Glenn Robinson and Brian Cardinal.) Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz says for Matt Painter to turn things around in West Lafayette, he needs to start keeping the in-state talent in-state....Indefatigable Detroit News Spartan beat writer Dave Dye points out that State's won five games on the road in conference by an average of over 15 points. Chris Hill says quieting a crowd on the road is as good as it gets: "That's one of the best feelings. To be on the road and be able to hear silence." Drew Neitzel scored a career-high 10 points and self-assesses: "I'm playing my best ball." Northwestern beat Penn State 54-39 Saturday in Evanston, the latest in a series of archetypal Welsh-Ryan Arena scores. In what turned out to be a futile attempt to shake things up, PSU coach Ed DeChellis shuffled his lineup and gave first-ever starts to who-dat's Kevin Fellows and Jason McDougald. The Wildcats can still qualify for the NIT if they win two of their final four games.In today's less Wonk-ish venues.... Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline weighs in on this fourth-bid stuff that's got Wonk so intrigued and says: Iowa's done but Minnesota is still alive.Illinois coach Bruce Weber says he wants Dee Brown to cut down on the fouls....Skip Myslenski of the Chicago Tribune looks at "other contenders" for the national championship here. (No, Wonk doesn't understand the list, either. At first I thought it was comprised of teams that could end up in the same regional as the Illini but then I saw Michigan State. Maybe the print edition explains the rationale behind this odd piece?)...Illinois says it's taking its next three opponents seriously, etc., etc....The Illini are rewriting the record book, etc., etc. Wonk back! Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me! The alert readers are all "discoursey for DeCourcy"!Wonk received many, many interesting emails in response to Friday's interview of Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News. Your intrepid blogger will try to work as many of them in this week as practicable. Here's a taste....Wonk,Great interview. Great blog. I think the point by DeCourcy about UNLV '91 was right on the mark. Skip Prosser made a point earlier this year about enjoying the season, during a campaign where Wake fans are probably just as desperate to win a title as the Illini. Roy Williams, when asked about his 1997 Kansas team and whether that team was successful, noted that they only lost two close games, one in overtime, had success in the classroom and sent several players to the NBA. Yes, I'd say that season was one of the greatest of all time. Somehow, in the minds of the media, a close loss in the Elite Eight makes one a loser.Statistically, this is rubbish. Illinois fans need to know that as long as this team makes it to the Elite Eight, which I think they will, that this season has been fantastic. After that, there is too little to separate the top teams (barring early round upsets) to take the final results too seriously. Statisticians can chime in, but I believe the concepts of probability indicate that both luck and skill are necessary unless there is a huge talent gap. The 1976 Indiana team had 2 starters on the Olympic team. The 1973 UCLA team had Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes in the starting line-up. Both won fairly easily. Fast-forward to 1982. UNC had James Worthy, Sam Perkins and Michael Jordan on the same team and barely won, and almost lost in Charlotte against James Madison University. While there is no longer a hard stall in college ball, top teams must now contend with more talent spread more evenly, as well as the 3 point shot, which adds another level of variability.Another issue is when do certain teams peak. UConn has an amazing amount of talent and athleticism on their club, maybe more than Kansas or UNC. Will they be ready? Probably not. Did the Illini peak too early? Maybe. Nevertheless, it is impossible at this point, to tell if Illinois is better than the rest of the top five. That is why many of us enjoy the Sagarin and Pomeroy ratings so much, and which indicate that Illinois may be a hair better than another team that appears on ESPN more often than the Illini. Illini fans do seem a tad defensive if anyone questions whether some other team might be just as good or better.Illinois is probably the coolest team this year, which is always a lot of fun to be, so Illini fans should relish that and really try to enjoy this amazing, efficient ballclub. One final note, after re-analyzing the Wake-Illinois box score, I find it difficult to surmise how Wake could ever beat Illinois, even in a re-match in St. Louis. Blow-outs involving equal teams often involve a string of five or six 3-pointers, or massive turnovers, leading to one team becoming discouraged, sort of like the Villanova-Kansas game. That is not what appears to have happened in the Wake game. Both Illinois and Wake are excellent 3-point shooting teams and that part of the game was fairly equal. (10-24 for Wake, versus 11-26 for Ill.). Rebounds and turnovers were also essentially equal. Wake made five more free throws. Perhaps the key stat is that Illinois had nine more assists. Match-ups often make games--like Frazier, Ali, Foreman, where A beats B and B beats C and C beats A. I don't know how Wake could change this result if they play the Illini again, even on a neutral court. Now as for Kansas or Carolina or Duke, who knows. I have not heard many Wake fans clamoring for a second shot at the Illini, the way UNC fans are itching to play Duke and Wake again after highly contested losses. Wake has a great shot at winning it all, but I think they are hoping that someone else can take out the Illini.Regards,William L.Thanks, William!DATELINE: the shallow end of the Gene PoolLong-time alert reader Dave N., die-hard Michigan State fan that he is, made the trip to West Lafayette for Saturday's game against Purdue. He files this report on observing the twilight of a legend....Wonk,The Sparties controlled the whole way and, unlike last year's game, the final result was never in doubt. Purdue came out playing well on the defensive end, but unfortunately for them so did State (which Izzo said was the best tribute the team could pay to Keady--true, but I can hear Keady saying: thanks!).Stationed, as I was, at the furthest point possible away from Gene Keady (and unable to ascertain a way down to floor level), I still do not know if he is actually bald or not. The scene that occurred when he got T'd up, though, gives some evidence that he really doesn't have any hair (or conversely has a pomade that doubles as super glue!). Upon learning he'd been assessed a technical he went into his usual semi-burlesque disrobe with half-twist. At this point I fixed my eyes upon his GLORIOUS DOME and was not able to ascertain a single hair move; not even slightly! Wonder of wonders, Gene has been deceiving us all: perhaps his coiffure is really a tattoo, or perhaps something even more exotic! Unfortunately I will not be able to find out until he begins his second career: male stripper. I mean come on, the deftness with which he removed that size 48 sport coat; the half-twist (on one leg mind you) is sure to drive the women wild. Gene, basketball's loss is every woman's gain and I support your new life. Mackey was great--quaint and not a bad seat in the house. It really is too bad that Keady has to go out like this. Hopefully he can take one last game at home next Saturday. Nuff said, take care. Dave N.Well done, Dave!