Big Ten Wonk
Thursday, February 24, 2005
Republicans and Democrats, Red Sox and Yankees, Spartans and Badgers
Michigan State hosts Wisconsin tonight in East Lansing in the latest installment of what has in three short years become the best rivalry in the Big Ten. "Their fans don't like us, our fans don't like them," says Tom Izzo correctly. The rivalry has the most important element for any such feud: both teams are good and have been so for a while now. The games mean something. Never mind the streaks (State's lost six in a row against the Badgers and 12 in a row against ranked teams). This game can be eagerly anticipated on its own merits....

Bo Ryan's team is historically excellent at transition defense and that's precisely the first order of business for any team facing Michigan State's outstanding offense (fourth-best in the nation, behind only Wake Forest, Illinois, and North Carolina, according to Ken Pomeroy's points-per-possession-based ratings). The Badgers may have lost by ten to Illinois in Champaign a week ago Sunday but they allowed precisely 0 fast break points in the process. How will State react tonight if they're not running? More specifically, how will newly installed starting point guard Drew Neitzel react?

These are the two best rebounding teams in the Big Ten but the difference between the first-ranked Spartans and the Badgers is far greater than that between Wisconsin and third-ranked Minnesota--Michigan State is the best rebounding team in the conference by a considerable margin. And the Spartans shoot a significantly better percentage from the floor than do the Badgers. State's playing at home--what could possibly swing this Wisconsin's way?

Two things: 1) the aforementioned transition defense. Michigan State is shooting a nice percentage from the field in part (only in part) because of a nice number of fast-break dunks and lay-ups. The Badgers will try to shut off that faucet. 2) Turnovers. Michigan State averages almost 14 turnovers a game--not catastrophic, by any means, but not great, either. Again, Wonk wants to see how Neitzel reacts under the bright lights. This is by far his biggest start.

Illinois, Michigan State, and Wisconsin are the three best teams in the conference and among those teams there are but five scheduled meetings this season. Tonight's the fifth. Wonk can't wait.

Wisconsin-Michigan State links. The Detroit News has a handy chronology of both Michigan State's 12-game losing streak to ranked opponents and of the Spartans' six-game losing streak against the Badgers. Joe Rexrode of the Lansing State Journal says Bo Ryan "has emerged as MSU fans' favorite villain."...Asked if he thinks Michigan State's players "hate" Wisconsin, Badger big man Mike Wilkinson replies: "'Hate' is a strong word. Maybe dislike a little bit."...Profile of Badger guard Kammron Taylor here....Badger big man Brian Butch is not expected to play. He is still recovering from his bout with mononucleosis.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Minnesota beat Iowa 65-57 in Minneapolis last night. Absent a Big Ten tournament title, the Hawkeyes are going to the NIT for the fourth consecutive year. At 4-9, Steve Alford's team is alone in eighth place in the conference. The Gophers trailed in this game 36-31 with 14 minutes left but were propelled from that point by good shooting from an unlikely source: guard Aaron Robinson hit four second-half three's to lead Dan Monson's team on a 26-7 run. ("Every time I found A-Rob," offers Gopher wing Vincent Grier, "I said, 'Shoot it with confidence, baby.'") Grier had 17 points and Gopher big man Jeff Hagen added 17 rebounds, including 11 offensive boards. "They were hitting shots, and when they weren't hitting shots they were getting offensive rebounds," sums up Iowa guard Adam Haluska. Briskly done, Adam! Indeed, the Gophers recorded a robust 20 offensive boards on 46 opportunities. To Jeff Horner, though, "It's just another frustrating loss." Des Moines Register columnist Sean Keeler leads off this morning's commentary with an obituary for Iowa's NCAA hopes: "After battling a prolonged illness, Iowa's NCAA Tournament dream died Wednesday night. It was 26 games old." (Keeler keeps the shtick going through the third paragraph: "A preliminary autopsy showed the likely cause of death to be shoddy coaching, compounded by a thin bench, butterflies, sloppy ballhandling, lack of focus and non-existent outside shooting.")

Minnesota plays at Purdue Saturday and at Penn State next Wednesday. If they win both, they will be in excellent position, at 10-6 in conference, to make the dance. If they lose one, they're probably on the outside looking in.

Illinois beat Northwestern 84-48 in Champaign last night. The win clinches at least a share of the Big Ten title for the Illini, their fourth in five seasons. The Illini were at their ball-moving best (22 assists on 32 field goals--"best ball movement I've ever seen in my life," according to one observer named Dee Brown). On one memorable first-half sequence Wonk counted 14 passes leading to a wide open Brown three. Brown scored 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting (6-of-8 on three's) and Roger Powell recorded a double-double with 18 points and 10 boards. Illinois shot .593 from the field and .609 on their three's (14-of-23, coincidentally, the same line from beyond the arc recorded by Indiana in Ann Arbor the other day). Chicago Sun-Times columnist Greg Couch says Roger Powell "is a lot more important to this team than anyone has ever said." Couch's colleague at the Sun-Times, Herb Gould, says Brown is "playing his way into the Big Ten MVP hunt, which some experts have been conceding to Deron Williams or Luther Head." (Mark Tupper agrees.) As for Brown himself, he's bullish on the Illini. "We've got the things that make you win in March and April: Defense, free-throw shooting and rebounding." Wildcat coach Bill Carmody says Brown and Luther Head have elevated their games: "They've improved. Now they're two of the better long-range shooters in the league. No one thought that two years ago." (Carmody also dismissed talk that Illinois may not be the best team in the country: "If it's not the best team, we're in a lot worse shape than I thought.") Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper blogs that Illinois may not "have another game like this, and maybe the players sensed it."...Illinois players say they'll be cheering for Michigan State tonight in the Spartans' game against Wisconsin. A Michigan State loss tonight would give the outright Big Ten title to the Illini but the men in orange say they want to win it themselves on their home floor against Purdue next Thursday on Senior Night.

Michigan beat Penn State 63-48 in Ann Arbor last night. Wolverine guard Dion Harris scored 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting. It was Michigan's first win since January 15 (also against Penn State--Tommy Amaker should schedule them more) and the home crowd responded with a standing ovation at the final horn. Afterward Amaker sounded relieved: "It's been a while since we could celebrate in the locker room and sing the Victors." (More here.)

Indefatigable Indiana beat writer Terry Hutchens of the Indianapolis Star has posted the latest installment of his outstanding "Ask the Expert" Q&A column.

Kyle Whelliston has competition! Craig DeVrieze of the Quad City Times says a relative dearth of strength in the middle-sections of the "power" conferences has left some so-called mid-majors with some gaudy RPI's this year, including Vermont (RPI 13) and Southern Illinois (RPI 16), not to mention a more obvious program in Spokane.

For what it's worth (and when you see that expression it means it's worth nothing), Frank Burlison of the Sporting News has chosen his 15 Wooden Award finalists and Illinois accounts for an impressive 20 percent of Burlison's picks. Dee Brown, Luther Head and Deron Williams all merit consideration, according to Burlison.

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Whither Alford?

How close is "the enemy" to Steve Alford right now? (You remember his Des Moines Register interview...)

I'd love to see you share some of your analysis on ole Steve sometime.

Love the site. Great job.

Will M.

Wonk was intrigued by this email because your intrepid blogger opened it soon after last night's Hawkeye loss to Minnesota and thought: "Wow, that was fast." But closer scrutiny of the time revealed Will had sent this before the game.

Small distinction but perhaps an important one: if Iowa had won last night they would stand an excellent chance of winning their remaining games (actually, they still do) and perhaps wriggling into the NCAA tournament at 8-8 and 20-9. But now they need to win the Big Ten tournament.

Alford is 105-81 at Iowa (.565) and just 38-55 in conference (.409). Attendance has dropped at Hawkeye home games for four consecutive years to the point where now--again, on average--there are almost 4,000 empty seats in Carver-Hawkeye for every game. And the two-part two-year Pierre Pierce kerfuffle certainly did Alford no favors.

The coach serves at the pleasure of his athletic director and his university. They will look at those facts and make their call. Wonk certainly claims no exclusive omniscience or even particular interest where Hawkeye AD Bob Bowlsby and his conscience are concerned. This blogger knows only that Tom Davis's few down years were the parentheses in a strong program--and that Alford was hired in Iowa City to take that strong program to the next level. No one, least of all Alford himself, is claiming he's done it yet.

Whether he'll be given the opportunity to continue to try, well, we'll see.


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