Big Ten Wonk
Thursday, February 10, 2005
Will the center hold?
Momentarily leaving aside the teams at the top of the conference standings (defined as three losses or fewer: Illinois, Michigan State, and Wisconsin) and those at the bottom (defined as eight losses or more: Purdue and Penn State), Wonk wishes to direct your attention today to the Big Ten's vital center: six teams whose fates for 2005 (with the self-declared exception of Ohio State) are still yet to be placed with finality on the tournament or non-tournament side of the ledger. (And, of course, any team, including Penn State or Purdue, could win the Big Ten tournament and go to the big dance. Duly noted.) From bottom to top those teams are:

Michigan (12-12, 3-7)
Yes, yes, Wonk sees the alert readers scratching their heads and saying, "Michigan? Why are we even discussing this? They've lost seven in a row." Indeed they have. And yet if by some strange chance they were able to win out they would stand at 18-12 overall and 9-7 in conference--classic bubble numbers. Not bloody likely, to be sure: the Wolverines play at Wisconsin next Wednesday night. And first Tommy Amaker's team would have to take care of business Saturday at home against Michigan State--no mean feat, that. In other words, this, absent a win Saturday, is the last conceivable moment when Michigan can even rate inclusion in a discussion such as this. Tuesday against Illinois they shot the ball well and limited their own turnovers. (Even though the outcome swung on crucial second-half TO's coughed up by the Wolverines, statistically they had their best game in a long while in this category.) If they can bring that kind of elevated performance to teams that aren't number 1, they have their last minuscule chance to salvage their season.

Iowa (15-7, 3-6)
You know those curious cases where a person has some inexplicable and injurious mishap visited upon them on the same day every year? One year they go skiing and break a leg. The next year on the same day they're in a car accident. And the year after that on the very same day they spill some boiling water and burn themselves. Steve Alford's like that. Every year his team comes to the Big Ten season with high hopes--and some years, such as this one, those hopes are justified. And yet somehow every year those hopes are dashed. This year the Hawkeyes have shown surprising resilience without Pierre Pierce--but they have nothing to show for it, losing closely-contested games at home against Michigan State and on the road against Wisconsin (see below). They too are now in a position where they must win out to justify serious consideration for a tournament bid. Meaning they must win next Saturday when Illinois comes to Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Northwestern (11-11, 4-6)
The Wildcats did something last night they had not done all year, in or out of conference: they won on the home floor of an opponent, beating Minnesota 55-53 (see below). They need to do the same thing Saturday at Iowa and in two weeks at Illinois. Will they? No.

Ohio State (16-8, 5-5)
The Buckeyes, of course, will not go to the NCAA or for that matter the NIT due to self-imposed sanctions resulting from infractions that occurred under previous coach Jim O'Brien. But let us ask the parlor-game question (for this is what blogs do): will their record at the end of the year be such that they would have gone if not for their own preemption? It just might. Ohio State finishes the season with road games at Penn State, Minnesota, and Iowa, and with home games against Indiana, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Personally Wonk feels like the best the Buckeyes could reasonably hope for from that stretch is 4-2, which would leave them 20-10 and 9-7. Win a couple games in the Big Ten tournament and on paper you're a definite maybe. One prediction that is safe: if something like this does indeed play out, watch for much earnest debate over whether it was "fair to the kids in the program now" for Ohio State to impose its own postseason ban.

Indiana (10-10, 5-4)
With just four losses in conference as we approach mid-February, the Hoosiers are in a better spot than many would have thought possible a month ago. This Saturday's game against Minnesota in Bloomington is therefore the weightiest game of the year so far in the Big Ten in terms of bubble-ish consequences. A win for the Gophers rights the ship and puts them solidly on course for a tournament berth while painting Indiana into a must-win-out corner. Conversely, a win for the home team Saturday vaults Indiana ahead of Minnesota in the standings and would make the Hoosiers the "buzz" team du jour for those looking with increasing desperation for the occasional non-Illinois discursive topic.

Minnesota (16-7, 6-4)
See "Northwestern" and "Indiana" above: after their disastrous home loss last night to the Wildcats, Minnesota can recoup instantly with a win Saturday. And that's precisely what they need to do because their next game is also on the road, against Michigan State.

Big Ten Wonk: bravely quashing incipient urban legends in hoops since 2004
Wonk has noted with alarm a wholly erroneous and thus disturbing piece of ersatz insta-wisdom being passed around in the immediate aftermath of Illinois' ungainly 57-51 win over Michigan Tuesday night. It is being said of this game that the Wolverines "played zone."

Define "played."

Tommy Amaker's team used a zone defense on perhaps three Illini first half possessions (with questionable success--one of those possessions being Dee Brown's four-point play). In the second half Michigan, it's true, played one sustained period of zone defense but even this was only about four minutes in duration, from roughly the 15 minute mark to 11. (And this, of course, is precisely when Illinois made their move, going from eight down at the beginning of this stretch to two down at the end of it.) And then, somewhat oddly, the Wolverines played zone on one more possession at about the nine minute mark. After this, Michigan soon trailed and thus did not show the zone again. Thus by Wonk's conservative ballparking, Michigan showed a zone on perhaps 15 percent of the Illini's possessions.

Let us have no more of this hoary canard.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Northwestern beat Minnesota 55-53 in Minneapolis last night in a game eerily reminiscent of Iowa's disastrous loss to the Wildcats in Evanston on January 26. Like the Hawkeyes, the Gophers seemed in control late in the game, leading by ten with four minutes left. From that point forward, however, Minnesota attempted just one field goal and missed three of six free throws while coughing the ball up three times. For the game the Gophers recorded a generous 23 turnovers. (Gosh, maybe point guards are necessary!) Oddest box score of the year nominee: Vincent Grier scored 32 points; Minnesota outrebounded the Cats by 21; and the home team attempted 20 more free throws than the visitors--and yet Minnesota lost. (Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse thinks he may have seen "the first sign of overconfidence" last night in the Gophers--and they paid for it. Indefatigable Star Tribune Gopher beat writer Jeff Shelman says the loss will leave a "mark that might last until mid-March." Equally indefatigable Minnesota beat writer Rick Alonzo of the St. Paul Pioneer Press says the home team "met with a dose of reality in its first game since joining the Big Ten Conference's elite.")

Wisconsin beat Iowa 72-69 in Madison last night. In what is becoming a drearily familiar ritual, Steve Alford used his postgame comments after a close road loss to complain of a discrepancy in free throw attempts (35 to 14), even though his Hawkeyes were hacking intentionally the last couple minutes and thus tacked on a quick 10 FTA's for the Badgers right there. Iowa led this game by 13 with 12 minutes and change left in the second half but the Hawkeyes scored just two points over the ensuing eight minutes. BONUS note to Iowa opponents: the Hawkeyes are playing well without Pierre Pierce. Turnovers are down and shooting pct. is up. Cause-and-effect or post hoc ergo propter hoc? You make the call! (Wisconsin State Journal columnist Tom Oates notes the absence last night of Wisconsin's Zach Morley (injured leg) and Brian Butch (mononucleosis), as well as of Iowa's Pierre Pierce (Pierre Pierce) and says "the race to see who will finish second to Illinois is looking more and more like a war of attrition." Additional Badger links here and here. Hawkeye links here and here. Pierce update: the Iowa guard was arraigned yesterday on felony charges of burglary and domestic assault, among other counts of the indictment. Nevertheless, Pierce appears to be continuing with his appeal for reinstatement to the team. More wall-to-wall Pierce here and here.)

Michigan State beat Ohio State 83-69 in East Lansing last night. Spartan guard Chris Hill, benched by Tom Izzo at the start of the last two games, came in as a reserve and scored 26 points on 8-of-10 shooting. (Lansing State Journal columnist Todd Schulz says last night's most important win "took place inside Hill's head." George Sipple of the Detroit Free Press says "Hill needed only the first half against Ohio State on Wednesday night to shake a shooting slump that had lasted the first half of the Big Ten season." (Wonk says: verily, beware. Slumps don't end. They come and go as they please.) Additional Spartan links here, here, and here. Buckeye links here and here.)

Purdue beat Penn State 77-50 in West Lafayette last night. (Links here and here.)

There are off-days for Illinois players but not for Illinois beat writers. Columnist Barry Rozner of the Daily Herald says Illinois is winning as a team and without the benefit of a bona fide superstar. Jim O'Donnell of the Chicago Sun-Times says Illinois' six-point win over Michigan Tuesday night revealed three disturbing truths about the Illini: "The effectiveness of the Illinois bench is disappearing. The jump shot of Deron Williams is about as dependable as Iraqi currency. And the Illini remain subject to Orange Krush-rattling stretches of extraordinarily snoozy offense." Neil Milbert of the Chicago Tribune says "Bruce Weber is worried about his bench." John Supinie of the Copley News Service says Dee Brown is looking at the close call against Michigan as an opportunity to benefit from "a teaching point without tasting defeat." On a more positive note, oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper blogs that he's having a tough time filling out the ballot for the All-Big-Ten Team and that his "struggle to identify Illinois’ team MVP is a good sign, of course. It signifies balance, unpredictability and the trouble teams have in defending Illinois."

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Annoyed by all the Illinoise
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 Illini 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, 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.)


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