Big Ten Wonk
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
Wolverine ugly
Michigan lost by 17 at home last week to Minnesota and last Saturday they lost on the road by 26 at Ohio State. Yet last night they gave number 1 and undefeated Illinois a game and lost by just six, 57-51. Is this the beginning of a resurrection for the Wolverines or a sign of weakness in the Illini?


This game was played in three parts. With a little more than 11 minutes left in the first half, Illinois led 18-8. Michigan then enjoyed its best 16 minutes of the year and went on a 26-8 run, resulting in a 34-26 Wolverine lead with 15 minutes left in the game. Then the Illini closed the contest with a 31-17 spurt of their own.

The Wolverines threw out their normal offense (and why not, after losing six straight) and sprang a new look on the Illini ("a fake motion offense" Bruce Weber termed it afterward), taking almost every possession under 10 on the shot clock. It worked and, for a good deal of the night, Illinois helped it work. In two separate teachable instances, Roger Powell and Jack Ingram were caught out of position on post feeds. Both plays resulted in baskets and fouls and three-point opportunities. (Weber yanked Powell out of the game after his demonstration of this trend.) Tommy Amaker also mixed his defenses, even showing a box-and-one on one possession, with the lone man-to-man defender chasing Luther Head. (High praise indeed for Head--and kudos to Steve Lavin for spotting the set instantly. Wonk stands by his Nixonian theory of Lavin--as long as I don't have to see the guy, I like him.) And the Illini helped the Wolverines slow the game by missing their own shots for the middle half of the game--a slow tempo's best friend is a defensive rebound.

Also putting the wind at Michigan's back was the fact that they were playing demonstrably their best game of the year. Wonk has alluded previously to this remarkable fact regarding Tommy Amaker's team: In every Big Ten game this year the Wolverines have either been outrebounded or they've given their opponent at least 20 turnovers. Last night was the first night that neither occurred. The rebounding was a wash (Michigan plus four) and the Wolverines coughed up a respectable 13 turnovers (to Illinois' five). Dion Harris (21 points) and Courtney Sims (15) both had their A game on display (and in Harris's case the A game consists of 7-of-17 shooting--good but not unconscious).

Yet last night was still another occasion when Illinois won despite the fact that they were off. You knew it wasn't their night when Dee Brown lost his own dribble and gave up an unforced turnover on a breakaway--ordinarily about as likely as seeing Deron Williams pass up an opportunity for an assist. But it was Brown, of course, who eventually came to the rescue, making the steals and layups that woke up the Illini and quieted the crowd. And Brown's behind-the-back assist to James Augustine for an open dunk was one of the three prettiest dishes Wonk has seen all year.

After playing on Sunday and arriving in Ann Arbor on Tuesday morning due to a weather delay, the Illini had no legs. Bruce Weber told his team the single day of rest is exactly what they'll see in the NCAA's. Yes, but in the tournament the opposing team will also be operating within that same one-day window.

You'd never know it to have watched the game live but Illinois actually shot an OK .438 from the floor. Kudos to oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper for this observation: "Of Illinois' final 22 points scored in the game, there were four layups, four dunks and six free throws." For the game Illinois shot .583 on their two-point attempts and .292 on their three's.

So it's a win for the Illini, an escape. One question as Bruce Weber's team inches closer to the coveted 1-seed: is the eight-man rotation truly just a six-man rotation when the going gets tough? Rich McBride and Nick Smith both sat the entire second half last night.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Illinois-Michigan links. Detroit News columnist Rob Parker says: "This is how Michigan should have played against Minnesota, Wisconsin and Purdue. Had they, the Wolverines might be staring at a trip to the NCAA tournament instead of seven straight losses." Parker's colleague at the News, Jim Spadafore, says this "loss could still be something to build on" for Michigan. (More from the indefatigable Spadafore here.) John Eligon of the Detroit Free Press says even though the maize and blue played their best game of the year, "top-ranked Illinois was simply out of the Wolverines' league." Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti says Tommy Amaker "provided a textbook peek at how to make Illinois vulnerable come March: bleed the clock, settle for one shot and remove Brown and the blurry transition game from the equation." More Illini coverage here, here, here, and here.

Michigan State hosts Ohio State tonight in East Lansing. Spartan guard Chris Hill, averaging just 6.4 points a game in conference play, says he has to "make sure the shots I take are good, quality shots." Tom Izzo says Hill "needs to shoot well if we're going to make a serious run at anything." Hill's position in the starting lineup was given to Drew Neitzel for the first time at Iowa on Saturday. (More from the Neitzel watch here.) On a more positive note, Izzo says Paul Davis has quietly developed into State's best interior defender since the glory days of the 2000 national champions. For his part Ohio State coach Thad Matta calls the Breslin Center in East Lansing "one of the hardest places to play in the country."

Wisconsin hosts Iowa tonight in Madison. Badger forward Alando Tucker says he's healthy at last. (More from the Tucker podiatric watch here.) Meanwhile the Hawkeyes are still looking for their first road win in conference. "We just need victories," says Iowa forward Greg Brunner. Steve Alford says the Badgers "don't beat themselves." (Hawkeye's view of the Badgers here.)

Minnesota hosts Northwestern tonight in Minneapolis. Indefatigable Gopher beat writer Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune lays out five steps to an NCAA bid for Dan Monson's team here. Gopher wing Brent Lawson says: "When you're winning games it's a lot easier to have fun."

Purdue hosts Penn State tonight in West Lafayette. (Links here and here.)

Wonk back!
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For the All-Wonk Team (3.0): Vincent Grier

I'll nominate Vincent Grier of Minnesota to replace Jeff Horner.

Even though his PPWS sits at 1.16, he takes by far the most shots of anyone on the Minnesota team and draws the majority of the defensive attention.

Plus, anyone who can dominate Wisconsin like he did deserves consideration.

Drew S.

Thanks, Drew! Wonk is shocked yours is the first nomination of Grier and has to admit that just the words "26 points in a single half against Wisconsin" make a pretty strong case.

Nominations are now closed. Wonk will announce his decision shortly and with appropriate solemnity and gravitas.

No Pierce: good news for the Hawkeyes or their opponents?
What up, Wonk,

Great site. Been reading for a while but I'm a first time wonk-backer.

As for Iowa losing Pierre Pierce, sure, Iowa lost a great player and nearly 18 points a game. But they also “lost” over four turnovers a game, not to mention saying goodbye to their guard with the worst three-point FG pct.

I watched the end of Iowa-Michigan State and I bet that let the rest of the Hawkeyes know they can play without Pierce.

Pat L.

Excellent question, Pat. During the season Wonk has been second to none in pointing out the opportunities for improvement in Pierce's game. And stats caliph Ryan has made a very strong case for your position at the Hawkeye Hoops blog. So why does your intrepid blogger still hesitate to make that leap just yet?....

Wonk's critiques of Pierce's play were always normative: Pierce is turning the ball over a lot and taking lots of bad shots; he should turn the ball over less and take fewer bad shots. But to move from the normative to the comparative and say Iowa's actually a better team with Mike Henderson in that spot? Two things Wonk would point out first: 1) Pierce absorbed a tremendous amount of defensive attention from the opposing team; and 2) somewhat counterintuitively, Pierce is (was) actually the Hawkeyes' best perimeter defender.

(Wonk also finds intriguing evidence from an unlikely source: the chat rooms, veritable epigones of zealously self-interested honesty. Message boards frequented by Michigan State fans did not sound particularly frightened last week that they would be facing Henderson instead of Pierce. Nor do Illinois boards currently sound exactly petrified that Pierce will not be seen in Iowa City when the Illini come to town a week from Saturday.)

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