Big Ten Wonk
Thursday, March 31, 2005
The 2005 Fighting Illini
Illinois is 36-1 and in the Final Four and this Illini fan woke up this morning as he does every morning and went about his business in an ordinary and non-disruptive fashion.

But if you had pulled Wonk aside last November 1 and divulged that in exactly five months Illinois would be 36-1 and in the Final Four, this blogger would have run around screaming with joy and waving his hands above his head for the better part of, well, five months.

Why is that? What is it about incremental and cumulative spectacular good fortune that makes us treat it like it was expected?

Well, this wasn't expected. No one, and Wonk means no one, saw this coming. Yes, we knew Illinois was going to be good. But 36-1? That's beyond good. It's historic.

There have been deeper Illinois teams and taller ones, certainly. But none better.

Now this team is in the Final Four where they could very well win Illinois' first national championship--or they could very well be finished by early Saturday night. Either way, it's been historic. (But, um, two more wins would be fine, too.)

So thank you, Illini:

For playing a brand of ball that pleases John Wooden and defeats opponents.

For blazing through December playing at April efficiency (here's hoping you can do it again in April).

For destroying the then number-1 team by more than what the final score said.

For the tough road wins at Madison and East Lansing.

For winning even on your off days and nights.

For the 14-pass possession against Northwestern.

For recovering from the loss at Ohio State and winning the Big Ten tournament with relative ease.

And, of course, for the luminous and destined to be legendary comeback against Arizona.

Once-in-a-generation Big Ten team Illinois, Wonk salutes you!

Has The Sporting News lost its server or its mind?
Coverage of college hoops at seems to have almost entirely evaporated as of this morning. Clicking on the "college basketball" tab on the main screen takes you directly to this article on Kansas by Mike DeCourcy, which is very interesting and well done but does not in itself constitute coverage of the entire sport. What's going on?

The end draws near(er)
Wonk is going to put the blog on hiatus for six months or so after posting next Friday, April 8. Watch for a week-long 2004-05 retrospective starting Monday! Five-themed features to include:

--Wonk’s five dumbest posts of the year (I know, I know: only five? Send in those nominations today!)

--Wonk’s five favorite contributions to Wonk Back! from the alert readers.

--Five hoops blogs Wonk loves.

Wonk will then shut the old girl down for the off-season like a Bar Harbor lobster pound.

Only to descend visigoth-like upon your free time yet again come November.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Indiana sophomore Patrick Ewing, Jr. yesterday announced he will transfer to a yet to be determined school. He will be required to sit out the 2005-06 season. Indefatigable Hoosier beat writer Terry Hutchens of the Indianapolis Star reports that playing time (too little) and style of play (too slow) were the main reasons for Ewing's decision.

Pierre Pierce update: Lawyers for the former Iowa player yesterday asked the judge in the case to dismiss charges of assault with intent to commit sexual abuse. Pierce also faces charges of burglary and criminal mischief. He is currently not in custody but is required to remain in the state of Iowa. Pierce was given permission to visit his home in Illinois for the Easter holiday. (Link here.)

Wisconsin assistant coach Rob Jeter may be one of the leading candidates for Bruce Pearl's old job at Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Stories split four ways--Final Four coverage....
Andy Katz of looks at all four head coaches here....CBS can't just come out and say they're happy with Illinois and North Carolina making it to the Final Four but, well, they're happy with Illinois and North Carolina making it to the Final Four. (Last year's national championship game between Connecticut and Georgia Tech drew the lowest viewership rating in recent history.) Scramble for tickets coverage here....It's an odd adjective that takes in both Juan Diego Palacios and Drew Neitzel. And yet they're the only two freshmen who will start in Saturday's games. Conclusion? Upperclassmen rock! So sayeth the always read-worthy Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

(Michigan) State of euphoria!
Start here: Ken Pomeroy looks at the MSU-North Carolina match up and, as always, takes the rock straight to the cognitive rim as it were....

Much has been made about UNC's defense this week. Michigan State as a five-seed, is not a huge underdog, mainly because of their ability to score and the Tar Heels perceived inability to prevent the score. But is UNC's defense really a liability?...

Beginning with the NC State game on February 22nd, nine of ten Tar Heel opponents have breached the point per possession mark. Part of this was attributable to Rashad McCants' absence. But McCants has returned to his usual minutes in the NCAA tourney, and UNC is coming off of its worst defensive game of the year against Wisconsin--the Badgers' offensive efficiency was 118.

The culprit has been UNC's inability to create turnovers. Before McCants left, UNC had forced at least 13 turnovers in every game. Since? Only three of ten opponents have had that many turnovers. During the first twelve games of the ACC season, UNC opponents were committing a turnover once in every four possessions. During the NCAA Tournament that number has dropped to one in six.

It unlikely that UNC can hold the big green S to less than a point per possession, even by playing their January-type defense. The Spartans have failed to reach that mark only three times in 32 games, and are coming off of arguably their best offensive game of the season, hanging a 126 OE on Kentucky. But Michigan State can play at that lofty level again if they adhere to the 15/15 rule: gather more than 15 offensive boards, and turn it over fewer than 15 times. That's the recipe for an upset.

In other less succinct venues....

Forecast: fast. Tom Izzo remembers getting whipped by North Carolina in 1998 in the Sweet 16 and says the moral of the story is not to change your style of play: State's going to run Saturday night.

Profiles in saturation. Two-headed monster profile of Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager here. Profile of Drew Neitzel here. Profile of Tim Bograkos here. (A quick scan does not as yet turn up the word "scrappy" but Wonk trusts it's in there somewhere.) Profiles of the next Tulsa head coach, current Spartan assistant, and former North Carolina assistant Doug Wojcik here and here. Profile of the Spartan parents here.

One profile of Paul Davis here. Want more? Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press adopts a Barbara-Walters tone of prying earnestness and curls up in front of the fire for an intimate chat with Davis here. BONUS Wonk piece of advice for all Final Four players! Run--run I tells ya--when you see Albom coming. Indulgently oleaginous prose fairly oozes from this misplaced camp counselor like ink from a squid, to wit: "Spend a little time with Paul Davis, the Spartans' 6-foot-11 junior center, the jewel of his recruiting class, the NBA hopeful, the likely lynchpin of Michigan State's chances against North Carolina at the Final Four, and you realize that look on his face, the furrowed brow, the down-turned mouth, the reddened cheeks, the burning eyes, is not a look of anger, bitterness or ego." Ewww. Wonk's keyboard typed that. Must disinfect....

Minnesota coach Dan Monson, Northwestern coach Bill Carmody, and Drake coach Tom Davis rave about the Illini and their style of play here.

More advisors than players. Advice for Bruce Weber from 1994 Final Four participant Lon Kruger here. Advice for the Illinois players from old geezers (Jerry Harkness, Gary Garland, Marcus Liberty, Kenny Battle) who've been to the Final Four with state of Illinois-based teams here. Advice for both the coaches and the players from public-speaking consultants (Wonk is not making this up) on how to talk to the press here.

Micro-coverage alert! There's friction between the 1989 and 2005 teams about who's better! Much ado about nothing, you say? Tell it to the Chicago Sun-Times' Jay Mariotti, who covers the dispute with the feverish he-said-it-first breathlessness of a junior-high-school girl adjudicating a hallway dispute between friends here. Meanwhile, Skip Myslenski of the Chicago Tribune adopts more of a Jimmy Carter outside-mediator tone on the same weighty matter here....Stale writes-itself connect-the-dots on Champaign-Urbana/Urbana-Champaign befuddlement here.

Profiles in endurance. Profile of Luther Head, pride of the West Side, here. Two-headed-monster profile of Dee Brown and Deron Williams here. Bruce Weber (he "drinks three beers faster than anyone and then stops") here. Rick Pitino here. Two-headed-monster profile of Louisville assistants Kevin Willard and Vince Taylor here. Ryan Anderson here. (Who's Ryan Anderson? Exactly. Look, it's only Thursday and sportswriters are already running out of topics. So if you've ever wanted to be the subject of a newspaper profile, now's your chance. Get down to the Edward Jones Dome and look talkative. It worked for Ryan Anderson.)

Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline says "Louisville matches up with Illinois better than anyone the Illini have faced this season." (Wonk says: Doyel writes this passage as if he's unaware of how much zone defense the Cardinals are likely to play. So his examples--Arkansas and Iowa--of big guards bothering Illinois don't really apply.)

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Crying Powell
In handicapping the Illinois-Louisville game, Seth Davis has listed Illinois’ bigs as James Augustine, Jack Ingram, and Warren Carter.

Considering that Steve Alford said that Roger Powell is the key in this contest (and I agree), this seems like a significant omission.

Charles A.

Agreed. Thanks, Charles!

Return of the Ohio State "don't go the airport" jinx?
Longtime alert readers will recall that during the second half of Illinois' game at Ohio State on March 6 (with the Illini nursing a seemingly comfortable double-digit lead) the local CBS affiliate in Champaign ran a text message across the screen telling viewers not to come to the airport for a celebration welcoming the team home. The Illini promptly blew the lead and lost the game, their only loss of the season.

Now, a watchful fan thinks perhaps another such jinx is in the works....


The Illinois athletic department looks like it's up to its Ohio State celebration-anticipating shenanigans again. The office of the athletic director had a send-off this evening for the team, and it has also planned a watch party at the Assembly Hall on the new video board... IF the Illini win on Saturday.

As if that weren't bad enough, an e-mail was sent out to "all faculty, academic professionals, civil service staff, grad students, and undergrad students" at Illinois from Bruce Weber (or someone pretending to be him) asking "everyone's help in ensuring that whatever celebrations may take place at the end of the season be safe and enjoyable for everyone." I believe they've also scheduled a "greet the team on April 5th" event.

Does this reek of the Ohio State "there are no celebrations" crawl to you?

Greg C.

Hmm, tough call. The egregious and basketball-gods-flouting aspect of the Ohio State game message, of course, was its premature nature. It felt like someone at Illinois was saying: "We have this game won and we're going to finish the regular season undefeated. Better tell people not to come to the airport."

Planning for if-we-win and if-we-lose events, by contrast, would not seem to tweak the noses of the hoops gods so. (Michigan State is making the same plans, after all.) And remember, the one sure-fire way to absolutely positively lose this weekend would be to put a furled banner in the rafters of the Edward Jones Dome saying "ILLINOIS: NATIONAL CHAMPIONS 2005." Fortunately the Edward Jones Dome doesn't have rafters so we don't have to worry about that.


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