Big Ten Wonk
Tuesday, March 01, 2005
BONUS William Goldman edition!
Welcome to March, truly the most wonderful time of the year 'round these parts. Wonk is back at last from a long weekend of goofing off and finds that in his absence all heck's been breaking loose, to wit:

Indiana beat Michigan State Sunday in Bloomington in OT, 78-74, giving Illinois its second consecutive outright Big Ten title. (Box Score Oddity of the Year nominee: The Spartans shot .554 from the field and very nearly outrebounded their opponent 2-to-1--and lost.)

Did Wonk see this coming? That a team that was looking suspiciously like a garden-variety '90s Pitino-era Kentucky squad the last few times I saw them would lose to a team that looked listlessly inept at Ohio State just a few days ago? Heck, no! But then, to quote a phrase coined a couple decades ago by Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman (and since popularized by Al Michaels), nobody knows anything.

It will be useful to clutch Goldman's aphorism like a talisman should Indiana, currently 9-5 in Big Ten play, finish the year 10-6 in conference. In such an event there will be much talk that the Hoosiers are sure bets for the tournament and, indeed, Wonk thinks they probably would get in.

But nobody knows anything. It bears repeating: the Hoosiers at 10-6 would be arguably the selection committee's toughest call. Historically a 10-6 Big Ten team has gone to the tournament, no questions asked (27 of 28 times, the only exception being the 2003 Michigan team ineligible for postseason play due to self-imposed sanctions). Yet, while Indiana's RPI has been improving markedly over the past 14 days, as of this morning it is up to only a still relatively horrific 70. (And, as is noted this time of year every year, the worst RPI to ever make the field was 74: New Mexico in 1999.) Will the committee jump over a raft of higher RPI's to take the Hoosiers? We don't really know.

Tonight Indiana plays at Wisconsin. Does Wonk expect a team that looked listlessly inept at Ohio State a couple weeks ago to win in Madison, where the Badgers have prevailed 41 out of the last 42 times? Heck, no!

But what would William Goldman say?

BONUS who's-all-going note: Meanwhile that lovable band of who-dat's, Dan Monson's Minnesota Golden Gophers, kept their tournament hopes alive by eking out a 59-57 win Saturday at Purdue. In Gene Keady's last game at Mackey Arena, the Gophers were aided by fate: Boilermaker all-world performer Carl Landry went down midway through the first half with a knee injury and will miss the rest of the year. At 9-6, Minnesota can likely secure a tournament invitation with a win tomorrow night at Penn State.

Five teams going to the tournament? Can it be? Stay tuned....

Shot, shot, turnover, turnover, shot, shot, turnover, turnover....
Even given their February swoon, has Iowa actually been better off without Pierre Pierce? Avid participants in this ongoing discussion won't want to miss this morning's lengthy and enlightening post on this very subject over at Hawkeye Hoops, defining state of the art in team blogs since 2004.

Meanwhile, Wonk adds his own two cents' worth and directs your attention to the following series of facts:

Pierce hasn't played a game since January 29.

Today is March 1.

Pierce still leads the Hawkeyes in both field goal attempts and turnovers.

Forget PPG. Remember PPWS.
There's no trick to putting up a nice number for points per game (PPG). Just shoot a lot. But who would get the most points from the same number of shots?

To answer that question we turn to the handy stat that not only measures scoring efficiency, it also captures more than just points from the field (unlike, say, points per shot or "PPS"). This stat takes in both FGA's and FTA's. It's points per weighted shot (PPWS), developed cannily by John Hollinger (The Basketball Prospectus) and renamed brazenly by Wonk.

Here are the latest numbers:

Top 20 PPWS
1. Dee Brown, Illinois (1.40)
2. James Augustine, Illinois (1.37)
3. Kelvin Torbert, Michigan State (1.35)
4. Luther Head, Illinois (1.32)
5. Alan Anderson, Michigan State (1.31)
6. A.J. Ratliff, Indiana (1.30)
7. Roger Powell, Illinois (1.27)
8. Adam Haluska, Iowa (1.27)
9. Maurice Ager, Michigan State (1.26)
10. Vince Scott, Northwestern (1.26)
11. D.J. White, Indiana (1.26)
12. Aaron Robinson, Minnesota (1.26)
13. Michael Jenkins, Northwestern (1.24)
14. Jeff Hagen, Minnesota (1.23)
15. Clayton Hanson, Wisconsin (1.23)
16. Brent Lawson, Minnesota (1.23)
17. J.J. Sullinger, Ohio State (1.22)
18. Courtney Sims, Michigan (1.22)
19. Chris Hill, Michigan State (1.21)
20. Paul Davis, Michigan State (1.21)

Bottom 20 PPWS
1. Ben Luber, Penn State (0.84)
2. Nick Smith, Illinois (0.88)
3. Brandon McKnight, Purdue (0.89)
4. Andreas Helmigk, Wisconsin (0.90)
5. Mike Henderson, Iowa (0.91)
6. Drew Neitzel, Michigan State (0.91)
7. Spencer Tollackson, Minnesota (0.91)
8. Roderick Wilmont, Indiana (0.92)
9. David Teague, Purdue (0.97)
10. Brandon Fuss-Cheatham, Ohio State (0.97)
11. Xavier Price, Purdue (0.97)
12. Dion Harris, Michigan (0.97)
13. Tim Doyle, Northwestern (0.97)
14. Dan Coleman, Minnesota (0.99)
15. Jamar Butler, Ohio State (0.99)
16. Marshall Strickland, Indiana (0.99)
17. Ray Nixon, Wisconsin (0.99)
18. Mike Walker, Penn State (1.00)
19. Rich McBride, Illinois (1.00)
20. Rico Tucker, Minnesota (1.00)

What it means. Give Dee Brown 12 FGA's and six FTA's and he'll likely score about 20 points. Give Ben Luber the same number of shots and he'll likely score about 12.

What it really means. A.J. Ratliff and Alan Anderson both recorded big jumps in the rankings this week. No offense to the freshman Ratliff (whom Wonk likes thus far) but Anderson's scoring at the same level of efficiency--with almost 200 more points. Prodigious and efficient scorer Alan Anderson, Wonk salutes you!

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Wisconsin hosts Indiana tonight in Madison. Hoosier coach Mike Davis is talking like a man who expects to lose one of his last two games. "I think if you get 10 victories in any conference, that speaks volumes," he says. Tonight's game will be the third in six days for the Badgers. Wisconsin big man Mike Wilkinson says his team needs to be more consistent: "In stretches we are as good as any team that has played here. We've just got to make (those stretches) longer."

Minnesota coach Dan Monson says if his team wins its game at Penn State tomorrow night, the Gophers should receive an NCAA bid. "Obviously if we win 10 games, we deserve to be in." Meanwhile Minnesota is assured of at least one distinction: for the first time in the history of the Big Ten tournament, the Gophers will not play on Thursday.

Former Iowa guard Pierre Pierce entered a plea of not guilty yesterday to charges of burglary and assault....Steve Alford says the problems for his program extend off the court. "Our marketing is not at a level where it needs to be and...I don’t like the way tickets are distributed." Specifically, Alford was rankled that so many Illinois fans were able to attend the February 19 game between the Hawkeyes and the Illini in Iowa City. "We’ve got to evaluate why 5,000 opponents tickets are being sold here. We’ve got to find a way to reduce that number. This isn’t supposed to be a neutral court....When Illinois played at Purdue there weren't 5,000 Illinois fans in there. So I think those are issues."...Alford's old coach, a certain Bob Knight, says his former player's doing a good job at the helm. "I don't know what Iowa people expect. In the time he's been there, he's put a team together that's pretty good."

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo says his team needs better play from the point-guard position. "I don't think there's any question that we have not been totally satisfied with our point-guard play. Usually what happens down the stretch is somebody has to make good decisions, and that has been a problem." The Spartans led Indiana by six with a little more than two minutes to play Sunday before losing in overtime. (More point-guard talk here.)

Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline looks at Indiana big man D.J. White (and the help the freshman receives from redshirt Auburn transfer Marco Killingsworth) here.

Purdue coach Gene Keady already knew that he would be without the services of Carl Landry when the Boilermakers play Illinois in Champaign Thursday night. Now he's learning that junior big man Charles Davis may also miss the game, due to a death in the family. (By the way, while Wonk was out goofing off, longtime alert reader and fellow intrepid blogger Matt May posted a must-read tribute to Keady. Link and enjoy.)

Illinois will honor both Gene Keady and the Illini seniors before Thursday night's game against Purdue, the last Illinois home game of the season....With an outright Big Ten title already under his belt, Bruce Weber says he will limit his starters' minutes both against Purdue and at Ohio State on Sunday....Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper looks ahead to the Big Ten tournament here....The Illini's 13-week-and-counting stay atop the AP poll is the longest run since Kansas was number 1 for 15 consecutive weeks in 1996-97....Graduating senior Jack Ingram, an engineering major, is looking for a job and interviewed over the weekend with San Diego Gas and Electric.

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Rating the Illini on Leopold von Ranke's scale
Longtime alert reader William L. weighs in on where Illinois ranks in historical terms....


What kinds of accolades do the Illini currently deserve? Right now they probably deserve accolades similar to Kansas of 1997, which is no little thing. Like KU in 1997, Illinois has been excellent for several years and has taken its excellence to another level. KU got upset by eventual champion Arizona in a thriller in 1997. On the other hand, maybe Illinois is closer to the 2004 Stanford Cardinal, another good program that had an excellent season last year, but whom nobody compares to the '76 Hoosiers.

If Illinois runs the table, I promise that East Coast fans will not cease to sing their praises and recognize their greatness during a period when it is harder to run the table. Illinois will be the first part of the trivia question, "who was the last team before the 2004-2005 Illini to go undefeated and win the NCAA championship in basketball?" Furthermore, should MSU also go to the Elite 8 or Final Four, that will do much to quiet the criticism of the Big Ten as soft, just as in 1976.

Nevertheless, Illinois still will not quite match the two-year streaks of UCLA, NC State, or Indiana, nor do the Illini appear to have any players quite as memorable or good as David Thompson, Keith Wilkes, Scott May or Bill Walton.

Even though it wasn't their fault, Michigan State's Final Four match-ups were soft in 2000 and it probably removed some of the luster from their team. Great final match-ups like UNC-Georgetown, Duke-UConn, UNC-Michigan, UCLA-Kentucky or MSU-Indiana State make those winners seem greater, even if this is undeserved, than the winners of finals like UConn-Ga Tech, Maryland-Indiana, or Kentucky-Utah.

If the Illini truly hope for this team to be remembered as an all-time great, as opposed to just winning it all, then the fans should hope that the team has to go through the ringer just like Indiana had to in 1976, with Final 8 and Final Four games possibly including UNC, UConn, Kansas, Duke, MSU, BC, OK State, Arizona, Syracuse, and Wake Forest. If the Illini are as good as some of their fans believe, perhaps they will be able to handle any and all of the above as seamlessly as Indiana did in the '76 tournament.

William L.

Thanks, William!


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