If this conference is "down," Wonk don't wanna be up!It literally couldn't have been scripted any better:1) Three teams in the Elite Eight, the best performance of any conference.2) A 9-2 record overall, the best performance of any conference.3) A beautiful, swift, stunning, and unanswerable refutation of the conventional wisdom.4) Winning the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, as it were, when it really mattered.What did we learn last night? That the gulf between the Big Ten's "big three" and its fourth-best team (Iowa in November and December, Minnesota in calendar 2005) was far larger than previously thought. It is the gulf between being in the Elite Eight and being physically overmatched by Iowa State. To the conference's "other" eight teams, then, this blogger says: keep working. Wonk is pulling for you. And to Bruce Weber, Tom Izzo, and Bo Ryan, Wonk says: congratulations. You ignored the words and got it done on the court.(5) Michigan State 78, (1) Duke 68Wonk has pretty much been making a pest of himself all season long, insisting that the Spartans are a force to be reckoned with. Your intrepid blogger even went so far as to drag in Spartan beat writers and national hoops pundits for "interviews" in which Wonk harangued them about the wonders of Tom Izzo's team. So, yes, last night was sweet for this spectator.And speaking of Wonk's previous posts, it is a privilege and a delight for this Big Ten fan to officially remove Paul Davis from Wonk's All-Head-Case Team. Numbers like this in a regional semifinal against Duke will do that: 20 points and 12 boards. Over his last two games, Davis is averaging 15.5 points and 13 boards. State's always had the flyers--now they've got a beast down low. And last night they blitzed a great defensive team for 46 points in a half. And they're playing D. This team is going to be tough to beat....Links. Start here: 142 words from Ken Pomeroy are superior to hundreds more from any other hoops pundit. Under a headline reading "The value of a missed shot," Ken says:Michigan State's missed shots were valuable last night. The Spartans are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, and their 16 offensive rebounds were a big reason for their impressive offensive performance against Duke. Because Duke had 22 turnovers, much was made of the Spartans' defense, and rightfully so. But offensively, State scored 78 points in roughly 74 possessions for an offensive efficiency of 105. An impressive total against the nation's second stingiest defense on a points per possession basis.As for less nourishing but nevertheless apposite MSM goodies....Mike Krzyzewski gave credit to the Spartans' defense: "There were times where we had people who were open in the first half and we just didn't see him because of [their] pressure on the ball. It was kind of like rushing the quarterback where you don't see a receiver." Durham Herald Sun columnist Frank Dascenzo says "the Spartans swaggered on defense, took Duke's rhythm, or what there was of it, and stuffed it in the trash." Stewart Mandel of sportsillustrated.com says: "No matter what happens during the rest of the NCAA tournament, these Spartans will finally be able to say they accomplished something not [Mateen] Cleaves, Magic Johnson nor any other modern Michigan State hero can: They beat Duke. And they did it in stunning fashion." (BONUS Wonk consider-the-source warning! Mandel's grasp of college hoops is, apparently, tenuous at best: "This year's Spartans aren't a particularly stellar rebounding group." Right. And Illinois isn't a particularly stellar passing group, and Carolina isn't a particularly stellar scoring group. Mr. Mandel, please use this link, scroll down to "offensive rebounding rate" and "defensive rebounding rate," and then report back to Wonk for slappage of wrists.)Dennis Dodd of cbs.sportsline says "Coach K's guards were outmuscled all night." Kyle Veltrop of The Sporting News says it was the Dukies that were trying for the upset last night: "This was not a year when a team had to play perfect in order to knock out Duke." (And Andy Katz of espn.com has a write up on the game here, one that refuses to load on Wonk's computer. This happens more than occasionally with espn.com--anyone else having this problem?)St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz says "Michigan State sent Duke and ACC worshipers running for cover." And referring to championships not won and banners never unfurled, Lansing State Journal columnist Todd Schulz says: "They'll never raise a banner in the rafters of the Breslin Center to commemorate this win. Then again, they won't have to. It will hang in the memories of MSU fans for years."Wonk suspects many, many State fans awoke this morning and made a bee-line to Drew Sharp's column in the Detroit Free Press. Sharp has been known to be rather, um, tough on this generation of Spartans. What does he have to say this morning? "Michigan State's senior class of basketball players made a little history Friday night in the NCAA Sweet 16, distinguishing themselves from their immediate predecessors....They have defined themselves as a special group with a resilience that only they could see." And, adds Sharp: "The Spartans were the tougher team."Free Press columnist Michael Rosenberg says Paul Davis was "the biggest, loudest and best player on the floor--especially in the closing minutes." And Free Press columnist Mitch Albom says Davis "often symbolized this particular MSU group, hailed for his potential but assailed for his results. The postseason has never been his best friend....But Friday night he was electrifying." BONUS Mitch Albom note! Yesterday Albom ran a piece on Mike Krzyzewski that Wonk is tempted to call hagiographic--yet even that doesn't begin to do justice to the depths of cringingly servile sycophancy reached by Albom in an essay that would have been appallingly over-the-top had its subject been St. Francis of Assisi. See blogger and alert Wonk reader Matt May for a jolly good disembowelment of Albom's valentine to Coach K.BONUS auditory note! Wonk had never heard Paul Davis speak before last night's post-game interview with Jim Nantz. This blogger's reaction? Um, pretty much Edvard Munch-level horror. Man, does Davis sound like Lurch, or what? Gainfully employed broadcasters everywhere slept soundly last night, knowing their jobs are safe from any post-NBA career plans entertained by Mr. Davis.Last word. Wonk is now prouder than ever to have said that Iowa beating MSU in the Big Ten tournament was every bit as big a shock as Illinois losing at Ohio State.(6) Wisconsin 65, (10) NC State 56Forget stats. In fact, Wonk is purposefully writing this sentence before having seen the box score: Alando Tucker won this game for the Badgers, keying a 13-0 run at the start of the second half. After a first half where he and his team were wholly unrecognizable to this spectator (the Badgers went to the locker room at intermission with 11 turnovers and 0 assists), Tucker suddenly became a man among boys. He demanded the ball and made good on his demands, scoring basket after basket. It was beautiful.NC State, meanwhile, was busily fulfilling every vulgar stereotype about the Princeton offense and its alleged feast-or-famine properties. In the first half, the Wolfpack looked like a threat to win the national championship. In the second half, they had Wonk and everyone in the Carrier Dome wondering how in the world they got a bid.Links. Tony Mejia of cbs.sportsline says "Wisconsin used great help defense whenever Julius Hodge and Ilian Evtimov ventured into the paint, and Hodge was visibly frustrated with the nagging defense Clayton Hanson, a former walk-on, and reserve Ray Nixon played on him." Tom Oates of the Wisconsin State Journal says: "In outscoring North Carolina State 44-26 [in the second half] the Badgers played Wisconsin basketball as well as they've played it all season." Gary D'Amato of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says the Badgers "imposed their iron will on the panicking Wolfpack in the second half and pulled away to a surprisingly easy--given the start--65-56 victory."Alando Tucker says of his second-half run: "I just wanted to stick to attacking the rim and finding guys." Mike Wilkinson favors understatement! Who knew? "He was big for us," Wilkinson says of Tucker....Tale-of-two-halves coverage here. Who-the-heck-is-Jason-Chappell coverage here and here.Mawkish Badger bathos ("They are farm kids and walk-ons. They are redshirts and transfers. They are blue collar grinders and unselfish role players." etc.) here.Man, how good is Luther Head? The Illinois guard has eaten Clayton Hanson alive at every opportunity this year, pretty much scoring at will. Last night, conversely, Hanson effectively shut down a guy who'll be in the NBA in a matter of months, Julius Hodge. (OK, Hanson had help. Still...) Wonk did not see that one coming, to say the least.Thank you, hoops gods. For letting Bill Raftery do this game. With eight minutes left in the contest, Andreas Helmigk was at the free throw line and banked in his first attempt. It took Raf a minute but he heard Wonk ("Say it! Say it!") a thousand miles away: "At the free throw line, with a kiss!"BONUS Seinfeld reference! Link here for a picture of Bo Ryan's father, Butch Ryan, getting ready to hug Mike Wilkinson after the game last night. Bo and Butch look disarmingly similar in age, conjuring memories for Wonk of the Mandelbaum family and their "crepe money."40 minutes from St. Louis(3) Arizona (30-6) vs. (1) Illinois (35-1)7:05pm (EST)The numbers say the biggest mismatch in this game is between the Illinois offense (5th in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy's points-per-possession-based ratings) and the Arizona defense (27th). (Interesting: Lute Olson says this is the best defensive team he's ever had.) The match up between the Illini defense (6th) and the Wildcat offense (10th) should be more even. Led by PPWS stud Salim Stoudamire, Arizona shoots threes even better than Illinois does, and that's saying something. The Wildcats rebound a little better than the Illini--they also turn the ball over more (but then almost everyone does).In advancing past Oklahoma State, Arizona shot .660 from the field (not a typo) which can occasion one of two reactions from Illini fans: fear (they shot .660 from the field) or confidence (they shot .660 from the field and still only won by one--man, their D must be bad).In other words, it looks like a replay of the Wildcats' game Thursday night against the Cowboys: a close, relatively high-scoring game between two great teams.Links. Leave it to Bruce Weber to say it all and say it quickly: "How you finish is what people remember."...Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper's forecast sounds a lot like Wonk's: "This is a great, fierce test for the Illini. There are some difficult matchups and the shooting of Salim Stoudamire is a major concern. But Arizona has some tough matchups, too. And if Deron Williams and Dee Brown can shoot the ball like they did Thursday, I like Illinois’ chances." Daily Herald columnist Mike Imrem, on the other hand, is predicting an Arizona win; "I still don’t believe in the Illini. But...I will if they beat Arizona today." Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey says tonight's game is actually the national championship game.Columnist Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post profiles Salim Stoudamire here. So does St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell. Still more on Stoudamire from Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti here. But Dee Brown gives Stoudamire the ultimate compliment: "That dude, he plays like a video game. He shoots from anyplace."...Arizona coach Lute Olson says his three-guard 1997 national championship team and the 2005 Illini are "so much alike it's unbelievable." Illini's-eye view of Olson here.Luther Head says he and his hammy are OK for tonight. Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Downey profiles ordained Pentecostal minister Roger Powell, Jr., here....Stop-Channing-Frye coverage here. Oddly unhindered by contradictory stats, John Mullin of the Chicago Tribune frets about Frye and Ivan Radenovic here. (The two combined for 13 rebounds against Oklahoma State, Mullin tells us rather breathlessly. Um, that's about what James Augustine's been doing by himself for the past five games.) ...Still more comparisons between the Illini teams of 1989 and 2005 here.Wonk back! Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me! Latest update from the now-euphoric alert reader and die-hard Spartan fan ShawnHi, Wonk,
Obviously, a great game for State and a great night for the Big Ten. The defensive intensity was incredible, and Paul Davis came up huge. As I reflect back on it, I think the most interesting thing about the game was how horribly State shot from the field, particularly in the first half. The stats don't look that bad, but a huge percentage of our made baskets came on breakaways, and we still managed only 44% for the game. If this team can find at least a little of its long-range game again, I think they can handle anyone still in the field.
P.S. Excellent job in getting out in front of Secretary-of-State-Jesse-White-mania, which has taken all of Chicagoland by storm. My wife and I were lucky enough to see his float pass by in the St. Patrick's Day parade. It was the defining moment of both of our lives.Thanks, Shawn!