Big Ten Wonk
Saturday, March 19, 2005
(Fans of Bridge on the River Kwai, feel free to repeat: "Madness! Madness!")

After a relatively quiet first day (higher seeds: 13-3), all heck fairly broke loose yesterday and, especially, last night (higher seeds: 11-5). Most notably:

Vermont, a 13-seed, beat 4-seed Syracuse in OT, 60-57. (Ken Pomeroy has some interesting game notes on this one.)

And in what ranks as an even bigger upset, 14-seed Bucknell beat 3-seed Kansas, 64-63.

Next up for both Cinderellas: Big Ten opponents. In their games yesterday and last night, every Big Ten team was wearing the home whites of the higher seed. They went 2-1, bringing the Big Ten to 3-2 heading into the second round. The three surviving teams are the proverbial same old "top three": Illinois, Michigan State, and Wisconsin....

(9) Iowa State 64, (8) Minnesota 53
The surprising thing is the Gophers only lost by 11: they shot .333 from the floor, .217 on their three's, made only six free throws, and turned the ball over 17 times.

As shown beyond all question or doubt by Ken Pomeroy's points-per-possession-based efficiency ratings, Minnesota's been an exemplary defensive team all year long. But when Vincent Grier is struggling (7-for-21), the Gophers can look static on offense. (Truth be known even when Grier is on his game the Gophers can still look static: "spotting up" is what they would call what they do when Grier penetrates. Others might call it "standing around and watching.") The intriguing what-if with this edition of Dan Monson's team will always be how far they could have gone with a healthy Adam Boone in the backcourt. Boone, the Twin Cities native and North Carolina transfer, missed the entire year with an injured right arm. When it became clear, before the start of the year, that Boone wasn't going to play, it seemed merely one more bad omen for a team projected for ninth or worse in the Big Ten. In retrospect, however, Boone may well have been the missing ingredient on offense (ball handling and an outside threat) for a team that already had a terrific slasher and a surprisingly effective and resilient old-school presence in the paint named Jeff Hagen. Alas.

Still, congratulations to Dan Monson and the entire Gopher team on a year that went much further than Wonk or anyone else expected.

Links. Yesterday marked the final game in the college careers of Gopher seniors Hagen, Brent Lawson, and Aaron Robinson: "All of a sudden, the horn goes off and you think 'Wow, my career's over.'" Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan salutes Hagen and Lawson as "two guys who started their careers as walk-ons and wound up leaders, two roommates who elevated a program while rarely touching the rim." Dan Monson agrees with Wonk! The Minnesota coach says he knew his team was in for a tough game when he saw the brackets and "Iowa State" flashed on the screen: "Two things offensively that have been tough for us all year were shooting from the perimeter and taking care of the basketball."

(6) Wisconsin 57, (11) Northern Iowa 52
The Panthers whittled a 16-point Badger lead down to just three points in the second half but somehow Wonk just never felt like this game was truly in jeopardy for Bo Ryan's team. Northern Iowa was packing the paint on defense, daring someone besides Mike Wilkinson or Alando Tucker to beat them. (This is of course the standard MO for any Badger opponent but you never would have known it from listening to the CBS suit who was doing analysis and whose name Wonk refuses on principle to google. This particular gentleman was fairly thunderstruck by the stratagem and by the manifest brilliance of Panther coach Greg McDermott for adopting it.) The perimeter shots fell early for Wisconsin and they built a big lead. In the second half when their three's slowed to a trickle (and Northern Iowa, conversely, started hitting theirs), the Badgers finally got some things going in the interior. It proved to be the difference.

Wisconsin advances to play Bucknell tomorrow.

BONUS obsequious pander to stat geeks! In an otherwise remarkably even game stat-wise (Wisconsin shot .417 from the floor, Northern Iowa shot .415; both teams had eight turnovers; the Panthers outrebounded the Badgers 32-28) Wisconsin outscored Northern Iowa on three's 33-12.

Links. Wisconsin State Journal columnist Tom Oates notes the prevalence of prognosticators that had Wisconsin losing this game and says "If UW gets its usual amount of respect...Bucknell will probably be the trendy pick to advance." Panther coach Greg McDermott says "You have to tip your hat to Wisconsin. Their plan is to get it inside and we took that away and to their credit, they made (five) 3s in the first 10 minutes of the game." For his part, Badger guard Sharif Chambliss (15 points on five three's) was stoic in victory: "Shots went down, that's all I can really say about it."

(5) Michigan State 89, (12) Old Dominion 81
Again, a close game and one in which Tom Izzo's team trailed by as much as seven in the second half but one that, to Wonk (and to alert reader Shawn M.--see "Wonk back!" below), didn't feel truly in doubt down the stretch. Here is how you know the Spartans are doing what they want to do: State shot .569 from the floor, which is impressive enough in and of itself. But add to that the fact that Izzo's team was just 3-of-14 on their three's and you get a 2-point FG percentage of .703.

Translation: State ran. And ran and ran and ran. (And dunked and dunked and dunked. One count put the fast-break advantage at 20-4 in favor of MSU.)

Next up for the Spartans: Vermont.

Links. Ironically, Michigan State's players seem enthusiastic about the victory being by a relatively narrow margin: "It lets us know we can win big, close games," says Alan Anderson. Tom Izzo agrees: "It felt good to execute well down the stretch and win this one." (Wonk is glad Anderson and Izzo are enthused because the late-night crowd in the DCU Center in Worcester, MA, most decidedly was not.) Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp, however, is less impressed (it's true!), saying the Spartans did just enough "to sneak past a 12th seed."

This is what happens when you interview an academic All-American: "Extreme disappointment, frustration, and agony." That is how Spartan guard Chris Hill (he of the 3.75 GPA in finance) described his feelings when he sat on the bench for the last six minutes of State's loss to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament last Friday night. (Wonk, conversely, would have said something more along the lines of: "Me bad feel.")

BONUS visual aid! Link here for a great shot of an alley-oop dunk by Kelvin Torbert so thunderous that play was actually stopped to wait for the backboard to stop wobbling.

Aiming for the Sweet 16
(1) Illinois (33-1) vs. (9) Nevada (25-6)
RCA Dome, Indianapolis (5:40pm EST)
Nevada coach Mark Fox says Illinois is "way, way overrated" and that he and his team are "pretty much already looking ahead to UW-Milwaukee." No, just kidding! The Wolf Pack coach sounds the traditional note of respect: "Trying to prepare for Illinois is like trying to learn how to climb up Mount Everest overnight."...Nevada big man Nick Fazekas compares himself to Marquette's Steve Novak here. (He also says: "I think anyone has a chance in the whole field.")...Deron Williams says: "Our offense isn't moving the way it's supposed to." St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell says: "The Illini have had this whole March to the Arch laid out perfectly before them, and they can't afford to blow it with sleep-walking disinterest just because they aren't familiar with where these early-round Cinderellas dwell on the big map of the college basketball world." Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey agrees: "Illinois needs to find itself very, very quickly."...Daily Herald columnist Mike Imrem points out that if Illinois makes it to the national championship game they will have played in no fewer than 39 contests--and that's just too dang many!...Profile of James Augustine (who almost went to Purdue) here....Profile of Dee Brown's mom here....Thoughts from former Illini big man Brian Cook, in town with the Lakers to play the Pacers, here.

Gaining the Tupper hand! Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper blogs that "Illinois is going to have to make rebounding a huge point of emphasis" in today's game. (Tupper also gets in a zinger that has doubtless set hearts aflutter in Illini chat rooms: "The Fairleigh Dickinson players dissed Dee Brown after the game Thursday night, saying they were disappointed in his play and that he didn’t measure up to the hype. That’s fine. That will give them something to talk about all the way back to New Jersey." UPDATE! The FDU players appear to have enraged the Illinois beat writers more than the Illinois players. Herb Gould of the Chicago Sun-Times calls the Knights' statements "ridiculous.") And in his dead-tree space this morning, Tupper says Illinois is trying to "punch its way out of a five-game slump that has them clawing to keep winning ugly."

BONUS Louis Farrakhan-esque numerology note! No 1-seed has ever lost to an 8 or a 9 in an odd-numbered year since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Dick Vitale will be absent from our screens for the next few days. He is scheduled to undergo hernia surgery today.

From Wonk's "Generalissimo Francisco Franco is Still Dead" Desk
Wonk speaks today of what is not in this morning's papers....

Yesterday your intrepid blogger's email box fairly filled up like the proverbial hole in the water with alerts from alert readers informing me that Indiana coach Mike Davis was about to resign. Further investigation revealed the source of the buzz to be a Hoosier chat room (Peegs).

Harbinger of future headlines or groundless rumor? We'll see.

Wonk back!
Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me!

Mid-major mania!
Hey, Wonk,

The lower seeds are playing like crazy, man. Look at these statistics of games between the following seeds (2-15,3-14, 4-13, 5-12, 6-11):

Average halftime score of higher seed - average halftime score of lower seed ~ 4, that's right 4 measly points

Average final score of higher seed - average final score of lower seed ~ 7 points.

These are supposed to be easy games for the higher seeds. Could mid-majors (which make up most of the lower seeds in this group) really be better that what they are given credit for?

Amit S.

The far-sighted and modest Wonk is proud that the four games he picked on Tuesday as the "first-round games worth noticing" were all won by teams from so-called non-power conferences: UW-Milwaukee, Pacific, Vermont, and Bucknell. (And, um, never mind the subsequent blather in that same post about what a great game LSU-Arizona's going to be.)

Latest update from alert reader and die-hard Spartan fan Shawn
Hi, Wonk,

I'm sure some Spartan fans have been made uneasy by tonight's close call, but don't count me among them. I thought it was an odd, sloppy game, but not one that we were ever lined up to lose, despite the tight score.

A number of guys made great contributions: Kelvin Torbert was all over the court, showing what he can do when he tries to play Mo Ager's game rather than Chris Hill's, and Shannon Brown was equally energized, giving us what was certainly the best slow-motion celebratory profanity of the tourney thus far. In an odd coincidence, Shannon and I both celebrated his play by screaming exactly the same phrase, although I don't think he knocked a glass of water onto his couch while doing so.

Anyway, I'm completely exhausted by the interweaving (and uniformly negative) narratives that have been whirling around this team at a fevered pitch: Davis is mercurial and needs to be assertive, the seniors are a disappointment, there is no point guard, they'll fail in the clutch, etc. Here's hoping this win and a few others like it can disrupt the talking points, at least for a while.

Shawn M.

Thanks, Shawn!


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