Big Ten Wonk
Sunday, March 20, 2005
The Big Ten put its first team into the Sweet 16 yesterday. The conference will try to send two more teams to the second weekend today....

(1) Illinois 71, (9) Nevada 59
Bruce Weber has it exactly right: "Deron [Williams] just took over the game." Indeed, with the Illini leading 34-29 in the opening moments of the second half, Williams embarked on an extended run of excellence in driving and either: a) finishing; b) drawing the foul; or c) dishing. By the time Williams was done (he either scored or recorded an assist on every play during a 14-7 run) CBS was sure enough of the result to switch us to another game.

BONUS glimpse at the Illini playbook! (UW-Milwaukee take note!) The play that pushed the score to 48-34 and convinced the network that the outcome was no longer in doubt was that same play from the final minutes of the Wisconsin game (the one that put the Illini up 67-64 in Madison with about three minutes left): on the right wing (again, as in Madison), Williams receives a pass from James Augustine out top. Augustine then moves toward Williams, gesturing for the guard to come upcourt on the screen Augustine's about to set. But at the last instant Augustine veers off, darts toward the basket and receives a feed from Williams. Dunk. Plays like that led to .531 shooting for the game from the Illini.

Augustine put up a career-high 23 points, 17 of them in the first half when the Illini backcourt was struggling offensively. Wonk already saluted Augustine in Friday's post but, what the heck, here's some more love: his transition from overlooked excellence to prominent brilliance over the past five games (11.2 boards and 14.4 points a game on .714 shooting) surely gives Illinois opponents pause. Your intrepid blogger stands by his Friday statement: Augustine at the moment is quite literally the Illini's most valuable player simply because no one else does what he does: there's a three-headed monster in the backcourt but only a one-headed monster in the paint.

BONUS Wonk musing: Is it just this blogger or is Jay Bilas adopting a Bill Raftery-esque growl in his voice?

EXCLUSIVE two-part meme forecast! The Illini move on to the round of 16, where they will face surprising Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The 12th-seeded Panthers defeated 5th-seeded Alabama Thursday and 4th-seeded Boston College yesterday to make it to the second weekend.

Meme 1: UWM is coached by Bruce Pearl and the Illini, it will be said ad nauseum this week, have an ancient (i.e., about 15 years old) blood feud with Pearl dating from his days as an assistant at Iowa on Tom Davis's staff. Deon Thomas! Taped phone call! NCAA investigation! Etc., etc. Your intrepid blogger is on the record as noting this all means far more to Illinois boosters of a certain age ("geezer Illini fans" your always sensitive blogger termed them) than it does to the current players or Bruce Weber (or Wonk). Who knows, maybe it still means something to Lou Henson. Still, Wonk holds out hope for a statement this week from Henson along the lines of William Shatner on "SNL," telling dwelling-in-their-parents'-basement Trekkies to get over it and get a life already. Such a statement would certainly be most welcome. Until then, this shall be known as the Geezers' Meme.

Meme 2: The Panthers love to press opponents into turnovers and so it will be said that Bruce Pearl's team does not "match up well" with the guard-heavy Illini. The way Illinois has been turning the ball over of late, however, Wonk's not so sanguine (see: 16 turnovers yesterday).

Links. Columnist Steve Sneddon of the Reno Gazette-Journal says Nevada was simply "outgunned and outnumbered" in a "game that wasn’t as close as the score at the RCA Dome indicated."

Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper sings James Augustine's praises here and officially gets the ball rolling on the Geezers' Meme here.

(Let's get this out of the way: more on the Geezers' Meme here, here, and here. The always-pithy Nick Smith has this to say on the subject: "It's not a big deal to us. But it could help us in that the fans will be booing the hell out of Bruce Pearl when he walks into the Allstate Arena.'')

Deron Williams says of Augustine: "He was killing them. No one on that team could stop and contain him. We just had to keep going to him." St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell says Nick Fazekas "may one day end up being an NBA lottery pick, but on this one day, James Augustine exposed Fazekas' flaws and in the process elevated his status as one of the best big men in college hoops." Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Downey says Augustine carried Illinois on his shoulders. Downey's fellow columnist at the Tribune, Rick Morrissey, says: "Finally, the Illini played the way the Illini play." Copley News Service columnist Mike Nadel speaks to the Illini in the second-person and says: "It took Thursday's pathetic performance against Fairleigh Dickinson, a team you should have beaten by four touchdowns, to point you in the right direction."

Dee Brown says he feels bad for former coach Bill Self, whose Kansas team lost in the first round to Bucknell Friday night....Who'll-play-in-the-NBA? musing here.

Can 18.75 percent of the Sweet 16 come from the Big Ten?
It can with two wins today....

(5) Michigan State (23-6) vs. (13) Vermont (25-6)
Worcester, MA (2:40pm EST)
Tom Izzo compares playing lovable Vermont to the time his Spartans took on another sentimental favorite: "I remember when we played Gonzaga and they were America's team, I felt like the guy that shot Bambi." (Izzo adds: "If I wasn't playing them, I'd probably be cheering for them myself.") Lansing State Journal columnist Todd Schulz says the Catamounts' win over Syracuse "wasn't, well, all that surprising, especially in this age of parity. In fact, the most impressive part is that Vermont actually fulfilled the destiny so many fans and media had preordained." Schulz's colleague at the LSJ, Joe Rexrode, says the crowd in Worcester will favor Vermont but the action on the floor should favor the deeper Spartans: all five starters for the Catamounts played over 40 minutes in Friday night's win in OT against the Orangemen.

By the way, a "catamount" is a mountain cat. Who knew?

(6) Wisconsin (23-8) vs. (14) Bucknell (23-9)
Oklahoma City (4:50pm EST)
Badgers'-eye view of the Bucknell Bison here. Wisconsin State Journal columnist Tom Oates says Bo Ryan and Bucknell coach Pat Flannery are cut from the same (Division III) cloth. Profiles of Racine native, Penn State transfer, and non-scholarship athlete Sharif Chambliss here and here. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist Dale Hoffman says Badger guard Clayton Hanson "is a testimonial to patience and a jump shot." Nostalgic remembrance of the 2000 Wisconsin Final Four team here.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
West Virginia 111, Wake Forest 105 (2OT). Wow. The second overtime was sloppy, granted, but the last minutes of regulation and the entirety of the first overtime provided some of the most thrilling basketball Wonk has seen in a long while. Entire games have been played without any plays as spectacular as the two that took place within one second at the close of the first OT: the Mountaineers' beautiful back-cut and Eric Williams' stunning block. Superb.

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

Big Ten Wonk: where you, the reader, select the preferred grammar!

As a loyal UConn and Big East fan, I want to say that I really enjoy your blog. That's impressive since I don't care much about the Big Ten (or twelve or however many).

However, I have to beg you for something. Could you please write "threes" instead of "three's"? I really feel like I'm nitpicking, which of course I am, but you use the possessive consistently and it drives me a little nuts.

Bill M.

Rarely does Wonk get a chance to stop driving someone nuts with so little effort on my part (effort-minimization being a passion of mine). Consider it done, Bill.


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