Big Ten Wonk
Saturday, March 12, 2005
"Upset city!" East Lansing edition
Iowa's win over Michigan State on a neutral floor last night was, to this blogger's eyes, as big an upset as Ohio State beating Illinois in Columbus on Sunday. Certainly as big a surprise. The 7-seed's dismissal of the 2 leaves today's Big Ten semi's looking like this (all times Central):

(1) Illinois vs. (5) Minnesota (12:40pm, CBS)

(7) Iowa vs. (3) Wisconsin (3:05pm, CBS)

How did we get here?

Iowa 71, Michigan State 69
Not only would the Spartans have won this game if they'd shot free throws the way they had all season (.791), Tom Izzo's team would have won this game if they'd shot free throws like an average Big Ten team (.696). Instead, as we all now know, State shot .500 (15 of 30) and lost. And, make no mistake, that was the difference. (Although the Hawkeyes did surprisingly well on the boards, outrebounding Michigan State by one.) Shooting .696 from the line would have given the Spartans five more points: the final would have been MSU 74, Iowa 71, and Wonk would be posting this morning about how Tom Izzo's team was inherently superior, too deep, too fast, etc.

Not that Iowa didn't do its level best to give the game away. In the game's final minute with the Hawkeyes nursing a seemingly comfortable five-point lead, Adam Haluska fouled Kelvin Torbert on a made three and gave the Spartans an opportunity for a four-point play. (Haluska fouled out on the play and at that moment there was fear in Iowa's eyes. They were thinking: Evanston. But it turned out it didn't matter. Torbert missed the free throw.) And Mike Henderson gave State the ball with about 20 seconds left when, with no Spartan within 15 feet of him, he simply failed to catch a pass.

And so with six seconds left in the game and the Spartans down by a point, Alan Anderson missed two free throws. For the game he was 5-of-10 from the line. Prior to last night's game, Anderson, the best free-throw shooter in the Big Ten in conference play (.927), had missed four free throws during the entire conference season.

Wonk is writing this before reading the write-ups on the game and, frankly, this blogger shudders to think what will be said of the Spartans in some quarters after this loss. It does indeed feel like we've seen this movie before: the loss at home to Wisconsin last year (the forever-furled banner game), the loss at Wisconsin this year, and now this. All hinging on free throws in the final minutes. All losses.

Other random notes....

Jeff Horner paid tribute to absent comrade Pierre Pierce by becoming Pierce. Good grief, that wild shot (it went in) flung over the defender just before he went out of bounds on the baseline? Somewhere Pierce--eyes closed, fingers to his temples--was chanting: "Shoot, Jeff. Shoot. Again. Again. And again. Now turn the ball over."....

The blow-by and subsequent two-handed dunk that Alan Anderson inflicted upon Greg Brunner with a little more than four minutes left in the game made Wonk jump up and, much to the bewilderment of the Wonk Wife, say: "Yes, exactly!" Because this opportunity is there all-game every game for anyone playing against Brunner, even players not as quick as Anderson. To the Wisconsin Badgers, this blogger says: read up on your Wonk! (Starting here.)...

BONUS griping about the refs! Your intrepid blogger is on the record as declaring that complaints about officials comprise a singularly unpromising and invariably dull topic for blogging. So, without further ado, allow me to complain about the officials!

Wonk hated the way this game was called. It was called consistently, mind you, but consistency in hyperactive over-whistling is no virtue. There was a whistle every time one player's shadow crossed another. The players, naturally, drew the logical conclusion and set about calling for the ball and then grimly flinging themselves into the nearest defender. Whistle! Foul! Free throws! Never mind that the offensive player's creating the contact.

Just to spice things up with a little variety, one such whistle actually went against the man with the ball, one Greg Brunner. Driving the baseline, he'd just done a pretty fair imitation of a fullback at the goal line. When he realized the call was actually against him his look of o-the-humanity! shock and dismay was priceless.

Are they in? Yesterday Wonk breezily offered that a win against Michigan State would indeed make Iowa a true bubble team, worthy of study as a possible NCAA invitee. And so they are. Put it this way: it will be tough--not impossible, mind you, but tough--to keep them out. And so we may well be presented with the odd spectacle of a team (Indiana) being left out of the tournament even though they finished three games ahead of a team that got a bid. Incredible.

And on such things as multiple free-throw misses by .927 shooters, coaches' jobs ride.

Links. Start with the briskly efficient game recap at Hawkeye Hoops, defining state of the art in team blogs since 2004. As for MSM goodies....Iowa City Press-Citizen columnist Pat Harty says Mike Henderson (17 points) came up big "on both ends of the court." Jeff Horner, conversely, thinks Alan Anderson's misses at the free-throw line had more to do with the outcome: "Thank God he did that." The Des Moines Register notes that little-used Iowa guard Jack Brownlee made the second of two free throws with 1.2 seconds left but does not point out that Brownlee, rightly, was in fact trying to miss that free throw....Are the Hawkeyes going to the big dance? Steve Alford makes his case here....Tom Izzo heaped praise upon the Hawkeyes: "They played like this was the most important thing in the world to them." Columnist Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press, conversely, heaps I-told-you-so's upon the Spartans: "A legacy of championship failure remains the 800-pound gorilla that drags down the Spartans in decisive late-game moments." (Even the Freep's headline-writer gets in on the act, terming last night's loss State's "latest collapse.") Lansing State Journal columnist Todd Schulz says there is a "mysterious, maddening force that takes over the collective mind of the MSU basketball team when the score gets tight." Dave Dye of the Detroit News says Michigan State "has developed a reputation as a team that struggles in tight games, and it did nothing to change that against the Hawkeyes." And Joe Rexrode of the Lansing State Journal calls this team "the incredibly repetitive Michigan State Spartans."...Izzo says he benched both Chris Hill and Drew Neitzel in the final minutes in an attempt to improve his defense: "We just felt like we had to get a better defensive team in there because Chris and Drew were struggling a little bit."

Minnesota 71, Indiana 55
The Gophers are now officially tournament locks after this surprisingly convincing win over the previously hot Hoosiers. Congratulations to Dan Monson (this was his 100th win at Minnesota), a man who's been through a lot in a short time in Minneapolis.

This will be known as the shaved-head game: Many of Indiana's players--Bracey Wright excepted--sported new-look lids for this important game but change in this instance was not a good idea. In an otherwise statistically even game, cold shooting killed Indiana: .333 for the game and just .258 in the second half, where IU was outscored 37-27.

Links. When told no team with fewer than 16 wins has won an at-large bid since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Mike Davis, he of the 15-13 Hoosiers, responded: "Somebody has to be the first in history to do it, and there's no reason it can't be us." (He also, however, praised the victors, saying of Minnesota: "They came in here and played like they have been here before.") Columnist Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star says: "The Hoosiers are going to the NIT because that's where they belong."...Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan says the Gophers have come a long way: "This is a team that, a few months ago, was thought to be dreading Lipscomb; now it's taking on No. 1 Illinois." Souhan's colleague at the Star Tribune, Jeff Shelman, says this game "epitomized the Gophers' season. The Gophers got balanced scoring and played stifling defense, and guard Vincent Grier provided key baskets."

Wisconsin 60, Ohio State 49
The Buckeyes ended the game that ended their season looking like a tired team. This was a two-point contest with a little more than four minutes left but Wisconsin closed the night on a 12-3 run.

Wonk is thinking of going to Vegas or buying a lottery ticket or something: after ominously waggling a finger yesterday and warning that OSU's Tony Stockman was taking entirely too many shots (never mind that it worked out against Penn State), the Clemson transfer posted an 0-for-8 on his three's and the Buckeyes as a team shot just 2-for-20 from outside the arc. Thad Matta's team attempted only six free throws. Meanwhile, the Badgers got 23 points and seven boards from Zach Morley.

Links. Columnist Dale Hoffman of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says conference tournaments are made for "pluggers" and Morley fits that bill. Columnist Tom Oates of the Wisconsin State Journal wonders if Morley just might be the long-awaited Third Man (cue the zither!) to complement overburdened scorers Mike Wilkinson and Alando Tucker. Bo Ryan says he doesn't care what the final score says: "That was a tight game."...Referring to Morley, Thad Matta said: "We had no answers." (Wonk has done a quick Lexis search and is pretty sure that's the first time those words were ever uttered with reference to Zach Morley.) Matt Sylvester says poor three-point shooting did in his team: "It's sad, because we've hit our threes all year."

Illinois 68, Northwestern 51
Despite poor three-point shooting and frequent turnovers, the Illini easily moved past the overmatched Wildcats--a victory that was immediately overshadowed by the news that Bruce Weber's mother had died suddenly. (After suffering chest pains outside the United Center before the game, Dawn Weber had been rushed to the hospital with a ruptured aorta.) Last night Weber announced that he will coach the game today against Minnesota.

Links. Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper blogs about the day's strange and ultimately sad events here. Daily Herald columnist Mike Imrem points out that Weber's brother Dave, coach of Glenbard North High School, was also coaching yesterday when he received the news. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti says the Illinois players will rally around Weber. More from Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Downey, from St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell, and from Peoria Journal Star sports editor Bill Liesse. Game recaps here, here, here, here, and here. A look at the Wildcats' future here.

Wonk's streak of consecutive posts without a pun on Bill Self's name continues! The United Center crowd booed loudly yesterday when Bill Self's name was announced over the PA as the answer to a trivia question (best winning percentage in the Big Ten Tournament).

What's Steve Lavin's term for that area again? In the first half, Dee Brown saved a ball from going out of bounds by diving and throwing the ball blindly back in play, where it hit what this writer decorously terms T.J. Parker's "lower abdomen." (Steve Lavin, of a somewhat more Chaucerian bent, terms them "the onions.") Brown immediately tried to apologize but Parker would have none of it. The Illini guard was still trying to apologize at the beginning of the second half when he was admonished by referee Ed Hightower to stop talking.

OFFICIAL bracket of all TRUE Big Ten Wonk fans!
Indefatigable college hoops blogger Yoni Cohen has a spiffy NCAA Tournament Bloggers Bracket that any self-respecting Wonk fan will want to call home for the next three weeks. (You'll love the Genie!) It's up and running so link right now and tell Yoni Wonk sent you!

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
The Chicago Tribune's Neil Milbert looks at today's semifinal games here.

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

Meaningful games? Never on a Sunday?
What's up, Wonk,

OK, I'll be quick. I'm biased towards Wisconsin but why don't these conference championship games mean anything? Last year, Wisconsin WON the Big Ten tourney and it didn't affect their seeding at all. In fact, they were stuck playing one of the top teams in the nation, Pitt, in the second round. To go to the Final Four, the Badgers would have had to beat three top ten teams, while they themselves were #12, if I remember correctly.

Name another team that highly-ranked that had that tough of a road to the Final Four. Never. Then the selection committee said that the Sunday games actually meant nothing. Their bracket was already filled out. What a waste!

So why weren't changes made for this year? Teams are penalized for losing in the first round in the big tourneys(Maryland, you're going to the NIT, deal with it) so why not reward teams for doing well? Or shifting those tournaments up a day... or moving the selection show back two hours? Is this that hard?

Brent S.

Thanks, Brent! As for moving things around: the Big Ten title game is where it is because CBS and the Big Ten like it there. And the selection show won't move, particularly not with the advent of the 64-65 game meaning those two teams have just 48 hours to get to Dayton after they hear the news.

Maybe when the contract with CBS is up for renewal we'll see some changes. Until then, you're correct: tomorrow will mean nothing as far as seeding.


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