Big Ten Wonk
Monday, April 04, 2005
It started in Lewisburg, PA, on November 11
(1) North Carolina (32-4) vs. (1) Illinois (37-1)
9:21pm (EST)
At this point there are surely no untold stories or unanalyzed traits left when it comes to either Illinois or North Carolina. The Heels' NBA-level talent achieves a beastly mix of rebounding, speed, and defense. The Illini's historic embarrassment of backcourt riches achieves a level of low-turnover open-look efficiency on offense that fatigues opposing defenses and requires near-perfection from opposing offenses.

At halftime of the Carolina-Michigan State game Saturday night, Bruce Weber assessed the Spartans' game plan and chances but also gave a sneak preview of tonight. One key, Weber said, was to deny Sean May the ball in the first seven seconds of the possession. The Illini will try to meet this goal by pressuring the ball. If they don't achieve this goal they could be in for a long night.

On their end of the floor, Illinois will try to make May work. Whether he's guarding James Augustine or someone else won't matter--May will find himself spending 25 seconds or so of clock on most defensive possessions running through screens from out top to the baseline. And if he tries to take a second or two off he'll be victimized by the Augustine-Williams fake-screen give-and-go: ask Mike Wilkinson, Nick Fazekas, or Channing Frye.

But Carolina is more than May. Wonk is fairly blown away by Marvin Williams--on paper and, even more so, on the court. And Jawad Williams didn't look too shabby Saturday night. Illinois must do a better job of defending drives off the dribble than they did against Louisville.

The Heels' three-point shooting has been awful of late (.306 over the last two games), which is a classic piece of good news-bad news. The good news is they're not hitting their threes. The bad news is they can shoot .300 from beyond the arc, as they did Saturday night, and still beat Michigan State by 17. Indeed, Carolina came into the Final Four shooting fewer threes (as a percentage of their attempts) than any of the other three teams. They don't need them.

Recent games provide a couple of different admirable templates for Illinois. Carolina lost to Georgia Tech 78-75 in the ACC tournament 23 days ago. In a game in which both teams shot poorly, the Yellow Jackets took 15 turnovers from the Heels and outrebounded them by seven to notch the W. And, of course, there's the example of Villanova, forever locked one strange call away from who-knows. The short-handed Wildcats rode one heroic performance (28 points by Randy Foye) and a plus-seven in turnovers to very nearly pull off the upset.

What Roy Williams has to consider, of course, is how to make sure his team plays 40 minutes of team defense. The strength at the heart of Illinois' success this year has been their ability to draw their points from any of the five positions on the floor, depending on what the opposing defense is willing to give that game. This puts a strain on a defense that is almost without exception unprecedented. When the Illini are in peak form, they require five players to play defense for the entire duration of almost every possession.

This Illini fan would like to see Bruce Weber's team model itself on Connecticut 1999, a team that went to the national championship game and beat a Duke team that has since put many more players into the NBA than has that year's national champions. Jim Calhoun's charges came out in that game with a level of sudden and unanswerable ferocity that plainly stunned the Blue Devils. No one had done this to them that year. Someone had forgotten to tell UConn they should defer to talent.

Speaking of defeating talent, the Huskies were led that year by one Rip Hamilton, he of the world champion Detroit Pistons.

See where Wonk's going with this?...

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Illinois enters its 39th game much as it has entered the other 38, doing the Rodney Dangerfield thing. "Look at their team," Dee Brown says of North Carolina. "Look at their coach. Everyone expects them to win." Wonk says: whatever works.

Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times makes a rare foray into college hoops to say: "The reason the Illini excite me is because they have no singular star, and because they play the game right." North Carolina guard Raymond Felton, in turn, is unhappy at the implications that his team is able to get by on talent alone: "That kind of makes me upset, that people are always saying we're not a team. We're a team. We haven't won 32 games just off talent."

Pete Thamel of the New York Times says the Tar Heels covet Illinois' reputation for team basketball. Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post suspects that deep down Bruce Weber is more than happy to be a two-point underdog. (More from the Team vs. Talent front here and here.)

The unofficial host columnists of the Final Four, Bernie Miklasz and Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, are pretty dang happy with this match-up: see here and here.

Stewart Mandel of says: "Monday night's matchup feels a lot like one of those title games from the sport's heyday of the 1980s and early '90s. Why? One word: Recognizability." Seth Davis of previews the game here.

Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline says yes, everyone's brackets are trash by now, but grieve not: "Amid all that rubble, a bar of gold at the bottom of the barrel, is the best NCAA championship game in decades." John Feinstein of the Washington Post says this is the game we've been waiting for.

Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News looks at Carolina-Illinois myth vs. reality. Andy Katz of tells Illinois: win tonight and you "will move to an elite level." Pat Forde of tells Roy Williams: win tonight and you will lose that "anvil of expectation hanging over [your] silver head."

Sean May is admirably open about his intention to get Roger Powell or even James Augustine into foul trouble.

Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Tribune salutes the cohesiveness of five Illinois starters who have now taken the floor together as a unit in an astonishing 40 consecutive games.

Daily Herald columnist Mike Imrem says he was wrong two years ago and Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther was right about Bruce Weber. Copley News Service columnist Mike Nadel says Weber deserves to win tonight. (Tell that to Roy Williams.)

Mike Downey of the Tribune pens a zippy little experts-be-damned pep talk. Barry Rozner of the Daily Herald gives said experts some pro bono enlightenment: "Illinois will play defense and get back in transition. North Carolina will show fits of selfish play and commit wild turnovers, take terrible shots and allow for easy transition buckets for the Illini. Illinois will pass up bad shots in order for a teammate to get a good shot, but North Carolina has no such temperament. Illinois will beat Carolina down the court at both ends, and they’ll take time off the clock, something the Heels believe is a sin."

Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper blogs about long-suffering Illinois fans here. And, in his dead-tree space this morning, Tupper muses about ten potential benefits of a national championship.

Deron Williams' mother says (duh) her son is about to play his last college game.

Etc. Two-headed-opposing-monsters profile of Deron Williams and Raymond Felton from J.A. Adande of the Los Angeles Times here....Two-headed-opposing-monsters profile of Bruce Weber and Roy Williams from David Steele of the Baltimore Sun here....Former St. Louis football Cardinals quarterback and former Southern Illinois Athletic Director Jim Hart talks proudly of giving Bruce Weber his first head coaching gig here....Profile of Dee Brown here. (Non-profile of the "Dee Brown" who is a member of the Montana House of Representatives here.)...Illini's-eye view of Big Ten escapee Sean May here.

Welcome to day 1 of Wonk's week-long farewell!
Wonk is about to put the blog on hiatus for six months or so. Barring unforeseen developments like Mike Krzyzewski being fired amidst a rising tide of fatigued disgust over his American Express-sponsored hagiography and being replaced in Durham by Bruce Weber, Friday's post should be the last one. Your intrepid blogger will then dutifully shut the old girl down for the off-season like a Bar Harbor lobster pound--only to descend visigoth-like upon your free time yet again come November.

Meantime Wonk has many festivities planned for this, the last week: links to film clips (including classics like the Ed Ames tomahawk throw, Wonk's whipped cream fight with Burt Reynolds, and the time Don Rickles guest-blogged and broke my "For those about to Wonk" coffee mug), cameo appearances by guest stars (watch for the hilarious spoof of Reservoir Dogs with Wonk, Tina Yothers, Ken Pomeroy, Gwen Stefani, Kyle Whelliston, and Carrot Top--they were all good sports, really, and great to work with), and, of course, an obligatory give-us-a-standing-O Martin-and-Lewis-esque reconciliation moment between Wonk and Billy Packer.

So without further ado, we begin our week-long look at hoops blogs beloved of Wonk!

Hoops blogs Wonk loves: The Chris West Basketball Journal
First, an acknowledgment: April's an odd time to be dishing referrals to college hoops blogs. Indeed, at least one blog that Wonk intends to gush about this week is already shut down for the off-season.

Too bad! For weeks now Wonk's been too busy cranking out the game recaps and passing along the links to pause and relay a dawning realization: when it comes to college hoops, the still-yeasty blogosphere has already yielded up some incredible material. (And, OK, some real drivel--but that's a topic for another day.)

Milwaukee-based Chris West blogs about college (with an emphasis on Wisconsin, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Marquette) and high school hoops and therein behold the first thing Wonk loves about Chris's blog: its happy horizontal disregard for traditional vertical categories.

But ignore what Wonk just said: let's get vertical and restrict ourselves to the college game for the moment. Here's Chris on a topic Wonk posted on himself and didn't do one-tenth so well: the oddly hostile interview given by former Indiana great Kent Benson at the Indiana-Purdue game on February 22. Benson was asked about Illinois' chances of duplicating the feat of his 1976 Hoosiers: going undefeated and winning a national championship.

Chris gives you everything you need to know:

Did anyone else see the interview with Kent Benson?...Two points on this one.

First, that sweater that Kent was wearing was just a tad outdated. I half expected him to start asking me to buy some Jell-O pudding.

Secondly, if I was ever on a legendary undefeated team, I'd hope that I could be a bit more cordial on the microphone. When asked if he thought comparisons of this year's Illinois team were accurate, he could have said something like, "Well, there's no doubt that Illinois has an excellent team this year, and they're making one of the better runs at the record that I've seen in awhile. They're not there yet, and I don't know if anyone in this day and age can go undefeated. We really did something special in '76, you know."

Instead, Benson cut straight to saying that Illinois hasn't gone undefeated yet and strongly implied that they wouldn't, noting that things would get infinitely tougher in the tournament with "teams like North Carolina and Duke." (Code: Teams that Kent thinks are better than Illinois.) When asked if he thought it would help Illinois to lose a game before the tournament, Benson replied that the toughest thing for Illinois would be being prepared every night, and if they weren't, the stood the chance of losing to "Northwestern or Purdue." (Code: Teams that Kent thinks are terrible.)

Let's see--so far Kent has slammed two Big Ten teams, and stopped just short of slamming another. Would it have hurt to have said just once "Illinois is a good team?" Upon reflection, I don't even disagree with most of what he said, but he said it in such a way that I ended up really not liking him. I guess Kent should have his precious 1976 team, though, or else he risks being remembered best as the guy who broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's hand with his face.

Reading Chris is a little like reading four or five really good bloggers. He's got the game-analysis piece down. (See his player-by-player breakdown of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, done for the benefit of Wonk's readers in advance of the Panthers' Sweet 16 game against Illinois.) He attends games and gives you a good Raymond Carver flavor of the setting (what the band played, what the scoreboard cam showed, what the mascot did, what his buddy said, etc.). As seen above, he watches games on TV along with you and notices the things you notice. And he has his team(s) that he openly pulls for and agonizes over.

If Clifford Geertz had been interested in Bruce Pearl and Joah Tucker instead of Balinese rooster scrapes, he might have sounded like Chris.

Happy transgressor of traditional cognitive boundaries Chris West, Wonk salutes you!

Wonk's dumbest posts of the year
Your intrepid blogger kicks off his look at the year's five dumbest posts with this gem from the blog's second day, Wonk's Neitzel or no Neitzel hypothesis:

Michigan State’s numbers on offense—definitely in efficiency terms and likely in absolute terms—will be down this year from last year, Neitzel or no Neitzel.

(Seeing this classified as one of the dumbest posts of the year doubtless occasions no end of pleasure for alert reader and die-hard Spartan fan Shawn M.)

Now, in Wonk's defense, the Neitzel or no Neitzel Hypothesis (hereafter NNH) was based on the assumption that there was no bloody way that Michigan State as a team could shoot .434 on their threes or .522 from the floor in conference play two years in a row. And, indeed, they didn't. What Wonk didn't count on, however, was that State's rebounding would improve dramatically and thus more than offset not only a small dip in shooting efficiency from the field (from .522 to .498) but even a catastrophic plunge in three-point efficiency (from .434 to .329).

BONUS yeah-but-I-also-said-this moment. November 23, on Indiana's then-upcoming schedule: "You are nothing if not brave, Coach Davis. Here's hoping your RPI makes up for the L's."

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Spartans, Carolina, Badgers, Illini...and Wonk

I love your site but this seems funny. When Wisconsin put up big offensive numbers on UNC, you attributed it to bad defense by Carolina. Then when UNC put big defensive numbers up against MSU, you attributed it to MSU missing shots that they usually make.

Why does MSU get the benefit of the doubt, but not Wisconsin? The truth is that Bo Ryan gave his team a chance to win against UNC and Tom Izzo did not. Everybody in the country told Tom Izzo that his strategy was wrong but he decided he knew better. (Maybe because all you Big Ten writers constantly tell him how smart he is).

How about a little love for Bo Ryan and Wisconsin, a team that has played just as well or better than MSU over the past ten games, and a little less fawning over an MSU team that lost to Indiana, Iowa and George Washington, and that clearly was not as good as they, themselves, thought they were.

Also, check out Pomeroy's defensive stats the next time that you want to compare the Spartans' or the Illini's defense to UNC's defense. His rankings might surprise you.

William L.

Wonk pleads not guilty on the grounds that you misread me, William! Let's go to the tape....

The key phrases not cited are perhaps "a little of neither" (was MSU that bad or UNC that good? equally true and non-mutually-exclusive) and "the Heels were, to say the least, on their game in the final 20."

State unquestionably played poorly on offense in the second half (actually in the first half, too, but they were getting steals and offensive boards) and was unquestionably helped along to that unhappy result by great D by the Heels.

I think saying: that Wisconsin would have beaten Kansas; that UW was clearly one of the Big Ten's top three teams in a "bifurcated league" with a yawning gulf between those three and the rest (a statement, by the way, for which Wonk was scolded by other alert readers); and that the Badgers lost to North Carolina in large part because the Tar Heels "out-Wisconsin'ed Wisconsin" most certainly constitutes "love for the Badgers."

What you say "the truth is" (Bo Ryan gave his team a chance to win; Tom Izzo did not) is empirically and unquestionably true--and uncontradicted by anything in the blog.

Wonk pleads guilty to digging Izzo (four Final Fours, great quotes, native of the UP--what's not to love?) but I don't think I was particularly telling him how smart he is when I chided him for telling his seniors for three years that they weren't tough enough and then turning around and castigating the media for saying his seniors weren't tough enough.

The MSU team that lost to Indiana, Iowa, and GW beat Duke and Kentucky.

Illinois' defensive efficiency in the Pomeroy ratings (seventh) is higher than Carolina's (tenth), a fact you apparently cite but I'm not sure why. Both teams have played great D all year--but Carolina played their worst D of the year (again, by Pomeroy's lights) against Wisconsin.

From the archives! Day 1 of Wonk's five favorite emails of the year...
This blog started on November 4 and posted its first invitation for email the next day. It took a few days but on November 10, Wonk received his first email:

You are dead on right about MSU. What they really lack is the beef combined with the attitude. I have been pounding the table that the biggest loss for MSU was when Lorbek left early to go sit the bench in Europe. During the last part of his first and only season at MSU, when he was on the floor with Davis, everything opened up. Unfortunately for the Spartans, I am not sure they have enough beef yet on the baseline to take some pressure of Davis. Anderson just does not get after it like Mo Pete did. By the way most Spartan fans do not share my views.

Mark M.

That's the last we've heard of Mark M. but wherever he is, Wonk salutes him! His willingness to "pound the table" on behalf of Erazem Lorbek (of all people) made Wonk think maybe this zealous fascination with Big Ten hoops was a shared affliction after all.


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