Big Ten Wonk
Tuesday, April 05, 2005
North Carolina won the national championship last night, defeating Illinois 75-70. Congratulations to the Tar Heels and especially to Roy Williams, a man who's always struck Wonk as being a class act.

That final score again: 75-70. Which means, if you gave up at halftime when you saw the 13-point Carolina lead, that the Illini outscored the Heels 43-35 after the break. And they did it with precisely 0 points the entire night from James Augustine, who fouled out after only nine minutes scattered across both halves.

What a performance against the loaded Tar Heels by just five players: Luther Head, Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Roger Powell, and Jack Ingram. (The entire rest of the team combined for just 17 minutes.) The second half was, as Ken Pomeroy says aptly this morning, "one of the best halves of college basketball you'll ever see."

And yet, for the Illini, the aching memory of this game will be the four lovely gift-wrapped chances they had to win or at least extend it. After Head tied the game at 70 with 2:38 left to play, Illinois had no fewer than four open looks for Head and Deron Williams (three of them from virtually the same spot on the right wing) that would have either given them the lead or tied the game:

Williams at 70-70 with 2:02 left.

Head with Illinois trailing 72-70 and 1:09 left.

Williams with 54 seconds left and the score still 72-70.

And Head with 16 seconds left and the score 73-70.

All were wide open. None fell. The Illini will of course be criticized for taking too many threes (40 of their 70 FGA's) but when your only post scorer is on the bench and the opponent's perimeter D is porous, this is what ensues. Had Illinois shot their season percentage on their threes they would have netted 12 more points. Instead they shot just .300 from beyond the arc. Alas.

So with Augustine on the bench and poor outside shooting by the Illini, how in the world was this game this close? Two reasons. First, because Illinois turned the ball over once--once--in the entire second half, when Head penetrated the lane with 32 seconds left in the game and his pass was intercepted by Raymond Felton.

And, second, because of heroic--no other word suffices--effort on the boards against one of the best rebounding teams in the country: Illinois out-rebounded Carolina 37 to 34. Roger Powell, last seen looking disconcertingly similarly-sized standing next to Jim Nantz in Saturday's postgame interview, out-rebounded perhaps the single best pure rebounder in the nation, Sean May, hauling in 14 boards, eight of them on the offensive glass (giving Powell a rebounding percentage of 20.8 for the evening). May gathered in ten boards (rebounding pct.: 16.6) but no other Tar Heel had more than five.

If this proud University of Illinois alum had a medal, I would pin it on the Reverend for duty quite literally above and beyond.

As for Carolina, they would likely tell you they were off their game in the second half. Rashad McCants was a non-factor after the break. Marvin Williams looked much more like the freshman that he is than the future lottery pick that he is. Raymond Felton put up good numbers (17 points, seven assists) yet was hampered by fouls. And Jawad Williams was a no-show.

But the Heels had Sean May and that was enough: 26 points on 10-of-11 shooting. UNC had very little problem feeding the post--and that was the third and decisive factor in the game.


Last Thursday I registered my preemptive dissent from those who said "anything less than a national championship" would be "devastating" to the Illini. I'm proud to have entered my vote on that front early--this morning the notion that I should be devastated looks more absurd than ever to me. Granted, I was disappointed last night, but even as I turned the set off I was replaying in my mind's eye the innumerable delights this team has given me.

So here are some thoughts, with emendations, from last week's post--perhaps truer now than they were Thursday....

Thank you, Illini:

For playing a brand of ball that pleased John Wooden and defeated opponents.

For blazing through December playing at April efficiency.

For destroying the then-number-1 team by more than what the final score said.

For the tough road wins at Madison and East Lansing.

For winning even on your off days and nights.

For the 14-pass possession against Northwestern.

For recovering from the loss at Ohio State and winning the Big Ten tournament with relative ease.

For the luminous and already legendary comeback against Arizona.

For winning a national semifinal and making it look like just another game.

And for displaying the heart of a champion in the national championship game--the same heart you displayed in all 39 games.

You were historic. And I salute you.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Wonk already knew he liked Bruce Weber. But this seals the deal for life. After the game Weber had this to say: "I'm sad it's over, but I'm not sad with how we played. We went down battling." Asked about the season as a whole, Weber replied: "What else can you say? It goes down in history. If you're not happy with this, I feel sorry for you because life ain't getting any better." Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther, give this man of uncommon balance and perspective whatever he wants.

Basketball is a simple game. Asked the difference in the game, Weber answered: "They shot better than us."

Weber says he's sad only that the season is over--a sadness that came on even before Monday. "Last night [Sunday], I kind of cried in front of the team. It was the last meeting and you don't want it to end. We knew it was going to be the last game. There were no more ballgames."

David Steele of the Baltimore Sun says: "This one lived up to its billing." Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Tribune says: "The easy thing to say is that Illinois needs to be remembered for the body of its work this season, and it does. But the Illini also need to be remembered for Monday night, for the way they looked at a 15-point deficit in the second half and shrugged in the face of it."

North Carolina alum Michael Jordan, in attendance last night, says: "If North Carolina wasn't playing, I'd have been a big Illinois fan."

William C. Rhoden of the New York Times says forget about the "talent vs. team" business: "This was a masterly game of strategy by two outstanding coaches." J.A. Adande of the Los Angeles Times "hated to see this game end."

"Too little, too late, but what a ride!" is how oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper sums it up in his blog this morning. Tupper's sentiment is shared by Daily Herald columnists Mike Imrem (here) and Barry Rozner (here).

Luke Winn of congratulates the Illini on an "amazing season."

Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline applauds North Carolina's return to the top of the college hoops heap. Greg Couch of the Chicago Sun-Times congratulates national champion coach Roy Williams. So does Andy Katz of Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News is happy that Williams didn't have to talk to Bonnie Bernstein this year. (Bernstein's annual gig, of course, includes the losing team's locker room.) Pat Forde of salutes what Williams has accomplished in just two years at Chapel Hill. (Forde also applauds the Illini for their second half comeback--"But this wasn't Arizona.")

Etc. Sean May says the one Illinois second-half turnover was "the biggest play of the game." Coverage of May, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player, here, here and here. Jack Ingram says Sean May is "tremendous." Which Heels are going pro and when? Earnest speculation here....Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says it all came down to Luther Head's shot with 16 seconds left....Pocket celebratory history of the Illinois season here. Fuzzy look into the Illini future here....Coverage of folks watching the game in Chicago and Champaign-Urbana here.

Welcome to day 2 of Wonk's week-long farewell!
Wonk is about to put the blog on hiatus for six months or so. Barring unforeseen stop-the-presses developments like the Big Ten actually removing a 16-month-old article about Kris Humphries from its website, 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.

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

Hoops blogs Wonk loves: Hawkeye Hoops
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.)

Wonk has never been one to invoke invidious comparisons between a putatively inept mainstream media and an allegedly heroic blogosphere. For one thing, there's far too much good stuff in the MSM for any such simplistic labeling. (This after-the-fact account of the preparations leading up to the Wake Forest-Illinois game by Mike DeCourcy and Kyle Veltrop of The Sporting News, for instance, is probably Wonk's nominee for the best single piece this frequent reader has read all year.) And, besides, beat writers have comprised one of the earliest and most supportive audiences of this very blog.

And yet....

Sometimes in some instances the blogosphere does indeed outperform the MSM....

It was January and Illinois was undefeated heading into a home game against Iowa. Looking for coverage of the upcoming game, your intrepid blogger came across two very different items. Wonk hesitates to use the word "epiphany" but the following parable authored by happenstance certainly caught this blogger's attention, to wit:

An MSM article on Hawkeye big man Erek Hansen's love of cars ("I can take a car apart and put it back together again if I have the time and parts," etc.) in teachably and indeed embarrassingly close chronological proximity to a post by Ryan at Hawkeye Hoops on his beloved Hawkeyes' upcoming opponent, the Illini:

Another important factor in Illinois' success is their ability to hang on to the basketball. They turn the ball over on only 16.3% of their possessions, which is the second lowest rate in the country. So in any given game, where both teams always have the same number of possessions (give or take one or two), Illinois will almost always have more looks at the basket (lower TO rate), and will score more points on their opportunities (higher adjFG%). That's a deadly combination.

There, in 83 words, Ryan told me more about Illinois than I had gleaned from thousands of words elsewhere. Which is precisely what Wonk loves about Hawkeye Hoops:

Ryan tells me things about Big Ten basketball I didn't know before.

So what a happy accident that Ryan was installed in Iowa City with a front-row seat for what turned out to be one of the most fascinating set-pieces in this basketball season: the sudden dismissal of Hawkeye guard and leading scorer Pierre Pierce from the team at the beginning of February. How would this impact Iowa? What would be the consequences?

Indeed, the situation was nothing less than an elegant hypothetical case study in statistics brought to life: Pierce was bounced from the team at the virtual half-way point of the Big Ten season. Before-and-after just doesn't get much cleaner than this.

And so Ryan ran the numbers and, within hours of Pierce's dismissal from the team, delivered a prediction:

Pierre Pierce was clearly the focal point of Iowa's offense through its first seven conference games. Since he scored in such an inefficient fashion, his absence in the offense probably won't be the crisis some are making it out to be. The team going forward will be more balanced and made up of more efficient scorers, so they should be able to pick up the slack from the fallen star.

So wrote Ryan on February 3.

By March 15, six weeks later, the MSM had at last reached Ryan's jumping-off point:

The vote is in: Iowa is a better men's basketball team without Pierre Pierce. That's the opinion of the Hawkeye coach, players and an opposing coach--and statistics back the claim. Iowa shoots better, commits fewer turnovers, records a higher percentage of free throws and has improved its winning percentage.

In hoops blogging terms, the vindication provided Ryan by subsequent events here is roughly equivalent to that afforded Winston Churchill by the rise, which he had predicted, of Nazi Germany. Flash a victory sign and light a cigar, Ryan.

Wonk could go on: Ryan would be either really great or really threatening over beers at the bar, so skilled is he in succinct puncturings of airy generalizations that virtually comprise the lingua franca of guy talk.

You say Michigan State's Paul Davis is "soft"? Tell it to Ryan: "Davis is very solid on the glass. Let's see how many rebounds anybody else would rack up playing only 26 minutes per game for a team that actually makes half its shots. Davis was the Big Ten's best rebounder, among guys with regular playing time, as evidenced by his 18.3 rebounding percentage."

Ike Diogu is a monster on the boards, huh? Let Ryan set you straight. "A quick scan of the traditional numbers and traditional 'experts' might suggest Diogu is a solid rebounder....The numbers are misleading because he played a ton of minutes for a team whose pace ranked in the top one-fifth of NCAA teams. Take a look at the rebound percentage--Diogu's rate would've had a hard time cracking the top ten in this year's Big Ten (yes, I realize I'm comparing his season totals to the other guys' conference totals). Given his size, Diogu would be expected to play PF in the NBA, so he needs to improve his board work to avoid being a one-dimensional player."

You get the idea. Wonk says: If you want to speak knowledgeably about college basketball, you read Hawkeye Hoops. Period.

Wonk's dumbest posts of the year
BONUS multiple-posts edition! Anything this blogger wrote about Gonzaga this year qualifies as one of the dumbest posts of the year. Wonk is convinced Mark Few and his players intentionally monitored this blog and then purposefully set out to make Wonk look foolish (not hard to do). So, yes, by all means, let's connect the dots on my embarrassing lack of perspicacity (Alert the Wonk background music department! Theme from Mahogany, please!)....

On November 29, after Illinois had dismantled Gonzaga in Indianapolis 89-72, Wonk said: "One thing we do know is that Gonzaga had no business being in the top 25."

On December 3, Wonk did an abrupt about-face and praised the Zags lavishly for pounding Washington, 99-87.

On December 29, Wonk fairly pulled a (less famous) Bill Murray and eagerly clambered aboard the Gonzaga bandwagon in the wake of their 78-75 win over Oklahoma State in Oklahoma City.

With Wonk now excitedly waving his Bulldog pom-poms, the Zags promptly went out and lost to Missouri and St. Mary's.

By which time Wonk had taped a large message to his computer monitor: "DON'T WRITE ANYTHING ABOUT GONZAGA."

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

Condolences from alert reader and die-hard Boilermaker fan Matt

First of all, thanks for a great season of blogging. I can speak for all loyal readers when saying we will be waiting impatiently for you to "descend visigoth-like" upon our free time in the fall.

To my point: Illinois provided us who have followed the Big Ten for a long time with a lot of thrills and excitement. I know it's been said a million times this month, but they do indeed play the game the way it is meant to be played, and as you know my Purdue Pride always swells a bit when thinking about how far Bruce Weber has come, and how much he deserves all of the accolades and acclaim he has received.

Easy for me to say, but Illinois did us proud and they had a chance to win at the end. Sometimes the shots just don't fall. Sometimes the refs really need to see the optician. Sometimes it's both. But this was a great season and Illinois represented our conference in fine fashion. Would that all consolation prizes in life would be talking to Bonnie Bernstein.

Thanks, again. See you as the leaves turn and the air becomes crisp.

All the best,
Matt M.

Thanks, Matt!

The already-contested history of State vs. Carolina
Hi, Wonk,

Am I seeing things? The general impression in the media seems to be that Michigan State lost because they tried to run with the Tar Heels and couldn't keep up.

Did they watch the same first half I did? I thought I saw the Spartans not just keep up with, but actually outrun, North Carolina. Maybe it was a mirage, but it seemed to me that we could run with them.

What we couldn't do was shoot straight. Whether or not that was due to lock-down defense by North Carolina or just a poor shooting night on the part of MSU is open to debate. I tend to think it was a little of both--State missed several layups and a bunch of uncontested jumpers. And UNC did a much better job on the defensive glass in the second half.

Mark J.

Thanks, Mark! Wonk also thought State ran well in the first half. As for what happened after the break, this blogger thinks it's safe to say the Spartans played poorly and the Heels played magnificently--don't know how else one could account for 54 points scored in one half against a Tom Izzo team.

The new breed of Badger bigs--and backcourt

Love your site--can't imagine how much time you put in to keep it up every day throughout the season.

I've been thinking a lot about how much the Badgers will miss Mike Wilkinson next year. Obviously he has been a very effective post-up player throughout his career and his knack for getting in position for offensive rebounds saved us quite a few times. My concern is on the other side of the ball...

Bo Ryan has preferred to front the post for the most part or at least have his players hedge on the side of a player with an arm in front to deny the easy entry. His returning post players, however, consist of Brian Butch, Greg Stiemsma, and Jason Chappel. Each of these guys are 6'10" and less agile than the departing trio of Morley, Helmigk, and Wilk.

While I don't argue with the recruitment of two highly ranked in-state recruits (if you can get them, you have to take them), I'm not sure how effective they can be in Bo's system. I just think with their height, it is near impossible to get the low center of gravity needed to make the quick moves to get around the opposition.

As the college game loses most of its quality big men to the NBA, will it ever be possible to start Butch and Stiemsma together (they will be just sophomores next year) or will they be a tag-team instead? Most other teams will start a quicker, shorter PF--that would seem to make defense very difficult if they choose to play them together. I think the only way they could be really effective together is in a zone with the two of them defending the goal, but Ryan abhors zone D.

On the other hand we are bringing in some fine talent, from what I hear, and our backcourt should be quite a bit more athletic. Chambliss and Hanson were good at shooting the three but didn't add much else. The swing is designed to post up each player on the floor but Sharif's height and Clayton's lack of quickness made any post-ups they attempted futile. The hope is Ray Nixon finally "gets it" and Flowers, the incoming Krabbenhoft, and redshirting DeAaron Williams can provide that aspect again. Will be interesting to see who steps forward...

Next year will be interesting to watch, particularly in the Big Ten.

Bob W.

Thanks, Bob! You just did Wonk's 2006 preseason forecast of Wisconsin for him--ably done, sir!

Wonk's seen all of about three minutes of Stiemsma so agnosticism will have to rule the day there--but this blogger thinks you make a very good point about Butch. Ryan is all about position on defense (it's what Wonk loves about how Wisconsin plays) and in the NC State game, I think, Butch was caught badly out of position in the post on one play in particular and Ryan yanked him in disgust. Of course, Butch is a work in progress (Wilkinson improved greatly, did he not?) so we'll see where we are come November. But I think you define item 1 on the agenda, Bob, with admirable concision.

From the archives! Day 2 of Wonk's five favorite emails of the year...
On February 10 with Illinois 24-0 (yet coming off a notably ugly win at Michigan), alert reader William L. emailed to say the Illini weren't all they were cracked up to be--and in so doing contributed by far the blog's most talked-about email....


I am so tired of hearing that this team is the second coming of the Wooden Gang. They are a very nice top-ten type team, currently ranked second in the country by Sagarin. Their only monster game, against Wake, occurred at home. They beat Missouri by only six on a neutral floor, barely beat Iowa at home, had trouble with Purdue and would have lost last night if Michigan had not made unforced turnovers in the last ten minutes.

It is unfortunate if their conditioning is so bad that they cannot travel two hours and play twice in two days but to excuse their performance based on that factor is tenuous. Illinois has no impressive out-of-conference road wins, unless you count Georgetown, and have scored 60 or less in their last two wins. One Illinois paper defended their performance against a depleted Indiana team by noting that the Illini had beaten Indiana by more than UNC, apparently not understanding the distinction between playing at home and on the road--perhaps understandable since the Illini seem to have a pathological fear of playing difficult non-conference games on the road.

I like this team. I think that they have great personality, especially Powell, and I expect them to go at least to the Elite 8, if not win it all. But you know what? They really stank up the joint last night and they have several times this season. You call it an ugly win. No, Illinois played poorly and would have lost against better opposition. Lucky for them that they do not face the same level of competition that teams in the Big 12 and Big East face.

William L.

For triggering a multi-day discussion and eliciting a flood of emailed commentary in response, Wonk salutes alert reader William L.!


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