Big Ten Wonk
Friday, April 08, 2005
Wonked out...for now
Welcome to the last day of the season here at Big Ten Wonk!

Barring unforeseen blog-resuscitating-worthy events such as Henry Bibby taking a coaching job with the WNBA (good thing that happened yesterday!), today’s post should be the last one. Tomorrow your intrepid blogger will 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.

And so, as part of our special last-day festivities ‘round here, we invite you to enjoy this very special kinda-backward edition of Big Ten Wonk!

BONUS super-sized season-ending edition of Wonk back!
Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me! (Um, just be aware, though, that your email might not be posted here for seven months.)

A Hoosier on Monday night’s officiating

Your open letter failed and we got Billy Packer at the Final Four anyway.

I can't listen to him long enough to dissect him as well as you have--it would be like staring into the sun for me. I will sum up my feelings by saying, "WHY DID YA HAVE TO LEAVE US AL?"

Still, I can turn the volume down on Packer but I can't fix the other problem that is taking the fun out of watching men's college basketball. I am so sick and tired of the Jekyll-and-Hyde officiating that I don't know if I will get it out of my system by next season.

In one game in the NCAA tournament, an offensive player with the ball charges into a defensive player using a forearm to the throat and no foul is called. In another game, a team's best player is fouled out on a foul not visible to the naked eye.

In the championship game, Sean May was "foul-proof" (had one for the game, I think) while Augustine of Illinois was not even allowed to take his place on the court without a foul being called. Packer could find no fault with May shouldering the defense out of the way to get his shot, but noticed that Augustine needed to learn to move his feet.

This may sound like sour grapes. And yet I am an Indiana fan, so I have no ax to grind. I just think that if the officiating is going to suck, it should suck on both ends of the court.

At least that way I could concentrate on watching the game instead of wondering what the hell is going on with the officiating.

Charles K.

Thanks, Charles!

The season’s final update from alert reader and die-hard Illini fan Jason

I'd like to applaud the Big Three of the theoretically (for cause) bifurcated Big Ten. Two Final Four berths, three of the last surviving eight, and a big handful of "take that!" for the nattering bobbleheads. Good work, all.

By any measuring stick, an Illini fan must look at the '04-05 season with tremendous pride. True, the loss Monday was, for me and I suspect for many others, devastating. As a fan, the one banner I want more than any other is one stating "NCAA Champions" hanging in the Assembly Hall. But as the cloud dissipates, less than 72 hours later, I can only stand in great admiration for this team. That banner will come; another team like this might not.

You've chronicled many of those reasons, so I won't waste time restating each of them but in this shorthand: 37-2, nearly wire-to-wire #1 ranking, tied single season men's record for wins, won in Madison, won in E. Lansing, BT regular season champion, BT tourney champion, the Arizona comeback, Chicago regional champion, played on the first Monday in April, and played with a style and singular determination that was pure joy to watch.

To boldly, brazenly steal from Wonk: 2004-05 Illinois basketball, I salute you! Thanks for the ride, boys, it was stellar.

Jason H.

Amen, Jason.

The season’s final pert question from pert questioner and alert reader William L.

I am wondering whether you think that the alleged comments by some of the 1989 Illini were more a media creation or whether there was a real problem there. It seemed like a minor distraction that the Illini certainly did not need before the game of their life.

It is hard to imagine Michael Jordan or Grant Hill saying something similar before their alma maters play in the final.

William L.

Or Mateen Cleaves or Juan Dixon or Carmelo Anthony or Emeka Okafor. That’s what made the whole spectacle so bizarre. Well said, William.

(Although: can’t you just picture Rashad McCants pulling something like that in a year or two?)

The season’s final update from alert reader and die-hard Spartan fan Shawn

I'm writing to say thanks very much: thanks for posting so well and so thoroughly on Big Ten basketball, for allowing me to participate once in a while, and for probably making me a better Big Ten basketball fan (I attribute a part of my newfound lack of disgust for Bo Ryan to your even-handed assessments).

I've really enjoyed reading the blog this season, and I know many others have as well. What other hoops blog contains, as yours did yesterday, a single two-sentence paragraph touching upon college basketball, Jimi Hendrix, Dave Barry, and Marxist base/superstructure? Very few, no doubt.

I'll stop here before I cross the line into Mitch Albom territory. Anyway, have a good summer, and sign me up for that "Return of Wonk" email alert in November.


Thanks, Shawn! Your email had me toying with the notion of a mock tribute to Wonk from the selfsame Mr. Albom, the Detroit Free Press columnist. (“Indulgently oleaginous prose fairly oozes from this misplaced camp counselor like ink from a squid,” the always tactful Wonk
said of Albom.)

Yeah, that’s the ticket! A tribute to Wonk from Mitch Albom! Hmmm, I wonder what that would read like. (Cue the harp! Screen goes wavy!)…

Spend a little time with the Big Ten Wonk, the college hoops blogosphere’s leading light, the stunningly handsome and supremely accomplished young man, the legend, the man-god, and you realize that look on his face, the furrowed brow, the crooked mouse finger (product of so many “link here”s), the down-turned mouth, the reddened cheeks, the burning eyes, is not a look of anger, bitterness or ego….

From the archives! Day 5 of Wonk's five favorite emails of the year....

How appropriate that we just heard from alert reader Shawn, who, on March 9, chipped in with one of this blogger’s very favorite emails….

The previous day’s post had featured two seemingly unrelated items: 1) the fact that the local CBS affiliate in Champaign, Illinois, ran a hoops-gods-flouting text message in the second half of that Sunday’s Illinois-Ohio State game (with the Illini in the lead--Illinois went on to lose) telling fans not to come to the airport to welcome the team home; and 2) the fact that Michigan State big man Delco Rowley injured his knee in practice that Monday.

Seemingly unrelated, but Shawn tied them together....

Hi, Wonk,

In reference to the gods-provoking, awkward-in-retrospect text message that evidently scrolled across Illini television sets during the game this weekend, I'd just like to note that although Illinois is tops in the Big Ten this year, their athletic department still has a lot to learn in terms of the best way to prematurely celebrate and consequently jinx a special accomplishment.

For help, I suggest they turn to their friends and counterparts in East Lansing, where for the last eight years or so there's seemingly been an unfurled banner of celebration in the rafters at the beginning of every important home loss. Moreover, the folks at MSU have generally found it essential to alert the media to the presence of said unfurled banner to increase the general awkwardness of the situation.

I have it on good authority that this practice extends well beyond big games and that, for example, a banner celebrating Delco Rowley's completion of the season without an incredibly painful knee injury was hanging expectantly in the Breslin rafters at practice on Monday.

Shawn M.

In today’s less Wonk-ish venues….
Wisconsin assistant coach Rob Jeter was named the new head coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee yesterday. Jeter replaces Bruce Pearl who left UWM to take the head job at Tennessee. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Dale Hofmann says UWM Athletic Director Bud Haidet has now made three good hires in a row: Jeter, Pearl, and former Panther head coach Bo Ryan. Wisconsin State Journal columnist Tom Oates says Jeter’s move shows “how far UW basketball has come since 1995. Ten years later, the school that once couldn't give away its coaches is now fighting to keep them.”

New Illinois football coach Ron Zook says he’s been watching and learning from Bruce Weber. (But he also cautions against expecting Weber-esque results right away, saying the Illini are “about one percent of the way to where we need to be.”)

Concluding our week-long farewell: Wonk’s dumbest posts of the year
As part of Wonk’s week-long farewell, we’ve been looking at some of the more memorably wrong things said in this blog over the past five months. Today we conclude the tour of ineptitude with a laughably incorrect item from March 9. Here is Wonk holding forth learnedly on the (un)importance of conference tournaments….

[Conference tournaments mean] little even in terms of NCAA seeding, much less selection. This was brought home to this Illini fan most forcefully in 2001, when Illinois, angling for a 1-seed in the big dance, lost in the conference semifinals to Indiana. Wonk was inconsolable, thinking a 1-seed had been lost and an entire season, in effect, damaged. Turns out Illinois got their 1-seed…. Meantime, Michigan State, who'd lost in the quarterfinals to Penn State, also got a 1-seed. Your intrepid blogger learned then that, historic extremes aside, the conference tournament doesn't matter. It's too late to matter.

The following Sunday the NCAA tournament selection committee gave Kentucky a 2-seed, specifically citing the Wildcats’ woeful performance in their Sunday conference tournament championship game against Florida as the reason they weren’t given a 1.

Wonk’s said it before: read at your own risk.

Hoops blogs Wonk loves: Ken Pomeroy
First, an acknowledgment: April's an odd time to be dishing referrals to college hoops blogs. Indeed, the blog that Wonk is gushing about today has already shut down, mostly, 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.)

Longtime readers of this blog know that Wonk customarily avoids out-and-out declarative assertions--finds he looks smarter that way. Instead of saying something potentially erroneous like “Illinois will win the national championship,” your intrepid blogger prefers to say something like “Illinois will win the national championship--unless they don’t.”

So you know it has to be a weighty matter when your intrepid blogger breaks with precedent, goes out on a limb, and offers a real honest-to-goodness no-context-necessary declarative assertion.

Such as:

Ken Pomeroy is the best college basketball writer in the country.

Note Wonk doesn’t say “best blogger.” No, the claim here is that Ken Pomeroy is the best writer on college basketball working anywhere--MSM, blogs, you name it.

Quite a statement, yes. But can you prove Wonk wrong?

That won’t be easy. Ken’s blog has quietly and incrementally yet unmistakably become the common reference point of shared and addicted awe for bloggers and (the most interesting subset of) MSM commentators alike. His read on a game, a team, or a player is essential.

How essential? Here is Wonk’s daily ritual for the past three months or so: I write my summary of a given game intentionally and scrupulously prior to reading any of the MSM’s or blogosphere’s commentary on said contest--with one exception. I read what Ken Pomeroy has written, just to make sure I don’t wander too far off-course. (Thank goodness he works at night--and one time zone behind.)

Ken is doing his level best to drag basketball stats out of what he’s called its “mesozoic era.” His overall approach is doubtless familiar to and highly valued by most if not all of the readers of this blog. Still, Wonk thinks a sum-up is in order, if for no other reason than to state the case for wider adoption of said approach.

One essential Pomeroy syllogistic cornerstone seems to this reader to boil down to the following:

(1) We can all agree for the most part on the performance stats of interest: points, rebounds, assists, turnovers, etc.
(2) The question is not so much (1) as what to do with them, specifically: assuming those are our numerators, what should the denominators be?
(3) The most common such denominator, of course, is games, as in points per game, rebounds per game, etc. But this can lead to misleading numbers: up-tempo teams score more points, get more rebounds, make more assists, and give up more turnovers--and give the opposition more of all of the above.
(4) So one handy denominator is possessions: points per possession measures offensive efficiency in a way that’s tempo-neutral. Ditto points allowed per possession for defensive efficiency.

Ken is always generous to a fault about crediting his predecessors in this area (most notably Dean Oliver). And there’s nothing terribly radical in the approach outlined above, surely, although calculating a team’s number of possessions (roughly: subtracting offensive rebounds from the sum of field goal attempts and turnovers, with a bothersome but necessary corrective fraction for free throw attempts) is admittedly more involved than simply counting the number of games they’ve played.

But that’s precisely Wonk’s point: we don’t have to count the number of possessions. Ken does it for every Division I team every week, giving us a 1-through-300-something ranking of the most efficient teams in the country on both sides of the ball. These rankings are cited everywhere in the blogosphere--it's only a matter of time until they are cited everywhere, period.

So much for Ken’s approach. Here’s what he’s able to do with it….

When Rashad McCants missed four games in March because of an intestinal disorder, North Carolina kept right on winning. But Ken raised a finger of warning: if the Tar Heels wanted “to make a run at the title, they need to get McCants back.” Why?

UNC has enough scorers to fill the McCants void, but they aren't getting the fast break opportunities that they used to get, because they aren't forcing as many missed shots and turnovers as they used to….The reduction in defense is one reason why UNC is less upset-proof without McCants, but the decrease in possessions is also important because it gives UNC fewer opportunities for their talent to demonstrate its superiority.

(See why Wonk might want to check Pomeroy first before making airy generalizations about the previous night’s Michigan State game?)

Nor is Ken merely a cloistered stats geek too busy with spreadsheets to worry about frivolous details like which teams will make the tournament. In fact, he’s an exceptionally astute observer of the game itself--and his national sweep is impressively assured. Here’s Ken in early March giving this reader, for one, way more information on New Mexico than I received from anywhere else….

Ritchie McKay has told anyone that will listen that Danny Granger was out for three of their six losses, and this has been trumpeted religiously by various media outlets. But who have they beat with him? Utah and that's it. You can't really excuse a double-digit loss at BYU, regardless of Granger being out - and the Lobos have only played four games against the top 100, losing three. This team needs to win the MWC tourney….

And then there is the biggest feather of all in the Pomeroy cap. One that has gone but little noticed. One that, if Wonk has his way, will be given its due. It is this:

On March 10, Ken Pomeroy, gathering information from other writers but analyzing it alone and publishing first, alerted the college hoops world to the fact that the RPI we had all been using all season long was not what the tournament selection committee was using.

Recall that the tournament selection committee this year instituted a “new” RPI, one that would give more weight to road wins. And while the secretive NCAA doesn’t simply say “Here is the new formula,” their numbers are historically replicable by the industrious few, such as Ken, who have the ability to follow the mathematical trail. And so all year long we college hoops fans were all talking breezily about whose RPI was higher and what it would mean on Selection Sunday. Just about every game on ESPN after January 1 cited the RPI's of the teams playing.

And every single one of those cites was completely wrong--until Ken sounded the alarm on March 10. The NCAA’s formula was different from everyone else’s.

Bear in mind that both and charge for their RPI data--but that data was useless and utterly without value. (Cue the Breaking Away sound bite! “Refund?! Refund?!”) So too was Ken’s, of course--but he offers RPI data for free and he promptly corrected his numbers. ESPN, as far as I know, never did revise their numbers--and neither they nor (again, as far as I know) ever admitted error.

Wonk is not particularly interested in belittling the performance of ESPN in this episode--events have done so better than I ever could--or in lecturing them on their civic responsibility to publish a correction, give refunds, etc. But allow me this sentiment, as strong as wording and italics will allow:

There is no earthly reason for any college basketball fan to pay money for RPI data. Get it from Ken Pomeroy. The information is free and its provenance is infinitely and indeed demonstrably more reliable.

So, in summary: during this past college basketball season, Ken Pomeroy has:

(1) Championed the adoption of a new statistical model for the evaluation of players and teams;
(2) Provided commentary that is national in scope, surgical in its analysis, and elegantly succinct in its phrasing;
(3) Single-handedly outperformed the MSM on the vital (to paying customers) question of what data the NCAA will use to inform its selection of the 65-team tournament field.

That sounds like the best college basketball writer in the country to Wonk.

And now: exit, blog left….
Frankly, events have confounded my preparations. I had assumed that this blog’s readership would plunge after Monday night’s national championship game and thus the wording I had in mind for today’s post was something along the lines of: this blog is concluding the season the way it began--with very few readers.

But the strange thing is: absent any games or news, readership as of yesterday has only fallen off by half from last week’s Billy Packer open letter all-time-high cast of thousands. I confess to being surprised and happily so: apparently this Big Ten hoops affliction is strong stuff indeed.

So let me begin the ending by addressing you directly and saying: thank you so much. Every time I thought I’d seen an email that stood out as my favorite kind of reader response, another one equally nice would roll in….

The one that offered me an HD-quality DVD copy of the Illinois-Arizona game: “Consider it a thank-you for your work on the blog all season.”

The ones from readers in San Francisco, Atlanta, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and elsewhere: each, in their own wordings, offering to buy me a beer and talk hoops if I’m ever in town.

The ones from beat writers for various Big Ten teams--or even from other parts of the country--saying they'd found some useful stuff here.

The ones from fans who have been following their teams for much longer than I’ve been following mine--your interest in and robust critiques of what a (relative) pup has to say have been as helpful and enjoyable as they were unexpected.

And particularly the ones from readers who have no connection with and little interest in Big Ten basketball--but enjoy stopping by anyway.

It has all been a wonderful surprise and I look forward to returning in November, recharged with a fresh stack of future “dumbest posts of the year” buzzing around my head.

(No, in answer to a frequently asked question, Wonk doesn’t blog Big Ten football. You’re not missing out on anything, believe me, by going without my thoughts there. And, besides, that territory is already very well covered by Andy Gamm’s excellent Big-Ten-dedicated Final Score site.)

I had thought about dropping by occasionally in the off-season to offer thoughts on completely extraneous matters. Who knows, maybe I’ll blog on other things--but if I do it’ll be in a different location and under a non-Wonk label.

Still, seeing the non-sports blogosphere comment on the Big things, such as the Pope passing away, has reminded me again of what led me to sports blogging in the first place: the topics come pre-shrunk. On really important things, by contrast, I still can’t escape the nagging feeling (even with an estimable writer like, say, Andrew Sullivan) that a blog just isn’t the right place, somehow, to be doing this.

No doubt that’s merely an accident of biography: my introduction to discourse on the serious matters came from newspapers and magazines so I export that accident churlishly to the world (like the luddites who a decade ago didn’t want to see the New York Times use color photographs). But there it is--I can’t shake that feeling.

So in this space, at least, I’ll stick to the series of concentric topical rings that proceeds as follows: sports, college basketball, Big Ten, Illinois. One of my fondest hopes for the blog was that one could acknowledge being a fan of a particular team and still do justice to the conference as a whole. To fans of Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, and Wisconsin, then, I hope I was able to give you a good read.

And to my fellow Illini fans: what a year. I know it’s time to move on to other things because all the signs are insistent. The Masters is on TV. The trees are budding at last here in Minneapolis. It’s light outside after dinner now. My birthday’s next week. Baseball's started up again. Every year these signs announce that I need to put that year’s Illinois basketball season behind me.

This year, doing that’s tougher than it’s ever been. It may be a while before I can.

Until then, I may find myself thinking back to a particular moment: a little after 10 central time on April 4, 2005, when the score was tied at 70, when I was so nervous and thrilled I literally couldn’t stand still much less sit, when the Edward Jones Dome was electric with anticipation, and when Illinois had the ball, the momentum, and the heightened and accumulated longings and dreams of this alum and thousands of others like him….

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