Big Ten Wonk
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
215 points, 160 shots, 89 rebounds, 55 minutes, 3 OTs, and one question
Gonzaga beat Michigan State 109-106 in three overtimes in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational in Lahaina, Hawaii last night. As its very length would seem to indicate, it was indeed an outstanding game--though perhaps not quite as great as the breathless AP write up would have you believe. ("Classic" and "November" being irreconcilable terms in hoops, about like "classic" and "May" in baseball.) Adam Morrison (43 points) and Maurice Ager (36) each gave heroic performances, each of them hitting shot after game-changing shot. And, in Ager's case, the big shots just kept coming from further and further out--it was an incredible performance from a player saddled with four fouls for the balance of the evening.

When confronted with 215 combined points (even given three overtimes), my keen hoops sense tells him there was some good offense played on both sides. That sense is indeed correct: per-possession numbers for points (1.18 for the Zags and 1.15 for the Spartans) were stellar given the level of the respective opponents. (Box score.)

Which begs the question: were the offenses that good last night or were the defenses that bad? After all, there is a school of thought out here in the land o' hoops blogs that says Gonzaga's defense is suspect--even if no one's noticing. How suspect? Last year their D slipped noticeably from 2004 and indeed was worse than Wake Forest's. This school of thought therefore suspects that the Zags offer impressionable and defenseless (har!) hoops writers the punditry equivalent of a parent-flouting thrill date: look at me! I've picked a non-major-conference team for the Final Four! Am I not wacky! Nothing I saw last night suggested that Gonzaga's defense has improved.

Only problem being, of course, that those stout defensive stalwarts from Michigan State were meanwhile busily allowing even more points. I'm on the record as stating that last year State's defensive rebounding carried their defense. Take away that rebounding (say, by having an opponent make their shots) and the Spartans suddenly look very ordinary on D (see for example last year's Illinois game).

Which is precisely what happened last night. In fact, as antithetical as the very word sequence may sound to Big Ten ears, State got beaten on the boards by Gonzaga on both ends of the floor. MSU's offensive rebounding was good (37.5 oreb pct.) but not up to their 2005 standard (40.5)--and not as good as the Zags' last night (39.0). Their defensive rebounding was not very good (61.0 dreb pct.), nowhere near their 2005 standard (78.4), and a little worse than the Zags' last night (62.5).

Indeed, as great as this game was, last night was a taste of bizarro world for Spartan fans. In addition to getting beat on the boards, MSU turned into a POT for one night: a perimeter-oriented team. Fully 41 percent of their shot attempts were threes--this despite the fact that, as a team, they were shooting only 29.4 percent on those frequent threes. (Ager was 7-of-17; the rest of the team was 3-of-17.)

Bottom line: this was a jewel of a game--especially for one so early in the season. It featured outstanding coaching, skilled offensive players, and, not least, excellent free throw shooting (the two teams were a combined 53-of-57). It was also a game that can provide both of the aforementioned outstanding coaches with some valuable tape and some teaching points for their players to tighten up on D. And that will need to happen if these teams are to meet their expectations.

Some links. "That was just a great game," Tom Izzo said afterward. "We'll put this in the bank and this will come back to help us some time this year, as long as we grow from it." Paul Davis said "neither team deserved to lose." State's freshman big man Goran Suton said he feels he's to blame for the loss after missing a layup in the final seconds of the third overtime. Izzo's take: "Suton, he had egg on his face, you know? And it's good for a freshman to get a little egg on his face early on. He missed a layup because he did one-hand it. That was a mistake. But it was a freshman mistake. And you know he also made the tip-in to keep us in the game. He had a couple great rebounds. He had some unbelievable plays." State will play Arizona in today's consolation game.

BONUS note for the historical record! The game finally ended when Shannon Brown lost control of the ball while attempting what would have been a game-tying three over Jeremy Pargo. When asked by reporters after the game if he was fouled on the play, Brown paused before answering and turned to Izzo. "Don't say anything," Izzo told Brown. "Say it was close." "It was close," Brown repeated to the press. I stand second to none in both my Big Ten homerdom and in my esteem for Izzo. But in this case the coy winks about a presumed botched call are wholly unjustified: Brown wasn't fouled. If Pargo can't stand still with his arms straight up, we might as well remove defenders from the floor entirely and play HORSE.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Texas beat Iowa 68-59 in the championship of the Guardians Classic in Kansas City last night. Adam Haluska carried the Hawkeyes virtually single-handed with 23 points. Greg Brunner and Jeff Horner, conversely, were a combined 4-of-23 from the field. Even so, Iowa led with less than five minutes to go before the Longhorns closed the game with a 14-4 run. (At this morning Andy Katz says Iowa lost "a bit of the control it had over the game late" and so missed out on a "legit shot to oust Texas in front of a partisan Hawkeye crowd.") LaMarcus Alrdridge led Texas with 18 points and 10 boards. Steve Alford says of Aldridge, "He's as good a big man as we're going to face." (Box score.)

BONUS inside-the-Beltway coverage of the coverage notes! ESPN2's feed of the game was delayed by an overly long college football game (redundant) between Bowling Green and Toledo. Viewers outside of Iowa and Texas didn't see hoops until there were less than three minutes left in the first half....What happens when ESPN's Erin Andrews walks into a media hospitality room filled with mostly male basketball writers? Read on!

Ohio State beat Butler 79-69 in overtime in Columbus last night. The Buckeyes were lucky to escape with the win after having blown a 13-point lead with four minutes left in regulation. "This team is not real good right now," Thad Matta said after the game. Brandon Crone was a one-man wrecking crew for the Bulldogs, lighting up Ohio State with 27 points on 5-of-7 shooting from three-point land. Two good stats and one bad one. Buckeye big man Terence Dials led the home team with 24 points while J.J. Sullinger recorded 14 rebounds. Ron Lewis, on the other hand, coughed up six turnovers. (Box score.)

Michigan beat Boston University 51-46 in Boston last night. Yes, it was a slow game (61 possessions) but in addition to operating at a snail's pace both offenses played very badly. The problem was turnovers: 38 of them (19 apiece, symmetrically enough) in a really slow game is a ton. Daniel Horton led the Wolverines with 21 points, 11 of which came in the final six minutes. Courtney Sims pulled down eight boards but attempted only two shots from the field. Dion Harris played just seven minutes and failed to record a shot attempt, a notable non-presence that Tommy Amaker attributed to both Harris's nagging foot injury and to strong play by freshman Jevohn Shepherd. (Box score.)

Illinois beat Texas Southern 93-59 in Champaign last night, a game one-sided enough early enough that no Illini player saw more than 25 minutes of action. "They were a blur," Texas Southern coach Ronnie Courtney said afterward. "They were moving at a different pace. They're probably the fastest team we'll play all year, and that's putting it mildly." Five Illinois players reached double figures and three of them came off the bench: Jamar Smith (12 points), Warren Carter (11), and Marcus Arnold (10) joined Dee Brown (14) and James Augustine (13) in attaining this distinction. (Box score.) Now the Illini hit the road: they will face Wichita State Friday afternoon in South Padre Island, TX. Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper blogs that he wants to see "what Illinois can do against a real team."

Purdue beat South Alabama 85-67 in West Lafayette last night. Get outta the way and let the big dog eat! I want to leave you with two words in regards to this game: Carl Landry. As in: 35 points on 10-of-13 shooting. No wonder the newer Boilermakers are instructed by Matt Painter to get Landry the ball no matter what. "Landry took over the game," South Alabama coach John Pelphrey said after the game. Perspicacious observer of hoops John Pelphrey, Wonk salutes you! (Box score.)

Question: why didn't Northwestern big man Mike Thompson play Monday night against Florida Atlantic? He's reputed to be "ill" yet sat on the bench in no apparent distress. What's the deal? Keen-eyed blogger Chris West was on the scene in Evanston Monday night and he thinks something's up--even if we don't know what it is yet.

Mark Stewart of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says Wisconsin freshman Marcus Landry didn't make the Paradise Jam all-tournament team--"but maybe he should have."

Undersized Minnesota rebounding maniac J'son Stamper says his team will have to prove it can win without Vincent Grier, sidelined for four to six weeks with a broken finger. "It's going to be hard, no one person can take the place of Vince. It will have to be a group effort."

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Re: Monday night's game against Florida A&M--maybe this new style isn't so great. As in 20 TOs. Ugh! Yes, IU won easily, but a performance like that against Duke will lead to the same score except favoring the bad guys (and, yes, I am getting my anti-ACC mojo workin').

The one thing I am looking forward to this season is the number of quality wing players IU can throw at another team. Strickland and Wilmont (more later) are having good starts. Ratliff and Vaden are great complementary players (defense, passing, scoring--whatever the team needs). And don't forget about Hardy now that football season is over. This reminds me of many of Izzo's teams up at East Lansing, how they had a number of guys between 6-3 and 6'-7 who did a lot of things well and played hard because they didn't know how long they would be on the court.

Speaking of Strickland: another great game, scoring bunches in the first 15 minutes (18 points). Then they keyed their zone on him and, instead of forcing his shot (no Bracey-clone is he), he looked to distribute the ball. Adjusting during the game is a sign of smart players and/or smart coaching--these signs have been few and far between at IU the last couple of years.

Nate D.

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