Big Ten Wonk
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
The true importance of Indiana
Duke at Indiana (ESPN, 9 ET)
I thought going into this Iowa Caucuses of Hoops that tonight's game in Bloomington had the potential to be the best contest of the week. And, trust me, nothing I saw last night in Chapel Hill (see below) disabused me of said belief (though the Hoosiers and the Dukies will have to go a long way to top the show put on by the Badgers and the Demon Deacons last night). This ACC-Big Ten Challenge is still waiting for its signature moment.

That moment should come tonight, courtesy of Duke and Indiana. True, your intrepid blogger suspects our estimations of both the Blue Devils and the Hoosiers right now exceed the underlying realities by a goodly bit--particularly in the case of Duke. Explain to me again how a team that struggled to beat Drexel by ten (St. Joseph's beat Drexel by ten last night--maybe they should be number 1) and starts two freshmen not named Greg Oden is supposed to inspire such awe and fear. I'm just not seeing it--Connecticut would get Duke's lunch money just by glaring at them.

And as for Indiana, well, life is good, surely, when you're shooting 58.3 percent on your threes and rebounding about 80 percent of your opponent's misses, as are the Hoosiers thus far this year. To say those numbers are unsustainable over the long haul is a hoary cliche--but a true hoary cliche: particularly in the case of outside shooting, a fearful correction is imminent.

But so what? That means only that IU will need to find ways to win when the threes aren't falling. And this is where I'm an optimist. Mike Davis has shown a willingness to go Roy Williams with this team and let them run. (The Hoosiers are averaging 78 possessions a game this year.) Your intrepid blogger has gone into great detail as to why I think this is exactly what Indiana should do: basically it increases the likelihood that a deep and talented team will win the games they're supposed to win.

That being said, I have a more selfish reason to want to see the Hoosiers run. From time to time last year your intrepid blogger would see this or that ESPN analyst say the Big Ten was "down" and the reason was that Indiana or Michigan or both were having bad years. This line of thought has always baffled me completely--and if I were a fan of, say, Iowa or Minnesota, it would rankle me. In the little matter of conference pride, it doesn't matter which teams are good, it matters only that enough teams are good.

Still, conference pride is sustained by quality of play. And quality of play is, in part, a function of tempo. So the ESPN analysts were partly right without knowing it: it is important to the Big Ten how Indiana plays. For the Hoosiers represent a swing vote, as it were, on the little matter of pace.

The sociology of the Big Ten's pretty straightforward when it comes to speed: Michigan State and Illinois will play as fast as their opponents allow. So too will Minnesota, though for different reasons. Wisconsin and Northwestern, conversely, don't want to play fast (although if the Badgers keep running like they did last night, this statement may require revision). Purdue is also fated to go fairly slow for the foreseeable future. Which leaves Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio State to fall in line with the prevailing conference tempo. (Penn State, as always, representing its own discrete analytical category.)

Indiana can influence that prevailing tempo for good or for ill. Last year it was for ill. This year it's been for good. I would love to see another 78-possession game tonight....

And a Big Ten victory over overrated Duke. ("Overrated Duke." Redundant?)

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Badgers lose--but look great
Wake Forest beat Wisconsin 91-88 in Winston-Salem last night. I watched this game with steadily increasing excitement: the Demon Deacons were playing their usual fast pace (take it from blogger extraordinaire Ken Pomeroy: this game was a "track meet") and yet the young Badgers were sticking right there with the home team, even forging ahead at 62-60, before falling just short. (Box score.)

Yes, Justin Gray went off for 37 points. Not too much shame there, though--the guy's a stud, he was carrying his team in the absence of foul-blighted Eric Williams, and 13 of his points came from the foul line.

Four quick thoughts on this one:

1. I was wrong about Kammron Taylor. Your intrepid blogger has said the Badger guard is a smidge overrated. Well, maybe not. Last night I saw Taylor break down a very fast Wake Forest D and take the ball to the hole for two. What I failed to take into account is the value of uniqueness: Taylor is a very fast guy on a very slow team. Wisconsin badly needs someone who can take the opportunities that present themselves in transition and defend at any speed. Taylor is that guy.

2. I was right about Kammron Taylor. He took a lot of dumb shots and turned the ball over five times.

3. Brian Butch is a force to be reckoned with. Sure, he'll continue to take a lot of grief because he's 6-11 and yet can't finish around the basket. (Take it from outstanding Milwaukee-based blogger Chris West: Butch is "the only guy I’ve ever seen that I’d rather see shooting from six feet out than two feet out." Exactly right.) But there's good news, too: Butch has the best shooting touch of any Big Ten big man since Brian Cook. And he hits the boards. Nuff said.

4. I'm quickly running out of adjectives to apply to Alando Tucker. I've already said I'd go to war with Tucker, that the undersized Badger is brilliant in ways that transcend stats, etc. Last night he displayed anew (23 points after halftime) what I struggle to put into words: right now Tucker is a leader without equal in the Big Ten. Period.

This was a fantastic game and the Badgers did the Big Ten and Wonk proud. Outstanding road warriors of Wisconsin, Wonk salutes you! This Illini fan wishes my young team had played half as well in victory as did your young team in defeat. Speaking of which....

Illini win--but look awful
Illinois beat North Carolina 68-64 last night in Chapel Hill. The game was tied at 35 at the half before the Illini opened up a 14-point lead with six minutes to go--a lead the Heels whittled down to just two with a minute left. Dee Brown drained two free throws with 13 seconds left to seal the win. (Box score.)

Just 28 short days ago, I uttered the following nugget of wisdom with regard to this year's Illini:

This Illini fan is less worried about replacing Deron Williams than I am about replacing Dee Brown. That is, Brown can cover Williams' role capably enough this year. But who's going to cover Brown's?

Man, was I wrong! Right now Dee Brown is simply not a very good point guard. Unless it's a fast break (in which case none of this applies), his decisions with the ball are unsure and his reads of game situations are just not there yet--or maybe they're there but he can't get this young team to follow his lead. In either case, Illinois is currently without the services of both Deron Williams and Dee Brown. (Meaning Andy Katz picked a very odd time, in my humble estimation, to salute Brown.)

But what was truly mortifying to watch was the Illini matador D in the first half. I never thought I'd see a Bruce Weber-coached team allow so many uncontested drives along the baseline and to the rim. (And remember Weber saying defense was going to have to carry this young team early in the season? The team didn't get that particular memo.) And it wasn't just the new guys--this giddily permissive "be our guest!" spirit somehow infected everyone, old guys too.

OK, Illini-fan rant terminated. The good news is Illinois will be fine this year. Suddenly there is depth in the frontcourt (James Augustine, Shaun Pruitt, Brian Randle, Warren Carter, Marcus Arnold) and I'd almost forgotten what that's like--it will come in dang handy against Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Indiana.

Wolverines handcuff hapless Hurricanes
Michigan beat Miami 74-53 last night in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines used stifling D, outstanding rebounding and balanced scoring to turn a five-point halftime lead into a blowout. (Box score.)

But enough of that. Here's all you really need: keen-eyed and ever feisty blogger Brian from mgoblog was on the scene and liveblogged this thing somethin' fierce! And--what's this?--Brian's even predicted what I'll say about the game?....

Official Wonk Astuteness Prediction
--Mention of Dion Harris's poor shooting percentage, especially given his extremely high three count.
--Perhaps some retraction about Horton, who had another efficient night.
--Turnover-related chiding and perhaps a note on the shocking turnaround from half to half.
--Commentary on Michigan's nigh-Gopherlike suffocating, largely foul-free defense, though the garbage time numbers distorted that somewhat.
--Similar commentary on Michigan's nigh-Spartan defensive rebounding.

Sweet! My work here is done--um, except for the business about this blogger retracting his predictions of doom if Daniel Horton is given permission to actually attempt field goals. As if! Wonk retract an opinion just because of some bothersome little "evidence" like "statistics" or even (snort) "actual performance"? Never!

...Well, OK, maybe--but not just yet. After all, Horton has built up quite a body of work in the field of inefficiency, one that can't be eclipsed entirely in just four games. Stay tuned.

BONUS wonderment! What is it about Michigan recaps, anyway, that enable me merely to point at stellar work done by others? Last week canonical blogger Kyle Whelliston was on the scene at the Michigan-Boston University game and he, too, filed a definitive report. In fact, something about Kyle's outstanding game recap--its very look and feel, as it were--seems really familiar to me. You be the judge. (Seeing a site as magnificently put together as The Mid-Majority adopt a look as pokey as that of my own little blog--even in the service of parody, even just for a day--pains me. It's like seeing Yo-Yo Ma play a kazoo.)

Games Wonk did not see
Florida State beat Purdue 97-57 in Tallahassee last night, a game which the Seminoles led by 35 at half. In that first half alone 11 different players scored for Florida State. (Ye gods.) "They had a dunk contest there for a while, and I didn't have enough timeouts," said Matt Painter afterward. "We couldn't stop the bleeding out there." (Box score.)

Clemson beat Penn State 96-88 last night in State College. Geary Claxton scored a career-high 27 points in a losing effort. (Box score.)

On tap for tonight
Georgia Tech plays at Michigan State tonight (ESPN, 7 ET). Tom Izzo says his team isn't taking the young Yellow Jackets lightly: "They've struggled a little bit in some areas, but I think they're probably one of the hardest playing, well-coached and great-athlete teams that we'll play." Turning to his own squad, Izzo also credits Paul Davis with becoming a "better rebounder" during his career in East Lansing.

NC State plays tonight at Iowa (ESPN2, 9:30 ET). Today's must-read on the game comes--where else?--courtesy of canonical blogger Ryan Kobliska at Hawkeye Hoops. Ryan interviewed the sagacious and observant Wofpack fan behind the very well done Section Six blog and the result is a briskly efficient primer on NC State hoops for us guileless Big Ten types--make haste!

Minnesota plays at Maryland tonight (ESPN2, 7:30 ET). Feisty youngster Spencer Tollackson says the Gophers may be depleted due to injuries but will nevertheless be full o' spunk: "We can't feel sorry for ourselves because Dan [Coleman] wasn't there last night or because Vince [Grier] is hurt. We obviously would like these guys here, but if they can't play, they can't play. We need to move forward and when they come back, let the chips fall where they may."

"Small sample size"? Bah! (I won't be swayed from my sweeping pronouncement!) You heard it here first: the Gophers are doomed. (I mean this season, not necessarily tonight.) Look at the numbers: Minnesota's allowed three relative who-dat opponents to shoot 40.0 percent on their threes. (Last season in conference play, by notable contrast, that number was 27.4.) They've won two of those three games anyway because these same opponents turned the ball over on a whopping 30 percent of their possessions. As the Gophers play stiffer competition, however, those takeaways will likely grow more scarce--even as the likelihood of good outside shooting from the opponent increases. This outlook will improve, doubtless, when Vincent Grier returns--but how many losses can they afford in December and still be playing in mid-March?

Northwestern plays tonight at Virginia (ESPNU, 8 ET). Game notes here.

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But maybe in 50 years it'll be "venerable old Value City Arena"?
Yesterday your intrepid blogger referred to Ohio State's home arena as "the college hoops equivalent of U.S. Cellular Field." Wonk's readers respond!


Fairly new to the blog--found it a few weeks ago. Love it, though--keep up the good work.

As for your comments on Value City Arena: you're absolutely right. It's got tremendous amenities and is probably the "best" college arena by those lights. However, I was a student during the "crossover" to the new facility (and attended last night's Virginia Tech game) and those old eight-win teams got St. John Arena rocking pretty good for the big games against, for example, Knight's Indiana squads. We sucked but I sat so close to the hoop I could trade barbs with the officials (and often did).

The new digs are so huge, and the students so far away from the court, that it becomes really really hard to get the same kind of atmosphere. The Final Four-bound team managed to get some good crowd noise when MSU or Purdue came to town but an eight-win team would never manage the same kind of vocal support they did in St. John. Value City Arena lacks the character and passion that college arenas should have.

Oh, and I agree with you when it comes to Sullinger. What a player. But what's up with Harris? He's barely figured so far this year (yes, it's early) and for such a highly-touted recruit he's failed to live up to the billing so far in season three. I'm doubting he'll be a starter as a senior next year when the Thad Five arrive--and he was a McDonald's All-American! A bit of a head-scratcher.

Brian G.

Thanks, Brian! As for Harris, it's true he hasn't lived up to his advance billing. Still, Ryan Kobliska has captured my thoughts perfectly here:

Sure, Harris was supposed to be a top level recruit out of high school and his performance to date hasn't been quite what everyone expected. [But] don't you at some point have to turn the finger on the "experts" who incorrectly built up the expectations in the first place?...

Sometimes you need to focus less on what you want and more on what you have--what the Buckeyes have is a 6-8 forward with a career mark of .430 from three point range. Only eight Big Ten players shot more efficiently from the floor (eFG pct.) last year. That seems like a rare commodity to me.

Amen, Ryan. Sometimes when watching Harris or Brian Butch, I ponder whether the worst thing that can happen to a high school player is to be named a McDonald's All-American.

Jinkies! That gives me an idea....For any bloggers out there casting about for a topic, how about a player-by-player look at recipients of this honor the past few years? Heck, I'll even get you started! Here's the 2004 team (Marvin Williams, Shaun Livingston, Rudy Gay, Rajon Rondo, et. al.) and here's the 2003 roster (man, "LeBron James"--WATN, right?). Just give me all the credit if it turns out interesting--if not I had nothing to do with it, capiche?

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