The 2005 Fighting IlliniIllinois is 36-1 and in the Final Four and this Illini fan woke up this morning as he does every morning and went about his business in an ordinary and non-disruptive fashion.But if you had pulled Wonk aside last November 1 and divulged that in exactly five months Illinois would be 36-1 and in the Final Four, this blogger would have run around screaming with joy and waving his hands above his head for the better part of, well, five months.Why is that? What is it about incremental and cumulative spectacular good fortune that makes us treat it like it was expected?Well, this wasn't expected. No one, and Wonk means no one, saw this coming. Yes, we knew Illinois was going to be good. But 36-1? That's beyond good. It's historic.There have been deeper Illinois teams and taller ones, certainly. But none better.Now this team is in the Final Four where they could very well win Illinois' first national championship--or they could very well be finished by early Saturday night. Either way, it's been historic. (But, um, two more wins would be fine, too.) So thank you, Illini:For playing a brand of ball that pleases John Wooden and defeats opponents.For blazing through December playing at April efficiency (here's hoping you can do it again in April).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.And, of course, for the luminous and destined to be legendary comeback against Arizona.Once-in-a-generation Big Ten team Illinois, Wonk salutes you!Has The Sporting News lost its server or its mind?Coverage of college hoops at sportingnews.com seems to have almost entirely evaporated as of this morning. Clicking on the "college basketball" tab on the main screen takes you directly to this article on Kansas by Mike DeCourcy, which is very interesting and well done but does not in itself constitute coverage of the entire sport. What's going on?The end draws near(er) Wonk is going to put the blog on hiatus for six months or so after posting next Friday, April 8. Watch for a week-long 2004-05 retrospective starting Monday! Five-themed features to include: --Wonk’s five dumbest posts of the year (I know, I know: only five? Send in those nominations today!) --Wonk’s five favorite contributions to Wonk Back! from the alert readers. --Five hoops blogs Wonk loves.Wonk will then 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. In today's less Wonk-ish venues.... Indiana sophomore Patrick Ewing, Jr. yesterday announced he will transfer to a yet to be determined school. He will be required to sit out the 2005-06 season. Indefatigable Hoosier beat writer Terry Hutchens of the Indianapolis Star reports that playing time (too little) and style of play (too slow) were the main reasons for Ewing's decision.Pierre Pierce update: Lawyers for the former Iowa player yesterday asked the judge in the case to dismiss charges of assault with intent to commit sexual abuse. Pierce also faces charges of burglary and criminal mischief. He is currently not in custody but is required to remain in the state of Iowa. Pierce was given permission to visit his home in Illinois for the Easter holiday. (Link here.)Wisconsin assistant coach Rob Jeter may be one of the leading candidates for Bruce Pearl's old job at Wisconsin-Milwaukee.Stories split four ways--Final Four coverage....Andy Katz of espn.com looks at all four head coaches here....CBS can't just come out and say they're happy with Illinois and North Carolina making it to the Final Four but, well, they're happy with Illinois and North Carolina making it to the Final Four. (Last year's national championship game between Connecticut and Georgia Tech drew the lowest viewership rating in recent history.) Scramble for tickets coverage here....It's an odd adjective that takes in both Juan Diego Palacios and Drew Neitzel. And yet they're the only two freshmen who will start in Saturday's games. Conclusion? Upperclassmen rock! So sayeth the always read-worthy Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.(Michigan) State of euphoria!Start here: Ken Pomeroy looks at the MSU-North Carolina match up and, as always, takes the rock straight to the cognitive rim as it were....Much has been made about UNC's defense this week. Michigan State as a five-seed, is not a huge underdog, mainly because of their ability to score and the Tar Heels perceived inability to prevent the score. But is UNC's defense really a liability?...
Beginning with the NC State game on February 22nd, nine of ten Tar Heel opponents have breached the point per possession mark. Part of this was attributable to Rashad McCants' absence. But McCants has returned to his usual minutes in the NCAA tourney, and UNC is coming off of its worst defensive game of the year against Wisconsin--the Badgers' offensive efficiency was 118.
The culprit has been UNC's inability to create turnovers. Before McCants left, UNC had forced at least 13 turnovers in every game. Since? Only three of ten opponents have had that many turnovers. During the first twelve games of the ACC season, UNC opponents were committing a turnover once in every four possessions. During the NCAA Tournament that number has dropped to one in six.
It unlikely that UNC can hold the big green S to less than a point per possession, even by playing their January-type defense. The Spartans have failed to reach that mark only three times in 32 games, and are coming off of arguably their best offensive game of the season, hanging a 126 OE on Kentucky. But Michigan State can play at that lofty level again if they adhere to the 15/15 rule: gather more than 15 offensive boards, and turn it over fewer than 15 times. That's the recipe for an upset.In other less succinct venues....Forecast: fast. Tom Izzo remembers getting whipped by North Carolina in 1998 in the Sweet 16 and says the moral of the story is not to change your style of play: State's going to run Saturday night. Profiles in saturation. Two-headed monster profile of Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager here. Profile of Drew Neitzel here. Profile of Tim Bograkos here. (A quick scan does not as yet turn up the word "scrappy" but Wonk trusts it's in there somewhere.) Profiles of the next Tulsa head coach, current Spartan assistant, and former North Carolina assistant Doug Wojcik here and here. Profile of the Spartan parents here. One profile of Paul Davis here. Want more? Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press adopts a Barbara-Walters tone of prying earnestness and curls up in front of the fire for an intimate chat with Davis here. BONUS Wonk piece of advice for all Final Four players! Run--run I tells ya--when you see Albom coming. Indulgently oleaginous prose fairly oozes from this misplaced camp counselor like ink from a squid, to wit: "Spend a little time with Paul Davis, the Spartans' 6-foot-11 junior center, the jewel of his recruiting class, the NBA hopeful, the likely lynchpin of Michigan State's chances against North Carolina at the Final Four, and you realize that look on his face, the furrowed brow, the down-turned mouth, the reddened cheeks, the burning eyes, is not a look of anger, bitterness or ego." Ewww. Wonk's keyboard typed that. Must disinfect....Illinipalooza!Minnesota coach Dan Monson, Northwestern coach Bill Carmody, and Drake coach Tom Davis rave about the Illini and their style of play here. More advisors than players. Advice for Bruce Weber from 1994 Final Four participant Lon Kruger here. Advice for the Illinois players from old geezers (Jerry Harkness, Gary Garland, Marcus Liberty, Kenny Battle) who've been to the Final Four with state of Illinois-based teams here. Advice for both the coaches and the players from public-speaking consultants (Wonk is not making this up) on how to talk to the press here.Micro-coverage alert! There's friction between the 1989 and 2005 teams about who's better! Much ado about nothing, you say? Tell it to the Chicago Sun-Times' Jay Mariotti, who covers the dispute with the feverish he-said-it-first breathlessness of a junior-high-school girl adjudicating a hallway dispute between friends here. Meanwhile, Skip Myslenski of the Chicago Tribune adopts more of a Jimmy Carter outside-mediator tone on the same weighty matter here....Stale writes-itself connect-the-dots on Champaign-Urbana/Urbana-Champaign befuddlement here.Profiles in endurance. Profile of Luther Head, pride of the West Side, here. Two-headed-monster profile of Dee Brown and Deron Williams here. Bruce Weber (he "drinks three beers faster than anyone and then stops") here. Rick Pitino here. Two-headed-monster profile of Louisville assistants Kevin Willard and Vince Taylor here. Ryan Anderson here. (Who's Ryan Anderson? Exactly. Look, it's only Thursday and sportswriters are already running out of topics. So if you've ever wanted to be the subject of a newspaper profile, now's your chance. Get down to the Edward Jones Dome and look talkative. It worked for Ryan Anderson.) Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline says "Louisville matches up with Illinois better than anyone the Illini have faced this season." (Wonk says: Doyel writes this passage as if he's unaware of how much zone defense the Cardinals are likely to play. So his examples--Arkansas and Iowa--of big guards bothering Illinois don't really apply.)Wonk back! Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me! Crying Powell Wonk, In handicapping the Illinois-Louisville game, Seth Davis has listed Illinois’ bigs as James Augustine, Jack Ingram, and Warren Carter. Considering that Steve Alford said that Roger Powell is the key in this contest (and I agree), this seems like a significant omission. Charles A. Agreed. Thanks, Charles! Return of the Ohio State "don't go the airport" jinx? Longtime alert readers will recall that during the second half of Illinois' game at Ohio State on March 6 (with the Illini nursing a seemingly comfortable double-digit lead) the local CBS affiliate in Champaign ran a text message across the screen telling viewers not to come to the airport for a celebration welcoming the team home. The Illini promptly blew the lead and lost the game, their only loss of the season. Now, a watchful fan thinks perhaps another such jinx is in the works.... Wonk, The Illinois athletic department looks like it's up to its Ohio State celebration-anticipating shenanigans again. The office of the athletic director had a send-off this evening for the team, and it has also planned a watch party at the Assembly Hall on the new video board... IF the Illini win on Saturday. As if that weren't bad enough, an e-mail was sent out to "all faculty, academic professionals, civil service staff, grad students, and undergrad students" at Illinois from Bruce Weber (or someone pretending to be him) asking "everyone's help in ensuring that whatever celebrations may take place at the end of the season be safe and enjoyable for everyone." I believe they've also scheduled a "greet the team on April 5th" event. Does this reek of the Ohio State "there are no celebrations" crawl to you? Greg C. Hmm, tough call. The egregious and basketball-gods-flouting aspect of the Ohio State game message, of course, was its premature nature. It felt like someone at Illinois was saying: "We have this game won and we're going to finish the regular season undefeated. Better tell people not to come to the airport." Planning for if-we-win and if-we-lose events, by contrast, would not seem to tweak the noses of the hoops gods so. (Michigan State is making the same plans, after all.) And remember, the one sure-fire way to absolutely positively lose this weekend would be to put a furled banner in the rafters of the Edward Jones Dome saying "ILLINOIS: NATIONAL CHAMPIONS 2005." Fortunately the Edward Jones Dome doesn't have rafters so we don't have to worry about that.
The redemptive power of State vs. Carolina
Wonk can think of no better way of expressing his high expectations for Saturday night’s game between Michigan State and North Carolina than to say he believes it holds the potential to equal the standard set by this past weekend’s games. These are two heavyweights, each saying to the other: "We beat Duke, too. What of it?" To win this game, one team is going to have to exceed that which is usually sufficient for them....For Carolina, it has almost without exception been sufficient this year merely to show up. But not recently (one-point win over Villanova; six-point victory against Wisconsin) and definitely not Saturday night. Imagine for a moment what would happen if the strangely indifferent defense the Tar Heels played this weekend were pitted against the offensive efficiency displayed by State in the second half against Kentucky. Even the Heels can't score enough points to emerge from that spectacle with a W. What got them here isn't enough anymore. To win Saturday night Roy Williams' team is going to have to defend.As for the Spartans, they've made a season out of wearing down the opposition with superior depth. On Sunday it took an extra ten minutes, granted, but, sure enough, by the end Kentucky was exhausted and State advanced. Yet there is little chance of tiring out a Roy Williams fast-breaking team in the abstract and close to zero chance of tiring out this Carolina team in particular. And in this State's a bit like a dome-housed high-octane passing offense playing an NFC or AFC championship game in January in Philadelphia or New England. What got them here isn't enough anymore. To win Saturday night Tom Izzo's team is going to have to outperform an equally-matched opponent straight-up.Man, Wonk loves this time of year. Love everything about it. Except....CBS, bloggers, and one unpopular weird old guy
See the parallels? Can recent history repeat itself—if not by Saturday at least by next year? We can only hope: yesterday’s post in this space suggesting immediate jury duty for Billy Packer resulted in this blog’s busiest day ever. (Note to self: fewer posts on ho-hum things like historic comebacks and double-OT's in Elite Eight games; more dropping upon Packer like a jaguar out of a tree.) Apparently Wonk is not alone in wishing fervently that Packer could find something—anything—else to do this weekend.
Styling himself after the 1972 Dolphins and their annual ritual, Wonk has a bottle of champagne on ice waiting for the day--and it will come--when CBS announces that Packer has at last laid down his headset.
The end draws near
Speaking of moving on, Wonk is going to put the blog on hiatus for six months or so after posting next Friday, April 8. Watch for a week-long 2004-05 retrospective starting Monday! Five-themed features to include:
Wonk’s five dumbest posts of the year (I know, I know: only five? Send in those nominations today!)
Wonk’s five favorite contributions to Wonk Back! from the alert readers.
“Five Hoops Blogs I Love.”
After that Wonk will 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.In today's less Wonk-ish venues.... Ah, that heartiest of perennials! The snappish move-the-line-back piece complaining that nowadays threes come too easily. It's a familiar refrain but give credit to Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune--he's come up with some tasty word-bites: "At one point deep into its game against Louisville, West Virginia had connected on so many 3s that the Mountaineers' point total was greater than if they'd shot 100 percent from two-point range."Northwestern guard T.J. Parker has announced his intention to forego his senior season, hire an agent and turn pro. Parker says he made the decision while visiting his brother, San Antonio guard Tony Parker.Purdue coach Matt Painter announced yesterday that two players, Xavier Price and Adam Liddell, have decided to transfer. Meanwhile, the softies at the Indianapolis Star send the two ex-Boilermakers off into the world with this notably un-sentimental and un-cuddly actual headline: "2 little-used players leave Purdue program." (Not unlike the warm fuzzies inherent in Wonk's favorite recent headline, seen in a British tabloid announcing the impending nuptials of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles: "BORING OLD GITS TO WED.")Minnesota is also losing a couple players. Kerry Wooldridge and Miles Webb have both announced their intentions to transfer.Wisconsin's future is bright! So sayeth Tom Oates of the Wisconsin State Journal, here.Eerie coincidence! Which team played all of the Final Four teams this year? Iowa. Steve Alford went 2-4 against that group and handicaps the field here. And here. Here, too! And, um, here. Now, on a different topic--no, wait, here, too...Seth Davis of sportsillustrated.com, by notable contrast, didn't play any of the Final Four this year. Nevertheless, he has the temerity to handicap the field here.(Pierre Pierce update: news from the courtroom here.)Who needs seniors? Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press salutes the Final Four's junior class (Sean May, Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Paul Davis, Francisco Garcia, etc., etc.)The United Colors of the Big Ten. Are Michigan State fans really going to wear orange for the first game Saturday? Are Illini fans really going to wear green for the nightcap? That's the talk and, if they can pull it off, it would be nifty. (Not to mention a boon for merchants selling Illini gear in Michigan and Spartan gear in Illinois.)(Michigan) State of euphoria!Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski says Michigan State's "Final Four story is unique and enlightening, and not just because the ego-less Spartans defied their own recent history and won huge games. It's because Izzo, a man who already had accomplished everything in college basketball, adjusted and found another way to accomplish more." (Four Final Fours say the man's doing something right. So are his assistants.)Meanwhile, Izzo is busy with patter of the first-tee variety, talking up North Carolina and making his Spartans out to be more of an underdog than they really are. "If every one of those guys and every one of our guys plays to [their] potential, there's just more talent there." Still, Izzo says he's going to dance with that girl that brung him and run the floor, even against the run-the-floor Heels.Actual photo caption! "Michigan State's Alan Anderson grabs coach Tom Izzo by the head." Link here for quite a visual. Why wasn't Wonk told! Roy Williams has never won a national title? Who knew? UPDATE: Wonk is receiving reports, as yet unconfirmed, that Roy Williams has never won a national championship. Wonk will keep you updated on this breaking story as further information becomes available...Skip Myslenski of the Chicago Tribune salutes Williams here.Wall-to-wall Doug Wojcik! More on the next head coach of Tulsa who's currently an assistant at Michigan State and who used to be an assistant at North Carolina here.New nominee for dullest opening sentence. Ever.Illinipalooza!Bruce Weber is making calls to coaches with Final Four experience (Tom Crean, Jim Calhoun, and, yup, Tom Izzo) to get ideas on how best to guide the team through the weekend hoopla. Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline salutes Weber here. And Weber's former boss, Gene Keady, says he'll be in St. Louis this weekend cheering for the Illini....Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper blogs about the superstitions of Illini Nation. And in his dead-tree space this morning, Tupper says there's no question about it: Deron Williams is the MVP of this team....The fan poll at espn.com has Illinois trailing North Carolina in the who's-going-to-win-it-all voting and, by Godfrey, Rick Morrissey is ticked!Wonk's streak of consecutive posts without a pun on Bill Self's name continues! The former Illini coach says he has no regrets about missing out on a Final Four run made by players he recruited. "We knew there was a potential for this to be an unbelievably special group. And it has played out to be every bit of that. That said, I'm happy for them and certainly think that could be me coaching them. But I don't dwell on that at all." More Self coverage here and here.Dee Brown was named one of five finalists for the Wooden Award yesterday. The other finalists are Andrew Bogut, Sean May, J.J. Redick, and Wayne Simien....Profile of Brown here. Deron Williams here. Pocket history of Weber-at-Illinois here. Celebration of Chicago-bred Illini greats, past and present, here.Bill Murray on-the-bandwagon coverage here. Plans for on-campus Illini send-off's, celebrations, etc. detailed here.The Louisville Cardinals held a pep rally in downtown Louisville yesterday and 16,000 people came. Was the crowd even more enthused because Kentucky lost this weekend? Apparently....Profiles of Larry O'Bannon here and here. Profile of Francisco Garcia here....Pat Forde of espn.com looks at the Cards here. Louisville for Dummies here....Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins played both Illinois and Louisville this season and offers up his thoughts here.Wonk back! Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me! Revisiting Michigan State vs. KentuckyWonk,You have a great site. But I think you ought to mention the dead-obvious foul on Patrick Sparks at the end of regulation. Sparks did more on that play than hit a tough three. He juked his defender and deserved to go to the line. Now what would have been an all-time great play will be forgotten. As much as I agree that Michigan State is the better team, they needed a horrible call to win.Matt N.Wonk loves Kelvin Torbert to pieces and has blogged accordingly for months now. But the customarily savvy Spartan did indeed come achingly close to recording a foul as Edvard Munch-level stupid and potentially disastrous as that committed by former Indiana great (and new IPFW head coach!) Dane Fife against Duke's Jay Williams in the final seconds of the 2002 regional semifinal. "Dead-obvious"? Not to this blogger's eyes. But close enough to make Wonk squirm mightily when he watched it live, certainly.(On the other hand, Sparks had just missed a crucial free throw a minute before--and thereafter did his best imitation of Nick Smith moping on the bench--so Wonk's not so sure a foul call would have translated so directly into a Kentucky win.)May, Augustine, and PPWSWonk,Sean May is having a monster tournament: 86 points in four games, 67% shooting from the floor and 80% from the line. This averages out to be about a 1.43 PPWS. So I was surprised that James Augustine was atop your PPWS standings and didn't believe you until I looked at the actual stats and realized Augustine's shooting 63% from the floor for the year. Wow. That's something the press has overlooked, despite them exhausting every possible storyline from Illinois this year.Thanks for the education.Brian H.Thanks, Brian!
Jury duty for Billy Packer. Now. An open letter.... March 29, 2005 Mecklenburg County Trial Court Administrator's Office 800 E. 4th St. Room 311 Charlotte, NC 28202 Dear Trial Court Administrator, I know I speak for tens of thousands of college basketball fans when I say that Mr. Billy Packer, your own fellow Charlotte resident, would be eminently well-suited for jury duty in your Mecklenburg County Civil Court system. Would it be possible for him to start tomorrow on a months-long high-profile case that will involve immediate 24-hour sequestering of the jury? Please? You see, we fans of college hoops have a problem. There's this thing known as the "Final Four." Maybe you've heard of it. It is the single best sporting event of the year, as close to perfection as college football's "championship" is to farce. The Final Four is, in a word, sublime. Yes, all college "hoops" fans should be excited at this time of year. But, sadly, we're not. Because we know that your own neighbor, Mr. Packer, will be coming along, too. You, perhaps, already know Mr. Packer under one of his various pseudonyms: "Persistent Negatative State" "Captain Carp" "Dr. Evil" "Comfortably Glum" "C. Montgomery Packer" "Billy Bringdown and his Buzz-Kills" "The Scary Old Guy Who Lived Next Door When You Were a Kid and Was Always Yelling at You to 'Get Your Damn Frisbee Off Ma' Yard!'" Oh, we'll watch this weekend anyway. How can we not? But the Final Four with Billy Packer is like a honeymoon with your in-laws coming along. Like Beethoven's Ninth on a kazoo. Like The Godfather with Ben Stiller as Michael.Why not address this matter through the appropriate channels, you say? Believe me, I've tried: letters, phone calls, faxes, emails, skywriting, lobbying my congressperson, candlelight vigils outside CBS headquarters in New York...nothing works. (There's even a petition online, started up by like-minded long-suffering souls. Still, no luck.) No, for whatever reason CBS, in this single narrow yet prominent instance, has proven as impervious to market forces as a garden-variety East German tractor factory circa 1966. And the strange part is: any other analyst would be a vast improvement. My goodness, throw a stick along press row in St. Louis this weekend and you'll hit ten, 20, 50 carbon-based life forms who would be better. Still, I want it understood that I will continue to "act locally" and do my part. For years now I have maintained a personal boycott on all CBS "Road to the Final Four" advertisers and will continue to do so for as long as Billy Packer holds his current position. This year that means I will not rent a car from Enterprise to impress women at my high school reunion. I will not dance to KC and the Sunshine Band in front of my neighborhood Blockbuster. I will not celebrate the tournament by following a bouncing basketball to a "March Madness sales event" at my local Chevy dealer. And I will not get an American Express card so I can give homilies through my nose on "being a leader."And, please understand, this is a great sacrifice for me because in any ordinary week I would do all of those things. Sadly, my boycott may not yield the desired results before Saturday. And that's where you come in. This very same Mr. Packer would be a perfect fit as a jury member. His owlish fascination with yellowing decades-old compilations of long-forgotten minutiae and his concomitant dogged refusal to be swayed by "irrational" and "emotional" events in the present-tense (e.g., tremendous basketball games taking place on the court in front of him) would be highly prized in the jury room!Yes, it's truly a "win-win." We lose a thorn from the most beautiful rose in all of sports. And you gain a crabby old guy whose bafflingly querulous nature is so deep and so constant that he'd doubtless vote to convict a ham sandwich. Elevate the Final Four at last onto its richly deserved Packer-free pedestal and get criminals off the streets of Charlotte. Not a bad two-fer, that.Thank you for your consideration.Blogospherically Yours, Big Ten Wonk P.S. Can you send me some free stuff? Maybe a "How the Meck are Ya?" t-shirt? Thanks.BONUS Final Four edition PPWS There's no trick to putting up a nice number for points per game (PPG). Just shoot a lot. But who would get the most points from the same number of shots? To answer that question we turn to the handy stat that not only measures scoring efficiency, it also captures more than just points from the field (unlike, say, points per shot or "PPS"). This stat takes in both FGA's and FTA's. It's points per weighted shot (PPWS), developed cannily by John Hollinger (The Basketball Prospectus) and renamed brazenly by Wonk. Below are the current PPWS numbers for just about every player you'll conceivably see in the Final Four. As always, these numbers take in all games played to date, from November through this past weekend: PPWS 1. James Augustine, Illinois (1.36) 2. Alan Anderson, Michigan State (1.36) 3. Dee Brown, Illinois (1.34) 4. Larry O'Bannon, Louisville (1.33) 5. Marvin Williams, North Carolina (1.30) 6. Kelvin Torbert, Michigan State (1.28) 7. Taquan Dean, Louisville (1.28) 8. Jawad Williams, North Carolina (1.27) 9. Sean May, North Carolina (1.25) 10. Maurice Ager, Michigan State (1.25) 11. Roger Powell, Illinois (1.24) 12. Rashad McCants, North Carolina (1.23) 13. Luther Head, Illinois (1.23) 14. Brandon Jenkins, Louisville (1.20) 15. David Noel, North Carolina (1.20) 16. Francisco Garcia, Louisville (1.20) 17. Otis George, Louisville (1.20) 18. Raymond Felton, North Carolina (1.18) 19. Paul Davis, Michigan State (1.17) 20. Chris Hill, Michigan State (1.14) 21. Juan Diego Palacios, Louisville (1.12) 22. Shannon Brown, Michigan State (1.12) 23. Lorenzo Wade, Louisville (1.11) 24. Jackie Manuel, North Carolina (1.10) 25. Ellis Myles, Louisville (1.09) 26. Deron Williams, Illinois (1.09) 27. Melvin Scott, North Carolina (1.07) 28. Jack Ingram, Illinois (1.05) 29. Rich McBride, Illinois (0.97) 30. Drew Neitzel, Michigan State (0.95) 31. Nick Smith, Illinois (0.88) What it means. Give James Augustine 12 FGA's and six FTA's and he'll likely score about 20 points. Give Nick Smith the same number of shots and he'll likely score about 13. In today's less Wonk-ish venues.... Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Slezak says maybe the Big Ten wasn't down this year, after all. So does Rick Alonzo of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline looks at the "pivotal moments" faced by each of this year's Final Four teams.Penn State junior big man Aaron Johnson says he's leaving the Nittany Lions and will use his final year of eligibility at another as-yet undetermined program. At 9.9 boards a game, Johnson was the Big Ten's leading rebounder this season.Minnesota recruit James Davis will not play for Dan Monson after all--at least not next season. Monson announced yesterday that the seven-footer will not be enrolling in the fall. Davis was arrested in Minneapolis on March 10 and charged with carrying a gun without a permit.Wisconsin is looking to an Alando Tucker- and Kammron Taylor-led future...An appreciation of the job done by Bo Ryan this year here....Is this a typo or are Madison-area senior-citizens really being herded into detention centers? Actual headline (link quick before they fix it!): "Old with the old, in with the new for Badgers."(Michigan) State of euphoria!Resurgent Spartan big man Paul Davis says: "We belong here." Andy Katz of espn.com (yes, the page successfully loaded!) says "Michigan State's upperclassmen making the Final Four after being branded as players who couldn't win the big game is one of the week's best stories."Lansing State Journal columnist Todd Schulz salutes Tom Izzo: "Four Final Fours in seven years are mind-boggling by any measure."Dick Vitale says North Carolina is "going to have to play a lot better against Michigan State then they did against Villanova and Wisconsin."...Pete Thamel of the New York Times profiles future Tulsa head coach, current Michigan State assistant coach, and former North Carolina assistant coach Doug Wojcik here.So it wasn't just the sledgehammer! Seems there was a players-only meeting that fateful Selection Sunday, too, to clear the air....Compare and contrast: Michigan State Spartans; Detroit Pistons. (Well, for one thing, no Spartan comes close to Ben Wallace in the little-discussed but vital 'fro department.)...Two-headed-monster coverage of Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager here....Shiny Happy Spartans Everywhere on-campus coverage here....Final Four ticket snafu coverage here.Wow, even academic All-Americans mix their metaphors! Senior Chris Hill on his playing career: "This was a four-year road, and we had plenty of potholes and valleys--even black holes--during this journey."Illinipalooza!Bruce Weber gives credit for Saturday's incredible win to his players: "The best thing about the comeback was their poise." And now? "'We caught a lucky game. Now let's make the most of it and see if we can go win the thing." Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti says--alongside the likes of Pitino, Izzo, and Williams--Weber will arrive at the Final Four as "The Other Guy."...Why is Weber, even when he's lost his voice, so dang accommodating when it comes to interview requests? "The Final Four is a continuous commercial for your program," he says. Louisville coach Rick Pitino gushes about the Illini here....Illini-on-a-mission coverage here....The update on the Illini injuries (Luther Head's hamstring; James Augustine's knee) appears to be that there are no injuries to update....Two-headed-monster coverage of former Maywood, Illinois, residents and Proviso East High School teammates Dee Brown and Shannon Brown here....Sun-Times columnist Ron Rapoport grumbles about the Illini not being in Saturday's prime-time game here.Link of links for the Miracle at Rosemont! One industrious blogger has already compiled what can only be called an anthology of game coverage and links related to Illinois' dramatic comeback win over Arizona Saturday night. And it's outstanding. Link here for access to wall-to-wall goodies, including video downloads of the game action and a nice series of links to what the MSM pundits and the blogosphere (pro-Illinois, pro-Arizona, and pro-great-game) had to say about the memorable events at Allstate Arena. (BONUS truth in advertising! This link contains nice things said about Wonk--but your intrepid blogger would be passing this along even if the content were Wonk-neutral or Wonk-free. It's good stuff.)Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper says it's time to put the Arizona game in the past. (Tell that to the players: they watched a tape of the game Saturday night on the bus ride from Chicago to Champaign.)EXCLUSIVE Wonk helpful advice! Good grief, do Big Ten officials really monitor "basketball broadcasts, keeping an ear open for both criticism and praise"? How pathetic. Do something productive with that time--like deleting this 16-month-old article about Kris Humphries from your web site.BONUS non-Big-Ten note! Yesterday both Utah's Andrew Bogut and Arizona State's Ike Diogu declared their intentions to enter this year's NBA draft. (Bogut has hired an agent, meaning he has definitely played his last college game. Diogu, as yet, has not and as long as he doesn't secure representation he has until June 21 to remove his name from consideration.) How might they fare in the pros? Blogger Ryan of Hawkeye Hoops fame brings his usual impeccable quantitative skills to the question and comes up with some surprising answers--a must-read for all NBA GM's.FINAL BONUS non-Big-Ten note! It's official: Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Bruce Pearl has accepted the head job at Tennessee.Wonk back! Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me! Where to draw the lineYesterday Wonk said the Big Ten's success in March illustrates that it "was a bifurcated league this year...and the dividing line was just south of third-place Wisconsin." Wonk's readers respond!Wonk,I'm not so sure this is the case. Surely we have some dogs, and some middleweights, but so do all conferences. In fact, our middleweights are unusually strong--although the Big Ten's average RPI places us sixth among conferences, our median RPI places us first. We have a pretty solid bench in Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio St., and Indiana.Of course, the ACC's worst team, Florida State, is arguably better than our bottom four combined, so I don't know how far I'd take this argument. But I think the right assessment is that we have a trio of giants at the top, an unusually strong middle four, and a worthless bottom third. If there's bifurcation, it happens between Indiana and Northwestern, not between Wisconsin and Iowa.Peter C.P.S. I've got to add that I've never in my life been more satisfied with a losing performance than the one by my Badgers yesterday. We committed none of the signature mistakes that we do when we lose games and instead showed off arguably the best ball we've played all year. Tucker's moves in the post blew my mind. We were just up against a (slightly) better team that didn't make any mistakes, one that earned their win. Awesome, awesome loss.A thousand "amen"s to your P.S., Peter!As far as conference heft, it looks to Wonk as though our positions are not at all contradictory, with the exception of your recommended line between IU and NU. Drawing the line there could still be perfectly compatible with this blogger's premise: Illinois, Michigan State, and Wisconsin were underappreciated because of their conference.
Still, if Wonk had to draw just one line, it'd be between nos. 3 and 4. And, certainly, as an Illinois fan who spent December-February beating up the RPI with the club/evidence of on-court performance, Wonk can't very well switch horses now and beat up on-court performance with the club/evidence of RPI.
Iowa was outclassed by Cincinnati.
Cincinnati was whipped rather soundly by Kentucky.
Kentucky was beaten by Michigan State.
Minnesota was thumped by Iowa State.
Iowa State was never in the game against Carolina.
Carolina was taken to the limit in a six-point win against Wisconsin.
That's what Wonk calls bifurcation.
Big Ten to conventional wisdom: drop dead
(Wonk's waited patiently for months for the opportunity to use a New York Post kind of headline....)
After 61 games of tournament play, the conference whose last name was seemingly "is down this year" (first name: "The Big Ten") has put two teams into the Final Four and posted an 11-3 record. And with three teams in the Elite Eight where no other conference placed more than one, it is time to say it out loud:
The Big Ten has performed better than any other conference in March. So bring on April!
Yes, good fortune was involved. Yes, games were played against Bucknell, Vermont, and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, instead of Kansas, Syracuse, and Boston College.
What of it? Anyone who saw the Jayhawks in the later stages of their season (where they went 3-6 from Valentine's Day through to their Bison-delivered exit) and who saw Wisconsin come within six of North Carolina yesterday knows what the outcome of a Badgers vs. KU game would have been.
Michigan State vs. Syracuse? Well, seeing as the Spartans dispatched with the 1- and 2-seeds in their regional, it's a little tough to work up a retroactive fear of the 4.
And Illinois vs. Boston College? 'Nuff said.
No, the point is not that the Big Ten got a free pass. Nor is this year's edition of the conference mighty beyond past historical or current geographical parallel.
The point is that the Big Ten's best teams were given far less than their due this year because of the conference's most middling teams and its most hapless teams. It was a bifurcated league this year--maybe it has been for three years now--and the dividing line was just south of third-place Wisconsin.
As a normative matter, of course, each of those top three teams has its shortcomings; weak spots that have been chronicled exhaustively in this blog. But as a comparative matter, the material point is this: Michigan State, warts and all, can play with anyone in the country, including and especially Carolina. (Wonk can't wait for the nightcap Saturday.)
And if that's true of the Spartans, what does that say of the Illini?
Preeminent tourney performer Big Ten, Wonk salutes you!
Michigan State beat Kentucky 94-88 in double-overtime yesterday in Austin, Texas, and watching the second overtime of this game truly brought home just how fortunate the Wildcats were to have come this far, how lucky they were that Patrick Sparks' last-second three-pointer at the end of regulation fell through (and that his toe didn't touch the line). In the final overtime period, Kentucky--whether due to fatigue, youth, or incompetence--did not move at all on offense in their half-court sets.
Literally. Spartan fans with this game on tape or in digits try this experiment: go to the second overtime and, any time the ball's on the UK side of the floor, hit fast-forward. You'll see four still-life's and a drowsily moving ball-handler. Wonk had the feeling that as soon as Tom Izzo's team got out of its own way the game would end. And so it did.
In his latest bit of pioneering work in the field of cognitive dispersion, Wonk is jotting these comments down in advance of reading what anyone else in the world not named Ken Pomeroy has said. Still, this blogger has some hunches about what those others will say. Specifically, Wonk anticipates it will be said that the Spartans won a close one when it mattered most. That they slayed their demons at last. That Alan Anderson, he of the crucial misses at the free throw line in the disastrous loss to Iowa in the Big Ten tournament (again: how did that happen?), made the free throws that iced the game.
Well, Anderson did make the free throws that iced the game and the Spartans, of course, did win a close game. Even so: was this not the least in-doubt double-overtime game you've ever seen? Aside from a bad moment at the opening of the first overtime (when State could not so much as get the ball to half-court in two consecutive tries), none of the allegedly ancient ghosts made so much as a cameo appearance.
And so Wonk moves that we put all that close-game fretting to bed: discursively and otherwise. This team beat Duke and Kentucky this weekend. End of story. They may lose a close game in St. Louis (so too, of course, may North Carolina or Illinois or Louisville) but recent history suggests a higher probability of a close win.
EXCLUSIVE Wonk game analysis! (You won't find this level of material anywhere else, folks.) Michigan State shot really well in the second half!
Your intrepid blogger's game notes look like this:
Etc., etc. You get the idea. In all Wonk counts 30 second-half possessions, from which the Spartans extracted 42 points. They missed a grand total of seven shots in 20 minutes and turned the ball over just six times in that span.
If Wonk were piecing this all together from a box score he would think State must have been racing up and down the court and getting many layups and dunks. But the impressive part is that, almost without exception, this level of execution came in the half-court against a worthy defensive foe. One sequence stands out for Wonk as representative of this excellence....
With a little less than 11 minutes to go in the second half, the score is tied at 53. When the ball is fed to Paul Davis in the post, Kentucky hesitates for a moment but then doubles down on the big man, in a show of new-found respect for the recently beastly Spartan. As soon as the double-team comes, Kelvin Torbert, stationed at the top of the key, extends his hands in anticipation of a pass. When Davis feeds him, Torbert's covered by Shannon Brown's man--but Torbert doesn't even wait to see this occur. He's predicted it and he delivers a touch pass to Brown who is now wide open on the left wing and drains the three: 56-53. Simple stuff, yes. But simple stuff executed to perfection wins games.
BONUS Billy Packer note! Ah, never mind. The eerily Mr. Burns-like analyst who occupies the most coveted courtside seat in college hoops yet chooses to bury his nose in an NCAA Tournament historical almanac ("Jim, that '54 Siena team beat Clyde Hartsetter and the Hussies in the Garden and went all the way to the quarterfinals in Shibe Park before falling to a very good Hofstra team," etc.) leaves Wonk with far too much material for so little time. More on this tomorrow....
Links. Kentucky fan Ashley Judd explains why she blew off her niece's baptism to attend the game here. Then, if you feel you must read on....
Wow, Wonk should sport a wacky turban and call himself Swami. "In the span of two weeks," writes Stewart Mandel of sportsillustrated.com, "Tom Izzo's crew went from being the team that couldn't win the big one to the team that's now knocked off two huge ones in a row--top seed Duke and second-seeded Kentucky--by making the type of clutch plays down the stretch that had managed to elude them for nearly two full seasons." And Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski says: "For pure, redemptive moments, there may never be another like this, as Michigan State stared down a heaping pile of pressure, as Alan Anderson stood at the free-throw line poised to send his team to the Final Four." Still, Dennis Dodd of cbs.sportsline points out, correctly, that some of the abuse heaped on the Spartans the past two years came from within their own camp: "Chronic underachievers, they were called, by their own coach."
Columnist John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader says UK's third straight loss in the Elite Eight was "three excruciating hours of a beating chest and a breaking heart."
Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp finds significance in the day this victory occurred: "On a day that celebrated resurrection, Michigan State rose from the ashes of stinging doubt to reach its expectations." (Great minds alert! Lansing State Journal columnist Todd Schulz: "Left for dead after a crippling loss to Iowa little more than two weeks, Michigan State completed its own stunning resurrection on Easter Sunday.") And Free Press columnist Mitch Albom adds: "Say what you will about these Michigan State Spartans, but say it in St. Louis."
"I can't be prouder of this team," says Tom Izzo. Jubilant Spartan Nation coverage from the corner of Albert and Charles in East Lansing here. Two-headed-monster profile of Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager here. Three-headed-monster profile of Brown, Ager and Alan Anderson here. Izzo-as-Gallagher coverage (you know: the sledgehammer, the tapes of the losses, etc.) here.
BONUS Wonk syntactical nit-picking! Patrick Sparks' dramatic game-tying three at the end of regulation is being called "controversial" in some accounts. It wasn't controversial. It was close because his toe was close to the line and because it bounced on the rim for "about 35 minutes" (Chris Hill's estimate). But no one disputed the call. Wonk has watched for a few years now as "controversial" has morphed into a synonym for "close" (particularly, it seems, in football) and, by Godfrey, this blogger has had it! "Controversial" denotes intense disagreement, not razor-thin distinctions.
Did Patrick Sparks really yell "Take that!" at Billy Packer? After sinking that three? That's what it says here.
A time to Heel
North Carolina beat Wisconsin 88-82 in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse yesterday in a game that many Wonk emailers did not think would be this close. The Badgers got the maximum conceivable effort from the likes of Kammron Taylor (18 points), Clayton Hanson (5-of-8 on threes) and Sharif Chambliss (3-of-6) to add to 25 points from Alando Tucker and still it was not enough. But what a team when the backcourt comes to play, no?
Carolina might fairly be said to have out-Wisconsin'ed Wisconsin: just nine turnovers and a plus-6 in the rebounds column. An outstanding effort from the Badgers and poor three-point shooting from the Heels (5-of-16) kept this one competitive. But Sean May made sure "competitive" didn't turn into "loss." May. What a beast: 13-of-19, 29 points, 12 boards. Put it this way: May, easily, outscored and outrebounded Mike Wilkinson and Zach Morley combined. Wonk has said before that college hoops this year does not have the Emeka Okafor or Carmelo Anthony figure. Maybe not but May comes closer to that level than anyone else.
BONUS aesthetic note! It did Wonk's Big Ten eyes good to see Tucker elevate high over Tar Heel blue for that beautiful alley-oop slam in the final two minutes. If the All-Wonk Team were scheduled for a 5.0 release, Tucker would get serious consideration. (Wisconsin State Journal columnist Tom Oates salutes the same alley-oop here.)
EXCLUSIVE Wonk Pomeroy-parroting! Carolina's performance in Syracuse dropped them to tenth in the nation in defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy's points-per-possession-based ratings. Before this weekend the Tar Heels had ranked fourth. This drop-off confirms what this blogger's eyes were telling him: Carolina's D yesterday was lackluster at best.
Links. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Gary D'Amato says: "Funny, the University of Wisconsin basketball team didn't get this much respect when it was winning." (More: the Tar Heels were "pushed to the limit by a sixth-seeded team that was perceived by many to be one of the weaker teams to reach the Sweet 16.")
Mike Wilkinson says Sean May "was almost unstoppable." Bo Ryan talks about May the way ZZ Top talks about legs: "He knows how to use what he has." And of his own team Ryan says: "I haven't been around a team that's done what this group has done with what they had."
Three-headed-monster coverage of Clayton Hanson, Sharif Chambliss, and Kammron Taylor here. Salute to departing senior Mike Wilkinson here. Future-is-bright-themed salute to sophomore Alando Tucker here. A Greg Stiemsma spotting reported here.
In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Kyle Veltrop of The Sporting News says this weekend comprised "the greatest two-day period in college basketball history."
Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Bruce Pearl appears poised to take the job at Tennessee.
Wall-to-wall Illini day-after-classic coverage!
Lindsey Willhite of the Daily Herald says "one revolution by the earth only has made Saturday’s Chicago regional championship game appear even more otherworldly."
Columnist Mike Downey of the Chicago Tribune casts an early vote on the vital matter of how to refer to this game, one that fairly demands its own label. Downey's vote: the Miracle of Rosemont. (Or should it be the Miracle on Mannheim?)
Wonk's not saying Chicago has wrapped its arms around this team or anything but the Illini's miracle comeback was invoked from the pulpit during at least one Easter mass in the 312 area code yesterday.
Was it really a miracle? Take it from Bruce Weber: "If Jack [Ingram] can get a steal, anything can happen." (Said it before, gonna say it again: Wonk likes Weber.)
Coverage of celebrations for the team bus along I-57 here. Wildcat Nation devastation coverage here. Daily Herald columnist Mike Imrem does penance for saying Illinois would lose to Arizona (and, before that, Illinois would lose to Nevada) here. Jay Mariotti of the Chicago Sun-Times heaps praise upon Deron Williams here. So does indefatigable Illini beat writer John Supinie, here. Sun-Times columnist Ron Rapoport notices little-noticed big man Jack Ingram here. Copley News Service columnist Mike Nadel suggests the allegedly suddenly snippy-with-the-media Illini brush up on their Dale Carnegie here. View from a typical Illinois-based sports pessimist (Cubs, Bears, etc) here.
Readers Digest-style condensed history of Illinois 2004-05 here.
Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me!
(Insert nasal whine here) I've seen the Heels' D and the damage done....
North Carolina's defense made the Wisconsin guards look very good yesterday. If the Tar Heels play that kind of D against Michigan State they'll get run out of the building. Don't even ask me what the Illini would do to that kind of defense. Mothers hide your children.... P.S. Did you see the phantom foul called early in the game on a Rashad McCants cross-over? Nobody even came close to touching him (they showed a replay, but neither Lundquist or Raftery commented on it), the cross-over was of the ankle-breaking variety. But he missed the runner and got two foul shots. No one so much as laid a finger on him!
Anyway, I just thought the first half of that game was called horribly, the only reason Wisconsin could tie it (at 44!) was Carolina's matador D.
How'd this team reach the top 10 in defensive efficiency?
By tiring out their opponents and compiling meaningless but stat-stuffing second halves? Dunno.
Good stuff, Mike--thanks!
Latest update from alert reader and die-hard Illini fan Jason
Wonk, Ah, normally here at headquarters, we spend the weekend combining the mundane (clothes washing! grocery hunting!) and the relaxing (the remote, a beer, and hoops). This weekend, as it does three times per year, hoops was paramount and the grocery hunting was done in strict accordance with CBS game-time directives, with the added bonus of Easter dinner. And, boy, what a weekend. Four games, four overtime periods, two furious comebacks, and four great games. As for the Illinois-Arizona game, I really don't know what to say. I admit I conceded when Arizona went up 15, but I continued to watch because, well, watching Illinois basketball is what I do. (I do this.) I figured: if this is the last five minutes of the season, I'm watching. We know I was being a bit chicken little but, judging from the Illiniboard, I wasn't alone. All I can say is this: when I woke up Sunday morning, my first thought was, "Sweet mercy, Illinois won last night, and I still don't know how". This morning we learned, miracle of miracles, Mariotti even praised Illinois. Yes, Mariotti! So we know something so blindingly brilliant happened in Rosemont last night that even the harshest hometown critics jumped the wagon. Otherwise, the game has been dissected by the MSM and you, among other bloggers, and there's nothing to add. But this: Final FourBig East = 0Big 12 = 0Pac 10 = 0SEC = 0CUSA = 1ACC = 1Big Ten = 2 Hmm, that's gratifying. Suffering the interminable wait 'til Saturday,Jason H.