Big Ten Wonk
Friday, January 06, 2006
Just one of those nights
So said Mo Ager last night, after Illinois beat Michigan State 60-50 in Champaign. "It happens to the best of them." He's exactly right.

Michigan State will be fine. What's more, it appears everyone knows it. Going through this morning's papers I was surprised and delighted to see no overwrought 2004-05-style "big game no-show" recriminations from the Spartan coverage. This was simply a classic early-conference loss: Illinois took away MSU's first option, transition, and State had no response. A game or two down the line, they will.

Shannon Brown has, to this observer's eyes, made a bigger improvement over last year than even the much-improved Drew Neitzel. Matt Trannon gives Tom Izzo exactly the hint of 2000 that he needs on the floor. And, despite Dee Brown going off for 34 points, the Spartans' defense was for the most part solid (helped along, granted, by the uncannily happy feet of frequent traveler James Augustine and his Killingsworth-esque seven TOs). True, Neitzel was victimized badly on consecutive possessions during Brown's personal 11-2 run late in the first half. (Watch the tape. It's not pretty.) But overall State's intensity on D was what it should be every night.

The problem was the Illinois D was even better. Last night's game represented both the Spartans' worst shooting of the season (40.4 effective FG pct.) and their most ineffective outing on offense (0.87 points per possession)--yes, even worse than the Hawaii cramp fest. Brian Randle is getting no shortage of love this morning for the job he did on Ager and the lanky Peorian is indeed an asset on D. ("Randle was huge on Ager,'' according to Bruce Weber. "He broke his spirit, got him out of the game.") Still, I felt during the game that MSU stopped looking for Ager much too soon. (Same for Paul Davis, who recorded history's quietest near dub-dub: 12 points and nine boards.)

As for that other Brown, Izzo compared him to Vince Young last night and his shooting was, of course, unconscious (7-of-13 threes). But there was more at work here than hot shooting. Brown works as hard without the ball as the Illini D works all the time. He is this team's leader, whether the shots are falling or not. And this team needed a leader on a night when its non-Brown offense was so Edvard Munch-level horrific. (Box score.)

Confirmed stylistic pluralist Bruce Weber, Wonk salutes you!
This Illini fan owes Weber an apology. A little less than two years ago, when the little-known new guy from Southern Illinois lost at home to Purdue and then lost on the road to Northwestern and then got blown out of the gym by Wisconsin in Madison, this despondent observer was ready to throw his support to some less agonizing but endearingly hapless lost cause like Northern Colorado. Or Illinois football. That was then.

Now I am frankly in awe of Weber. Show me another coach that could so dramatically shift emphases within his basic system to fit his changing personnel--and do it this quickly and successfully. In the space of 15 games spanning this year and last, Illinois has gone from a team defined by its offense to one feared for its defense--winning all the while. Coach, take a bow.

(Yes, the D was overlooked last year and was in fact extremely good. Duly noted.)

Good D or bad offense? Lansing State Journal columnist Todd Schulz asks the question: "Do the Spartans get the blame for their struggles? Or does No. 6 Illinois deserve credit for them? A bit of both, leaning toward the latter." Izzo disagrees: "I'm not sure if Illinois was at its best; I'm sure we weren't at our best; and Dee Brown was at his very, very best." Yikes. Wouldn't want to be certain non-Shannon Brown people at the State practice today. Izzo: "Shannon Brown played his tail off tonight. [But] I'm really disappointed in the way my seniors played. Not very often am I disappointed in some people the way I was tonight." Brown, Ager and Davis scored a combined 38 points on 12-of-33 shooting. "We took their three main guys out of the game," James Augustine said afterward. Dee Brown says, despite averaging 18.6 points for his career against State, he doesn't "get up" for playing the Spartans: "I love Izzo, I love their program, I love the way they play."

Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper finds himself concerned about every Illinois player not named Dee Brown: "In truth, the majority of the offense could be described in the Illini playbook as 'Pass-pass-pass, let Dee figure a way to save our butts.'" Peoria Journal Star columnist Kirk Wessler puts it this way: "While the rest of the Illini appeared to have failed to synchronize their offensive watches, Brown meshed with the universe." Brown's 34 points were the most by an Illinois player since (anyone?) Kevin Turner scored 35 against Indiana in 1998.

How touchy were the refs? Official Steve Welmer ejected a fan from Assembly Hall at halftime. (Can they do that? Is this a First Amendment case? Just asking!) Also: blow-by-blow of Weber's prelude-to-a-T jawing with the refs here. It was Weber's first T at Illinois.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Wisconsin beat Iowa 66-52 in Madison last night. The Hawkeyes came into this game giving opponents just 0.80 points per possession and holding them to an effective FG pct. of just 41.3. Last night, conversely, the Badgers recorded 1.07 PPP with an eFG pct. of 52.5. That's actually not all that bad as FG defense goes--but put that together with only six Wisconsin turnovers, an anemic Hawkeye offense (just 18 points after intermission--during one stretch Iowa shot 1-for-25), and a road setting and you have your L. (Watching this game in its early stages, I found myself wondering if Iowa's hitherto stingy defense has truly been tested in terms of quickness. Maybe we'll learn more tomorrow when Dee Brown comes to Iowa City.) Alando Tucker led the Badgers with 27 points on 12-of-22 shooting from the field, including consecutive threes midway through the second half ("I saw their heads start going down at that point," he said afterward). Greg Stiemsma recorded five blocks in just 17 minutes. Bo Ryan says Wisconsin's stifling second half D was not the product of any halftime adjustments: "We played the same way we did in the first half, only we played it better." (Box score.)...Wisconsin redshirt freshman DeAaron Williams has left the team temporarily for "personal reasons."

Ohio State eviscerated Penn State 104-69 last night in Columbus, a lopsided outcome the Buckeye Commentary blog nevertheless found "surprisingly entertaining." Ron Lewis had a nice line for the Buckeyes: 26 points on 10-of-11 shooting (including 5-of-6 threes) in 21 minutes. Ben Luber had a tough line for the Nittany Lions: seven points, two assists, and six turnovers in 24 minutes. See the spanking good recap from the Buckeye Sports Blitz blog. Congratulations, Buckeyes! You recorded the most efficient 40 minutes of offense played by any Big Ten team in any game this year: 1.55 points per possession, topping the previous record of 1.52 by Michigan against Miami of Ohio. (Box score.)

The weekend in Big Ten hoops--tomorrow!
Michigan plays Purdue in Ann Arbor (ESPN Plus, 12:07 Eastern--how's that for precision!). The Boilers will be without freshman Nate Minnoy, who is out for the year after suffering a torn MCL in Wednesday night's game against Northwestern.

Iowa plays Illinois in Iowa City (ESPN, 2 ET).

Minnesota plays Northwestern in Minneapolis (ESPN Plus, 2 ET).

Indiana plays Ohio State in Bloomington (CBS, 4 ET).

The weekend in Big Ten hoops--Sunday!
Wisconsin plays Michigan State in Madison (CBS, 1:30 ET).

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

Egad! Email from ACC fans? Is this allowed?
Mr. Wonk,

How did Illinois and Michigan State combine to score only 110 points? Well, I looked at the box and the answer was poor shooting, but I didn't see why the shooting was so poor. I was unable to find number of possessions; perhaps you have that number.

The Illinois defense was strong but MSU did get many opportunities around the basket and from open outside shots. I seem to remember a recent praising by Mr. Wonk of the MSU offense with a challenge to the defensive success.

Illinois really turned it over in the post. Are their bigs suffering from a lack of Deron Williams' smooth point play? From my soapbox, Dee Brown is not an effective point guard and his play at point will ultimately cripple this team. My Tar Heels almost overtook them with a late second half rally and we then were just learning to play defense.

Maybe both these teams need to use the refs from last night's Louisville-Villanova contest. Those guys went back to Pearl Washington levels of palming, Georgetown 1984 levels of mayhem, and Dook patterns of clutching & grabbing.

Jerry H.

Thanks for the view from the outside, Jerry. And in answer to your question--number of possessions last night: 57.

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