Big Ten Wonk
Thursday, January 26, 2006
Seven, baby!
Savor the number. Seven Big Ten teams in the tournament. Barring injury or head case-induced collapse, it's going to happen.

Sure, the Big East will likely equal or even surpass that number. But will they be able to say they've put 63.6 percent of their teams into the tournament? I think not! (I'm busily printing my "63.6 percent" t-shirts as we speak.)

Why the conference pride? Because Michigan beat Michigan State 72-67 in Ann Arbor last night. In the process, the Wolverines lifted themselves up onto the same lofty yet increasingly crowded eminence where Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio State, Indiana, Iowa, and the aforementioned Spartans already reside. It's a tough loss for State--one aided in no small measure by a 34-10 advantage in FTAs for the home team--but, frankly, it's good news for the Big Ten. (Michigan State's place in the pantheon nationally is beyond secure. The task at hand is to give them some more company from the Big Ten.)

A few days ago I offered the following:

The test for Michigan, as for any team, is this: they will have arrived when we know in advance how they expect to win. Look at Wisconsin. We say things like: "Wisconsin, as expected, played tough D and took care of the ball." The Wolverines will be "back" when we can finish this sentence in a non-pejorative fashion: "Michigan, as expected, (blank)."

We may now have a nominee for the blank. How about: "Michigan, as expected, got meaningful production from Daniel Horton at the free throw line." Last night Horton, who hits 90.6 percent of his freebies, scored 23 points on 8-of-8 shooting at the line, making him 18-for-18 over the last two games. Horton made the difference on a night when the Wolverines were without both Lester Abram (sprained ankle) and, in effect, Courtney Sims (17 minutes, four points, three boards).

(Horton also turns the ball over too much--and added another seven to his total last night. Duly noted.)

As for State, they were foul-blighted and as a result played a somewhat skittish second half. Paul Davis scored just ten points in 29 minutes. No Spartan had more than five boards (!) and indeed MSU allowed Michigan to post a notably robust 41.2 offensive rebound pct. on the evening. Free throws and boards, in that order, made the difference. ("They beat us on the free-throw line," Mo Ager said succinctly last night.) (Box score.)

The test of what this loss means to Michigan State will be simply how well Michigan defends its home court from here on out. Actually, it's to State's advantage that the Wolverines prove to be as good as they look like they might be. If no one else wins at Crisler, MSU still looks good--they still have that win at Ohio State.

The thing that's unfortunate for the Spartans--and for Iowa--is that they went to Madison and lost when the Badgers' roster was still stocked. Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio State, apparently, will each have a better shot at a W purely by happenstance. (Michigan doesn't play in Madison this season.)

Last night's game was a sellout and Horton noticed: "Hopefully, the fans will keep on coming out." Asked about the discrepancy in free throw attempts between the two teams, Izzo responded: "Let me figure out what words I can use: The officiating, I question. I really do, I question it. The 34-10 (foul shot) discrepancy really kind of hurt us." He hastened to add, however: "Don't read into it that I'm sitting here crying about the officiating....It's not what totally cost us the game."...Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski: "Did the Wolverines get some breaks? Sure. They got a favorable whistle from the referees, which helped put MSU in foul trouble. But hey, maybe that's the first step toward an actual home-court advantage at Crisler, something we haven't seen in years." Detroit Free Press columnist Michael Rosenberg: "We learned that Michigan is legit NCAA tournament material and a threat for the Big Ten title. We didn't know that before. Even the U-M coaches, if they were honest, didn't know it." Lansing State Journal columnist Todd Schulz: "The Wolverines were the more aggressive team. They outhustled the Spartans. They got to the foul line. They won the rebounding war. They deserved to win."

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Wisconsin beat Penn State 72-43 last night in Madison, a game the Badgers already led 26-5 by the midway point of the first half
. Bo Ryan's team shot threes over the Nittany Lion zone all night long (no fewer than 34 3FGAs) and, while hitting 38.2 percent of your threes is merely "good," after Saturday's shooting debacle the Badgers must have felt like they were absolutely on fire. Alando Tucker recovered from his 2-for-18 outing and scored 17, hitting 4-of-7 threes. Geary Claxton matched Tucker with 17 points (on 8-of-12 shooting) but no other PSU player scored more than six points. The rebounding was even (and I mean exactly even: both teams had 12 offensive boards and 23 defensive rebounds) but Penn State gave away 18 turnovers and couldn't hit their shots over the (much) taller home team. "This isn't the team I've seen play the last three or four games," said Ed DeChellis afterward. "(Wisconsin) made some shots early but we were so passive in the zone, and weren't aggressive like we had been." Wisconsin State Journal columnist Tom Oates: "Anyone who thought UW wouldn't come out razor sharp hasn't been watching the Badgers since coach Bo Ryan took over five years ago." (Box score.)...Badger big man Greg Stiemsma is academically ineligible and will not play the rest of the season. In a statement released by the UW athletic department before last night's game, Stiemsma was quoted as follows: "I've been dealing with depression which caused me to take a leave of absence from the team and also affected my academic performance."

Illinois beat Minnesota 77-53 in Champaign last night. This was still a six-point contest with less than 13 minutes left in the game, when the Illini decided to go small and put Brian Randle at the 4. The result was a 25-7 Illinois run to close out the win. "(Minnesota) got a little impatient and took some tough shots and we broke their backs in transition," Bruce Weber said of his team's run at the end. Dee Brown likes the Assembly Hall: 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting, 3-of-6 on his threes, five assists, one turnover. Meanwhile Jamar Smith launched eight threes in just 25 minutes and hit five of them (plus a free throw) to add 16 points. (Still, Smith's most impressive play was his half-court assist on a beautiful alley-oop to Randle, who had 10 points and eight boards in just 20 foul-blighted minutes. "When he plays like that, the sky's the limit," Brown said of Randle's night.) On the other side of the ledger, Adam Boone was notably quiet: four shots, no points, no assists, two turnovers, and one rebound in 29 minutes. "We came in here and did some good things, but slowly they got the upper hand on us," says J'son Stamper. In this morning's Minneapolis Star Tribune, indefatigable hoops savant Jeff Shelman is somewhat more succinct: "Another year, yet another blowout."...Warren Carter was benched for the game by Weber because he "failed to take care of things in a timely manner." The result was more PT last night for Calvin Brock....Weber was pleased with his team's performance: "Much better balance. Some transition, some inside, some outside. It really eases the pressure on Dee (Brown) when we play like that." Weber also points out that Illini seniors Brown and James Augustine have lost just one home game in their entire careers. ("There's something about the Hall," according to Randle.) Factoids like that make oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper wonder whether Illinois fans appreciate what they have: "With unprecedented success all around us, why is there a feeling that the grim reaper is lurking in the shadows, ready to end it all?" (Box score.) BONUS meme look-ahead! More PT for Chester Frazier at the point, allowing Brown to move over to the 2. This will be the talk. Weber will then fret hoarsely about the implications for the defense. Etc.

Northwestern beat Purdue 78-76 in OT last night in West Lafayette. Wildcat freshman Craig Moore hit a three with nine-tenths of a second left in regulation to force the overtime. Boiler big man Matt Kiefer says the home team should have won it in OT anyway: "Moore's shot may have had an (emotional) toll on us, but as far as the pace Northwestern plays, most everybody still had their legs." Both teams shot extremely well (posting effective FG percentages north of 60) in a game where 21 of the 45 threes were good. Vedran Vukusic led the 'Cats with 29 points; Kiefer, Bryant Dillon, and Marcus White each had 18 for the Boilers. (Kiefer also added 15 boards.) Turnovers (18) continued to be an issue for Matt Painter's team, but the aforementioned good shooting and a strong effort on the offensive glass gave them a shot to win this one. Still, it wasn't enough. Painter said the two teams' differing styles of play made a difference: "(Northwestern) looked a little more fresh. We're trying to pound the ball inside and they're looking for threes. It's a little bit different." (Box score.)

COMING tomorrow!
The second in a series of occasional Geek Day posts. Stats! Analysis of stats! Assessing the inexorable progress of tempo-free stats! Non-geeks are duly warned.

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

The staff in Wonk's Prescience Department told me I'd use this email
On Monday I said Michigan State's the best team in the Big Ten "right now." And so they were. Then. But even on Monday, one alert reader begged to differ....


I am a Michigan fan and may need to shut myself up come Thursday morning. But for now, I have a question for you. Yes, MSU has had some impressive wins over their last three, but shouldn't you note the stark dichotomy between the Home Spartans and the Road Spartans?

MSU has averaged 58 (!) points per game on the road thus far, and are averaging 0.86 ppp in those three road games, if my math is correct. Some might also say that MSU's defense has improved significantly. They did play very well against OSU, but gave up 1.10 ppp against Indiana. And as for Iowa, they have as much offense as I have dunks on a regulation basket in my lifetime (that would be none).

Has MSU really turned a corner? Or are their recent gaudy home wins over Indiana and Iowa an indication of a Jekyll and Hyde thing going on? Michigan's defensive efficiency numbers aren't too far off those of Wisconsin and OSU, and their offensive efficiency is also right up there with the best.

I want to say with every fiber of my being that MSU is just a bad road team this year. Thoughts?

Andrew P.

Last night the Spartans lost on the road, giving up 1.10 points per possession. Not a bad piece of advance analysis, Andrew.

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