Big Ten Wonk
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
The conference season's first convincing road win
Factors in play in Illinois' 66-51 win over Wisconsin in Madison last night: 1) the Illini are playing their best ball of the season; 2) the Badgers are struggling at this point; 3) Bruce Weber knows his personnel and isn't afraid to change his ways as the year plays out.

Weber will stay with his standard starting five for reasons of continuity and honorifics. And he should. But it is now plain beyond dispute that Illinois plays best with a three-guard lineup. Said lineup scores and (this is the crucial part) is still able to defend. And Weber knows it. He went small with 12:39 left in the first half last night and played three guards until halftime. And in the second half Weber went small with 17:35 left and left three guards in the game the rest of the way. (Three guards here defined as Dee Brown plus two--Brown played the entire game.)

Still, Weber's best substitution had nothing to do with going small. UW led this game by as many as 11 in the first half when Weber was forced to extreme measures: he put James Augustine back in the game, even though the big guy had two fouls. (I just said, 'Heck with it,'" Weber explained afterward.) With Augustine playing alongside three guards and Brian Randle, Illinois outscored the home team 19-4 going into halftime. The Illini get a lot of offensive mileage out of simple two-man action between Augustine and Brown. (See for example the Augustine dunk off the fake-screen give-and-go run between the two with seven minutes left in the game. And note this was run from the exact same spot on the floor where, one year ago, Augustine and Deron Williams ran the same play with three minutes left in the game, also resulting in a dunk.)

Brown and Rich McBride each had 16 points for Illinois--McBride needed eight fewer FGAs than Brown to get there. The Illini didn't shoot many threes last night but McBride and Jamar Smith were a combined 6-of-8 from outside the arc. Make no mistake: Illinois with outside shooting is a different animal. They're never going to come close to last year's offense, of course (a unit that averaged 1.18 points per possession in Big Ten play). But they don't have to: their defense is better than last year's. If they can hit outside shots they are officially formidable: they already play D. They already rebound. They already take care of the ball.

As for Wisconsin, they look, on offense, like Illinois looked three weeks ago. That is to say, aside from their somewhat inefficient star player, no one wants the ball. (Inefficient in part, no doubt, because none of his teammates want the ball.) And so last night they did what teams do when no one wants the ball: they shot threes (20 of them, on only 45 FGAs)--and missed them (3-of-20). Alando Tucker actually had a good night--19 points on 7-of-12 shooting from the field and 5-of-9 at the line. But he had no help. His teammates shot a combined 9-for-33 and Illinois gave the Badgers next to no second shots, gathering in 82 percent of all those misses.

Even more ominous: teams are shooting well against the Badgers. In their first four conference games, UW held opponents to a measly 39.4 effective FG percentage. In the last four Big Ten games, however, Wisconsin's foes have recorded a 51.6 eFG percentage. That is not the Bo way.

BONUS way geeky box score (redundant) note! Possession charters across this land cringed last night when the final seconds wound down with the shot clock ahead of the game clock by a second or two. Illinois intentionally took a shot clock violation and play stopped with 1.5 seconds left. At which point Ed Hightower simply walked off the floor. (Gee, I guess the game's over.) But what of the phantom 1.5 seconds? Is that a (scoreless) Wisconsin possession? The officials in Official Land say: no! Good call, official scorer! Let it thus be known that this game actually took only 39:58.5 to play. (Box score.)

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Michael Hunt says "Wisconsin is immersed in its worst funk of the Bo Ryan era, four losses in five games, not exactly a panic-inducing streak but one that raises a couple of questions about the Badgers' direction." Ryan had high praise for the Illini: "I would say they're about the best we've seen so far. I've said that before--because of their seniors at the point and in the post and a lot of good athletes who get things done in a positive way." Meaning Randle, who also drew kudos from Ryan: "You think you've got him right next to you and then he extends. He grabbed two or three offensive rebounds out of nowhere." Randle's 12-13 dub-dub was a career-first....Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper says: "A team looking for a signature victory now has one." Dee Brown agrees: "This was probably bigger than last year, considering how we played on the road in the two losses we had." And Wisconsin State Journal columnist Tom Oates says: "For the second year in a row, Illinois walked out of the Kohl Center looking like it had just punched a ticket for a special season."

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Indiana plays Northwestern tonight in Bloomington. Hoosier coach Mike Davis says after Sunday's debacle at Minnesota he's going to go with a new starting lineup: Lewis Monroe and A.J. Ratliff will sit, Marshall Strickland will move to point guard, Robert Vaden will move to shooting guard, and Roderick Wilmont will play alongside either Ben Allen or Sean Kline. (Oh, Marco Killingsworth will stay where he is.) If IU wins big tonight, watch for praise of this bold move. Who knows, it may indeed be the right move but tonight's not the night that will prove it. Indiana's recent woes stem from poor shooting and atrocious interior D--neither of which have been a problem for Wildcat opponents in the Big Ten.

Penn State plays Michigan in State College tonight. Could this be a contest? The Nittany Lions looked awfully un-Nittany Lion-like in East Lansing on Saturday. On the one hand, I wouldn't be surprised to see another high-scoring closely contested game like Iowa's 80-76 win in the Bryce Jordan Center on January 14. On the other, PSU's so very very vertically challenged--will they get their shots off against the notably lengthy Wolverines?....Courtesy of Michigan's reappearance in the polls this week for the first time since 1998, Penn State is in the middle of a five-game stretch where they'll play five straight ranked opponents....Daniel Horton's streak of 38 consecutive made free throws in conference play is the third-best ever.

Purdue plays Iowa tonight in West Lafayette. Boiler coach Matt Painter, while admitting he's "proud" of how his team has continued to play hard despite the absence of five projected starters, still wants to see improvement: "Now we just have to be better with shot selection and taking care of the basketball."... Jeff Horner's been cleared to play without his knee brace, which may or may not cure his shooting slump. Des Moines Register columnist Sean Keeler points out the Hawkeyes are embarking on a key three-game stretch: at Purdue, at home against Michigan, and at Northwestern. Key? Yup! Iowa lost all three of those games last year.

Ohio State officials are preparing for this Friday's hearing in front of the NCAA infractions committee. The NCAA's ruling on penalties stemming from Jim O'Brien-era hinky doings is expected in early March. Surely the NCAA wouldn't declare a team ineligible for postseason play just days before Selection Sunday. Would they?

COMING this weekend! The recurring festival known as the Do Wonk's Blog for Him Contest!

Your intrepid blogger and the Wonk Wife are escaping for a few days of non-slush-related existence in their prior stomping ground of northern California. Tomorrow's post will be the last until I return next Wednesday.

And that's where you come in! The Big Ten never escapes! There are games this weekend and I need recaps.

You can fill that need! You know the drill: link to the box score, say who won, drop a few "Ye gods," link to some beat writers, and, voila! It's a recap. Here's your chance to blog without having to do it every day: keep those recaps to 200 words or so and bring 'em on!

Wonk back!
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Latest update from alert reader and die-hard Hoosier fan Nate
Concerned that Indiana's recent performance has silenced the hitherto voluble and always read-worthy Nate? Au contraire!


Seriously, I'm okay. I was watching the Minnesota game Sunday and had thoughts of gouging my eyes out. Normally, I tape the game and watch the game again after the emotions have left. This time, I cued up the game and promptly deleted the game. I couldn't torture myself. Something about the Geneva Convention.

Jay Bilas made a comment the other night about West Virginia that clicked with me. He said he expects WVU to make it to the Elite Eight even if they lose a couple of games in the Big East because their system is difficult to prepare for in a day. Big East teams have seen the Mountaineers play and thus know what to do.

I wonder if IU (and also Iowa and Ohio St.) have the same problems. These teams seem to do well in the non-conference, then struggle in-conference (notably Iowa). With this in mind, one would think IU would try new offensive sets to confuse opponents. At least I can hope.

IU has done a horrible job the last four games defending average players (see your comments from last Monday 1/23):

For the second consecutive game, the Hoosiers conferred the adjective "career-high" upon a Chicago-bred opposing post player's scoring total. First it was Shaun Pruitt of Illinois recording 17 points. On Saturday it was Marcus White's turn: the Connecticut transfer scored 19 points in 22 minutes.

Then, the Iowa game (from Wed 1/26):

As for the Hawkeyes, they turned the ball over a bit, it's true, but when they managed to hold on to the rock they got the match ups they wanted on offense (the words "Erek Hansen" and "blow-by dunk" can now be used together for the first time in recorded history)

Then, the Minny game (from Mon 1/30):

(Not that the Hoosier D didn't have its moments of ignominy. The words "Adam Boone" and "blow-by for the layup" can now be used together for the first time in recorded history, courtesy of Earl Calloway and four non-helping teammates.)

Wow! I just want to curl up into a little ball and cry, mainly because I can figure out what is wrong with this team. Coach Davis needs a win vs. Northwestern because Saturday's game vs. UConn could get ugly.

Hopefully, IU can get back on track vs. the Wildcats.


Nate D.

I'm studiously bipartisan as to tonight's game, of course. But I can say this much: tell your Hoosiers to go get 'em Saturday, Nate! Make this Big Ten boy proud.

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