Big Ten Wonk
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
The Big Ten, 2006 vs. 2005:
More good teams; fewer (as in zero) scary ones
A lot of my email this week has gone more or less like this:

Hi, Wonk,

Can you give us a brief guide to tempo-free stats, for those of us who would like to use them to help fill out our brackets? My main question involves whether Ken Pomeroy's stats are adjusted for strength of schedule. By all accounts this year the Big Ten had a stellar non-conference season, and looked like the strongest conference in the land (with the possible exception of the Big East). However, if you look at Pomeroy's Pythagorean Ratings Index, and his blog today which posts the Log5 winning probabilities for all the teams in the tournament, it looks like the Big Ten is bound for an ugly end to the season, whereas the chances for the supposedly inferior Big 12 look relatively good, with Kansas and Texas both favored to make it to the Final Four.

I'm just looking for some hope that my favorite conference will acquit itself well in the upcoming tourney.

Mark J.

Yes, Ken adjusts for strength of schedule; so, yes, Texas and Kansas look better on paper than do Ohio State, Iowa, or Illinois. The Horns and the Jayhawks score more points while holding their opponents to fewer points than do the Buckeyes, Hawkeyes, or Illini.

Let's look at the Big Ten last year vs. this year. Here are the top ten teams in terms of efficiency margin over the past two seasons (conference games only, with this year's teams in bold):

Best Big Ten efficiency margins in 2005 or 2006 (points per possession minus opponent PPP)
1. Illinois, 2005 (+0.24)
2. Michigan State, 2005 (+0.18)
3. Ohio State, 2006 (+0.14)
4. Illinois, 2006 (+0.10)
5. Wisconsin, 2005 (+0.06)
6. Iowa, 2006 (+0.06)
7. Wisconsin, 2006 (+0.05)
8. Michigan State, 2006 (+0.03)
9. Ohio State, 2005 (+0.03)
10. Indiana, 2005 (+0.03)

(Note that the Indiana team that didn't make the tournament last year actually had a better efficiency margin than this year's tourney-bound squad, which has a negative EM: -0.03.)

So while the Big Ten can be said to have had a better year this year than last (best conference RPI and six teams in the tournament), it's also true that no Big Ten team this year appears to be the equal of Michigan State last year--much less Illinois last year. (I am still amazed at the grief last year's Spartans took right up until late March--a team, after all, that went 13-3 in the conference.)

Now, might last year's numbers for the best teams have been inflated a smidge by last year's weaker Big Ten opponents? Of course. Still, the fact remains that the conference's top teams this year look decidedly more mortal on paper than they did last year.

The good news for Big Ten fans, of course, is that the numbers can, on occasion, be surprised and circumvented. That's why we watch. Look at Iowa. On paper they had only a 16 percent chance of winning the Big Ten tournament. And they did it.

So stay tuned.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
The patented Wonk 360 technology has gone to work! Each venue hosts, in effect, a couple four-team tournaments. And if there's a Big Ten team involved, Wonk 360 will break those four teams down! Mosey on over to the sidebar and enjoy.

BONUS Wonk 360 preamble! It should go without saying in March 2006 that any attempt made by a Big Ten fan to summarize Utah State or San Diego State profitably on the spur of the moment of course leans heavily on the indispensable player-by-player tempo-free stats provided by Ken Pomeroy. I'm still a little astonished that the best college basketball stats available anywhere for fee or for free are furnished by a guy with a day job. And maybe I'm even more astonished that we all walk around acting like this is normal. Well, it's not. It's (Bill) Jamesian and I again salute this diligent and didactic data dude. (So does Luke Winn at

That beloved sextet of Big Ten tourney teams!
Illinois coach Bruce Weber says forget about Dee Brown and James Augustine. The coach thinks the Illini will rise or fall with Brian Randle and Rich McBride: "That's going to be a key for those two guys play." Oh yeah? Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey, iconoclastically enough, says forget about what Weber says: if the Illini are going to go anywhere Brown needs to warm up from outside. (Salute to Brown here.) Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper says Illinois' top three concerns are: 1) sluggish offense; 2) poor free-throw shooting; and 3) foul trouble.

Indiana coach-for-now Mike Davis says he for one isn't worried about frequent huffer-and-puffer Marco Killingsworth playing at 4,300 feet in Salt Lake City: "My feeling with the altitude is that if you don't focus on it, the players don't think about it. Then, you just go out and play."

Ohio State coach Thad Matta says he'll feel better when his team starts making some threes again: "Hopefully we can get back to shooting the ball well. We’re obviously a better basketball team when we do." The Buckeyes shot 24.7 percent from beyond the arc in three games at the Big Ten tournament in Indy.

Iowa coach Steve Alford says he's not worried that Yoni Cohen and others have picked his team to lose its first-round game against Northwestern St.: "With the way our guys have been, their motivation has been with their passion to play." Player-by-player breakdown of how the Hawkeyes made it this far here. Salute to Doug Thomas here.

Wisconsin senior Ray Nixon did not practice with the team yesterday, after injuring his ankle Monday. His status for Friday's game against Arizona is in doubt. Kammron Taylor's been getting advice from Magic Johnson. Profile of Kevin Gullikson here. The Badgers are preparing to take on a Wildcat team that figures to be rejuvenated by the return of Hassan Adams from a DUI suspension.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo describes George Mason's defense as "a poor man's Illinois."

Wow, the cliche about sportswriters being frustrated novelists is true!
What is it about Paul Davis that makes writers go all Theodore Dreiser with the indulgently oleaginous bleating? Remember this from last year?

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.

I have that paragraph on a t-shirt I wear when I want to scare high school English teachers. Anyway, now comes this:

The scars on Paul Davis' head and face resemble a road map charting the path through four years of possibility and persistence.

Good grief. The labored imagery in your saccharine syntax charts a path to my nausea. (Who's he writing about, anyway? Raymond Massey in Arsenic and Old Lace? (Hat-tip for the link to alert reader David T.))

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

In defense of the program--and the team
Yesterday I noted that Michigan athletic director Bill Martin has framed his strong support of Tommy Amaker in terms of his own injunction to Amaker to "build a program, not a team." The readers respond!


Love your blog, I read it daily. As a Michigan man I'm terribly disappointed with this year's finish. I happen to like Amaker but I can't argue with the results. And yet I want him to win so that we don't have to start over.

In his defense, how much blame should be placed on a coaching staff? I doubt Amaker huddles the team up to explain how to turn the ball over (although they appeared to be very good at it). Other common complaints I hear are:

1) "He hasn't recruited the way he was expected to." But hasn't he recruited a team that for much of the season appeared to be good enough to make the NCAAs? The team split with last year's NCAA runner up and split with a Final Four team.

2) "He lacks intensity on the sideline or doesn't get on the refs enough." I ask you, Wonk, is there anything more annoying than a young coach with a modest record hopping up and down and making a scene?

3) "His players haven't developed." I see both sides of the argument on this one. Courtney Sims seems like the number one offender in this area. I remember watching Chris Young my freshman year. He was hardly a force inside, but was aggressive. I'll cite my own athletic career as evidence that you can't always coach attitude. I can't help but think of how much better UM would be with a big man that had an attitude to match his size.

Nick R.

Hey, no argument here on point 2, Nick. Dean Smith was legendary for swaying the calls and he did it without wailing like a banshee. (Not to mention a certain former UCLA coach.)

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