Big Ten Wonk
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
BONUS William Goldman edition!
Welcome to March! Truly the most wonderful time of the year 'round these parts.

And so here we are....Preseason afterthought Ohio State is alone in first. Iowa, a frequent falterer in past Februarys, led the Big Ten for virtually the entire month this time around. Michigan State and Indiana each have seven conference losses. Minnesota is starting not one but two guys who were walk-ons in November. And Penn State has an offense that ranks in the top half of the Big Ten. Did I see all or even most of this coming?

Heck, no! (Read my "preseason walk-arounds" if you don't believe me....Really got to get those off the sidebar.) But then, to quote a phrase coined a couple decades ago by Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman (and since popularized by Al Michaels), nobody knows anything.

It will be useful to clutch Goldman's aphorism like a talisman this month, starting tonight when the Buckeyes visit Evanston to play Northwestern. After months of basketball, tonight's game holds the promise of bringing the first bit of definitive and lasting clarity: OSU can clinch a share of the Big Ten title with a win tonight.

Most observers seem willing to concede this game to the Buckeyes in advance and, until a few days ago, I might have been inclined to agree wholeheartedly. But the Wildcats' win at home last Thursday night over Wisconsin at least proved that Bill Carmody's team, even with its rebounding deficiencies, can win against tournament-bound competition straight up--that is, without the other team donating a flurry of turnovers to the cause.

That's crucial, because I don't foresee Ohio State turning the ball over tonight. Nor do I think either team will dominate the other on the boards. This game will be decided by shooting.

Both teams shoot a ton of threes. (Northwestern leads the conference in percentage of attempts devoted to threes; the Buckeyes are third behind the Wildcats and Indiana.) If OSU is hitting from beyond the arc (as they were at Michigan and at home against Illinois), I think they win, period. But if they're off from outside (as they were Saturday at home against the Wolverines and, indeed, in their previous game against NU), then I think Northwestern has a chance. Whoever's guarded by Matt Sylvester--whether that's Vedran Vukusic or Mohamed Hachad--should see a lot of touches.

That being said, do I actually expect the Wildcats to win tonight? Heck, no!

But what would William Goldman say?

Light dusting of links
J.J. Sullinger says he and his teammates relish the challenge of playing on the road: "We use the phrase, 'They hate us because they ain’t us.'"...Is containing Hachad really the key to beating Northwestern tonight? It just may be....Bill Carmody says his team will be ready: "Hopefully, we can gain some momentum, get a couple of victories and go into the Big Ten tournament and feel we can make some noise there."

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Shootout at the Barn--who'd a thunk?
Illinois beat Minnesota 71-65 in Minneapolis last night. Very odd game. Two of the better defensive teams in the Big Ten square off and the result is a can-you-top-this shooting match? Don't be fooled by the normal-looking score--while this was a very slow game (57 possessions), both teams posted outstanding offensive numbers: 1.25 points per possession for the Illini (their best mark of the conference season) and 1.14 for the Gophers. Playing his last game in Williams Arena, Vincent Grier led all scorers with 19 points on 13 shots. James Augustine came within three assists of a tri-dub, which would have been a first for any player in Big Ten play this year. As it was he had to be satisfied with a plain old 16-10 dub-dub. Dee Brown made just 2-of-9 threes but my lasting memory of him from this game will be the screen he laid on Zach Puchtel in the lane (!), a pick that led to an Illinois deuce and Puchtel's fourth foul....Moe Hargrow had high praise for the Illini after the game: "That's the best team we've played, it ain't even a question." Dan Monson said Illinois was more comfortable on offense than he would have liked: "They came in and got into an offensive rhythm." Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper praises the "uncharacteristic efficiency" of the Illini attack: "You need a go-to guy to win on the road and Illinois found multiple go-to guys." Illinois now turns its attention and support to Northwestern: "We prayed for them in the locker room," said Brian Randle. But Bruce Weber says he'll be recruiting tonight and not watching the game in Evanston: "I was just so happy we beat Iowa, to be honest. I was looking at possibly losing four in a row to end the season. Coaches are always pessimistic." Obligatory Gopher-based bad pun headline here.

World beware: Illinois suddenly has an offense. Over their last five games the Illini have scored 1.11 points per possession (a mark powered by getting the ball inside, where Illinois has posted a 2FG percentage of better than 60 percent over that span). Illini fans beware: the vaunted Illini D has sprung some leaks, allowing 1.08 PPP over the last three games. (Box score.)

BONUS Illini recruiting news! Illinois has made a scholarship offer to high school baller Leon Freeman of Belleville, Michigan. The offer is contingent on Freeman meeting NCAA standards for academic eligibility. Freeman, a 6-4 senior and candidate for Mr. Basketball in Michigan, will need higher numbers on both his ACT and his GPA to qualify for next season. He has tentatively selected Illinois over Michigan State and Memphis.

The non-Northwestern-Ohio State week in Big Ten hoops--tonight!
Purdue plays Indiana in West Lafayette. It's the final home game for Boiler seniors Matt Kiefer, Bryant Dillon, Gary Ware, and Matt Carroll. Kiefer says never mind his team's last-place record, they'll be ready for the Hoosiers: "They're our rivals. Our team is not going to let someone just come in here and beat us."...Marshall Strickland says he thinks his team can break through and win a road game: "I think this team has a different mentality after the two wins we just picked up at home."

Iowa plays Penn State in Iowa City. Steve Alford says he's been looking for ways to get Adam Haluska out of his shooting slump: "I've just tried to talk to him about activity. I don't worry so much about him missing shots. I worry more about, 'Hey, just shoot the ball. I don't need you taking three shots a half. I need you taking five, six shots a half.'"...As unthinkable as it would have been before the season, the Nittany Lions arrive in Iowa City looking for their fourth road win in Big Ten play. "I don't know why we've played pretty well on the road," says Ed DeChellis. "Coming into this year, you guys (in the media) all said, 'Why's your road record so bad?'"

The week in Big Ten hoops--tomorrow!
Michigan State plays Wisconsin in East Lansing (ESPN, 7 ET). Seniors Mo Ager and Paul Davis are about to play their last two games at the Breslin Center. "I'm going to miss playing with him," Ager says of Davis. "He's a good dude. I've known him since high school, and we became pretty close friends. I'm going to miss that the most."...So what if Alando Tucker has made just two of his last 16 threes? Wisconsin State Journal columnist Tom Oates says Tucker still gets his vote for Big Ten POY: "It's scary to think of what Tucker could do if he had more help."

Vox players, vox dei!
Sports Illustrated conducted a poll of Big Ten players and the results are interesting enough that I'm just going to transmit the Detroit News summary verbatim. Enjoy:

--Toughest place to play: Illinois, 55 percent. "When their team goes on a run, it gets so loud, the floor starts shaking."
--Best shooter: Jeff Horner, Iowa, 27 percent. "When he's on, he can shoot it from anywhere on the court."
--Biggest trash-talker: Dee Brown, Illinois, 55 percent. "A little guy with a big, big mouth."
--Most overrated player: Paul Davis, Michigan State, 36 percent: "He's supposedly been heading to the NBA draft since he was a freshman, but he hasn't shown me that much."
--Dirtiest player: Graham Brown, Michigan, 27 percent. "He throws his elbows all over the place, and it's not funny."

--Team with the most respect for its coach: Michigan State, 45 percent: "You can just tell by the way they respond to [Tom Izzo's] criticism and never talk back."..."They have a bond with Izzo. He's not only a coach but also a father figure."
--Opposing coach you'd least like to play for (tie): Bill Carmody, Northwestern, 27 percent. "I can't stand the Princeton offense." Mike Davis, Indiana, 27 percent. "I don't like his personality--the way he cries on the sideline." ... "I don't think [Indiana's] guards have much freedom to do what they can do."
--Opposing coach you'd most like to play for: Tom Izzo, Michigan State, 36 percent. "He rides you, but tells you good things too."... "I see him at camps a lot and he'll talk to you about life and basketball."
--Biggest crybaby: Paul Davis, Michigan State, 27 percent. "You see that sour face when he doesn't get a call or something doesn't go the way he wants it to."... "Even when he scores, he whines."
--Scariest dunker: Brent Petway, Michigan, 73 percent: "It's pretty much all he does. His warm-ups are like a dunkfest."..."He's a human highlight film. I've never seen anyone like him."

COMING Monday!
Ah, 'tis the season: Wonking seven days a week, March 6 - April 7. And watch for the All-Wonk Team (2.0), to be announced Wednesday, March 8.

BONUS all-Hoosier edition of Wonk back!
Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me!

Vox populi, vox dei! The next Indiana coach will be Subway Jared! (Or, um, at least not Alford.)
While the idea of Steve Alford becoming the next Indiana coach is already being portrayed as a foregone conclusion in some quarters, the emails I received from IU die-hards yesterday paint a slightly different picture. People who email me, of course, hardly represent a random sampling of Hoosier fans. But, for what it's worth, here's some of what I heard....

Esteemed Wonk,

As a die-hard Indiana guy, I can say that, within my limited circle of fellow IU fans, NONE of us understand where the Alford fascination is coming from. In fact, numerous polls have shown that the people who want Alford to bolt Iowa for Indiana aren't in the majority; they're simply the loudest, the richest boosters, or work in the mainstream media. It's a great story, after all. But Alford's coaching has lost its luster since he left Southwest Missouri State. Iowa can keep him.

If Greenspan is smart, he'll take this opportunity hire the best coach, not the best "IU guy," boosters and Knight loyalists be damned. And while not every top coach will be a good fit with Indiana's traditions and history, there are plenty to choose from right now. Guys with Big Ten backgrounds, Midwestern roots, solid recruiting bases, winning records, and an emphasis on basketball fundamentals.

Guys like, oh, say, Tom Crean.

I'll take a Sparty as my next head coach. Better Sparty than Bob Huggins.

Go Hoosiers.

Dustin G.
Goshen, IN


I totally agree with your assessment of Alford and share your consternation concerning some Indiana fans' apparent desire to have him as coach. I assure you, Wonk, that not all Hoosier fans are in favor of hiring Steve Alford, or any IU alum for that matter, as the next basketball coach.

After all, this whole notion that "IU needs one of their own" did not originate with anyone within the athletics administration. Nor did it originate among the fans. It was spurred by Mike Davis's comments and inflated out of proportion by the national media.

Unfortunately there is a vocal contingent of the IU fan-base that believes that by bringing back a piece of former Hoosier glory, a time-warp will somehow magically teleport IU basketball back to national prominence. I cannot deny that these folk exist, but I ask you to not categorically assert that all Hoosier fans believe as they do.

Kirk W.

Still more

I don't get the Alford preoccupation either. Hopefully the Indiana AD makes three of us not on that bandwagon.

Ashton S.

More, but with a partial defense of Alford

I would say less than 50 percent of IU fans would have Steve Alford as their top choice to be the next coach. You are right in that he hasn't been that successful at Iowa. But how successful would Mike Davis have been there? Any better? No way. He couldn't even recruit Indiana's top in-state talent, of which there is even less talent in Iowa.

I'll welcome whoever is selected as the next coach provided they do a decent job recruiting the top in-state talent and put a team on the floor that plays as a team and fights hard for every win. It would also be nice if he recruited a point guard once in a while. Whether it's Alford or anyone else, that's all I ask.

Mark O.

More, but with a partial explanation of Alford's appeal

I know that the national media would have you believe that IU fans are on the edge of their seats waiting for Steve Alford's return.

Don't believe them. If nothing else, look at the poll on the front page of, showing Alford as one of many candidates getting support from the IU fans.

The fact is, Steve Alford is unique. I'm not sure I can come up with a candidate at ANY school that has the attributes that Alford has for IU: son of a highly successful HS coach in a basketball-crazy state; HS Mr. Basketball; All-American on a national champion IU team; and Olympic gold medalist. It's a very attractive package.

This will sound like heresy, but about the only guy I can think of as being such a good "fit" at another school would be Jordan at UNC (and I don't think he was a coach's son). So Alford is a great story, and journalists like are always looking for a story. It's not surprising they write about Alford-to-IU.

However, characterizing it as "Alford mania" is ridiculous. Most Indiana fans would be willing to accept Alford if he were the choice, but are more interested in other candidates.

Patrick H.

OK, back to plain old "more"

I know it might look like there are a lot of Alford fans out in Hoosierland. But if you ask die-hard, really attentive fans, you'll find that most are NOT interested in the golden boy of New Castle. I think the casual fan out there might want him back because they don't know any better--and because he's a link to Bobby's glory days.

As for me, give me Mike Montgomery any day. Or Crean. Or Few. Or Altman. (Not Wittman.)

And, yes, I am an alum.

Happy wonking,

David U.

And one final "more" from very far away
Hey, Wonk,

I for one do not want to see my hometown hero (New Castle, IN) back at IU. The guy is not worth it. I cannot believe people are still regretting Bobby's dismissal (the guy is a spent force).

Why can't we do a proper search and find the right guy? From somewhere like...Army.

Karen C.
Auckland, New Zealand

Thanks, Hoosiers!

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