Big Ten Wonk
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
I'll take a program and a team
Yesterday's post was cut short, what with power failures, fabricating pointed sticks, hunting wild dogs for food, etc. The good news is the power's on once again at Wonk World HQ and I now have the leisure to follow up on two direct consequences of yesterday's pandemonium.

Direct consequence 1: Thanks much to the "eleventy gillion" readers who wrote in to remind me that Ohio State is in the Villanova bracket and not in the Memphis bracket. Early editions of this blog went out with some written-in-advance guesswork still in type. Sorry for any confusion: I had no electricity from 4am to 7pm yesterday. I was lucky to post anything.

Direct consequence 2: My musing on Michigan got cut short. The rest of the blogging season will be devoted to unrelenting discussion of the six Big Ten teams that made the tournament. Time now to say one last thing about one of the teams that did not....

Wolverine AD Bill Martin was quoted in the Sunday New York Times as saying he's very pleased with the performance of Tommy Amaker, to wit: "Tommy has done an outstanding job. I told him to build a program, not a team. He's the right fit for the team. We're joined together hip to hip."

When I read that Sunday, I thought: wow, what a refreshing change from the usual AD weaselly corporatese equivocation. ("We continually evaluate our progress and will carry that process forward," blah, blah, blah.) Martin's sound bite is blunt, unequivocal, and forthright. It is also, however, divorced from reality.

If I'm a Michigan fan, my lament isn't only that my team hasn't been to the tournament for eight years and counting. (Though that's the elephant in the room.) No, my beef is precisely with the program that Martin says Amaker is building: my beef is with the way this team doesn't get to the tournament.

For what is this program that's being built in Ann Arbor? They're clean, so far as we know. Good. Now, among clean programs, some are known for playing smart hustling basketball. Some are known for defense. Some are known for playing up-tempo. What is Michigan known for? If I had to answer, from my perch, I would say turnovers.

Yes, Amaker took over a struggling program, one burdened with a seamy past and woeful facilities. But what part of the Wolverines' performance last Thursday on the floor of the Conseco Fieldhouse against Minnesota do you lay at the door of a seamy past or woeful facilities? The 21 Michigan turnovers? The 15 rebounds by an opposing player who's a 6-6 walk-on? The three offensive rebounds recorded by starters?

Martin's right about at least one thing, though. A good program can indeed have a bad team every now and then. Take Illinois. Times have been good lately, sure, but this Illini fan only has to reach back seven years to cite a season when the men in orange finished last in the Big Ten. Yes, they finished last that year--but they played hard. (Purdue this year reminded me of that Illinois team.) I supported them through their frequent losses (much more frequent, of course, than Michigan's this season). And I supported them on their improbable run to the championship game of that year's Big Ten tournament (where they were promptly quashed like a bothersome bug by Final Four-bound Michigan State). That team left a lot to be desired in wins and losses but the program seemed sound in Champaign in 1999.

Is it truly so in Ann Arbor in 2006?

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Indiana guard Roderick Wilmont says the Hoosiers' past struggles in first-round games don't bother him or his mates: "I don't think anyone worries about any of that. All we care about is that we're in the tournament, we got a good seed and now we feel like we have a chance to go out and continue playing the way we have the last few weeks." IU faces San Diego State Thursday and Aztec coach Steve Fisher says his team won't be intimidated: "If we get ready to play, we will have a chance to win Thursday. That makes me feel good." And columnist Nick Canepa of the San Diego Union-Tribune says "Indiana can be had."

Illinois forward Brian Randle says he and his mates were "somewhat upset" with the Illini's 4-seed. Asked if his team drew one of the least formidable at-large opponents in Air Force, Bruce Weber says: "Statistically, they were one of the last teams in. But when you look at their system, and their zone, this is a tough game." Air Force coach Jeff Bzdelik is a University of Illinois-Chicago graduate. The two coaches know each other from way back (the 80s), when Weber was an assistant at Purdue and Bzdelik was an assistant at Northwestern. Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper says the men in orange are confident they can play well against Air Force's Princeton offense and match-up zone D, having beaten Northwestern (twice) and Georgetown this season.

Former Ohio State assistant and current Mid-American Conference official Rick Boyages says he's pulling for the Buckeyes.

Iowa coach Steve Alford has seen his stock soar after leading his team to a Big Ten tournament championship and a 3-seed. Profile of/salute to Jeff Horner here.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo says his team's defense and rebounding are fine--they just need to be more consistent: "We've become a very good defensive team, and our rebounding has also improved. What we haven't become is a very consistent team in all of those areas." The Spartans are usually sound as a pound in the first round and against lower seeds generally--um, except for 2004. Izzo's-time-of-year talk here.

Wisconsin freshman and Stillwater, Minnesota, product Kevin Gullikson turned down scholarship offers from Siena, Holy Cross, Lipscomb, and Albany to walk on in Madison. Profile here.

STARTING tomorrow!
The patented Wonk 360 technology goes 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.

Wonk back!
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Summer (and early fall) plans for this blogospheric space

Just found your blog this season--let me be the thousandth to thank you for all the good reading and Big Ten updates a Badger fan like myself requires to get through a long work day. I greatly appreciate it and, in your own words, Badger nation salutes you back.

I just have one question as the season powers through March. Do you keep updates on your site regarding recruiting and off-season news? I would hate to think that in the coming months out of pure habit I will turn to your website and see the same headline staring back at me from when the tourney wrapped up. I am a sucker for recruiting news: which coach visited which high profile player, what offers are being made by which universities, verbal commitments, etc.

Yes, I know it would be a lot of work, but I for one would tune in for any insight into the recruiting realm that your site would have to offer. Happy Madness and keep up the good work.

Mark L.
Go Badgers!

Thanks, Mark. In answer to your question: no, I have no plans to do off-season posts (other than a wacky surprise once in a blue moon). I like the way the gig is set up now: November 1 through the first week of April feels about right on this end.

The good news for you and any other readers interested in recruiting is that there is of course an unprecedented flood of daily information on this very topic zinging around the web. Pick your favorite five-letter service.

And besides, if this humble little blog has anything going for it, it's that I hope I'm actually adding something to the conversation. But I'd never have that feeling writing about recruiting. The recruiting conversation doesn't need this voice. It's all being said already--much better, more quickly, and more comprehensively than I could say it.

So stop by again in the fall. Meantime, over the summer, I'll try to keep the top of the page fresh with random stuff: pictures of me, lengthy think pieces on the presidential election of 1840, etc. (Watch that traffic soar!)

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