Big Ten Wonk
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Wonk 360: Illinois in San Diego
A look at the teams competing against Illinois in San Diego this weekend to make it to Washington, D.C., and the Sweet 16.

(4) Illinois Fighting Illini (25-6, 11-5 Big Ten)
Feast your eyes: Illinois plays excellent defense--most of the time. The D became a little more porous late in the season: in the second half of their conference schedule the Illini gave up a thoroughly mediocre 1.03 points per possession (after allowing just 0.90 PPP during the first half of the Big Ten season). Still, when they're playing the defense they're capable of playing, Bruce Weber's men are particularly adept at forcing tough shots and at hitting the defensive glass. On offense the Illini take care of the ball and are better than average at rebounding their misses--of which they have more than a few....

Look the other way: This team can go stone cold from outside, usually when Rich McBride and precocious freshman Jamar Smith (with their combined 43.6 3FG pct.) defer more than they should to Dee Brown (32.5 3FG pct.). And their youth (pretty much everyone except Brown and James Augustine) is, in effect, playing in its first NCAA tournament.

Etc. Brian Randle's defense is every bit as good as you've heard--stylistically speaking, someone this long and this quick probably should have been wearing a Kentucky uniform, circa 2003--but he's a walking foul magnet and Illinois fans look like this every time Randle steps to the free throw line. (Truth be told, Illinois fans look like that when any player goes to the line, except McBride.)

(13) Air Force Falcons (24-6, 12-4 Mountain West)
Feast your eyes: (I guess--anyway, it's what they do....) I've been mulling adding a new subcategory to my POT classification: the SPOT, a slow perimeter-oriented team. If I ever do so, Air Force will be my SPOT poster child. Averaging about 57 possessions per 40 minutes, Air Force is the second-slowest-paced team in the nation. (Only Princeton is slower.) You may not care for the aesthetics but there's no arguing with the results: this is one of the best-shooting teams in the country. The Falcons' 57.8 effective FG percentage would not only lead the Big Ten this year, it would even have bested Illinois last year. (And that's saying something.) Their primary outside threat is Matt McCraw, who hits 42 percent from outside the arc. Air Force is most certainly a SPOT.

Look the other way: Like most POTs (and perhaps all SPOTs), the Falcons are weak on the offensive boards. Very weak: if the ball doesn't go in, they're not going to get another shot. (I loved this faux "insider"-sounding drivel on Air Force from ESPN Insider's "tournament guide": "A team that can control the defensive boards and is willing to push the ball in transition can, to some degree, negate the matchup zone." Hmm, let's see. Air Force was 325th in the country this year in offensive rebounding. If you can't "control the defensive boards" against the Falcons, you're in trouble, friend.)

Etc. Air Force looks so much like Northwestern on paper it's eerie. (Wow, Jerry Palm agrees! Albeit, a little more pejoratively: "Air Force is the worst at-large team added to the tournament in its history. They are a shorter, slower Northwestern that shoots a little better.") Both teams devote over 45 percent of their attempts to threes. Both operate at a glacial pace. And both are surprisingly proficient at getting opponents to turn the ball over. Watch Jacob Burtschi: in addition to being Air Force's leading scorer, he also ranks as the most felonious Falcon.

(5) Washington Huskies (24-6, 13-5 Pac-10)
Feast your eyes: Ken Pomeroy said it: Brandon Roy combines offensive efficiency (125.6 offensive rating) and sheer volume (19.6 points per game) on a level that can only be termed Redickulous. (The closest Big Ten analogue, never mind the differing physiques and roles, would be Paul Davis.) Also: the Huskies are uncaged monsters on the offensive glass, rebounding over 42 percent of their own misses. (How good is that? Better (by far) than any Big Ten team this year. Better than any Big Ten team last year--and that's saying something, given how Michigan State hauled in the offensive boards in 2005.) The window-cleaning on the offensive end is led by 6-7 Jon Brockman. Last thing: this team doesn't shoot threes. Don't bother waiting for them to go cold from outside. They can't.

Look the other way: As good as this team looks on paper, they were last seen losing by 11 points to a 15-17 Oregon team in the Pac-10 tournament. And with freshman Justin Dentmon (the pride of Carbondale, Illinois) at the point, there aren't a lot of assists with this group. But, with Roy and the bounteous offensive boards, they don't need as many.

Etc. U-Dub makes opponents turn the ball over--and they do it with a balanced attack. Ryan Appleby notwithstanding, almost every Huskie's a threat to record a steal.

(12) Utah State Aggies (23-8, 11-5 WAC)
Feast your eyes: If the Aggies were in any other bracket besides the same one as Air Force, I could toss around the superlatives a little more freely here. Nevertheless, this team can shoot the rock, hitting over 40 percent of their threes and posting a gaudy 56.0 effective FG percentage. Both numbers put Utah State in the top ten nationally. Jaycee Carroll drains 45.3 percent of his threes. And, though he doesn't shoot threes, 6-7 forward Nate Harris is a notably efficient producer for a leading scorer.

Look the other way: Having lauded the Utah State offense, the following may well strike you as symmetrically predictable: the Aggie defense is nothing to write home about. Opponents never turn the ball over.

Etc. Each member of Utah State's starting five has an effective FG pct. north of 50. Nate Harris's is 63.2--that's positively (Steve) Novakian.

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