Big Ten Wonk
Monday, February 12, 2007
The annual Bill Murray edition
"I don't like it when somebody comes up to me the next day and says, 'Hey, man, I really liked your play.' Or 'I really dug your message, man. I cried.' I like it when somebody comes up to me on the street a week later and says, 'Hey, man, I saw your play....What happened?'"

What happened to Penn State this year? We knew coming into the year, or thought we knew, that Minnesota and Northwestern would likely haunt the bottom of the conference standings, as indeed they do. But the Nittany Lions were making decidedly different noises four months ago. And now here they are at 1-9, looking up at the Wildcats and the Gophers in the standings, having lost a 53-51 decision to NU in Evanston on Saturday. (Box score.)

How did we get here?

Pay no mind to Saturday's low scoring, for it was the exception that proves the rule. The fact is: PSU is simply getting killed on defense (as seen in vivid spatial detail here). Their offense is actually slightly better than it was last year but it doesn't matter one bit because their defense is significantly worse. And that's saying something because Penn State's D in 2006 was the worst in the Big Ten (indeed, one of the worst in the nation).

And to ask further where on defense the problem lies is to invite comparison to a certain epitaph in St. Paul's: reader, if you seek the problem, look around you. It's everywhere. Nittany Lion opponents shoot lights-out both from inside and from the perimeter. (Opponents shoot fewer threes this year but they're hitting 40 percent of the ones they do shoot.) Moreover, Penn State's foes get plenty of offensive boards and don't turn the ball over very often.

A suggestion for Ed DeChellis. The next time you're at a theme park, grab one of those Yosemite Sam signs: "Whoa, pardner! You must be at least this tall to be on this ride!" Alter the sign so that the "this tall" line is at a point about 6-8 off the ground. And take the sign with you on the recruiting trail.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Home team domination resumed this weekend but, zounds, those visitors--decided underdogs all--were plucky!

The non-Penn State-Northwestern weekend in hoops--Saturday!
Wisconsin beat Iowa 74-62 in Madison. The Hawkeyes led by four at the half and were still within five with a little more than two minutes left but the Badgers closed the game with a 7-0 run. Alando Tucker needed 17 shots to get 21 points while Adam Haluska required 20 to get 16. Tyler Smith likewise struggled from the field (3-of-13) but extracted no fewer than five steals from the usually trustworthy Tucker and Michael Flowers. But the Badgers made their threes (8-of-17). Had they not--if they'd shot like they were shooting for the first half of the conference season--this game would have been a much more nervous affair for the home crowd. (Box score.)

BONUS salute to the Hawkeyes! Who knew that this youthful group of Hawks would take such good care of the ball? Not I, certainly. Yet here they are, holding on to the rock and hitting their free throws. It ain't glamorous, maybe, but it works--look at Butler (um, this weekend notwithstanding). Bulldogs of the Big Ten Iowa Hawkeyes, Wonk salutes you!

Ohio State beat Purdue 63-56 in Columbus. The Buckeyes were totally ineffective from the perimeter (3-of-17--when Matt Terwilliger accounts for 33 percent of your made threes, you're struggling) against what previously had been the Big Ten's weakest perimeter defense. And the Boilers slowed the game down as much as they could (63 possessions) and got five threes from David Teague. So despite the very long odds, Purdue had a really nice opportunity here. Only problem: they coughed up the ball 17 times. Carl Landry committed six TOs and Tarrance Crump added four in 25 minutes. Greg Oden and Mike Conley each scored 14 points for OSU. (Box score.)

Indiana beat Illinois 65-61 in Bloomington. The Illini shot OK--a little better than the Hoosiers, even--which, for Bruce Weber's team, is tantamount to being on fire. But as it happened the men in orange gave the ball away 17 times in a 65-possession game--and no less than five of those TOs came after the final scheduled (under-4) TV timeout. Roderick Wilmont led IU with 17 points on 16 shots. For the Illini, Marcus Arnold was apparently hypnotized shortly before game time and told that he is, in fact, J.J. Redick. Safely deluded in this direction, the hitherto diffident Arnold--last seen in this space (I am not making this up) shooting an air ball from six feet--scored 12 points on 3-of-3 shooting from the field and (prepare to believe in body snatchers) 6-of-6 shooting from the line. After Arnold's sixth made free throw in as many attempts, a dazed Weber could be seen on the sideline doing his best Fred Sanford "I'm coming, Elizabeth!" mock heart attack. (Box score.)

BONUS "I'm coming, Elizabeth!" note! One day in 1991 actor Redd Foxx was rehearsing for his TV series, "The Royal Family," when he began to complain of chest pains. His fellow cast members believed he was reprising his famous routine from "Sanford & Son." In fact he was indeed having a heart attack, one that proved fatal.

Michigan beat Minnesota 82-80 in Ann Arbor. The air in sparsely attended Crisler Arena Saturday night felt, from a distance, charged with the tensest atmosphere I can recall seeing at any game in a long while. For the balance of the first half, the Gophers looked like they were the superior team. You could almost see it on the Wolverines' faces: losing at home to Minnesota. What will the fans say? Fortunately for the home team, Minnesota ran out of gas in the second half and Dion Harris had a game for the ages: 27 points on 8-of-10 shooting. Lawrence McKenzie and Dan Coleman--neither of whom started--scored 18 apiece for the Gophers. (Box score.)

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