Big Ten Wonk
Thursday, March 15, 2007
Drama, magnitude, and finality
(Today's post continues a young tradition.)

The tournament starts in earnest today when Davidson tips off against Maryland at the HSBC Arena in Buffalo. And so at 12:20 ET begins the best sporting event of the year. By far....

Every November, when college football is noisily twisting itself into bewildering BCS knots trying to determine who will play for the national championship, I thank the bracket gods for giving us such a beautifully Euclidean way of determining who will play for the national championship.

Every May and June, when the NBA inflicts upon us "playoffs" that occupy about as much time as the Crimean War (I especially appreciate the four-day pauses between first-round games, drawing out the suspense of that tense San Antonio vs. Denver series), I thank the bracket gods for giving us such a tidy three-week method of going from 300+ to 65 to one.

Every February, when the NFL presents a Super Bowl that feels so oddly disconnected from and unrelated to an actual football game, I thank the bracket gods for giving us tournament games that are the very epitome of college hoops (Laettner, Drew, et. al.).

Every October, when baseball gives us its best games in indigestible four-hour slabs in the dark of late-night in game-altering 30-degree weather, I thank the bracket gods for selecting their champion in two-hour installments in precisely the right game-enhancing venues (neutral floors, opposing fans, opposing bands).

And every October 15, I thank the bracket gods for starting the cycle anew.

"Drama, magnitude and finality"? It's lifted from those estimable wordsmiths at the Supreme Court, ruling against President Truman some 55 years ago. I think the Supremes of a half-century ago would happily concede that theirs is a better description of March Madness than of what they thought they were describing (the presidency).

Starting today, each game is the most important game of the year. Each game eliminates one more team. And there is one fewer game than there are teams.

As of this morning, it's all still in front of us. Nice moment, this.

(16) Central Connecticut State vs. (1) Ohio State (7:10pm ET)
Wonk 360: Ohio State in Lexington
The Buckeyes are wary; Ron Lewis is improved; Greg Oden is shy.

(9) Michigan State vs. (8) Marquette (7:20pm ET)
Wonk 360: Michigan State in Winston-Salem
Watch the turnovers: the Spartans commit a lot of them. It they can hold on to the ball, chances are excellent that MSU wins this game.

Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp says: "Breaking down the Spartans' chances against Marquette tonight is pretty simple—if [Drew] Neitzel falters offensively, Michigan State is toast." Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp couldn't be more wrong if he said "Ann Arbor has NIT fever!" (More in a similar vein from Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski.) Keep in mind the Golden Eagles—not exactly Texas where offense is concerned—generate an unusually large share of their points through offensive rebounds. And MSU is a very good defensive rebounding team. If Neitzel "falters offensively" (meaning he doesn't score 15) the Spartans can still win in any number of ways, most of them involving points from a foul-unblighted Raymar Morgan and a modest number of turnovers from Goran Suton and Marquise Gray. Or Neitzel could score 25 and State could still lose. It's why we watch.

Maybe the injured Jerel McNeal will play after all; Spartans play D; Izzo-and-Crean; Izzo-and-Crean 2.0; Izzo-and-Crean 3.0.

(10) Gonzaga vs. (7) Indiana (9:45pm ET)
Wonk 360: Indiana in Sacramento
Watch the threes: the Hoosiers shoot a lot of them. If they fall, chances are excellent that Indiana wins this game.

The Hoosiers will reportedly go as far as Roderick Wilmont can take them; Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz gives Kelvin Sampson a B so far.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Wisconsin big man Brian Butch is on the mend; Alando Tucker is focused; Badger freshmen are precocious.

Purdue is respected by Arizona.

Illinois opponent Virginia Tech is adversity-toughened (wow, a meme: 2.0).

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

My streak of consecutive posts without a "Gator Aid" pun continues!
Yesterday I said Florida has "been given the tournament's overall 1-seed because of what they did last March, certainly not because of anything they've done in calendar 2007."

The readers respond!

Having just taken a moment to politely disagree with your friend over at kenpom, I've come to mutter semi-effectually at you.

I don't believe what we saw with Florida this year was an example of a team "turning it off" but of a team hitting a flat spot late in a long season at the top (see also UNC and UCLA). It is undeniably true that this team elevates its play in tournaments but I attribute that largely to its make-up. This is a team that plays best when they have a bit of an edge but, with the emphatic exception of Noah, the players are fairly unemotional and often need a bit of an external stimulus to get sufficiently fired up to face an opponent hopping on adrenaline.

(Not that being composed is necessarily a bad thing or being emotional a good one; a number of teams burnt off all their energy in the first half against UF this year and had nothing left in the second. And others - like UGA in the tournament - were so tight with nerves early they couldn't hit the easiest shots and fell impossibly far behind.)

Nathaniel G.

Thanks, Nathaniel. We agree Florida's underperformed. And as to why, you say "tomato," I say "Thad Matta." (Yes! I've been waiting all season to use that. It's gold, baby, gold!) Flat spot? Long season at the top? Ohio State? Kansas?

My attempted point yesterday was pretty mundane: if you had asked me four months ago today what Florida's numbers were going to look like this year, I would have held forth with great profundity on how beautiful they were going to be. (Like, say, North Carolina or Illinois in 2005.) But instead of "beautiful" the numbers have been merely "very good"; almost exactly as good, in fact, as Florida's numbers during the regular season last year.

I thought we'd see improvement to the level of dominance. We haven't. What that means for the next two weeks is, I think, a very interesting question.

How many points must a defense prevent, before you can call it a D?
(The answer, my friend....)

Hey, Wonk,

I just discovered your site this year and I'm really enjoying it. I know how much you love people talking about how bad North Carolina's defense is, so I just thought I'd give you an example by ESPN's Joe Lunardi from his tournament picks: "The Tar Heels are awesome...on offense. Kevin Durant will exploit their often suspect defense. UNC is out, 91-88."

Nick B.

Alright, look. Tell you what, world. I give up. I was wrong....

The pop-up window on ESPN's "Tournament Challenge" bracket says of Carolina: "The issue may be defense." Wow. This has proven to be one tough misconception to kill. But, what the heck, I'll give 'er another go: this team's defense is every bit as good as its offense. In ACC play this season the single statistical category in which the Heels enjoyed the greatest success on either side of the ball was opponent 2FG percentage: conference foes made just 45 percent of their twos against Carolina.
Oh so wrong....

This is an outstanding defensive team....They do it all: FG defense (especially on the interior), defensive rebounding (beastly eater of defensive glass Reyshawn Terry, Wonk salutes you!), the works. Thing is, they do it at a fast pace so commentators assume UNC is all about offense. In truth the Heels have been even more effective at preventing points in ACC play than they've been at scoring them.
Just plain flat out wrong!...

The Tar Heels' defense is already the ACC's best by a large margin. It's also significantly better than their offense. Truly. (Don't mess with me on this one. I've got tempo-free means and standard deviations for ACC conference play through last night. I'll use 'em, by gar, I will!) And the strength of that D is on the interior....They may be young but they're also tall, fast, and numerous.
So let me say here and now: North Carolina's defense is horrible. These guys are like Oregon only even more comically permissive. Five life-sized cutouts of Adam Morrison would provide better defense than Roy Williams gets out of this group.

There. That earns me five "bowing to the 180-degree incorrect conventional wisdom" credits.

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