Big Ten Wonk
Friday, March 02, 2007
It was a surprising season, was it not?
This blog goes to seven days on Monday and, needless to say, at that point we'll all be relentlessly focused on a procession of horizons out toward the future: who'll get in, where they'll be seeded, how far they'll go, etc.

So before we go there I thought I'd take a quick glance back at ground already trod: the regular season for the Big Ten's teams.

This year I've been surprised that:
Penn State's been so bad. I didn't think they'd win the conference or anything but I did think we'd see progress. Instead we saw decline worthy of Spengler: the Nittany Lions' defense actually got worse this year. And the problems were across-the-board: interior defense, perimeter D, defensive rebounding, lack of turnovers from opponents...everything.

David Teague's been so good. Teague's become quite the Haluskian figure in this his senior year: he exists to score--no assists, no steals, etc. And in that role he's performing very well, thank you: Teague has hit 42 percent of his threes this season. That has surprised me.

Drew Neitzel's been so efficient in his scoring. With opposing defenses focused so intently on Neitzel, I had rather thought we might see some ugly numbers from the young man this year. Instead, Neitzel has pulled off that rare feat: increased scoring (from 8.3 to 18.2 PPG) alongside increased efficiency (from a 1.08 to a 1.22 PPWS). Prolific and efficient scorer Drew Neitzel, Wonk salutes you!

Michigan State's offensive rebounding's been so good. The Spartans are the best offensive rebounding team in the Big Ten by far, thanks to Marquise Gray and Goran Suton.

Michigan State's turnovers have been so numerous. The Spartans turn the ball over more often by far than any other Big Ten team, thanks to Marquise Gray and Goran Suton.

Iowa's offense has been so good. Last year the Hawkeyes said goodbye to the likes of Greg Brunner and Jeff Horner. And this year without those veterans the Iowa offense has actually improved significantly. How can this be? Fewer turnovers and more offensive boards. Kudos to the high-scoring-yet-low-TO Adam Haluska, as well as to offensive rebounding man-beast Kurt Looby. (OK, so the defense in Iowa City this year has fallen off way more than the offense has improved. This is a list of surprises, remember?)

Illinois' shooting has been so bad. In this blog's young life, only Minnesota and Penn State in 2005 have shot the ball worse than have the Illini this season. I certainly didn't expect an offensive powerhouse in Champaign this year, but my goodness Bruce Weber's men have struggled to get the ball into the basket.

Indiana's defense has been so average. Think back to last year. No one noticed with all the sturm und drang surrounding Mike Davis but actually the Hoosiers' perimeter D in 2006 was excellent. So I thought that if that were the case with Davis as coach and Marco Killingsworth fleeing from all contact on the defensive end, then the arrival of Kelvin Sampson and the return of D.J. White would herald a new dawn of overall defensive strength in Bloomington. I thought wrong! The perimeter D has stayed excellent but the interior D hasn't improved as much as I expected (and the defensive rebounding has even fallen off a little). Then again, none of this has mattered as much as I thought it might, because....

Indiana's perimeter shooting's been so excellent. Coming into this season Roderick Wilmont was a career 32.5 percent three-point shooter hitting just 58 percent of his free throws. On paper that is emphatically not a guy you want shooting 161 threes for your team. And yet Wilmont has made 41 percent of those treys this season. What's more, Wilmont's success has been contagious: Armon Bassett (41.8 3FG percentage) and A.J. Ratliff (38.3) are also hitting their threes.

Ohio State's perimeter shooting's been so average. With Ron Lewis, Jamar Butler, Ivan Harris, and Daequan Cook, I really thought this year's Buckeyes had the makings on an Illinois-in-2005-level embarrassment of perimeter riches, a team where opposing defenses would virtually be forced to give open looks to good shooters. Hasn't happened. The Buckeyes have hit just 34 percent of their threes in-conference.

Greg Oden's been merely outstanding. Don't get the "merely" wrong, I want him on my team. Oden's an efficient scorer who leads the conference in defensive rebounding (now that Brian Butch is out) and, of course, shot-blocking. So, yes, he's been outstanding. It's just that I thought he was going to be beyond outstanding. I thought he'd be Durantian.

Despite the preceding two surprises, Ohio State's been so good anyway. They're 14-1 and a mortal lock for a 1-seed.

Michigan and Wisconsin have been so uniformly unsurprising. They've virtually defined the very essence of "Michigan" and "Wisconsin," respectively.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
North Carolina continues to give away a 1-seed with the grim determination of a disgruntled customer at the Home Depot returns desk on Saturday morning at 7, losing at Georgia Tech 84-77 last night. The Heels will go into their season finale at home against Duke on Sunday at 10-5 in-conference.

On the other hand, UCLA is now a mortal lock for a 1-seed alongside Ohio State, after the Bruins defeated Washington State 53-45 in 59 hard-fought possessions last night in Pullman.

The grand hoops finale--tomorrow!
Michigan plays Ohio State in Ann Arbor (CBS, 4 ET). The Buckeyes would seem to have little to play for; the Wolverines, a good deal more.

Wisconsin plays Michigan State in Madison (ESPN, 3 ET). Badgers! Fear the power of Drew Naymick's brain!

Indiana plays Penn State in Bloomington. The Nittany Lions ended a 13-game losing streak with their 74-72 win at home over Iowa Wednesday night--a game that was "a huge greedy gulp of surface air for a team that had been underwater for eight weeks."

Iowa plays Illinois in Iowa City. The Illini are reportedly peaking and peeking ahead; Rich McBride is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to DUI.

Purdue plays Northwestern in West Lafayette. Boilers: mulling their seed in the Big Ten tourney.

O, the blogging! O, the madness!
It's that time of year, bay-bee! Seven-day-a-week blogging commences Monday and goes through the national championship game. Next week's festivities to include:

--2007 All-Wonk (the official 2.0 release)
--The 2007 tempo report--how fast (or not) did the "power" conferences play this year?
--Other things I make up before then

Tune in next week!

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

Who plays whom, who gets in, and those of us who wonder about it all....
As to the former....

I just have to ask who creates the Big Ten schedule? Does it seem to anyone else that this is a very unbalanced schedule every year?

Badger fandom aside (two road games at Michigan State and Ohio State are tough ones to swallow), but four games in a row at home for Michigan State? I remember a couple years back that Badgers played started the conference season with four of their first five at home. It will forever amaze me how unbalanced this schedule is every year.

Here's hoping it's unbalanced in Bucky's favor next year!

Heather A.

And as to the latter....

I'm curious as to what teams you think will make the dance? Everybody all of the sudden thinks Illinois is just automatically in but their game at Carver-Hawkeye is not just going to be a cakewalk. What do you think?

Andrea R.

Barring tangible Selection Sunday injustice, I counsel the following....

1. Don't worry about the imbalanced schedule. It is what it is due to football expansion and in some years (though not, as it happens, this year) it can render the conference championship well nigh meaningless. But the selection committee has shown a clear willingness to take the imbalance and indeed a team's entire body of work into account. (Remember for instance that two years ago Iowa went to the tournament with a 7-9 record in-conference while Indiana sat at home with a 10-6.)

2. Assuming they lose on the road tomorrow, Illinois will have a better RPI than conference record. And in such a circumstance the best thing they can do for total peace of mind next Sunday evening is to play and win this coming Friday in the Big Ten tournament. I used to think the conference tournament was meaningless to the selection committee. After last year I've amended that belief: Saturday and Sunday are meaningless (unless, of course, Penn State or Minnesota or Northwestern or Iowa wins the whole thing).

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