Big Ten Wonk
Thursday, December 02, 2004
Brawl in the Hall, wall-to-wall: Paul stalls and 1 falls
For the second game in a row, Wonk's beloved Illinois blew a ranked opponent completely off the floor (score with eight minutes left: 81-49) and then left behind a deceivingly normal final score, beating #1 Wake Forest last night 91-73.

It's the pass-and-shoot, stupid: The Illini are doing what they're doing with movement--on both ends of the floor. (And, not to belabor the obvious, with good shooting: .541 from the floor for the year, good for fourth in the nation). There are two categories in which Illinois leads the nation this morning: assists and assist-to-turnover ratio. The Illini are averaging an absolutely absurd 24.4 assists a game.

Think of it as very nearly five assists per position per game.

Last year Deron Williams was the only player in the entire Big Ten to average more than five assists a game.

Nor, as Mike DeCourcy rightly points out, are these numbers inflated by walkovers against Delaware State, Florida A&M, and Oakland. The assist numbers have actually been better against Gonzaga and Wake Forest. Deron Williams had foul trouble all night last night and he still notched 11 assists in only 25 minutes. Just sick.

The assist numbers are all the more remarkable when you consider that Illinois has a starter, Roger Powell, who has a grand total of just two assists thus far this year. Bill Raftery wasn't kidding last night when he said that if Powell gets the ball, there's a shot about to happen. No one's complaining so far, though, because Powell is shooting an I-guess-that's-acceptable .757 from the floor. (Bold Wonk prediction: as the season progresses that number will go down.)

On D, the Illini are compensating for a lack of size on the interior (the aforementioned Powell is 6'6" and playing a 4-spot he inherited from the 6'10" Brian Cook, now with the LA Lakers) by double-teaming the post and rotating off the ball. Sounds simple, is simple, but, when every guy does it on every play, it works: ask Ronny Turiaf. It takes legs and commitment and, so far, Illinois has only had to do it for a half to salt the game away. That commitment will need to remain, however, because there will be nights in East Lansing or Madison when the game is not over at halftime and the Illini are not shooting .541.

Who are those guys?
This is what the national punditry is asking this morning (see below). Wonk sez: They're the same as they were last year, really, with two big exceptions. In order of importance they are:

Luther Head. Who knew that a guy known primarily for his hops and, really, given a starting spot by default would become such a complete player? Not even his teammates. After the Gonzaga game Deron Williams fielded a softball question intended for Head by saying, "Luther just learned to pass this year." There is truth in the good-natured abuse. Head leads Illinois in scoring (17.2) and is second in assists (6.8). Putting these kinds of numbers alongside a Dee Brown and a Deron Williams puts any team over the tipping-point.

Dee Brown. Wonk felt Brown was a bit misunderstood by the national punditry last year. Brown might fairly be said to have captivated all comers his freshman year with his speed, of course, and his promise. So he was named preseason POY in the conference last year and then when his shooting stayed the same as it was his freshman year (nothing special), he was tagged as overrated.

Wonk says: unfair. The thing to remember about Brown was articulated last week by Doug Altenberger, of all people, a former Illinois player who does analysis on some of the ESPN Plus feeds for Big Ten games. In an allusion that made Wonk slap his forehead and say "Of course!" Altenberger likened Brown to that holiest of Illini holies, Ken Battle, the hustling floor leader of the 1989 Final Four team. Perfect comparison: Brown elevates the play of his teammates through a force of will that far exceeds his height or talent. (Recruited heavily in high school by Tom Izzo, Brown is precisely what the Spartans are hoping Drew Neitzel becomes--soon.)

But what's different this year, of course, is that Brown is shooting the rock: .636 from the field and .555 on his three's. Those numbers will come down to earth as the games roll by but opponents will still be confronted with a guy who can shoot the three and at the same time has been acknowledged by everyone for three years to be as quick as anyone in the country. Good combination, that.

Brawl in the Hall: day-after hype
Know the "MSM Pundits" box on Yoni Cohen's industry-standard College Basketball Blog? A notable plurality of these mainstream media pundits were in attendance last night and they're all out in pixels this morning with Champaign bylines....

Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News was once a skeptic when it came to the Illini but has now repented and seen the light. Say this for the man--he can write:

Seeing as how so many members of the NCAA Tournament selection committee are just good people, given how much they'll have to squeeze into a single weekend next March, I thought it might be nice to take a little work off their hands. So I'm going to suggest they go ahead and fill in Illinois as a No. 1 seed right now.

That's right. We're five games in to the season, one day into December, and they can book the Illini for one of four available positions at the top of the bracket. Kansas, Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, Kentucky and all the rest will be competing for one fewer spot.

Illinois is that good. Its schedule is that safe. Its league is that suspect. The Illini won't go undefeated, because no one does, but they'll be buying in the neighborhood. Where might they lose? Non-league games against Oregon, Missouri and Cincinnati are on neutral floors. They face Big Ten road games at Wisconsin and Michigan State. Let's say they lose both. There might not be any others

Luke Winn of gives his props to Luther Head: "[Dee] Brown matched Head's scoring output with 16 points, but it was Head who took the bulk of the assignment of guarding [Chris] Paul one-on-one, keeping Wake's All-American from asserting himself on offense and ensuring that Illinois had the dominant transition game. With all the energy he exerted hounding Paul, Head still had enough left in the tank to hit 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, and rack up five rebounds and five assists against just one turnover."

Andy Katz of says the game was a blur: Illinois "was so quick to make shots, let alone attempt them that it seemed like Wake Forest never even had a chance....[snip] The Illini aren't a fluke offensively. Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Tuesday that he couldn't get over how well Illinois shared the ball." This team, Katz says, is truly selfless (har!).

In ACC-land: Rob Daniels of the Greensboro News-Record made the trip and reports: "If you thought the Deacons were quick--and they are--you should see the Illini. Perpetual motion, a horde of players with great first and second steps and smooth passing combined to get everybody open. Right wing, left wing, right baseline, left baseline. Half-court, transition, anything in between."...David Scott of the Charlotte Observer, clearly a writer of Wonk-ish sensibilities, chips in with this gem: "The Champaign News-Gazette, in a spread that covered much of its front sports page Wednesday, compared the Deacons' appearance in Champaign with others in the past 25 years that included Bill Clinton, Frank Sinatra, and Billy Graham. Those three all had better nights in Champaign than the Deacons."

And in this blog's traditional less Wonk-ish venues: Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti (link): "Remember, we are conditioned in these parts to expect heartbreak from hyped-up sports teams, even those not associated with billy goats and lame quarterbacks. But perhaps the Illini can cut through the evil karma with fabulous guards, quality depth, invaluable experience and a chemistry that defies the gimme-the-rock mentality of our nation's hoops youth."...The always quotable Mike Nadel, columnist for Copley News Service, leads with: "Even taking the selection committee's East Coast bias into account, a 33-0 record should be good enough for Illinois to score a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, right?" (Don't worry folks, he's kidding.)...Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Downey says Illinois is clearly number 1--for now....More here, here, here, here, and here.

Guaranteed to be the only Digger Phelps kudo all year
Former coach. Too loud. Hand gestures. If you're thinking this must be an ESPN analyst, you're right! It's Digger Phelps, who ordinarily triggers a Pavlovian instinct in Wonk to lunge for the mute button but who, let it be known, said all week long that Illinois would win because of superior defense. Well done, coach, and thank you for taking precious air time away from the surprisingly creepy Mike Jarvis, who, with his widely-spaced words and unctuous certainty in his own solemnity, reminds Wonk way too much of the guy who asks if you'd wish to view the casket now.

Thomas Wolfe was right
North Carolina won ugly in Bloomington last night, beating Indiana 70-63. Watching this game was a bit like watching Civil War geeks do a reenactment of the siege of Petersburg: after a reasonable exposure you just knew (unlike Dick Vitale) that Carolina wasn't going to blow this open but you also knew there was absolutely zero chance of the offensively-challenged Hoosiers getting over the hump. (Just look at the "game flow" graphic--new wrinkle that Wonk loves--on the writeup here: at a glance it tells an accurate tale of a game continuously poised between upset and tedium.) Inveterate iconoclast Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline resisted the urge to go to Champaign and landed instead in Hoosierland, where he reports, correctly, that Tar Heels big man and Bloomington native Sean May had a horrendous outing. (More here.) Indiana's Patrick Ewing, Jr., conversely, had another outstanding cameo (eight boards in just 16 minutes) and moves Wonk to repeat his Ewing Paradox: if this guy were on a better team, he'd be starting. (Explained here.)

BONUS non-Big-Ten note: After watching Rashad McCants at close range, your intrepid blogger feels he owes each and every member of Wonk's preseason All-Head-Case team an apology. Messrs. Bracey Wright, Pierre Pierce, Paul Davis, Nick Smith, and Daniel Horton may indeed be head cases but McCants is out there in Crispin Glover territory. The dude's buggy. Speaking of which...Does anyone else get the sense that Roy Williams is biding time until he can put his own stamp on Carolina? Where Kansas already plays and acts like very much Bill Self's team, Williams feels like a guy who's smiling patiently and racking up the W's yet complaining when he gets home every night about the tremendously talented yet very un-Williams-like team left to him by Matt Doherty.

Pastry shelf
Penn State has fearlessly scheduled a game against Lock Haven University for tomorrow night. With an enrollment of 4,240, LHU is located in Lock Haven, PA, population 9,149. Its Biological Sciences Department is so vital, apparently, that it lists no fewer than two “backup”s (Dr. Shonah Hunter and Dr. Joseph Calabrese) for its one Department Head (Dr. Ted Nuttall), presumably in the event that a crazed assassin seeks to garner unwarranted publicity for his sick cause by taking out the Biological Sciences Department Head at Lock Haven University.

Dr. Wonk’s crack team of senior investigative analysts has uncovered the following EXCLUSIVE: Drs. Hunter and Calabrese are not allowed to fly at the same time on the Biological Sciences Department jet, “Cytoplasm One,” and are shuttled to different underground bunkers at undisclosed locations as a further precaution. Proactive paranoids of the LHU Biological Sciences Department, Wonk salutes you!

Perhaps distracted by shadowy threats against their Biological Sciences Department Head, Lock Haven has started the year 0-3, with double-digit losses to Grand Valley State, Youngstown State, and the University of Charleston.
Last year the Bald Eagles went 4-23 but, hey, they took some tough opponents down to the wire. We’re talking Missouri-Rolla (73-46), Cheyney (98-59), and Washburn (129-68). Think all LHU can do is lose the close ones? Just talk to any of their four vanquished foes: Fairmont State, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock, or Clarion. You’re next, Nittany Lions!

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Virginia beat Northwestern last night in Evanston by the all-you-need-to-know score of 48-44. (Links here and here.) Wonk swears it's something about Welsh-Ryan Arena. They've been playing ugly games like this in this barn for decades, since it was called McGaw Hall. I don't know if it's something to do with the lighting or the ventilation or some kind of Cubs-esque goat-based curse or what. All Wonk knows is that you could put the 1980s-era Showtime Lakers in Welsh-Ryan against a fair-to-middlin' high school team and the Lakers would get about 53 points.

Ohio State lost at Clemson last night, 80-73. (Link here.)

Penn State, keenly conscious of being left out of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, went out and scheduled a high-profile cash-generating game at...Rutgers. The Nittany Lions won last night by the surprisingly lopsided score of 83-60. (Links here and here.)

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Great site. I enjoy it quite a bit. However, I must point out something about your rather compelling "Neitzel or no Neitzel Hypothesis"- it is simultaneously spot on the money and dead wrong. But mostly dead wrong.

You're right that Neitzel probably won't improve our offensive efficiency much, and that our numbers will probably go down a little this year from last. But no Spartan fan cares: the reason we're so excited about the kid is that he can be, as you say, "the player who can impose Tom Izzo's will on the floor".

That's what you're missing here: Neitzel came in from HS with the rep of being a hard-nosed, knock-down leader, and that's exactly what we've been missing since Cleaves, Bell, et. al. left. That's the key to understanding the Neitzel hype.

Shawn M.

Wonk agrees with your analysis word-for-word, Shawn, um, except for the "dead wrong" part.

Your intrepid blogger's been toying with the idea of printing up the Neitzel or No Neitzel Hypothesis on a handy refrigerator magnet so that it's always close at hand in emergencies. But for now allow me to simply grab the original post and reprint:

Michigan State’s numbers on offense—definitely in efficiency terms and likely in absolute terms—will be down this year from last year, Neitzel or no Neitzel.

Wonk still thinks it's likely this will come to pass, even with the string of stat-inflating pastries with which the Spartans opened their season. Thus it seems to Wonk that your points, Shawn, really boil down to two:

1) State can still have a great season and even a Final Four appearance with numbers on offense that are slightly down from last year. Wonk agrees! The original post forecast no doom and said only that Izzo would have to find a different way and not expect unconscious shooting two years running.

2) Neitzel can be the guy who gives the Spartans what they lack. It's too early to tell, of course, how Neitzel will actually pan out but as far as what's needed: Wonk agrees! The original post said Neitzel's most important contribution can be as a leader.

In other Wonk-back news, alert readers will recall yesterday's post where your intrepid blogger wondered aloud if "Bucks" was an Ohio-State-fan-accepted euphemism or merely the latest in a series of strange things uttered by Brent Musburger....


Good pick-up on Musburger's usage of Bucks in referring to the Buckeyes. While it may seem odd, your intrepid Ohio field reporter, who unlike a sideline reporter is actually somewhere useful, notes that his Ohio State friends do use the term Bucks as shorthand for Buckeyes. The term won't eclipse Buckeyes anytime soon in overall usage, or even Ohio State, but it does have some precedent.

BTWF (Big Ten Wonk Fan) and Ohio correspondent,
Jason H.

Case closed. Thanks, Jason!

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