Big Ten Wonk
Tuesday, January 18, 2005
11 teams, 69 games, and Wonk
We've now put 19 of the conference season's 88 games under our collective spectating belts and Wonk believes it's high time for a new State of the Team (mini-)address for each Big Ten team.

Yes, yes, your intrepid blogger sees the alert readers scratching their heads and saying, "Wha? Didn't we just endure this exercise not too long ago?" Indeed you did! But that's the thing about conference play: when teams are playing each other instead of Delaware State, we learn so much more so much faster.

Here's some of what we've learned, listed in inverse order according to conference record:

Purdue (0-4, 4-10)
Doh! OK, truth be told, starting this discussion with Gene Keady's team belies the whole premise of this thing because, um, we really haven't learned much about the Boilermakers since the start of conference play. We knew going in that they were, with the outstanding exception of Carl Landry, woefully undermanned. And indeed they are. Seeing a player with the gifts and guts of Landry marooned with this (strikingly low-PPWS) backcourt is like seeing a state-of-the-art retirement-gift high-definition TV gather dust and go unused in your grandparents' living room. During Saturday's game against Indiana, ESPN's Jay Bilas joked in the overtime period that Purdue's best offense appeared to be letting Landry rebound the inevitable misses. Too true.

Penn State (0-4, 6-11)
Speaking of undermanned, the Nittany Lions were already in this category before losing Marlon Smith for the year (diagnosed with a partial blockage of an artery in his brain). You may have never heard of Smith but he gave Ed DeChellis about 12 points a game. And while freshman Geary Claxton has shown flashes, still, watching Aaron Johnson try to (almost) single-handedly carry this team game in and game out is like watching time lapse photography of the aging process: it's only mid-January and Johnson, the sole focus of every opposing D, is already worn down to a nub. He should take a cue from Gene Keady, bill his road games as a farewell tour, and see if he can at least get some golf clubs and good liquor our of this ordeal--they're both starting to look the same age.

Northwestern (1-3, 8-8)
Vedran Vukusic could be a contender: he's the fourth-leading scorer in the Big Ten (it's true) and of the three names above him only Carl Landry sports a better PPWS. But the Wildcats need to decide who they want to be. Wonk thought they were the Princeton of the Big Ten, only with polished Croatian sharpshooters. And, given the challenge of being Northwestern in this conference, your intrepid blogger thought that was a great strategy. But lately NU's been playing more like a "normal" team: three's early in the shot clock, feeding the post and watching what develops, etc. And when they do that they're dead (see: Arizona State debacle). That being said, they lost to the number 1 team in the nation by just 12. As always, Welsh-Ryan's a tough win for visitors.

Ohio State (1-2, 12-5)
The Buckeyes have been a nice surprise this year and their inside-outside balance on offense is admirable but to say there are question marks about their defense would be putting it mildly. Beat writers for opposing teams are reportedly saving time by typing in the words "season-high" in advance of a game against OSU. James Augustine (Illinois), Pierre Pierce and Greg Brunner (Iowa), Mike Wilkinson (Wisconsin), and now Darrel Mitchell (LSU) all have the Buckeyes to thank for some wonderful memories. That group teachably includes bigs, wings, and mighty mites, so it's safe to say no one player or position is to blame. But for starters, trying an approach besides having Terence Dials flee from contact so OSU's number 1 scoring option can stay in the game would be a good first step.

Iowa (1-2, 13-3)
Wonk has spilled many pixels on the Hawkeyes so this will be phrased as a recap. Iowa had a fantastic run in Maui and got our attention. Then they started winning games against soft competition in Iowa City, racking up many points for themselves, allowing many points for their opponents. Wonk openly fretted about the Iowa D, their rebounding, and their shot selection. Boom, they lose two games and Coach Alford openly frets about their D, their rebounding, and their shot selection. Saturday the Hawkeyes hosted Minnesota and played good D, rebounded OK (but were still outrebounded), and, apparently, made good decisions on their shots--they just didn't make them. So what comes next? The question Wonk wants answered most is: what's the deal with Adam Haluska's back? (About this Wonk-Alford repetition dynamic: It's like your intrepid blogger and Alford are doing that thing where you're in the backseat on a long trip and your older brother keeps repeating what you say a half-second after you say it. Well, Wonk can fix that! Readers, this doesn't concern you. This is just for Steve: "I'm a big fat stinky loser and nobody likes me." Can you tell Wonk has an older brother?)

Indiana (2-1, 7-7)
D.J. White is coming along very nicely--albeit faster on offense than on D, much less rebounding. (Memo to Courtney Sims: go right at White tomorrow night.) And the Hoosiers need him: Bracey Wright is scoring lots of points but at the price of many missed shots and many many turnovers. The X factor here is too-little-noted freshman A.J. Ratliff, the only Hoosier besides White with a PPWS that doesn't make one flee in horror. If Ratliff continues to develop, IU could indeed parlay its favorable schedule (playing Illinois, Michigan State and Iowa just once each) into an unexpectedly strong conference finish. Mind you, beating Michigan State, even in Bloomington, will be a tall order for the young Hoosiers.

Minnesota (2-1, 12-4)
The Gophers are the feel-good story of the Big Ten season. Often times when Wonk is watching a Minnesota game on ESPN Plus, the announcers will say something like, "of the players now on the floor for the Gophers only [Aaron] Robinson was on the roster last year"--an incredible statement. Given this wholesale turnover in personnel, nothing was expected of Dan Monson's team. Instead they've delivered more than nothing: a nice record against a marshmallow-soft non-conference schedule (the egregiously inflated offensive stats testify to the woeful ineptitude of the opposition) and a new (note Wonk does not saw "renewed") emphasis on defense. Minnesota now bids fair to rise to Northwestern territory: admittedly harmless on the road but a tough win for opponents at their place. This was the next step and the Gophers have taken it.

Michigan State (2-1, 10-3)
Everyone take a deep breath. The Spartans lost one game. In January. They are still both balanced and deep to an extreme (six players averaging double figures) that should be illegal. They are still coached by Tom Izzo. They still do not have to play at Illinois this season. They are still on a trajectory to be in the picture at the finish of the conference race. And if Paul Davis can continue to play like he did Sunday against Wisconsin, look out.

Wisconsin (3-1, 12-3)
Anyone looking for proof of Bo Ryan's coaching chops need look no further than the 2005 Badgers. Previous Wisconsin teams under Ryan built reputations as plucky overachievers but those particular plucky overachievers were built around a future lottery pick. This year's team, by notable contrast, is doing about as much with much less. No Devin Harris. No contribution to speak of from the highly-anticipated Brian Butch. (Although he did make a good shoestring tackle on Paul Davis Sunday.) No help from the injured Greg Steimsma. And they're looking to Clayton Hanson to make many big shots. (Who's Clayton Hanson, you ask? Precisely.) And yet still they win. The defense is solid, as always, at home, yet portentously inconsistent on the road. (Don't mess with Wonk on this one--he's got home vs. road PPP numbers to back it up! So help me, I'll use 'em!) When the Badgers' three's are falling, granted, it doesn't matter as much if the defense is there that night or not. But that's the first time in Ryan's tenure that this particular "if" has even been in play.

Michigan (3-0, 12-5)
Still relatively inscrutable even after three games in conference. Their win in Iowa City bids fair to at least make the finals in Wonk's annual Oddest Box Score contest: 25 turnovers on the road and they won. And then a home win against Northwestern and a listless road win at Penn State and here we are, not really knowing much. Dion Harris has been a fixture on the PPWS's bottom 20 for a few weeks now. Daniel Horton had a couple very strong games coming off the injured list but went just 2-for-11 Saturday at Penn State--not to mention you need a strong stomach to look at his turnover numbers. Meanwhile Courtney Sims is still a work in progress but he is progressing. So when will we know more about the Wolverines? Soon. They play at Indiana tomorrow and host Wisconsin Saturday.

Illinois (4-0, 18-0)
The Illini, 2005: machine-like efficiency on offense, playing up or down to the level of the opposition on defense. It isn't always pretty. Neither was Connecticut game in and game out last year. So don't be fooled by the patina of normalcy--a team like this comes along in the Big Ten but once in a great while. Mind you, Vedran Vukusic's right: Illinois can be beaten. (Goodness knows, if UCLA '74 could lose, so can the Illini.) But this group is playing a brand of hoops that's not just effective, it's easy on the eyes. Sports Illustrated (print edition) may be on to something: the college game may have actually benefited by exporting its 7-foot 18-year-olds to the NBA. Illinois is the poster-child for the new brand of ball: fast, efficient, downright European! (Maybe we should have sent the Illini to the Olympics.) Just how good has the offense been this year? Armed with the axioms and theorems of hoop stats legend Dean Oliver, Ryan at Hawkeye Hoops breaks it all down here and shares the secret of the Illini's "scary-good" offense: make your shots and don't turn the ball over. Easy to say, hard to do. (BONUS shallow marketing (redundant) question for hoop stats legend Dean Oliver. If Illinois can be first or second in the country in offensive efficiency and yet rank 301st (!) in the fourth of the putatively dispositive "Four Factors" (getting to the line), don't you think maybe there should just be "Three Factors"?)

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Michigan State hosts Purdue tonight. (Mostly farewell-Keady-themed Spartan links here, here, and here. Boiler links here, here, and here.) In the face of press criticism of the Spartans' performance in the last three minutes of Sunday's loss at Wisconsin, Tom Izzo read a prepared statement defending his seniors: "We seem to call every game we won a game that we're supposed to win, and every game we lost a game that we blew."

Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan says his team showed "true grit" in rallying to defeat Michigan State Sunday.

Sagacious Illini-watcher and occasional blogger Mark Tupper tells Illinois fans to stop fretting about "disrespect" and what Dick Vitale did or didn't say here. (Amen, brother.) And fellow mainstream-media-blogger Brett Dawson of the Champaign News Gazette blogs here (the one part of the News Gazette you can see for free) on the the Illini's rivalry with Iowa. For his part Deron Williams says the Illini were pulling for Wisconsin in Sunday's game between the Badgers and Michigan State so that Illinois "can go in there [Madison] and try to end their streak." More Illini-gazing: Can-they-run-the-table talk here. Luther Head profile here.

Iowa's Adam Haluska and Greg Brunner say they'll have nothing to lose in Thursday's game at Illinois so they'll be playing loose. Steve Alford chimes in here. More Hawkeye Illini-gazing here.

Indefatigable Indiana beat writer Terry Hutchens of the Indianapolis Star has posted the latest installment of his excellent Hoosier Q&A column here.

For the first time this season, Minnesota is concerned about improving its efficiency on offense. This after they missed 17 of their first 19 shots at Iowa Saturday.

Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News explains why he refuses to participate in the AP poll here.

Wonk demands that Jimmy Carter oversee this election! Meanwhile the polls are still open at the Des Moines Register for their Best Hair contest: voters are asked to choose which coach in the Big Ten or Big 12 has the best coif. And the winner so far with over 33 percent of the vote is...Ed DeChellis?! As if! Show Wonk 15 people who even know who Ed DeChellis is!

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Cognitive dispersion: Wonk's new shtick or a really good band name?
Yesterday your intrepid blogger boldly sallied forth with his thoughts on the Wisconsin-Michigan State game before reading any of the Badger or Spartan media links that Wonk is duty-bound to pass along in such a situation. Labeling this exercise a "field study in cognitive dispersion," your intrepid blogger opined that State sure missed a lot of shots--and not just free throws, either. Wonk's readers respond!

Hi, Wonk,

Cheers to the cognitive dispersion. Keep it up.

The post-game MSU echo-chamber is in full effect, focusing all attention on the alleged "choke" in Madison on Sunday. And, yes, while Hill and Davis should have iced the game at the line as the clock ran out, you are absolutely correct to point out the fact too obvious for Drew Sharp to notice: that State shot terribly from everywhere throughout the entire game.

Without Davis throwing in chip shots and going 9-15, MSU shot 36 percent (15 for 42), with sharpshooters Chris Hill and Mo Ager shooting 2-10 and 1-8, respectively. In fact, the starters minus Davis combined to shoot a horrid 28 percent (9/32). You can't go into Madison, shoot like that, and expect to win. Kudos to the Spartans for almost pulling it out.


Shawn M.

Thanks, Shawn!

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