Big Ten Wonk
Monday, January 10, 2005
Six games, four business-as-usual results....
All eleven conference teams were in action Saturday and things went according to plan, at least as far as the final results, in four of those games:

After trailing at halftime for the first time this year, Illinois rallied and beat Purdue 68-59 in West Lafayette Saturday. (Illini links here, here, and here. Boiler links here, here and here.) Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti made the trip to West Lafayette and says maybe now "Illinois understands the vulnerability of life as America's No. 1-ranked college basketball team." After two games of conference play the template is, seemingly, in place for the Illini. As opposed to the MO exhibited in their eye-opening wins over Gonzaga and Wake Forest, Illinois now falls behind to a plucky and inspired bunch of underdogs playing way over their heads and shooting lights-out. Then the Illini storm back and win. But can this template actually be continued Wednesday night in Champaign against Penn State? Why not? Longwood hung with Illinois in the Assembly Hall for 30 minutes.

Michigan State beat Northwestern 87-58 in East Lansing Saturday. (Spartan links here, here, and here. Wildcat link here.) Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski says Chris Hill's steady play at point (36 assists and just eight turnovers in the last seven games) is keying a Spartan run of methodical excellence that's gone strangely unnoticed. Wonk says: whaddya mean no one's noticed? Wonk sees all!

Minnesota beat Penn State 83-62 in Minneapolis Saturday night. (Gopher link here. PSU link here.)

And Michigan beat Fairfield 70-48 in Ann Arbor Saturday night. (Links here and here.)

...And two surprises
Indiana beat Wisconsin 74-61 in Bloomington Saturday night. (Hoosier links here and here. Badger links here and here.) Wonk will have more to say about the Badgers in tomorrow's post. For now let your intrepid blogger merely register a note of surprise that the book on how to beat the Hoosiers--don't let Bracey Wright catch the ball; make someone else beat you--was apparently not perused by the perennially savvy and stingy Wisconsin grunts, even though said book has been satisfying opposing readers now for two years and counting. ("A triumph! I laughed, I cried! I got a W!"--Tom Izzo, Michigan State Spartans.) Instead, Wright moved at will through the Badger D--with and without the ball--and lit up Bo Ryan's men for 30 points, providing the only bit of visual relief in what was otherwise a whistle-filled hackfest (64 free throws). Meanwhile, brace yourself (har!) for the hosannas and Wright-has-arrived-as-a-leader stories that are about to flow: the schedule gives the Hoosiers a week before they play at Purdue.

Ohio State beat Iowa 81-69 in Columbus Saturday. (Buckeye links here and here. Hawkeye link here. Why only one such link? Because the loss is being non-observed on the sites of traditional Hawkeye venues like the Des Moines Register (nothing here) and Iowa City Press Citizen (nothing here). Question to alert readers and Iowa fans: is this customary? Will there be this kind of virtually Maoist "lost year" in the biography of the Hawkeyes every time they lose?) Whether it was just an off-day or the fact that Adam Haluska was limited to 15 ineffective minutes due to back spasms, for the first time this year the Iowa offense looked like last year's edition (four guys standing around watching Pierre Pierce create--see below for the one notable exception). Pierce racked up 31 points on just one fewer attempt than the rest of the starters combined. For their part the Buckeyes launched a noteworthy 28 three's, making 12 of them.

BONUS scouting note: In the aftermath of the Illinois win over Ohio State last week, coach Bruce Weber related that the book on Terence Dials is to take the ball to him: Dials will give way for fear of picking up the foul. Iowa's Greg Brunner got the memo and (braving chants of "Rogaine" from the Buckeye fans) looked better in the half-court than he has in a long while, putting up 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting.

Can they run the table?
It's probably the single question asked of Wonk more than any other. It seems so improbable. After all, it hasn't been done for years: to go through an entire Big Ten season and still have a "0" in that column? Can it really happen?

But Wonk is here to tell you this could be the year. It really might happen.

Penn State may not win a conference game this year.

Wonk emphasizes the word may. The signs, however, suggest the probability of such an outcome is higher than at any time since, well, since Penn State was really bad two years ago and their first win in conference didn't come until February 19 (against eventual conference champion Wisconsin, of all teams). Thus far the Nittany Lions have been hammered by an average of 23.5 points a game by Michigan State and Minnesota--this much Wonk's alert readers doubtless already knew. But also consider:

A 13-point loss on a neutral court to Valparaiso.

A 20-point loss on a neutral court to South Carolina St.

A two-point loss at home to Buffalo.

Can PSU do to Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Illinois, Iowa, or Minnesota what they could not do to Buffalo, beat them in the Bryce Jordan Center?

Maybe. But nothing we've seen furnishes the needed evidence to scoff at the chances of an 0-16. At least nothing we've seen yet.

BONUS new-product launch from Wonk's acronym brand-extension desk
Your intrepid blogger's been getting pestered with emails from Wonk's crack marketing staff lately. Apparently no resting upon laurels can be allowed in light of the quixotic and utterly unanticipated blogospheric adaptation of the PPWS stat (e.g., alert readers using "PPWS" in their emails unselfconsciously and without further elucidation like it's something in the American Heritage instead of some hokey acronym Wonk dreamed up--heck, the authoritative and agenda-setting think tank known as "Ken Pomeroy" (Wonk thinks "Ken Pomeroy" is actually 12 people) even used it the other day to compare Shelden Williams with Emeka Okafor). No, Wonk is told, we need to "build on the success" of PPWS, "take it to the next level," "leverage our name-rec," and "make the brand-extension 'play.'"

Very well. Wonk herewith unveils the Ten-Venue Road Record (TVRR). The TVRR consists of a team's record on the road in conference play, not counting games played at Penn State. For reasons outlined above, Wonk hypothesizes that just about everyone will do equally well at the Bryce Jordan Center. But what about road games played in venues besides Happy Valley? Your intrepid blogger has a hunch that such games may make the difference between unfurling a banner and watching someone else do it.

Here's how the first edition of the TVRR stacks up:

Illinois (1-0)
Michigan (1-0)
Michigan State (0-0)
Minnesota (0-0)
Purdue (0-0)
Wisconsin (1-1)
Indiana (0-1)
Iowa (0-1)
Northwestern (0-1)
Ohio State (0-1)
Penn State (0-1)

BONUS TVRR note: it's inherently biased against Purdue and Indiana, neither of whom get a road game at Penn State this year. (Nor, it need hardly be added, does Penn State.) C'est-la vie.

Forget PPG. Remember PPWS.
There's no trick to putting up a nice number for points per game (PPG). Just shoot a lot. But who would get the most points from the same number of shots?

To answer that question we turn to the handy stat that not only measures scoring efficiency, it also captures more than just points from the field (unlike, say, points per shot or "PPS"). This stat takes in both FGA's and FTA's. It's points per weighted shot (PPWS), developed cannily by John Hollinger of the Basketball Prospectus and renamed brazenly by Wonk.

Here are the latest Big Ten PPWS numbers, including all games played Saturday.

Top 20 PPWS
1. Kelvin Torbert, Michigan State (1.44)
2. Dee Brown, Illinois (1.43)
3. Brent Lawson, Minnesota (1.43)
4. Aaron Robinson, Minnesota (1.38)
5. Doug Thomas, Iowa (1.35)
6. Adam Haluska, Iowa (1.35)
7. Carl Landry, Purdue (1.34)
8. James Augustine, Illinois (1.34)
9. Terence Dials, Ohio State (1.33)
10. Alan Anderson, Michigan State (1.33)
11. Roger Powell, Illinois (1.33)
12. Luther Head, Illinois (1.32)
13. J.J. Sullinger, Ohio State (1.30)
14. Jeff Hagen, Minnesota (1.30)
15. Maurice Ager, Michigan State (1.30)
16. Jeff Horner, Iowa (1.29)
17. Vincent Grier, Minnesota (1.29)
18. Paul Davis, Michigan State (1.28)
19. Chris Hill, Michigan State (1.28)
20. D.J. White, Indiana (1.26)

Bottom 20 PPWS
1. Nick Smith, Illinois (0.78)
2. Bryant Dillon, Purdue (0.79)
3. Brandon McKnight, Purdue (0.84)
4. David Teague, Purdue (0.85)
5. Ben Luber, Penn State (0.89)
6. Drew Neitzel, Michigan State (0.91)
7. Dion Harris, Michigan (0.94)
8. Xavier Price, Purdue (0.95)
9. Robert Vaden, Indiana (0.95)
10. Marshall Strickland, Indiana (0.97)
11. Brandon Fuss-Cheatham, Ohio State (0.98)
12. Tim Doyle, Northwestern (0.99)
13. Brian Butch, Wisconsin (1.00)
14. Jack Ingram, Illinois (1.00)
15. Mike Henderson, Iowa (1.00)
16. Patrick Ewing, Jr., Indiana (1.00)
17. Marlon Smith, Penn State (1.01)
18. Davor Duvancic, Northwestern (1.02)
19. Dan Coleman, Minnesota (1.02)
20. Danny Morrissey, Penn State (1.03)

What it means. Give Kelvin Torbert 12 FGA's and six FTA's and he'll likely score about 21 points. Give Nick Smith the same number of shots and he'll likely score about 11.

All-Wonk Team (2.0) PPWS
Carl Landry, Purdue (1.34)
Terence Dials, Ohio State (1.33)
Maurice Ager, Michigan State (1.30)
Jeff Horner, Iowa (1.29)
Aaron Johnson, Penn State (1.09)

All-Head-Case PPWS
Nick Smith, Illinois (0.78)
Pierre Pierce, Iowa (1.05)
Daniel Horton, Michigan (1.09)
Bracey Wright, Indiana (1.13)
Paul Davis, Michigan State (1.28)

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
It's official: Iowa's Jeff Horner is in a shooting slump, going 14-of-43 over his last five games. He talks about it here.

So what did happen to Wisconsin on Saturday night? Get your head-scratching here.

Don't be fooled by the fact that he's on the sidelines, calling out plays, doing interviews, etc. The fact is: Thad Matta still has not signed a contract to coach Ohio State. What's up with that?

Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline says Illinois and North Carolina are in a class by themselves. Meanwhile Wonk sends a big thank-you to inveterate iconoclast John Supinie of the Copley News Service for saying it: while AP wire stories continue to attribute the Illini's (unfortunately necessary) late-first-half or early-second-half rallies to a reputedly "deep and talented" roster, the fact is that Illinois is surprisingly thin. Not Duke-thin, maybe, but the rotation has settled in at eight and one of those is Nick Smith. Supinie reports that a decision is expected this week on the status of Brian Randle, who broke his left hand in November...More: the players are reportedly so loose they don't know who they're playing next. (That would be Penn State.)

Fans of WATN will appreciate this update on former Minnesota gunner Kris Humphries. (WATN? Averaging 11 minutes and three points a game for the Utah Jazz.)

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

"Lose for decades and you'll see"
On Friday Wonk noted the wailing and gnashing of teeth set off in Hoosier-land by Indiana's loss last week at Northwestern and wondered aloud how it makes Wildcat fans feel to hear fans of other teams using an NU victory as a sure signal that it's time to get in the lifeboats. Under the perhaps rather tart but ontologically Northwestern-esque subject heading which sits atop this paragraph, Wonk's readers respond!


In your blog today you said:

"Wonk's always wondered how Northwestern fans feel about the fact that when any team loses to the Wildcats it's immediately taken as a sign that the patient's flat-lining and it's time to get out the defibrillator paddles."

I can't speak for all NU fans but here's my two cents:

Because NU has been such a poor hoops program for so long, it's become synonymous with failure. The fact is, this program isn't a failure and people need to begin to realize that. True, it's isn't exactly a winning program but, since the days of Evan Eschmeyer in the 90's, this is a team that has been generating new-found respect. This is not a team that will challenge for the top spot in the Big Ten this year but it also won't be the doormat everyone thinks it will be.

So, to answer the above question, it's aggravating. It's happened twice this year in our wins over DePaul and now Indiana. Face it, Northwestern may just have a decent basketball team who can, and does, outplay its opponents. It may be shocking, but it's true. Deal with it.

Or don't. If teams really are overlooking the Wildcats, that could work to our advantage. So, go ahead, let teams see us as no better than an NAIA squad. It'll make it that much sweeter when we win.

Now, to address that question about going 9 and 7 and making the tournament. In my opinion, it is very possible that that is exactly what will happen. It's also possible that it won't. The Wildcats will be somewhere in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten, just like last year. Whether that will be enough remains to be seen.

Mike W.

Thanks, Mike!

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