Big Ten Wonk
Wednesday, January 26, 2005
A tale of three runs
Illinois ended Wisconsin's 38-game home winning streak with a 75-65 win in Madison last night and pun-weary sports-section readers everywhere, beaten down by a week of "38 Special" headlines, rejoiced as one that at least now we will not have to endure the chillingly inevitable sequelae ("The 39 Steps!" "40 Days and 40 Nights!" "41-derful Home Wins!" etc.).

The Illini held a two-point lead at halftime and indeed the game was closely contested throughout, with the notable exception of three second-half runs. The first favored Wisconsin; the last two propelled Illinois....

Run #1: Wisconsin 12, Illinois 0.
With 17:40 to play in the second half, Illinois leads Wisconsin 44-39. The Illini have just run a very nice delayed give-and go between James Augustine and Dee Brown. Mike Wilkinson got caught cheating on Brown up top, Augustine moved to the hole and took a feed from Brown, and Wilkinson was too far gone to recover. (Yet even when he's beat Wilkinson looks good: taking a position--albeit one that's not good enough--and extending his arms straight up.) Augustine laid it in.

And yet the seeds of reversal are already planted for Illinois....

Augustine is busy thumping his chest in pride at having hit the bunny. Wilkinson, meanwhile, sets a ball screen in the backcourt and picks off Luther Head, who smacks into Wilkinson without warning or preparation. Instead of fighting though the screen, Head sulks, jogs the next few feet, and even glares angrily at Bruce Weber as if to say, "Why didn't anyone call out the screen?" (Head's beef is with Roger Powell, the man guarding Wilkinson.) Weber is waving his arms to tell Head to get back on defense. Too late: no one picks up Head's man, Sharif Chambliss, and Chambliss simply dribbles to the arc and hits the open three. Illinois 44, Wisconsin 42 (17:32).

Illinois now runs a good five-pass sequence leading to a 14-footer on the right wing for Augustine. He misses, Wisconsin rebounds. Chambliss brings the ball up. Every other Wisconsin player is outside the three-point-line--except Wilkinson. Chambliss passes to Clayton Hanson on the right wing, Hanson makes the entry pass, and Powell's marooned on an island. No Illinois player's close enough to give help and Wilkinson easily drop-steps Powell for the basket. It's a play Wonk saw in the sixth grade. It's effective. Illinois 44, Wisconsin 44 (17:06). Illinois calls timeout.

Then a three by Tucker, the spectacular block by Ray Nixon on Brown's breakaway, a lay-in by Tucker on the other end, and a turnover from Deron Williams trying to feed Augustine. Wisconsin ball, leading 49-44....

Brown's guarding Kammron Taylor up top and when Taylor gets a pass Brown goes for the steal. He misses. The Badgers are in a set with no one else on this entire (right) side of the floor except Wilkinson. Taylor drives to the basket and Wilkinson boxes out Augustine like it's a rebound. During Taylor's drive, Wilkinson moves from the Big Ten logo in the paint to the rim, pinning a moving screen on Augustine all the while. No call: Taylor lays it in. Wisconsin 51, Illinois 44 (15:13).

Illinois committed just one turnover during this Wisconsin run and recorded just three out-and-out missed shots. But two defensive errors by Head (the screen fiasco and Tucker's three--where Head, the nearest man to Tucker, was guarding no one), one scandalous play by Nixon (har!), and one savvy play by Wilkinson (the moving screen) were enough to spring a 12-0 run.

Run #2: Illinois 13, Wisconsin 2.
With 12:40 left in the game Wisconsin has a 56-48 lead. But the Badgers are about to go virtually silent on the offensive end. They haven't gone cold. They just can't buy an FGA, much less a make....

At the exact moment when Vitale is speculating on whether or not Duke will move up to number 1 after this, Head steals a pass from Nixon to Chambliss and is fouled. (Turnover 1)....

Andreas Helmigk travels. (Turnover 2)....

Zach Morley drives the left baseline and tries to feed Helmigk with a bounce pass (Turnover 3). Deron Williams brings the ball up. Brown spots up for a three on the right wing, Richard McBride does the same on the left. Williams feeds Brown, who ball fakes, penetrates and dishes to Augustine in the paint. Augustine makes the skip pass out to McBride, still spotting up patiently. He hits the three. Wisconsin 56, Illinois 51 (10:19).

Suddenly nothing's going on in the paint for Wisconsin. Wilkinson gets touches but they're beyond the arc. Tucker finally drives baseline and feeds Michael Flowers but the shot is blocked by Augustine. Williams picks up the loose ball and is fouled on the breakaway. He makes two free throws. Wisconsin 56, Illinois 53 (9:22).

Then Wilkinson misfired on a contested lay-in and Head was fouled by Taylor driving baseline.

Two Head free throws, two points. Wisconsin 56, Illinois 55 (8:48).

Taylor gets loose on a no-pass possession and hits a 15-footer. Wisconsin 58, Illinois 55 (8:35).

Jack Ingram comes out top to rotate the ball but Wilkinson is quite deliberately leaving him alone and staying down in the paint. Bad scouting: Ingram's only made two three's all season, sure, but he's also been draining 17-footers all year. He can do it from 19. Wilkinson watches Ingram drain the three. Wisconsin 58, Illinois 58 (8:19).

Tucker misses a three. Rebound Augustine.

Wilkinson does it again! This time Ingram is setting screens out top. Wilkinson's planted in the paint. By now Bo Ryan's doing everything but holding up a hand-lettered sign: "INGRAM CAN MAKE THAT." To no avail. When Ingram gets the ball Wilkinson at least comes out in a hurry this time but it's too late. Another three. Illinois 61, Wisconsin 58 (7:42).

Not a single two-point FG in the run for the Illini: four free throws and three three's. During this time Wisconsin gets only three shots to the rim and makes just one.

Run #3: Illinois 14, Wisconsin 1.
With 4:29 left in the game Wisconsin has a 64-61 lead. They've made their last field goal.

Augustine and Williams run a sweet pick-and-roll. Wilkinson's beat on the back cut and can only grab Augustine. Two free throws, two points. Wisconsin 64, Illinois 63 (4:11).

Helmigk misses a 12-foot turnaround and fouls Ingram over the back on the rebound. Two free throws, two points. Illinois 65, Wisconsin 64 (3:39).

Chambliss tries to feed Wilkinson in the post but Ingram reaches around and pokes the ball to Head. Ryan and the crowd go nuts, wanting the foul.

Augustine and Williams set up on the right wing again, seemingly to run the same pick and roll. But this time Augustine fakes the pick and then darts to the rim, leaving Wilkinson in no-man's land. Williams feeds him for the dunk. Illinois 67, Wisconsin 64 (3:04).

Hanson drives, misses, tips rebound out of bounds.

Head takes the ball from the wing to the top of the key. He wants to drive on Hanson--doubtless has been told to do so when he gets the chance--and finally gets the opening. Head blows past Hanson and drives the lane, forcing Wilkinson to stop the ball. Head dishes to Augustine for the dunk. Illinois 69, Wisconsin 64 (2:19).

After missed three's by both teams (Chambliss and Brown) took another minute off the clock, the fouling began and Illinois went 6-of-8 on their free throws down the stretch. Game over.

What it means. The blowouts against Gonzaga, Wake Forest, and Cincinnati were nice for Illinois but make no mistake: this is their biggest win, the jeweled pivot around which the season may well turn. Dangers still loom, in the form of complacence, injury, and Michigan State. But that's precisely the point: Illinois now has its fate in its own hands. At 20-0 and 6-0 in conference, the Illini need to focus on this Saturday's home game against Minnesota. If they do, they can go to East Lansing next Tuesday night playing loose, knowing the worst morning-after outcome is a tie in the standings with the Spartans and a 21-1 record. Not a bad worst-case, that.

Three lessons to carry forward from last night:

1. This is not your father's Bo Ryan Wisconsin team. Illinois turned the ball over three fewer times than the Badgers and attempted eight more free throws. (Wisconsin recorded a woeful 5-of-12 from the line.) Make no mistake, the Badgers will do fine--winning at home and getting the road wins that they should get--and could still contend for the Big Ten title should Illinois slip. But, as detailed here, the Badgers were turning the ball over and making ruinous mental mistakes on defense during the two crucial second-half runs that won the game for Illinois. And that's not the Bo MO. With Tucker hobbled and a thin bench, they're not going to out-personnel anyone in the big games. They simply can't afford turnovers and defensive lapses.

2. Illinois can make in-season offensive adjustments. Faced with opponents determined to "take away the perimeter," the Illini showed last night they can take what's given them. The game was decided in the final four minutes on simple two-man sets run by Deron Williams and James Augustine, sets that resulted not in three-point attempts but in dunks. And Wonk sends out a special kudo to the much-maligned Augustine, often criticized for a lack of bulk. It was precisely Augustine's speed (he looked like Adrian Peterson when he faked the screen and cut to the basket) that enabled the Illini to make some of the night's most important plays.

3. The Illini need some Norman-Dale-variety drilling on defensive footwork. For the past few games we've been told that the high FG percentage that Illinois allows its opponents is a result of their high-risk, high-reward "double-trap" defense. Wonk says: Trap, schmap. The Illini were getting beat off the dribble one-on-one--and getting beat by the injured Alando Tucker and the time-lapse-photography-slow Mike Wilkinson. Illinois simply must work on their footwork on D. Maybe they've been counseled to avoid contact at all costs--to never even risk the charge--due to their thin ranks this year. But at times it was painful to watch. When Alando Tucker is literally grimacing in pain and limping one minute and beating you off the dribble the next, you have a problem. And the Illini made the tectonic Mike Wilkinson look like Dee Brown.

Wisconsin-Illinois links. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Dale Hoffman says the Badgers' home winning streak "died at the hands of superior defense, not the law of averages. Home holds no comfort for teams that finish the last four minutes of a close game with one point." Wisconsin State Journal columnist Tom Oates says "it took a great team that was highly motivated and playing extremely well" to end the Kohl streak. More Badger links here, here, here, and here.

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti says it's "possible Illinois played its best against Wake Forest and Gonzaga in December. But give them this: They are surviving the dog days, the prime-time games, the harsh exams of winter in hostile environments." Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey says Illinois imposed "its will on a Wisconsin team that huffed and puffed and couldn't blow down the No. 1 team in the country. A 75-65 victory for the Illini. A great team winning a great college game." Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper says Illinois "showed iron-clad guts, steely determination and made a fabulous rush to the finish." Copley News Service columnist Mike Nadel says if the Illini "can win that game, they can win any game." More Illini links here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. (Also: Lou Henson has decided he will attend this weekend's Centennial festivities in Champaign after all.)

Andy Katz of says "the knock has always been that there's a void on Illinois' bench....That might not be an issue anymore. Welcome Jack Ingram to the national stage." Luke Winn of says after "this win, the Illini are No. 1--with a renewed swagger." (Winn mistakenly says Iowa led Illinois by 13 in the second half Thursday night. It was the other way around.)

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Michigan guard Daniel Horton has been suspended from the team indefinitely after being charged with domestic assault. (More here.) Detroit Free Press columnist Michael Rosenberg says Horton says his mother was herself a victim of domestic abuse. (The Wolverines play Michigan State tomorrow night in East Lansing. Spartans'-eye view of Courtney Sims and Brent Petway here.)

Minnesota hosts Indiana tonight in Minneapolis and for the first time this season the Gophers are daring to ponder what once seemed preposterous: they have a chance at making the NCAA tournament. Meantime Jeff Hagen remains wobbly due to an injured knee but Wonk says that before every game and Hagen always ends up playing. (Additional Gopher link here. Hoosier link here.)

Northwestern hosts Iowa tonight in Evanston. The Wildcats may be without the services of both Vedran Vukusic (injured shoulder) and Mike Thompson (suspended indefinitely for missing class). (Good preview at Hawkeye Hoops. Mainstream Hawkeye links here and here.)

Ohio State hosts Penn State tonight in Columbus. (Buckeye link here. PSU link here.)

Purdue hosts Wisconsin-Milwaukee tonight in West Lafayette. (Link here.)

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

Wonk reader can see into the future! (Says next five Ben Stiller movies will be "derivative and lame")

I have read your blog for a while now, and I just wanted to take a few moments to drop you a note to thank you for your excellent work. Not only do you really know your basketball, but coupling that with a nice writing style makes for some enjoyable time-wasting while I am reading your blog.

I was a Student Manager at the University of Illinois during the Lou Henson era, the Flying Illini years, so I am an obsessive fan, to say the least. I am not in the business of making predictions (much like yourself--best illustrated by your multiple caveats in your Michigan St. vs. Wisconsin preview). Having said that, I suspect that the "Clockwork Orange" Illini are really geared up for tonight's game against Wisconsin, more so than most, as witnessed by some of the statements in the last couple weeks about hoping Wisconsin would beat Michigan St.

With the Centennial Celebration coming up this weekend, I would predict that if there is going to be another performance like the Iowa game, it would either be against Minnesota (who also ruined Coach Henson's final home game), or on the road against the Spartans (though we have owned them too).

To be quite honest, with the exception of Mark Tupper and John Supinie who cover them up close on a day to day basis, you seem to do the best analysis of where the Illini are and what to expect from them.

Keep up the great work!

J.D. A.

If your taste in blogs is as impeccable as the quality of your clairvoyance, Wonk is flattered. Thanks, J.D.!

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