Big Ten Wonk
Friday, January 21, 2005
TO's, OT, & 0 L's
Yesterday columnist Thomas George of the Denver Post ran a veritable ode to Illinois, a piece so adulatory it set hearts aflutter in Illini chat rooms. Using a locationally apt metaphor, George encouraged his fellow Coloradans to "pay attention--Illinois offers a view from college basketball's mountaintop. A slice of what winning basketball provides."

Watching Illinois struggle and sputter at home to a 73-68 overtime victory over Iowa last night, Wonk thought of George's hopeful Colorado neighbors tuning in--perhaps with note pads perched on their knees, pencils at the ready, and eager-to-learn kids gathered 'round the set--and grieved. The view from the mountaintop turned out to be more like a quick look from atop the pitcher's mound. Hoops tyros tuning in for a primer on winning basketball did learn at least one thing, though: sometimes you gotta win ugly....

Kudos to the Hawkeyes, then, for making the Illini look so wretched and, as Steve Lavin noted correctly, for taking away so many of their weapons that Jack Ingram was indeed the home team's second-best option (behind Luther Head--game-high 25 points) on offense for long stretches of the game. It therefore goes without saying that the stats are simply too hideous for words. Illinois was 6-of-28 on their three's and turned the ball over 19 times. Roger Powell and James Augustine went a combined 3-for-21. Illinois was outscored from the field 62-50. How did Iowa make Illinois, the national stats beauty queen, so ugly for a night?

The same way Ohio State did it in the first half of their game at Champaign (committing to transition D, getting in the passing lanes, come over the top on screens), only the Buckeyes didn't have Erek Hansen.

Hansen is the hoops equivalent of a scratch-and-win lottery ticket: a wasteful exercise in futility most of the time (and Steve Alford, like a longtime ticket buyer, has wondered aloud why he keeps doing this) but there's always the chance of a big payoff. The ticket paid off last night. A couple weeks ago Ohio State took away the Illini's perimeter offense for 15 minutes or so and Illinois, in effect, said: fine, we'll feed the post. James Augustine had a big night and the Illini, after a rocky start, cruised to an easy win. When Iowa did the same thing last night (helped along by first-half foul trouble for Dee Brown and second-half foul trouble for Deron Williams), Illinois said: fine, we'll feed the post. They did and got 3-for-21 shooting for their troubles. On paper Hansen had his usual almost belligerently useless outing (three boards, four points, five fouls) and was credited with "only" three blocks. But he clearly had both Powell and the reportedly cold-and-flu-slowed Augustine spooked. (On the plus side, Augustine had 14 boards--not bad for a guy who was being called "anemic" and "flat-footed" by Lavin all night.)

So the scoring burden fell to the usual suspects but the results were far from usual, as Illinois played for long stretches without Brown and Williams in the game at the same time. Williams had only four points and he was credited with four turnovers (mostly dishes Augustine wasn't ready for) but he recorded eight assists and his mere presence on the floor is as comforting to the Illini on offense as having your mom with you when you're sick. The crucial possession with about a minute left in regulation where Weber called a timeout with seven seconds left on the shot clock? That turned into two points, courtesy of a sweet floater from Williams.

And yet Williams bricked two free throws that would have won the game in regulation. (Good thing he doesn't play for Michigan State--he'd be getting savaged in print right now.) And losing Williams to foul trouble for about six minutes midway through the second half really netted out to almost no change for the Illini, due to the indifferent defense he was playing on Pierre Pierce. With Williams out of the game Head took over that role and Pierce's points suddenly became notably more sparse. (Head: what a gamer.)

As for Iowa, it's true, they looked pretty bad, too: 22 turnovers. Was this the work of the vaunted Illinois high-risk, high-reward trapping defense? Wonk's not so sure it was and, like manna from heaven, your intrepid blogger finds a new post this morning from Ken Pomeroy expressing the same "yet-to-be-confirmed" hunch (albeit in categorical rather than game-specific terms): that "the offense owns the bulk of the responsibility in the turnover." Wonk's thoughts precisely, only this blogger doesn't fret about bourgeois concepts like "confirming" my theory or finding "evidence" to support such a claim. I just declare it so: Pierre Pierce needs to be "forced" into seven turnovers about like Digger Phelps needs to be "forced" into talking about the time he beat John Wooden and UCLA in South Bend.

Ah, yes, Pierce. He is rapidly reaching the point where he constitutes his own discrete analytical category, one that almost requires a hoops Hegel to explicate its intrinsic blend of what should be intrinsically irreconcilable. Wonk heard Brent Musburger saying the Hawkeyes "have to get Pierce the ball more" and your intrepid blogger felt a sudden cold shudder as he realized this statement--so patently and indeed empirically absurd on its face--did indeed make sense within the flow of the game. Pierce was coughing up turnovers right and left, sure, but so were his teammates--at least Pierce was getting some points when he didn't turn the ball over. Until Greg Brunner came up big in the final ten minutes (clutch performance by a tough player), Pierce, as too often happens of late, was pretty much the Iowa offense in its entirety. (For being an Iowa high-school hoops legend, Adam Haluska appears to have surprisingly little court sense. He almost looks like a recent transfer from the football team: eager, talented, and raw.)

And so it will be said that this was good for Illinois. That the Illini needed to be "tested." That they had to "gut out a tough win." Know what? It's true. Through no fault of the players themselves, the air was getting a little thick with praise and adulation around Champaign. This performance--far and away their worst of the year--will enable Bruce Weber to claim without challenge, to the world and more importantly to his team, that Illinois is an underdog going into Madison next Tuesday night. That's how they need to play: as an underdog trying to win, not as a favored team afraid of losing.

Illinois-Iowa links. Your first stop should be the briskly efficient recap at Hawkeye Hoops, which beat Wonk's lugubrious homily into pixels by some nine hours. Next you'll want to sashay over to mainstream Iowa write ups here, here, and here. And then the hearty and diligent souls among you who still have strong mouse-fingers can, if they wish, tackle the towering mountain that is Illinois coverage these days: links here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti says this scare "was healthy and necessary" for the Illini. Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey says "the Illini aren't going to get very far this season if they continue to shoot so poorly." Mart Tupper blogs that the pressure of being number 1 and the resulting media crush may indeed have gotten to Illinois and that now Bruce Weber's team needs "to rediscover [its] edge." Pat Forde of says Illinois is "learning how difficult life can be at the top."

COMING Monday....
Updated PPWS numbers for the best and worst of 70-odd Big Ten starters and key reserves. Will Michigan State's Kelvin Torbert still be number 1? Will Purdue's Brandon McKnight still be anchor-man? Tune in Monday!

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
The fallout continues from Michigan State's loss Sunday at Wisconsin and from the resulting war of words between coach Tom Izzo and those in the media who've labeled his Spartans as questionable in crunch time. Meantime, Bo Ryan pooh-pooh's speculation that Alando Tucker, who missed the final three minutes of the Michigan State game, may be seriously injured.

Minnesota big man Jeff Hagen underwent an MRI on his left knee yesterday and the results look good for Gopher fans. While Hagen will likely miss tomorrow's game against Michigan State, he will be listed as day-to-day.

Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News looks at four valuable "sidekicks" to better-known teammates, among them Luther Head of Illinois. (Wonk says the rest of the Illini are fast becoming sidekicks to Luther Head.)

Jeff Shelman looks at the new RPI and other matters of note in the latest installment of his excellent weekly recap of college hoops for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Profile of Michigan's Ron Coleman here.

Citing poor attendance last month in Conseco Fieldhouse, Purdue has decided to discontinue its BlockBuster Classic games in Indianapolis for the next three seasons and will instead participate in the Wooden Tradition (in at least 2005 and 2007 and possibly 2006), also at Conseco. (More here.)

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Wonk wants it noted he did not headline this item as "The long and the short of it" (har!)
Yesterday Wonk noted the strong visual contrast provided by Wednesday night's game between the ESPN-Classic-tall Michigan Wolverines (they still have things like true centers and true power forwards in Ann Arbor) and the small but scrappy Indiana Hoosiers. Wonk's readers respond!


Love your site, but you should be aware that IU played five guards for a while last night. James Hardy and Robert Vaden are really guards, but people are calling them forwards. In any event, UM couldn't dominate an Indiana D that was composed of Marshall Strickland, Bracey Wright, A.J. Ratliff, Robert Vaden, and James Hardy.

It was nice to see the Hoosiers win another game. I'm sure it will be a repeat of last season's debacle, though.


Thanks, AC!

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