Big Ten Wonk
Tuesday, January 11, 2005
Wisconsin's shown they can win in Madison. Can they win anyplace else?
Wisconsin hosts Ohio State tonight in a game that will, if anything, be more instructive with regard to the home team than to the visitors. (Badger forward Alando Tucker injured his lower right leg in practice Sunday and is questionable for tonight's game. Additional Badger link here. Buckeye link here.)

After all, we've learned much about the Buckeyes in the past two games (a loss at Illinois and a win at home against Iowa). We've learned that, even against top-15 competition, when the three is falling they're tough to beat. And the three is falling for OSU more often than not (second in the conference behind Minnesota) because: 1) Terence Dials demands defensive attention on the block and thus creates opportunities on the perimeter; and 2) multiple shooting threats mean an off night by one player doesn't necessarily spell doom.

Even so, last year or the year before it would have gone without saying that Wisconsin would take a team with that profile (one beast and multiple shooters) and, in Madison at least, eat them alive. First off they'd pound them senseless on the boards. Next they'd clog the interior and pressure the ball. And how long has it been since someone shot lights-out in Madison against the stingy Badgers?

But in the wake of Wisconsin's woeful performance in a 74-61 loss at Indiana, Wonk is moved to ask just how good Bo Ryan's team really is this year. Their "quality wins," Maryland and Alabama, both took place, of course, at home. To be sure, the wins just keep coming in Madison: 36 straight and counting--Ryan has never lost a Big Ten home game. But what have you done for Wonk lately? Just how quality were those two wins? Wonk has already registered his disbelief that the Terps could only beat Florida State by two at home. And the Crimson Tide got whipped at Vanderbilt last week by 14.

More to the point: Wisconsin won't play any NCAA tournament games in the Kohl Center. And the picture when the Badgers leave their friendly confines isn't so pretty: they're just 2-3 on the road, their only wins coming at Rutgers and at Purdue. (Repeat: Rutgers and Purdue.)

Indiana made Wisconsin look slow on D and lost in the half-court on offense. That look will change tonight, perhaps, with the Badgers playing in front of the Grateful Red. But until Wisconsin exports a hometown performance to another arena, mark this blogger as a persuadable skeptic where the Badgers are concerned.

A talk with Mark Tupper
Undefeated and number 1 in the nation for six weeks and counting, Illinois is not lacking for attention this season. Or sportswriters. One familiar figure in this ever-growing horde is Mark Tupper, Executive Sports Editor of the Decatur Herald & Review. Even in seasons when Illinois is not undefeated (and that would be football season), Tupper attracts a large and devoted audience with coverage of the Illini that's timely, insightful, and, not least, voluminous. He even blogs. Last night Wonk spoke with Tupper and asked him about this year's Illini, the conference, and the players and coaches one encounters covering Big Ten hoops.

Q. One year ago today, Illinois was coming off a home loss to Purdue and, we know now, was about to lose at Northwestern and then at Wisconsin. The morning after that Wisconsin loss, Illinois stood 12-5 overall and 3-3 in conference. Illini fans, or at least a vocal minority thereof, were screaming for Bruce Weber's head on a platter.

What if someone had told you that morning that the Illini would not only go on to win the Big Ten outright but would be ranked number 1 in the nation for six weeks and counting in '04-'05?

A. I would have flown to Vegas and plunked down every cent I owned. That would have been truly special insider information. Honestly, it looked bleak at that very moment, especially since they lost by 20 at Wisconsin. But I had confidence in Weber, mainly because I’ve always believed he’s one hell of a teacher. I knew the kids were still going through some growing pains. The turning point might have been winning at Indiana 51-49 with an all-guts, grind-it-out effort that made them look at each other and say, “Hey, we can do this.”

Q. Deron Williams is of course an assist machine this year, yet his stats for shooting and scoring are actually down a bit from last year. Does he notice or care amidst all this success for the team? Does Bruce Weber?

A. I’m sure they both notice. Williams is an extraordinarily smart player, so he notices everything. And Weber has talked about this issue. Basically, Weber is happy with Williams’ play. He just wishes he’d cut out a couple of the unforced turnovers he’s had. And he has said Williams is trying to do a bit too much, perhaps unconsciously guided in that direction by the Big Ten’s pre-season Player of the Year honor. I also think Weber would like him to lock in a little tighter defensively. Overall, though, he’s playing well and making some ungodly passes.

Q. Is Brian Randle going to end up red-shirting this season?

A. I talked to Randle about this today at practice. He doesn’t know one way or the other. Neither does Weber. Randle said he'll suit up for Wednesday night’s game with Penn State, but he won’t play in that one or in Saturday’s game against Northwestern. The following week is when you can look for a decision. Randle wants to play, even if he’s a kind of special teamer who Weber inserts for a defensive shakeup. Weber wants him to play, but needs to be assured that he can truly contribute. Randle’s hand bothers him most when he passes the ball. With a season like this, he naturally wants to be a part of it. The question he, his parents, and Weber will deal with is whether there’s enough season left to warrant using a year of eligibility.

Q. The other day I mentioned in the blog how I loved the column you wrote two years ago on the eve of Bill Self's departure. You could really tell how much you thought of Self from that piece. Have you had any contact with him since he landed in Lawrence? How do you think he'd react to playing Illinois in the tournament?

A. I’ve only had a little contact. I talked to Bill in Indianapolis at the Nike camp this summer. He called when my mother passed away in August. Terrific guy, although I understand the bitterness runs deep throughout parts of Illini Nation because of his departure. And how's it all worked out? Illinois is ranked No. 1, Kansas No. 2. I’d say it's worked out pretty well for both schools. I haven't asked him about playing Illinois in the NCAA Tournament but I’m sure his reaction would be like most fans. He’d throw up at the thought of doing it then play his ass off trying to win the game. What a story line that would be!

Q. You have both a blog on the Herald & Review site and a regular column. How's that working for you?

A. I’ve just started the blog and I’m not sure I’m any kind of an expert at it. I could probably do a whole lot better. Ideally, the blog would be more behind-the-scenes things and off-handed opinions. I wrote one the other day about James Augustine and it read like a feature. That’s probably not too good. But I think with this team people want all the information you can give them and the blog simply gives me another outlet. I tend to give preference to the stories I write in the daily sports section, then try to supplement that with something leftover for the blog. I think they’ll improve as the season goes along. I might include some “color” stuff like where we eat on the road, what media accommodations are the best, how the post-game interview sessions work, etc. I’m open to suggestions.

Q. The readers of this blog are not shy in that department. You'll be hearing from them, believe me. Now, let's talk a little bit about the Big Ten as a whole. How do you see it in relation to other conferences nationally? In relation to the Big Ten in years past?

A. The Big Ten is boasting that its RPI is No. 2 nationally. That’s nice, but I don’t think the league is that good. Illinois, obviously, is very good. I still think Michigan State is good, but not quite as good as I believed they would be. Wisconsin is good, but got smoked at Indiana. Then it’s a crapshoot. I like Ohio State and think Thad Matta was a great hire. Purdue should have hired him two years ago, leading Keady to the door as compassionately as they could. I’m not sure about Iowa. I liked them until league play began. Minnesota is better but I suspect not all that great. Ditto Northwestern. Michigan will be up and down. I just think the league is OK, but not where it was several years ago.

Q. Which five non-Illinois players in the Big Ten would you pick to start your own team?

A. I’d take Alando Tucker and Mike Wilkinson of Wisconsin; Pierre Pierce and Jeff Horner of Iowa; and the maddeningly inconsistent Paul Davis of Michigan State. I’m not a Bracey Wright fan.

Q. Regardless of conference, who's the best player you've ever covered or seen in person?

A. I’ll assume you’re not counting Michael Jordan.

Q. All questions about "best" or "greatest" share that assumption, I guess.

A. I went up to the United Center and covered LeBron James and was blown away. And I saw Amare Stoudemire and was equally dazzled. But for college players, I’d have to say Glenn Robinson or Shaq or someone like that.

Q. What about off the court--favorite player?

A. Brian Cook, hands down. Not just because I wrote his book. Brian is the sweetest, most thoughtful kid you could ever meet. At our book signings, it was amazing to see how gracious he was to older people and children. He had a golden touch. Grandmothers brought him their entire scrapbooks that had every article they’d ever found on his career, from Lincoln High School through Illinois and the NBA draft. That was so nice that they gave them to Brian. But it was even more touching to me that they felt enough about him to have compiled such scrapbooks in the first place.

A. Same thing: off the court only--favorite coach?

A. Well, anyone who's covered Illinois will tell you Bill Self was phenomenal. But earlier today I spoke with Lou Henson and was able to wish him happy birthday. As you know, Lou’s plan for a comeback was derailed a little when he entered the hospital briefly with pneumonia. He’s home now and sounded just great. “Mark, ever since I left Champaign I’ve had all these things happen to me,” he said. “Maybe I should never have left.” He’s a dear, dear man and he’ll always hold a special spot in the heart of anyone who covered him.

Q. Final Four picks?

A. Please don’t let these be clip-and-save.

Q. More like link-and-dissect. Welcome to blogging.

A. I’ll go with Illinois, North Carolina, Kansas and Georgia Tech. And if it’s Illinois vs. Kansas, they’ll need to have counselors standing by to get the fans through the emotional overload of it all. That would be a ball!

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Michigan players are not good insurance risks this year. Latest in a series of medical reports: Chris Hunter twisted his ankle in the Iowa game and is questionable for tomorrow night's game against Northwestern. And Brent Petway says he'll be good to go tomorrow night even though he dislocated his shoulder in the Fairfield game. More from the urgent-care clinic here.

The Lansing State Journal gets a leg up on the competition and previews Sunday's game between Michigan State and Wisconsin in Madison by connecting the dots on the alleged bad blood between the two teams (dots connected by Wonk previously here).

Purdue coach Gene Keady says he sees improvement in newcomers Carl Landry, Bryant Dillon, Charles Davis, and Xavier Price. Wonk says any classification that can encompass both Landry and those other three is about as descriptive as "current Purdue basketball player" or "carbon-based life form."

Iron-clad proof that Big Ten coaches are ardent (if secretive) readers of this blog! Ten days ago Wonk posted on Iowa and said even a win over St. Louis couldn't mask the Hawkeyes' deficiencies in three areas: "rebounding," "defense," and "shot selection." Today coach Steve Alford is reported as saying bye-week practice will focus on "rebounding, defense, and offensive patience." (Hi, Steve! Wonk knew all those "" hits on the site meter were you!)...More Hawkeye gawking: Jeff Horner says he's partly to blame for the Hawkeyes' recent struggles.

Penn State is preparing for its game tomorrow night against Illinois....Mark Tupper adds detail to his comments (above) on the Illini's Brian Randle in his story today for the Herald & Review. More on Randle here. James Augustine profile here. Milestone-themed Illini-gazing (approaching best start ever, 1500 wins, etc.) here.

BONUS Illinois history note: Tupper points out that tomorrow marks the date 100 seasons ago when Illinois recorded its first win in men's basketball, 71-4 (not a typo), over Champaign High School. Rumors that Jim Boeheim has a deal in the works for Champaign HS to make a trip to the Carrier Dome next year could not be confirmed.

Stewart Mandel of says he'd pay to see Illinois vs. North Carolina.

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

BONUS all-content-provider edition of Wonk-back!
Mr. Wonk,

I enjoy the blog and the extremely useful acronyms. Keep up the good work. However, am I detecting an anti-Ohio State bias? Probably not, and as a writer I hate it when people say that. I'm just saying: we knocked off a top-15 team the other day and we get no love. That's OK, we'll stay under the radar.

Also, good point on taking the ball to Dials because he's trying to stay out of foul trouble. If your backup was Matt Marinchick, you'd be doing the same thing.

Jeff Svoboda
Men's Basketball Beat Writer
The Lantern
The Student Voice of Ohio State University

Buckeyes getting no love? Wonk prefers to think of it as a compliment! Though your intrepid blogger grouped the game under the "surprise" category in yesterday's post, Ohio State beating Iowa actually didn't shock me, not after the Hawkeyes couldn't even win at home against Michigan. And check out paragraph 2 of today's post! Wall-to-wall love, no?

(Besides, Wonk has openly proclaimed his intention to give shameless kid-gloves treatment to fellow central Illinois native Thad Matta.)


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