Big Ten Wonk
Thursday, January 20, 2005
Yet another "game of the year." So far.
Last Friday your intrepid blogger previewed the Michigan State-Wisconsin game and shared how much he was looking forward to that particular match up. Ditto for tonight's game between Iowa and Illinois.

The Hawkeyes have lost two of their first three conference games but they're still the most potent offensive team that the Illini have faced since, well, since Wake Forest. Your intrepid blogger has been known to call attention to the shortcomings in Pierre Pierce's game from time to time--and will continue to do so! (Ha! Bet you didn't see that coming.) Pierce made Wonk's preseason All-Head-Case team in large part because the Hawkeye guard averaged an incredible four turnovers a game last year. He's at it again this year, averaging 3.9. Sure, he's Iowa's leading scorer, but the disparity between Pierce and, say, Jeff Horner is much greater in attempts (Pierce: almost 15 a game; Horner: less than 10) than in points.

But say this for Pierce: he takes the ball to the basket. And when last we saw the Illini they were allowing Northwestern, hardly known as a deadly band of penetrators, far too many easy drives to the tin. (Wonk would love to see a Pierce vs. Luther Head match up, which would feature both team's leading scorers and both team's best defenders.)

Bruce Weber has an answer for Wonk and, as often happens, this info comes to us from Mark Tupper's blog, rapidly becoming a required read for Illini fans. Tupper notes Weber's fondness for trapping on defense and quotes the coach at length on the reasoning behind it. Sure, Weber says in effect, it may result in an open look for the other team once in a while but we get turnovers and thus easy scores off of it. Weber says his staff also charts how this is working trap-by-trap during the game. This information squares well with what we saw in the Northwestern game: a high FG percentage (.571) and a lot of turnovers (16) for the opponent. And an L. (More on the "double-trap" here.)

But can there be a happy medium between forcing turnovers and giving the opponent open looks? On the young conference season, Illinois already ranks second-to-last in FG percentage defense and dead last (by far) in three-point percentage D. Keep an eye on this.

On the Illinois side of the ball, Roger Powell could be teed up for a big game. His match up with Greg Brunner, assuming that's the way it plays out, is a good one on paper and on tape for Illini fans. Brunner is a vital player for Steve Alford, a born rebounder on a team that desperately needs help on the boards. The price Alford pays, however, is that Brunner is slow afoot on defense, as seen vividly in the Hawkeyes' home win over St. Louis, where the Billikens actually started running clear-outs specifically to exploit Brunner. Wonk's elderly Illini-fan readers will remember an Illinois home game against Indiana two years ago where, for whatever reason, Powell took the ball to the rim almost literally from the opening tip and was lethal the entire game. That should be his template for tonight.

Lastly, Wonk directs your attention to the potentially deadly (for Iowa fans) convergence of the following three elements: the Illini's fabled efficiency on offense (good shooting and low turnovers, quantified ably by Hawkeye Hoops here); Iowa's woeful rebounding (dead-last in the Big Ten on the young conference season); and the recent shooting struggles of Jeff Horner and Adam Haluska (a combined .286 from the field the last two games). Something in that mix will likely have to change for Iowa to pull the upset in Assembly Hall, where opponents have won two games in five years.

(Doh! Having already written 98 percent of the above, Wonk now finds he could have saved himself the trouble by simply linking to the excellent game preview at Hawkeye Hoops, which, as always, is on-point and informative. As for the mainstream media: Illini links here, here, here, here, and here. Frequent allusions therein to the possibility that Iowa is considered a rival by many geezer Illini fans but not by the players. Hawkeye links here and here. Lots of attention paid to the opposing backcourts in these links--Wonk didn't realize he'd be such an inveterate iconoclast by hyping Roger Powell vs. Greg Brunner.)

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Minnesota beat Ohio State 60-56 in overtime in Columbus last night, giving the Gophers a highly-valued (i.e., non-Penn-State) road win. Either Minnesota's D is on par with the 2004 Pistons or the Buckeyes are inept because Wonk's own disbelieving eyes saw OSU give this game away in the final three minutes of regulation, when the home team quite literally could not even muster a field goal attempt. Virtually every possession ended in a turnover (OSU had 19 for the game). Incredible. Meanwhile the Buckeyes continued their streak of cheerfully giving gaudy stat lines to their opponents: last night's beneficiary was the too-little-noted Vincent Grier, with 22 points and 12 boards. (Minnesota big man Jeff Hagen left the game late in the first half with a sprained knee. He is scheduled for an MRI today. Gopher links here and here. Buckeye link here--gosh, Terence Dials sure looks different in this link, no?)

Indiana beat Michigan 62-53 last night in Bloomington. The Wolverines haven't gotten the memo, apparently, that three- and even four-guard lineups are the wave of the future and indeed Tommy Amaker's team looks like a throwback. They actually have multiple tall persons on the court simultaneously and the visual effect was all the more stark last night against the backdrop provided by the Hoosiers, who play with D.J. White and four mighty mites. At times Michigan was able to pound the ball down low and score but a concurrent challenge for a big team with this particular backcourt is turnovers. The Wolverines coughed the ball up 20 times. Add in the fact that the Hoosiers shot 16 more free throws than the visitors and it's amazing the result was in single digits. (Hoosier links here and here. Wolverine links here, here, and here.)

Blogger, Minneapolis Star Tribune writer, and all-around renaissance man Jeff Shelman has a good read on all about Illinois and their willingness to share the ball. Money graf: "Illinois, simply put, is the best team among this season's college hoops fab four because they play like kindergarteners. They share, they laugh and they trust each other. They clearly were in attendance when the teacher talked about playing nice with others."

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Pro-bono assistance for the Detroit Free Press
Yesterday Wonk linked to a column by Jemele Hill of the Detroit Free Press in which Hill mourned that Gene Keady's final season in West Lafayette had to come at this particular time with this particular team. Wonk's reader's respond!

Jemele Hill needs a fact checker, Wonk. At the end of the article in which she astutely points out that Purdue is turning in a sub-par effort this season, Jemele says that Purdue's last appearance in the NCAA came in 2000. This is not true--the Boilers made the 2003 tourney and beat LSU before bowing out to Texas in the second round.

A minor point, I suppose, but we Boilers have to hang on to what we can in these dark days.

Check out my blog for a post on Keady giving the back of his hand to Drew Sharp. Boy, the Free Press is bad.

Matt May

Thanks, Matt! Wonk remembers that LSU game because everyone was oh-so-certain the Tigers were going to win--but the Boilers did Wonk's Big Ten proud and actually won rather easily, led by the unconscious shooting of who-dat freshman Melvin Buckley.

Now under glass in the Rare Book Room: the Champaign News Gazette
Also yesterday, Wonk linked to the latest reportage from sagacious Illini observer (and Wonk interview subject) Mark Tupper. Tupper blogged that the fate of Illinois forward Brian Randle is still up in the air: Randle may well redshirt but then again he may not. Wonk's readers respond!


I found your blog not too long ago and have been reliving Illinois' thus-far magical season through those posts. They're hilarious. Keep up the great work.

I saw your note in today's (Wednesday's) post on Brian Randle. The most I think anyone knows about Randle is a combination of what the Champaign News-Gazette and the Chicago Tribune have printed on the subject. Randle's hand has apparently healed (he was originally 6-10 weeks) and has resumed practicing with the team, but the coaches are worried that he's lost enough strength in that shoulder that he'll require a few more weeks of work before he's close enough to 100 percent to play.

Weber is apparently leaning strongly towards keeping Randle out, especially if he might not be ready to play until time for the conference tournament. Randle would like to play, but he said that the coach's decision would "weigh heavily" on his thought process; I have a hunch that if Weber wants him to redshirt, he'll redshirt. (And I suspect Weber wants him to redshirt.)

Greg C.

Thanks, Greg! Wonk particularly appreciates your courageous decision to actually relay information printed in the sports section of the Champaign News Gazette, which this blogger assumed was something printed on scrolls of parchment and shared only between members of Skull & Bones in hushed windowless rooms. The News Gazette's coverage of the Illini, of course, is ordinarily hidden from this blogger's view because the newspaper seeks money in exchange for my server linking with theirs. Next Wonk will be charged for driving by billboards on the interstate.

The News Gazette's stance is all the more incredible at this particular moment in time, when Illinois fans are rabid--and Wonk means rabid--for any morsel of information, no matter how minute or contrived. Wonk knows whereof he speaks. He's seen the site meter light up like a slot machine whenever your intrepid blogger posts on the Illini. (Here, watch this: Illinois! There's a thousand extraneous hits for today right there.) In shallow advertising terms (redundant), there's money on the table.

So why in the world would a newspaper based in Champaign, Illinois, (with a sports editor who's been covering the Illini since Pop Warner himself was playing Pop Warner ball) maintain its luddite policy with regard to "paid subscriptions" in a medium where it's meaningless?

Guard combos and Wonk's deliberate short-term memory loss
Hey, Wonk,

As an Illini fan since I went to games with my dad at Huff Gym, I love reading your work! Great job and keep it up.

Whether or not this team wins it all in March and April, they are an absolute joy to watch!

Maybe we should always try to play with two point guards? Is this a coming trend? What are the most similar teams from the past?

Jim R.

Thanks for the kind words, Jim!

As for your question, Wonk tries not to bloviate about past teams too much for fear that he'll start sounding like the eerily-Mr.-Burns-like Billy Packer ("...that '54 Siena team beat Clyde Hartsetter and the Hussies in the Garden and went all the way to the quarterfinals in Shibe Park before falling to a very good Hofstra team," etc.) but I will say this: in the present day, Georgia Tech, even with their recent struggles, looks to this blogger like the closest approximation of the multi-headed backcourt monster that is the Illini.

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