Big Ten Wonk
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
The dawn of time: 1976
The crack professionals on Wonk's Readership Demographics desk inform your intrepid blogger that a robust percentage of this blog's readers are in fact 28 or 29 years old.

To these readers Wonk says: hitch up your Depend undergarments, turn up your Miracle Ears, and give Wonk whatever meager portion of your increasingly age-addled attention you can muster! You have doubtless looked on with increasing alarm over the past few weeks as the year of your birth, 1976, has come to be represented as an epoch as distant and inscrutable as the Bronze Age or perhaps even the era of "Family Guy"....

Wonk refers, of course, to the many, many media invocations of Indiana's undefeated season in 1976. Maybe there were just as many of these invocations last February when St. Joe's was undefeated but if so Wonk has blocked out the memory. This year, with Illinois fast approaching March still undefeated, it feels like you can't swing a cat without knocking over three references to 1976. And so your intrepid blogger has three questions about this 1976-comes-to-2005 stuff....

Isn't there any better footage? During last night's Purdue-Indiana game, ESPN ran footage of the 1976 Michigan-Indiana national championship game that looked like 16mm (silent!) film shot by a 1976-variety local news crew. The film was so grainy and dark Wonk could barely make out the short-shorts. Why is this? Contemporaneous sporting milestones have given us normal-looking archival video. Take Carlton Fisk's walk-off home run in Game 6 of the '75 World Series. That happened six months before Indiana's national championship game and that video looks normal. Is Wonk correct in understanding that NBC covered the Final Four back then and, if so, wouldn't they have the tape?

Can we please interview someone other than Kent Benson? Bob Knight's center on that '76 team, Kent Benson, was a force of nature and a relentless embodiment of John-Wooden-like consistency. Wonk salutes this all-time-great Big Ten player. At the same time, this particular all-time-great has for whatever reason chosen to show an increasingly Mr.-Burns-like aspect to the world in interviews of late and your intrepid blogger feels like we pretty much have all the juice we're going to get from this particular orange: Illinois hasn't done anything yet. OK, got it. Now: what about Scott May or Quinn Buckner? Can we get their thoughts? (Here's a heretical thought. What about Knight?)

Can we acknowledge the factors that might make an undefeated season more difficult now? Last night Jay Bilas of ESPN pointed out the '76 Hoosiers made their run in an era when opposing teams were populated with "junior and senior lottery picks." Fair enough. But are there not also countervailing forces at work today to make running the table a more formidable task? Wonk can think of two: 1) The dead weight of 29 years where no team has done it. Indiana, conversely, was duplicating a feat UCLA had pulled off more than once in the then-recent past. 2) The explosion of sports media coverage. Wonk doesn't wish to shock tender young readers but back in 1976 not every Indiana game was televised. No highlights. No cable sports. No discussion boards. Can it be: no...blogs? (O, the humanity!) Illinois, by notable contrast, is operating in a white-hot parse-every-syllable glare perhaps fully understood only by presidents, Beatles, Steve Bartman, and Melissa Theuriau.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Indiana beat Purdue 79-62 in Bloomington last night. Hoosier fans gave Gene Keady an extended standing ovation before the opening tip. "The ovation was very much appreciated," Keady said afterward. "I'll remember it for a long time, but I'll remember the butt-kicking they gave us even longer." (Also on hand for the festivities last night was Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline, who thinks a chair flung at Keady would have been a more fitting tribute.) Led by 27 points from Bracey Wright, Indiana put up numbers last night that can only be termed Illinois-ish: .491 shooting from the field, .455 on their three's, and only eight turnovers. The Hoosiers put the game away early in the second half with a 20-0 run ("a very big run," Carl Landry called it with admirable understatement). Is this the start of something big for IU or a measure of last night's opponent? Wonk says: little of neither. Indiana will continue to live dangerously as long as Marshall Strickland gets minutes (Strickland had five of the Hoosiers' eight turnovers, albeit with six assists--he got yanked off the point and replaced with Robert Vaden) but your intrepid blogger continues to like the look of little-noted freshman A.J. Ratliff (15 points and 6-of-7 from the field last night). "Right now, our intensity and effort are better than ever," says Mike Davis. As for the Boilers, Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz surveys Keady's final tour of the Big Ten with sorrow: "By any measure, it's been an awful season, maybe the worst way Keady could leave the Big Ten scene." Columnist Tom Kubat of the Lafayette Journal and Courier says, considering the circumstances, Keady "was unbelievably mild mannered."

Minnesota hosts Iowa tonight in Minneapolis, an event Wonk has chosen to christen Bubble Bowl I because, absent a Big Ten tournament title, the loser of tonight's game will not be in the NCAA tournament. Of course, the winner may not be, either....

For those just tuning in, the reason we're even discussing the tournament prospects of Iowa--a team that's 4-8 in conference and one game behind Northwestern in the standings--is their non-conference record. They entered Big Ten play 12-1, meaning, if they can somehow run the table over the next four games, their very mediocre 8-8 record in conference could be put alongside a more impressive 20-9 record overall. And that non-conference record includes wins over Louisville and Texas (when the Longhorns were healthy and whole).

If the Hawkeyes can win their first Big Ten road game tonight they would indeed be in an excellent position to run said table. Their last three games are at Penn State and Michigan and at home against Ohio State. BONUS Wonk admonitory finger-waggling: that being said, never ever count wins in advance with a Steve Alford team. Keep in mind that Iowa, still with Pierre Pierce in the fold, lost at home to Michigan.

And as for Minnesota, a win tonight would leave them in good shape, both mathematically and realistically, to reach the magic 10-6 mark in conference. Since the inception of the 16-game Big Ten schedule, 28 teams have finished 10-6 and 27 of them have received NCAA bids. (The only exception is the 2003 Michigan team which was ineligible for postseason play due to self-imposed Ed-Martin-related sanctions.)

Iowa-Minnesota links. Start with the excellent game preview at Hawkeye Hoops, defining state-of-the-art in team blogs since 2004. And then: "The major issue we have not overcome this Big Ten season is not finishing out the last four minutes in a half, or the last four minutes in a game," says Steve Alford. Hawkeye guard Jeff Horner explains his team's road woes thusly: "It just seems when we go on the road, teams that we should beat are playing very well at the time." Those darn opponents! Meanwhile, Rick Alonzo of the St. Paul Pioneer Press says the Gopher fans "who called for coach Dan Monson's job have been quieted." Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune points out that those few Gophers who were also around last year have really boosted their production this year--see the numbers here. (Tonight, by the way, is senior night for the Gophers.)

Illinois hosts Northwestern tonight in Champaign. A win would clinch a share of the Big Ten title for the Illini. It would also eclipse the 27-0 start posted by the 1960-61 Ohio State Buckeyes. Former Buckeye and Boston Celtic great John Havlicek "has seen one Celtics game in person this year ('And please don't ask who they played'), parts of a few Ohio State games on TV and one Illinois game." So let's ask him what he thinks! ''These are days and nights that the members of the Illinois team, their coaches, their families and fans and everyone else around the program will never live through again. Revel in them, enjoy them and make more of them happen."...Northwestern beat Illinois by ten just thirteen short months ago and has won four of their last five games but Wildcat coach Bill Carmody is talking expectations down like a presidential candidate before a debate: "They're a much better team than they were last year. They're more confident. I don't know if we're as good as we were last year."...Bruce Weber says his team will be ready. "Northwestern is trying to make a run, get an NIT bid. Our kids are older and understand it." (Weber also notes that Vedran Vukusic is a tough match-up for the Illini.)...Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper blogs that Weber hopes to make "this season's unselfish share-the-ball mentality...a permanent cornerstone of the program."...Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the "Big Ten Conference MVP has come down to a three-player race and all three wear Illinois jerseys."...Profile of James Augustine here....Inveterate iconoclast Lindsey Willhite of the Daily Herald has penned what Wonk believes may well be the only Illini article all season with a reference to Liberace.

Michigan hosts Penn State tonight in Ann Arbor. Wonk doesn't wish to spread alarm but after diligent research and profound deliberation your intrepid blogger believes one of these two teams stands an excellent chance of winning tonight's game. Wolverine guard Dion Harris, it would appear, literally cannot remember the last time his team won a game. (More links here and here.)

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo talks up the Big Ten here. Meanwhile, speculation continues that Izzo's Spartans need a win tomorrow night against Wisconsin (the fabled Big Win) to boost themselves from a possible 4-seed to a possible 3.

Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan is rumored to have a strained relationship with Tom Izzo. But Mark Stewart of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says: forget those old fogies, the outcome of tomorrow night's game between the Spartans and the Badgers will have weighty consequences for both teams.

Wisconsin State Journal columnist Tom Oates takes a page from Wonk's book this morning and scans the horizon eagerly, looking for a fourth conference team to take to the NCAA's. Oates doesn't like what he sees: "Except for unbeaten Illinois, which has more go-to guys than many NBA teams, the Big Ten is notably deficient in players who can break down defenses and create shots for themselves and others."

The ACC, the Big Ten, and ESPN announced yesterday that the ACC-Big Ten Challenge has been extended through 2010 and that the new format will feature 11 games instead of nine. Despite a recent history of lopsided outcomes in favor of the ACC, the games continue to draw ever-larger viewing audiences.

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Illinois: undroppable?

I have been reading your blog all year and really enjoy it. I have been an Illini fan for quite some time and am thrilled with this dream season.

My question for you is this--if the Illini lose one of their last three regular season games, would anyone be justified in dropping them from the number one ranking? If a number one loses, it seems they always drop a slot or two and you have a new number one. But the way things have gone for the Illini this year, even if they lose a game now, I can't see putting any other team in front of them.

Can you?


Mark T.

To quote the immortal Sammy Davis, Jr.: Yes, I can, Mark! If Illinois lost tonight at home to Northwestern (RPI 145) or in a few days at home to Purdue (RPI 215), the writers who vote for the AP poll and the coaches who vote for the ESPN/USA Today poll would react with sheer unadulterated horror (yes, Edvard Munch-level horror). A road loss to Ohio State (RPI 54) would be less shocking but still enough to bounce the Illini from the top spot.

One of the nice side benefits of having more blogs on college hoops has been the opportunity it's provided for things like the AP poll to be demystified. Take Jeff Shelman's blog. Shelman is an AP voter and he posts his choices each week, often with an explanation of how tough the exercise really is. (Try it: rank 25 teams correctly and don't leave anyone out.)

So polls aren't the apodictic truth. Nor are they Archimedean verdicts on a team's intrinsic worth. They are instead a reflection of current thinking. And if Illinois lost to one of those teams the current thinking would change. (But not enough to jeopardize a 1-seed in the tournament.)


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