Big Ten Wonk
Friday, February 18, 2005
A talk with Mike DeCourcy
Mike DeCourcy covers college basketball as a Senior Writer for The Sporting News. Before joining TSN, he wrote on college hoops at the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and the Pittsburgh Press. And he’s covered 13 Final Fours. Mike talked to Wonk about the college game in general and about the Big Ten in particular: its past, its future, its teams, and the prospects of those teams in March and beyond.

Q. Mike, I actually want to start off with a question wholly unrelated to the Big Ten. Arizona coach Lute Olson is alleging “east coast media bias” because he keeps hearing about what a great pure shooter Duke’s J.J. Redick supposedly is. My own diligent research tells me Redick’s shooting about 42 percent on his three’s. On the other hand, Olson has a player, Salim Stoudamire, who’s shooting almost 55 percent from beyond the arc. Now, you’re kind of neither east nor west so I doubt Olson had you in mind specifically….

A. Hey, I get accused of east coast bias even though I live in Ohio.

Q. Really? So how do you plead? Is there an east coast bias? Why don’t we hear more about someone hitting almost 55 percent on their three’s?

A. Here’s the thing: Where does Lute Olson hear about J.J. Redick? He hears about him on ESPN. Well, once upon a time, the Pac-10 decided they wanted more money and so they went exclusive with Fox. That means Pac-10 games aren’t on ESPN. And so ESPN doesn’t talk about Stoudamire. That’s the end of the story. The rest of it is all nonsense.

If the Pac-10 were on ESPN, then Dick Vitale would point his jet out to Arizona and he’d cover the Wildcats and there would be no controversy. If the Pac-10 wants to be covered more by ESPN then they probably should have stayed in business with them. Now, Fox does very well by the Pac-10. But it does mean you don’t have Vitale screaming about how great Stoudamire is.

Q. The other day Illinois beat Wisconsin in a game some observers were, apparently, already terming “ugly” by the time postgame interviews were happening. Dee Brown responded by saying, in effect: hey, we play defense in this conference. You see a lot more non-Big-Ten games than I do. Any defense happening out there I should tell Dee about?

A. Every league plays differently because it comes down to the way the officials allow the game to be played. The ACC has always been a much more free-flowing league than just about any other league and, frankly, it’s served them well because that style of play attracts players who can score. And those are the players, basically, that win NCAA championships. Any coach who tells you that defense wins championships probably coaches football.

Q. What about Michigan State in 2000?

A. Oh, you can play great defense and win the national championship. It helps. But you also have to be able to score. Sure, the Spartans only had something like 50 points in the semifinal against Wisconsin that year but then they scored 80-some points in that title game against Florida. Most of the time in the Final Four there are a lot of points being scored. Same with getting there: when Marquette made the Final Four in 2003 they did so not because Dwyane Wade was playing great defense but because he was dunking on everybody.

Q. So the answer to my original question is: no, there’s no defense being played outside the Big Ten.

A. Conference USA plays some great defense but they do it because they have to. Teams like Cincinnati and Charlotte have to play great D to stay with the big boys. The Big 12 plays pretty good defense, obviously, when you have a league with coaches like Bob Knight, Eddie Sutton, Kelvin Sampson, Bill Self, and Rick Barnes. You’re going to have to guard to get out of that league. But all of those teams are only going to go as far in the tournament as their offenses can take them.

Q. Let’s talk about some Big Ten teams, specifically their post-season prospects. How do you see the next few weeks playing out for Wisconsin?

A. It’s hard for me to know what to expect from them because they do a lot of things really well. And the player they have at point guard, Sharif Chambliss, makes big shots but he’s not a true point guard. So their offense is in danger of getting bogged down and that, obviously, can be a concern in the tournament depending on who they get matched up against. The best thing that could happen for the Badgers to advance deep into the tournament would be for them to play against other teams with offenses as problematic as their own.

And “problematic” may be the wrong word. There are times when Wisconsin scores because they get their stuff going and teams don’t know how to guard their sets. The more teams they can play that they can beat with defense and squeeze by with offense the further they can go. Really, so much of this just comes down to who you play.

Q. Alando Tucker seems healthier than he’s been in a while.

A. Tucker is a very difficult player to guard when he’s healthy. And I’ll be honest with you, I’m not 100 percent sure that he’s 100 percent healthy.

Q. I know what you mean. Watching Tucker right now is kind of like watching football being played in the rain or snow: the advantage is with the offense. As long as he’s on offense where he knows where he’s going, he looks good. On defense he’s a little more tentative.

A. Not to mention when he’s at his best he’s going to get fouled a lot and go to the line many times each game. When that happens you’ll know he’s himself again. But in the meantime he’s become a better shooter. So the fact that maybe he doesn’t have quite the explosion that he has when he’s healthy hasn’t been as limiting. He could get that explosiveness back by the end of the year—at that point he’ll be a better player than he’s ever been because he is a better shooter now.

Q. OK, next team, next postseason prognosis: Michigan State.

A. I saw them at their near-worst when they lost to Illinois. You can get a bad impression of a team from something like that and it can fool you. They weren’t tough, they weren’t competitive, and they were playing at home. And it was unsettling to watch them get pushed around by a team that doesn’t push teams around. I mean, Illinois thrashes teams but they don’t do it physically. And in that game I thought the Spartans cowered a bit.

From a standpoint of skill and scoring ability, Michigan State’s really strong. And they guard because they play for a coach who’s one of the best defensive coaches.

The move to Drew Neitzel seems to have put a little spark in them. It’s allowed Chris Hill to be more comfortable, even though he’s coming off the bench—he’s making shots again. I remember at the beginning of the year I thought: it’s not going to work if they don’t go to Neitzel. And then once they got down the road as far as they did I thought, well, they can’t change now. But it appears they’ve been able to do just that. And that gives them some promise.

As for Paul Davis, I can’t explain him to you any more than I can explain quantum physics. I know he’s really talented. I know he can do a lot of good things. I don’t know when he’ll do them.

Q. The Spartans really took a lot of heat from some of the media in Michigan after the Wisconsin game. And it seems like this team’s often being criticized for its record against ranked opponents. Is that fair? Is it accurate?

A. To be honest with you, anyone who talks about a team’s record against ranked opponents is showing a limited knowledge of the game. Because the rankings are nonsense. They’re mumbo-jumbo garbage.

Now, if you want to tell me you don’t think Michigan State is any good because their record against RPI top-25 teams is 0-3, OK, I’ll listen to you. But then I’ll tell you: yeah, but they’re 3-3 against the top-50, that’s not so bad. Not great but not bad. And it also tells you something about the nature of what the Spartans are up against in that debate. Which is: there just aren’t a lot of opportunities for them to play that type of game because the Big Ten hasn’t been very good.

In a league like the ACC you’re going to get four or five ranked teams a year on your floor. Michigan State’s had one. And they didn’t get it done.

Q. They’re about to get their second one, Wisconsin.

A. But that hasn’t happened yet. And so the debate is framed the way it is. Again, look at the RPI top-50. Michigan State’s played six top-50 opponents. That’s not a lot. I can go to Carolina, they’ve played ten. Look at Washington, in a conference that’s not widely feared this year. They’ve played eight. Duke’s played nine. Boston College—people talk about their schedule being weak; well, they’ve played seven. So to get back to this silly business about the Spartans and their record against ranked teams, they just haven’t had the opportunities that would allow you to break a streak like that.

Q. Speaking of a lack of RPI top-50 opponents in the Big Ten, recently there’ve been some suggestions that this could hurt Illinois and their chances in the tournament. Some observers have said that to prepare for the tournament the Illini need better competition than what the conference has provided this year.

A. That’s a fantasy. Look at Gonzaga. In ’99 they went to the Elite Eight and had eventual national champion Connecticut down to its last gasp and scared to death. Who’d they play that year in the WCC?

So who Illinois has or hasn’t played in the last couple weeks is totally irrelevant to who they are and what they’ve accomplished. Look at the record. They had Gonzaga down by 30-some and beat them by 20. Same with Wake Forest. They beat Cincinnati by 20. They beat Michigan State by double-figures. And, except for Wake Forest, none of those were on the Illini’s home floor.

Q. Every time I turn on ESPN it seems like someone’s holding forth on Illinois and their chances in the tournament. What’s your take?

A. They’re the best team in the country but not necessarily from a talent standpoint. So on that basis their prospects for winning the national championship would appear to be less promising than UNLV’s were in 1991, or than Kansas’ were in 1997, or than Duke’s were in 1999. Now, what do all those teams have in common?

Q. They all lost.

A. Exactly.

Q. Not to mention the 2004 L.A. Lakers.

A. Right. So Illinois goes into the tournament with the best team and therefore the best chance of winning it all. But it’s still really hard to do.

Q. Who’s right there with the Illini? Who’s their toughest competition?

A. You know, these next three weeks are much more telling than people give them credit for. Everybody wants to start their projections now but then everything’s going to turn over in the next three weeks. That being said, I think Kansas, Wake Forest, Carolina, Boston College, Oklahoma State—those teams are all really good. I’ll know better in three weeks. And I’ll know best when I see the bracket. But right now I think all those teams have a very good shot at winning the national championship. They all have specific limitations, as Illinois does. And the best way to win a national championship is not to play any of the teams that can take advantage of what you don’t do well.

Q. Is Illinois really as susceptible on the inside as everyone seems to think?

A. Yes, if you can get it inside consistently. But that’s the trick. Can you get it there consistently? Wake Forest brought three great guards into Assembly Hall and couldn’t get the ball inside. If they played on a neutral floor would that change? Maybe. But no matter where Illinois and Wake Forest play, if they play again, it’s not going to be neutral. It may not be the nightmare that Assembly Hall was back on December 1 but it’s not going to be neutral. It’s going to be someplace like Chicago (if Wake doesn’t hold on to a 1-seed) or St. Louis. And that’s part of Illinois’ advantage in this tournament.

Q. Did you know Luther Head would have this kind of year?

A. No. If you’d asked me about Head before the season I probably would have said he’s a two-trick pony: someone who can dunk lobs and make an occasional three.

But his development as a passer and ball handler has been staggering. Almost unprecedented. I don’t remember the last time a player went from dunking alley-oops to being a point-guard-quality player.

I tell you what: if you put Luther Head on Cincinnati and gave him the ball, the Bearcats would instantly become a top-10 team. He is that good of a point guard. And he’s the third-best point guard on his team.

Q. So is this “staggering” change a testament to Head and his commitment to improve or to Bruce Weber and his ability to develop players?

A. Well, I’ll tell you this. It’s a testament to Luther that after he had his off-court problems last year he committed himself to righting his game and righting his life.

But I’ll add this as well. I was at an Illinois practice the other day and they are much heavier on skill development than a lot of other programs. They are paying much more attention to making those guys better basketball players than a lot of other programs do.

Q. The other day in the blog I likened Iowa to one of those people who has an accident on the same day of the year every year.

A. (Laughs). That’s good.

Q. Every year—or at least in years when they have a full roster—it seems like they have a nice non-conference record but then they get to the Big Ten and just can’t get it done. Is Steve Alford just the world’s unluckiest man or is something more systemic at work there?

A. If you look at some of the problems they’ve had—academic problems, behavioral issues—I think a lot of that can come from the choices you make when you’re recruiting. Part of it has to be how you’re administering your program. And maybe those are just small parts and the larger part is bad luck or whatever. But when similar things keep happening to you, you have to wonder how well you’re connecting to the players.

Now, every now and then you get a case like this at any school. Every school has problems. But when the occurrence of this sort of thing is consistent, either you’ve decided that you’re going to play the fringes (where you take chances with at-risk kids and try to do a really good job with them) or you’re just not noticing that you’re taking at-risk kids and/or not doing a good job with them.

Honestly, I don’t know which of those is at work at Iowa. But it just seems like a program like that—a state university with state university cache—should probably have fewer problems than they’ve had.

Q. True/false: the future’s bright at Indiana.

A. If the future is Mike Davis sticking around another year then I think there’s a good chance that the answer is “true.” Because they’ve got really good players that are young and that will get better. And next year they won’t schedule as if they’ve completely lost their minds. The schedule that was put together for this particular team this year….I think the best adjective I can come up with is “inexcusable.”

So I think if Mike is there they will make significant progress next year. If Mike is not there and they make the wrong hire, then the future is not bright because some of the players might leave. But, then again, if Mike’s not there and they hire a brilliant coach who convinces the players to stay, then I guess the future could be bright that way, too. So it could go in any direction.

Q. Last question: among head coaches, who’s your favorite interview--or who’s the most quotable?

A. A lot of writers want to be around a funny guy but I’m not real big on that. For instance, there’s nobody funnier than Rick Barnes. And, don’t get me wrong, I love Rick Barnes. I’ll spend the rest of my life as his next-door neighbor and he’ll keep me entertained forever. But I don’t judge a coach on whether or not he entertains me.

I tell you, I really enjoy Bruce Weber. He opens his soul in ways that are very interesting for a guy who’s got a really large pack of writers following his team. He’s very open about the team. He gives you a lot of insight. I think he’s an interesting interview at this point. A guy who’s coaching the top-ranked team could very easily shut the doors and close his mouth but he’s handling the whole number-1 thing pretty well.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
A faculty committee at Iowa has recommended tougher procedures for dealing with Hawkeye athletes who engage in criminal behavior. The proposed policy, ironically, was apparently drafted in response to Pierre Pierce's legal troubles two years ago but has only been brought forward in light of Pierce's more recent brush with the law. (For you Court TV-esque watchers of the Pierre Pierce case: the text of Pierce's blogospherically much discussed email to his ex-girlfriend, sent a few hours after he had allegedly assaulted her and inflicted significant damage to her home, is here.)...Tomorrow's game against Illinois is sold out but that's been the exception and not the rule: attendance at Iowa home games is poised to dip for the fourth consecutive year. The Hawkeyes are averaging about 11,700 fans per game in a venue with a capacity of 15,500. Revenue may be $100,000 to $200,000 less than expected. Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby says he's not worried. "When you are talking about a $45 million budget, that's not a very significant amount of money."

Purdue officials will welcome about 80 former players and support staff back to campus for tomorrow's Michigan State game to honor Gene Keady. Among the expected attendees are former Boiler greats Brad Miller, Troy Lewis, Todd Mitchell, Everette Stephens, and Jim Rowinski. Former Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote, a good friend of Keady's, is also expected.

Taking a much-needed break from gabbing with Wonk, Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News says Minnesota is "rapidly playing their way toward the NIT."...Guard Adam Boone has been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. Boone has been out all season, after undergoing surgery October 7 to repair a torn bicep tendon. The Minnetonka, Minnesota, native played his first two years at North Carolina, before sitting out a year as a transfer. Boone will be joined next year on the Gopher roster by another familiar face, former Minnesota guard Maurice Hargrow, who is transferring back to Dan Monson's program from Arkansas...Kyle Whelliston has competition! Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, in his excellent weekly recap of the national college hoops scene, breaks down tomorrow's 22-team Bracket Buster here.

Michigan State big man Paul Davis says his team is peaking at the right time. "We're feeling really good right now." Teammate Alan Anderson says he wants to end his senior season with a bang. "I can't have any regrets," says Anderson. "I can't have any woulda, shoulda, coulda days. I'm trying to do whatever it takes."...Dave Dye of the Detroit News predicts an All-Big-Ten first team with a lot of Illini and a second team with a lot of Spartans.

Michigan guard Dion Harris says a long talk with Wolverine footballer Braylon Edwards helped the Michigan guard break out of his shooting slump. Harris has made 10 of his last 21 three's....Can the Wolverines finish at .500 and qualify for the NIT? Indefatigable Michigan beat writer Jim Spadafore of the Detroit News says, "It's going to be close." The 12-14 Wolverines play three of their last four games at home. (Also from Spadafore: still no definitive word on when Daniel Horton might return from his suspension. It could come as soon as Sunday's game against Indiana.)

Wisconsin fans greeted Michigan State last month with t-shirts reading: "Bo 5, Izzo 0." The message referred, of course, to the Badger coach's record against the Spartans. For next week's rematch in East Lansing, the responding message is ready and the medium of choice is again t-shirts: "Tom Izzo 4, Bo Ryan 0" reads the front of the shirt. On the back: "We do old school math. National Championships 1 + Final Fours 3 = 4."...Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Jeff Potrykus weighs in on ESPN, Duke, hype, J.J. Redick, Salim Stoudamire and such here.

President Bush finds sea of empty seats at press briefing--stunned Chief Executive is told: "Everyone's assigned to Illinois now." Just how many fans in Iowa City's Carver-Hawkeye Arena for tomorrow's game between Iowa and Illinois will be wearing orange? Steve Alford guesses about 3,000....Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey says "Illinois isn't going to have a letdown." That doesn't mean a national championship is in the bag, Morrissey cautions, but it does mean that Illini fans "can count on maximum effort from Illinois every game."...St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, who took his team to 27 consecutive wins last season, says the Illini should keep doing what they're doing and forget the "healthy loss" school of thought: "You'd have to be pretty dumb to learn from a loss," says Martelli. More from the Martelli-on-the-Illini beat here and here...."Illinois guard seems certain to win player of the year"--so sayeth the subhead on Michael Pointer's "Around the Big Ten" column in this morning's Indianapolis Star. Ah, but which Illinois guard? Worries of a split-you-know-what are on the rise! "A split vote might clear a path for Wisconsin's Mike Wilkinson [or] Purdue's Carl Landry," says Pointer....Profile of Deron Williams here....Say you just can't get enough information on inscrutable senior Nick Smith? Of course not! But, to be fair, the beat writers are running out of topics so here's a profile anyway....Coverage of the players' families in general here. Coverage (Wonk is not making this up) of James Augustine's uncle in particular here....Coverage of the Illini coverage here. (And if someone links to Wonk's link, it'll be "coverage of the coverage of the Illini coverage"--cool!)

BONUS note on contagious diffusion of iconic pose. Remember Dee Brown draining the big three's against Purdue in West Lafayette and then stretching out his jersey to display the "Illinois"? Brown seems to have started something there: link here to see Louisville's Francisco Garcia adopting a strikingly similar pose after hitting the game-winning three against Marquette in Milwaukee last night.

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On Wednesday your intrepid blogger linked to a piece by oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper which contained the following nugget: "The Illini are now the only team in the nation to have won 25 or more games in each of the last five seasons." Wonk's reader's respond!

Dear Wonk,

First and foremost, your blog is terrific.

Second, the following factoid from the oracular Mark Tupper is misleading: The Illini are now the only team in the nation to have won 25 or more games in each of the last five seasons.

While technically true, it is misleading because Illinois is the only team that has accrued 25 wins thus far this season. But that is not to say that others will not achieve such great heights this year. For example, Duke has won at least 25 games in each of the last four seasons and will likely do so again this year. The Blue Devils currently have 18 wins with 6 regular season games and many ACC and NCAA tourney games remaining. Also, many teams have not even played 25 games this year.

Keep up the good work.

Jeremy K.
Los Angeles

Thanks, Jeremy! Actually, the way the Dukies looked last night, Tupper's factoid's looking better and better....


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