Big Ten Wonk
Monday, March 28, 2005
Big Ten to conventional wisdom: drop dead
(Wonk's waited patiently for months for the opportunity to use a New York Post kind of headline....)

After 61 games of tournament play, the conference whose last name was seemingly "is down this year" (first name: "The Big Ten") has put two teams into the Final Four and posted an 11-3 record. And with three teams in the Elite Eight where no other conference placed more than one, it is time to say it out loud:

The Big Ten has performed better than any other conference in March. So bring on April!

Yes, good fortune was involved. Yes, games were played against Bucknell, Vermont, and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, instead of Kansas, Syracuse, and Boston College.

What of it? Anyone who saw the Jayhawks in the later stages of their season (where they went 3-6 from Valentine's Day through to their Bison-delivered exit) and who saw Wisconsin come within six of North Carolina yesterday knows what the outcome of a Badgers vs. KU game would have been.

Michigan State vs. Syracuse? Well, seeing as the Spartans dispatched with the 1- and 2-seeds in their regional, it's a little tough to work up a retroactive fear of the 4.

And Illinois vs. Boston College? 'Nuff said.

No, the point is not that the Big Ten got a free pass. Nor is this year's edition of the conference mighty beyond past historical or current geographical parallel.

The point is that the Big Ten's best teams were given far less than their due this year because of the conference's most middling teams and its most hapless teams. It was a bifurcated league this year--maybe it has been for three years now--and the dividing line was just south of third-place Wisconsin.

As a normative matter, of course, each of those top three teams has its shortcomings; weak spots that have been chronicled exhaustively in this blog. But as a comparative matter, the material point is this: Michigan State, warts and all, can play with anyone in the country, including and especially Carolina. (Wonk can't wait for the nightcap Saturday.)

And if that's true of the Spartans, what does that say of the Illini?

Preeminent tourney performer Big Ten, Wonk salutes you!

Michigan State beat Kentucky 94-88 in double-overtime yesterday in Austin, Texas, and watching the second overtime of this game truly brought home just how fortunate the Wildcats were to have come this far, how lucky they were that Patrick Sparks' last-second three-pointer at the end of regulation fell through (and that his toe didn't touch the line). In the final overtime period, Kentucky--whether due to fatigue, youth, or incompetence--did not move at all on offense in their half-court sets.

Literally. Spartan fans with this game on tape or in digits try this experiment: go to the second overtime and, any time the ball's on the UK side of the floor, hit fast-forward. You'll see four still-life's and a drowsily moving ball-handler. Wonk had the feeling that as soon as Tom Izzo's team got out of its own way the game would end. And so it did.

In his latest bit of pioneering work in the field of cognitive dispersion, Wonk is jotting these comments down in advance of reading what anyone else in the world not named Ken Pomeroy has said. Still, this blogger has some hunches about what those others will say. Specifically, Wonk anticipates it will be said that the Spartans won a close one when it mattered most. That they slayed their demons at last. That Alan Anderson, he of the crucial misses at the free throw line in the disastrous loss to Iowa in the Big Ten tournament (again: how did that happen?), made the free throws that iced the game.

Well, Anderson did make the free throws that iced the game and the Spartans, of course, did win a close game. Even so: was this not the least in-doubt double-overtime game you've ever seen? Aside from a bad moment at the opening of the first overtime (when State could not so much as get the ball to half-court in two consecutive tries), none of the allegedly ancient ghosts made so much as a cameo appearance.

And so Wonk moves that we put all that close-game fretting to bed: discursively and otherwise. This team beat Duke and Kentucky this weekend. End of story. They may lose a close game in St. Louis (so too, of course, may North Carolina or Illinois or Louisville) but recent history suggests a higher probability of a close win.

Or two.

EXCLUSIVE Wonk game analysis! (You won't find this level of material anywhere else, folks.) Michigan State shot really well in the second half!

Your intrepid blogger's game notes look like this:

Davis layup
Brown 15-footer
Brown 3
Ager layup
Neitzel 3

Etc., etc. You get the idea. In all Wonk counts 30 second-half possessions, from which the Spartans extracted 42 points. They missed a grand total of seven shots in 20 minutes and turned the ball over just six times in that span.

If Wonk were piecing this all together from a box score he would think State must have been racing up and down the court and getting many layups and dunks. But the impressive part is that, almost without exception, this level of execution came in the half-court against a worthy defensive foe. One sequence stands out for Wonk as representative of this excellence....

With a little less than 11 minutes to go in the second half, the score is tied at 53. When the ball is fed to Paul Davis in the post, Kentucky hesitates for a moment but then doubles down on the big man, in a show of new-found respect for the recently beastly Spartan. As soon as the double-team comes, Kelvin Torbert, stationed at the top of the key, extends his hands in anticipation of a pass. When Davis feeds him, Torbert's covered by Shannon Brown's man--but Torbert doesn't even wait to see this occur. He's predicted it and he delivers a touch pass to Brown who is now wide open on the left wing and drains the three: 56-53. Simple stuff, yes. But simple stuff executed to perfection wins games.

BONUS Billy Packer note! Ah, never mind. The eerily Mr. Burns-like analyst who occupies the most coveted courtside seat in college hoops yet chooses to bury his nose in an NCAA Tournament historical almanac ("Jim, 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.) leaves Wonk with far too much material for so little time. More on this tomorrow....

Links. Kentucky fan Ashley Judd explains why she blew off her niece's baptism to attend the game
here. Then, if you feel you must read on....

Wow, Wonk should sport a wacky turban and call himself Swami. "In the span of two weeks," writes Stewart Mandel of, "Tom Izzo's crew went from being the team that couldn't win the big one to the team that's now knocked off two huge ones in a row--top seed Duke and second-seeded Kentucky--by
making the type of clutch plays down the stretch that had managed to elude them for nearly two full seasons." And Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski says: "For pure, redemptive moments, there may never be another like this, as Michigan State stared down a heaping pile of pressure, as Alan Anderson stood at the free-throw line poised to send his team to the Final Four." Still, Dennis Dodd of cbs.sportsline points out, correctly, that some of the abuse heaped on the Spartans the past two years came from within their own camp: "Chronic underachievers, they were called, by their own coach."

Columnist John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader says UK's third straight loss in the Elite Eight was "
three excruciating hours of a beating chest and a breaking heart."

Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp finds significance in the day this victory occurred: "On a day that celebrated resurrection,
Michigan State rose from the ashes of stinging doubt to reach its expectations." (Great minds alert! Lansing State Journal columnist Todd Schulz: "Left for dead after a crippling loss to Iowa little more than two weeks, Michigan State completed its own stunning resurrection on Easter Sunday.") And Free Press columnist Mitch Albom adds: "Say what you will about these Michigan State Spartans, but say it in St. Louis."

I can't be prouder of this team," says Tom Izzo. Jubilant Spartan Nation coverage from the corner of Albert and Charles in East Lansing here. Two-headed-monster profile of Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager here. Three-headed-monster profile of Brown, Ager and Alan Anderson here. Izzo-as-Gallagher coverage (you know: the sledgehammer, the tapes of the losses, etc.) here.

BONUS Wonk syntactical nit-picking! Patrick Sparks' dramatic game-tying three at the end of regulation is being called "
controversial" in some accounts. It wasn't controversial. It was close because his toe was close to the line and because it bounced on the rim for "about 35 minutes" (Chris Hill's estimate). But no one disputed the call. Wonk has watched for a few years now as "controversial" has morphed into a synonym for "close" (particularly, it seems, in football) and, by Godfrey, this blogger has had it! "Controversial" denotes intense disagreement, not razor-thin distinctions.

Did Patrick Sparks really yell "Take that!" at Billy Packer? After sinking that three? That's what it says

A time to Heel
North Carolina beat Wisconsin 88-82 in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse yesterday in a game that many Wonk emailers did not think would be this close. The Badgers got the maximum conceivable effort from the likes of Kammron Taylor (18 points), Clayton Hanson (5-of-8 on threes) and Sharif Chambliss (3-of-6) to add to 25 points from Alando Tucker and still it was not enough. But what a team when the backcourt comes to play, no?

Carolina might fairly be said to have out-Wisconsin'ed Wisconsin: just nine turnovers and a plus-6 in the rebounds column. An outstanding effort from the Badgers and poor three-point shooting from the Heels (5-of-16) kept this one competitive. But Sean May made sure "competitive" didn't turn into "loss."

May. What a beast: 13-of-19, 29 points, 12 boards. Put it this way: May, easily, outscored and outrebounded Mike Wilkinson and Zach Morley combined. Wonk has said before that college hoops this year does not have the Emeka Okafor or Carmelo Anthony figure. Maybe not but May comes closer to that level than anyone else.

BONUS aesthetic note! It did Wonk's Big Ten eyes good to see Tucker elevate high over Tar Heel blue for that beautiful alley-oop slam in the final two minutes. If the
All-Wonk Team were scheduled for a 5.0 release, Tucker would get serious consideration. (Wisconsin State Journal columnist Tom Oates salutes the same alley-oop here.)

EXCLUSIVE Wonk Pomeroy-parroting! Carolina's performance in Syracuse dropped them to tenth in the nation in defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy's points-per-possession-based
ratings. Before this weekend the Tar Heels had ranked fourth. This drop-off confirms what this blogger's eyes were telling him: Carolina's D yesterday was lackluster at best.

Links. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Gary D'Amato says: "Funny, the University of Wisconsin basketball team
didn't get this much respect when it was winning." (More: the Tar Heels were "pushed to the limit by a sixth-seeded team that was perceived by many to be one of the weaker teams to reach the Sweet 16.")

Mike Wilkinson says Sean May "was
almost unstoppable." Bo Ryan talks about May the way ZZ Top talks about legs: "He knows how to use what he has." And of his own team Ryan says: "I haven't been around a team that's done what this group has done with what they had."

Three-headed-monster coverage of Clayton Hanson, Sharif Chambliss, and Kammron Taylor
here. Salute to departing senior Mike Wilkinson here. Future-is-bright-themed salute to sophomore Alando Tucker here. A Greg Stiemsma spotting reported here.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Kyle Veltrop of The Sporting News says this weekend comprised "
the greatest two-day period in college basketball history."

Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Bruce Pearl appears
poised to take the job at Tennessee.

Wall-to-wall Illini day-after-classic coverage!
Lindsey Willhite of the Daily Herald says "one revolution by the earth only has made Saturday’s Chicago regional championship game appear
even more otherworldly."

Columnist Mike Downey of the Chicago Tribune casts an early vote on the vital matter of how to refer to this game, one that fairly demands its own label. Downey's vote:
the Miracle of Rosemont. (Or should it be the Miracle on Mannheim?)

Wonk's not saying Chicago has wrapped its arms around this team or anything but the Illini's miracle comeback was invoked from the pulpit during
at least one Easter mass in the 312 area code yesterday.

Was it really a miracle? Take it from Bruce Weber: "
If Jack [Ingram] can get a steal, anything can happen." (Said it before, gonna say it again: Wonk likes Weber.)

Coverage of celebrations for the team bus along I-57
here. Wildcat Nation devastation coverage here. Daily Herald columnist Mike Imrem does penance for saying Illinois would lose to Arizona (and, before that, Illinois would lose to Nevada) here. Jay Mariotti of the Chicago Sun-Times heaps praise upon Deron Williams here. So does indefatigable Illini beat writer John Supinie, here. Sun-Times columnist Ron Rapoport notices little-noticed big man Jack Ingram here. Copley News Service columnist Mike Nadel suggests the allegedly suddenly snippy-with-the-media Illini brush up on their Dale Carnegie here. View from a typical Illinois-based sports pessimist (Cubs, Bears, etc) here.

Readers Digest-style condensed history of Illinois 2004-05

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(Insert nasal whine here) I've seen the Heels' D and the damage done....

North Carolina's defense made the Wisconsin guards look very good yesterday. If the Tar Heels play that kind of D against Michigan State they'll get run out of the building. Don't even ask me what the Illini would do to that kind of defense. Mothers hide your children....

P.S. Did you see the phantom foul called early in the game on a Rashad McCants cross-over? Nobody even came close to touching him (they showed a replay, but neither Lundquist or Raftery commented on it), the cross-over was of the ankle-breaking variety. But he missed the runner and got two foul shots. No one so much as laid a finger on him!

Anyway, I just thought the first half of that game was called horribly, the only reason Wisconsin could tie it (at 44!) was Carolina's matador D.

How'd this team reach the top 10 in defensive efficiency?

Mike L.

By tiring out their opponents and compiling meaningless but stat-stuffing second halves? Dunno.

Good stuff, Mike--thanks!

Latest update from alert reader and die-hard Illini fan Jason

Ah, normally here at headquarters, we spend the weekend combining the mundane (clothes washing! grocery hunting!) and the relaxing (the remote, a beer, and hoops). This weekend, as it does three times per year, hoops was paramount and the grocery hunting was done in strict accordance with CBS game-time directives, with the added bonus of Easter dinner.

And, boy, what a weekend. Four games, four overtime periods, two furious comebacks, and four great games.

As for the Illinois-Arizona game, I really don't know what to say. I admit I conceded when Arizona went up 15, but I continued to watch because, well, watching Illinois basketball is what I do. (I do this.) I figured: if this is the last five minutes of the season, I'm watching.

We know I was being a bit chicken little but, judging from the Illiniboard, I wasn't alone. All I can say is this: when I woke up Sunday morning, my first thought was, "Sweet mercy, Illinois won last night, and I still don't know how".

This morning we learned, miracle of miracles, Mariotti even praised Illinois. Yes, Mariotti! So we know something so blindingly brilliant happened in Rosemont last night that even the harshest hometown critics jumped the wagon.

Otherwise, the game has been dissected by the MSM and you, among other bloggers, and there's nothing to add.

But this:

Final Four
Big East = 0
Big 12 = 0
Pac 10 = 0
SEC = 0
CUSA = 1
ACC = 1
Big Ten = 2

Hmm, that's gratifying.

Suffering the interminable wait 'til Saturday,
Jason H.

Thanks, Jason!


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