Big Ten Wonk
Thursday, March 24, 2005
Hoops. Please.
Tournament action resumes tonight. Thank goodness. Wonk has it on good authority that Congressional leaders in Washington were seriously considering legislation called the No Bruce Pearl Story Left Behind Act of 2005....

(12) Wisconsin-Milwaukee (26-6) vs. (1) Illinois (34-1)
7:27pm (EST)
No one is giving the Panthers a chance in this one. On Sunday Wonk foretold that this would be the case, that everyone would say UWM, with their full-court press, doesn't match up well with a team that has two guards who are second-team All-Americans (and a third who will go higher in the NBA draft than either of the other two). As good as the Illinois guards are, big man James Augustine has been even better the past five games. The game is in Chicago--closer, ironically, to Milwaukee than Champaign but tell that to the UWM players tonight: this is effectively the Illini backyard. Indeed the crowd, far from cheering for a plucky Cinderella, will rain boo's down on Bruce Pearl. Even esteemed fellow bloggers are tagging this one in advance as the Sweet 16's worst game. Yes, nobody gives the Panthers a chance.

Well your intrepid blogger is here to tell you that...everyone's right.

Sorry. Wonk really, really tried to play the iconoclast on this one. It is, after all, Wonk's preferred narrative shtick: to scrutinize the game tape and sift the box scores and come forth with something surprising or at least mildly interesting.

Well, the game tapes tell me that in the tournament so far the Panthers are living on their own threes and their opponents' turnovers, pure and simple.

Over the course of their two tournament wins, a not terribly good-shooting UWM team has ridden suddenly hot outside shooting (.511, a combined 23-of-45 on threes) and, of course, reaped the benefits of the many turnovers they've forced (over 20 a game the first two rounds). Take away either factor and they'll lose. Take away both and they'll lose badly....

For even while they've advanced to the Sweet 16, the Panthers have been beaten on the boards by an average of nine rebounds a game. And they've put their opponents on the line more than 25 times a game (a notably hacky figure considering it's not, of course, inflated by late-game fouling while trying to come from behind).

And that's just in tournament play. Looking at the season as a whole, if anything, gives even less reason for forecasting an upset: Illinois (numbers here) shoots better (both from the field and on threes), gets more boards, and turns the ball over less than UWM (numbers here). According to Ken Pomeroy's points-per-possession based ratings, the Panthers are the least efficient offensive team still playing and 13th out of 16 on D (only West Virginia, NC State, and Washington rank lower).

None of which, of course, is to say Wisconsin-Milwaukee can't win. Here's a scenario where they do: absolutely unconscious three-point shooting (50 percent +), horrendous shooting by the Illini, two fouls for Augustine and for one other Illinois starter by the under-12 timeout in the first half, and a wacky surprise by Bruce Pearl (a la Tommy Amaker in the game Michigan played against the Illini in Ann Arbor) where the Panthers take the air out of the ball and play a D they haven't shown on the tapes (match-up zone?).

But see how far afield Wonk has to go for such a scenario? Sure, the Panthers could win. Heck, Chaminade beat Ralph Sampson and Virginia. NC State beat Houston. Villanova beat Georgetown. Wonk never says never.

But sometimes Wonk says: I don't see it.

BONUS non-Big-Ten hiccup! Louisville is tough, yes, and Wonk himself went on the record in the aftermath of Selection Sunday as saying the Cardinals were under-seeded. That being said, isn't the hype getting just a tad out of hand for a team that really never did shake Louisiana-Lafayette in the first round and that needed Darius Washington to miss two of his free throws to escape with a win against Memphis in the C-USA final?

Offense wins championships (unless your D is really bad)
What a coincidence! According to Ken Pomeroy's points-per-possession-based efficiency ratings, six of the nation's top seven offensive teams are alive and well in the Sweet 16 (North Carolina, Oklahoma State, Washington, Illinois, Michigan State, and Louisville). Among the country's most efficient scoring teams, only Wake Forest is sitting at home this morning.

True, of those six survivors, some are also good on defense (Carolina is fourth-best nationally; Illinois, sixth). But then again, some are not so good (Oklahoma State is 37th; Washington is 64th).

And then there's the cautionary tale of Wake: 81st on D, which perhaps explains their sudden free time.

First new Wonk hypothesis in many a moon! Don't be absolutely Wake-Forest-awful on D but, other things being equal, it's offense that leads to jersey-popping. (Link courtesy of alert San Diego reader Chaitanya S.)

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is 0-4 lifetime against Duke, a fact of which he is well aware. "I am tired of them beating us," he says. "I'm tired of their program beating our program." Can the Spartans break that pattern and win tomorrow night? (And say, as Izzo, kind of, already has: bring on Kentucky (or Utah)?) "They can," answers columnist Todd Schulz of the Lansing State Journal. "What's more, they probably should. The Spartans are deeper, more balanced offensively and just as talented as Duke." Dave Dye of the Detroit News says State's big men--Paul Davis, Drew Naymick and Matt Trannon--will have to contain Shelden Williams....Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski profiles Drew Neitzel here. Profile of Mo Ager here. Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp profiles Alan Anderson here. (Anderson, for one, is not properly respectful of tomorrow night's opponent. When asked if Duke has a "mystique" he replied: "It ain't working on us if they do.")

Wisconsin guard Clayton Hanson says the Badgers are properly respectful of NC State's Julius Hodge: "We'll have our hands full stopping him." (Badgers'-eye view of Hodge here.) Profile of Badger big man Zach Morley here. Profile of Alando Tucker here. Three-headed-no-monsters-here profile of the UW freshmen here.

Illinois' players are sounding properly respectful of tonight's opponent. "If we don't start paying attention to them soon we'll end up just like Alabama and Boston College did," says big man Jack Ingram. "I love the way they play," adds Dee Brown. Bruce Weber says: "we've got to prepare for that special level." And former Illinois great Steve Bardo says Wisconsin-Milwaukee will "play the Illini tough for a while." Still, oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper blogs that he likes the Illini's chances tonight: "Like them a lot."...D'oh! Roger Powell's favorite inspirational metaphor, David vs. Goliath, doesn't work so well for the Illini tonight....Panthers'-eye view of the Illini big men here.

Still more Panther-palooza! Bruce Pearl says UWM is going to stick with the pressing style that's brought them this far: "For us, vanilla won't work." (Seconding Pearl's decision is a strikingly hip-sounding Bruce Weber: "It's their mojo," the Illini coach says of the Panther press. To Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline, though, "Pressing the Illini makes no sense.") Pearl also says he's hoping for vocal support from Oklahoma State and Arizona fans: "Do you think they want to play the Fighting Illini in the next game, or the Panthers of Milwaukee, in spite of our vaunted press? I think they'll take us."...It's the pressure, stupid. It's all on the Illini! So says the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here. Journal Sentinel columnist Michael Hunt agrees and says "UWM has a chance tonight against Illinois."...Panther assistant Jason Shay had "the scout" on the Illini for tonight's game and shares (some of) what he's learned here....Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Downey details the Chicagoland credentials of many of the Panthers here. Profile of Ed McCants here. Two-headed-monster profile of Joah Tucker and PPWS stud Adrian Tigert here.

Geezer Meme blowback! Pundits rise as one, telling Illini Nation: hey, get over it already! UPDATE: So does Lou Henson! Just as Wonk fantasized!...Herb Gould of the Chicago Sun-Times says Bruce Pearl may be "Cinderella in 49 states [but] he's still Public Enemy No. 1 in the Land of Lincoln." Former Iowa head coach Tom Davis weighs in here.

Give this man hazardous-duty pay! Jeff Shelman, erstwhile hoops writer for both the Minneapolis Star Tribune and, has been reading and reports: "As of Wednesday afternoon, the top thread about Pearl has more than 630 posts and has been viewed more than 54,000 times. On it, Pearl has been compared to Satan and Darth Vader." (And those are just the posts that haven't been yanked down.)

Latest gem from Wonk's "actual headline" department! "Pearl's return shouldn't pose security problem."

Etc. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Greg Couch says reports of a kinder, gentler Bob Knight have been greatly exaggerated: "You can't teach an old pit bull new tricks." Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey says "Arizona's Lute Olson and Oklahoma State's Eddie Sutton are the biggest names at the Chicago regional, and that includes players."

BONUS extraneous link! David Haugh of the Tribune has a nice read on how it's the players that make the team but it's the coach that makes the program. Haugh's piece includes this gem from Dean Smith, regretting a key decision in the 1968 national championship game between North Carolina and UCLA:

"I decided to stick to my game plan. I thought maybe we could play [Lew Alcindor] straight up. Except our center [Rusty Clark] was a future thoracic surgeon, and theirs became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Shows you what I knew."

The player then known as Lew Alcindor recorded 34 points and 16 rebounds. UCLA won 78-55.

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Illini fan to Wonk: proud to be a geezer
For the past few days Wonk has referred to the whole Illinois-no-likey-Bruce-Pearl kerfuffle as the Geezers' Meme, in honor of the fact that the story's inciting incident took place within a few dozen days of Ronald Reagan leaving office and indeed is now some 16 years in the past. Wonk's readers respond!


First off, your blog rocks.

So although I'm a mere 33 years old, I do suppose I qualify as a "geezer" in an internet time frame. I went to Illinois from '89 to '93 and was a season ticket holder for four years. I don't actually blame Pearl for the investigation and probation. If the NCAA wants you, they're most likely going to get you.

But today before we canonize Pearl for his coaching ability and give him a pass to a major D-I job, I still would like to hear a reasonable answer to one question: "Why would you secretly tape record a 17-year-old kid (sometimes at night)?"

The context of this is greatly disturbing be it adult-minor, teacher-student...It's not an unreasonable question, but he's never given any response beyond a nebulous cover of protecting himself. (From what?)

He was not the target of an NCAA investigation. And spliced tapes are little defense if truly used as evidence. This question bothers my Hawkeye friends as well. Pearl's lack of remorse and "I'd do it again" responses are very troubling in this context.

After all this, Deon Thomas (former teenage NCAA-investigation-target; inner-city player who never was a trouble maker; told by the NCAA that going anywhere but Illinois would make this all go away; postponed his collegiate career) landing on his feet is truly remarkable. What the poor kid--he was a kid at the time--went through was horrible and could have destroyed lesser people. Had his story not had a good ending for Thomas, the Chicago media would be having a field day with Pearl right now and his "I'd do it again" would not be acceptable to anyone. If Thomas were in the NBA right now, how he described Pearl would be WELL publicized. As you know, the word was "evil."

I don't know about that but I hope his judgment doesn't hurt another high school or college student in the future.

Wonk on!

John H.

Great email, John. Thanks. In response Wonk offers up five easy theses on Bruce Pearl:

1) It's over.

2) Pearl's future job prospects, if any, will be determined not by the quality of his ethics but by his W's and L's.

3) Even granting (1) and (2): Contrary to what Gregg Doyel of cbs.sportsline has written in a strikingly fatuous and muddled piece, Pearl is not to be confused with a profile in courage. To Doyel, Pearl stood up for what was right even though it meant violating a backward code of silence among coaches. To Wonk, Pearl was a recruiter in a competitive fight for a top prospect. When he lost that fight, he made phone calls to a 17-year-old, turned on a tape recorder without informing the young man, and asked him leading questions on a matter in which Pearl himself had a vital personal interest. This may be Doyel's ethical exemplar. It is not Wonk's.

4) Pearl could continue to believe and insist that Illinois wronged him in that battle while still acknowledging that he himself made some questionable choices. Yet he does not: in Pearl's telling even 16 years later his motives were simon-pure, his behavior justified. And precisely to the degree that he sees himself as Doyel sees him (as a courageous idealist brought down by shadowy forces in a corrupt world), Pearl continues to this day to give Wonk the shudders.

5) That being said, Pearl and the shudders he causes are way, way down the list of Wonk's Things to Think About. (See (1).)


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