Big Ten Wonk
Sunday, April 03, 2005
Meant to be
We've now seen 64 games of tournament basketball, games that have done outstanding work. They gave us stirring upsets (Bucknell and Vermont) and a certified classic (West Virginia over Wake Forest) the first weekend; three certified classics the second (Louisville over West Virginia, Illinois over Arizona, and Michigan State over Kentucky); and, now, a national championship game with the two teams that everyone's been saying all along are the two best: North Carolina and Illinois.

Michigan State Spartans, Wonk salutes you!
North Carolina 87, Michigan State 71
Tom Izzo's team was a joy for this blogger to watch all season. They defended like mad, rebounded like, well, like a Tom Izzo team, ran like a track team, and shot like marksmen. All of which they did in the first half last night, netting themselves a 38-33 lead.

Then it all fell apart. Was Carolina that good or State that bad after halftime? Wonk suspects: little of neither. Alan Anderson was hobbled by a knee injury (did we know about this before now?) and had zero points. But the Heels were, to say the least, on their game in the final 20.

The Spartans missed shots they often make: Tom Izzo's team went into last night shooting .494 from the field but had just a .338 to show for their game against the Heels. ("College basketball's grandest stage lit up Saturday night, and the Michigan State Spartans proved they belonged on it," writes Joe Rexrode in this morning's Lansing State Journal. "Problem was, MSU couldn't shoot very well on it.") And in a game that featured a remarkable 93 rebounds (not a typo), Carolina hauled in 51 of them. Roy Williams' team does rebounds about like Illinois does points: Sean May, Marvin Williams, Jawad Williams, Raymond Felton (yes, Raymond Felton), and Rashad McCants--all had between six and eight boards.

BONUS auditory note! Give Jim Nantz credit for consistency: his dogged insistence on calling Kelvin Torbert "Kelvin Torbit" continued. Wonk trusts this was good drinking-game material in East Lansing.

Links. "Talent doesn't lie," is how Drew Sharp sums up the game in this morning's Detroit Free Press. Or, as Dave Dye puts it in the Detroit News: "These were players seemingly ready for the NBA against players hoping to play in the NBA one day." Bob Wojnowski of the News agrees: "Michigan State ran as long it could, before it hit something that wouldn't move." And Todd Schulz of the Lansing State Journal says Carolina "simply had too much size, speed and strength for the Spartans."

Will-Paul-Davis-be-back? coverage here. (If "yes," the Spartans should be really tough next year.) What-happens-now coverage of Spartan seniors Alan Anderson, Chris Hill, and Kelvin Torbert here.

Flint natives Torbert and Tim Bograkos now leave the program but fret not: redshirt freshman Marquise Gray will carry the Flintstone banner from here.

Bruce Weber now has Final Four experience
Illinois 72, Louisville 57
This Illini fan would never do anything as foolhardy as flout the hoops gods in advance of his team's biggest game in 16 years. So Wonk didn't share with you alert readers how amused he was by the Final Four preview penned by Wall Street Journal sports reporter Allan Berra. (Sorry, no linky: look in the dictionary under "paid site" and you'll see the WSJ.) Berra's recurring Friday feature (surely one of the sweetest gigs in sports) is entitled "By the Numbers" but Friday's effort was a tired belch of coach-centric superstition with nary a number in site: Bruce Weber was going to lose to Rick Pitino because, duh, Pitino's taken three different teams to the Final Four!

Of all the hoary cliches surrounding college basketball, the Final Four coaching experience meme is surely one of the most tautologically inane. Maybe coaches with Final Four experience do well because, by definition, they preside over the best programs in the country. But plucky Bruce Weber bravely soldiered on in the face of the Pitino Curse yesterday and delivered a win.

The postgame accounts are calling this a comfortable Illinois win. Tell that to Illinois fans. Having been the thrilled beneficiaries last weekend of a 15-point comeback in the last four minutes, we Illini may never be entirely comfortable with a lead ourselves again. Rick Morrissey has it about right in this morning's Chicago Tribune: "It was hard for a while, and then it was stunningly easy."

Indeed, Illinois delivered the 15-point win, in a game that, with one glaring exception, was striking for being so statistically representative of the Illini this year. Against Louisville Illinois shot .482 from the field (before last night their season average was .487), .400 on their threes (season average: .397), and turned the ball over just seven times (average: 11.2). ("I gotta tell you, it all felt like a normal game, really," said Deron Williams afterward.) What was different yesterday, of course, was Illinois' surprising dominance on the boards: give Illinois a +12 in rebounds and, well, they'll post a 15-point win on a 33-4 team that's gone 20-1 since early January. Kudos to Luther Head (six boards) and Deron Williams (five) for helping out the always beastly James Augustine (11).

Arguably the most formidable aspect of the Illini is their ability to almost always deliver two players who have great games shooting the ball. (As oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper puts it in his blog: "Once again Illinois gave us surprise heroes, which sums up why this team is difficult to defend.") Last night those two were Head and Roger Powell, each of whom scored 20 and who combined for 15-for-26 shooting. (The rest of the Illini went 12-for-30.)

Williams guarded Francisco Garcia for much of the game (though not all of it, as many of this morning's accounts would have you believe) and the Cardinal guard had a miserable game, going just 2-of-10 and scoring just four points. From Wonk's chair on the couch, Williams played great D, yes--at the same time, Garcia was off. (Put it this way: no one rushed to credit T.J. Parker, Aaron Robinson, or Kammron Taylor with outstanding defense when Dee Brown was struggling with his shot in the Big Ten tournament.) Don't get Wonk wrong: he's all for Williams being a defensive stopper. Add Williams' new-found ability to the D played by Luther Head (still, Wonk believes, the best Illini defender) and designated pest and steal machine Brown and you have one tough defensive backcourt.

BONUS in-game quote from Wonk friend Ben! With five minutes to go in the contest and the Cardinals down by 12, Rick Pitino put his team into a full-court press...

Billy Packer: I think now we're going to see Rick Pitino basketball.
Wonk friend Ben: Maybe they should have played Rick Pitino basketball the first 35 minutes, too.

Links. Joe Drape of the New York Times says: "As soon as the opening tip went up, the Illini played with an exuberance that had been missing, and the Cardinals looked like the wrong team on the playground." William C. Rhoden of the Times salutes Roger Powell here. More on Powell from Jay Mariotti of the Chicago Sun-Times here and from Kyle Veltrop of The Sporting News here.

David Steele of the Baltimore Sun says Bruce Weber's team "practically strolled into tomorrow's national championship game....Louisville's efficient zone, its unnerving full-court press, its deadeye shooters, its inside muscle and reach--Illinois shrugged it all off. Just another game--another cool, composed and eerily confident stroll toward a date with history." Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post salutes Deron Williams for his defensive work on Francisco Garcia: "With the Illini 37-1, [Williams] not only has been the MVP in the tournament, but he has become indisputably the best player on the No. 1 team, statistics be damned." (Sun-Times columnist Greg Couch also salutes Williams. Um, sort of: "[Williams is] becoming a role model for earthbound dreamers because he looks like a guy who just got out of a recliner and dominated a basketball game." Still more on Williams from Luke Winn at and from Mark Tupper's dead-tree space.)

J.D. Adande of the Los Angeles Times looks ahead to Monday night's game and says: "I like Illinois to win it. You know what you'll get from them. Deron Williams will run the offense, they'll be patient and work for good shots and they will D-up the Tar Heels. They're so clinical that when Roy Williams wanted to demonstrate proper basketball to his team earlier this season he popped in a tape of the Illini and said, 'Watch this.'"

Indispensable blogger Ken Pomeroy asks: "Is it wrong for me to feel bitterness towards Matt Sylvester? You know, the guy who hit the game winner to hand Illinois its only loss. Consider the hype for a game where Illinois has a chance to be the first unbeaten in 29 years and the best player on the opposing team is the son of the MVP of the last unbeaten."

Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle says: "The games Saturday...suggest that all this parity the college basketball junkies yammer about is actually evident below this level. Carolina and Illinois are a half flight of stairs ahead of the nation, and if the Tar Heels have the better talent, the Illini have both an understanding of their duties and the swagger to carry them out."

Daily Herald columnist Mike Imrem says Illinois is getting it done with local talent (um, plus Deron Williams)....Mike Nadel of the Copley News Service says: "You can't stop all of them, but they can stop enough of you. And that, my friends, is the essence of the Fighting Illini."

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

Tonight's performance was beautiful. Easily the best in the last six weeks.

Augie rebounded like a mad fool again.

Deron went shut down on Garcia.

Luther put his foot on Louisville's throat when needed.

Nick put in good minutes.

Jack was an unsung hero...again.

And the Reverend Roger was just superb. I swear he was following his missed three before it left his hand, and that dunk was a awesome. Not to mention his rushed three, while down two, that was huge. Miss that shot, and we could have been down five. That was a game saver.

Can't wait for Monday!

Jason H.

Thanks, Jason!


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