Big Ten Wonk
Thursday, March 16, 2006
Drama, magnitude, and finality
(Today's post continues a (young) tradition.)

The tournament starts in earnest today when Wichita State tips off against Seton Hall in Greensboro, NC. And so at 12:20 EST begins the best sporting event of the year. By far....

(Almost) every November, when college football is noisily twisting itself into bewildering BCS knots trying to determine who will play for the national championship, I thank the bracket gods for giving us such a beautifully Euclidean way of determining who will play for the national championship.

Every May and June, when the NBA inflicts upon us "playoffs" that occupy about as much time as the Crimean War (I especially appreciate the four-day pauses between first-round games, drawing out the suspense of that tense San Antonio vs. Denver series), I thank the bracket gods for giving us such a tidy three-week method of going from 300+ to 65 to one.

Every January-February, when the NFL presents a Super Bowl that feels so oddly disconnected from and unrelated to an actual football game, I thank the bracket gods for giving us tournament games that are the very epitome of college hoops (Laettner, Drew, et. al.).

Every October when baseball gives us its best games in indigestible four-hour slabs in the dark of late-night in game-altering 30-degree weather, I thank the bracket gods for selecting their champion in two-hour installments in precisely the right game-enhancing venues (neutral floors, opposing fans, opposing bands).

And every October 15, I thank the bracket gods for starting the cycle anew.

"Drama, magnitude and finality"? It's lifted from those erstwhile wordsmiths at the Supreme Court, ruling against President Truman some 54 years ago. I think the Supremes of a half-century ago would happily concede that theirs is a better description of March Madness than of what they thought they were describing (the presidency).

Starting today, each game is the most important game of the year. Each game eliminates one more team. And there is one fewer game than there are teams.

As of this morning, it's all still in front of us. Nice moment, this.

(4) Illinois vs. (13) Air Force, San Diego (7:25pm ET)
Wonk 360: Illinois in San Diego
Despite what you've read, the Falcons, while very sound on defense, are not truly "one of the better defensive teams in the country." It's just that they slow the game down to a crawl (only Princeton averages fewer possessions per 40 minutes). They also shoot a lot of threes and shoot them well. Illinois can win slow--they've done it against Northwestern (twice) and Georgetown this year--and should have little trouble gaining an advantage on the boards. Also turnovers are likely to be a wash, I think (despite the fact that Air Force, like NU, is very successful at creating turnovers). So it could come down to shooting. It will most certainly help the Illini's chances against the Air Force zone if Rich McBride, Jamar Smith, and, yes, Dee Brown, are "on" from outside.

Air Force guard Antoine Hood says he and his teammates have heard the criticism of the selection committee for extending a bid to the Falcons: "As coach says, the most dangerous animal in the forest is a wounded one. Everyone’s been stabbing us repeatedly, so I’d say we’re very dangerous right now." Matt McCraw agrees: "We're going to have unbelievable energy." St. Louis Post Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell salutes Hood here. And Dennis Dodd of cbs.sportsline salutes the entire Falcon team here.

Bruce Weber says he's warned his team they will have to play their best: "We all watched last year when Bucknell beat Kansas. If you don't come ready to play, you'll be on the highlights for all the wrong reasons." But Weber thinks Illinois will be ready: "We're a blue-collar team. They're doing a great job of accepting what they are, relying on defense and rebounding. If we do that, we can play a few games." James Augustine says there's less pressure on the team than last year: "This year we are an underdog."

Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper says he thinks "Air Force is way underrated. That said, I still think Illinois should win by 10 to 12 if it shoots the ball fairly well and nothing off-the-wall weird happens (injuries, a stack of early fouls, etc.)." Dee Brown agrees with the "underrated" part: "Lower seeds are really good teams. They don't come from power conferences, but they're real talented and real determined to prove they can play." Brown also says tournament games are a different animal: "The intensity level is so high, I just can’t explain it. You’ve just got to play in it."

(6) Indiana vs. (11) San Diego St., Salt Lake City (9:40pm ET)
Wonk 360: Indiana in Salt Lake
As a shameless Big Ten homer I am admittedly nervous about this game. The Aztecs' offense rates about 30 rungs higher nationally than IU's and they do it on the inside, where the Hoosiers are most vulnerable defensively. Marcus Slaughter is a monster on the offensive boards and when he's not cleaning the glass he's making the latest in a series of frequent trips to the free throw line. That being said, SDSU has some interior defense issues of its own. Mike Davis should require his men to start every possession with a look inside to Marco Killingsworth. The strength of both teams' defenses is on the perimeter--but the Aztecs (Mountain West POY Brandon Heath notwithstanding) don't shoot many threes and the Hoosiers do. Keep an eye on this one.

San Diego State has never won an NCAA tournament game. Salute to SDSU seniors Mohamed Camara, John Sharper, and Trimaine Davis here.

IU senior Marshall Strickland says he and his teammates have played much better since Mike Davis announced his resignation: "The month leading up to coach resigning, it just seemed like we were walking into every game down 15 points." Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Rich Bozich says playing a tournament with a lame duck coach is a unique situation: "The more Davis wins, the longer he stays. And the more Davis wins, the stranger this strange goodbye dance will surely become."

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
The patented Wonk 360 technology has gone to work! Each venue hosts, in effect, a couple four-team tournaments. And if there's a Big Ten team involved, Wonk 360 will break those four teams down. Mosey on over to the sidebar and enjoy!

That beloved quartet of Big Ten tourney teams who aren't playing today!
Ohio State backup big man Matt Terwilliger may be available for limited minutes this weekend. Terwilliger is recovering from an appendectomy performed last week....Terence Dials says Je'Kel Foster's current shooting slump is "mind-boggling."...Salute to Thad Matta here....The Buckeyes' first-round opponent is Davidson and these two teams played an NCAA tournament game in 2002, with OSU prevailing 69-64. But Wildcat coach Bob McKillop says that game means nothing: "Different coach and different players for them. Different venue. Nothing comparable at all."

Iowa faces Northwestern State tomorrow and Demons coach Mike McConathy says his team likes its up-tempo style: "We play a lot of people and because of that, we feel like it's important for us to play at a high level of intensity because we think we've got 10 or 11 players who are very good basketball players, and if they are playing as hard as they can over the 40 minutes when they're in there we'll have the opportunity to play at a higher level."...Salute to state of Iowa products Jeff Horner, Greg Brunner, and Adam Haluska here. Horner admits he didn't know his team would achieve this level of success on defense this year: "We felt like we could be a good defensive team this year, but the numbers have been a little surprising. Last year, we were an OK defensive team, but it wasn’t anything like this."

Michigan State wing Mo Ager says the Spartans have to develop a killer instinct: "When we're up on a team, not to sound cocky, but just put them away and get our subs in."...Bold iconoclasm alert! These articles say State will live or die according to Drew Neitzel's offensive production. These articles couldn't be more mistaken. Ranked among the top 15 offenses in the country and blessed with the likes of Shannon Brown and the absurdly underrated Paul Davis, MSU's scoring will almost certainly be just fine, whether Neitzel records 12 points or two. The question mark--with the team most of the time and with Neitzel all of the time--is on D.

Former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett has had the opportunity, as Washington State coach, to observe Arizona very closely. His verdict on the Wildcats? "Erratic."...Alando Tucker says he's used to opposing teams focusing their attention on him: "Mentally I prepare myself beforehand that I know I'm going to go in and I'm going to take a beating."

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Zero? As in zero zero?

I never cease to be amazed by Seth Davis. Earlier this year I see him call the Big East the best conference in the history of college basketball, when they are third (at the time) in the conference RPI rankings and ended up second, behind the Big Ten. They were 23-21 versus the other power conferences, compared to the Big Ten's 21-14. Hardly a record befitting the best conference in the history of college basketball (he did make that claim while interviewing Jim Calhoun--great unbiased journalism on display). The Big East did get eight teams in the tournament, which represents exactly half of the conference. The Big Ten got in 55% (6 of 11). Although the Big Ten had a good year, neither conference is anywhere near some of the ACC years when they would get in six out of nine teams and be number 1 in RPI by a wide margin.

Now check out his bracket: he has the Big Ten getting no teams to the sweet sixteen - Wisconsin, Indiana and Iowa losing in round 1, and MSU, Illinois and Ohio State losing in round 2, for a record of 3-6. For comparison's sake, he has the Big East going 20-7, with six teams getting to the sweet sixteen, four to the Elite 8, and two to the Final Four, with Villanova winning in all. I have heard of an east coast bias, but this is a little over the top. Where can I find a spot to bet the Big Ten +16 in 2006 NCAA tourney wins versus the Big East? Maybe Seth will take my action!

Tim E,

No Big Ten teams in the Sweet 16? Isn't it beautiful that we don't have to chew this over? Just sit back and wait 84 hours. We'll see....

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