Winners of the first annual Big Ten/Mountain West ChallengeThe Big Ten went 2-0 last night against the Mountain West. With some help from Brandon Heath....(4) Illinois 78, (13) Air Force 69Every Illini fan should email their heartfelt thanks to Jamar Smith. On most other nights his 20 points on six threes would have been a pleasing diversion in a blowout. Last night, however, Illinois actually needed those threes, as the men from the Air Force Academy were busy sinking 13 of their own. Indeed, I was very surprised by the amount of points scored here. (Update: Bruce Weber agrees! "I'll be honest, I was thinking it would be 53-49 or something like that.") Make no mistake, this was in fact a slow game (60 possessions) but both teams shot extremely well, with Air Force (67.1 effective FG pct.) doing even better than the Illini (66.0 eFG pct.). It must be a little disconcerting for Weber to see his team post a defensive rebound percentage of 95.5 (not a typo) and yet still give up 1.15 points per possession. What can you say? The Falcons shot a lot of threes (27 of their 41 attempts) and made a lot. (Six different Air Force players made threes--four made more than one.) The good news is Illinois, powered by 75 percent shooting on their twos, scored a scorching 1.30 points per possession last night. Turns out they needed them....Two additional notes: 1) Don't let the Smith mania make you overlook Brian Randle's performance last night. After sitting out the last 13 minutes of the first half with two fouls, Randle scored 15 points in the second half on 6-of-9 shooting. And 2) Dee Brown came within at least shouting distance of a tri-dub: eight points, eight boards, ten assists. (Box score.)Next: (5) Washington, 75-61 winners over (12) Utah State. Brian Randle guarding Brandon Roy: much too enticing for the second round. That's a second-weekend match-up, folks. LinksThe four games at Cox Arena in San Diego yesterday and last night were pushed back because of a morning bomb scare. Fans with evening session tickets were allowed into the arena just as Illinois and Air Force were tipping off. Thus the first few minutes of the game took place in an eerily empty arena. Columnist Jay Mariotti of the Chicago Sun-Times mulls over the day's strange events here. So do columnist Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Tribune, here, and columnist Mike Imrem of the Daily Herald, here. "A strange but happy day," sums up oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper.Bruce Weber on Jamar Smith's night: "Amazing. He got hot. One [shot] in front of us, I yelled, 'Be patient,' and he still shot it. He looked at me and just smiled. I think he was in one of those grooves....It wasn't just the Dee and James Show." Brian Randle on his 15 second-half points: "The second half I felt like I needed to make up for lost time."Air Force coach Jeff Bzdelik says his team knew going in the Illini would be tough: "As we were calling other teams to gather information, we had people in the Big Ten say that Illinois was the best team. We just couldn't get enough stops." Adds senior Jacob Burtschi: "It was very tough to guard them. We did our best to shut down their power but their other guys stepped up when they were down." And Falcon wing (har!) Dan Nwaelele, sounding uncannily like Sean Connery in The Untouchables, agrees with all of the above: "After we’d hit a shot, they’d hit a shot. If we hit a two, they’d come down and hit a three." ("That's the Chicago way. And that's how you'll get Capone.")Bury my heart at Austin Peay. Illinois has now won nine consecutive NCAA tournament first-round games.(6) Indiana 87, (11) San Diego State 83I've never seen a player's ignorance of the rules be so decisive in the final seconds of an NCAA tournament game. With San Diego State leading 83-82 and 20 seconds to play, the Aztecs had the ball and about 15 seconds left on the shot clock. Brandon Heath was dribbling near mid-court when Marshall Strickland poked the ball into the backcourt. But instead of simply retrieving the ball, Heath tried to block Strickland's path. The Aztec guard apparently thought that if he touched the ball it would be an over-and-back violation. Strickland dove for the ball and got into a tie-up with Heath: possession arrow, Indiana, with 13.3 seconds left. Then, off a near-SDSU steal, the hobbled Robert Vaden sank the game-winning three with 3.3 seconds on the clock. Thus ended a wild night of much tension and little D. The Aztecs led by as many as ten in the second half and shot much better than the Hoosiers for the game. But the 16 turnovers for SDSU versus only nine for IU proved to be crucial. "Our guys kept fighting," Mike Davis said. Added Vaden: "We can get behind but we never feel like we’re out of it." Vaden, Marco Killingsworth, and the suddenly assertive Earl Calloway each scored 18 points for Indiana. Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Rick Bozich says the Hoosiers won despite "foul trouble, injured players and defense that most coaches would be embarrassed to call defense." "On a losing note" note: At 6-10, Mohamed Abukar did his best Steve Novak-in-2003 imitation, lighting the Hoosiers up for 24 points, six of them on threes. (Box score.)Next: (3) Gonzaga, come-from-behind 79-75 winners over (14) Xavier. Speaking of Adam Morrison, IU assistant coach Donnie Marsh says: "I think we may need to know where that guy is." In today's less Wonk-ish venues.... Four games today for the Big Ten, three during working hours. Bless you ncaasports.com.... (2) Ohio State vs. (15) Davidson, Dayton (12:15pm ET)
Wonk 360: Ohio State in Dayton
The Wildcats shoot as many threes as do the Buckeyes, which is a lot. And, though OSU's been misfiring from outside of late, Davidson doesn't have Terence Dials. Add in the Wildcats' (very) weak defense and the potential for another Hampton-Iowa State should be low. Inveterate optimist alert! Columbus Dispatch columnist Bob Hunter says the Buckeyes just need to shoot their way out of this slump. And Thad Matta acknowledges his team's been shooting plenty o' bricks but prefers to see the glass as half-full: "We’ve beaten some great basketball teams not shooting the ball well." (Matta also says never mind the opening at Indiana: "I will be back." Xavier fans will be forgiven for rolling their eyes.)...Profile of J.J. Sullinger (and the family) here. Profile of Davidson father-and-son team Bob (coach) and Matt (guard) McKillop here.(3) Iowa vs. (14) Northwestern St., Auburn Hills (12:25pm ET) Wonk 360: Iowa in Auburn Hills Think of Northwestern St. as kind of like last year's Wisconsin-Milwaukee team: up-tempo, playing lots of players, going for the turnovers. Will that work against the Hawkeyes? It may to an extent--Iowa's surprisingly turnover-prone for such a veteran bunch--but I don't think it will work well enough. Watch for a surprising number of offensive boards for Greg Brunner and perhaps even Erek Hansen, plus a slower game than the Demons would like....We hope that won't be necessary. Northwestern St. guard Jermaine Wallace on today's game: "We're going to go out as hard as we can to win this ballgame. Even if we have to die." Des Moines Register columnist Sean Keeler says Northwestern St. is for real: "Doubt the Demons at your peril." A salute to the Demons' seniors here. But inveterate iconoclast Steve Alford says he for one isn't too worried about Northwestern St.'s much talked-about athleticism: "I don't know if they are any more athletic than Illinois or Michigan State, Ohio State."(9) Wisconsin vs. (8) Arizona, Philadelphia (12:30pm ET)Wonk 360: Wisconsin in PhillyRebounds figure to be plentiful in this game between two very poor shooting teams. In fact, this could be a low-scoring affair. The Wildcats have no outside shooting threat whatsoever, meaning the very long Badgers may be able to pack the paint defensively. Return of Ryan. Chester, PA, native Bo Ryan says he's happy to be playing this game so close to home. And when the coach is happy the players are happy. Says Kammron Taylor: "I haven't seen him smile this much all year. That's a good thing." Profile of Brian Butch here....What does Arizona big man Kirk Walters know about UW? "They come from a tough conference. I know they rebound and defend well. We're really going to have to push the ball and try to get them out of their game."...Hassan Adams, back from his DUI-related suspension, says he's ready to go.(6) Michigan State vs. (11) George Mason, Dayton (7:10pm ET)Wonk 360: Michigan State in DaytonDespite what Patriots coach Jim Larranaga says, I think the chances of this being an interesting game would be higher if not for the absence of starting Patriot point guard Tony Skinn (suspended for punching a player in the CAA tournament). And, who knows, maybe it'll still be interesting. But if so, George Mason will have to ride big man Jai Lewis. They'll also have to go 40 minutes and stick with a Spartan team that's been complaining all year of a lack of depth but suddenly finds itself deeper than its first-round opponent. Let the Spartan speculating begin! Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski says Michigan State has been consistently inconsistent this year. Tom Izzo says his program's impressive record of success in March is a welcome burden: "That's where I want this program right now. I want it at tournament time to shine." Still, Izzo admits the success may have given fans the wrong impression: "Don't think the coach is going to wave a magic wand. I do worry about it a little bit. Our fans, everybody just thinks it's going to happen. That's not going to be the case."...Mo Ager says he prefers the pressure of a win-or-go-home setting: "I always feel much better in the tournament."...Patriot big man Lewis says losing to State by just six points last season gives him and his teammates added confidence: "That just lets us know that we can compete, give us the extra oomph we need."Wonk back! Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me! In defense of the Spartan defense Love your blog, read it every day. In your Wonk 360 section, I read this today: "Look the other way: Observers comment incessantly on State's lack of depth when in fact this year the Spartans' depth merely resembles that of a normal team. But perhaps the men in green have taken the talk to heart: they play like a thin team at times, especially on defense. MSU never forces turnovers from their opponents and their FG defense is mediocre at best. (And has this team officially given up completely on trying to push the tempo?)" I don't believe that this is a case of State attempting to force turnovers and failing. State doesn't try to force turnovers nearly as aggressively as other teams. I'm far from in the know, but it would seem that Izzo coaches a steady, low-risk style of defense. Players (especially Shannon Brown) will take swats at the ball when they're on their man but you rarely see the Spartan backcourt overplaying passing lanes--for good reason. I'd say that for every time a turnover is created from an aggressive defender overplaying a passing lane, there's another time where the defender blows it and leaves his man open for a three or dribble penetration. Far better to play sound defense, which leads to bad shots, which leads to defensive rebounds. That being said, when defense isn't as good (like this year) and you're not forcing as many bad shots, this philosophy isn't as effective. As to pushing the tempo, it's not worth it in the Big Ten anymore considering the way opponents play MSU. Very rarely do you see opposing teams sending three or four players to the boards on offense. It's much more common to see the "take a shot and everyone run away" strategy employed. MSU opponents seem to think that few offensive rebounds is a fair trade to stop State's devastatingly effective transition attack. Early in the Big Ten season especially, you'd see MSU players sprinting down the floor at every opportunity but to zero advantage since all but one or two of the opposing players have already taken up defensive positions. The only result of this was an exhausted Neitzel and company, so tactics had to change. It will be interesting to see how team(s) play State in the tourney. I think the MSU players are practically salivating at the thought of playing an opponent who's been watching tapes of all these slow-paced late-season State games and therefore expecting a team that plays much slower than the one they'll meet on the court. Steve M.Spartan in MadisonThanks, Steve. Yes, absolutely: Izzo prefers to stay in front of the ball rather than go for a steal. Thus opponent turnovers will be low in any season. But, as you point out, this year they're really low.And your point about opponents trading chances at offensive boards in exchange for slowing State down reminds me of something I've been mulling. I wonder if offensive rebounding is worse than it used to be in the Big Ten and, thus, transition D is better. The numbers on the offensive glass are definitely down this year in comparison to last year. Two years doesn't make a trend, of course. Still, I can't help but wonder.