Big Ten Wonk
Friday, December 22, 2006
Florida's dropped a couple close games. So what?
Ohio State vs. Florida: Gainesville (CBS, 4 ET Saturday)
The Gators are still the defending national champions. But then you may have heard that already. So here are some things that might be news to you....

On paper the strength of this Florida team is, um, everything.
Literally. Ohio State ain't exactly your standard December cupcake and yet with the exception of opponent 3FG pct., there is not one tempo-free statistical category in which the Buckeyes outperform the Gators. Billy Donovan's team shoots better (both inside and outside the arc), turns the ball over less, rebounds more misses at both ends of the floor, and allows fewer points.

And when confronted with a team that's superior across the board on paper what do we do? Doubt the paper!

Florida's schedule has been execrable. Keep in mind they've played Kansas and Florida State--and yet their overall strength-of-schedule has still been so soft that the Gators awoke this morning with an RPI in the high 80s, right there between George Washington and UMass. (They're a bubble team! Donovan may have to get some tips on shamelessly self-interested lobbying from Urban Meyer just to get his plucky kids to the dance!)

Not having Al Horford for this game would be huge.
If he plays, Horford will be the best rebounder on the floor--better even than Greg Oden or Joakim Noah. But Horford's recovering from a high ankle sprain and his start may go to Chris Richard, who's not even as good on the boards (9.8 reb. pct.) as Corey Brewer (11.7) or Ivan Harris (11.1), much less Oden or Noah. Without Horford, offensive rebounds will be available for the Buckeyes--and it's not just Oden who would benefit. Gator fans, meet Othello Hunter, the best offensive rebounder (20.2 offensive reb. pct.) from either team.

Noah, like Dee Brown in 2005, represents the rare confluence of hype and actual performance.
Noah's attracted a level of mindless column-inch-devouring fawning that I thought was the exclusive preserve of the Durham princes. Mindless it may be--but that's not Noah's fault. He is in fact the best example extant of a player that is invoked far more often than he is actually sighted: the passing big man. (For instance: there is no such player in the Big Ten this year. Marco Killingsworth and James Augustine would be the closest recent examples.) Noah is both skilled enough to record almost eight assists per 100 possessions and strong enough to personally haul in one out of every four of the opponent's missed shots. Plus he's a load down low (66.3 2 FG pct.). Now he's about to meet Mr. Oden. Sit back and enjoy the collision.

Ponder the paradox: the Gators don't shoot many threes--but when they do they don't miss.
Sophomore Walter Hodge represents the paradox well all by himself: he's attempting fewer than three treys a game but he's made 70 percent of those attempts. BONUS very sophisticated analysis! Making 70 percent of your threes is really good! But Hodge isn't alone. Taurean Green is hitting 44.4 percent from outside the arc, a level of marksmanship that has to some extent offset Lee Humphrey's surprisingly meh (for him) 39.4 3FG pct.

For the first time this season Ohio State walks onto the floor as the inferior perimeter shooting team. Still, Thad Matta has told his team that if they see Dan Werner (23.7 3FG pct.) about to launch a three, don't discourage the young man too much.

Shorthand for today's fast-paced fans: Corey Brewer = Mike Conley.
An equation that does credit to both, for here are two outstanding players. Neither has gotten it going from the outside yet and both turn the ball over a smidge more than their coaches would prefer. But otherwise the numbers are uniformly gaudy: Brewer and Conley both make the right pass with unerring regularity, display wisdom beyond their years by abstaining from threes they can't hit, and harass opposing backcourts into torrents of TOs. Here is yet another collision that should merit DVR'ing for repeated viewings.

Now, about that other team....
The Buckeyes have now played four games with Oden, which gives us enough possessions to plunge in and say with customarily premature certainty what the Oden-effects have, and have not, been. There have been two upticks:

--Significantly improved interior D. Pre-Oden opponents hit 44 percent of their twos. Now: 39 percent.
--Slightly improved offensive rebounding.

Conclusion: a one-handed Oden can scare opponents, block shots, get some tip-ins, and hit bunnies. When he has two hands we should also see defensive rebounds, a vastly increased capacity for offensive destruction, and maybe even an assist or two.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Northwestern beat Utah 77-44 yesterday in the fifth-place game of the San Juan Shootout in Puerto Rico. This--77 points in a customarily slow (56-possession) NU game--can only be explained as a holiday miracle. I hope Bill Carmody ran off the court shouting, "Merry Christmas, you old building and loan!" because his guardian angel really came through this time. The Wildcats posted an I've-never-seen-this-before 82.1 effective FG pct., the best shooting by or against a Big Ten team in any game since at least 2004-05. Northwestern made 11-of-15 threes and 18-of-27 twos. Freshman stud Kevin Coble hit all five of his threes and led the 'Cats with 22 points. Tim Doyle went 7-of-8 from the field and added 18. In the locker room afterward, Doyle reportedly noted a bell ringing mysteriously--as if of its own volition--on the Wildcats' tiny purple Christmas tree, turned to Coble, and said: "Look, Kevin. Coach says every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings." Attaboy, Clarence! (Box score.)

Illinois beat Idaho State 71-60 last night in Champaign, a game in which the Illini trailed by six with 12 minutes left. This was a very slow game (55 possessions) and that buzz-garnering ISU rotating zone D you may have heard about pushed Illinois into shooting threes almost exclusively (34 of them). Jamar Smith was 5-of-13 outside the arc, Chester Frazier was 4-of-6, and Rich McBride was 2-of-9. Warren Carter sat out with a hip flexor suffered in the closing moments of the Missouri game. (Box score.)

Hoops tonight!
Minnesota plays UNLV in Las Vegas.

Indiana plays IUPUI at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Purdue plays Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in West Lafayette.

Programming note
Off until Wednesday. Best to you and yours.

BONUS all-about-the-Wolverines edition of Wonk back!
Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me!

What's this? There's another game this weekend?
This week's mail has brought a steady stream of the following:

How about copious advance coverage of Saturday's Michigan-UCLA game? If the ball is round, there is a chance.


And indeed the ball is round! In fact, the Wolverines winning this game at Pauley Pavilion (CBS, 2 ET) wouldn't exactly be of Hickory-over-Muncie Central proportions. The Bruins, clearly an outstanding team, have nevertheless risen to number 1 by default ("default" being, as Homer Simpson reminds us, "the two sweetest words in the English language") and will find Michigan to be their equal in size and athleticism. So I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a giddy opening ten minutes wherein the men in maize and blue are hitting shots and making the home crowd nervous.

But games as disparate as last year's Ohio State tilt in Ann Arbor and this year's NC State game suggest that the danger time for Tommy Amaker's team is the middle 20 minutes. I expect the Bruins to remove Courtney Sims from the equation entirely, as they did last year. And, whatever what you might think of Sims' overall prowess (and I would agree with you), that is in fact bad news for Michigan fans, for this team has struggled mightily with its perimeter shooting (33.5 3FG pct.).

So the odds are indeed long. Amaker should savor this rare no-lose situation, instead of ridiculously maintaining that his team's schedule to date--far and away the easiest of any Big Ten team--at least looked "difficult" on paper before the season began.

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