Big Ten Wonk
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Is guarding Jason Chappell really necessary?
Wisconsin beat Purdue 69-64 in Madison last night and while watching this game I was by turns fascinated and miffed. Fascinated because a Big Ten coach was trying something decidedly different. Miffed because that "something different" was something I'd toyed with proposing in what I thought would be a wacky and innovative post. Instead my idea actually happened: Boilermaker coach Matt Painter told his players not to guard the Badgers' Jason Chappell.

Really, he did: "I felt we had to take a couple risks in our game plan for us to have a chance to beat Wisconsin on their home floor and one of the risks was not guarding a couple of people, just flat out leaving them open." Chappell responded by attempting six shots (he averages less than three), hitting 2-of-3 threes (he was 1-of-4 on the year coming in to last night), and scoring 13 points. So of course the storyline this morning is that Chappell "made Purdue pay" and indeed even Painter said that Chappell's threes were "a big changing point in the game."

Maybe. Then again remember Ken Pomeroy's dictum. Don't just listen to what a coach says; watch what he does. Did Chappell really make Purdue pay?

I don't think so. Wisconsin was shoved tactically out of their offensive routine and their shooting in this game was significantly worse than both their season average and their Big Ten average. If the game had been decided by points from the field, Purdue would have won 54-47. Moreover, packing the paint on D allowed the Boilers to do slightly better than their (not very good) average on the defensive glass while playing on the road against the number 2 (or 3) team in the nation. No, the deciding factor in last night's game was the Badgers getting to the line 32 times.

This was a smart move by Painter. It's not just that Chappell doesn't ordinarily score. The senior big man is in fact an inefficient scorer even when he does shoot (though, granted, he was certainly more efficient last night). If you're an opposing coach you want Chappell taking shots away from Wisconsin's big three of Alando Tucker, Kammron Taylor, and Brian Butch. If you told that opposing coach before the game that this "big three" would go a combined 10-of-34 from the field, he would take that, believe me. (Michael Flowers led the Badgers with 15 points on seven shots.)

Nevertheless, I predict that no other Wisconsin opponent will duplicate this tactic this season, mainly for reasons of custom and inertia.

But I think every other opponent will look at this tape very intently.

BONUS non-Chappell note! That block by Marcus Landry of big brother Carl Landry's shot early in the second half was of note for more than familial reasons. It typified the kind of spectacular rejection that the undersized younger brother has been making all season--the one where you think: he can't possibly get there, can he?

He can.

(Box score (pdf).)

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Ohio State beat Northwestern 73-41 last night in Columbus. Mike Conley posted a rather gaudy line: 17 points, 2-of-2 threes, 10 assists, one turnover, and four steals. Greg Oden had as many blocks as points: five. This was the second game the Wildcats played without Kevin Coble, who is sidelined with a sprained ankle. (Box score.)

Michigan beat Penn State 77-57 in Ann Arbor last night. Faced with a Nittany Lion zone, the Wolverines rather uncharacteristically shot threes. And, rather uncharacteristically, the threes went in. Dion Harris, Lester Abram, and Ron Coleman each had 13 points for Michigan. Jamelle Cornley led Penn State with 15 points. (Box score.)

Illinois beat Minnesota 64-52 last night in Minneapolis. The Gophers played their second game without Spencer Tollackson (out for at least three weeks with a broken hand suffered in the Wisconsin game) and the Illini responded by shooting more twos than they have in any other Big Ten game. It worked. It would have worked better had the men in orange not turned the ball over on 16 of 64 possessions (Shaun Pruitt contributed five of those himself) but there you are. Warren Carter posted a nice line for Illinois: a 17-11 dub-dub to go along with five assists. Lawrence McKenzie led Minnesota with 17 points (on 14 shots), though he also committed six turnovers. (Box score (pdf).)

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Virginia Tech coverage: the worst exaggerations in the history of the planet by a factor of a billion
Longtime alert reader William L. is ever-vigilant against the knee-jerk use of phrases like "best week ever" and so you just knew that this week's praise for Virginia Tech would have him researching the archives and calling foul....

Several commentators have raised the issue that this has been Virginia Tech's best week or is it 8 days, or whatever, after having beaten both Duke and two different UNC's. Aside from the ridiculous penchant that journalists seem to have about describing things that are really no more than excellent or very good as "incredible" or "the best game ever," this might not have been VPI's best basketball week ever.

In 1973, Virginia Tech beat New Mexico 65-63, Fairfield 77-76, Alabama 74-73 and then Notre Dame 92-91 in overtime to win the National Invitational Tournament in New York on a thrilling last-second jumper on national television. Virginia Tech's NIT champions finished with a record of 22-5.

Before 1975, conferences were only given one berth in the tournament, and therefore the NIT could often have several top ten teams in it and several more ranked teams. In fact, during the Walton-Wicks-Alcindor UCLA dynasty years several teams such as Marquette, Army under Bobby Knight and yes, Virginia Tech's 1973 team chose to go to the NIT instead of the NCAA tournament.

By 1974, the NIT began to lose its appeal, as seen in Maryland's decision that year not to compete after its heartbreaking loss to NC State in the ACC finals. This precedent, combined with the demise of the UCLA dynasty and NCAA tournament expansion basically eroded the tournament to where it is now.

Accordingly, Virginia Tech can take pride in arguably having won the last NIT that really mattered and in what might truly have been their best basketball week ever.

William L.

Ably asserted, William! Also note that the Hokies' week, best-ever or not, is now over. They lost to Florida State in Tallahassee last night 82-73.

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