Big Ten Wonk
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
I declare! The nation's best defenses
Caveats: "nation" is used here in the customary sense—"just the teams I've looked at closely," i.e., "power"-conferences only (sorry, everybody else—I'll hit the whole map next year, promise); just my own personal judgment informed but not dictated by all those weird graphs around here; non-Big Ten individual stats donated by the Willie to my Hank; subject to change (hey, it's still February for another few hours).

As of this morning....

5. Connecticut
With this choice I decree that allowing 0.95 points per possession in the Big East is slightly—slightly—more impressive than allowing 0.92 against a forgiving Big Ten schedule (Illinois) or 0.93 against a less forgiving Big Ten slate (Ohio State). No one's looking at the Huskies this year, of course, because they're 17-11 and their offense is Edvard Munch-level horrific. (Jim Calhoun says: thank goodness for Rutgers! Otherwise UConn would be the single worst-shooting team in major-conference hoops. Yes, worse even than Illinois.) All true—but the defense is still rock-solid in Storrs. Though not a particularly good defensive rebounding team, Connecticut inflicts severe pain on opposing shooters—credit that in large part to Hasheem Thabeet, who blocks more shots (tempo-freely, of course) than any other "power"-conference player. Indeed, opposing teams shoot even worse than UConn does. These are not pretty games.

The Bruins are the flip side of the UConn coin. The men from Westwood simply smother the defensive glass, pulling down no less than 72 percent of their opponents' misses in Pac-10 play. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is the lead glass-eater for Ben Howland, but Lorenzo Mata isn't far behind. Opposing teams actually shoot threes surprisingly well against the Bruins but if they miss, that's it. Put simply, UCLA is a Big Ten team without the snow: voracious defensive rebounding at 63 possessions per game.

3. Washington State
The Cougars are a hair better than UCLA on defense right now. How do I know? Because it's the Pac-10! Everybody plays everybody! Junk the SOS math already and just look: Tony Bennett's team is allowing just 0.95 points per possession, which is saying something on the left coast. WSU allows their Pac-10 opponents to make only 41.5 percent of their twos—and what's interesting there is that they achieve this without the benefit of any really scary shot-blocker. (OK, Ivory Clark is moderately scary—about like Othello Hunter.) By the way, the Cougars and the Bruins play tomorrow night in Pullman.

2. North Carolina
Recent losses to Virginia Tech and Maryland have taken some shine off the Heels and robbed me of the chance to do some really smug soapbox orations on how misunderstood this team truly is. Darn.

Oh, what the heck. Here goes anyway: Carolina is misunderstood. This is an outstanding defensive team. Where every other team on this list specializes, the Tar Heels are true renaissance men of D. They do it all: FG defense (especially on the interior), defensive rebounding (beastly eater of defensive glass Reyshawn Terry, Wonk salutes you!), the works. Thing is, they do it at a fast pace so commentators assume UNC is all about offense. In truth the Heels have been even more effective at preventing points in ACC play than they've been at scoring them.

1. Kansas
Kansas has the best defense. Kansas has played by far the weakest schedule of opposing offenses of any of the teams listed here. Embrace the paradox and read all about it here.

Tomorrow I again declare! This time on offense. Tune in.

In today's less-Wonk-ish venues....
Michigan beat Michigan State 67-56 last night in Ann Arbor, as the Spartans remained stuck on that 56 for the game's last five minutes. Two oddities in this game: 1) no turnovers to speak of from either team, and 2) abysmal three-point shooting from the Spartans. The latter cost MSU any chance at a road win. Drew Neitzel did not start due to a flu bug but played 29 minutes and made 2-of-5 threes. His healthy teammates made just 1-of-10 from behind the arc. Dion Harris scored 24 points on 14 shots for the Wolverines. And Jerret Smith dished the assist to Brent Petway on the longest and perhaps most spectacular alley-oop I have ever seen in my life. (Box score.)

Iowa plays Penn State in State College (ESPNU, 7 ET). Hawkeyes say they're wary about tonight but worthy of a bid; Nittany Lions say they're still in there swinging.

Indiana plays Northwestern in Evanston. Earl Calloway is good to go; Bill Carmody is backed by his AD.

Minnesota plays Purdue in West Lafayette. Matt Painter declared a master motivator; Tarrance Crump declared defensively sound; Gophers declared already focused on next year.

O, the blogging! O, the madness!
It's that time of year, bay-bee! Seven-day-a-week blogging commences Monday and goes through the national championship game. Next week's festivities to include:

--2007 All-Wonk (the official 2.0 release)
--The 2007 tempo report--how fast (or not) did the "power" conferences play this year?
--Other things I make up before then

Tune in next week!

Wonk back!
Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me!
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
The strange consistency of the Michigan Wolverines, part II
In Ann Arbor: Michigan State vs. Michigan (ESPN, 7 ET)
It's past time for a fresh round of theorizing around here. So:

The Michigan theory of chaotic status quo. All Michigan events and decisions sum to zero and perpetuate the status quo in Ann Arbor. Even seemingly diametrically opposed actions work in concert to reproduce the past. (How Hegelian!)

Take this year....

You wouldn't know it to look at their record or their coverage but the Wolverines' defense this year is significantly better than it was last year. Only problem being, of course, that their offense also happens to have fallen off by almost the exact same margin, netting out to still another year of uncertainty in late February.

So Tommy Amaker's late-season decision to start Ekpe Udoh in place of Courtney Sims would ordinarily be seen as a tacit acknowledgment that he's moved his chips onto the "defense" square for the rest of the year. (I don't know that I've ever seen a situation quite like the Sims case. Here's a senior who started the first game of his freshman year and has more or less started ever since. And he's benched in the February of his final season. Wow. Fortunately the Lansing State Journal isn't the paper of record for the Wolverines so we were at least spared the Elwood P. Dowd "Sims sits to strengthen Michigan bench" headline.)

As a starter, Udoh in fact becomes arguably Michigan's most important player. The strength of this newly defensive-oriented team is its interior defense. And Udoh blocks shots at a rate exceeded in the Big Ten only by a certain someone in Columbus. Playing alongside Brent Petway, Udoh gives opposing teams reason to think twice before venturing into the lane.

Thing is, Amaker didn't just bench Sims, he benched Ron Coleman, too, and replaced the latter in the starting lineup with Jerret Smith. This move gets some assists into the starting lineup--but it gets some turnovers there, too. Almost precisely as many turnovers, in fact, as Amaker removed with the benching of Sims.

Amaker's even Steven, no matter what he tries.

BONUS second-guessing! Is giving Sims' minutes to Udoh really such a no-brainer in terms of defense? Yes--as long as there's no rebound to be secured. Then Sims is far superior to the frisky freshman, who rebounds a paltry 13 percent of opponents' misses while he's in the game. Sims, by contrast, pulls down 20 percent.

Lester Abram. Godot. Compare. For years we waited for the season where Abram would be healthy. When that day came, it was said, look out. Well, that day came this season and the results have been surprisingly meh. Abram apparently scores more efficiently when hobbled, if his 1.09 PPWS while healthy is any indication. (Dion Harris--1.06 PPWS--has also struggled. Amaker simply has no offensive options that combine efficient scoring with a lack of turnovers.)

(By the way, if you're interested here's part I.)

If you can find a shorter game preview, I'll delete my verbs!
Tonight's game features the two most
turnover-prone teams in the Big Ten. But TOs hurt Michigan State more than they do the Wolverines. So the Spartans' chances of pulling off the road win increase with each turnover they don't commit. (More here.)

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Amaker says finishing the year with home games against Michigan State and Ohio State presents his team with "opportunities"; Sims says winning both would change the perceptions of this team; Ann Arbor News columnist Jim Carty says amen to that; Wolverines found to be "erratic"; Spartans found to be focused and Izzo-flavored; Drew Neitzel said to be over the flu, yet only "90 percent" certain to play.

Wisconsin big man Brian Butch is expected to miss four to six weeks with a fractured right elbow.

Ohio State is number 1 in both polls.

Indiana is treating tomorrow night's game at Northwestern as a must-win.

Penn State guard Ben Luber may be done for the year and Jamelle Cornley may miss tomorrow night's home game against Iowa.

Illinois is being called a tournament "lock" by some but not by Bruce ("We can't bomb at the end") Weber, who says this season's been "difficult."

O, the blogging! O, the fatigue!
It's that time of year, bay-bee! Seven-day-a-week blogging commences Monday and goes through the national championship game. Next week's festivities to include:

--2007 All-Wonk (the official 2.0 release)
--The 2007 tempo report--how fast (or not) did the "power" conferences play this year?
--Other things I make up before then

Tune in next week!

Wonk back!
Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me!

Why do POTs shoot twos so well?

I didn't notice until now that Northwestern is shooting over 50 percent on their twos. At first I struggled to understand why a team that is so effective from inside and so horrific from outside (27.3 3FG pct. in-conference) would insist on being a POT (42 percent of their shots are threes).

So after thinking this through, I realized that while Northwestern may have the three-point attempts of a POT, their offense is actually designed to get easy twos. It's their inability to create easy twos in under 35 seconds that causes them to decide to shoot so many threes.

I have a feeling Northwestern would be much more dangerous without a shot clock, not only because there would be fewer possessions per game, but also because the Cats would have the all the time they need to create the good shots they're looking for.

Robin F.

Thanks, Robin! Note also that West Virginia last year devoted the lion's share of their attempts to threes--and missed a lot of them. But the Mountaineers were uncannily accurate on their (rare) twos. Hmmm....
Monday, February 26, 2007
Ohio State is the ugliest 14-1 team I've ever seen
In Columbus: Ohio State 49, Wisconsin 48 (box score)
No, it's not just you. Ohio State's record really is better than their numbers. The Buckeyes are outscoring conference opponents by 0.17 points for every possession they play. That's very, very good but it's certainly not unparalleled. Just ask around....

For instance, North Carolina's outscoring their ACC opponents by 0.19 points on every possession and all they have to show for it, after last night's loss at Maryland, is a 10-4 record.

Georgetown, likewise, is +0.19 points per possession on their conference opponents. They're 12-2 in the Big East.

And don't even get me started on Kansas.

So the Buckeyes have won some tight games. They're "clutch" or lucky or a bit of both, depending on one's point of view. But in either scenario they're not as easy on the eyes as a "14-1" might suggest. (Ohio State's most aesthetically pleasing game of the year, by far, was a loss--their ACC-Big Ten Challenge game in Chapel Hill.) The ugliness and, more importantly, the winning continued yesterday....

This--49 points in a 58-possession game--was as bad as OSU's performance on offense at Florida. (A hair worse, actually.) Kudos, then, to the Wisconsin Badgers. Coming off a performance wherein they were pummeled on the boards by Michigan State, Bo Ryan's men did the pummeling this time around, allowing Ohio State just five offensive rebounds.

And yet the Buckeyes won. Credit Mike Conley for hitting the game-winner with 3.9 seconds left. (Additional note: Kammron Taylor does not shoot free throws well late in Ohio State games.) But also give a nod to Kelvin Sampson, for Thad Matta wheeled out precisely the same zone defense that Sampson used on January 31 in Indiana's five-point win over the Badgers in Bloomington. Billy Packer seemed to think Matta was watching Ryan's substitution patterns closely and was going man-to-man situationally--say, when Alando Tucker was sitting on the bench. The truth is a good deal less complex, though more befitting a young team: the Sampson/Matta 2-3 zone is used on every possession following a score or a whistle on your own offensive end.

Make no mistake: Wisconsin does struggle against this zone. (Yes, I know. Penn State and Northwestern lost playing zone against the Badgers over the past two dozen days. But, you see, they're Penn State and Northwestern.) And Greg Oden's not a bad guy to have in the middle of your 2-3, witness his block on Joe Krabbenhoft in the second half. (Pity Krabbenhoft. What else was he supposed to do? Jamar Butler did everything but wave a sign: "Please drive the lane and get your shot blocked." Krabbenhoft had the ball out top and Butler went wide to hedge on that lethal three-point threat known as Trevon Hughes. So into the lane the sophomore dutifully went--but the D didn't collapse. They knew they didn't have to. Oden's handy that way.) With Oden anchoring a packed-in zone, Wisconsin shot just six free throws and Tucker had only 12 points on 15 shots.

Ugly for the Badgers. Effective for the Buckeyes.

BONUS kudo to the Value City Arena crowd! Rarely have I heard a savvier crowd reaction than the one I heard yesterday with 17 minutes left in the second half. Oden and Ron Lewis ran a pick-and-roll outside the arc and when Oden rolled he was achingly wide open. For reasons plain only to himself, however, Lewis chose not to hit him with the pass and the crowd moaned in disgust. It's not often that you hear a crowd react so immediately and correctly to something off the ball--uncommonly discerning Ohio State fans, Wonk salutes you!

No word yet on Butch's injury. But if he's done for the year, that's big. Butch is not only the best rebounder in the Big Ten (yes, better than Oden), he also makes opposing bigs uncomfortable by forcing them to guard him out on the arc.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Big Ten bubble teams went 3-0 on the road this weekend against the conference's bottom three teams. But first....

Token Saturday home win!
Michigan State beat Indiana 66-58 in East Lansing. The Spartans committed no fewer than 14 turnovers in a 31-possession first half. Amazingly, they found themselves down only 10, played a normal (for them) second half (nine TOs--which, note, is still a lot), and came back for the win. Raymar Morgan did his best Alando Tucker imitation and scored 18 points fueled by 11 FTAs. Drew Neitzel didn't have his best game (eight turnovers) but did hit 3-of-6 threes for 17 points. Meanwhile, the Hoosiers are still without the services of Earl Calloway. In the senior's absence, Armon Bassett scored 25 points on 12 shots. D.J. White, on the other hand, struggled: 1-of-7 from the floor (though he did grab 10 boards.) (Box score.)

You weigh 96 pounds, so the sand I kick: bubblicious Saturday road smackdowns!
Illinois beat Penn State 68-50 in State College. Tired of his team's relentlessly Edvard Munch-level horrific shooting, Bruce Weber arranged to have every player on his team kidnapped and replaced for a game by the Phoenix Suns. And though PSU's Jamelle Cornley could be seen tugging at "Shaun Pruitt"'s latex mask, the ruse worked and "Illinois" recorded its best shooting by far of the conference season. Pruitt and "Warren Carter" combined for 37 points on 15-of-20 shooting. And so here we are: asked to believe that actual Illinois players scored 68 points in a 54-possession game. Right....Mike Walker hit 4-of-6 threes and scored 14 for the Nits. (Box score.)

Purdue beat Northwestern 75-68 in Evanston. OK, critics of offensive systems named after certain Ivied schools, here's your ammo. The 'Cats took good care of the ball and actually shot better than the Boilers. But because they were hammered beyond recognition on the boards (by a team that defines the very essence of meh rebounding on both sides of the court) they lost at home by seven. While Carl Landry sat with foul trouble, David Teague jacked up shots like he was playing in the fourth quarter of the NBA All-Star game and scored 26 points on 20 attempts. Tim Doyle's 26, conversely, came on just 12 shots. (Box score.)

Michigan beat Minnesota 62-51 in Minneapolis. Late in the year Tommy Amaker has gone with a starting lineup that replaces Courtney Sims and Ron Coleman with Ekpe Udoh and Jerret Smith. In theory that should be a smaller look for the Wolverines but don't tell that to the Gophers, who shot 33 two-point shots on Saturday and made just 10--thus the measly 51 points in a 64-possession game. Udoh recorded four blocks and Brent Petway had three. Dion Harris led Michigan with 15 points on 12 shots. Jamal Abu-Shamala had a career day for Minnesota, hitting 5-of-8 threes and scoring 27 points. And Lawrence McKenzie will want to burn the tape of this game, deposit the ashes in an urn, weld the urn shut, charter a plane, and drop the urn into the active volcano at Mount Nyiragongo in the Congo. (Box score.)

O, the blogging! O, the fatigue!
It's that time of year, bay-bee! Seven-day-a-week blogging commences next Monday and goes through the national championship game. Next week's festivities to include:

--2007 All-Wonk (the official 2.0 release)
--The 2007 tempo report--how fast (or not) did the "power" conferences play this year?
--Other things I make up before then

Tune in next week!

Wonk back!
Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me!
Friday, February 23, 2007
BONUS reader-directed Friday edition!
Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me!

Lately, don't know why, I've been in a groove where I've been posting just one email per day. As a result, the quality missives from readers have been gathering in a big pile in the palatial conference room here at HQ.

So let's get to 'em!

Equal is not just faux sugar
On Wednesday I said this about Michigan State:

I can't repeat this often enough: this is the scariest 7-6 in-conference team around. Scary because they already play D, they already hit the boards (see last night), they even shoot pretty well. Their only weakness--and it's huge--is that they kill themselves with turnovers. If they can merely hold on to the ball, you're looking at a team that's the equal of Wisconsin and Ohio State. Repeat: equal.

The readers respond!

Huge Sparty fan here.

We are not the equal of OSU, no way. Greg Oden is the main difference. They can score in the paint, we cannot. We rely on Neitzel to play Superman--check out what happens when he has an off night.

Just sayin.

Bill B.

You sell your men short, Bill! MSU's defense is so good they're in games even if Neitzel's not wearing a cape that day. The problem here is turnovers....

To grasp how equal MSU would be if they'd stop coughing up the ball, you first must grasp just how Edvard Munch-level horrific their number of turnovers truly has been. Brace yourself:

Michigan State has given the ball away on 26 percent of their possessions in Big Ten play this season. That's the highest number of turnovers I've seen in three seasons of tracking this kind of thing in the Big Ten.

Better yet, let me phrase this in terms a Spartan fan will appreciate: that's more turnovers than Michigan's committed this year. More turnovers, even, than Michigan's historically undermanned 2005 team. (Ye gods.)

So I say it again and I mean it literally: if Tom Izzo's team cut down on the turnovers, they would be the equal of Ohio State and Wisconsin. The MSU defense is already equal to that of the Buckeyes and Badgers. Michigan State shoots a hair better from the floor than those two teams. And they do much better on the offensive glass. QED: normal number of turnovers, equal performance.

Believe it.

I've seen the TO and the damage done....
So, basically the only thing preventing one's effective FG percentage from turning directly into points per possession is one's turnover rate, correct? But a turnover rate of zero is pretty much impossible as is a 100 percent eFG. What I'm wondering is, then, what is the optimal expected PPP, eFG and turnover rate in the Big Ten and, if you've got the reach, the rest of the major conferences?

I think that info could be translated into some interesting rate stats that determine exactly how many points are being sapped by turnovers. Oh, and offensive rebounding probably should figure in, too, since those are low-turnover, high scoring percentage possessions often times.

Colin J.

As of this morning here are exactly how many points are being sapped away by each turnover committed by each Big Ten team:

Points per TO-less possession (conf. games only)
1. Michigan State (1.38)
2. Indiana (1.35)
3. Ohio State (1.35)
4. Wisconsin (1.33)
5. Michigan (1.32)
6. Iowa (1.31)
7. Purdue (1.28)
8. Penn State (1.27)
9. Minnesota (1.21)
10. Illinois (1.19)
11. Northwestern (1.09)

This, of course, is merely a measure of how well each team shoots, hits the offensive glass, and makes free throws in a frictionless TO-less universe. (In other words, what the world would be like if everyone played Stanford every game. Hi-yo!...Sorry. Little hoops geek humor there.)

Hopefully this shows why I talk about Michigan State's turnovers: it's not just that they commit the most. It's that each turnover hurts them more than it does any other Big Ten team. As opposed to, say, Illinois, another team that coughs up the ball from time to time. But the men in orange can't throw the ball in the ocean from a rowboat anyway so what's the big deal about a turnover?

And as far as "optimal expected" numbers, Illinois in 2005 had the best offense I've seen in the Big Ten in the three seasons I've been doing this. Their in-conference numbers looked like this....

Points per possession: 1.18
Effective FG percentage: 56.7
Turnover percentage: 15.6
Offensive rebound percentage: 34.8

Those numbers don't represent the outer limits of human capacity, of course, particularly not the offensive rebound percentage. But they do sum up to the best offense the conference has seen lo these three years. (For instance, both the shooting and the turnover percentage are significantly better than anything we're seeing this season.)

Oden vs. Landry (with a cameo by Butch)

Recently in a conversation with a Purdue fan on the internets, the following direct quotes emerged in regards to Oden and Landry....

Purdue Fan (2/15/2007 8:38:37 PM) Landry's better. It's not even really
close. Dear Trent - please read the Big Ten Wonk on efficiency ratings, he'll
tell you how pedestrian Oden is. Counting statistic averages are useless.
Do you know how many shots it takes for Landry to get his average? Very few.
God, I hate it when ESPN manipulates the world. He's not the best defender or
rebounder. He's not even the best rebounder on his team. I'd take Brian Butch in a heartbeat over Greg Oden right now.
Since he is using your website and theories as his main source of information I thought you maybe could chime in on who you think is better.


Trent T.

Indiana fan

"Landry"? Carl or Marcus? I'll assume the former....

Carl Landry is indeed a tad more efficient in his scoring but, then again, Greg Oden's been shooting free throws left-handed the whole year. If we assume that a healthy right paw would boost Oden's FT percentage from 63 up to something more like Landry's 71, then, voila, both gentlemen would have an excellent 1.29 PPWS. Call that a wash. On the other hand, Landry turns the ball over more. Result: at this moment both players have the exact same offensive rating (which is more or less the individual player equivalent of points per possession).

And as far as rebounding, it's no contest. Landry's never been much of a presence on the glass (though he does at least have the distinction of being the best rebounder on his team). I've never begrudged him that--he's usually the smallest man in the paint at any given moment. (P.S. Brian Butch is indeed even better on the boards than Oden.)

Also note: Oden's the only one of these three who blocks shots. Butch is the only one of these three who can make threes.

Suggested new Illinois logo: a graph with a dot in the upper-left
Among the four major conferences for which you provide "tempo-free aerials," I was quite interested to note that Illinois is the only team currently in the
bad offense/good defense quadrant. Not only that, the Illini are a full .06 points per possession away from the nearest border.

Might we crown Illinois as the ugliest-playing team in the nation right now?

Dave S.

Zounds! The drama-blessed Illini are sui generis! Who knew?

Keep in mind "ugly" here means not only that you struggle to score but also that your opponent does, too. So in that sense: Minnesota in 2005 was similarly ugly--both numerically and in-person. So too, perhaps, were Dick Bennett-era Washington State teams. (No, the Cougs this year aren't upper-left. They've got
an offense now, by gar! Tough loss at Oregon last night, though.)

Bloggingheads wishes they had my readership demographic, bay-bee!
I just wanted to tell you that I love your site. I discovered it last season and it never disappoints. You seem fair and impartial (I actually can't tell which team you root for) and the new graphs this season are fantastic. Keep up the good work.

Andrea R.

Thanks, Andrea! I am all those things. Plus modest.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Is the Kansas defense that good or is the Big XII that bad?
At the beginning of the year I nominated Kansas as having had the best defense in the country last year, never mind their first-round loss to Bradley in the tournament.

This year the Jayhawks are at it again: piling up gaudy numbers in Big XII conference play....

(Conference games only, through Feb. 21)

Of course, glittering Kansas stats tend to trigger skepticism out here in non-Big XII country, for the usual "yes but you play Baylor" reasons.

Well, as it happens the Big XII does indeed have some wonderfully inept offenses this season. Iowa State, Colorado, Nebraska, and Oklahoma State are all scoring at a rate of 0.95 points per possession or worse in conference play. (Translation: about as bad as Illinois this year. And, no, these teams' numbers on offense aren't woeful merely because they have to play big bad Kansas. Trust me: none of these four turn into Wake Forest '05 when they play Missouri.) No fewer than six of KU's 13 conference games have been played against members of this feckless foursome. So, yes, we do need to dial back the hype on the Kansas D a little....

Emphasis on "a little." Fact is, this is an excellent D that happens to have faced a lot of weak offenses. Kansas doesn't have to answer for its opponents. No, the really interesting thing here is that the Kansas D is achieving almost the exact same level of excellence as last year's defense but through different means.

Last year KU forced an absurd number of turnovers from their opponents and made life miserable for any opposing player with the effrontery to attempt a two-point shot. This year the Jayhawks are getting fewer turnovers but are stronger on the defensive glass and much stronger in their 3FG defense.

Oh, and this is off-topic but the offense in Lawrence this year (1.13 points per possession) is significantly better than last year's (1.07).

A defense less reliant on opponents' turnovers should--should--be a defense poised to carry its team further in the postseason.

Of course, now that I've said that Kansas will probably lose by 20 in the first round to the winner of the play-in game.

We'll see.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
The Chief danced his final dance, t-shirts were switched from orange to black, and then there was the second half of a basketball game....

Illinois beat Michigan 54-42 in Champaign last night. No, not a slow pace. Just inept offenses (or spectacular D's). With just 42 points and no less than 20 turnovers in 63 possessions, this was the Wolverines' worst performance on offense this year. Warren Carter posted a near dub-dub with an 18-9 in 30 minutes for the Illini. The end game for both teams is now a little clearer. Illinois (20-9, 8-6) finishes with road games at Penn State (Saturday) and Iowa (next Saturday). Lose both and they're out. Win both and they're in. Win one and fret. Michigan (18-10, 6-7) plays at Minnesota Saturday, then hosts Michigan State and Ohio State in Ann Arbor to end the year. The Wolverines need all three games and even then they can't be sure. (Box score.)

Ohio State beat Penn State 68-60 in Columbus last night. What is this strange power the Nittany Lions hold over the otherwise formidable Buckeyes? It's like South Carolina with Florida last year. Weird. PSU guard Ben Luber limped off the floor in the game's opening minute and did not return. Nevertheless Penn State led by three at the half as Ohio State clanged threes (5-of-18 for the game) over the Nits' zone. Meanwhile there was a player down in the paint by the name of Greg Oden who appeared to be faring better: a 17-14 dub-dub on 6-of-9 shooting. So now the get-Oden-the-ball grousing is getting pretty loud in Columbus. (Best line: the Buckeyes look like "they gave up Oden for Lent.") (Box score.)

Indiana beat Minnesota 71-59 last night in Bloomington. The Gophers were in this one late but scored only nine points in the game's final eight minutes. D.J. White scored 17 points and Roderick Wilmont hit 3-of-5 threes and added 16. (Box score.)

Iowa beat Purdue 78-59 last night in Iowa City. Matt Painter had harsh words for his defense after the game but it was the Boiler offense that was really sub-par last night: 19 turnovers, anemic offensive rebounding, and average shooting. Tyler Smith scored 18 points on nine shots for the Hawkeyes. Iowa (16-12, 8-6) travels to Penn State next Wednesday before finishing at home against Illinois. If they win both, it will be interesting to see what happens. As for Purdue, their game this Saturday at Northwestern is huge. If they lose, they're likely done. (Box score.)

Northwestern beat Texas-Pan American 67-56 in Evanston last night. Kevin Coble and Tim Doyle shot a combined 12-of-17 from the field and scored 18 and 17 points, respectively. (Box score.)

Wonk back!
Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me!

In defense of Weber
Reading the article you linked by Greg Couch in the Chicago Sun-Times reminded me of something I heard once about how scary it must be to have your career in the hands of 19-year olds.

Perhaps that fear is only exceeded by having you career commented upon those who think a coach should be in absolute control of those 19-year olds in ways that their parents never were while they were still only 17 year old. I find it rather distasteful that some people are using this incident to try and provide a turbo boost to their fire Bruce Weber bandwagon.

Just how far have we gone into the bearded Spock universe to infantilize these young men by trying to blame Jamar Smith’s actions on his…, wait for it…, basketball coach?

Charles A.

Ably asserted, Charles.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Curse the schedule maker
Michigan State 64, Wisconsin 55 (box score)
After last night's loss to Michigan State in East Lansing, there is already a CW coalescing this morning around the idea that Wisconsin now has to win at Ohio State on Sunday to have a shot at a 1-seed. Otherwise, it is said, the Badgers won't get one of the four coveted 1 slots, not with "two consecutive losses this late in the season."

Only problem there being: Wisconsin, as it happens, has been scheduled to play consecutive road games against the two best non-Wisconsin teams in the Big Ten. Let's say for the sake of discussion that the Badgers do indeed lose Sunday in Columbus. Had they had the good fortune to lose these two road games back in obscure January, they would be coming into the postseason on a nice little win streak. Everyone would be talking about how Bo Ryan has his team "peaking at the right time," etc.

Bottom line: seed Wisconsin based on their body of work. Maybe that's a 1, maybe it's a 2. But--barring an uncharacteristic collapse in Columbus, as opposed to a close loss like last night--one loss or maybe even two losses "this late in the season" reflects extraneous happenstance more than intrinsic merit.

And as for those Spartans....
I can't repeat this often enough: this is the scariest 7-6 in-conference team around. Scary because they already play D, they already hit the boards (see last night), they even shoot pretty well. Their only weakness--and it's huge--is that they kill themselves with turnovers. If they can merely hold on to the ball, you're looking at a team that's the equal of Wisconsin and Ohio State. Repeat: equal.

Last night was the exception that proves the rule: MSU once again coughed the ball up left and right (they gave it away 14 times in a 58-possession game) but it didn't matter because they were meanwhile pounding the offensive glass, hitting 7-of-16 threes, and limiting Wisconsin to 12 free throws.

Drew Neitzel gave the single best offensive performance I've seen turned in by a Big Ten player this year--best because he did it against Michael Flowers. A couple of Neitzel's early threes came off of kickouts after offensive boards but as the game progressed he started to make them off of set plays and with Flowers right in his face. His totals for the evening: 6-of-11 threes for 28 points.

And Raymar Morgan looks to have matured a year in the last month. Suddenly he's looking to score--and that's huge for this team. (Not to mention the D he and Travis Walton played on Alando Tucker. True, Tucker buried some threes last night--so too did Marcus Landry. But if you're playing Wisconsin you'll take your chances there. Overall the Spartans kept Tucker from slashing into the paint.)

BONUS requiem for a dying stat! Wisconsin's shooting last night is being described as a "season-low." It wasn't, it's just that they shot more threes than usual so their straight FG pct. (again, a stat which needed to be killed outright 20 years ago) suffered accordingly. Look to effective FG pct.: the Badgers actually shot worse in their no-one's-guarding-Jason-Chappell win at home over Purdue on January 17. (Note also that last night the Badgers started the evening 8-of-15 on their threes but made only one of their last 13.)

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
For the first time this season, a night of Big Ten action wherein the Badgers aren't in first....

Michigan plays Illinois in Champaign (ESPNU, 9 ET), a game that in theory is senior night for Rich McBride, Warren Carter, and Marcus Arnold. But, alas, there's a lot going on in Champaign these days....

Tonight will also mark the last halftime appearance of Chief Illiniwek. The University of Illinois announced last Friday that the Chief is being retired--in exchange the NCAA has lifted its ban on Illinois hosting postseason events.

And then there's Jamar Smith, already done for the year and now charged with driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident. Smith was the driver in last week's one-car accident, a collision with a tree that sent teammate Brian Carlwell to the hospital with a severe concussion. Carlwell has since been released and may even play again this season but otherwise the details that have emerged subsequently are not pretty. Smith's blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit, the result, apparently, of a drinking game with other players. After the crash, Smith drove to his apartment and sought out other Illinois players, leaving the unconscious Carlwell inside the badly damaged car. And the only 911 call that night was made by another resident in the apartment complex. It's all enough for Chicago Sun-Times columnist Greg Couch to ask if Bruce Weber has control of his team.

Penn State plays Ohio State in Columbus. Buckeye coach Thad Matta says his team is "totally" looking past tonight's game and focusing instead on Sunday's match up with Wisconsin. "I told the players I don't even want to see them until a couple minutes before tipoff," a relaxed Matta said to stunned reporters, adding: "I'm not even sure, really--who is it we play again first?" When told his team was scheduled to play Penn State, Matta snorted dismissively: "Penn State? Heck, four eighth-graders and a crossing guard in her 50s could beat those guys." Pulling a sleep mask over his eyes, Matta then added: "Wake me up when it's halftime."...No, actually Matta makes all the right noises here....Nittany Lion coach Ed DeChellis waxes pugilistic in his metaphors when comparing recent opponents Ohio State and Wisconsin: "Wisconsin's gonna punch you and take you 12 rounds and you think you have a chance, but you really don't have a chance....Ohio State's like a knockout team. They're gonna throw it at you, and try to knock you out and get it over quickly."

Minnesota plays Indiana in Bloomington. Kelvin Sampson says Roderick Wilmont hasn't been shooting enough threes lately; Oklahoma transfer and Gopher guard Lawrence McKenzie will be playing against his former coach; Minnesota point guard Limar Wilson didn't make the trip to Bloomington; profile of Gopher big man Bryce Webster.

Purdue plays Iowa in Iowa City. The Boilers could use a non-Penn State road win to tidy up their resume; salute to Boilermaker seniors Carl Landry and David Teague; profile of Hawkeye big man Seth Gorney (if you've ever longed to see a picture of a 7-footer in the lotus position, now's your chance--the caption here should read simply: "Made for Deadspin").

Texas-Pan American plays Northwestern in Evanston. UTPA has a Quality Enhancement Plan and the minutes from the last QEP team meeting are admirably succinct--how refreshing! Cogent minutes-drafter Jeffery Huerta, Wonk salutes you! (Keep us posted on that e-mail to Dr. Sale.)

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Yay, Spartans
Hi, Wonk,

My goodness--I'll take this as our down year. Drew Neitzel was obviously phenomenal, and has officially entered that rarified Scotty Skiles/Steve Smith/Shawn Respert category, at least in my mind.

The real story tonight, however, has to be the rebounding. Yes, MSU is very good on the boards, but the beatdown these guys put on an excellent Wisconsin team was truly stunning. That endless possession in the first half, during which our FG pct. must have dropped ten points was the single best rebounding performance I've seen in years.

And to think that we lose a grand total of zero players next year? I can't wait to cast my vote for the 07-08 All Wonk Team.

Shawn M.

Thanks, Shawn!
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Watch the turnovers
In East Lansing: Wisconsin vs. Michigan State (ESPN, 7 ET)
The beauty of writing in advance on any Wisconsin game is that Bo Ryan's team is the hoops equivalent of a metronome: constant, dependable, and unvarying. For instance, I pointed out last week that the Badgers are the most consistent team in the Big Ten in terms of their shooting. So there you are, right? Wisconsin will come to East Lansing tonight and shoot pretty well (but not great), yes?

Maybe not. For you see there's also a team that has the most consistent FG defense in the Big Ten. And that team happens to be the Michigan State Spartans. Moreover, that defense isn't just consistent, it's also holding opponents to the worst shooting inflicted upon conference foes by any D. Nice combination, that.

Still, defense is where the consistency ends for Tom Izzo's young team. That is, they aren't likely to get beat by torrid shooting tonight but that alone won't get them a W against the number 1 team in the country. Here's what else they'll need to do:

1. Don't turn the ball over. Sounds obvious--so obvious it could be a vacuous TV analyst's pregame "key to the game," right? Well, in Michigan State's case mastering the obvious is essential: they turn the ball over more than any other Big Ten team. And it's the only thing holding their offense back. In fact, on possessions where there isn't a turnover, the Spartans have the best offense in the Big Ten. MSU scores 1.38 points per TO-less possession, thanks to pretty good shooting and very good offensive rebounding. So fans in the Breslin Center tonight should regard each Spartan turnover as the loss of about 1.4 points. And that adds up.

2. Don't foul. The Badgers' lone loss in-conference came to Indiana, a team that gave them only 17 free throws.

Think of tonight's game as the collision of four teams, really. There's the Michigan State offense and defense and then there's the Wisconsin offense and defense. Three of those "teams" lead us to believe we know what we'll get--the wild card is the Spartan offense. If they can hold on to the ball, Michigan State has a chance to win tonight.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Wisconsin is number 1 in this week's AP poll and Ohio State is 2. It is the first time in the history of the AP poll that Big Ten teams have held the top two spots. (The teams are flip-flopped in the coaches' poll.)

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is making the appropriate fearful noises in advance of tonight's game: "We don't have anyone who can cover [Alando Tucker], but neither does anyone else in the country....Put it this way. I think even though (OSU center Greg) Oden and (Texas forward Kevin) Durant are unbelievable players, as far as a game plan this kid is harder to stop than either of them."

BONUS archive dive! Actual headline: "Suton sits to strengthen MSU bench." Laudably glass-half-full headline editors of the Lansing State Journal, Wonk salutes you! In fact, I did a little digging through the archives and found that this brand of relentlessly chipper June Allyson optimism is no recent innovation, as seen in these past headlines from the LSJ....

October 15, 2003: "Steve Bartman interferes with foul ball to strengthen healthy loathing of officious nerds with good seats"

October 30, 1929: "Stock market crashes to strengthen small apple-selling entrepreneurs"

April 15, 1912: "Titanic rams iceberg to boost sales of lifeboats"

Michigan senior Lester Abram was arrested early Monday morning. Abram had been pulled over for speeding on I-96 when it was discovered that there was an outstanding warrant on him for failure to appear in court. At the time of his arrest, Abram had a suspended license and no proof of insurance.

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It's about yesterday's post....
Wow, an especially essential column this Presidents Day! A couple of thoughts.

Kyle Whelliston in town with the Big Ten Wonk: I know I would have learned a thing or a dozen listening to you guys watch the BracketBuster.

Kyle's interaction with the bar guy was good stuff. I'll just point out that Indianapolis is the best place on the planet to have a high-probability random encounter with somebody who actually knows that Winthrop is a mid-major power and can be within three games of their actual record.

About the Chief. As a complete outsider on that debate, I can agree with you that it was probably time for the Chief to go. At the same time, I wonder at the NCAA's authority to apparently arbitrarily determine that the Chief was punishable while other mascots were not. And if they have that much power, why don't they move on more systemic problems, like the athletic facilities race, the spiraling student athletic department fees, or the effectively indentured semi-professional system we are burdened with? It's enough to make this Big Ten legacy/grad/employee wish that he rooted for Kyle's mid-majors.

On a lighter but not entirely unrelated note, when will the U of Illinois finally move into the 20th century and jettison that awful blue-orange color scheme? Will it take the threat of sanctions, or is voluntary change possible?

Ashton S.

In order:

1. My comments while watching the BracketBuster games ("wow," "man," etc.) were not especially illuminating. (Go figure.) For the real light source you need to go here.

2. The NCAA has always been sovereign. Tournaments, championships, indeed the games themselves, are NCAA events. And if we don't like it we can all just pull a U. of Chicago, take our marbles, and go to the library, proton accelerator, whatever.

3. What? Change colors? But then we Illini would have to change the song!...

We're loyal to you Illinois,
We're orange and blue, Illinois,
We'll back you to stand
Against the best in the land
For we know you have sand,

(No, I never understood the sand, either. Must have been a 20s thing like raccoon coats.)
Monday, February 19, 2007
Looking at the back of Kyle Whelliston's head
I did that a lot this weekend.

Kyle is the founder of The Mid-Majority, an OK site, I guess, if you like superb writing on college basketball, comprehensive user-friendly tempo-free stats, sharp wit, unparalleled web design, etc. (Yawn.) These days Kyle covers mid-major hoops for ESPN, of course, and he was in Indianapolis this weekend to cover the Southern Illinois-Butler game.

Being with Kyle Whelliston during BracketBuster weekend is, well, memorable. Let's just say this is a big weekend for him. (True story: he gets into town Friday night and we're slipping and sliding single-file along a too-narrow snow-covered sidewalk in Broad Ripple looking for a place to eat. I'm focused intently and exclusively on not falling into the street when I hear Kyle, behind me, say: "Winthrop's up four." He has stolen a furtive glance at the TV in the tavern we're passing.) So while I tried to keep up my end of the conversation ("So, Kyle, what do you enjoy most about my incredible blog?"), I had to content myself with seeing a lot of the back of his head, as he tracked the weekend's events with the minute precision of a seismic monitor. (Pictured: watching Drexel vs. Creighton. After that, at midnight local time, there was the tip for Ohio vs. New Mexico State. Kyle watched. I called it a day.)

The weekend did, however, provide a worthy real-life parallel to the Marshall McLuhan cameo in Annie Hall. Having settled on a sports bar for dinner, Kyle has requested of the staff that the NBA all-star weekend "celebrity" game (quotation marks used rightly—was that Bow Wow?) be replaced on the big screen with Winthrop-Missouri State. Whereupon the gentleman next to us at the bar in the St. Louis Cardinals hat starts holding forth loudly and with full-on presumptive bar-guy omniscience on the Winthrop Eagles. He's going to tutor Kyle Whelliston on the finer points of this mid-major.

And I say to myself: this is going to be great!...

BAR GUY (hitches up his belt): Yep, Winthrop's pretty good. They're out of the Southern Conference.

KYLE: Big South.

BAR GUY: Yeah, they're like 20-6.

KYLE: 22-4.

BAR GUY: Um, yeah. You know, they only lost to Wisconsin by five.

KYLE: By three. In overtime. In Madison.

BAR GUY: Of course, they've dropped some other games....

KYLE: Three. North Carolina, at Maryland, and at Texas A&M.

BAR GUY: Whoa, really? That's it?

KYLE: That's it.

BAR GUY: Man....

KYLE: Winthrop is good. Seriously.

And so they are. The Eagles won at Missouri State, 77-66.

Indefatigable hoops traveler Kyle Whelliston, Wonk salutes you! We who love hoops are the richer for your miles.

Editor's note: The original post had North Carolina defeating Winthrop in Chapel Hill--actually the game was played in Charlotte. That error was mine, not Kyle's.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Much news emanating from Illinois on Friday after this blog hit the streets....

Lose a player, lose a symbol
Bruce Weber announced Friday morning that Jamar Smith will not return to the team this season. Smith was the driver in last Monday night's one-car accident that resulted in the hospitalization of his passenger and teammate Brian Carlwell. (Carlwell has since been released and may be able to return to action this season.)

Ordinarily this would have been big news. Not on this Friday....

Because about an hour or so prior to that, the University of Illinois announced that Chief Illiniwek's appearance at halftime of this Wednesday night's game against Michigan will be the last performance in the Chief's 81-year history. The NCAA, in turn, announced that it will lift its ban on Illinois hosting postseason events on its campus, a ruling that, for example, will now make it possible for the Illini to host an NIT game, should that become necessary.

So the Chief is through. Allow me to address the following to fellow U of I alums and current students—everyone else stay out of this for a second:

I'm baffled at the fuss being made over this by people who didn't go to Illinois. Truly. And I'm baffled by some of the reactions I'm seeing regardless of one's alma mater. (Witness this odd piece by the usually sure-footed Mark Tupper, in which magnanimity is nominally prescribed but in the most querulous voice imaginable. This kind of total tonal subversion of the right words with combative bathos is truly Nixonian.)

That being said, this day has been coming and indeed foreseeable for a long time. I don't begrudge those who cherish their memories of the Chief—and those who do miss the mark badly.

But if Lester Leutwiler appeared afresh and without preamble this afternoon and introduced this notion for the very first time, we would not, in 2007, choose this particular alternative. And now that it's time to recognize that and jettison a longtime tradition, maybe it's time as well to recall that this particular tradition was not part of what one might term the original orange and blue equipment.

There was no Chief when Red Grange was at the U of I. There was no Chief when Bob Zuppke became the head football coach at the U of I. Memorial Stadium, the Quad, Altgeld, Foellinger, Lincoln Hall—all older than the Chief.

And so, too, is the University of Illinois itself. It is older, larger, and better.

The weekend in hoops--yesterday!
Ohio State beat Minnesota 85-67 in Minneapolis. The Gophers actually outshot the Buckeyes but everything else went the visitors' way, specifically offensive boards, free throws, and TOs. Greg Oden scored an unusually inefficient 19 points on 17 shots to lead OSU. Mike Conley recorded 10 assists, five steals and one turnover. Lawrence McKenzie scored 22 points on 16 shots for the Gophers. (Box score.)

Illinois beat Northwestern 48-37 in Champaign. I know what you're going to ask. Yes, it was slow but not that slow. At 54 possessions this was speedier than the game played by these same two teams in Evanston just nine days ago. But the Wildcats scored a near-season-low 0.69 points per possession. No player reached double-figures for NU. Rich McBride made 5-of-10 threes and led the Illini with 15 points. (Box score.)

The weekend in hoops--Saturday!
Wisconsin beat Penn State 75-49 in Madison. Alando Tucker led the Badgers with 22 points on 15 shots. Kammron Taylor made 4-of-6 threes and added 18 points. Since losing at Indiana on the last day of January, February-version Wisconsin has made 45.6 percent of their threes and, indeed, has been more consistent in their shooting from beyond the arc than they've been in their two-point shooting. I said this in November: if this team can make threes, ye gods....(Box score (pdf).)

Michigan beat Indiana 58-55 in Ann Arbor. From this vantage point Kelvin Sampson has it about right: the Hoosiers played their normal game but their shots didn't fall. Armon Bassett and A.J. Ratliff combined for 3-for-15 shooting on their threes. Earl Calloway, still smarting from a shoulder injury suffered in Thursday night's game at Purdue, did not play. For the Wolverines, Dion Harris made 4-of-8 threes and scored 16 points. (Box score.)

Michigan State beat Iowa 81-49 in East Lansing. This was actually a fairly slow game (59 possessions) but pretty much any time the Spartans didn't turn the ball over they scored. Drew Neitzel and Raymar Morgan combined for 33 points on 21 shots. Adam Haluska scored 11 points on 14 shots for the Hawkeyes. (Box score.)

Other hoops you should know about--and do
Vanderbilt beat Florida 83-70 in Nashville on Saturday. Yay, me. Just four days after I emitted my best assistant-principal tut-tut with regard to the Gators' defense (doubting the permanence of their "unsustainable" 3FG defense), Billy Donovan's team lost their first SEC game by giving up 1.17 points per possession and by allowing an opponent to hit 10-of-21 threes.

Other hoops you should know about--but may not
Last night Arizona State beat USC 68-58 in Tempe, giving first-year coach Herb Sendek and the Sun Devils their first Pac-10 win. A very, very bad loss for the Trojans, who, along with Stanford, have been getting far too little ink while Arizona gets far too much. (Ink distribution for UCLA and Washington State? Just right. Clearly the cream of the Pac-10. More later.)

BONUS Presidents Day edition of Wonk back!
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Today's email is from March 6, 1860
Regular readers may recall I devote the bottom of each Presidents Day post to the words of our 16th and greatest president. This year's installment is lifted from a speech delivered at New Haven, Connecticut, in the run-up to the presidential election of 1860. The future president had just given his more famous speech at the Cooper Institute in New York. What is less well remembered, however, is that as long as he was out east, he graced additional rostrums and spoke on what was to be done with regard to the institution of slavery in existing and future U.S. territories. Graced them very ably (and presaged a famous passage some 70 years later from Winston Churchill)....

If I saw a venomous snake crawling in the road, any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question. [Laughter.] I might hurt the children more than the snake and it might bite them. [Applause.] Much more, if I found it in bed with my neighbor's children and I had bound myself by a solemn compact not to meddle with his children under any circumstances, it would become me to let that particular mode of getting rid of the gentleman alone. [Great laughter.] But if there was a bed newly made up, to which the children were to be taken, and it was proposed to take a batch of young snakes and put them there with them, I take it no man would say there was any question how I ought to decide. [Prolonged applause and cheers.]

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