Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Road Hardly Ever Traveled

As far as I know, the last time a Big Ten men's basketball team went through the Big Ten season undefeated was a Bobby Knight Indiana squad that went swept the league, went 32-0 overall, and won the 1976 NCAA championship. This was the back half of an unprecedented two-year stretch for IU, during which they only lost one game, and won every conference game.
The closest any team has come to matching this performance since was Illinois' one loss season in 2004-05, where they lost at Ohio State on a last minute shot in the last game of the regular season. You don't come much closer to going undefeated than that. And, if you'll recall, that team had two first round NBA draft picks on it, and all five starters have spent at least some time in the league.
I'm not saying that I expect this year's University of Wisconsin men's basketball team to go through the Big Ten season undefeated, or even match Illinois' feat of two years ago. If anything, the 31 years that have passed since it was last done indicate how ridiculously difficult it is to go through the season undefeated. In re Wisco this season, I think it's wise to strive to win every game, but not to be unrealistic. If more talented teams like the Fab Five, year two, or the Mo Pete/Cleeves Sparty, or the Deron/Wee Brown Fibs couldn't get it done, our chances are remote. But still, we must dream the impossible dream!

Wisconsin is in the middle of what appears to be one of the two most difficult patches of the Big Ten season. At the Fibs last weekend, a talented but undisciplined Michigan team, followed by today's game at Iowa, where Iowa had won 28 out of the past 29 games, then capped off by Wednesday's game at Indiana, where he of the excessive phone calls, Kelvin Sampson, has the Hoosiers playing quite well. We took care of business this afternoon, either stifling Iowa's two leading scorers or getting intensely lucky since they both had poor shooting nights. But Indiana will be a toughie, as the Hoosiers have the most efficient offense in the league (an outlandish 1.16 PPP), largely due to the rate at which they're hitting 3's. They hit 10 on Saturday, shooting 50% from beyond the arc. That equates to a scary 1.5 PPP on possessions during which they launched a three-pointer. But, but, you (and I) protest, Indiana lost at Illinois to a Fib team lacking it most talented player, the 6'8" small forward Brian Randle, in the "how dare you recruit our recruit who gave us a non-binding verbal commitment" game. Yeah, I saw that too. That game was a colossal brick-fest. If we can bring some serious defense to the table, keeping their shooters from getting open looks, and frustrating Deeg White with our assortment of bigs, then I think we can take them. So far, we're playing the best defense in the league, although our stats must have been helped tremendously by the straight-brokedness of Iowa this afternoon. If Indiana starts hitting 3's though, look out, we're in trouble. What may bode well for Bucky is that Indiana plays good perimeter defense but iffy interior D. Teams are shooting only 23% on 3's against the Hoosiers, but they're apparently quite gracious once you get inside the arc--allowing opposing teams to hit 52% of their two-point shots. Since we typically prefer to focus our offense on the interior anyway (partly because we haven't shot the ball well from outside this season), this could spell some offensive success. That's if the "they're really good at stopping what we're not very good at so don't really try to do" logic makes sense to you. It may not. It's understandable.

At the end of the Big Ten season, Wisconsin dives into its second rough-looking stretch. We play at Sparty and at Ohio A&M, and then end the regular season with Sparty at home. Yeesh. And by the looks of MSU's furious comeback in Columbus and the stats (they're one of the four teams in the league with a solid efficiency margin so far (that is PPP scored minus PPP given up)) they're actually a decent team. What may make this last stretch tolerable is that there's plenty of time between games. We play at Sparty on 2/20 (a Tuesday) and then at The Ohio A&M College on 2/25 (a Sunday). Then we don't play our last game until 3/3 (the following Saturday). So there'll be time to recuperate and focus on the next game, at the very least.

So I haven't said much about the Iowa game, yet, huh? Haluska, the Big Ten's leading scorer, did not look all that impressive. He was hustling and did get some open looks, but very little was hitting the sink. Iowa's big freshman, Tyler Smith, who an Iowa paper compared to a young Alando, also struggled from the field. I'm not sure if Smith's and Haluska's struggles were due to them having off games, or our defensive intensity. Hopefully it was both. Good defense certainly doesn't make those shots go in any easier. And finally, Alando was back on offensively, hitting jumpers, floating to the basket, making contested lay-ins in the paint. A-Tuck hit 78% of his shots, scoring 27 points, or roughly 50% of our offensive output. A game recap briefly mentioned something about Alando having a sprained thumb during the past few weeks (did you notice the tape on it the past few games?), and that injury healing may have had something to do with a return of his shooting form. Butch also hit three 3's, and was a rebounding machine, ending up with fourteen boards. Folks who may not have watched the game may be thinking something like "if Iowa's two leading guys played so poorly, and Alando was on, why didn't we win by a larger margin?" Three reasons-- (1) Iowa got to the line more often than we did (Haluska is a fine actor, and went 9 of 10 from the stripe), (2) no one else was shooting all that well (Kam went 1 for 7 and hit that one shot early in the game), and we turned the ball over a decent amount-- 12 times. Kam hits a few more open jumpers, we get a few more calls (Alando got called for a suspect charge underneath the basket), we win the game by the high teens.
Iowa rattled us a bit on offense by playing tight pressure D on the perimeter, and doubling quickly when our main guys, like Kam and Alando, tried to drive past it. Other guys have to cut and get open.
A final note-- Jason Bohannon, the freshman from Marion, Iowa, who I like to affectionately refer to as Boyannyon, was roundly booed by the Iowa City crowd. Jason was Iowa's Mr. Basketball a year ago, led his team to a state championship during one of his high school years, and is the oldest son of a former Iowa quarterback, Gordy Bohannon, who started for an Iowa Rose Bowl team in the early 80's. It's kind of the equivalent of Darrell Bevell's kid choosing to go to Illinois. Or, wait a minute, it's almost the exact equivalent of the Wes Matthews, Junior situation. Wes's dad, Wes Matthews Senior, was the Badgers leading scorer and best player in the late 70's and went on to play in the NBA. Wes Jr. went to Madison Memorial (suspect), was Wisconsin's Mr. Basketball his senior season (edging out Marcus Landry for the honor), and decided to go to Marquette (argh...), turning away from his hometown team and his dad's legacy. Now I love me some Badgers, but it's hard to blame Wes, and thus, if I were an Iowa fan, it'd be hard to get mad at Jason. Would you feel comfortable being a high-profile athlete at a school where you father or mother (or even an older sibling) was a star? Wouldn't you want to create your own legacy? And avoid potentially nasty comparisons? Though don't tell this to Flowers or Nankvil, there's also something to getting the hell out of Dodge, and trying out a new place.
I understand the boos that Wes got in Madison last year and that Jason got this afternoon, but I hope they fade in time as fans start seeing them as players, not as a legacy that their school was entitled to. Hitting that first three pointer must have felt pretty good, Jason.


Sal said...

As I went to finally watch another Badger game on TV, it was a slap in the face to discover Bruce "The Incredible (Orange) Hulk" Pearl's Volunteers playing #25 UK. Dammit, since when does crappy middle of the road SEC basketball take precedence over the #2 team in the country? If they were showing Big 12 I would understand, but the SEC? Did I say Dammit yet?

I agree with the Bohannon/Matthews theory (except the part about Memorial being suspect), and I also wonder if Matthews didn't like Bo's system.

My favorite post-game quote came from Bo, who was unable to repeat his half-time comments to Butch in order to keep it PG. "I can't use the language...(I said) just shoot the ball. Just shoot it. Don't think about it." Evidently it worked.

Mr.Man said...

I think worries about Bo's "system" being unattractive are overblown, and a holdover from the Dick Bennett era. UW actually leads the Big Ten in pace, meaning we have the most possessions per game where we get an opportunity to score. (Look at the Big Ten Wonk's website for the stats.) We need to turn that frown upside-down, and start pushing the good word, as it were. Of course, Marquette's sloppy, lots of fouls, lots of turnovers, NBA-esque style of basketball can seem appealing to those who want to play in the league.

And doesn't Memorial play the Swing already? That's what your boy Nankvil has been saying.
Sorry about having to watch SEC basketball.

The man they call Craig said...

the sec is the best conference in the country. serious. but i agree with you. #2.

Anonymous said...

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- Thomas