Illini Wonk
Thursday, March 23, 2006
  Dancing with Feinstein
As the final horn sounded on last year’s national championship game, Roy Williams scanned the floor for Illinois coach Bruce Weber. When Williams finally caught up with him, just before Weber left the court, Williams told him: “You had a great year. You will be back here. Your time will come, you’re a great basketball coach.”

This story is one of many that are told by College Basketball chronicler John Feinstein in Last Dance : Behind the Scenes at the Final Four, his latest tome on the sport. The good folks at Little, Brown were nice enough to send me a review copy to read during this year’s Final Four (note to roving publicists: send me free stuff related to the topic of this blog and there’s a good chance you’ll read about it here).

The exchange between coaches is one of many with an Illini flavor in the book, which is yet another example of the added exposure the Illinois program has received from their “March to the Arch” (title of chapter seven).

But it is this year’s trip by the Illini to the NCAA Tournament that made me look at this book with redoubled interest. Two chapters in particular: chapter ten, The Committee and chapter eight, Refs.

In his chapter on the 10-member committee, Feinstein reveals the secretive nature of their deliberations in deciding who gets in and where they’re seeded. In looking at their past mistakes, the year that stood out was 2003. That was the year the committee put BYU in a bracket where it would have to play on a Sunday. BYU is a Mormon school and has always made it clear that it will not play on a Sunday. They also put Arizona and Kentucky (clearly the two best teams) in brackets that would have them meet in the national semifinal.

I don’t claim to be an expert on seeding or tournament history, but I wonder if the committee has ever done a worse job of seeding a bracket than they did with the Washington DC bracket this year. Connecticut was a clear #1, but the 2-5 seeds were, in the words of Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy: “an absolute joke.”

The AP voters agreed with DeCourcy: when the final top 25 came out (after the brackets were announced) North Carolina was ranked 10, Illinois 13, Washington 17 and Tennessee 18. Somehow, Tennessee was seeded ahead of three teams in their bracket that were ranked ahead of them in the final AP Poll. Tennessee then went out and proved the committee horribly wrong by barely escaping a first-round embarrassment and then falling in the second round to the 7 seed Wichita State Shockers.

But enough about seeding, how does one become a ref in the NCAA tournament? A better question for Illinois is how these three refs got their game against Washington. Illini Wonk has documented the complaints about the officiating from the news media, but there’s one more worth mentioning. I listened to the March 20 edition of Tupper on Sports (unfortunately, unless you archived the episode on iTunes, you won't be able to hear it anymore) and here was his explanation of the officials: Now, I was sitting courtside and watched that game pretty closely and if you asked me ‘Did Illinois foul a lot I would say absolutely.’ It was a very, very physical game. But Washington fouled too and you could not only see them foul; you could hear them. And when you can hear fouls, they’re real fouls.

So how are the refs selected? In chapter eight, Feinstein tells us how. Essentially, it comes down to the opinion of one person: Hank Nichols. Sure, there is a nomination process, meetings with the committee and the Officials Subcommittee, but it’s ultimately up to Nichols who refs and how long they stick around.

But anyway, back to the book. In addition to the portions of the book relevant to Illinois, the book is an excellent history of college basketball’s biggest event. Once you get past Coach K’s name-dropping intro, the history of the tournament comes alive in the 300+ readable pages. I think it’s Feinstein’s best effort since A Season on the Brink and if you get into the Final Four as much as I do, you’ll definitely enjoy Last Dance.
Sunday, March 19, 2006
  Reviewing the refs
Game officials Larry Rose, Doug Shows and Gary Maxwell called a game that gave 39 free throw attempts for Washington to 11 for Illinois. In the second half it was 21-2. The end result is that Illinois lost the game despite making eight more baskets than Washington.

The 39 free throw attempts were the most against Illinois since Bruce Weber took over the program in April 2003 and the 28-shot disparity in free throws equaled the widest margin in an Illinois game since that Elite Eight loss to Arizona.

Following the game, it was difficult for Illini Wonk to determine if the officiating was really that bad or if it was just my emotions getting in the way of my judgement. Today, it is clear that my judgement was spot on and agreed to by many. Here's just a few:

Mark Tupper: I watched the game from the second row. No question Illinois fouled. I have no problem with that, although I thought it was an imaginary call against Marcus Arnold when he battled for that rebound late in the game. My problem is that Washington was fouling, too. They were bumping and slapping and colliding and grabbing, just like Illinois was. So from where I sat, there simply should not have been that large a disparity.

Mike Nadel: I just about never rip refs. In fact, I usually criticize coaches and players who complain because refs so rarely decide games. He then went on to call the officiating horribly inconsistent, incompetent and judged that it was one of the worst-officiated games in recent memory.

Bruce Weber: "I'm (ticked)," he said, although Weber selected a more descriptive word. "It was frustrating in the second half. We shot two free throws, they shot 21. We fouled, but I thought maybe we got fouled, too. But they didn't see it that way."

Then there are the usual pricks who think any complaining about the refs is only done by crybabies, as if the zebras never make mistakes. Phil Taylor of Sports Illustrated belongs in this category. Illinois coach Bruce Weber... cried so much to the officials that someone really should have passed him a hanky. Where you at the game, Phil?

Others focused on the seeding that Illinois received. Mike DeCourcy, almost mirroring an earlier post from Illini Wonk, wrote: Illinois had a better record than Tennessee (25-6 to 21-7), more RPI top 25 wins (5 for Illinois, 3 for UT), more top 50 wins (9 for Illinois, 4 for UT) and more top 100 wins (13 to 10). Illinois finished second in its conference, same as Tennessee. But somehow the committee looked at all of that and made the absurd decision that the Volunteers' record was superior.

Dee Brown and James Augustine shouldn't have to go out like this. They deserved better from a game that they did so much for.
Saturday, March 18, 2006
  Free throws

Illinois: 11
Washington: 39
  Illini ground Air Force, face U-Dub
Sharp-shooting from freshman Jamar Smith propelled the Illinois Fighting Illini past Air Force and into a second round NCAA Tournament game against the University of Washington.

Dick Vitale called this his "most compelling matchup of the day." He said "I think Illinois will have to much" for Washington and will get the job done. Gennaro Filice of predicts that Washington will ride 36 points from Brandon Roy and win 86-81.

Roy will be the primary concern for the Illini and Brian Randle will draw the defensive assignment; one of his toughest of the season. As Mark Tupper put it, Illinois' hopes of reaching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament depend largely on how well Brian Randle can stop him.

Another intriguing storyline is UW guard Justin Dentmon, a freshman from Carbondale, Ill. who is looking forward to the matchup with the Illini.

Can the Illini get the win? Forward James Augustine reaches into his bag of sports cliches and says: You have to beat the best to be the best. Indeed. Tip-off is at 4:30 p.m.
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
  Illini Wonk Media Update
On the night the brackets were unveiled, Illini Wonk was interviewed by sportsbloggerslive. If you're really bored, you can click here to listen to the interview.

However, if you're looking for something a little more interesting, go to Big Hit Buda and watch "Tha Illini Remix" Tha video. For lyrics, click here.
Monday, March 13, 2006
  Illinois to NCAA: huh?
After an undefeated pre-conference season that included wins against Georgetown and at media-favorite North Carolina. After a second-place finish (by one game) in the toughest conference in the nation (according to the RPI). After a quarterfinal exit in their conference tournament similar to exits by Connecticut and Tennessee. After all that, the Illini received a No. 4 seed and 2,000 mile trip to San Diego.


Now, before Wonk goes any further, let me just say that there's not much of a difference between a 3 and a 4 seed. Last year, Louisville advanced to the final weekend with a 4 seed so it's not out of the question. The point is simply that this year's NCAA Men's Basketball Committee obviously had some hallucinogenics served in their ice cream.

According to Mark Tupper, the Illini team reacted with mild disappointment when the No. 4 seed was revealed. It was a little disappointing said junior guard Rich McBride.

But what about the pundits? They can't understand it either. Gregg Doyel at CBS Sportsline says that Illinois got hosed by being sent to San Diego to face two lower seeds from the west. According to Frank Burlison of, Illinois was seeded two low and is playing much better right now than Tennessee and Texas.

For the sake of argument, let's just stay in the Washington DC Region where Illinois is playing. Here's the resume's of the 2-4 seeds, with the best in bold:

Tennessee: 6
UNC: 8
Illinois: 9

Conference RPI
Tennessee: 4
UNC: 3
Illinois: 1

Tennessee: 21-7
UNC: 22-7
Illinois: 25-6

Record (last ten)
Tennessee: 6-4
UNC: 8-2
Illinois: 6-4

Record vs. RPI Top-50
Tennessee: 4-4
UNC: 7-4
Illinois: 9-5

Losses outside RPI Top-50
Tennessee: 3
UNC: 3
Illinois: 1

After looking through that list, which order would you rank those three teams? Mark Tupper explains how Illinois received a No. 4 seed: Iowa, projected to be a No. 4 seed, could be elevated if it beat Ohio State in the title game. And the easy swap was to simply drop Illinois, tentatively penciled in as a No. 3 seed, into Iowa's No. 4 spot. Illini Wonk's explanation: the committee clearly didn't care that Illinois played in the toughest conference in the nation. There's no other way to explain the No. 4 seed.

I will make one promise: Illini Wonk will not bring this up again. I've moved on. The Committee is human. In his recent book on the Final Four, Last Dance, John Feinstein details some of the mistakes and controversies of committee's past. It was interesting to be reading Feinstein's book during this year's selection process (review forthcoming).

Finally, as Rick Telander pointed out, Illinois is dangerous and undervalued. The ranking doesn't mean they can't win. It just means that they'll have to play that much better.
Sunday, March 12, 2006
  Illini given No. 4 seed
The Illinois Fighting Illini received a No. 4 seed in the Washington, D.C bracket and a first-round game with the Air Force Falcons. Here's Air Force's resume:

RPI: 38 (Mountain West Conference: 8)

Record: 22-6 (7-3, last ten)

Record vs. RPI Top-50: 0-1

More to come later...
  Fighting Illini NCAA Tournament Resume
As the Illinois Fighting Illini await their seed in the NCAA Tournament, let's take a look at their NCAA Tournament Resume:

RPI: 9 (Conference RPI: 1)

Record: 25-6 (last ten: 6-4)

Strength of Schedule: 53

Record vs. RPI Top-50: 9-5

Losses outside RPI Top-50: Penn State

Here's where the bracket experts have us:

Joe Lunardi (ESPN): #2 in Washington, DC region
Stewart Mandel (SI): #2 in the Atlanta region
CBS Sportsline: #4 in the Atlanta region
The Bracket Board: #3 in the Atlanta region
Bracketography: #2 in the Atlanta region
Average of the five: #2.6
  Illini awaiting NCAA tournament seed
It's been four years since Illinois last sat at home watching the Big Ten Conference Tournament final and waiting for their NCAA seed. But that's what they're doing today. What seed will the Illini receive and where will they play?

The consensus from the beat writers is that the early loss shouldn't have a big impact on Illinois' seed. In the Northwest Herald, David Brown says the loss was meaningless and the Illini still should be a No. 2 seed. Neil Milbert states the case in today's Chicago Tribune:

The Big Ten has the best RPI of any conference and the ninth-ranked Illini (25-6) finished in a second-place tie with Iowa at 11-5, a game behind champion Ohio State. They were 14-0 in non-conference play and defeated 10th-ranked North Carolina on the road, 23rd-ranked Georgetown at home and Missouri Valley Conference regular-season champion Wichita State on a neutral court.

The latest Bracketology from Joe Lunardi has Illinois playing in Dayton as the #2 in Connecticut's bracket. The Bracket Board also has Illinois a #2, but places them in Auburn Hills for their first game. Mark Tupper is thinking No. 3 seed. Billy Packer agrees. More than 60 percent of the voters in Illini Wonk's poll (top right of this blog) vote for the #2 seed. If they do drop to a No. 2 or 3 NCAA tournament seed to a No. 3 or 4, Mike Nadel says: So what?

After Illinois' bracket is unveiled, Illini Wonk will be interviewed on You can read their blog here. Post your thoughts in the comments section and Wonk will pass them on to the sports world.

Also, don't forget to sign up for March Madness on Demand from You can watch the games for free while you're sitting at your desk in the office.
  Cold second half shooting send Illini home early
The three-point attempt from Dee Brown with 40 seconds left was indicative of Illinois' second half against Michigan State. A well executed out-of-bounds play left him with a good look but he couldn't hit the shot.

From this blogger's perspective, the Illini didn't play too poorly, but the shots weren't falling in the second half. The Illini shot 38.5 percent over the final 20 minutes of the Big Ten Tournament game, including 1-9 from behind the three-point line.

The loss doesn't bother Mark Tupper as much as it will many fans. He believes that the Fighting Illini will respond since seniors James Augustine and Brown don't want their careers to end this next week.

The player of the game for Illinois was clearly Augustine. Tupper said he was a "warrior" and his final stat line of 16 points and 15 rebounds bear that out. He came into the game only needing three rebounds to become the first Illinois player (12th in the Big Ten) to join the elite 1,000-point, 1,000-rebound club.

Now, for the first time in the event's nine-year history, Illinois won’t be playing in the Big Ten Conference Tournament semifinals. For more of the news coverage, click here.
Thursday, March 09, 2006
  Illini to face Spartans in Big Ten Tourney
The Michigan State's 70-58 win over Purdue set up the third meeting of the season between the Illini and the Spartans. Illinois won the first two and it's usually pretty tough to beat a good team three times in the same season.

If Illinois beats the Spartans, they will have about 14 1/2 hours before their next game against the winner of the Minnesota/Iowa game. After a tough game today, that would be an even more difficult turnaround time for Michigan State. As John Supinie put it, the Spartans have the toughest road to the Big Ten tourney title.

Can the Illini win the tournament for the second year in a row? Dave Dye of the Detroit News thinks so. On his blog, Mark Tupper says that the Illinois players are sounding like the tourney matters. Bring ‘em on says Illinois forward James Augustine.

For the tournament bracket, click here. To read more stories on the Big Ten Tournament, click here.
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
  Dee needs a bigger trophy cabinet
There has been a surprising amount of ambivalence about the play of Dee Brown among Illinois fans this year. Perhaps they are still spoiled by last year's team, but many seem to sweat every missed shot and every shot clock violation attributed to the senior point guard.

There appears to be much less ambivalence on the part of those who are voting to give out the basketball hardware, as Dee has been mentioned for nearly every major award.

Today, it was from the conference, with Dee joining James Augustine on the All-Big Ten First Team. (Brian Randle made the All-Defensive team and Jamar Smith the All-Freshman team). In explaining his first team vote for Dee, Mark Tupper of the Decatur Herald & Review said that he may not have the stats of some other players in the conference, but concluded: Someone gets credit for the most important statistic of all: Illinois' 25 victories. Brett Dawson doesn't get a vote this year, but if he did he says Brown would be a first-team no-doubter.

The conference honor is one of the latest, but it's far from the only award that Dee has received. He was named one of 11 finalists for the Adolph F. Rupp Player of the Year Award by the Commonwealth Athletic Club of Kentucky. The U.S. Basketball Writers Association placed Brown on the Second Team of the 2005-06 Men's All-America Team and named him Player of the Year in District V.

Dee is also a finalist for the Bayer Advantage® Senior CLASS Award, which is presented each year to the outstanding senior NCAA Division I college basketball player. You can vote for Dee (who was in fifth when this was posted) here.

Dee made the All-Big Ten Conference team of Seth Davis and was one of three repeat finalists for the Oscar Robertson Trophy, given to the national college player of the year by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. Brown and Augustine were both named to the District 11 First Team by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. Brown, Augustine and Rich McBride also made the official ballot for the All-Wonk Team (2.0). Some think he could benefit the New York Knicks.

Earlier this season, Illini Wonk said It's Good to be Dee. As you can just keeps getting better.
Sunday, March 05, 2006
  Penn "friggin" State
No. Not in the way you think. Although there is that, too. Illini Wonk said early and often that all the Illini needed to do for a share of the Big Ten title this year was to sweep at home and split on the road. Which they did...with one exception. A loss at home to Penn State prevented Illinois from a share of their third consecutive regular season conference title. Ouch.

But that's not what Wonk is referring to by saying Penn "Friggin" State. Rather, the reference is to what adding an 11th school has done to the conference basketball schedule. What follows is a list of the top five finishers in the conference. The first number is how many games they played against the other four and the number in parantheses is how many of those games were at home.

Ohio State: 5 (2)
Illinois: 6 (2)
Iowa: 7 (4)
Wisconsin: 6 (4)
Indiana: 6 (3)

Because there are 11 teams in the conference, the schedule is a determining factor in the outcome. As you can see, Illinois was the only team who had to play the other top four on the road, three of which they lost.

Ohio State only played five games against the rest of the top five teams, the fewest of any team in the top five. The only team in the top five they played twice was Wisconsin.

Michigan State, by the way, played ten games against the top five, winning four. That's right. They played all five of them two times. So, before you start to believe that Michigan State is a disappointment this year, remember that they played twice as many games against the top five in the conference as Ohio State did.

Oh, and that's why Illinois will likely play them in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament on Friday. But, according to Big Ten Wonk, that may not be a bad thing for the Illini.

What's the answer? Who knows? Wonk is simply trying to point out the problems the Big Ten caused when it added that football school from University Park. It's also something you might want to keep in mind when you're filling out your bracket.
  Illini end regular season on a roll
Illinois beat Michigan State in the Breslin Center for the second year in a row to finish 11-5 in conference play and 25-5 overall. After dropping two straight conference games to Penn State and Ohio State, Illinois won five of their last six and finished on a three-game winning streak.

For most of their first 20 wins, the Illini did it with defense and rebounding. Better late than never, blogs Mark Tupper, but the Illini basketball offense has made positive strides in the last couple weeks.

When the schedule was set, a lot of people marked this game at Michigan State on their calendars as a game that could be significant in the Big Ten title chase. So how did the Illini end their regular season with a victory?

Some have suggested that it was simply "hot shooting" that led Illinois to victory. That is partially true, but a big portion of it comes from the way Illinois is moving on offense. In the last three games, Mark Tupper notes that Illinois had 16 assists to go with 23 baskets against Iowa, 22 assists for 26 baskets against Minnesota and Saturday the total was 17 assists on 25 baskets against Michigan State. Sounds kind of like last year, doesn't it?

Two other factors in the win were bench and balance. Despite having Dee Brown sit the last nine minutes of the first half and James Augustine out for a while with a banged up knee, the Illini were able to go into the lockeroom down only one point. The Illini had five players in double figures and got 31 points from their bench.

Last night during the Duke/North Carolina game, Dick Vitale said that the Illini were looking dangerous going into the post-season. Could they be peaking at the right time? Can they win a third Big Ten Tournament? How far could they go in the Big Dance? What seed will they get?
Saturday, March 04, 2006
  Regular season finale
This morning, CBS will broadcast Illinois' final regular season game against Michigan State in East Lansing. The Spartans will likely be without Matt Trannon which, as Big Ten Wonk points out, is worse for them than Trannon's stats would suggest.

As we all now know, Illinois' shot at a share of its third straight Big Ten title is a long shot at best. They would have to win today on the road and have Ohio State lose at home to last-place Purdue. Despite that, the Illini hold out hope. "We're goofy like that," said sophomore center Shaun Pruitt. "Anything can happen."

Perhaps a bit more realistic, Illinois coach Bruce Weber said: "The big thing we're going to play for is the (NCAA Tournament) seeding." Regardless of today's outcome, Dave Dye from the Detroit News says that Illinois is the Big Ten's best shot to get to the Final Four.
Thursday, March 02, 2006
  Illini win 15th straight against Minnesota
Mark Tupper has the recap on his blog and in the Herald & Review. Brett Dawson has more on his blog. James Augustine and his near triple double was the talk of the game, as well as the 22 assists Illinois recorded on their 26 baskets.

Their final game is against the Michigan State Spartans this Saturday at 11:00 a.m. on CBS. The game almost had added meaning, but the Northwestern Wildcats choked late in their loss to Ohio State. But, with Wisconsin losing to Michigan State today, the Illini can get a 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament by winning their final game in the regular season.
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