The Linear Regression of Big Ten Basketball

Wisconsin Northwestern Basketball

The regular readers of this blog know that I’m the consummate Big Ten guy.  On the football side, I’ve been quick to point out that the Big Ten’s recent problems in BCS bowl games are more due to having to play USC and SEC teams on their respective home turfs than anything about the quality of the conference overall.  However, there’s only so much that I can defend the state of Big Ten basketball.  Somehow, the conference enters into the week of the Big Ten Tournament with a legitimate chance to send 8 teams to the NCAA Tournament since each of its 5 bubble teams have solid numbers and key victories on paper.  (Northwestern still has an outside chance for a potential 9th Big Ten bid, but put itself on death’s door with a loss in a winnable game at Ohio State yesterday.)  While this could indicate to the naked eye that the conference has strong depth overall, it’s masking the fact that the level of play is simply not up to snuff compared to the Big East and ACC.  Michigan State has the only reasonable chance of making the Final Four out of the Big Ten this year.  Purdue and Illinois might get to the Sweet Sixteen if everything falls into place.  Everyone else, though, has been the beneficiary of beating each other up as good-but-not-great teams that make the RPI and other computer numbers seem strong even though anyone that has been watching the games would know otherwise.  The Illinois-Penn State game in Champaign on February 19th, with a 39-33 final score in favor of the Nittany Lions, was the single worst sporting event involved people purported to be upper level athletes I have ever witnessed in my entire lifetime.  (I’ll spare you any comments on the choke job the Illini performed in the second tilt between those two teams in State College last week in order to avoid beating my computer with the house-full of bricks put up by Illinois in the last 5 minutes of that game.)  That game wasn’t the mark of two good defensive teams.  Instead, it was the result of two horrific offenses.

In fact, Loren Tate wrote a column a couple of weeks ago indicating the difficulty that the Big Ten has had in attracting top-level recruits.  This is not a suprise whatsoever, as better athletes these days seem to enjoy playing in systems that emphasize running offensive schemes that would make Mike D’Antoni quiver in delight.  Conferences usually adapt to the styles of play of the teams that have had the most consistent success.  In the ACC, that means that schools have emulated Duke and UNC, which run extremely fast-paced offenses.  The same has occurred in the Big East, where teams have loaded up to keep pace with UConn.  It’s no wonder that those two conferences have been filling up the top ten all season since the styles of play in those leagues are being dictated by teams that are perennially Final Four contenders.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten’s style of play seems to have been dictated by Wisconsin, with its emphasis on using nearly all of the shot clock on offense.  Penn State, Northwestern, Iowa, and Minnesota also have emloy deliberate offensive sets, which means that nearly half of the conference is in slow-down mode.  Certainly, it has been admirable that Bo Ryan has been able to produce a consistently winning program while using middle tier recruits from places like Waukesha and Eau Claire.  However, this isn’t a great trend for the conference overall since Wisconsin is the classic “always-very-competitive-but-rarely-great” type of team that attains a gaudy regular season record and then gets rolled over by a superior athletic team in the NCAA Tournament.  Today’s superstar high school players might not have cared 10 or 20 years ago about this (i.e. the old saying that Dean Smith was the only person that could hold Michael Jordan to under 20 points per game), but it’s evident that they certainly do today.  As Tate points out in his column, not a single one of the 24 of this year’s McDonald’s All-Americans will attend a Big Ten school.  In contrast, North Carolina will enroll 4 alone, while Duke adds 2.  While some college basketball fans may scoff at how the McDonald’s All-Americans are chosen or say that they don’t really matter, history says otherwise.  The last Big Ten team that made it to the national championship game was the 2007 Ohio State team that boasted 4 McDonald’s All-Americans (Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook, and Ivan Harris).  The 2005 Illini team had Dee Brown as a McDonald’s All-American along with Deron Williams and Luther Head being top-rated recruits.

I’m not arguing against the old adage that defense wins championships.  Clearly, a team needs to be a solid defensive team in order to win the national championship.  However, at the college level, it appears that having a great offense and a good defense is the winning combination (while an NBA team is better off with a great defense and a good offense).  At the same time, athletic ability means more in terms of winning at the very top level of basketball compared to any other sport.  As a result, the Big Ten’s relevance is going to depend upon attracting the best athletes over the long term.  Hopefully, the highly-rated recruiting classes anticipated to be coming in for Illinois and Ohio State over the next couple of years (along with the jack-up-threes-at-will John Beilein sets at Michigan) will turn the Big Ten away from the Wisconsin-style of play and into a league that has more open court offenses that will be more attractive to the nation’s top-level players.

(Image from USA Today)

Frank the Tank’s Football Parlay – 10/24/2008

Quick picks on a Bears bye week with the Illini visiting Madison (home teams in CAPS):

COLLEGE FOOTBALL PARLAY

(1) LOUISVILLE CARDINALS (+4.5) over South Florida Bulls
(2) MIAMI HURRICANES (-3) over Wake Forest Demon Deacons
(3) Illinois Fighting Illini (-2.5) over WISCONSIN BADGERS

Frank the Tank’s College Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 2-1

Illini Games for the Season: 3-3
Overall Season: 13-10-1

NFL FOOTBALL PARLAY

(1) NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (+3) over San Diego Chargers
(2) PITTSBURGH STEELERS (-3) over New York Giants
(3) TENNESSEE TITANS (-4) over Indianapolis Colts

Frank the Tank’s NFL Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 3-0

Bears Games for the Season: 2-41
Overall Season: 9-9-3

Well, I’m Glad it’s Football Season – Frank the Tank’s Football Parlay – 10/3/2008

It will be another short parlay post this week as I’ve got wedding duties for a good friend.  In short, this ought to be one of those banner sports weekends in theory, with the local football scene moving from Pennsylvania to Michigan with Illinois-Michigan on Saturday and Bears-Lions on Sunday, along with both the White Sox and Cubs trying to stave off early eliminations from the playoffs (ugh).  At least as a Sox fan, this playoff appearance is a bit like playing with house money at this point since absolutely no one has any expectations for this team compared to the others in the American League.  Plus, I didn’t expect much with Javy Vasquez yesterday – the next three guys in the White Sox rotation are going to give us much more of a chance to win.  I’m not sure if there’s much I can say to Cubs fans right now to make them feel better, other than Fox executives are flipping out just as much. (Note in that article the MLB executives have politically correct quotes talking about some great storylines for small markets, while the Fox sales exec straight-up says, “It’s all about the Cubs right now.”)  Anyway, let’s hope both baseball teams and the Illini turn it around (along with my horrid handicapping as of late after a pretty good start), with the strange feeling of the Bears being the overachievers of the past week.  Here are the football picks (home teams in CAPS):

COLLEGE FOOTBALL PARLAY
(1) Ohio State Buckeyes (-1.5) over WISCONSIN BADGERS
(2) Florida State Seminoles (+2.5) over MIAMI HURRICANES
(3) Illinois Fighting Illini (+3) over MICHIGAN WOLVERINES (Michigan played possibly the worst first half in terms of self-inflicted wounds that I’ve ever seen from any football team but came back to win.  Still, I feel strangely good about the Illini in this game, which probably means that I’m going to be crushed by Muck Fichigan for the 959th time in life.)

Frank the Tank’s College Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 1-2

Illini Games for the Season: 1-2
Overall Season: 7-7-1

NFL FOOTBALL PARLAY
(1) BALTIMORE RAVENS (+3) over Tennessee Titans
(2) DENVER BRONCOS (-3) over Tampa Bay Buccaneers
(3) Chicago Bears (-3.5) over DETROIT LIONS (Will I get a Bears game correct this season? I feel like the Susan Lucci of the sports book.  If anything, this is empirical evidence that you should never ever gamble on a team that you are emotionally invested in.)

Frank the Tank’s NFL Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 0-3

Bears Games for the Season: 0-31
Overall Season: 4-7-1

(Image from ESPN.com)

Offensive Spread and Frank the Tank’s College Football Parlay – 9/11/2008

In my opinion, one of the most underrated keys to gambling “effectively” is knowing when to not put money down (you’ve got to know when to fold ’em).  For instance, regular poker players usually feast on amateurs that make the mistake of needing the action and playing too many hands.  Likewise, there are certain times where you’re better off putting all of your savings on “black” at the roulette table than even entertaining the thought of betting on certain football games.  When looking at mgoblog’s account of how the line on the Notre Dame – Michigan game swung 5 points in one direction a week ago and then 9.5 points in the other direction this week, it’s apparent that the Vegas bookies have thrown up their hands with a collective “WTF?!” as to predicting either the Irish or the Wolverines.  I’d advise that those heading to Las Vegas this weekend stay far away from ND/UM considering that I trust the following sources with predictions in life in this order: (1) the Iowa Electronic Markets, (2) Vegas bookies, (3) Warren Buffet, (4) the Farmer’s Almanac, (5) Nostradamus, and (6,602,224,175) Woody Paige.  On to this week’s parlay (home teams in CAPS):

(1) Ohio State Buckeyes (+10.5) over USC TROJANS – The most highly anticipated inter-conference matchup of the season has some of the buzz removed as a result of tOSU’s troubles with tOU last week and the injury to Beanie Wells.  Couple this with the increasing aura around USC its dismantling of Virginia in week one and you now have the national conventional wisdom that the Trojans are going to slap the Buckeyes out of L.A. in the same manner as my Illini back in January.  Given my preternatural disposition to going against such a tidal wave of group think and the fact that Ohio State has a history of looking lackadaisical the week before a big game (i.e. Illinois seems to catch Ohio State off guard on a regular basis partly because they usually play the week before the OSU/Michigan game) but then following it up with a performance up to par with the team’s talent, I believe that this is going to turn into the instant classic that college football fans were banking on during the offseason.  And make no mistake, people, the Buckeyes, even without Wells, still have a loaded team.  At the end of the day, 10.5 points is way too large of a spread for two relatively well-matched teams in what should be an emotional game – take the points here.

(2) Wisconsin Badgers (-1.5) over FRESNO STATE BULLDOGS – tOSU isn’t the only Big Ten school heading to California this weekend.  Quite frankly, I’m shocked that Wisconsin, which has largely adopted the 1990’s Kansas State approach of scheduling entire non-conference slates of women’s prison league teams, is actually playing on the road against any school, much less a ranked non-BCS conference team.  In the same manner as the Ohio State – USC point spread, the spread in this game is partly a function of the lackluster performance by the Badgers last weekend against a clearly inferior opponent.  Still, I believe that Wisky is legit – as much as I correctly loved East Carolina and Central Florida in their respective home stadiums last week, I’m giving the points for the major conference school on the road this week.

(3) ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI (-24.5) over Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns – Add non-conference body bag games with spreads of over three touchdowns to the list of contests that I would never actually put money on.  At the same time, judging by the fact that I’m perfect so far in my pro and college picks on games not involving my favorite teams while laying a goose egg on the Bears and Illinois, there’s a reaffirmation of the wise old adage of never betting on a team that you actually care about in real life.  Still, this is an Illini blog with a promise to include the Illini game in the weekly parlay, so I’ll give the points here relying on the assumptions that (a) Juice Williams will avoid telegraphing his passes to defenders in the first quarter, (b) the Ragin’ Cajuns come out with as little in the tank as it did in its 30-point loss to Southern Mississippi two weeks ago, and (c) Illinois couldn’t possibly fail to cover the spread when Frank the Tank is attending this game in person in Champaign.

The NFL parlay picks are coming tomorrow.

Frank the Tank’s College Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 2-1

Illini Games for the Season: 0-1
Overall Season: 4-2

(Image from New York Times)

The Way Kathy Lee Needed Regis That’s the Way I Need Rejus

arrelious-benn-rejus-benn-illinois-penn-state.jpeg

Alright – I’m officially excited.  When I wrote my college football preview a few weeks ago and predicted a Motor City Bowl appearance for the Illini (which plenty of people at the time thought was a monster stretch), I didn’t think in my wildest dreams that they would do so well that the most important football game between teams from Illinois and Wisconsin this past weekend would end up taking place at Memorial Stadium in Champaign as opposed to Lambeau Field in Green Bay (the Bears are slowly redeeming themselves, but that’s a post for another day).  Now, I’m clearing out my holiday calendar with the real prospect of Illinois making a top tier bowl.  While we are a long long way from legitimately talking about a Rose Bowl with games against Michigan and Ohio State still coming up, let’s just say I’ll break the bank to make it to Pasadena if that ever happens.  Honestly, next to an Illini national championship in basketball, watching the Illini in the Rose Bowl is my top sports wish – as much as I love the Bears, White Sox, and Bulls, seeing Illinois finally finish at the top would mean the most to me personally.

What I love about how the Illini are playing right now is that these are anything but fluke wins.  I got to witness the victory against Penn State a couple of weeks ago in person, which meant that I also got to attend the coming out party for my favorite athlete in the world today outside of Devin Hester:  Arrelious “Rejus” Benn.  I’m not sure how Ron Zook is getting top recruits such as Benn and Vontae Davis to come from Washington, D.C. to Champaign, but it needs to continue.  Rejus is the type of guy we would always see across the line in a Wolverine or Buckeye uniform before – a huge wide receiver who will also burn the best cornerbacks (and also in the case against the Nitanny Lions, the best special teams units) out there.  Anyway, considering that Benn is only a month into his college career, he has a pretty good chance of becoming the best athlete that I have seen in an Illini uniform for either football or basketball (even more so than Deron Williams) if he keeps up this pace.  The only thing with having such a talent is that he may have a short stay in Champaign he could very well be a top ten NFL draft pick after playing the minimum of two years in college.

As starry-eyed as I am with Rejus, it’s Rashard Mendenhall and the Illinois running game that’s really the team’s catalyst in rolling over teams.  Sure, Wisconsin might have been the second most overrated number 5 team in country this season (after our good friends at the University of Michigan), but can you believe that we put up another 289 yards on the ground against them?  I was brought up on old-school smash mouth Chicago Bears and Big Ten football, so there’s nothing more beautiful to me than watching the Illini just ram the ball down people’s throats.  Quarterback Juice Williams might still be throwing the ball as if he spent the summer at the Rex Grossman Passing Clinic, but the boy (along with his backup Eddie McGee) can still run like he stole something.

So, it’s going to be the middle of October and Illini football is still relevant.  There’s the proverbial trap game next week atIowa – as bad as the Hawkeyes might be playing this year, Kirk Ferentz seems to have our number – and if we survive and advance there, it makes the prime time game against Michigan into the biggest game in Champaign since, well, the most horrific sporting event that I have ever attended in person.  When we’re six weeks into the season and we’ve already won more games in 2007 than the past two years combined, Illini fans are entitled to some irrational exuberance.  I know I’m there.