Maybe if Paul Westhead or Roy Williams were in this league, you could get a coach worked up about the way Big Ten games are being played. And called.
Maybe if Paul Westhead or Roy Williams were in this league, you could get a coach worked up about the way Big Ten games are being played.
Ask defensive stalwarts Tubby Smith and Bruce Weber about Thursday night's 52-41 Illinois win over Minnesota, and they might not call it a thing of beauty. But they call it reality.
"It’s fine. It’s fine," Smith said of the Big Ten way. "You’ve got to be ready to play the game the right way. Basketball is basketball. It’s a contact sport. We just haven’t adapted to it yet."
Nor have the fans, it seems. All around the Assembly Hall, veteran observers of Big Ten battles are murmuring about how tight things have become. How low the scores are.
"What are we going to do about this?" asked David Dorris, a Bloomington lawyer, U of I trustee and witness to more Illini games live than anyone this side of Rod Cardinal the last 25 years.
Weber does not want to hear it. Never truly angry eight days prior when his team held Penn State to 38 and lost, Weber was fit to be tied when it was suggested the Big Ten's national reputation is taking hits.
"I’ll be honest. I’m sick of hearing all the junk," Weber said, his voice rising. "Go look at the scores in the nonconference games. Go look at that stuff. Do your homework. Look at Michigan State vs. Kansas. Look at us and Missouri."
Walks in the park, both. As you see Missouri pick off win after win in the NIT gridlock that is the Big XII, remember that Braggin' RIghts night was just about Illinois' easiest game of the year.
MSU had Kansas crying uncle well before halftime in December, not long after North Carolina waltzed through the Spartans. To be fair, KU has improved since then, a natural progression with so many new parts.
Weber reiterated what he always says about Big Ten ball: The difficulty in scoring is a product of intense scouting.
"I’ve always said: We prepare," Weber said. "Every possession means something. Whether it’s right or wrong."
He never offers why similar familiarity doesn't produce the same tooth pullings in other leagues. But I would submit that the most wrong stat I've heard this year came in the ACC: Duke let Wake come into Cameron, shoot 61 percent and score 91.
And Duke won by 10.
Weber has a point. This is not wrong. It's feeling a lot less right as 60 becomes a dream total, but whether these scores mean the teams are bad will be determined in the back half of March.
"You’ve got to do your talking on the court and do your talking in the tournament,"
Weber said. "We did plenty of talking in the nonconference season. We'll see about the tournament."
Indeed, nonconference play made for a league RPI rank of second for the Big Ten, ahead of the ballyhooed Big East, which a certain sports network seems to feel can do no wrong. (If we all had a nickel for how much ESPN has debated the tournament merits of 14-11 Georgetown, the stimulus package would look like petty change by comparison.)
The difference, unfortunately for the Big Ten, is the Big East has a few teams that could cut the nets down in Detroit in early April. The Big Ten has none. Don't say Michigan State. Take away the Spartans' transition, and they're a 50-point scorer like the rest of this league.
The Big Ten's lack of title contenders is OK, so long as the seemingly endless list of standout sophomores in the league grow into players who can make plays. Who you want to watch.
"We run a play and the play breaks down and we try to go 1-on-1," Smith said of the Gophers. "That’s our problem. Because we don’t have 1-on-1 players."
Weber evaluated his team the same way.
"We don’t have the slasher that can get to the basket and beat people," the Illini coach said.
So let's be honest. It's not all about the scouting.
Kudos to this Illini team for its 23 wins and still possible Big Ten title. Kudos to Trent Meacham for waking up halfway through his last Big Ten go-round and scoring a few points lately.
Kudos, even, to the Illini and their third-in-the-nation defensive average of about 56 points a game.
All that said, a groaning Assembly Hall still makes it clear that D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul can't get here fast enough.
Bill Liesse is sports editor of the Journal Star. Contact him at (309) 686-3213 or bliesse@ pjstar.com.