The Big Ten At Midpoint

The Big Ten conference season has reached the halfway point.  Two things appear to be true:  the conference is filled with good teams, and the race for the regular season championship is likely to go down to the wire.

So far, the two best teams appear to be Indiana and Michigan.  Indiana leads the Big Ten with an 8-1 record after beating Michigan at Bloomington Saturday night, and Michigan is right behind at 7-2.  Also at 7-2 are Michigan State and Ohio State, and Wisconsin — which has handed Indiana its only conference loss, and at Bloomington, no less — stands one game back at 6-3.  Minnesota has had some surprising stumbles on its way to a 5-4 record, and the Illinois squad that came to the Big Ten schedule 13-1 and then beat the snot out of Ohio State at Assembly Hall has collapsed to a 2-7 conference record.

Indiana and Michigan have been impressive because they appear to be complete teams that have multiple offensive weapons, can play at all kinds of tempos, and pose significant match-up problems for most teams.  Not coincidentally, the Hoosiers and Wolverines feature three of the Big Ten’s best players in Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo and Michigan’s Trey Burke.  The well-rounded nature of Indiana and Michigan distinguish them from the Spartans, Buckeyes, and Badgers, all of which play very tough defense but often struggle at putting the ball into the basket.

Buckeyes fans should be thrilled with a 7-2 record, because this year’s team has some obvious holes.  Deshaun Thomas is the Big Ten’s leading scorer, but he also has been Ohio State’s only reliable offensive weapon.  The other starters — Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr., Sam Thompson, and Amir Williams — have had their ups and downs, but each game one of those players steps up and scores enough to keep opposing defenses honest.  The Buckeyes also have the consistent hallmark of a Thad Matta-coached team: they play hard-nosed defense and man up until the shot clock hits zero.  So far, the team also has done what you must do in the Big Ten — win your conference games at home and steal a few of the away games against the beatable teams.

The road gets tougher for Ohio State, starting immediately.  The Buckeyes play at Michigan tomorrow night, where the Wolverines will be looking to avenge their loss at OSU a few weeks ago.  Then, on Sunday, the Buckeyes welcome Indiana to Value City Arena.  By this time next week, we’ll have a better idea of whether this Buckeye team should be put in the contender, or pretender, category.

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My Kingdom For A Hearse!

William Shakespeare’s gravestone states, in part:  “Blessed be the man that spares these stones,  And cursed be he that moves my bones.”  Now the historical figure behind one of Shakespeare’s most famous literary creations — Richard III — might well share that sentiment.

Scientists in Great Britain launched a careful search for the remains of Richard III, and they are convinced they found them — buried beneath an ordinary parking lot.  King Richard III reined for only two years and was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field, where Shakespeare’s Richard III famously cried:  “A horse!  A horse!  My kingdom for a horse!”  The dead king’s body was taken to Leicester, England, where it was buried in a church called Greyfriars.  But the church was demolished during the Reformation in the 16th century, and its exact location was lost in the mists of time.  Historians later determined the location of the church, which is now occupied by a parking lot.  They unearthed remains that had been buried in a hurriedly prepared, too small grave, compared the DNA of the remains to the DNA of a seventeenth-generation descendant of Richard III’s sister, and confirmed from the DNA match that the remains were indeed those of the former king.

The remains show that Richard III was not hunchbacked — as he is often depicted — but rather was the victim of scoliosis, a condition that causes a marked curvature of the spine.  The remains also show that Richard III was treated very rudely at the Battle of Bosworth Field.  His skull was pierced by a sharp blade, another part of it was cut away, and it bore the evidence of six other injuries to the face and head.  The rest of his skeleton revealed two injuries, including marks on the pelvis that suggests that the king may have taken a spear up the keister from one of the victors on the battlefield.  No wonder he wanted a horse!

I’ve always thought that Richard III was one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, and that the Richard III he created was one of his most memorable characters.  (If you’re interested in the play but far away from Stratford-upon-Avon, the 1995 film of Richard III, starring Ian McKellen as a Richard transplanted into a modern fascist world, is excellent.)  The identification of the remains of the king — which now will be more appropriately interred — just add another interesting chapter to the tale of a fascinating historical figure.

Harvard’s Muddled Cheating Scandal

On Friday, Harvard University announced that it had imposed academic sanctions on dozens of students involved in a cheating scandal.  The back story tells you a lot about the state of modern education — even at an exalted academic institution like Harvard.

The incident involved an undergraduate course called “Introduction to Congress” that was seen as a gut course — that is, an easy A.  The scandal came to light when a teaching assistant for the course noticed that students may have shared answers to the “take home” final exam.  After an investigation that took months, Harvard’s academic integrity board announced that a number of students were required to withdraw from the school for several terms, others were put on probation, and others received no disciplinary action at all.  The President of Harvard’s Undergraduate Council says that the withdrawing students shouldn’t feel “alienated” from Harvard and should be embraced when they return.

A letter from a Harvard alum about the scandal raises some interesting questions.  According to his letter, the professor teaching the course had previously encouraged “open collaboration” on his exams.  He then changed the rules to say that the students couldn’t collaborate with professors, teaching fellows, “and others,”  the letter alleges, but some teaching fellows for the course nevertheless went over the exam in open sessions with students.  The vaguely defined rules, the letter suggests, led students to engage in lots of collaboration — although even the letter writer concedes that some students “went too far, literally cutting and pasting their answers.”

What does this incident say about Harvard?  For one, it tells you something about its academic rigor.  A class called “Introduction to Congress” that encourages “open collaboration” and features a “take home” final exam that TAs discuss with students beforehand sounds more like a community college course than an Ivy League offering.  It also tells you something about Harvard students.  Even with a basic subject area that is taught in every American high school and the luxury of a take-home final, some students were so dim-witted and unprincipled they thought they could get away with cutting and pasting answers of other students.  The students don’t exactly come out of this sounding like the cream of the crop, do they?  And finally, it tells you something about the hidebound nature of colleges, and the general atmosphere on campuses, that the investigation of a cheating scandal takes months and even students who blatantly cut and pasted answers are only required to withdraw for a few semesters, to be “embraced” on their return.

If Harvard, and other American colleges, don’t want to be seen as diploma mills, how about taking this approach:  have a meaningful honor code, offer challenging courses, require students to appear in the classroom for the exam and write their answers on paper, act promptly when potential cheating is detected, and punish those who violate the rules rather than telling them they will be welcomed back with a hug.