Monday, September 26, 2005

A Look Back: The 2003-04 Season Preview

As I may or may not have explained in the past, the Chris West Basketball Journal did not just spring up overnight. The roots were planted a few years back when, for reasons I can neither remember nor fathom today, I began writing and sending out a pre-season basketball preview to a handful of friends. The first several previews were done in the form of a huge email to about 20 people. This site exists today primarily because I didn’t want to bug those friends of mine who were too polite to tell me that they were completely uninterested by sending them pages upon pages of text to clog their inboxes. I never planned on doing anything more than a yearly preview, but once I finished my inaugural internet-based preview, doing something day-to-day just seemed like a fun idea. Thus, here we are today.

In any event, I should probably drop the grand history lesson and get to the point. While cleaning out my email box last week, I happened upon my 2003-04 season preview–the last of the bunch that existed only as an email. So today, for those of you who never got to see it, or those who just want to look back and see how remarkably right or horrifically wrong I was about various things, I’m posting it here. Within the week I promise to toss out a few reflections on 2003-04, and how kind or unkind history has been to my thoughts. I already know that the writing was amateurish (as it still is), but did my predictions hold true? I can’t wait to see. If I can track down any earlier years of the preview on my old computer, maybe I’ll also toss those up one of these days (I know I have 2002-03 somewhere). Until then, enjoy this blast from the past, the 2003-04 Chris West Basketball Preview (apologies in advance for the typos--I was even less diligent about editing back then than I am now):

Well, it’s that time of the year again. No, it’s not the best time of the year–that’s in early March. Instead, it’s mid-November, another great period. It’s the time of the year when a variety of major holidays are on deck to give us days off, and it’s also the time when real basketball starts up. Yes, the NBA has been taunting me lately, with its big name rookies, and the surprising Milwaukee Bucks. However, it takes only one viewing of an average NBA game to recognize that one’s time is better spent watching Slamball on Spike TV, the network for me. And don’t even get me started on the NBA Developmental League, which maintains the NBA’s 24-second shot clock, but lacks players with the talent to hit shots with any degree of consistency. No, the real excitement is in college and high school basketball, and that’s what I’m looking forward to. I want to know the answers to the key questions. Can Wisconsin be a top-15 team all year? Will Marquette be able to fight through the loss of Dwyane Wade and Robert Jackson? Are Duke’s sophomores really stronger? Has Jerry Smith of Wauwatosa East developed more than one move to get to the hoop? I don’t have the answers myself, but I have an array of thoughts to share. You can draw your own conclusions. Hell, if you’re getting this, odds are you know as much as me anyway, since I don’t tend to associate with people who don’t know their college and/or high schoolbasketball. Enjoy, and yell at me later:

The State’s Big Teams
We’ll start with my favorite parts: Marquette and Wisconsin. For the big two teams in the state this year, we’re going to try something a little different. If I’m sending this to you, it’s pretty clear that you know something about basketball. It’s also clear that you’re most likely from Wisconsin. Thus, it’s probably not worth me forcing knowledge on you about Wisconsin or Marquette, because you likely know as much or more as me. So here’s a little thing that I’m going to call “Overrated/Underrated.” The premise: I break down every player on the Wisconsin and Marquette rosters and tell you whether they are overrated or underrated. Creative? No. Entertaining and informative? I’m sure hoping so. And if nothing else, the guys from PTI have taught me that it’s okay to be wildly wrong on these things. Here we go: Marquette:

Travis Diener: Underrated. Bar none the best player on the team. It’s not even a question. So, why are other people talking about Scott Merrit and Steve Novak all the time? Diener is the one go-to guy that isn’t being replaced this year. His role doesn’t change drastically, other than the fact that he may need to lead a bit more. He’s still the point guard, though, and he’ll still be looked on to create and shoot. Marquette fans won’t be overlooking him by mid-year though. I’ll be shocked if he’s not first team all-Conference USA. Perhaps an honorable-mention All-American. Heck, I can’t think of a lot of other guys I’d rather have in my backcourt.

Scott Merritt: Overrated. Merritt’s good–no question about that. He’ll never be great, though, and this year will show that. Last year he was solid at the 4 spot, gave 10 points and 7 boards and played his role perfectly. He also had a beast by the name of Robert Jackson in the middle to take the pressure off and allow him to play his natural position. Jackson might be the biggest loss for MU this year. Though not as talented as Dwyane Wade, Jackson’s graduation costs Marquette a starting center and forces Merritt into the feature role under the hoop. That’s not Merritt’s role, and he will regress. Again, he’ll be good, but I’m guessing that he peaked last year. Not a bad year to peak, though.

Todd Townsend: Underrated. He’s a better athlete than you’d think, and he did everything that was asked of him last year. People forget that he started in front in front of popular pre-season all-conference pick Steve Novak all of last year. Someone will need to pick up the slack for loss of Dwyane Wade’s all-around abilities. Until the new recruits begin to come around, look for more of the responsibility to fall on Townsend’s shoulders than anyone (except me) anticipates. He will move up and score 10-12 points per game this year, and plug the holes that he needs to for the team.

Steve Novak: Overrated. Mr. Novak is perhaps the one single person who inspired the overrated/underrated list the most. I can’t think of a single player who has been more over-hyped. I cringe every time I hear a comparison to Dirk Nowitzki. Sure, Novak is thin, tall, white, and has an outside shot, but I don’t see him with the skills to drive or play in the paint like Nowitzki. Novak is a one-trick pony, and his trick was prominently featured in the NCAA tournament. That said, he’s still a one-trick pony that I would want on my team. Who’s going to block a 6'9" guy from beyond the arc? When that 6'9" guy hits 50% of the time, it could get dangerous. Talk to me again when he gets quick enough to drive or big enough to bang, but for now, I’ll dissent from those picking him for the all-conference teams.

Dameon Mason: Overrated. I can’t go too hard on the freshmen, since I’ve never seen any of them play. Hopefully Mason won’t be overrated by next year when people develop some perspective. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard this kid talked about as being “the next Dwyane Wade” or “better than Dwyane Wade.” Let’s stop and think about this for a minute. In the past twoyears Dwyane Wade led Marquette in almost every statistical category, became an All-American, and became one of the finest players ever to wear the MU uniform. Dameon Mason isn’t going to do that this year, so calm down. My guess, based on what I’ve heard, is he’ll be pretty good. Let’s not expect him to immediately replace a player that only comes around once every few decades. (Editor’s Note: Due to the late release date of this year’s preview, I actually have had the chance to see Mason play. The guy’s got the athletic ability, but needs to learn to do the little things. If he does, watch out...)

Carlton Christian: Overrated. See the Dameon Mason blurb above? Re-read it. It’s shocking to me that Marquette could sign two players in the same class who will step in and become Dwyane Wade. That’s probably because they didn’t. Again, I hope Christian is very, very good. He’s not Wade, though, and like Mason, even if he has the talent to be that good, it won’t happen this year.

Brandon Bell: Underrated. It shocks me to say this, since he’s the brother offormer Michigan State standout Charlie Bell, and thus, should be wildly overrated by now just on name alone. He isn’t, though, since everyone is looking for the new Dwyane Wade in other members of his incoming class. Thus ,no one is talking about Bell. If everything I have heard is true, he could be a solid performer as early as this year. And he’ll have his teammates to thank for allowing him to begin his career with some anonymity.

Chris Grimm: Underrated. Hard to go either way on this guy. He’s big, and he’ll definitely give MU some minutes this year. I don’t think he’ll really screw anything up, but I’m not sure that he brings much more than that to the table. That said, people seem to be really down on him after he came in with some big expectations. He’ll do better than the lots of people expect.

James Matthews: Incomplete. Here’s a new guy I don’t know much about. I don’t hear the same buzz about him as the other newcomers, and he doesn’t have a famous name. I’ll just let time tell with this one, as I’m not qualified to speak about guys I haven’t seen play (though oddly, that didn’t stop me from talking about the other newcomers). (Editor’s Note: Seeing Matthews play against the Wisconsin All-Stars left me with a great impression of him. Big minutes, and big rebounding numbers for the big guy this year. Let’s just hope he can pick up a better nickname than “Man-Child.”)

Andy Freund: Overrated. Okay, so maybe you can’t be overrated when you’re a walk-on, but I saw this guy play for four years in high school. He'll never get minutes at Marquette. Yeah, he has some moves, and he can create space when he feels like it, but he’ll never get the chance at MU. There’s too much talent in front of him. Not to mention, I see him listed at 220 pounds. If he’s 220, then I’m pushing 375. He’s rail thin, and I’m doubtful that changed that much over the summer.

Terry Sanders: Underrated. Terry Sanders gets beat up a lot by fans, probably unfairly. I’ll admit that I was a bit in awe of his Milwaukee Vincent pedigree as he began his career at MU, and I predicted big things for him. He was never more than a complimentary player, though, and he’ll fill that role again for MU this year. Will he do anything great? No, but a team needs a guy who’ll take his 10 minutes and go all out. That’s what Sanders will do, and his 4 point average will never tell the story.

Jared Sichting: Underrated. He’s probably not really underrated, but you’ve got to say that about little guys, and Sichting is truly a little guy. Has anyone looked smaller than he did in his minute of garbage time against Kentucky in the regional final last year? MU’s in trouble if he ever needs to be on the floor, but he's a little guy, so he's still underrated.

Marcus Jackson: Overrated. Another guy that I feel bad for due to his circumstances. He could be a solid guy, and everything that I’ve heard says he will be. No, I haven’t seen him play, but he’s got to be overrated at this point, if only because his name is Jackson, and he will step into the low post, an area patrolled last year by an outstanding player named Jackson. The comparisons are inevitable, and unfair. Here’s hoping that Marcus overcomes them and becomes his own Jackson.

Karon Bradley/Joe Chapman: Underrated. I’ve read some good reports about both of these guys coming out of the early practices and the team’s pre-season trip to Central America. group them together, since I didn’t see enough of either of them last year to differentiate between them. One would come in, and I’d think “Oh, it’s that freshman guard. When is Wade returning?” One of them should slot neatly into the team’s plans this year. Who knows what will happen to whoever is left over.


Devin Harris: Underrated. This pick was made a bit tougher since the Big Ten coaches named him preseason player of the year. I was going to argue that he would have be on the short list for this honor at the end of the year, but the coaches beat me to it. Thanks for messing up my preview guys. I blame Gene Keady in particular, for his glowing comments on Harris. What do I love about him? His defense, his court awareness, his confidence, his quickness, and often times, his shot. What needs work? I don’t know. I can’t think of a glaring weakness, other than perhaps his thin frame. Even that has grown in recent times, though. Don’t I feel like a fool for stating that I thought he would redshirt his freshman year?

Mike Wilkinson: Underrated. If Harris is the leader on this team, Wilkinson is the guy who holds everything together. Three years ago he was the thinnest freshman that I have ever seen. After a redshirt year, and an intense season of ball, he came back with one of the most magically transformed bodies I have ever seen. This frail kid from the middle of nowhere actually became a banger in the Big Ten. Not bad for a guy who hit the first 8 three-pointers I ever saw him take inside the Kohl Center. He was willing to do whatever he needed to for the team, though. I believe his efforts, in a less than stellar frontcourt, directly led to a handful of wins last year. You won’t hear much about him on all-conference teams, and I doubt that will change this year. He’ll be perhaps the most important player on the squad, yet again, though.

Brian Butch: Overrated. Yeah, I’m high on this guy. I think he’ll be a great player by the end of his career. I also think he’ll need some time. His team never played man-to-man defense in high school, and I think he’s potentially a defensive liability this year. That will change soon enough, though, as Bo Ryan works with him. He’s got the talent, he’s got the accolades, and he’s apparently got the right attitude. He’s also got a lot to learn, and a lot of weight to put on in the next year. He’ll do it, but I’m expecting a much lesser contribution than most this year. And heck, if he wants to redshirt and start playing next year, I wouldn’t mind him lining up next to Greg Steimsma for four years.

Freddie Owens: Overrated. My favorite quote about Freddie Owens came during Bo Ryan’s television show during his first season as head coach. Matt LePay asked something to the effect of “Did you take any comfort in having a defensive stopper like Freddie Owens on the team coming in?” Ryan replied “If he’s a defensive stopper, then that’s news to me.” Freddie’s okay, but I just can’t get excited over him. It pains me to watch his suicide dives into the lane. Call me boring, but I have never enjoyed watching a guy spin twice and toss up a blind underhand shot off the side of his hip. Yeah, Freddie makes that shot more than humanly possible. I still don’t like it, though. I will take this opportunity to thank him, however, for his clutch shooting in last year’s NCAA Tournament. He probably doesn’t need to hear that from me, though, as he heardplenty of thanks from my friend Kevin in a chance sighting after the Ohio State football game in Madison earlier this year.

Alando Tucker: Overrated. Okay, so I’ve been converted into a big fan. It’s tough for me to like anyone from Illinois, but it’s a lot easier when you can leap 40 inches into the air. I would need 5-6 jumps to cumulatively hit that height. Last year he was the best 6'5" power forward since Charles Barkley. Why is he overrated, then? Because he’s not a power forward, and never will be again. His outside shot is flatter than a highway in Nebraska, and his ball-handling skills are unproven, to say the least (anyone else wonder why he was handling the ball in the waning moments of last year’s loss at Michigan?). He’s got the potential to do great things again once he comes back from his injury, but I’ll still need to see improvement in his dribbling before I’m completely on board.

Jason Chappell: Overrated. He has bad hair. He has bad skin. He looks like he’s high. He’s Jason Chappell. No one’s really excited about Chappell, but he’s overrated by virtue of simply having a scholarship. I’m confused as to how he played a year at a decent prep school and had any type of recruiting buzz, because I never saw anything out of him in his limited time last year. In one of the most implausible endings to a game last year, during one two minute stretch of garbage time, I saw Jason Chappell hit a 3-pointer, and Dave Mader throw down and alley-oop dunk. I’m still not quite sure which one surprised me more, which is saying something, considering Dave Mader’s lack of reputation as a high-flying dunker. I’m content to have Chappell holding towels for his teammates this year. Let’s just make sure that the hair doesn’t get braided again, okay Jason?

Dave Mader: Overrated. I hate to call Mader overrated. By all accounts, he sounds like a decent, hard-working guy. He never came to the program with the expectation of becoming a superstar, and the fact that he spent any time at all starting over the last two years is some indication that he was a mild successas a “project.” However, as with many big, un-athletic players, fans have somehow fallen in love with this guy. He’ll knock down a jump-shot from 2 feet inside the three-point line as well as any true center around, and he’s said to be a dominating player in practice. Unfortunately, he also picks up fouls as quickly as anyone I’ve seen and just isn’t all that quick. Looking back 5 years, Mader’s career has been as nice as could realistically be expected, however, he remains overrated because people, for some unfathomable reason, love him. I guess there’s worse problems to have.

Andreas Helmigk: Overrated. Helmigk is a hard call. On one hand, his arrival on campus was highly anticipated, and he was said to be a monster in the paint (and this is ultimately what leads me to deem him overrated). On the other hand, anyone who has seen Mr. Helmigk knows what his game is about, and can dismiss the hype. I know he sat out a year with a knee injury, but his leaping ability is equivalent to that which I possessed as a back-up junior varsity center in high school. His moves could certainly be a bit quicker, too. That said, he’s more effective than you would think when first looking at him, but my expectations were certainly much higher for him initially. Of course, it should be noted that the two areas where Helmigk is not overrated are his fashion sense, and his sweat glands. It’s hard not to admire a guy who sweats through his warm-ups only 5 minutes into pre-game.

Clayton Hanson: Underrated. Quick question: Who’s the best Wisconsin athlete to walk-on for a big-time sport in the last 5 years. That’s right, Jim Leonhard. If Leonhard had gone to a WIAC school, though, we might be talking about Clayton Hanson. I never expect much from walk-ons, even when they have the high-school accomplishments of Clayton Hanson. Hanson could step in for some key minutes at off-guard this year for the two time defending Big Ten champs. Yes, part of that can be attributed to injuries, but ultimately, let’s remember that Hanson’s paying the state to go to school. Any threes that he happens to pump in this year are free of charge.

Zach Morely: Underrated. I haven’t seen Morely play. My correspondent inMadison tells me he has some serious tools, though, and I’ll take that for whatit’s worth. Heck, if he went to a JUCO and now he’s at Wisconsin, he must be underrated in some way, shape or form. I have my thoughts about how Morely will fit into the line-up this year, but I’ll keep those to myself, since not having seen him play somewhat invalidates my opinion.

Ray Nixon: Overrated. Ray, prove me wrong, big guy! Upon attending last year’s open scrimmage at the Kohl Center, two guys jumped out at me for their athletic ability: Alando Tucker and Ray Nixon. We all know what Tucker can do, but Nixon needs to learn how to play the game. He would have been wise to redshirt last year, and every indication was that Bo Ryan would have liked that too. The rash of injuries this year could help Nixon prove his case on the court, but that remains to be seen. Anyone with this type of athletic ability who has not yet learned to harness it, however, will be deemed by me to be overrated until the day that he realizes his talents.

Kammron Taylor: Underrated. Again, this is a pretty shaky rating, as I haven’t seen the guy play. I’m kind of a homer for players recruited from Wisconsin, and I just don’t expect as much from out-of-state players. Thus, due to my stupid bias, Taylor’s underrated. He’s going to be forced into action with the injuries on the team, and I think he’ll do okay (this opinion is based solely on the box score from the Badgers first pre-season game). Might have won Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball if not for the dominance of Minnesota freshman Kris Humphries.

Maurice “Boo” Wade: Overrated. I remember when Wade was a prized recruit at Milwaukee Vincent. Having seen Vincent play many times over the years, I was excited to see him play, since Vincent players never let me down. James Wright was strong enough to beat down anyone that crossed his path. Greg Brown’s worst shots still went in, they just hit the rim. Marshall Williams was simply “the real deal.” Boo Wade, however, never jumped out at you, except for his ability to shoot a three-pointer from almost anywhere over the half-court line. Given that he has a slow, awkward release on his jump shot, I questioned his hype. Indeed, he’ll never be a superstar at Wisconsin. He’s solid, though, and played in a mature manner last year as a freshman. There’s still part of me that’s puzzled about his spot in the rotation. I suppose if I’m not noticing him, he must be doing something right, though. Let’s hope his injury heals up quickly.

Ike Ukawuba: Underrated. Best name on the team, hands down. Plugged in during practices two years ago with a painfully thin roster. Max “The Engineer” Peak, Michael “I’m a Badass” Jackson and Brett “Bowl Cut” Boettcher walked on to the 2001-2 team as well. Ukawuba’s still around, though, and his longevity, along with his awesome name makes him underrated.

The Big Ten:

11. Penn State: Is there even any question about this pick? Normally, Penn State and Northwestern would be battling it out for the coveted last place position, but if you read my thoughts from last year, you know how much I like Bill Carmody. Penn State’s most legitimate player, Sharif Chambliss also transferred to Wisconsin, so Penn State stays at the bottom of the league. It’s got a first year coach, and is a program in disarray. I’m not sure who I feel worse for–Jan Jagla, PSU’s forward who’s better than the rest of his team, or the wonderful fans of Penn State, who don’t even have football to depend on anymore. At least Penn State usually fields fine men’s and women’s volleyball teams.

10. Northwestern: I want to put these guys higher than tenth, I really do. However, this is the Big Ten, and I can’t justify that. They might slip up a few spots, though, and they should give teams fits with their precision passing. Jitim Young’s happy to shoot the ball–you don’t even need to ask him. T.J. Parker might not be as good as his brother Tony, of the San Antonio Spurs, but he’s a nice player for the Wildcats. Most importantly, Verdan Vukusic, most well-know for averaging 5.1 points and 3.4 shoulder dislocations per game in the 2001-2 campaign is back after taking a medical redshirt for, you guessed it, shoulder surgery. His stats were modest before, but look for big things for Vukusic now that his appendages are far less likely to fall off of his body.

9. Iowa: The good news? Pierre Pierce is back. The bad news? Steve Alford is back. On paper, I don’t really dislike Iowa’s squad. Pierce, when he’s not in trouble with the law, is an above-average guard who can play either guard spot, and showed vast potential as a freshman two years ago. Jared Reiner and Glen Worley are among the more consistent players in the league. Every other starter is capable of scoring in double figures, if necessary. Why won’t this team win? Alford. Once a rising young coaching star, he has done next to nothing with his chance at Iowa. His handling of the Pierce situation was criticized by almost anyone who examined it, and his teams have widely underachieved. I will never forget two seasons ago when I picked a Luke Recker and Reggie Evans-led Hawkeye squad to win the Big Ten and make some noise inthe NCAA tournament. Never have I been more let down by a team. Alford made my prediction look foolish, and I will hold a grudge against him until he is fired.

8. Purdue: I’m going to level with you–I can’t name a single player on Purdue’s roster. Not one. It’s not that I haven’t been paying attention (though truthfully, I haven’t been paying much attention to the Boilermakers), it’s just that Purdue plays like a team should. Outside of Willie Deane’s crazy point totals over the last few years, and a gentlemen by the name of Glenn Robinson a few years back, Purdue players don’t put up huge numbers. They do put up wins, though, and they will play tough man-to-man defense. All that said, Gene Keady has 6 seniors this year. Although guys tend to blend into the mix at Purdue, with 6 seniors, I should know one freaking guy. If I don’t, even with Gene Keady’s system, Purdue clearly must not have the horses to do much more than be the toughest eighth place team in the country.

7. Ohio State. I’m not sure why, but I don’t often pay attention to Ohio State. It’s hard not be pay attention to Velmir Radiovic, though. Healthy, and ready for a big senior year, Ohio State has in their possession one of a dying breed: a true center who is playing college ball (heck, I suppose there aren’t many in the NBA, either these days). The Buckeyes lose Brent Darby, and several of his teammates, meaning that no much scoring is coming back. The good news, though, is that the Buckeyes have Jim O’Brien still on the bench and a McDonalds All-American joining the team. They’d certainly be ranked higher if not for the fact that there are plenty of highly talented youngsters in the league, and with the exception of two teams (I’ll let you draw your own conclusions), every squad has a coach who is well above average. The Buckeyes might be really good in a few years. I probably still won’t know anything about them, though.

6. Indiana: There are a lot of things I don’t like about Indiana. A.J. Moye is 6'3" guard who has the mentality of a power forward. Jeff Newton, whose legs were smaller than my arms (and I don’t work out), and Tom Coverdale are gone. Pat Ewing Jr. is in the program. Mike Davis is a flat-out jerk. The problem is, however, they are Indiana. They’re going to be deep. The key is finding at least one superstar player among that depth. That’s where Bracey Wright comes in. With LaVell Blanchard having graduated from Michigan, my newfavorite non-Badger to watch is Wright. If not for his injuries last year, I suspect we would be talking more about him than Dee Brown of Illinois, or Daniel Horton of Michigan. With his deadly three-point accuracy, I look for Wright to be accepting Big Ten Player of the Year honors at the end of the year. It will pain me to see Mike Davis get any credit for his development, though.

5. Minnesota: You’re shocked to see me picking the Gophers so high, aren’t you? I’m not just doing this to be controversial, though. I like Minnesota. Despite lots of anger directed at Dan Monson in recent years, I don’t see a bad coach, I still see the guy who took over the most messed up program in the NCAA and made it respectable again, largely on the shoulders of a former walk-on, Dusty Rychart. It’s a few years out now, and Minnesota just lost their best player, Rick Rickert, to an ill-fated decision to go pro early. Ill fated forRickert, maybe, but wonderful for the Gophers. Though I enjoyed Rickert’s basketball skills more than most, word on the street was that he wasn’t the greatest thing for team chemistry. The Gophers should thrive without him, after snagging a number of in-state stars for their roster. Adam Boone comesback to his home state after his stint with the North Carolina Tarheels to add credibility to the backcourt. Ben Johnson starts his second and final year with the Gophers, following two years of being punished by being forced to play for Northwestern. High school All-American Kris Humphries de-committed from Duke to join the squad. Boone should be excellent, but look for Humphries to have a huge year for the Gophers. His strength and lack of neck was apparent in the McDonald’s All-American game, and it will serve him well in the Big Ten. I’m expecting Humphries to average a double-double. Minnesota fans will be glad they had this guy for one year before he jumps to the NBA. And hey, ifI’m wrong, rumor has it Michael Bauer is sporting a new haircut this year, similar to that worn by Scot Pollard. At least one thing is guaranteed to be entertaining about the Gophers, then.

4. Michigan: I’ll admit it–I doubted Tommy Amaker. I never thought he was that great at Seton Hall, and much like Quin Snyder at Missouri, I was beginning to think he was over-hyped. But you know what? Amaker can recruit. I still don’t think he’s an incredible coach, but he’s adequate and he has the talent. Last year I was still fawning over LaVell Blanchard and getting ready to write about how Bernard Robinson Jr. would not be able to step into the feature role when Blanchard graduated. I’m probably right about Robinson, but the great thing for Michigan fans is that it doesn’t really matter. Daniel Horton has taken over the feature role for the Wolverines, and should be an all-conference performer. Much like John Oates of the pop duo Hall and Oates, Robinson is a necessary ingredient, and the team wouldn’t succeed without him, but he’ll always be best as a second option. Graham Brown and his huge body are also back for a sophomore year. He’s likely to be angry that Kris Humphries has more muscle as a freshman than he did last year, so look for some banging down below when the two teams meet. Assuming that Michigan is truly done paying their players, they should be on their way back up.

3. Michigan State: Who the hell is Paul Davis? Every year it seems that someone from Michigan State is anointed the next superstar of the conference. This year it’s Paul Davis. Obviously he must be one of the best big men in America, with his numbers last year (7.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg). I mean, with numbers like that, you’d be a fool not to consider him for all conference honors. Okay, since my sophomore Composition teacher in high school taught me that sarcasm often doesn’t come through in writing, I’ll straight up tell you that I am dumbfounded by all the accolades being heaped on Davis. I haven’t seen a player so over-hyped based on modest accomplishments since, well, Adam Ballinger last year. Predicted by many as an all-conference choice, Ballinger averaged 5 ppg last year. Do I think Davis will play better than Ballinger? Sure. Do I think he’ll be the premier post player in the conference? Not really. It doesn’t matter, though, since this is Michigan State. Chris Hill’s a junior now, and hasn’t developed into the perennial all-American that many predicted after his freshman year, and he’s doing just fine. Kelvin Torbert and Alan Anderson are still around. Much like Purdue, Michigan State won’t throw any bona fide stars at you this year, but what they will do is pound away on you in the paint and play fundamentally sound basketball. I wish my report could be different than last year, but not much has changed. State’s going to be good–very good. They always are. And as usual, they’ll be better with a group of non-star players than they would be with superstars (see the Zach Randolph and Marcus Taylor years). Erazem Lorbeck would have been a nice piece of this puzzle, but he’s off on a tour of European pro-leagues now. Tom Izzo will find someone with heart to replace him, though, and as always, MSU will be a tough win.

2. Wisconsin: Wisconsin has the tools to win it all this year. Most of you are fans, and I’ve broken it down player-by-player for you already, so I won’t bore you with the details. Let’s just keep in mind that this is my team, and you can’t pick your favorite team to win the conference. That jinxes it. So, the Badgers will finish second, and I will not be to blame for any failure to defend the Big Ten championship.

1. Illinois: I’m not going to lie–losing Brian Cook hurts. The time has come for the Dee Brown show in Champaign, though, and it will also be an excellent show. The only thing that could possibly derail this marvelous season is rumored friction between Brown and new head coach Bruce Weber. I expect big things from Weber, but he could be in trouble if Brown isn’t on board this year. If Brown buys into his program, though, the other pieces seem to be in place for a big year. Luther Head returns again at guard, challenging for the coveted Evan Eschmeyer award for the player who most seems like he has been around forever. More importantly, sophomore James Augustine is back after a fine first season. Augustine was so mature last year, that I didn’t even realize he was a freshman until someone told me late in the season. He’ll continue to improve, and should be the Illini’s go-to guy when Brown leaves forthe NBA after this year. Aside from the meshing of Brown and Weber, the most pressing question facing the Illini is that of Nick Smith. Having spent the summer before his sophomore year working hard to rid himself of his bad teenage mustache, fans should anxiously await a view of Smith this year to see if his arms have gotten bigger than Alice Cooper’s. My bet is that they haven’t, and that’s okay, because other teams’ fans will need something taunt the Illini about as the Illinois squad throttles their team.

All Big Ten Team:

Devin Harris: I though he might have to redshirt his freshman year. I am stupid.

Dee Brown: And we thought Frank Williams was good. I dare you to find someone quicker than Brown.

Bracey Wright: I’m picking him for player of the year. Please, don’t get hurt this year, and please, don’t shoot threes against my Badgers.

Daniel Horton: That’s right, I’m forming a team with four guards. Anyone want to tell me who’s going to have a better year than Horton, though?

Kris Humphries: I don’t like to bank on freshman, but this guy’s going to be the real deal. Either that, or he’ll be the biggest head case of all time and make me look stupid. Either way, he won’t be back next year, so it won’t be too painful.

All-America Team:

Emeka Okafor: I picked him on my 2nd team last year, and now that he’s developed an offensive game, he gets to be on the first team. If you read any preview that doesn’t list him here, put it down–someone isn’t doing their research.

Rickey Paulding: He’ll suffer on his Missouri squad this year, but even Missouri’s luck won’t keep his numbers down.

Rashad McCants: One of the North Carolina guards has to be on this team, and I like McCants more. It could very well by Raymond Felton in this spot, though.

Jameer Nelson: So you say you haven’t seen St. Joe’s play? Check out Nelson leading the best backcourt in the county next time they’re on ESPN. You can thank me later.

Luke Jackson: Luke Ridnour is gone from the Ducks’ squad, so it’s time for the other Luke to take center stage.

High School Ball:
Normally, this would be where I inject some of my wisdom regarding high school basketball. Shockingly, however, I can’t think of much to say this year. Frankly, I’m don’t know much outside of the Milwaukee area, and this looks to be a pretty standard year in Milwaukee. Washington will be good. King will be good. Vincent and their team of juniors will be good. Yes, Tosa East will be good, too (and Jerry Smith will have some skills to work on). Marquette should be very good (and Alex Pease is back for his third year as my favorite player to watch). Draelon Burns transferred to a prep school, Custer has a bad coach, and they will be greatly overrated. Is any of this news? No. The interestingstuff is going on outside of the Milwaukee area, and honestly, I’m a little embarrassed that I don’t know more about it. More importantly, if you’re reading this passage right now, odds are that yourname is Beau or Kosta, or you are a prominent educator that often goes by a wacky nickname. Regardless of which of these applies to you, you’re one of the few people that isn’t actually attending high school that knows and cares as much or more about this topic as me. Heck, one of you is my pipeline to inside information from local school systems and playgrounds. What can I tell you that you don’t know? You see my problem, right. Thus, this is all you’re getting on the high schools this year. No doubt, I’ll have some useful thoughts a few weeks into the season. Odds are that by mid-December I will have been through plenty of metal detectors trying to get into games in the city. And Beau, we’re watching one of the good teams in Madison play sometime. That’s a given.

Bold Predictions:
As usual, I like to put down a few big predictions at the beginning of the year. Usually they sound stupid, but let’s review last year’s:

1) Marquette will go to the round of eight in the tournament.
–Here’s a direct quote: “A Final Four run isn't out of the question, but I'm not quite bold enough to say that it will happen.” Come on, Chris, be bold!

2) Matt Doherty will be gone from UNC within two years.
–Is he around? No, I don’t think so, and I still had another year.

3) Kentucky won’t make the tournament this year. They’re overrated.
–I guess I got mine, courtesy of Tubby Smith’s boys, up in Minneapolis.

As Meat Loaf would say, though, two out of three ain’t bad. And listen up, because that’s pretty much been my average over the last few years. So without further adieu, here are my three bold predictions for this year:

1. North Carolina will be in the national championship game. North Carolinahas so much talent, it is scary. Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Jawad Williams are somehow all still in school and playing at the same place. This would be enough to put the Heels deep into the tournament, but it wasn’t last year, because of two problems. First, Matt Doherty. Always a fine recruiter, never a great coach, last year I boldly predicted that Doherty would be out as head coach within two years. I guess I wasn’t bold enough. Plug one of the top established coaches in the country into Doherty’s place, and things should go much more smoothly. The second problem last year–Sean May was out. May’s back this year, and I’m considering ordering ESPN Full Court, primarily just so that I can see him play 3-4 more games on TV. His early season games were some of the best basketball viewing that I enjoyed all of last year. He’s an NFL lineman with the feet of a ballerina. There is nothing prettier to watch in the post than May maneuvering. Of course, a guy with the feet of a ballerina could have some problems coming back from a broken foot, so we’ll wait and see. But if May’s back at full strength, the Heels are in the title game. If May’s out, don’t hold me to this one.

2. Kris Humphries averages a double-double. Yeah, you heard me right. Humphries will prove to be the real deal in his one year at Minnesota, and should put up gigantic numbers every night. I’m looking for 16-18 ppg, and10-11 rpg. Those are ridiculous numbers for a freshman in the Big Ten, but hey, this isn’t called boring predictions, it’s called bold predictions. Despite these gaudy numbers, Duke will be glad it passed on the big Minnesotan, since he’ll be playing in the NBA next year.

3. Missouri will let us all down. This isn’t quite as bold as the others,since it seems to happen every year, but Missouri will, no doubt, let us down. Allow me to explain in more tangible terms. Ranked as high as #3 in onenational publication, Missouri always has the talent. There may not be a better pair of teammates than Rickey Paulding and Arthur Johnson, but Quinn Snyder has not proved adept at handling his talent (and let’s not even talk about the whole Ricky Clemons debacle). Missouri lets me down time and time again. First Wesley Stokes and his big hair transfer out. Then the Tigers drop from the top-10 in the rankings clear out of the top-25. Then I head downto see a game last year in Columbia only to find that it’s sold out and I must watch the game in a bar. This year the Tigers are ranked #3. What do you think will happen? I see 8 seed written all over this team, even though they deserve much better.

So that’s it. You can get back to work, or eating your lunch, or reading the paper, or whatever you’re planning on doing. My hope is that this isinsightful, entertaining, and above all else, that I’m blatantly wrong about a lot of things. After all, the world isn’t fun when I know everything. Have a fine day, and enjoy Marquette on ESPN2 tonight!

Friday, September 23, 2005

An Ethical Dilemma

Okay, so I’ve added a new link today. I was a bit conflicted about it until I sat down and thought about it for a bit. You see, the link takes you to my friend Adam’s blog, which he has entitled “The Gambler’s Parking Lot,” and which he uses to dispense gambling advice and document his rate of success in games of chance. So here’s the conflict—I like Adam, and I want to help people find his site. At the same time, I don’t want to promote sports gambling. Excepting some money laid down in NCAA tournament pools over the years, I’ve never placed a wager on a sporting contest. Frankly, I’m extremely turned off by sports gambling, since I suspect that if I ever did get started betting on sports, I’d probably become obsessed by money and the pure fun of sports would be ruined for me. I’ve seen it happen to friends. So do I give my friend Adam a friendly link, or do I take a stand against sports gambling?

After some careful thought, I’m I realized that I could have my cake and eat it too. Adam gets his link. How does this move both help a friend and discourage gambling? Well, allow me to explain. Over the years, Adam has developed several computer systems for picking games, most notably his baseball program “Charlie Hustle 2.0.” Last year he asked me to loan him a portion of my college basketball library so that he could enter schedules dating back to 1998 as part of the development of his basketball program. This latter move gave me pause to consider who was the bigger nerd—Adam for wanting to enter data from 6 years worth of magazines for a gambling program, or me for possessing upwards of 6 years of basketball magazines.

But I digress. Adam’s been working hard to get his systems in place so that he may continue working towards his gambling goals. Let’s take a look at what he has to show for all his hard work:

1) A baseball program (the aforementioned “Charlie Hustle 2.0”) that is popular fodder for mocking Adam when he gets together with his friends.

2) A college basketball program that, at least in part, is basing its suggestions on games played six years prior. Six years, mind you, is a time period that encompasses the turnover of an entire college roster, and in many cases, a change in coaching staff and/or arena as well.

3) Hundreds of hours of free time lost to program design, data entry, and analysis of betting lines.

4) A betting success rate that is no greater than what I have seen from most of my other friends.

So really, when you look at the above facts, it’s doubtful that anyone who would go to Adam’s site would leave any more inclined to gamble than he or she was before. If anything, Adam’s results, combined with his tireless work in anticipation of a quick buck probably would make one less inclined to gamble. And as an added bonus, my brief review of his site yesterday revealed such tremendous jargon that I wouldn’t have understood his system any better had he opted to write his explanation in German. Even if I wanted to gamble before I had read his notes, not knowing the meaning of a term like “reverse juice” would have sent me running as far as possible from bookmakers, after realizing that I had no idea what I was doing.

So there’s your link off to the right, Adam. Thanks for your inadvertent public service message, and enjoy your season of playing the FERD system, however the hell it works.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Carolina/Duke Visit: I Can Now Die a Happy Man

This past weekend I enjoyed a trip down to North Carolina to take in the University of Wisconsin football team’s road game at UNC. Or at least that’s what I let people believe. Don’t get me wrong, I greatly enjoy watching a college football game or two on the weekend, but if I’m hanging out in the heart of North Carolina, essentially a basketball version of Mesopotamia, odds are that my first thoughts are not about a game involving an oblong ball. After all, it’s a well known fact that football was only invented in order to give basketball fans a constructive way to ramp up their energy in anticipation of basketball season.

Okay, so that last sentence was a blatantly implausible lie, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I just enjoyed the greatest ever basketball-related weekend that didn’t involve anyone actually playing or watching a basketball game. You see, it seems that even when the season’s not in session in North Carolina, everyone’s got it in the back of their minds. And of course, it’s not every day that I get to walk around the Duke and North Carolina campuses. All that said, there wasn’t much that could have prepared me for all that would happen by the end of the weekend.

The first piece of basketball excitement, which was set up beforehand as a key part of the weekend itinerary, was a stop at Duke’s famed Cameron Indoor Stadium. This, however, was not the standard stop off to look at the outer doors in awe—my friends and I were heading inside on a mission to infiltrate the cult that is Duke basketball. Okay, maybe we were just going on an incredible private sight-seeing tour in one of the nation’s most interesting basketball arenas, but it seemed more grand than that. How do I get opportunities like this? Let’s just say that I know people who know people. I could tell you more, but then I’d have to kill you.
The tour took us through a variety of places that I would not have dreamed of seeing five years ago during the only other occasion that I have had to set foot in Cameron. At one point my friends and I even spied Johnny Dawins, Chris Collins and Steve Wojciechowski, Duke’s assistant coaches, walking toward the stadium (sadly, our attempt to “accidentally” run into them when they entered the building were unsuccessful).

The tour then culminated with the best two parts. First, we stopped in on the holding room that the Duke players stand in before they run onto the floor for games. The walls adorned with various awards (Shane Battier has won roughly 17 Chevrolet National Defensive Player of the Year awards) and the wooden floor decorated with a Duke logo, one of my friends aptly noted that this was “the most intense room ever.” Indeed, as my friend went on to note, there could be few places in the country more exciting to be than in that room just minutes before a Duke-UNC game. Of course, since this room opened onto the arena floor, our next step was to check out Coach K Court. I was so awed to be standing on the court that I was initially reluctant to actually set foot inbounds, and did so only after one of my friends took the plunge. Eventually I sauntered around to several areas on the floor, which will likely lead to annoying the crap out of various friends as we watch Duke games this year and I point out “I stood there, you know.” My friends and I then proceeded to sit on the bench, slap the floor, and take a quick handful of pictures as four of us wearing Wisconsin gear drew odd looks from various workers. It was all over in less than 5 minutes, but the experience is one that I’ll remember for life. Someone turned out the house lights just moments after we left, but we didn’t care—we’d just seen everything that we needed to. It was time to decompress and watch some football.

And so I thought that my weekend of basketball glory was over. Not so, however. While touring Cameron was a known activity beforehand, it had completely slipped my mind that UNC, as reigning NCAA basketball champions, would have to honor their basketball team with a ring presentation ceremony at some point in time. What better time than at halftime of the Wisconsin football game? And with that, I got to sit through a halftime presentation that included an all-Carolina-highlight version of One Shining Moment. The team and it’s coaching and support staff were introduced, and all I could do was smile and clap. It was as if they’d planned it so that I would be there to see this. Perhaps my only disappointment was that my favorite player in the nation for roughly his entire college career, Sean May, was unable to be in attendance. I guess you can’t have everything, though, and after all I’d gotten, I didn’t need anything else to be wildly happy.

So that’s my incredible non-basketball, basketball weekend. I’ve glossed over numerous great moments including friends trying to talk to Tarheel fans about former Wisconsin high school product and Carolina basketball alum Joe Wolf, or my friend looking at me at the end of our flight home and noting “I can’t believe we had a Frank Seckar conversation this weekend,” in reference to a brief bar room conversation on the former Wisconsin high school star. You’ve heard the key points, though, and I sure that you’ve heard enough to know that I can now die a happy man. Thanks to all involved in the weekend, and I’ll see you again during the season.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Marquette's Schedule Released

Check it out here. I'll update later with full commentary. My initial gut reaction, without the benefit of research, though, is that this isn't a terrible schedule. Marquette, traditionally the home of a dreadfully weak non-conference schedule, appears to have less blatantly terrible teams on the early-season schedule. Of course, I say this without the benefit of research, which could prove me wrong, but I generally like what I see. Even if the non-conference opponents are weaker than I expected, that's not necessarily a terrible thing this year, as it's probably a good idea to have the inexperienced team build some confidence.

Thank goodness for some basketball news, though, even if most of it is nothing we didn't already know.

Friday, September 02, 2005

An Ode To Bo Ryan: Dispelling the Myth of 2001-2002

Back on August 18, my friend Beau emailed me and a couple of other buddies the following message:

"Andy Katz preseason prediction: Badger's #38
USA Today preseason poll: Badgers #30
Welcome to the season of mediocrity, folks."

Reaction #1: If being ranked just outside of the top-25 by USA Today is mediocre, the standards of excellence for basketball in this state truly have come a long way since I was a kid.

Reaction #2: Katz is probably about right. Wisconsin lost a lot of key players, including its most stabilizing force (Mike Wilkinson). They’ve only got 1.5 proven Big Ten players.

Reaction #3: Wisconsin will do better than that. Bo Ryan won’t let them be a fringe tournament team.

Indeed, I must confess that I am a ridiculous fan of Bo Ryan. I’m not without good reason, though. And because the similarities to this upcoming season and a prior Bo Ryan season seem striking to me, I think it’s a good time to reflect on a season that is often remembered incorrectly, robbing Ryan of some of his due credit. I’d like for you to join me on a trip back a few years to one of the most magical Wisconsin Badger basketball seasons that I’ve ever seen: 2001-2002. The nation was still sighing in relief and trying to deplete their stockpiles of water and canned goods now that Y2K had come to pass without incident. A young Britney Spears was at the top of her game, assaulting the pop charts with regularity. Your humble author had just obtained second row seats in the Wisconsin student section, the closest he had ever sat to NCAA action. And the Wisconsin basketball team, just two years removed from a Final Four appearance, was entering a season that, for a variety of reasons, appeared bleak. In November the Badgers looked like a team that would struggle to obtain a winning record. By March, they were bringing home a share of the Big Ten regular season championship and prepping for the NCAA tournamant.

Of course, as today most people just look at the success, and the great players that developed from that team, and don’t recall the difficult situation that existed at the beginning of the 2001-2002 season. Most people look back at the 2001-2002 season and think “Wow, Bo Ryan really walked into a nice situation. He had a team that went to the Final Four two years earlier and a program on the rise.” This analysis, however, ignores the fact that Ryan’s roster during 2001-2002 contained only three players who played that Final Four season, none of whom were at the core of the miracle Final Four squad.

Therein lies what was Ryan’s biggest problem at the time. The senior class for the 2000-2001 Wisconsin basketball team was perhaps the most successful class in school history. Mike Kelley, Mark Vershaw, Andy Kowske, Roy Boone and Maurice Linton lifted Wisconsin to heights not seen since the 1940s. And all played significant minutes from the second that they stepped on the floor as freshmen (with the exception of Boone, who was a junior college transfer). Of course, all of these men were gone now, along with three-point specialist sophomore Ricky Bower, a substitute who had logged a smattering of meaningful minutes the season before and had opted to transfer to Brigham Young in the offseason. This core group (along with a couple seldom-used reserved who also did not return) had accounted for 70% of the minutes played, 69% of the points scored, 64% of the rebounds grabbed, and a staggering 76% of the assists dished out in 2000-2001 (Yes, I actually ran these numbers. I am a nerd.). Thus, Bo Ryan had to replace roughly three-quarters of the production of the prior year’s roster. Only two of his players had been in the regular rotation. Only one was a starter.

The challenge didn’t stop there, however. Medical problems continually befell the Badgers. It began in September when Julian Swartz, a talented forward who had sat out the prior season to seek treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder, abandoned plans to return to the team and decided to transfer to lower-profile UW-Green Bay as he sorted out his illness. Shortly thereafter Latrell Fleming, a Milwaukee area guard who had been drawing solid reviews and at the time was largely considered more immediately ready to play than fellow freshman Devin Harris, was diagnosed with a heart ailment that ended his basketball career. Just when it seemed that nothing else could go wrong, November came, and freshman forward Andreas Helmigk tore his ACL, leaving the Badgers painfully thin up front. With scholarship limitations from the school’s infamous Shoebox scandal, there weren’t exactly tons of extra bodies running around. By the time all was said and done, Bo Ryan would enter the season with 8 scholarship players, 6 walk-ons, and 2 assistant coaches who would log lots of playing minutes in practice.

Meanwhile, Bo Ryan was trying to figure out how to handle his first season. The pressure was there. Wisconsin fans had tasted winning, and though they might not have expected it with the 2001-2002 roster, wins would be expected soon. Add to that the fact that Ryan was wasn’t exactly a consensus hire. Athletic Director Pat Richter decided not to retain Brad Soderburg, who had done an adequate job the previous season as interim head coach following the early-season retirement of Dick Bennett. Wisconsin was going after a big name. After failing to sign such coaches as Rick Majerus and Ben Braun, Wisconsin looked to Ryan. An assistant coach under horrific former Badger coach Steve Yoder, Ryan, though wildly successful at the division 3 level, wasn’t exactly what the public was looking for. Half of the fans were upset that Soderburg, a solid coach, wasn’t retained. The other half were embarrassed that Wisconsin had gone after a nationally known coach and completely been shut out. (Let the record show, however, that my advocacy of Ryan, which dates back to 1998, never wavered. I have to point this out for the millionth time, as it is one of the rare times when I was actually right about something.)

So the season opened, and the coach that no one wanted looked to craft a rotation from his heavily depleted roster. There were a few good things—junior guard Kirk Penney had been a starter the prior year and brought athleticism and a good outside shot. Senior Charlie Wills was a fifth year senior who despite a propensity for bonehead plays, had logged a fair amount of court time during his career.

After Penney and Wills, however, things got murkier. The next most experienced man was senior point guard Travon Davis, who had been used only occasionally to this point in his career, and was known to play out of control at times. Sophomores Freddie Owens and Dave Mader were next in line with experience, and both were seldom-used reserves as freshman. Owens was thought by most to be primarily a defensive specialist, and Mader, despite committing to play for the Badgers early in his high school career, was generally thought of as something of a project.

Then there were two freshmen—Devin Harris and Mike Wilkinson. Of course, we now know them as Wisconsin’s most recent lottery pick, and one of Wisconsin’s most consistent players ever. As decorated as they each ended up, it’s easy to forget that even they were once freshmen. Both suffered from the same basic issue—severely thin bodies. Admittedly, Harris is probably the best high school player that I’ve ever seen in person, but on any team with enough able bodies I would not have been shocked to see him redshirt just to bulk up a bit in order to face the rigors of college ball. Wilkinson, in fact, had redshirted the season before to bulk up—only he didn’t look like he had added tons of mass during his redshirt season. His now-sturdy frame was nearly impossible to imagine when the 2001-2002 tipped off. He was still a 6’8” guy who was stronger on the perimeter than in the lane, though the needs of his team, as we know, would eventually turn him into a rock-solid interior presence. Neither player exactly had the body type that would be expected to hold up for an entire NCAA season while playing oodles of minutes.

The final scholarship player was Neil Plank, who frankly, I knew little about going into the season. As time passed, though, the Badgers would opt for a seven man rotation, leaving Plank as the only scholarship player not to log major minutes. Clearly, Plank was not to be a key cog for a Big Ten team. My hope for the year was to avoid any injuries (particularly in the frontcourt, where a sophomore version of Dave Mader was somehow miraculously starting for a division one team) and slink out with some dignity.

Sound rough? Let’s summarize the above obstacles Ryan had to face entering the season:

1) Loss of eight players (six of whom were in the main rotation) who accounted for roughly 70% of the team’s production the prior season.
2) Loss of three players, all of whom had a likelihood of contributing immediately, to medical issues briefly before the season.
3) A reduced number of scholarships due to an infraction during the previous coach’s regime. (Resulting, along with the other issues, in having only 8 scholarship players.)
4) Heightened fan expectations from a few recent seasons of winning.
5) A fan base that wanted someone else to have his job.

Not exactly a dream situation, if you ask me.

The start of the season went somewhat as expected, with four of the first five games going down as losses. In the typically less-strenuous non-conference season, this did not appear a good sign. Eventually, though, things began to click. I think my first inclination that this team had the potential to be better than a mediocre, break-even squad was during their game against Temple. Sure, no one could guard Lynn Greer, who had the best offensive performance of anyone I’ve ever seen play at the Kohl Center, and Devin Harris took 20 3-point shots, making roughly three of them, but Temple was a legit team, and the Badgers took them to overtime before eventually losing.

Things about this team were different. Travon Davis, the previously little-used point guard, took to Ryan’s swing offense and became the best sub 6-foot post player that ever lived. Charlie Wills stopped making the boneheaded plays that he was so prone to, and became the team’s leader. Neither player looked anything like the player he was in prior seasons.

Kirk Penney continued as a solid outside shooter, but developed the ability to score in even more ways. Freddie Owens shed the title of one-dimensional defensive specialist and occasionally had a scoring outburst. Mike Wilkinson and Devin Harris continually learned on the job what their roles were and how to succeed. And Dave Mader at least remained a fan favorite, and perfected his jumper from just inside the top of the key.

The improvement wasn’t instant, but it was continuous. And the team won. They continued to win. And eventually the team that entered the season with an unpopular choice for coach, only two players who had logged significant minutes, and a sudden loss of three players for unique medical reasons found itself with a Big Ten championship and a birth in the NCAA tournament. Sure, it wasn’t the strongest year ever for the Big Ten, but if you’d asked just about anyone in November if Wisconsin would be anywhere near a championship, even in a weak year, they’d have laughed at you.

So yes, I absolutely love Bo Ryan, and the 2001-2002 season is responsible for that. I’ve seen some great coaching feats in this state (notably, Tom Crean quickly bringing glory back to Marquette, and Bruce Pearl making national waves at a school that was playing in a glorified high school gym when he arrived), but none as great as Ryan’s 2001-2002 season. And while I think that you’re nuts if you think the Badgers are any better than Andy Katz predicts right now, with Bo Ryan around you might not look so nuts in March.

Listed on BlogShares