Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Back For the New Year

Well, I’m back after my week-long self-imposed hiatus. Thankfully, I think I’m getting back to normal after a week of excesses, kicked off by last Monday and Tuesday’s excessive basketball viewing at the Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook Shootout. Actually, Tuesday I only saw two games, but it was Monday that blew my mind, with a day that spanned from roughly 9am to 10pm, and included six basketball games, along with an extended lunch break. I’m glad that there won’t be another day like that on my agenda until March, because frankly, I don’t know that I can handle that much of a good thing at once right now.

In any event, I’m happy to report that even though it left me a broken man for a bit, the Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook Shootout was still one of the greatest basketball events that I’ve ever attended. Thus, I leave you with some of my belated random thoughts below. There’s definitely a lot more that could be said, but I’ve tried to boil things down to my 14 most salient points. Apologies for any lack of flow–the week off has really made me feel rusty:

1) The one bad thing about holiday tournaments is that unlike regular games, which are typically big school and community events, holiday tournaments are organized largely for basketball nerds like me. As such, there’s seldom a student section for any school in a tournament like this. The two schools who came closest to assembling a student section were Henry Sibley, whose section consisted of what I assume to be their JV team, which must have joined in on the trip from Minnesota (if I’m wrong, these kids just may be the most dedicated fans of all time), and Wauwatosa East, who actually put together a small gathering of students, complete with a guy holding a flag. Neither would qualify as a full-fledged "section" though.

2) I’ll be interested to see Oostburg forward Andrew Zimmerman in anther year or so. Once he hones his post moves a bit more and hits the weights a bit more, he could be a very intriguing guy to watch. And this might be a really small thing, but I was impressed at how he received the ball in the post.

3) It probably doesn’t need to be said, but I was plenty excited to see the Dippin’ Dots wagon out again at the Al McGuire Center.

4) Chicago’s Boys to Men Academy appeared going into the tournament to be one of the most intriguing teams. A brief glance at their profile in the tournament program revealed that Boys to Men Academy has an enrollment of 15 students, 14 of which are listed on the basketball roster (perhaps the manager was that 15th guy). The coach of the team doubles as the principal. They have several players 6'8" or taller, and several top-level division one prospects. If you go to their website, they have two Mission Statements–one dealing with academics, and one dealing with basketball. And the academic mission statement references basketball. Many jokes were strewn about at the tournament about the legitimacy of the academic program at Boys to Men Academy. I can’t really pass judgement about that, since I have no idea what the program is. One thing is clear, though–no matter how good or bad this school is academically, it would not exist if not for basketball.

You would think that this latter fact, along with all of the talent that came with it, would lead to a frighteningly good basketball team. Surprisingly, if you were to believe the game against Vincent, you’d be wrong. I’ll admit to being fooled, as well. During the first two minutes of Boys to Men’s game against Milwaukee Vincent, they jumped out to an 8-0 lead on Vincent, prompting my friend Kevin to lean over to me and say "I really hope this doesn’t get ugly." I agreed with Kevin–a team with three starters that were each taller than virtually every other player in the tournament seemed an invincible foe.

But then something happened. Vincent, no stranger to games against nationally-ranked opponents, refused to panic or fold, and amped up their defense. They frustrated Boys to Men Academy, and pulled back into the game. Faced with a team that actually played together, and played without being scared, Boys to Men Academy quickly folded. By the end of the first half, Boys to Men was looking less like a collection of high school all-stars, and more like one of those hastily thrown together Athletes in Action or Marathon Oil teams that NCAA teams used to play in exhibition games to get ready for the season. And Vincent had a sizable lead. It was clear that this one was going to get ugly, but that it wasn’t going to be ugly for Vincent. No, Vincent’s trademark defense and discipline had won out over the all-star talent of Boys to Men Academy. I’ve always heavily respected Vincent in the past, but I’ve never sat in the stands and openly cheered for them as I did in this game. The Vikings represented not only their home city of Milwaukee, but also the game of basketball incredibly well in this game.

As for Boys to Men Academy, every player on the team may end up with a basketball scholarship, but they still didn’t look like much of a team.

5) During warm-ups of the Seymour-Henry Sibley game, a few of my friends noted that among the players on the expansive Seymour roster was one bulky young man wearing glasses. Not contacts, not sports goggles, but basic, everyday glasses. This caught my eye as much as anyone’s, since as a youth who played lots of playground basketball in glasses, I can pretty much guarantee you that if I hadn’t moved up to something studier during the actual basketball season, I would have gone through roughly ten pairs of glasses every year. This didn’t seem to matter much, since the kid didn’t look like the type that would be logging minutes, anyway. Much to our surprise, though, he subbed in early in the game. Even more to our surprise, he was nimble, and did an excellent job of positioning himself against Henry Sibley’s Trevor Mbakwe, one of the most touted players of the tournament. So, John Nicholas, my friends and I salute you as one of the most pleasant surprises of the tournament. And if you need a pair of rec specs, I’m happy to give you mine. You may have to change the lenses, though.

6) Milwaukee Vincent’s travel warm-up suits look absolutely awesome. If I played for the Vikings, I’d seriously consider faking an injury just so that I could spend my time on the bench wearing a stylish sweat suit instead of my uniform.

7) In the limited time that I saw him play, I was impressed with Seymour’s Matt Hackl. There aren’t a lot of 6'7" guys who can toss up three pointers with as much accuracy as Hackl.

8) Though Whitefish Bay (ranked 2nd in the state in division 2) wasn’t playing in the tournament, a couple of their key players could be seen attending both days of the tournament as spectators. There were plenty of good reasons for them to do so, including getting a glimpse at conference foe Nicolet, doing some scouting at Seymour, the only division 2 team ranked higher than Whitefish Bay, and measuring themselves against neighboring Whitefish Bay Dominican, the private school in their community. Of course, they were also there for a bunch of games that didn’t involve these teams, so they could just be basketball junkies, which would warm my heart.

9) Maybe the most calm looking man at the tournament was Appleton Xavier’s coach, Tom Neises. Glancing across the floor, he spent most of his time in the coach’s box leaning against the scorer’s table with his legs crossed. It was the sort of pose you’d see from someone waiting for a friend at a bar. Apparently the calm approach worked, though, as Xavier took down perennial power Whitefish Bay Dominican (who is a year or two away from being back to its old self).

10) In one of the more entertaining moments of the tourney, on the second day I unknowingly happened to plunk myself down in a seat right in front of my old freshman basketball coach, who was also there to take in a game or two. We exchanged some pleasantries, and as we did so, I thought back to a comment he made way back when I played for him. I was only 14 years old, but I recall him telling our team to remember as we went through life that high school basketball would always be a good, cheap form of entertainment. It wasn’t exactly Ken Reeves-level advice, but was still a statement that obviously stuck with me through the years. I suppose it was sort of ironic that I ran into the coach at an event where I dropped $24 (not including parking, program, and Dippin’ Dots), rather than a standard quick $3 game, but I still feel like I got a pretty good deal. Heck, I’m not even sure I could get into a Bucks game for $24, and here I am seeing nine high school games for $24. So thanks, Coach. You definitely taught me more than how to do an effective ball slap.

11) Speaking of costs, there are few things better than $2 parking across the street from the Al McGuire Center. Where else can you park for $2 for the entire day in downtown Milwaukee? Of course, I still stand by my secret of parking on Wells Street across from the courthouse for free for evening games. You didn’t hear it from me, but it’s only a block away, and it’s almost never parked up after 6pm when the parking meters go off for the night.

12) Maybe it was because of the time slot that they had, or maybe they’re really just neat people, but I would have to say that the fans from the community of Seymour were among the most pleasant of the tournament. As my friend Kevin noted on the way out of their game on the first night, while a good number of fan groups at the tournament were prone to berating the referees for making bad call, the Seymour fans tended more to yell at their own players for making mistakes.

13) I thought that the Al McGuire Center was a great place to watch a high school game a few weeks back when Marquette High played Wauwatosa East there. As great as that was, the tournament was an even better use. The McGuire Center was practically made to host an event like this, with a lower deck that provided just enough seating to make the venue look somewhat full, but still allow nearly anyone who wanted a good view of the court to find a seat (yes, an actual seat–not just bleachers). And the upper deck provided a nice open area for fans looking for a bit more personal space. I would love to see WIAA sectional games played in the McGuire Center in years to come, since it just seems custom-made to host something like that. However, as I’ve alluded to in the past, that is a rant that I’m sure I’ll feel moved to address somewhere down the line.

14) Finally, some thoughts on the three big-time division one recruits at the tournament who weren’t attending Boys to Men Academy. I’m excluding the Academy from the analysis for two reasons. First, I only saw them play one game, and these other three guys I saw play two games. Second, that one game that I saw the Academy play was so bad that no individual player deserves mention, no matter how athletic he is. So, those three guys:

Jerry Smith: They weren’t naming an all-tournament team at the Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook Shootout, but if they were, Jerry Smith would not only have been on the team, he would have been the MVP. Everyone knows that Smith can slash to the hoop, but the tournament was perhaps the best he’s looked so far from behind the three-point arc. During the first day of the tournament, his normally excellent Wauwatosa East teammates all seemed to have an off day, leaving Smith to carry his team to victory over Nicolet. One would hope that Smith doesn’t need to do this every day, but it’s nice to know that he’s capable of carrying his team for a bit if it becomes necessary. In a sea of great players at the McGuire Center, though, Smith clearly stood out as the best.

Trevor Mbakwe: If you were trying to create an awesome video game basketball character, he would likely look quite a bit like the highly recruited junior from Henry Sibley. From his lanky, yet muscular 6'8" frame, to his Rip Hamilton protective mask, Mbakwe is pretty much exactly what a basketball player is supposed to look like. As for his play, sadly, I missed what was probably his most productive half of basketball all tournament when he led his team to a second-half comeback victory against Seymour (my friends and I had left at the half). Thus, I can only say that he looked out of position on defense at times, and often looked sort of indifferent in the first half against Seymour. In his second game of the tournament, against Milwaukee Vincent, the stats weren’t great, but Mbakwe showed a bit more fire, and spent the night in a physical battle on the blocks. If he can look this motivated all of the time, he’ll be one heck of a player. His body type also implies to me that he could be a good athletic small forward, although right now he’s definitely got the skill set and mentality of a power forward. It will be fun to see where he ends up going to college.

Bryce Webster: A Minnesota recruit, Webster, much like the other big-time recruits at the tourney, has a body that is built for division one basketball. He is simply a big, big dude. He’s 6'9", has a wide frame that he carries well, and just looks like the kind of guy that will immediately sprout muscles when he gets to college and they lock him in the weight room for awhile. He doesn’t yet seem to know how to totally maximize the advantage that his bulk gives him, but with a little teaching, he should be fine. Though it was not on display much during his first game against Milwaukee Pius, Webster also showed a nice shooting touch around the basket during his game against Wauwatosa East.

Of course, the Shootout wasn’t my only basketball experience of the past week. I also ducked in on the Badger Classic in Madison for three more high school games on Saturday, and watched a handful of televised games (including a disappointing Duke-Bucknell game), but I’m going to let those rest without a recap. After all, I’ve got a lot more catching up to do, given the exciting state of affairs as college conference seasons heat up, and I’ve got an exciting slate of games planned for this week. So I’ll be back with the usual banter as the week progresses.

As for tonight’s plan, I’m probably going to go contrary to what most people would expect out of me. The average basketball fan would head down to the Bradley Center tonight and take in Marquette’s inaugural game in the Big East against UConn. Indeed, this should be a fun, and historic event to be at. On the other hand, it’s also going to be more expensive and less competitive than a great high school game that’s going on tonight. Thus, I’m recording the game, and probably checking out the Milwaukee Lutheran vs. Whitefish Bay game at Bay. It should be a closer game, and I won’t have to pay $15 to park. How’s that for an economical plan?


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