The Highest Highs and the Lowest Lows
It was a week of ups and downs in Wisconsin this past week, and even if everything isn’t coming up roses, things are definitely interesting. My thoughts on the two division one teams that had crazy weeks (we’re excluding UWM, since they’re generally stable, despite their recent loss to UW-Green Bay, who I still feel bad that I know almost nothing about).
I have always been a big believer in the idea that things are never as good as people seem to think they are when things are going well for a team, and they’re never as bad as they seem when things aren’t going right. That statement applies both ways to Wisconsin. Heading into last week’s game at Ohio State, Wisconsin was undefeated in Big Ten play and poised to take a significant lead in the conference with a win at OSU. Their national ranking had risen to 13th in the country, and they looked unbeatable at home. Things were going well, but I was a tad skeptical. Though an excellent team, Wisconsin was probably not on par with some of the other teams that I had seen this year, and certainly didn’t match up with prior Wisconsin teams that had risen similarly high in the rankings.
And of course, the crash came. It was a bit harder than I expected. First Marcus Landry and Greg Stiemsma were held out of the Ohio State game for academic and medical reasons, respectively. Then starter Brian Butch sprained his ankle late in the first half. Suddenly the incredibly deep Wisconsin roster which had used up to 10 guys in its rotation (before the transfer of DeAaron Williams) was down to 7 guys, one of whom was trotting around on a bum ankle. The Ohio State game saw them put forth a nice enough effort, but a win was out of reach.
Ohio State seemed like a hiccup, until North Dakota State came to Madison. I didn’t get the chance to see this game, as thankfully, it was not televised, but I did have the opportunity to listen to it on the radio. And I have to be honest–that 62-55 score that everyone sees? That’s not even indicative of the game. In fact, the seven point deficit that the Badgers ended the game with was probably as close as they came to the Bison all day. Shots just were not falling at all, and North Dakota State just sounded like they were getting everything done that they wanted to. It was one of the most shocking losses by Wisconsin that I can remember. It was the end of a particularly low week.
But back to my original point, though–the Badgers were never as good as they were perceived to be when they were coming into the week, and they’re not in as much trouble as they would seem to be now. Was Wisconsin deserving of their #13 ranking coming into the week? Yeah, based on momentum, they probably were at the time. But were they as good as that ranking? Probably not. Alando Tucker, the team’s best player, is a good one-man metaphor for this team. Tucker, a phenomenal player who can look dominant at times, still has some glaring deficiencies when you look at his perimeter play (after all, he’s not truly playing power forward anymore) and shooting. Similarly, the Badgers are a very solid, sometimes dominating team, but you’d be hard pressed not to see that they have some pretty clear flaws as well.
All that said, they’re not as bad as the most recent loss (and loss of players) would indicate. The game, while a shocking defeat, was at least a non-conference game, leaving Wisconsin still in a tie atop the Big Ten. The schedule is still soft as compared to other Big Ten teams. It now looks like Stiemsma’s return is imminent, and Bo Ryan should still have enough talent at his disposal to prevent surprising losses like this from happening again (though it really shouldn't have happened the first time, either). Of course, I probably don’t even need to explain that last point, as the fact that Wisconsin didn’t drop totally out of the national rankings likely proves that people out there are level-headed enough to know how to deal with the situation.
Just as Wisconsin had one of its worst weeks in the last few seasons, Marquette just had one of its best weeks in recent seasons, beating two conference rivals, selling out its home arena, and having players take home Big East Player of the Week honors (Steve Novak) and Big East Freshman of the Week Honors (Dominic James). NCAA tournament talk is now swirling around a team that I, at one time, was betting on to miss the NIT. Even with a starter sidelined with an injury, the Golden Eagles keep on rolling, proving that their win against Uconn wasn’t simply a fluke. This is a legitimately decent team.
This Golden Eagle team might be the exception to the idea that I talked about above about things never being quite as good or bad as they seem. I think things for Marquette may actually be as good as they seem. I’m excited most about this team when I recognize what it’s not. It’s not last year’s Marquette team, and it’s not a bunch of freshmen thrown together trying to learn their way. This is a team that doesn’t lean totally on one guy, and all of the newcomers seem mature beyond their years. Nowhere is the difference between this year’s team and last year’s team more evident than on plays coming out of time-outs, or plays set up for the last possession of a game. That last second shot that Novak hit at the end of the Notre Dame game to propel the Golden Eagles to victory? Last year Novak wouldn’t have had the chance to shoot that shot. Instead, there would have been a guy confusedly fumbling around at half court after getting the ball poked away. This team actually knows what it wants to do, and unlike last year’s team, it can do it from time to time. Even though it's not usually the most creative of innovative team in the world, it's a team that gets things done.
The picture’s not totally rosy, of course. There’s not a single big man that consistently jumps out and makes you confident in his abilities, and one wonders what will happen in the event that Steve Novak ever has a night where he doesn’t play like he’s the best player in the conference (wow, I never thought I’d type those words). You also hope that Dominic James, who’s already had some pretty nasty cramping problems this year, and Jerel McNeal don’t hit a freshmen wall. But are these pretty minor problems to have, given the expectations at the start of the year? You bet they are.
At the end of the day, this isn’t a team that’s going to make a run at the national championship, but that’s okay. As noted above, this is a team that was thought to be borderline NIT and now NCAA talk is swirling around it. It’s a team that closed out last season in and NIT loss attended by so few people (even I didn’t feel motivated enough to check that one out) that they couldn’t fill the lower level of the Bradley Center, and now they’re selling out games. The success is building again. And in my mind, they’ve done enough now that I’m not worried anymore that the success is a fluke.
I told anyone who would listen at the beginning of the year that this was going to be a special team in two years. The way it’s shaping up, it looks like Dominic James and company are trying to make things happen a year quicker than I anticipated.
So that's where we stand with the two biggest names in division one basketball in Wisconsin. Thanks to UWM and Rob Jeter (who I love more every day, by the way) for keeping an even keel and not making me talk about you. As for tomorrow, I've got tentative plans to watch some division three hoops tonight. Good things always seem to happen when I choose to go the D3 route, so I'm looking forward to doing tomorrow's recap.