Wisconsin vs. Penn State: A Win With Mixed Emotions
My evening last night in Madison for the Wisconsin-Penn State game brought about somewhat mixed emotions. While the game itself, as I had explicitly hoped for yesterday, was not all that interesting, it was a win and got Wisconsin back on track. On the other hand, I learned at halftime, via a voice message on my cell phone from my friend Gus, the news that Greg Stiemsma is academically ineligible for the rest of the season, and that his academic troubles are just one facet of his current battle with depression. That news sort of cast a pall over the evening, and led to the least amount of joy I’ve ever had after a 29 point win by one of my teams.
Instead of doing normal game thoughts today, since the evening was somewhat altered by the news of Stiemsma’s ineligibility, I’m going to alternate between game thoughts and thoughts on the Wisconsin ineligibility crisis. So here we go, starting with a game thought:
1) I was lucky enough to attend the game with my friend, known to most in my circle of friends simply as Boo-Yah. Boo-Yah is actually the father of one of my best friends from college, but when basketball’s on, having him around is no different than having another 20-something to catch a game with (particularly since I think he may be capable of out-drinking me). I knew it was going to be a great night going in for two simple reasons: Boo-Yah and I were going to get the chance to chat about every level of hoops in Wisconsin before and during the game, and he’s got excellent seats. And I don’t care how bad Penn State is–if you’re going to be sitting in the lower level at halfcourt talking hoops with Boo-Yah, it’s going to be a fun game to watch.
2) I can’t help but thinking that having three guys academically eligible in one semester (Stiemsma, Marcus Landry, and DeAaron Williams, who would have been academically ineligible had he stayed at Wisconsin) is about as unacceptable a situation as possible for the Wisconsin staff. I can sort of give them a pass on Stiemsma, since his situation is so hazy, and he apparently does have a legitimate mental health problem that led to his ineligibility, but I’m perplexed at how two other guys could slip through like this. While its nice that Marcus Landry seems to be taking this as a wake up call, shouldn’t he have seen this coming much earlier? When I was having academic troubles in school, I always had a pretty good sense of it, pretty early in the semester. Wasn’t anyone monitoring these guys? And if they were, and help was given, how badly off must these guys have been to have still not maintained eligibility. Obviously I don’t know the whole story, but having such an epidemic implies some pretty unflattering things about the Wisconsin basketball staff and players.
3) At one point Boo-Yah noted to me how ridiculous he thought a gigantic tattoo looked on the arm of Penn State’s tiny guard, Ben Luber. Indeed, Luber reminded me of a number of division three guys that I had seen the prior evening, where tattoos run rampant, despite the fact that very few division three guys have the arms to properly display such artwork. Yes Ben Luber, you look ridiculous (even if you do play ball better than the division three guys).
4) Given the academic casualties of this team, it was sort of curious last night to not see Bo Ryan attempt to use Kevin Gullickson more, since he’s the only other Wisconsin player that sounds like he may be even marginally game-ready. Last night would have been the perfect time to do so, as well, since there was a big cushion, and Gullickson could have had about as low-stress an opportunity as possible for working his way into the rotation. Instead, he got about 3-5 minutes of play early in the second half, before sitting down until last evening’s extended version of garbage time. One would hope he’ll get his feet wet one of these days, since he’s going to be needed down the stretch, since a 7-man rotation seems pretty insane to me.
5) At one point during the game, I heard a guy behind me yell out at Brian Butch "Way to go, Polar Bear!" Congrats to that guy for being so easily led by Steve Lavin’s choice of a non-sensical nickname that only Lavin himself uses.
6) Wow, did I ever come away unimpressed after seeing Penn State. Geary Claxton is really the only guy that stood out to me, and things were pretty much done for the Nittany Lions when he left for the locker room with some sort of an issue in the second half. Given that Claxton seems to be the most clearly talented player of Penn State, I’m wondering when he’ll be transferring, as seems to be tradition for any Penn State player of late who has any level of success.
7) Not so long ago, Wisconsin’s biggest strength was depth. They could, conceivably, go ten players deep without much of a drop off. Now they’re down to seven players who have actually seen legitimate court time. That scares me, mainly because of what would happen in an injury situation. You can’t play with a six man rotation, and while Kevin Gullickson is said to be able to plug the roster holes a bit, there’s not much behind him. Tanner Bronson, Morris Cain, and Devin Barry are all probably nice guys, but they don’t exactly inspire confidence when you’re trying to win a Big Ten title. On the up side, the lack of available players still hasn’t reached the level of this year’s Green Bay Packers’ team, who was on roughly its 22nd running back by the end of the year.
8) Oddest sight of the night? Alando Tucker and Ray Nixon, undoubtedly Wisconsin’s two most athletic players, doing most of their damage from outside the three-point arc. Nixon’s sort of always odd, since he’s never turned into the athletic slasher that one might have expected (Side note–Nixon and Marquette’s Steve Novak were high school rivals. Is it currently more perplexing that the athletic, 6'8" Nixon spends most of his time outside the arc, or that the slow, 6'10" Novak seldom finds himself in 2-point range? Discuss...). Tucker, on the other hand, was tossing in his flat bullets from long range at record pace last night. Definitely not the scene I ever expected when I saw both guys rocking the rim a few years back as freshmen at midnight madness.
9) Awhile back I pointed to the many parallels between this year’s Wisconsin team and the 2001-2002 Badger squad. The similarities get more striking if you now take into account the recent academic casualties (though admittedly, there seems to be a bit more culpability on the part of the team for its own problems this time around, and this year’s situation is a heck of a lot less bleak). What’s that you say? You don’t have a good recollection of the 2001-2002 Wisconsin season, and want to read a recap of the season that points out similarities to the current season and gives nearly excessive praise to Bo Ryan? Lucky for you, I wrote such an item, and you can find it here.
And as I made the drive back from Madison to Milwaukee, I listened intently to the radio, hearing about other games around the country, and slowly realizing that with the number of upsets taking place, nothing that I think I know about college basketball is right. At least I don’t seem to be alone. And at the end of the day, all this means is that the NCAA tournament is going to be absolutely spectacular this year.