The Long Overdue Year End Wrap-Up
2005-2006 was another in a long line of exciting basketball seasons. I saw a lot of great hoops this year, and wanted to take the opportunity to wrap up by discussing some of the great and not-so-great (but more great) things that I’ve seen this year. So for this year’s wrap up, I’m offering the best (and worst) of 2005-2006. For most of the key bests (and worsts), I’ve broken things up into three categories: High school games that I attended, college games that I attended, and games that I viewed on television. All offer me different things, so it would just be too tough to compare, otherwise. Of course, some things just didn’t merit comment for all three categories, so I left those for the end. So without further adieu, here’s the best (and worst) of 2006, about a week and a half too late:
Best Player (High School): Jerry Smith
No surprise here. The key moment of the year for Smith had to be the Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook Shootout, where he put up the best individual performance of any of the big name players (including several big names from outside of Wisconsin) in attendance. There are other players out there that are stronger (Andy Polka) or quicker (Trevon Hughes) than Smith, but if you’re looking for the total package, he’s it.
Best Player (College): Steve Novak
I’m sort of conflicted about this choice. On one hand, Novak had a great year, assumed a leadership role that I never thought him capable of on a team that did things that I didn’t think it was capable of. He was, as always, awesome from behind the arc, and surprisingly willing to grab a long rebound or two this year. On the other hand, the fact that Novak is the best guy that I saw in person all year speaks to the fact that I got to far too few live games this year. While Novak’s great, I probably saw 5-10 guys last year that I would have chosen over him had I seen them this year. His game against UConn is the stuff of legends, though.
Best Player (TV): J.J. Redick
The player of the year race for pretty much anyone picking such an honor came down to J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison. Both were outstanding, but I tend to side with Redick. I could give you the old line about how Redick played against better competition, but that’s not really why I’m picking him. I’m picking him because when Redick and Morrison each hit late season, and both began having that rare less-than-phenomenal game, I thought Redick looked better. When they’re at their best, it’s impossible to choose between these two guys. When they’re at they’re worst, though, Redick still looks like he’s doing everything the right way. Morrison, however, is that guy who’s still firing up mid range jumpers with three guys on him. And his high release looks a lot less pretty when the ball’s not going down. So Redick’s my guy.
Best Team (High School): Oshkosh West
This is a tough one, since I saw a lot of great teams this year. Madison Memorial’s division one semifinal win was probably the best team single-game performance that I saw all year. Milwaukee King had no less than five guys on their roster who will be playing division one college ball some day, so they have to get some consideration. And Milwaukee Vincent’s blowout victory back in December over Chicago’s Boys To Men Academy was one of the most beautiful things to occur on a basketball court in the last 5 years. But Oshkosh West managed to go undefeated and win the state title. You just can’t argue with that. If all of the teams that I’ve mentioned here are playing its best games, I don’t even know if Oshkosh West finishes in the top two. But that’s a theoretical exercise. I live in the real world, and I know that Oshkosh West was the only team consistent enough to win every game that it played.
Best Team (College): Late-season UWM
For as much basketball as I watched this year, I should have seen a truly great team at some point, but I didn’t get to any games with dominant squads. Georgetown’s trip to Milwaukee had some promise, but the Hoyas frankly looked mediocre when they took the floor at the Bradley Center. So, the choices boil down to the three state teams that I saw most: Wisconsin, Marquette and UWM. Each team could have been said to be playing the best basketball in the state at some point this year. No team was clearly the best. However, if I had to choose one team to hitch my chances to, I’d take UWM in the last 3 weeks of its season. Early season UWM wouldn’t have beaten early season Wisconsin or mid-season Marquette, but by the end of the year, the Panthers had put everything together. So in a crappy year for me seeing good teams in person, UWM takes the cake. (It really wasn’t much of a year for me, was it?)
Best Team (TV): Duke
There were no dominant teams this year, so I guess I default to Duke. Some people would argue that UConn was great, but they were just too inconsistent for my taste. Maybe the Marquette win over them tainted me. Villanova wasn’t half bad either, so I guess I’d consider them, and I loved the way Florida played en route to the national championship but when you can’t make up your mind, and no one really stands out, isn’t it always safe to just pick Duke and be done with it?
Best Game (High School): Milwaukee Vincent vs. Chicago’s Boys To Men Academy
Normally, the best game tends to be a close, hotly contested game. This was neither, but still ended up being the most fun that I had watching basketball all year. Vincent found itself in the rare situation of looking like an underdog on paper to Boys To Men Academy, a school whose total number of students equaled the number of players on the basketball team, and appeared to require a height of 6'6" for admission (with an exemption for those with exceptional point guard skills). About a minute and a half into the game, with Boys To Men Academy dunking left and right, my friend Kevin leaned over to me and said "I hope this doesn’t get ugly." Well, it did, but not in the way that we expected. Vincent suddenly started playing their trademark defense. The Boys To Men players got frustrated, and seemed to lose the will to play ball. Vincent won by 20, but in my memory, they won by about 40. Maybe it was just a Milwaukee-Chicago inferiority complex on my part, but I was pulling harder for Vincent in this game than I could ever have imagined. Almost every other time that I’ve seen Vincent play in the last 10-years, they’ve been the prohibitive favorite team packed with all-stars, but for one night, they were just the solid, scrappy team that played basketball the right way and reaped its rewards. (Okay, so Vincent always plays the right way, but it’s a lot easier to like them when they’re remarkably physically smaller than their opponents).
Best Game (College): Carroll College vs. Lawrence University
See my notes below on "Best Atmosphere." Yes, it’s weird to name a division three game as "Best Game," but I have to do so for two reasons. One, I didn’t get to as many college games this year as I should have. Two, this was a damn good game.
Best Game (TV): Michigan State vs. Gonzaga
Loving the Michigan State-Gonzaga game that took place right at the start of the season goes against everything that I’ve ever been taught about basketball. I’m a man who attended Wisconsin when Dick Bennett teams were grinding out wins and rarely scoring more than 60 points. I like good defense. Nonetheless, watching the porous defense of Gonzaga and (surprisingly) Michigan State made for great fun, and great offensive performances by Adam Morrison and Maurice Ager. There were tons of Morrison doubters around the country before this game, but he converted a lot of people in one night. Watching this game was like watching a heavyweight fight, but not a real heavyweight fight. It was more like watching Rocky battle Clubber Lang. Every trip down the floor either Michigan State or Gonzaga was throwing a haymaker and connecting. I’ve seldom seen anything like it.
Best Moment (High School): Whitefish Bay beats Nicolet on a buzzer-beating layup
It was a rivalry game between two talented teams, had important implications for standings in the North Shore Conference, and came down to a buzzer-beating layup. I could say more, but I don’t think I need to.
Best Moment (College): Dominic James hits the court at Marquette’s Midnight Madness
This one would have won just about any year. Back in March, I struggled to figure out which state team’s midnight madness celebration I would attend. I chose Marquette, since they had the most new faces entering the program, and because if Tom Crean knows how to do one thing, it’s throw a party to get fans into a frenzy. I was most excited to get my first look at Dominic James, the most hyped freshman of the new class. I wasn’t expecting him to live up to the hype, given that for the last three years the hype-meter has been out of control for Marquette recruits, and mostly the hype has ended in disappointment. The first time the 5'11" James effortless tossed down a dunk, though, I knew his hype was legit. Friends report that the look of amazement on my face was priceless. It was one of those moments where you just know that you’re witnessing the start of something great. I’m just glad that I was there.
Best Moment (TV): Gonzaga’s J.P. Batista receives visit from brother on Senior Night
I’m a sucker for crap like this. It’s senior night at Gonzaga, and Batista’s last game at home. Post game he’s talking to the crowd, and his brother, who he hasn’t seen in four year and who’s flown in from Brazil for the game sneaks up behind him. Batista cuts short his words to the crowd and gives his brother a big hug. If you’re not touched by that, you have no soul. Thanks to La Revolucion for passing on the video link to me after I missed it on live TV.
Worst Moment (High School): Violent Incidents at Milwaukee City Conference Games
A problem that’s been building for the last few years, a series of three notable violent incidents at City Conference games led to major changes in game attendance policies at Milwaukee Public Schools. The school district did its best, requiring ticket purchases to be made hours before game time, and reducing seating to 75% of gym capacity at all gyms, but at least one major incident still occurred outside of a Milwaukee high school gym after implementation of the new policies. The possibility of playing all games behind closed doors was even floated about. And with it still unclear that the new security policies will manage to rid games of the few rogues that disturb the otherwise peaceful game crowds, the scary possibility of a future full of closed-door games is still floating out there.
Worst Moment (College): Marcus Landry and Greg Stiemsma ruled academically ineligible
The ineligibility of Marcus Landry and Greg Stiemsma hit the Badgers hard on two fronts. First, Stiemsma and Landry’s ineligibility, combined with freshman DeAaron Williams’ decision to transfer out of the program mid-season meant that the Badgers, who boasted depth as their primary strength, had suddenly gone from a team that could go 10-deep with no drop off, to a team that was going to have to work a walk-on into the regular rotation in order to keep players fresh. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Landry and Stiemsma’s academic issues forced even the most loyal of Wisconsin fans to question the basketball program’s commitment to seeing its players succeed academically. And that’s something that no one who loves their team wants to confront.
Worst Moment (TV): Villanova guard Allan Ray’s eye injury
I didn’t see it. I don’t ever want to see it. When I hear that someone had their eye pop out of socket, I look the other way. I nearly passed out in junior high when my class watched the video of live birth for the unit that my school district dubbed "life education," and I’d rather not come that close to losing consciousness again.
Best Atmosphere (High School): Oshkosh West vs. Fond du Lac Sectional Final
I could go a lot of ways with this one, since I saw a lot of games, in a lot of different venues this year. I definitely stepped up my high school game attendance as compared to last season. But if you get right down to it, there was nothing that compared to the Oshkosh West-Fond du Lac sectional semifinal game. It’s an odd call, because most great high school atmospheres arise out of small, cramped gyms that are overflowing with spectators trying to see the game. This one was at the larger-than-average UW-Oshkosh fieldhouse, though. Instead of the cult-like feeling of being in a small gym and seeing a great game, you got a taste of what its like when two communities with an interest in basketball fill up a fieldhouse. Pushing things over the edge was Oshkosh West’s student section, whose phenomenal display of well-organized spirit has led me to comment on my love for them an almost annoying number of times.
Best Atmosphere (College): Carroll College vs. Lawrence University
Sure, it wasn’t big-time college hoops, but if you found yourself at February 15th’s showdown between Carroll College and undefeated Lawrence University for the Midwest Conference (Division 3) championship, you got every ounce of value out of the $0 admission that is standard at Carroll games. A buzzer beating shot in front of an excited standing-room-only crowd decides the conference title and allows Lawrence to maintain its status as the only undefeated college team in the country? Things like that normally only happen in the movies. But for the basketball junkies that decided to forego the division one temptations put forth by Wisconsin and Marquette that night, their division three transgression paid off with a game that you couldn’t have scripted. I’m just glad that I made it in the door before the gym reached capacity and spectators began to be turned away. The snowy, post-game walk to my car park notwithstanding, it was a perfect evening.
Best Venue (High School): Homestead High School Fieldhouse
I have a love-hate relationship with most fieldhouses. They’re generally huge and comfortable (particularly the newer ones), but they’re also typically too large to foster the type of unique atmosphere that a smaller high school gym can generate. But Homestead High School really got it right when they built their fieldhouse a few years ago (even though I really liked their old gym, too). It’s as state-of-the-art as they come, but unlike other, more sterile fieldhouses, it always feels like you’re close to the action. This is particularly true when two movable sets of bleachers are installed on the baselines, and the court is fully surrounded (which I actually assume is a pretty rare occurrence). Sure, it can’t totally duplicate the atmosphere of a cracker-box gym, but I also don’t have to contort my body in order to secure seating during a big game. For achieving the best fusion of modern convenience, and game-time excitement, Homestead’s my top venue.
Best Venue (College): Hinkle Fieldhouse
While I didn’t get to as many home games of my favorite teams, I did manage to hit the road for a few games, and on my one-day tour of Indiana, I finally made it to Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse, home of the real life and film versions of "Hoosiers." While I’d normally rather sit in a big, comfy venue like the Kohl Center, Bradley Center or Mecca, Hinkle’s simply an experience that every basketball fan should have. And it’s held up remarkably well for being as old as it is. Because I can cross another thing off my list of things that I need to do before I die, Hinkle’s my favorite venue of the year.
Best Venue (TV): My Living Room
Not to toot my own horn, but over the last two years, I’ve dedicated myself to creating the best possible sports-viewing environment in my apartment. Perhaps the only flaws in my current system are that my living room is too small to hold more than about 5-6 people at good viewing angles, I need to upgrade to a couch from a futon, and the hum of my beer vending machine is way too loud (and accordingly is only used for special events). So the next step is obvious: buy a house with a big basement.
Worst Mistake of the Year: Opting not to attend the Marquette’s First Big East Game
Marquette, as usual, got through the less-than-exciting non-conference schedule largely unscathed, but expectations were not at the point where an upset of then top-ranked Connecticut seemed like a proposition that was even plausible. Thus, I figured that heading downtown to sit in upper-deck seats for Marquette’s inaugural game in the Big East would be a waste of my time. What ensued that evening was a huge upset win for Marquette, and Steve Novak having one of the greatest collegiate performances ever seen in the state of Wisconsin. Instead I went to see a high school game. To be fair, it was a good high school game (Whitefish Bay at Milwaukee Lutheran), but I saw it at the expense of probably the top single game played in the Milwaukee area this year. Let that be a lesson to me for the future.
Best Concession Purchase of the Year: Bradely Center's Buffalo Chicken Sandwich
After a ridiculously unhealthy 2004-5 season, I cut back on the concessions this year, so the choices here are few and far between. But the buffalo chicken sandwich topped with blue cheese coleslaw that the Bradley Center’s new concession stand was serving up was marvelous. Sadly, seeing as it’s $8 and I’m far too cheap to pay that much for a sandwich, it’s probably the last one I’ll ever have. (Runner up: Cookies and cream Dippin’ Dots: The real cookie bits actually made it seem good, and not just like crappy "futuristic" ice cream.
Best Blog-Related Moment: Being quoted in the New York Times
A lot of truly odd and entertaining things happened as a result of the site this year. For a stretch during the middle of the season, not a week went by I didn’t have some sort of mind-boggling event based on someone finding the blog. But none was more bizarre than the day that I was quoted in a New York Times column about fan reactions to J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison. I’m still trying to figure out where this ranks in comparison to last season’s email from the mustache man of Beloit.
Most Draining Day of Basketball: Day 1 of the Wisconsin Basketball Shootout
The inaugural Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook Shootout in late December offered so much good basketball so quickly, that I think it may have broken my will to see basketball for the rest of the year. In one day I saw six games, and because of an extended lunch break, I didn’t even see all of the games being played that day. That may have even been too much for me. Of course, I’ll be returning again next year, and enjoying the best two-day basketball extravaganza that I’ve ever seen.
Biggest Surprise of the Year: My Enjoyment of the Big East
Prior to this year, I never particularly paid attention to the Big East. I wasn’t sure if Marquette’s entry into the league would change this, since Marquette’s affiliation with Conference USA over the last several years never really made me care about that conference. Happily, I was wrong. This year I enjoyed watching games involving Big East teams other than Marquette during Big Monday. Who knew Villanova could be so entertaining?
So that’s it–I’m officially done for the year. Unlike most others who shut down completely, I’ll probably be in and out once a month or so with a random basketball thought, and I’ll probably toss out some thoughts on the NBA draft as I did last year when June rolls around. I assume I’ll be back next year to do pretty the same thing, but since that’s months away, I’m not going to commit to anything just yet. I might suddenly become a jai alai fan or something and ditch basketball.
And I’m not leaving you completely during this offseason. Starting next week, I’m going to work on a side project. Prior to the season, I had a daily thought that I would email out to a small group of friends as a way of stimulating discussion. It was basically just an observation on something amusing (or often, annoying) that I had observed in the preceding day. After a few months, the eamil discussion part sort of dried up, but I still enjoyed doing the daily thought. So I figured I’d shift it to blog form, like I did with my yearly basketball email (the precursor to this blog), and stop annoying my friends. It has nothing to do with basketball, but if you’re so inclined, feel free and drop by to read my thoughts of the day, which I’ll begin updating regularly about a week from now. For the time being, I’ve got a sample thought up.
Oh, and to those of you who I owe emails to--you should hear from me in the near future. It's just been a busy week.
Happy offseason, and see you next October (probably).