Monday, December 10, 2007

Wisconsin vs. Marquette: Painful, But In A Good Way

Well, Saturday was time for my favorite game of every year: Wisconsin vs. Marquette. While this game is a great rivalry based merely on geography and the high performance level in recent years by both teams, this is always a uniquely personal game for me. I’ve lived in two cities during my life, and these are the top level college basketball teams in each of those cities. I grew up a Marquette fan, going to games with my dad as a kid, and I have season tickets to the Golden Eagles today. However, after spending my college and grad school years at UW-Madison, the Badgers are the program that truly has my heart. It’s always fun to watch the two teams you pay most attention to, particularly when both are pretty good. And yesterday’s game, other than the outcome, did not disappoint me one bit. A few thoughts on my trip to Madison (thankfully, the timing of the game gave me an excuse to spend all day there) for the game:

1) No write-up would be complete without thanks to my friends Josh and Chris, who were my ticket hook-up yesterday. The most avid Badger fans I know, I was sad for them over the fact that they had to attend an office Christmas party instead of the game. However, I was more than happy to take their place at the game, and was somewhat comforted after Josh’s boss gave him assurance that there would be a television available to show the game at the party. Hope the party was great, guys. And yeah, you weren’t lying–that guy that you sit next to really does bolt out quickly to go for a smoke at the half.

2) This was the first time this year that Michael Flowers got the start for Wisconsin, a fact that somewhat concerned me. Undoubtedly, Flowers is a deserving starter. He did so all of last year, and is clearly one of the Badgers’ best players. However, the timing of the change initially worried me a bit. Bo Ryan has never been one to switch up his starting line-up, and it seemed like this change was geared towards trying to match-up with Marquette’s guard-heavy line-up. I’m seldom in favor of trying to tweak your own line-up to deal with your opponent’s style. It feels like they’ve already won something if you do that. That’s why I was happy to read post-game that the switch wasn’t an attempt to match up with Marquette’s guards, but is intended to be a permanent thing. Welcome back to the starting line-up Mr. Flowers.

3) A big thumbs up to the Wisconsin student sitting in the student section wearing a Brian Butch jersey over a polar bear costume. Absolutely classic. Steve Lavin had no idea what he was doing when he created that bizarre, non-sensical nickname for Butch during a broadcast a few years ago.

4) Also on the fashion front, another thumbs-up to my friend Beau, who I attended the game with, on his choice of a red sweater over a button-down shirt for the game. While his attire made him look more like he was going to attend a holiday party than a basketball game, I was just happy to see him in red, given some Marquette loyalties that he has. I can attest to the fact that Beau was red on the inside on Saturday, too, as he truly seemed to be cheering for his alma-mater in this one.

5) The best thing about this game? It was the first time I’ve felt real emotion during a game this year. I’ve sat through the early-season cupcake games for Wisconsin and Marquette, and never felt worried enough to really care. For the four minutes that Wisconsin was in the game against Duke, I was just too in awe of the Cameron atmosphere and overall game play to really concern myself with the outcome. And Marquette’s Maui games were in a far-away place on TV, no matter how good they were. But Saturday’s game was the first time that I lived and died with every trip down the floor. I think I may have frightened the guy next to me when I kept punching one hand with the other after Badger turnovers. But that’s what basketball’s supposed to do–make you lose partial control of your mental and physical abilities for a bit because you care so much. In a way, the season began for me on Saturday.

6) I wasn’t the only one with the adrenaline pumping, as the double technical on Trevon Hughes and Dominic James proved that the players were getting into it a bit. From where I was sitting, it was tough to tell exactly what was going on, so I’m looking forward to having a moment to review the television footage. Normally I’m not a big fan of scuffles on the basketball floor, but this was one time I was kind of excited to almost see things boil over. I felt like a hockey fan for a moment.

7) Every year it seems like something incredibly unlikely happens in this game that has a huge impact on the outcome. Last year it was a little-used Trevon Hughes getting big minutes and sparking the Badgers to a win at MU. Three years ago it was Chris Grimm inexplicably being assigned to guard Alando Tucker, and even more inexplicably, basically shutting Tucker down. And Saturday the trend continued, as Dwight Burke, Marquette’s starting center by default, put up 12 points, hauled in 8 rebounds, and looked competent shooting foul shots. I didn’t think I’d see any of those things out of Burke this year (particularly the foul shooting), and I’m still not sure that I will again, but for one night at least, he got the job done.

8) Here’s the thing that hurts most about this game as a Wisconsin fan–Marquette won this one despite not doing most of the things that I figured they would have to do to win. I assumed for a Marquette win, they’d need to get out and run, pressure Wisconsin enough to disrupt their offensive flow, and have a solid three-point shooting night. In actuality, there was a lot of halfcourt offense (I tend to believe that the high-scoring first half was more do to high shooting percentages than tempo, though I haven’t looked at stats to confirm this), Wisconsin was allowed to get the ball into Brian Butch and Marcus Landry on the block any time they felt like it, and Marquette shot the ball from the outside decently, but not spectacularly. Not to mention that Dan Fitzgerald, whose height and versatility would have been a big boost against Wisconsin, didn’t suit up for the Golden Eagles. On the flip side, it was nice to see Marquette win a game where not everything was played directly to their strengths.

9) I’d like to see more games like this out of Dominic James. And no, I’m not talking about his 20 points–I’m talking about him getting into the lane, dishing the ball, and somehow making Dwight Burke look like a superstar.

10) James and his backcourt mates seemed to have a particularly easy time getting into the lane on Saturday, something that would worry me a lot more as a Badger fan if not for the fact that there aren’t too many teams with Marquette’s ability to penetrate. Sure, Marquette exposed some things about Wisconsin on Saturday, but how many teams have the talent to exploit the things that were exposed?

11) Why did Scott Christopherson get into the game on Saturday? I know it worked out, since he drew two fouls that didn’t go against other members of his team, but I just don’t understand why he gets into meaningful games right now. I expect that he’ll be good eventually, but right now there are five guys better than him at the guard spots. You mean to tell me that those other five guys can’t cover the minutes for three positions for the entire game?

12) Better showing of Marquette fans at the Kohl Center than I had expected, given what a tough ticket this is. I even heard from a friend post-game that lots of the luxury boxes seemed to be dominated by folks decked out in gold. The standard “We Are Marquette” cheer at the end by the gold-clad invaders when the game was basically wrapped up was a definite verbal kick to the groin to me and my fellow Wisconsin fans. And it was the worst kind of verbal beating to take–one that’s completely fair, appropriate, and that there’s no great response to.

13) Showing that Marquette and Wisconsin fans can be friends, even at the height of rivalry, I enjoyed a post game drink with my old high school buddy Chris, a Marquette grad and rabid MU fan. Chris, who now lives in New York, had flown in largely so that he could see this game, so he’s serious about his fandom. Normally, some light-hearted taunting would have gone on between us, but after the game that was played on Saturday, we spent most of our time talking about what a great game it was, and how well the other’s team played. I think I owe Chris a beer, though, since he was first to the bar and did the buying, which one should never have to do after his team wins. Next time I’m in NYC, Chris, the first pitcher’s on me.

So with the game out of the way, and a few hours of post-game commiserating with friends, Beau and I hit the road and embarked on our snowy drive back to Milwaukee. Even with a loss for my favorite team, it had been a good day, since I’d finally felt the highs and lows that basketball has always been able to bring out of me. Truly a great game. And at the end of the day, things still looked pretty good to me. Wisconsin’s lost two games, but both are to top-15 level teams that played well against them, and I have season tickets to watch a Marquette team that’s playing better than I’ve seen them play in years. Things are looking up this year...


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