Monday, January 28, 2008

Dying Rivalry Weekend

Lots of basketball this weekend, headlined by two rivalries that have lost a bit of luster in comparison to their glory years. First was Friday night’s stop at a high school game to see Marquette-Tosa East, which for the year, seems to have taken a break from being the area’s top high school rivalry. And Saturday evening, I stopped in on Marquette-DePaul, which was a huge game back when I was a kid and neither school belonged to a conference, but now feels just like another Big East game. I guess it's tough to single out our neighbors to the south, now that every conference game is a big game. Thoughts on those two games, as wells as some quick thoughts on the Wisconsin loss at Purdue below:

Marquette vs. Tosa East

1) It felt sort of sad sitting in the Marquette High gym on Friday night. In a rivalry that's the best I've ever seen, it was jarring to see a gym that was probably less than half full, and even more shocking to see the victor walking away with a 29-point win. There was little, if any, of the emotion that was the trademark of the great Marquette-Tosa East games that have taken place over the years, no fired-up student sections treading on the edge of inappropriateness, and virtually no fun. It feels weird to hope that Marquette can soon return to its former glory, but I sincerely do. Because rivalries as good as this one aren’t much fun when things are so out-of-balance.

2) I learned on Friday night that Marquette High does have a concession stand at their gym, something I had never learned in all my years of going there. They could use some marketing, as it's not exactly intuitive to find the stand in the basement, through a set of closed doors. For the record, my friend Gus enjoyed some popcorn, though he commented that it was a bit too salty for his liking.

3) Lopsided as the score in this game ended up, it was actually pretty close for most of the first quarter. The score was 10-8 in Tosa East's favor before a lighting quick surge in the final minute of the first quarter put them up 17-8 heading into the second quarter. That closing minute of the first quarter, along with a second quarter which saw the Red Raiders hold the Hilltopers to a mere three points is where this one got out of hand.

4) I hope Tosa East's Jake Barnett enjoyed his evening, because I can't imagine he's going to have another night where he gets as many open looks from behind the arc as he did on Friday.

5) While sitting in the stands, I looked at my friend Gus at one point and noted that we had gone to the wrong Catholic school that night, and should instead have gone to the Pius vs. Catholic Memorial game, which looked to be arguably the most intriguing game in the area on Friday night. Apparently Gus and I weren’t the only ones wrongly sucked in by the history of the Marquette-Tosa East rivalry, though, because when I opened the Journal Sentinel on Saturday morning, there was an article about the game we were at, despite the fact that virtually anyone could have told you beforehand that the game over at Pius would have been a more interesting affair (and yes, that turned out to be a great game from what I’ve heard).

6) The thing that impressed me most about Tosa East, just as it did the first time that I saw them, was their ability to pass on the fast break. Once the Red Raiders get running, they become totally selfless, and seem to have a sixth sense that allows them to find one another. It's truly amazing to watch players at any level make an extra pass to turn an easy layup into an uncontested layup, and the fact that this is happening in high school games is even more amazing.

7) I was totally amused to begin with by the Marquette halftime game of "What's In the Box," a Let's Make A Deal-like spectacle where students from the crowd had the opportunity to accept a Marquette-themed prize, or trade that prize for an unknown item in a cardboard box. But the game that I didn't think could get any more entertaining got infinitely more entertaining when the first contestant traded his Marquette flag and ended up with a basketball autographed by Vin Baker. A Baker-autographed ball is an odd prize both because Baker is somewhat infamous due to his alcoholism tarnishing his significant talents, and because it has been a long, long time since Baker's years with the Milwaukee Bucks. The latter fact was further emphasized when the winning contestant attempted to dribble his autographed treasure, only to find it flat and unbounceable. Makes you wonder how long that ball was sitting in a closet somewhere. But even without such an amusing prize, this was likely the most interesting halftime contest I've ever seen at a high school game.

Wisconsin vs. Purdue

1) A couple days ago I joked about how Brian Butch is prone to having quick injuries that take him out of the game for brief periods of time before returning a few minutes later. Well, Butch dinged himself up again and had to limp out of the game briefly on Saturday only to return shortly thereafter. If Butch and Dominic James were on the same team, it would be scary, since games would take three hours every night due to injury stoppages, despite the fact that no one is ever badly hurt.

2) I’d praise Matt Painter for his brilliant strategy of extending his defense to make even the easiest of passes in Bo Ryan’s offense tough to complete, if not for the fact that it’s the exact same strategy that worked for Duke earlier this year in defeating the Badgers. No doubt, Painter was smart to have his team operate in this manner, but rather than leading me to think he’s brilliant, I’m simply left wondering how so many others have missed copying this idea.

3) I’ve heard plenty of talk about the officiating in this game, and while I have to say that at times it left a lot to be desired, I think Purdue had more to overcome than Wisconsin when it came to bad calls. There were lots of non-shooting perimeter calls during the game, and while the calls tended to go both ways, such calls seemed, at times, like a direct attack on Purdue’s aggressive extended defense. So no complaints about officials from me in this loss.

4) Interesting to watch Wisconsin’s final possession, where they ran the same thing as they did in their win against Texas. And it was a great play to watch develop. Once again, Michael Flowers made a good decision, this time seeing that he could take his bigger defender off the dribble. I was sure that Flowers was going to tie the game up, and then Robbie Hummel recovered and made just an outstanding defensive play to block Flowers’ shot. Not the ending that I’d wanted to see, but you can’t complain too much when two guys are going at it, and you nearly see perfection on both sides of the ball.

5) My favorite announcer, Doris Burke, make the excellent point early in the game that Purdue is not only young, but their young players are all the type that are going to be good for a long time, but not good enough to jump to the NBA. If they keep playing solid ball like they did on Saturday, get ready for the Boilermakers to rejoin the elite of the Big Ten once these guys have some experience under their belts.

6) Exciting win for Purdue, no doubt, but I was a little surprised to see their students rush the court. Nonetheless, as a Badger fan, it’s nice to remain rush-worthy...

Marquette vs. DePaul

1) On the Marquette radio show on the way in, I thought it odd that the announcers were noting that the game was a sell-out. This seemed an unlikely game to sell out. DePaul's not an elite-level Big East opponent, Marquette was coming off an extremely rough two game losing skid, and truth be told, the UWM-Cleveland State game going on across the street at the same time was the more interesting ticket that night (I'd have been there if not for my Marquette season tickets). Even more surprising than the announced sell-out, though, is that the arena actually looked like it was sold out. As those that have been to Marquette games over the years know, it's not unusual to go to a game that's announced as a sell out, and see plenty of open seats in the upper deck. But the Bradley Center was packed to the gills on Saturday night, and I'm still not sure why. My only guess is a mass desire by Milwaukeans to get out of their houses upon the temperature rising above single digits.

2) I just don't understand why Trend Blackledge isn't getting minutes. He's looked decent the few times that I've seen the team give him minutes out of desperation due to awful post play. And though Ousmane Barro had a decent game on Saturday, it's clear that the guys in front of him don't have such a stranglehold on the job that there's no way to get him floor time. Last night it even looked like the coaches stopped as he attempted to sub in during garbage time, which led to an brief heart-to-heart conversation on the bench between Blackledge and Tom Crean. So color me confused at why he doesn’t see the floor.

3) Last I saw DePaul freshman Mac Koshwal, he was part of the Boys To Men Academy team that lost badly to a brilliantly disciplined Milwaukee Vincent team at the end of 2005. Koshwal's skills were definitely on display on Saturday night, though, and he's going to be a fun guy to watch for as long as he decides to stick around DePaul.

4) DePaul's uniforms are distracting because from a distance, the Blue Demons just end up looking like the Harlem Globetrotters, a fact that I noted to my friend Dez early in the game, and which my friend Dave pointed out independently of us later on in the night.

5) At halftime, Marquette football players from the 1940s and 1950s were honored, and I have to say, for guys that finished school in the 1940s and 1950s, those guys looked to be in remarkably good shape. I can only hope that I might look half as good as most of those guys someday.

6) For some reason, injuries always seem scarier at Marquette games, and Saturday night was no exception. Watching Jerel McNeal randomly run to the locker room in the second half was scary, not because there appeared to be any severe injury to McNeal, but simply because McNeal running to the locker room implied the possibility of an injury to the team's top player. Luckily, McNeal returned quickly and there was no indication that anything was wrong with him. Acker was a bit more frightening, because he went down at the end of the first half, and his body looked fairly limp as two guys carried him off the court to the locker room. But again, he played in the second half, so thankfully, there were no big injuries on Saturday night.

7) I was happy to see Wesley Matthews get some points last night. As I've often discussed, he's probably my favorite Golden Eagle to watch, since he's one of those guys that always seems to be giving a maximum effort (which makes him a perfect guy to play for Tom Crean, I'd have to think). You always like to see high effort guys get rewarded.

8) Perhaps the most entertaining moment of the night came when the game was already well in-hand. Late in the game, during a time-out, people sitting near me started to look behind them, towards an altercation in the stands. As I turned my head, I saw a fan in the stands yelling something at a DePaul sweatshirt-clad fan in a luxury box. To say that the DePaul fan was irate would be an understatement, and his anger nearly led him to be the first fan that I've ever seen leap out of a box and into a fight. Luckily, one of his cooler-headed friends snagged him right as he got one leg over the plexiglass barrier, and security eventually came over to diffuse the situation. And yes, there was beer involved.

9) While walking out of the arena at the end of the night, I saw a sharply dressed elderly gentlemen tip the usher for our section, which is officially the first time I've ever seen an usher at a sporting event tipped.

So it was a great weekend, and should be another solid week of hoops this week, which I may kick off with Louisville vs. UConn tonight, seeing as it appears that the Huskies are relevant again. Back soon with some more thoughts on something...

Friday, January 25, 2008

A Shell of My Former Self

Wow, do I ever suck. I missed last night’s UWM-Youngstown State game, which I had tickets to, for another commitment. Then, when I made it home all excited to see the Oregon-UCLA game (a friend of mine is a huge Oregon fan, and I’ve been painfully derelict in watching UCLA this year), I managed to fall asleep in the middle of the second half while the game was nearly tied. I guess I’m officially a crusty old man. Before I did fall asleep, though, I managed to catch one of the more entertaining things I’ve seen all year during the first half of the game:

At various times during the game last night, the Oregon student section would begin chanting at UCLA star and Oregon native Kevin Love, “Love’s a pussy!” (I don’t even want to know what Google’s going to start sending my way now that such a phrase is on the blog...) Immediately following the first instance of this chant, Love scored the Bruins’ next 7 points, including a three-pointer from the big man, and a pretty putback layup, before capping off his run by taking a charge. The message is clear–don’t piss off Kevin Love. (Oregon students evidently didn’t get this message, as they continued the chant later in the game, and Love ended up with 26 points and 18 rebounds)

I’m booked up for the next two nights with basketball-related things, and I’ve got a relatively free Saturday afternoon, so I should have a plethora thoughts for Monday. Enjoy what looks to be a solid hoops weekend!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Wisconsin vs. Michigan: Better Than Expected

Ouch, a 6pm Badger game! After rushing home from work to fire up my TV, I put my trust in my DVR to help me out, as yesterday my laziness had led to me being the only guy on my block that hadn’t yet shoveled out of our recent snowstorm in these parts. While my neighborhood has no sidewalks, and I was only really hurting myself with my laziness, I still didn’t want to be thought of as that slacker guy down the block, so I got my work done before enjoying some hoops. Knowing that I’d just cleared the path to my mailbox made sitting down in front of the TV even more sweet. Thoughts below:

1) I don’t totally understand why, but despite his overly-intense pin-stripe suit and signature over-gelled hair, something about the fact that ESPN’s Steve Lavin was wearing glasses made him seem completely trustworthy and legitimate last night. I hope when he was coaching that he wore glasses on recruiting trips.

2) I assume the banter that Brent Musberger threw out about traffic in Madison being bad was true, because at tip-off the Kohl Center crowd looked just slightly larger than the crowd at an average D-League game.

3) I want to go on the record saying that I do like Jason Bohannon, and think that he brings plenty to the table for the Badgers. And he played well last night. That said, it has been gnawing at me for some time that he’s not exactly the three-point specialist that so many people want him to be, and if he is, the Badgers have a weak go-to shooter. I don’t have that Steve Novak-type of confidence in him (and frankly, I’ll probably never have that level of confidence in anyone else from outside the arc), and actually probably feel a little more comfortable watching Trevon Hughes or Michael Flowers shoot the ball. So let’s stop trying to make Bohannon into something that he’s not. Fine player, but J.J. Redick he is not.

4) I can’t say enough great things about the taped bits where the ESPN crew went out ice fishing with Greg Stiemsma. Pure fun. Why can’t we see more bits where ESPN’s talent enjoys unusual hobbies with players. Tell me you wouldn’t be entertained by cut-ins of wood carving with D.J. Augustin, or the opportunity to see Steve Lavin go curling with Maarty Leunen. Because I know I would. ESPN has really hit on something with this statement.

5) Speaking of Stiemsma, has anyone had a more improbable week? He doesn’t get in the game against Northwestern, and in the week following, the Journal Sentinel does an article about his cooking and basketball prowess, and ESPN decides to send its on air talent to go fishing with him for an afternoon. How many guys ringing up zero minutes get this type of attention? And to top everything off, Stiemsma had one of his best performances of the year against Michigan last night. I guess there is something to be said for being patient.

6) Michigan’s Manny Harris scares me in the same way that former Michigan guard Daniel Horton did. That is to say that he’s a freshman, he’s really good, and he’s probably just a notch below the guys that will be leaving right away for the NBA. So we’ll have to get used to seeing him for awhile.

7) It was totally cheesy, but I greatly enjoyed how Steve Lavin and Brent Musberger beat to death the “Polar Bear” nickname that Lavin randomly and inexplicably gave to Brian Butch a couple years ago. There were two high-water marks for polar bear talk on the evening. One was during the Stiemsma ice fishing segment when Lavin actually said about Butch, had he been out fishing with them, “He would have just put his head in and pulled the fish out with his mouth.” The other great moment was, of course, when ESPN put up the on-screen graphic comparing Butch to an actual polar bear. Turns out, Butch is quite a bit smaller, but both like to fish.

8) I’d like to personally thank the ESPN crew for referencing Kevin Pittsnoggle while talking about John Beilein’s style of play.

9) Great three-point shot by Marcus Landry to ice the game for the Badgers last night, but the most interesting thing about the shot, from my eyes, is that he was maybe the last guy on the floor that you’d want to see taking a three. This is not so much an indictment of Landry, who shoots the ball well, as it is a statement about the fact that basically everyone in the Wisconsin rotation can handle shooting the ball in big spots.

10) I had to rewind at the end of the game when I realized that Brian Butch hadn’t been in the game for some time. Turns out, he wasn’t injured as I had feared, but Bo Ryan just ended up going with a smaller lineup. But it was sort of jarring to see one of the Badgers’ most prolific players leave the game, never to return, with 4:51 to play.

11) While some are likely upset by the fact that and 11th ranked Wisconsin team struggled at home facing a Michigan team that they handled easily at Ann Arbor, it didn’t bother me for two reasons. One, Michigan played a much better game than they did the last time these two teams met, and it looks like the Beilein system is closer to kicking in and working a bit. And two, while I love the Badgers, they’re a tad over-ranked at this point, due to a Big Ten schedule that’s been allowing them to ramp things up before they face the big guns. We’ll know a lot more after the Indiana game next week.

Post-game I stayed put for the Tennessee-Kentucky game, which I’d been looking forward to despite telling my dad earlier in the day that it could get ugly, given Tennessee’s stellar play of late, and Kentucky’s rough start to the year. Shows what I know. But I still got to see a second great game, and Bruce Pearl wearing an orange blazer before I went to bed. Is there anything else out there more likely to ensure a sound night of sleep?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Lost Weekend

While there were lots of games going on this weekend, I really just wanted to see my local teams and perhaps Tony Bennett’s Washington State team. But while my desire to see all of those games was reasonable, forces of the universe conspired against me to keep me from being able to see all but the Wisconsin game. Here’s what happened with each.

Wisconsin vs. Northwestern: I DVR’d it and watched it on Sunday morning, due to non-basketball-related plans on Saturday night. The biggest highlight here, other than Northwestern defending the heck out of Wisconsin in the first half, was an interview with former coach Dick Bennett, in town for the 10th anniversary celebration of the Kohl Center. When the topic of Bennett’s taking the Badgers to the Final Four in 2000 was brought up, Bennett cemented his title as “most pained man alive” by declaring that much of that 2000 tournament run had been blown out of proportion by people. This now ranks as my third favorite painful Dick Bennett moment, just behind his heartfelt apology and promise of fun to students in line for 1999-2000 season tickets (following the team scoring only 32 points in the previous year’s NCAA tournament first-round loss), and his proclamation at a press conference during the midst of a particularly rough season that “we’re just not very good.”

UWM vs. UWGB: Inexplicably, an intrastate battle between two Wisconsin teams, both competitive within their conference, was not televised anywhere. Because after all, who in Milwaukee, Green Bay, or any other Wisconsin city would want to see two decent teams packed with local talent? The Horizon League does stream conference games online for free, and I suppose I could have watched that way had I been home on Saturday night. But actively seeking to watch a game on my home computer makes me sort of feel like a raging alcoholic who can’t find any booze and is eyeing up a bottle of rubbing alcohol. Streaming games to a computer in my office when I’m working late may be great, but sitting in front of my laptop at home watching a game would just make me feel sad.

Washington State vs. Oregon: Washington State is, after all, my adopted west coast team, and Oregon is a team that could give the Cougars a good test. But it was on at the same time as the Green Bay Packer NFC championship game, which all Wisconsinites were required by law to watch (I think). Of course, the scheduling conflict probably bothered Cougar coach Tony Bennett more than me, since one would assume with his Green Bay roots that he’d have liked to have been watching some football on Sunday. At least his basketball team won the tightly contested game, which had to take some of the sting off of missing out on the televised version of Wisconsin’s biggest cultural event of the year.

Marquette vs. Connecticut: Didn’t see it, but given the outcome, that might be a positive thing. This was actually the first significant game that I’ve missed due to a handful of Marquette and UWM games airing locally on the Time Warner Sports Channel, a channel offered only by the cable giant of the same name. So far this season, I’ve been generally smiling that I made a totally random decision a year and a half ago to try out Directv when I moved into my new place, since it affords me access to the Big Ten Network, which few in the Milwaukee area enjoy. But on rare occasions like Sunday, I’m out of luck. Worse, I was taunted by my on-screen channel guide, which gave me hope when I saw that one of the eastern sports networks that I receive was showing the game. But alas, the game was blacked out in my area. Later in the day a replay of the game was being shown, but by that point, I knew the outcome and the aforementioned Packer and Washington State-Oregon games were on. To add a final insult to the mix, as I was going to bed, I consulted my channel guide again and saw that a 60-minute condensed version of the game was being shown on one of the regional sports networks. “Excellent,” I thought, as I figured I would finally be able to take in what I had missed earlier, and do it in a highly concentrated way. But inexplicably, this cut up version of a game that had taken place 10 hours earlier was blacked out. So I think it’s pretty clear–God didn’t want me to see the Marquette game on Saturday.

This is the point where I should be primed to talk about issues of cable vs. satellite television in my home and elsewhere, and why I’m giving some thought to ditching my dish when my contract is up. But I’ll save that for another day. For now, I’m just happy to have lots of great basketball keeping me glued to my couch tonight. Not that ESPN didn’t show two wildly entertaining games last night, but tonight I may actually have time to sit through two games, which I haven’t done in ages. Thoughts to follow tomorrow...

Friday, January 18, 2008

Marquette vs. Louisville: ...And One Step Back

It hardly seems possible that a Marquette team that plowed over Notre Dame in resounding fashion less than a week ago could look so rough last night. But it was a long night in front of my television watching Marquette miss all of the few three-point shots that they attempted, and observing Louisville’s skilled big men annihilate Marquette’s bodies filling interior roles. Luckily, I had tickets to a concert that night and was forced to turn the game off before the end (when G. Love and Special Sauce are in town, that even trumps basketball), but things were far enough along that I knew how things were going to turn out–badly. And even more insulting, this game kept me from watching Tennessee-Vanderbilt, which had been a game I was looking forward to until I realized the conflict in timing with my home team (who can deny Bruce Pearl in an orange blazer?). Thoughts below:

1) I know everyone on the planet has said this already, but I’m really hoping that superstition doesn’t put and end to Marquette using their powder blue uniforms, because those things are really great. Even I was thinking of buying one of those things, and I’m pretty sure there’s nowhere on the planet that I could wear it, unless I became an aspiring rapper. They just look really cool–cool enough to get me to throw away good money on one. And they’re not the reason that the Golden Eagles lost last night, so please coach, let the kids wear their powder blue uniforms.

2) David Padgett and Brian Butch will always by linked in my head, as they were the two 6'10" crafty power-forward types that made the McDonald’s all-American team during their senior year of high school. Kind of amusing today to see them both left as 5th year seniors, both burned by injuries over the years (Padgett much more so–it’s a miracle to even see him on the floor this year), and both have even more crafty than they started out (Padgett because injuries have sapped him of whatever athleticism he had, and Butch because he generally lacked athleticism all along.). As good as Padgett looked with a few hundred thousand miles on him against Marquette last night, it’s interesting to think what he might be if his knees weren’t always in the wrong place at the wrong time.

3) Early in the game, Jerel McNeal dunked on a fast break well after the refs ruled the ball out of bounds. I found myself jogging my memory regarding whether McNeal ever dunks in games, since I tend to think of him as more of a layup kind of guy. I figured in that instance he was just dunking knowing that the play was dead and he couldn’t screw anything up if he missed. He dunked similarly later in the game after action was whistled dead. And then late in the game during live action he missed a potentially momentum changing dunk, which to be fair, was a ball that pretty much needed to be dunked if he wanted it to go in. So McNeal remains a layup guy in my mind, at least until the next time he throws down in a game.

4) Maybe the most painful moment of the game for me was watching Maurice Acker, Jerel McNeal, and Wesley Matthews, arguably the three Marquette guys you’d most want running a break, perfectly set up a defender on a 3-on-1 break, and then pass too many times and allow Louisville to catch up and block the ball out of bounds.

5) I’ve seen a little bit of Louisville this year, and I’d always sensed something weird when watching Derrick Caracter (other than his demeanor). I feel like an idiot for saying this, because it’s patently obvious, but when the announcer finally made note of the big change for him I thought “Yeah, that guy has lost a hell of a lot of weight.” Sometimes I miss the obvious.

6) What is it with Ousmane Barro and Dwight Burke picking up four (or in Burke’s case, five) fouls lately? Good thing Trend Blackledge has been putting forth a decent effort lately. (Another great moment last night, by the way, was when Burke fouled out with just upwards of 6 minutes to go, and Barro, almost instinctively, immediately started to run towards the scorer’s table to check in. Before he could do so, though, Crean grabbed him to let him know the news–he wasn’t going in–Blackledge was. Not a bad call, but couldn’t have been a fine moment for Barro.)

7) One of the nice things about this game last night was seeing some moments of excellent sportsmanship. Early in the contest, Dominic James fouled David Padgett hard, and immediately helped him up. Late in the game, Padgett took Wesley Matthews to the ground with a hard foul, and also promptly helped him up and inquired as to whether he was okay. The best thing about it is that both instances seemed instinctual, as if you could see James and Padgett thinking “I hit that guy really hard while he was in the air–I’d better make sure he’s okay and help him up.” For two teams in a rivalry that could easily cause emotions to boil over, it was nice to see that type of respect on the floor.

8) I don’t know that I can defend Louisville fans booing while Dominic James was on the ground writhing in pain from re-injuring his wrist, but I sort of understand where they’re coming from. James is one of those guys that, over the years, has shown a tendency to cause game stoppages for cramps and other injuries, only to re-enter the game a minute or two later. Legitimate as his pain may be, when it happens all the time, fans start to question whether it’s necessary. Heck, two years ago at a game at Purdue, I found myself yelling at Brian Butch, another guy who tends to leave and re-enter games for injuries quite often, to get up and stop being soft. And that’s a guy on the team I was rooting for (yeah, the Purdue fans around me thought I was kind of odd). So strange as it seems, I understand why Louisville fans would boo an injured player.

9) Speaking of James, let’s hope he’s okay, because he looked in even more pain than usual. If he is out for any period of time, the good news is that he’s got four other guys around him that are pretty capable of picking up the slack. You never want to lose a star player, particularly one who’s been playing as well as James lately, but Marquette’s depth at guard could really end up paying dividends over the next few weeks if there is a problem.

So here’s hoping for a bounce-back against Connecticut this weekend. A decent conference road win for the Golden Eagles has to happen sometime. I’ll try to be back with thoughts on Monday, but we’ll see how it goes. I think I heard recently that the FCC was fining local TV stations that show anything other than Packer coverage this entire weekend, so it might be tough to find basketball around here. I can only imagine how positively frightening it must be to live in Green Bay right now...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Raiders and Lancers and Badgers, Oh My!

People always talk about how great players play hurt. Well, last night I decided I needed to step my game up a notch. With a bad back that has made bending down to tie my shoes in the morning a monumental task (hey, I’m almost 30, so I’m sure things are heading downhill), there was a big part of me that wasn’t real excited to attack my arch nemesis–high school bleachers. But seeing as I’ve been to exactly one other game in a high school gym (if you can call Sheboygan South’s new palace of a fieldhouse a mere “gym”), I thought it was time to get out and see a game. Lucky for me, Greater Metro rivals Brookfield Central and Wauwatosa East were playing a key game to determine who will take this year’s conference crown. And Brookfield Central came out on top in a thriller. Thoughts below:

1) Even as I sat during the remnants of the JV game that preceded the main event, I was reminded of one of the strangely entertaining things that I’ve missed out on by not attending many high school games this year: overly angry parents and other adults yelling at referees. It amuses me to no end to see some guy who probably holds down a nice office job and has dinner each night with his family screaming at referees and accusing them of being paid off. And the best thing is, it usually has nothing to do with the quality of the refs–someone’s always going to get yelled at. And that friends, is why you could never pay me enough to be a high school basketball referee.

2) Brookfield Central has hands down the best programs that I’ve ever seen at a game. They’re free, but I’d have paid $2 more for one. They look like college programs, and unlike other schools who simply hand out all-sport programs of this high paper quality, this was pure basketball, with facts and figures all over the place. Nice job by whatever booster club or arm of the administration is responsible for the best game freebie that I’ve seen in all my high school travels.

3) Best feature of the programs referenced above? That would have to be the player bios. The Brookfield Central players answered the questions in such a fun, but respectful way, that I found myself liking them so much that I almost found myself rooting for them against my alma mater last night. All players had entertaining responses, but I think my favorite was one player listing under “Favorite Food” that “I will literally eat anything.” Seldom does the use of the word “literally” for effect work so well.

4) I can’t be the only person that noticed the announcer at the scorer’s table was having way too much fun saying the name “Cupertino” whenever he got the chance. And with two Tosa East starters sharing that surname, he got a lot of chances.

5) I had gotten the chance to see Central’s Cory Degner once before, and last night reinforced for me how impressed I was with him last year. He’s not at all the guy you’d expect to be one of the best players on the floor, as his small stature and wiry build imply that he’s more likely a champion low weight class wrestler than a star basketball player. But he does all the little things right, and can knock down a shot, to boot. He may have missed his chance to ice the game with foul shots with 20 seconds left, but I guarantee you Degner was the last guy Tosa East wanted to put on the line. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t be happy to have him on their team.

6) There were a handful of scoreboard outages that stopped play in the second half last night, and you had to admire the cheerleader who kept doing back flips down the length of the court during the unplanned time outs. You could almost see the thought process in her head: “Hey, you guys go ahead and get the board fixed–I’ll keep the crowd entertained while you work on it. Don’t worry–I’ve got this taken care of.” That young woman put forth an effort on par with anyone on the floor last night, since the scoreboard went down about three times.

7) A tight, well-played game on both ends, I think this one just came down to shooting. Tosa East missed shot after shot from on the blocks, staying in the game only by connecting on a great percentage of three-pointers. Meanwhile, Brookfield Central showed an uncanny knack for knocking down mid-range jumpers. And despite being the underdog, it didn’t seem like one of those nights when Central shot over their heads–I got the sense that they’re really that accurate most of the time.

8) Of the aforementioned missed shots down low, Tosa East’s Eric Williams was probably responsible for the greatest number, but also appeared to be the Red Raider with the greatest potential on his team. He’s not the best player on the team yet, but he’s a very good athlete who knows how to use his body inside, and can take it outside and shoot it a bit (as evidenced by his hot hand from long range last night). Only a junior, Williams should be a good one to watch for the next year and a half.

9) Tosa East had one of the longest good defensive stands that I’ve ever seen last night. With the score tied and two minutes to go, the Red Raiders locked down the aggressive Lancer halfcourt offense just upwards of a minute before a Central player finally got a shot off to score what would end up being the winning basket. That was maybe the best minute of basketball that I’ve seen all year–two teams playing all out in crunch time, and no one backing down. It’s why I watch basketball.

10) On a night where it seemed like no one in the gym liked the referees much (notice I’m not saying anything–as I noted earlier, you couldn’t pay me enough to be a ref), the game ended as Tosa East attempted to call time out off an offensive rebound just before the buzzer. It appeared that the time out was recognized with just under one second to go, but then the refs promptly signaled that the game was over. Probably academic, since I’ve not seen too many games won on shots with .8 left (and I certainly wouldn’t want to be the time-keeper in a high school gym for that situation), but it still didn’t exactly make Tosa East happy. A potentially explosive situation was avoided as one of Tosa East’s coaches pulled away a player who was closely following the refs on their walk to the locker room and angrily giving them an earful. Appropriately, that player got an earful of his own when his coaches got hold of him.

And with a slim, hard-fought two point victory in hand, Brookfield Central made up a key game in the Greater Metro conference race. And with a good chance that the conference title will come down to the next game between these two rivals, it should be a packed gym at Tosa East the next time they meet.

Post game, of course, I went home to check out the DVR’d Badger game that I had. With the blowout that it was, I question my move of not continuing on with friends to catch the game at a tavern, but at least I got to relax for awhile. Quick thoughts (abbreviated due to my lack of writing time, and the lack of attention paid to the game after the Badgers got up big and I started writing about the high school game above) on that below:

1) You know how I talked about how much this game scared me yesterday? Yeah, I’m allowed to be wrong from time to time.

2) You never want to see a guy go down with an injury, but Penn State’s Geary Claxton is near the top of the list of guys that you really don’t want to see hurt themselves like he did last night. He’s one of the best players in the conference, a senior, playing on a team that was likely to have some minor success after being among the conference doormats for some time, and seems to have a decent shot at playing pro ball somewhere. You’d have to assume he’s done for the year, and if so, that’s an awful shame, because he loses about as much as anyone can from a season-ending injury. Here’s hoping for a speedy recovery.

3) Can we get a clarification on Kevin Gullikson already? I know it’s a minor offense, but three underage drinking tickets definitely merits some type of action from the athletic department. I don’t know enough about the situation to know if the answer is a disciplinary suspension or a some sort of leave of absence to deal with issues that he may or may not have, but it seems ridiculous to me that anyone with a clear pattern of inappropriate incidents sits on the bench like nothing happened. Gullikson may be a great guy (hey, I’ve done some minor things wrong in my day, too), but he needs to wise up and stop getting himself into situations where he ends up in this type of trouble.

4) The thing that was so annoying about Brian Butch’s air-ball free throw was that it was probably further away from hitting iron than any mis-shot foul shot that I’ve ever seen. Ughh.

5) Loved that the Big Ten Network cameras briefly picked up the faint sound early in the game of a Penn State fan taunting Bo Ryan by yelling “Soulja Boy!” at him. That video will never die.

Not sure what my next game will be, with a packed schedule of non-basketball things for the next few days, but you’ll know when I see a game. In the meantime, last night should give me enough joy to keep going for awhile...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Random Tuesday Thoughts

It’s been a busy time around the West household, so today I’d like to simply offer a hodgepodge of thoughts on a big basketball day:

1) Huge win for Marquette this past weekend, and I wish I had more thoughts about it, but at the game I got into full-on fan mode and stopped taking note of the entertaining things going on. So I’ll go rapid fire on this one: huge shooting day for Marquette; Luke Harangody’s a great player but needs to stop immediately looking towards the refs every time something doesn’t go exactly his way; nice to see Lawrence Blackledge play good minutes and likely confuse MU’s frontcourt situation even more; Tom Crean needs to adjust the lighting when he’s being taped for his pre-game speech, because he looked positively creepy in Saturday’s edition. I wish I had time to say more, but that’s Saturday in a nutshell.

2) If you’re going to end a winning streak like the one UWM had going, I guess losing at Butler is an acceptable way to do it. UWGB this weekend should be a heck of a game, and I’m guessing that tickets at the Resch Center will be readily available, since most Green Bay residents will likely be so distracted by the Packer game being played the next day that they’ll forget they even have a university with a basketball team in town.

3) I saw five minutes of a D-League game on TV recently and was totally disturbed by it. To begin with, the D-League has always pained me since it’s got the 24-second shot clock of the NBA, but lacks the guys with the extreme talent to actually get off decent shots within 24 seconds on a regular basis. But aside from the poor play, it’s truly depressing to watch former college stars play in near-empty arenas in places like Fort Wayne for next to no pay. I sure hope guys looking to make ill-fated jumps to the NBA are watching these games and thinking hard about them.

4) I wish I didn’t like watching Washington State and Gonzaga so much, because it hurts me every time I fall asleep during one of their games (which is most of the time).

5) Am I bitter that while I was clearly watching the Indiana-Illinois game on Sunday at the gym, the guy in front of me changed the channel to football without even asking? No, because it’s tough to be bitter at a guy who’s wearing a t-shirt two sizes too small for his gut, a headband, and a fanny-pack for his portable CD player. I can let the television transgression go, since he’s got bigger problems than rudeness.

6) I’ve got a bad feeling about the Wisconsin game tonight. And this one would hurt more than most, since most people aren’t even aware that Penn State is a much more legitimate foe than they’ve been in recent years.

7) It’s been way too long since I’ve been to a high school gym for a game, but I’m making my first trip tonight for the Brookfield Central-Tosa East game. I’d probably take a walkman into the Central gym tonight to simultaneously listen to the Milwaukee King-Milwaukee Washington game, too, if not for the fact that I would look like a complete tool doing so, and the radio waves probably wouldn’t reach the Central gym, anyway. It will be good to be back.

Back with more tomorrow or Thursday, depending on my ability to jot down some late-night thoughts after my back-to-back games tonight...

Friday, January 11, 2008

Blah, Blah, Blah

No thoughts to share today, despite a great night of basketball. While I would have liked to have compiled some notes on the Wisconsin-Illinois game, there was no time to write them up with Washington State was playing USC in the late game. Nice to see my adopted west-coast team on a roll. Just as it was nice to hear about (nope, I don't get them on TV, due to their cable deal) UWM running off it's sixth straight win after roughly the worst two-week stretch a program that didn't have anyone arrested for murder has ever had.

Enjoy the weekend--I'm off to rest my vocal chords so that I can loudly boo Notre Dame's Luke Harangody tomorrow afternoon. I actually really like the guy's game (I have a soft spot for bulky big men), but I suspect that he's not going to be the most popular man in the Bradley Center tomorrow.

And I suppose it has to be said--St. Louis is bankrupt on O-ffense.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Big Man In The Middle

It was the classic showdown last night–Duke vs. North Carolina. No, they weren’t playing one another, but they were playing games that were in direct opposition to one another on the television schedule, and I needed to decide which one to watch. There were lots of clear advantages to watching Duke–I’m more familiar with the Blue Devils, and would therefore have to think less while watching them, they were on an HD channel, and their opponent, Temple, while not stellar, was a bigger name than UNC-Asheville, the Tar Heels’ foe. At the end of the day, though, I ended up going with North Carolina on the grainy ESPNU feed. It had nothing to do with the Tar Heels’ unbeaten record, athleticism, or the fact that Chapel Hill is one heck of a great place to visit. No, it was basically due to my reading beforehand that UNC-Asheville had a player that’s 7'7". And let’s be honest–I’m not going to miss something that amusing.

My thoughts on 7'7" Kenny George? Here you go:

1) I questioned George’s value when he started off his night with a turnaround half-hook shot that was unblockable, but also undeniably ugly and had no chance of going in. I stopped questioning his value a few offensive plays later, one of George’s teammates drove to the side of the lane, randomly tossed the ball up in the air in George’s general direction, and the big guy caught it and slammed the ball home. Yep, with a guy that big, you don’t need to pass it to him, you just need to toss it up in the air so that no one else can get to it. As one of the announcers noted as he repeatedly dunked the ball–there’s a reason why he’s shooting 70% from the field.

2) Piggybacking on that last point, there's going to be a lot of people out there complaining about George's lack of basketball skill. To that I say, so what? I've heard the same thing for years about Shaq--that he lacks skill, and that all he does is overpower people and dunk on them. Well, at the end of the day, he's still scored on you. Does it really matter if he used a Sikma move on you?

3) George was also obviously a presence on the defensive end. When Tyler Hansbrough, one of the most aggressive and intense guys in the country won’t even think about taking the ball at a guy, you know that something’s going on.

4) Physically, it has to be painful to be Kenny George. The human body simply wasn’t made to be that big (a fact my high school physics teacher once noted in reference to Andre the Giant–yep, some things stick with you from high school), and it was readily apparent that for George, running up and down the floor looked excruciating at times. He required frequent rest periods, and vertical leap appeared to be about 3 inches, too, but I suppose that’s not much of an issue when you’re 7'7". I’ll say this, though–while George is physically limited in terms of how much he can play, and the things he’s capable of while on the floor, the Bulldogs certainly use him in the right way.

5) I was trying to describe George to a friend who hadn’t watched the game, and the best comparison that I could come up with on the fly was that it would be like me (I’m 6'3", for the record) playing with a bunch of 4th graders on an eight and a half foot hoop. I think this comparison generally works in terms of dimensions–the hoop would be 3" easier for me to reach than George, and I’d be roughly 8" taller than a fairly big 4th grader. The only problem would be simulating the difference in skill and athletic ability between George and his opponents. So I’d like to amend my original comparison to say that watching Kenny George play basketball would be like me playing in a game featuring a team of really good 4th graders (painful as this is to admit, I know there are plenty of 4th graders with better skills than me) while I was wearing a 50-pound weight vest (limited as my athletic skills are, 4th graders aren’t men yet, so I need something to diminish me even more, to a George-like leve).

So in summary, George’s game is severely limited, but he’s still pretty darn useful whenever he’s out on the floor. If you read the article above, I’m happy to say that Kenny George seems at peace with his extreme size. Given the physical and emotional difficulties that being that much bigger than average people must cause, he’s got a remarkably good attitude. Here’s hoping that he finds a way to parlay basketball, or something else that he enjoys, into making a boatload of money. He’s going to need it, since buying clothes for a 7'7" guy can’t be all that cheap.

Illinois-Wisconsin tonight, so I should have some more thoughts tomorrow...

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Marquette vs. Seton Hall: A Win's a Win

Last night took me to the Bradley Center to see Marquette take on Seton Hall in what was sure to be a high-scoring, exciting affair. And of course, it was a low-scoring game where Marquette trailed most of the way. Conventional wisdom be damned. And thoughts below:

1) It was disappointing to see Dwight Burke introduced as the first starter for Marquette last night. We all know who the other four guys are going to be, so it kind of takes away the suspense. Wouldn’t it be great if they introduced James, McNeal, Matthews, and Hayward, and then said something like “And your wildcard starter tonight will be...Dwight Burke!” I think the crowd would go wild.

2) A rare tip of my cap today to the typically over-excited Marquette public address announcer who last night, for the first time in recent memory, managed to refrain for the entire game from referring to the basketball as “the rock” in announcing possession changes in Marquette’s favor.

3) Wesley Matthews spill in the first half went largely overlooked post-game due to the much more violent spill that Dominic James took later in the game at almost the same spot on the floor. However, Matthews’ spill was particularly frightening to watch from my seat, since the basket impeded my view so that I could only see Matthews from the waist down. When a player goes down hard, you expect to see him writhing in pain, but Matthews just appeared to be laying motionless from where I was sitting. My friend Dez shortly thereafter received a text message from a friend watching on TV that Matthews had been briefly knocked out cold. I’m not sure if this is true or not, but it would explain a lot. Oddly, while I’ve always pegged Matthews as most likely to suffer a horrific injury due to his combination of athleticism and total fearlessness, I never figured on a head injury. Something more like tearing his lower leg clean off seemed more likely.

4) The one benefit to the Matthews being knocked out cold story is that it meant that Dez and I could make bad head injury jokes for the rest of the game. Any time Matthews missed a shot it, it was “I guess his depth perception must have been affected by that blow to the head.” And on Matthews’ resounding dunk in the second half, I noted “Well, I guess Matthews has regained all of his faculties.”

5) I almost felt a little bad for the youth girls teams playing at halftime of the game last night when one of their shots resulted in the ball being stuck between the rim and the backboard. If this happens during a normal college game, someone just leaps up and dislodges the ball, but that’s less of an option when you’ve got 6th grade girls playing. Thus, attempts to retrieve the ball ate into their treat of playing on the Bradley Center court. At least there was some entertainment value to it, as a guy in dress shoes confidently offered to jump up and dislodge the ball, but failed to achieve the necessary height on his jump. Ultimately, a guy who Dez aptly described as appearing to have gotten many of his shots stuck between the rim and backboard, came out and fixed the situation with one toss of a second basketball. Problem solved.

6) I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, but yes, Maurice Acker had a block last night. It will probably be a few years before I see a 5'9" guy get another one of those.

7) Seriously, where can I get a recording of the guy rapping “What’s up, Milwaukee, what’s up!” over the hook on the Sugarhill Gang classic song “Apache?” I’m pretty sure that it’s not a full song, since you never hear anything more than the same small snippet, but this might be the greatest piece of cheesy sports music to hit my fair town since the Milwaukee Bucks “Light it Up” song of nearly a decade ago. Next time you hear it, just picture a guy in a studio trying to make it sound cool.

8) As always, I loved the Camping World halfcourt shot to win an RV. I always want to see the student chosen to shoot make his or her halfcourt shot, because if you forget about the fact that tax ramifications would make it pretty much impossible for the student not to sell the prize, the concept of giving an RV to a college kid who would actually have the time and energy to make ridiculous road trips in it is wildly amusing. This is a National Lampoon movie waiting to happen. So I felt bad last night as the contestant missed once again, and even worse as the over-eager student missed his three-point shot before the announcer could alert him that instead of shooting for two Marquette tickets, he would instead be shooting for a semester’s worth of tuition. Prizes have sure come a long way at Marquette games from two years ago, when it took two halfcourt shots from different locations to win that semester of tuition.

9) Marquette has always been good at running an arena time-out staple, the kiss cam. More people pay attention to this at Marquette games than anywhere else I’ve watched a game. However, I have one bone to pick with whoever was choosing who to display on the scoreboard during this segment last night. There was one couple last night who just had the look to them like they’d probably been over-affectionate throughout the entire game. Their entire section already is probably already sick of them, so let’s not encourage them, okay? Feel free to find a few more old people to awkwardly kiss instead.

10) In terms of falls from mid-air, few have been as frightening for me to watch live as the fall that Dominic James took when he took a seemingly dirty foul while in the midst of a layup late in the second half. Much like Matthews’ fall earlier in the half, the basket blocked much of my view of things, so for the first few seconds, all I could see was two bodies laying motionless on the floor. It was great when James popped up full of energy, though, and it was at that point that I knew there was no chance of Marquette losing the game. You never want to piss off a team that feeds on emotion as much as Marquette.

11) After the hard James foul, Dez and I joked about Tom Crean pulling a John Chaney and “bringing in the goon,” in reference to a move a couple years ago where Chaney inserted a player for the sole purpose of fouling an opponent hard (a play which resulted in the opposing player leaving with a broken arm, if I’m not mistaken). Upon reflection, though, neither of us could figure out who would be big enough to be “the goon” for Marquette. Dwight Burke is clearly the most physically imposing Golden Eagle, but he’s a starter, and you never want to have your starters doing the dirty work. Patrick Hazel and Lawrence Blackledge are the only forwards who don’t play much, but neither is anywhere near strong enough to be an effective goon. Looks like this may be an area to address in recruiting...

12) Tom Crean glowingly commented on his post-game radio show that the fan support at the game was a big part of what carried the team through. Being at the game, I can’t say that I thought the fan noise was all that overwhelming, so I think Crean was just trying to suck up to fans so that he gets even bigger support vs. Notre Dame on Saturday. It was probably unnecessary to exaggerate last night’s fan support, but I guess it never hurts to compliment someone.

So it was a win. Not a thrilling win like I saw UWM pull of at the Mecca on Saturday night, but a win nonetheless. Marquette’s not on fire like they were a week or two ago, but sometimes when you can’t hit shots, these sort of things happen. And you can bet that on Saturday we’ll see the Golden Eagles pick it up against their hated rivals, Notre Dame.

Back tomorrow with those lingering UWM thoughts, and maybe a few points from Duke-Temple on ESPN (or whatever else I happen to watch tonight).

Friday, January 04, 2008

Marquette vs. Providence: You Know, We Could Win This Whole Thing...

After my night of catching Wisconsin’s televised Big Ten opener, it was time to get down to see Marquette’s Big East opener first hand. For the last few weeks, getting to Marquette games has felt like a chore for me, since the Golden Eagles have actually been beating awful teams as badly as they should, creating no drama whatsoever. But last night I gladly made the drive down on one of the coldest nights so far this season to watch Marquette play host to Providence, their first Big East foe of the year. This time, a low-drama blowout felt great. My thoughts:

1) Right before the game started, I looked at my friend Dez and said “I don’t want to jinx things, but I’ve been thinking about it, and I think Marquette’s going to win the conference this year.” Things eventually worked themselves out, but I was getting a little upset with myself when the first minute of the game included seven points for Providence, two turnovers for Marquette, and a zero on the scoreboard for home team, as well. If my prediction does hold true, that might end up going down in history as the worst first minute of conference play ever for a conference champion.

2) I usually complain about Tom Crean wildly mixing up his minutes for big men, but I think I’ve come to a point this year where I don’t really mind it that much. None of Marquette’s post options are anything more than intermittently good, so trying to ride the wave of a good week of practice with these guys may actually be the way to go. Sure, it might feel a bit odd to have Lawrence Blackledge starting a game last week, and subbing in as part of the garbage time crew last night (and scoring 7 magnificent points, including a highlight-reel dunk that brings his jaw-dropping plays per game average to .94), but given that Blacklege, Ousmane Barro and Dwight Burke have all been around for awhile now, they probably know the drill and have accepted it.

3) Weird and lame promotion of the night–a pair of fans from the second deck were given the chance to move to the first deck courtesy of Fidelity Investments, if they could recite where Fidelity was located. Aside from the possibility that some people like their second deck seats and might not want to move, I was also bothered by the fact that it wasn’t made real clear how specific the location answer had to be. The fans in question won, answering “Brookfield.” Apparently they didn’t need to get right down to the address or the street name. But could they have named, say, a Fidelity location in Delaware and still have won? Annoyed as I am by this promotion, though, I must begrudgingly admit that it worked, as right now I’m still aware that Fidelity is located on Bluemound Road, just across the street from Brookfield Square mall.

4) It may have been a record-setting night for random, debilitating groin shots received by Marquette, after two instances where guys actually limped off the floor after taking shots to their nether-regions. Perhaps the next opponent on Providence’s schedule should consider wearing cups.

5) Getting back to big men, huge night from Ousmane Barro, who did exactly what a Marquette big man is supposed to do on offense last night. This is the one big bonus to being a big guy at Marquette–if you play defense, rebound, and don’t somehow randomly annoy your coaches, all you’re really asked to do is to catch easy passes from super-talented guards and calmly drop the ball in the hoop. Post moves? Who needs those?

6) I think Marquette’s philosophies are starting to seep into my brain, as last night I found myself getting overly excited every time I saw a deflection.

7) While I am impressed by gigantic, multi-chamber t-shirt cannon that was busted out by the cheerleaders during a time-out, it sort of looks like something that a random sophomore in the engineering department rigged up for fun. They need to paint that thing blue and gold, or put some sort of casing around it in order to make it look like more than just a mass of PVC pipe.

8) At the half, my friend Dez looked up at the scoreboard stats and wondered how it must feel to be Providence and know that you’re shooting 56% through the first half, and you’re still down 9 points. Apparently allowing rampant penetration through a zone defense puts some pressure on one’s own offense.

9) After doing something to one of his legs, Dominic James spent some time in the second half of the game riding a stationary bike. I like that the bike at the Bradley Center is elevated, allowing fans to get a good look at the player as he stays warm and gets ready to re-enter the game. It would be sort of like if Major League Baseball required teams to have elevated bullpens next to the scoreboard so that everyone could get a good look at pitchers getting ready to enter the game. Actually, now that I think of it, why doesn’t MLB do this?

10) Seriously, you’re telling me that Marquette couldn’t think of anything better to do at halftime than to toss a bunch of random kids out on the floor to run haphazard layup lines? My friends and I couldn’t even find a way to gamble on that and make it interesting.

And with the first non-cupcake blowout of the season, I returned home feeling more secure in my prediction of a Big East championship for Marquette. Things are going to undoubtedly get harder, but it’s a nice start. These guys are playing about as well right now as any Marquette team that I can remember (including the Final Four team). So it’s going to be a fun year.

(Also, some special kudos to UWM, who played across the street last night and extended their current winning streak to three games. That’s no small feat for a team that looked pretty rough even before they dismissed their two leading scorers and had two talented freshmen go AWOL. What started out looking like a train-wreck may actually be a rebirth. Top Panther forward Paige Paulson had better start worrying about his roster spot, since it’s starting to look like the less talented UWM gets, the better they play...)

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Wisconsin vs. Michigan: The Real Fun Begins

Finally, conference season is here! I’ve still got three half-written reflections on things that happened last week, which I may or may not finish at some point (I’ll probably at least finish the my Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook Shootout thoughts, since it was such an insanely fun day), but for now it’s time to get back into action and get excited about basketball again. Tonight I get to check out Marquette and Providence in person, but last night marked the opportunity to plunk down on the couch and watch my first Badger game of the year at Michigan. It also marked the first night that lots of people I know realized just how much the Big Ten Network impasse is going to suck, now that meaningful games are upon us. But I lucked into the channel, so all is well for me. Thoughts on the game, etc. below:

1) Earlier in the day, before the game, my dad asked me “This should be a pretty easy win for the Badgers tonight, right?” Generally, he was right, and save for a few mini-runs by Michigan, there was no doubt who controlled the game. But playing Michigan sort of reminds me of playing poker with my friend Peter, who just bets insanely on every hand. Eighty-five percent of the time, you know you’re going to beat Peter, but you always feel a little bit uneasy because he is so crazy. Just as there’s only a small chance that Peter really has a straight flush, there’s only a small chance that the current Michigan team will get hot as they hoist three-pointer after three-pointer, but the possibility’s still in the back of your head.

2) Seeing the lack of attendance at Crisler Arena last night reminded me of my one trip there a few years back, and how underwhelming it was. As a kid, television really built that place up in my mind. Watching the Fab Five (and their epic early to mid 1990s regular season battles with Duke–maybe the best regular season series ever), I had it in my mind that Crisler was a palace. It was clearly not. Aside from the generally stale feeling of the building, the thing that bothered me most about the place was that someone actually made the decision to install maize colored seats. Did no one stop to consider that it would take all of 3 months for maize fabric in a public arena to appear utterly filthy? Last I checked, Michigan was a pretty darn good school, so I don’t see how this went unnoticed.

3) I love moments on TV like the shot of DeShawn Sims at about the 8:30 mark in the first half jogging back on defense, clearly trying to shake off the pain from taking a shot to the groin. I’m glad there’s never been a camera there to catch me in moments like that.

4) In a span of about two minutes in the second half, Greg Stiemsma made an excellent defensive play, threw one of the better passes that I’ve seen a big man throw in some time, and used one of the least smooth post moves that I’ve ever seen to create an overwhelmingly awkward low-post shot while falling down. I’d say that two minute period pretty nicely sums up the essence of Greg Stiemsma.

5) I love watching Jon Leuer shoot the ball--less because he couldn’t miss last night, and more because he has that entertaining semi-awkward shooting form. He’s not at Marty Conlon level or anything, but he does make you wonder how he can be so deadly while looking so goofy.

6) Watching Leuer’s fourth three-pointer of the first half, I was embarrassed for Michigan. Leuer basically just jogged back from the other end of the court, stood wide open in the corner, and someone passed the ball to him. Color analyst Tim McCormick attributed this to Michigan packing the lane on defense to counter Wisconsin’s strong scoring in the paint. Fair enough, but if you’re Michigan, I’m thinking maybe you should pay a little bit extra attention to the guy who’s scored the opposing team's last 6 points by tossing in long-range bombs. It’s not like he hasn’t put you on notice.

7) Loved the new year's resolutions that they showed for each coach and his team in an on-screen graphic. Bo Ryan’s was to improve fundamentals, which was about as shocking as O.J. Mayo making a new year’s resolution to take more shots. As for John Beilein, I was pleased by his resolution to stay positive. Rough as the Wolverines are right now, Beilein’s system has to take some getting used to. So if they can stay focused and positive, they could be a much tougher out later in the year. And I’m genuinely excited to see where Michigan is in two years.

8) I have the utmost respect for Gene Keady as a coach, and despite his gruff sideline demeanor, I hear he’s supposed to be one of the nicest guys around. That said, he needs some work if he’s going to be competent in his role as a studio analyst. He’s not the most attractive guy in the world to begin with (thankfully, my dish isn’t high-tech enough to get the Big Ten Network in HD), so he’s got one strike against him to start, but he’s also completely awkward in the studio. At one point, it appeared that he was reading from a teleprompter, even though I’m pretty sure there was no time to get his thoughts written down and fed into such a wondrous machine prior to him sharing them. After that, the close-up shots of Gene mysteriously stopped.

9) I appreciated Tim McCormick’s praise of Badger football player Travis Beckum, but it was painful to listen to in two ways. First, he initially compared one player’s rugged play simply to “Beckum,” only tossing out the last name. If you don’t pay attention to Badger football, do you even know who this mysterious “Beckum” is? I could see some Michigan fans (and Badger fans who don’t follow football) wondering why McCormick was comparing someone to David Beckham. Of course, a few seconds later, it became evident why McCormick only used the last name, when he started talking about “Cameron Beckum.” Love the attempt to bring other Big Ten sports into the mix (particularly on the Big Ten Network), Tim, but if you’re going to go there, please at least be rock solid in terms of the accuracy of the comparison.

10) When Michael Flowers fouled out with about a minute to go, the Badgers clearly had the game in hand, and I had a student section flashback. The opposing team’s starting guard fouls out, and your team has no chance of winning at this point. Do you taunt said fouled out player? I say yes. In the grand scheme of things, his team may have won the game, but I believe that five fouls always entitles you, the fan, to some taunting. No matter how bad things are for your team.

And with the first conference win of the season, I headed off to bed (I Tivo’d the game, so don’t worry--it wasn’t 8pm when I rolled into bed) pleased not only that Wisconsin was off to a winning start, but that Marquette would also be finally playing a meaningful game the next day. My only disappointment is that there’s no way to see both Marquette and UWM play tonight, but it at least looks like I’ll get a chance to see the newly scrappy Panthers at home on Saturday. Life is good.

Listed on BlogShares