Thursday, October 30, 2008

Heading To a Fake Game

I needed to see some basketball yesterday. It had simply been too long, and I was going crazy from not having seen any college basketball kick-off events this year. So I decided that I needed to head to the Kohl Center to check out Wisconsin’s public scrimmage last night. As I walked into the Kohl Center and met my old college roommate Nick, it felt good to be back home. We took our seats in a section that neither of us could afford during the regular season and enjoyed the action.

A few general notes about events like this before I get to my thoughts below. First off, pre-season scrimmages are not the time to look at known entities, so I won’t be talking a lot about guys like Trevon Hughes or Marcus Landry. We generally know what they can do, so why watch them when you’ve got five new freshman and a handful of other young guys competing to take over the minutes of departed players? I want to check out the unknowns, rather than the knowns. Second, any direct or indirect predictions that I make after last night are likely horribly wrong. I know what I saw last night, but I can’t see things that the coaching staff can see. After all, I’m the same guy that thought last year there would be no way that the coaching staff could keep Keaton Nankivil off the floor. So temper your expectations, as I have mine, when I get super-excited about Nankivil and Jared Berggren, and express hope that Jordan Taylor sees some playing time. Notes from the evening below:

1) Keaton Nankivil, with 24 points, was clearly the star of the night. A good performance from Nankivil, who's a likely candidate to step into the starting center job, was probably the thing that most Badger fans with an eye towards the future were looking for. And Nankivil gave the us what we wanted, showing a nice touch, some sneaky post moves, and simply looking more confident than he did last year during the rare moments that he saw court time. I'm tempering my excitement somewhat, since he did a lot of his damage against the Badgers' lesser post players, but tonight was definitely encouraging.

2) I also sensed that Nanikivil may have trimmed down a bit, but some of that may just be my mind playing tricks on me due to memories of Nankivil early in his high school career when he was the most massive wide-bodied 15-year-old that I’d ever seen.

3) Some things never change. Near the end of the game, my friend Nick looked up at the scoreboard, then looked back at me and said "When the hell did Joe Krabbenhoft score 13 points?" As always, Krabbenhoft continued to do excellent things in a non-spectacular way. He's like a metaphor for a Bo Ryan team.

4) Ian Markolf was wearing a white jersey last night, but I hope he likes wearing red, because that should be the color of his shirt for the rest of the year. Lowlight of the night was when he struggled to complete a dunk. I guess with Brian Butch gone there needs to be a new 7-foot guy that can’t dunk with ease. No complaints from me about this, though, because Markolf was everything that was advertised–very raw, and amazingly huge. And taking a chance on a guy like that is always a reasonable risk.

5) At one point during the first half, Nick and I found ourselves discussing what role, if any, Kevin Gullikson would have this year. It occurred to me at that point that I had not yet seen Gullikson playing, despite ample substitutions to that point, asked if Nick knew why he wasn't playing. It was then that Nick pointed out that Gullikson was actually in the game at that moment. When I saw him, I realized why I hadn't spotted him--reports of his weight loss were not overemphasized, and I simply failed to recognize him. Gullikson definitely spent some time reshaping his body this offseason, and it shows. I haven't seen a change this drastic since Mike Wilkinson started going in the opposite direction and adding weight.

6) I finally put my finger on it this offseason--doesn’t Gullikson bear some resemblance to the University of Nebraska’s masoct Lil’ Red?

7) Despite the informal nature of last night’s proceedings, there was a halftime contest where a fan was to win a prize if he could shoot, in order, a layup from the right side, a free throw, and a layup from the left side in 35 seconds. It was one of the most mind-boggling displays that I’ve ever seen. While the chosen fan actually had better shooting form from the line than 75% of halftime basketball contest contestants and handled the free throw on about the fourth attempt, he kept stumbling around while shooting layups, and time ran out before he could complete the task. It was probably the first time that I’ve ever seen someone who’s not completely inept blow a contest on the easy shots.

8) Jordan Taylor didn’t blow me away with any one thing that he did, but his confidence level was such that I wouldn’t have identified him as a freshman out there had I not known who he was. Time will tell how many minutes he’ll see this year. Joe Krabbenhoft seemed to be handling the ball quite a bit last night, which leads me to believe that he will again be used to take pressure off the more traditional guards, but after that, Taylor would appear the most likely guard to get sub minutes.

9) There's no getting around the fact that Jared Berggren physically resembles Brian Butch, right down to his haircut. The first nano-second that I saw him, my gut reaction was to think "hey, I thought we graduated that guy." It's unfortunate for Berggren, because he's going to have to endure a season where everyone unfairly compares him to Butch. And it's unfortunate for fans because we're going to have listen to tons of not-so-clever comparisons. I'm already guessing at how this will play out. I'm predicting that Brent Musberger and Steve Lavin will call Berggren "Polar Bear, Jr.," and that internet message board posters grasping to create a nickname will annoyingly attempt to refer to him as "Butchggren."

10) Speaking of Berggren, I think that he might have been the guy, other than Nankivil, that I came away most impressed with. I hope he gets minutes this year. While he’s not a bulky guy, he looks comfortable down low and isn’t afraid to bang, not exactly what I was expecting from a guy who’s supposed to be a typical Bo Ryan inside-outside, multi-talented threat. His comfort down low, combined with that of Nankivil, has me very excited about the Badgers’ inside game this year. While I obviously liked Brian Butch and Greg Stiemsma last year, it always felt like the coaching staff was working hard during their careers to make them okay with playing on the blocks. Nankivil and Berggren already like spending time there, so no coaxing is needed. In a couple of years, this has the potential to be a phenomenal tandem.

11) Wish I could say something about Robert Wilson, but I barely noticed him. But as Joe Krabbenhoft illustrates, sometimes it’s not a bad thing if you don’t notice a guy.

12) Ryan Evans might take a year or two to develop, but he flashed some impressive quickness. For a guy who’s recruitment began with sending a highlight tape to the Wisconsin staff and who wasn’t heavily recruited by other programs, I was pleasantly surprised. I doubt we’ll see much of him right away, but he could be pretty useful in a year or two.

13) If you’d told me before the game that one of the teams would have Trevon Hughes, Marcus Landry and Joe Krabbenhoft and that they would lose, I’d have looked at you a bit funny, but that’s how things played out as the White team fell to the red. I’m not reading too much into this, positive or negative. After all, it was a scrimmage, and while the red team looked good, the white team stars also won’t be playing with J.P. Gavinski and Ian Markolf too much in regular season games.

14) Things to look for on the Badgers’ excellent basketball poster, which they were giving away at last night’s scrimmage: a) Jared Berggren looks like he’s about to fall asleep, b) J.P. Gavinski looks like a 30-year-old guy who snuck into the back of the photo, and c) Jason Bohanan’s stern look, small stature and youthful face give him the appearance of a high school nerd who’s standing up to a bully.

15) The 8:25pm end time for the game served as a reminder of how much time television time-outs add to a college game. I always notice this when I’m at division three games, but somehow it’s more jarring when you see division one guys wrapping things up in an hour and a half.

And with the scrimmage in the books, I big farewell to my buddy Nick and got on my way back to Milwaukee with a big smile on my face. Not only is basketball back, but for yet another year, things are going to be good in Madison.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

While I Was Out...

It’s been a long off-season, but it’s readily apparent that basketball is almost back. Preview guides are on newsstands, college practices kick off at the end of this week, and a guy in a pick-up truck pointed and laughed at me while I was doing a dance of joy after pulling my new Blue Ribbon Yearbook out of my mailbox yesterday.

I’ll be ramping things up more as the season gets closer, but after a mostly absentee offseason for me, I want to catch up on a few of the random things that caught my attention while we were all thinking of things other than basketball. Here are a few thoughts on things that happened while I was out:

1) I’m not sure whether to thank the Marquette ticket office for their generosity or curse them for their foolishness in creating their 5-game packs this year. The Blue package is made up of five Big East games. The Gold package is made up of four Big East games and the Wisconsin game. In other words, you can buy both packs and see the entire Big East home schedule and Marquette’s marquee non-conference game without buying any of the less-than-stellar early non-conference games. So thanks Marquette, you just saved me and my friend Dez $400 this year by allowing us to give up our season tickets and just buy the good games. I’ll still probably scalp tickets to see some of the non-conference games early in the year (UWM for sure), but it’s going to hurt a lot less knowing that I’m not going to have to pay $30 apiece to see Chicago State and Presbyterian if I want half decent tickets to see Syracuse and Connecticut.

2) I’m happy for my cable-watching friends that the Big Ten Network finally reached agreements with Charter and Time Warner during the offseason. It sort of bums me out on two levels, though, as a Directv subscriber. First, now that everyone in the area has the Big Ten Network, my friends and family will no longer be mystified by the magical box in my living room that allowed me to see Wisconsin games. Second, I’m going to have to seriously consider moving back to Time Warner now, as the Time Warner sports channel is the only place to see several Marquette and UWM games (not to mention marquee high school games). The fact that Directv allowed me to see Wisconsin games always outweighed that, but now that Time Warner can deliver those same Wisconsin games, they’ve got the edge on all things local.

3) The most shocking news of the summer, to me, was the announcement of Milwaukee King’s self-imposed 1-year ban from the WIAA tournament, and WIAA-imposed 2-years of provation for violations of recruiting rules. (See here for the details.) The punishment here is totally appropriate, however I think anyone who believes that this will have any impact on recruiting in the city is kidding themselves. Recruiting is still going to happen. This just means that Milwaukee King’s going to take extra steps to ensure that no one tampers with academic records of applicants. Because ultimately, King inviting four middle school kids to open gyms isn’t the type of thing that would upset most people and lead to such a harsh punishment. But academic fraud is going to raise some eyebrows. And because King’s selective admission process and status as the elite school in the Milwaukee Public School system makes it just about the only school susceptible to such fraud, the punishment which it received shouldn’t exactly scare other schools.

4) The new Milwaukee Bucks season-ticket ads are promoting the fact that they acquired Luke Ridnour. Yep, there’s a reason that I don’t follow NBA basketball.

5) Two years ago when Trevor Mbakwe announced that he was coming to Marquette, I predicted that he’d either become one of the best to ever wear a Marquette uniform or he’d transfer out within a year. Sadly, the latter prediction came true (even if my stated reasoning for why it happened was a bit off). Mbakwe’s tenure at Marquette will now be better remembered for his array of odd life decisions than his impressive basketball talent. His last minute transfer to a junior college in an area where he has no discernable ties seems every bit as perplexing as last year’s sudden announcement that he would burn his injury redshirt year by playing in Marquette’s final 11 games on a knee that he acknowledged was not 100%. Whatever his issues, I hope that someday in the near future Mbakwe can find some stability, because it would be sad to see an athlete as gifted as he is never live up to his awesome potential.

6) I was amused and perplexed back in early September on one of my drives to Madison when I first noticed a billboard along the freeway advertising the Fresh Coast Classic basketball tournament, a tournament featuring historically black colleges, to be held in Milwaukee in late November. I can’t help but question the marketing wisdom of spending big bucks on a freeway billboard for a niche tournament set to take place roughly three months after the ad goes up. Basketball was barely on my radar (let alone the radar of anyone who doesn’t regularly obsessively watch basketball) on September 1. Save for my mental note about the absurdity of advertising so far in advance for a tournament made up entirely of teams which no one in Southeastern Wisconsin has a logical interest in, there’s no way I’d have remembered that tournament by late November. (And yes, I fully recognize the irony of criticizing an ad that got me to make an online inquiry to find out more about the advertised event.)

7) I don’t believe I ever commented on Marquette securing a commitment from Jeronne Maymon, but it’s safe to say that I’m excited about that pick-up. Sure, Maymon’s a slight risk due to his academic issues, and I cringe somewhat every time I read a comment that his father makes to the media, but if you’re going to take a risk on someone, it might as well be the best player in the state (with all due respect to Jamil Wilson, who Marquette can also hopefully bring aboard). The upside is that Marquette gets a potential star, and keeps its profile up in the state. The downside is the chance that Buzz Williams might be scrambling to pick up a player late if things don’t work out. After this offseason, though, I’d have to think Buzz Williams has gotten plenty of practice at doing things on the fly.

8) Yes, I am excited about the transfer of super-talented sophomore guard Larry Bradley from Milwaukee Vincent to Wauwatosa East. It will be interesting to see how he meshes with what's sure to be another crowded backcourt for the defending state champs this year.

9) I don't normally get excited about NBA players, but count me among those who fell in love with the U.S. Olympic basketball team this summer. The team deserves praise for winning the gold medal, but even greater praise is deserved for how the members of the team conducted themselves at the games. While we always knew that the U.S. could put together a team with the talent to win a gold medal, it was never as clear that the U.S. could assemble a team of NBA millionaires capable of going through the entire Olympics without looking boorish, disrespectful or disinterested. I’m sure some of the team’s behavior was coached by public relations people, but you still couldn’t fake some of the enthusiasm that was displayed.

In the weeks following the Games, I heard manufactured sports radio arguments about whether this team was better than the 1992 Dream Team. And while I still think that the 1992 team would throttle the 2008 team, I suspect I’ll look back on the 2008 team much more fondly than I do the original Dream Team. After all, it’s a lot more fun to remember LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony cheering wildly for Michael Phelps at a swim meet than it is to remember Charles Barkley elbowing helpless Angolans during blowout wins, or Michael Jordan draping himself in a flag at the medal ceremony not out of patriotism, but out of a desire to respect his corporate sponsor by hiding a competitor’s logo on his warm-ups. I’m sure some of the guys on the 2008 team are probably insufferable jerks in regular life, but for two magical weeks they all suppressed their obnoxious tendencies and the entire team seemed happy to be there, excited to support fellow American athletes, and polite to the competitors of other nations. It’s not a high standard, but finally a team met it, and I couldn’t be more happy.

10) There are some things in life that remind you that you’re not as young as you used to be. One of those things for me occurred this summer when I played in the Sheboygan Gus Macker 3-on-3 Basketball tournament. Back in my teens and early 20s, when my basketball playing ability could be best classified as “not embarrassing,” I played in my fair share of 3-on-3 tourneys. They usually ended after my team fell just short of some sort of trophy, and then my teammates and I went to someone’s house to shoot hoops for another couple hours. This year? We promptly lost three games and were ousted from the tournament early on the second day. Post game didn’t find us shooting more hoops, either. Things are a bit different when you’re 30. Here’s how the second day shook out for me and my teammates Beau, Brian and Ferd at the end of our second day:

Beau: Our normally super-competitive captain was just happy that we finished up early so that he could spend more time that weekend with his 1-year-old son.

Brian: Sadly Brian, our stabilizing force, was not present on the second day, as he was needed for a pressing matter back at his law firm.

Ferd: Our best conditioned player conceded near the end that he was tired, because despite the fact that he was in training for a marathon (by the way, congrats on finishing Chicago this past weekend, Ferd), his training didn’t exactly translate to basketball movements.

Me: I closed out the tournament by throwing my 8-year-old shoes in the garbage after blowing one of them out two minutes into our final game, and making a mental note to call the doctor the next day to get an appointment to have the unusual pain in my knee checked out.

11) It’s almost time: college basketball kick-off events take place on Friday night! Unfortunately, rather than sitting at the Kohl Center enjoying Night of the Grateful Red, I’ll be on a plane heading to my cousin’s wedding in Delaware and furiously reading my newly delivered Blue Ribbon Yearbook. I had given some thought to trying to crash Maryland’s kick-off event in lieu of sitting in on Wisconsin’s, but my flight gets in a bit too late to make that happen (and my family would think I was an absolute idiot for driving a few hours out of my way for a glorified pep rally of a team that I have no connection to, anyway). At least Marquette is throwing me a bone, choosing to have their kick-off event a week later. I may have plans in Madison that night, but if I ultimately miss Marquette Madness, at least I'll have no one to blame but myself.

12) When I have more time, I’ll share my thoughts on the big story of the week--Tom Diener taking over as coach at a Milwaukee Hamilton. I'll wait to form a final opinion once the WIAA has a chance to rule on things, but right now, I'm surprisingly inclined to believe that despite all the red flags surrounding this curious situation, there's ultimately nothing wrong going on. (For more info, check out Tuesday's Journal Sentinel story and related column.

I'm off to go stick my nose back in the Blue Ribbon. Back once I've got something else noteworthy to comment on.

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