Monday, November 24, 2008

Marquette-UWM: The Game I've Waited Years For

This past weekend was a rare gift–a few days of compelling basketball well before the middle of the season. Normally, the start of the season features teams from the big conferences beating up on hapless opponents to pad their win totals prior to the start of meaningful games. But this weekend, Wisconsin played a surprise overtime game against Iona in the Paradise Jam, and advanced to play San Diego, a team that would not have shocked me had they upset the Badgers. I’ll talk about the Badgers’ run at the Paradise Jam as a whole tomorrow, after I see tonight’s game against UConn in the finals. Today’s topic of choice, though, is the Marquette-UWM game.

The Marquette-UWM game this past weekend was another oasis of interesting basketball in the vast abyss of November hoops. After a few years of bad blood as a resurgent, Bruce Pearl-led UWM demanded a game against the Tom Crean-led Marquette squad, this game finally came to be last year. Though UWM was going through a decidedly down year last year, last year’s contest was a game that I was disproportionately excited to attend. Unfortunately, I never got to attend that game. The night beforehand, I was stricken with the worst bout of food poisoning that I’ve ever had. To top things off, my furnace went out on the same night, leaving me to wonder after I had collapsed for the night face down in my hallway whether I was shivering because of my illness, or because the temperature in my home was 57 degrees. Thus, instead of actually going to last year’s big game, I fell asleep while watching it on TV and sipping ginger ale.

So yes, you could say I was even more disproportionately excited to actually attend this year’s Marquette-UWM game. My friend Dez found some decent tickets on Craigslist, and we were on our way. My notes below:

1) The hate surrounding this game in past years seems to have officially worn off. Gone are the primary combatants creating the bad blood between the two teams, Bruce Pearl and Tom Crean. And UWM, while certainly a credible threat these days, isn’t the back-to-back tournament team that they were a few years back.

2) Two events of Saturday evening confirmed to me how much less tense things have gotten between Marquette and UWM. First, while meeting up with my friend Nate prior to the game, he indicated that he hoped the bad blood was over. While this may not seem like much coming from a normal fan, Nate is my insane UWM fan friend who once semi-seriously suggested that if he won the lottery, he’d like to buy the Bradley Center and tear it down so that Marquette wouldn’t have a place to play. So if Nate’s largely over the whole Marquette-UWM, every human being on the planet should be. The second event that made things seem more okay was the pre-game moment of silence to honor Rob Jeter’s recently deceased father. That’s a very big move to show that type of respect to an opposing coach. I don’t doubt that had Jeter’s father passed last fall there would have been a similar moment of silence, but I suspect that last year it would have felt a lot more like a manufactured public relations ploy than a genuine move to honor Jeter’s father.

3) The biggest surprise of the night for me was UWM’s Tone Boyle, who shot the ball well, and was able to get by any and all of Marquette’s perimeter defenders with ease (to be fair, it seemed on Saturday like anyone could have gotten penetration on Marquette, though). Boyle’s one weakness was an amazing inability to finish layups once he got to the hoop. He tallied 23 points, but I suspect he’d have easily had over 30 points if he’d have put in any reasonable number of the inside 4-foot shots that he took.

4) It’s weird how things seem to be working at Marquette with regard to its best players. For two years, Dominic James was the man. Then last year, Jerel McNeal took over as the player to talk about. This year, Wesley Matthews is doing his best Tony Smith impression, and Lazar Hayward continues to improve as rapidly as almost anyone that I’ve ever seen. So it’s genuinely in doubt as to who’s Marquette’s top guy is this year (put me down as believing it will by Hayward by the time all’s said and done). Hopefully opponents have as tough a time figuring this out as I do.

5) At one point early in the second half, I looked over at my buddy Dez and noted that Marquette’s aforementioned top four players, had all but one of the 55 (or near that) points on the board. I then considered lamenting to Dez about how Marquette would be in trouble if they only had four guys capable of scoring big points, before I realized how ridiculous it was to be upset about only having four legit scoring threats.

6) The halftime competition on Saturday was truly inspired. The standard Marquette musical chairs contest with a handful of MU students went on until the final four. At that point, the emcee announced a special promotion whereby the first of the final four contestants to agree to immediately receive a “Buzz Williams buzz cut” would receive a Nintendo Wii from Sportclips. That was a welcome curveball. The fastest contestant was then taken to a chair where he had his head shaved. It actually ended up being a pretty good look for the kid, and he’ll at least have an amusing tale later this week when he shows up at home for Thanksgiving and his mother is outraged that he’s shaved his head. Major kudos to the promotions team for thinking this one up, though. There are few things more amusing than getting a college kid to shave his head. Let’s just hope that next time they can speed things up enough that it allows for the finish of the musical chairs contest, which was basically abandoned because the cut took too long.

7) It’s pretty clear that James Eayrs is going to be a UWM fan favorite, because even the opposing fans at the Bradley Center seemed to enjoy him on Saturday. How do you not love a 300+ pound guy that shoots 3-pointers and has the feat of a dancer, despite the fact that he looks more like an offensive lineman than a basketball player?

8) While UWM really pushed Marquette in the first half and should have been able to maintain that level of play, things completely changed when Marquette went on an early run to start the second half. Marquette quickly adding an extra 8-or so points onto its five point halftime lead seemed to completely take UWM out of its game. The offense ran differently, and gone was the solid first-half team that gave Marquette fits. Instead, it looked like UWM had been replaced by a haphazard team just throwing up shots. If not for the first three minutes of the second half, I suspect this would have been a much different game.

So finally, I got to see a Marquette-UWM game in person. The results were encouraging. It’s pretty clear that we’re going to see Marquette break some scoring records this year, and if UWM plays as they showed they’re capable of in the first half, they’re going to make some waves in the Horizon League and give fits to whoever they play. It still sort of embarrasses me that it took me this long to see both local teams play in person, but both acquitted themselves nicely and gave me reason to be excited for the season. Here’s looking forward to my next trip downtown...

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