Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Going Forward...

Huge win for Marquette at Notre Dame last night. As usual, my DVR saved me, as I had to fix a relatively minor, but relatively peculiar problem with my car. Rather than recapping last night's game, or delving into any of the games that I attended over the weekend, I think today's a more interesting time to make a few points with regard to the bigger picture this season for both Marquette and Wisconsin, two teams that are essentially polar opposites in terms of performance in recent weeks.

1) I’d like to suggest to all of my Marquette fan friends this week to not get too worked up about the media discussions will take place (and probably already have) questioning how good Marquette is in light of their schedule to this point in the season. I don’t think this question takes away from what Marquette has done to this point in time. Going 7-0 to start the Big East is amazing, and I don’t believe anyone who’s questioning how Marquette will do as their schedule toughens is suggesting otherwise. But it’s fair to have some questions about a team that has yet to play Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Louisville and Connecticut. Notre Dame, for example, was looking a lot more attractive before their recent four-game skid against four of the top teams in the conference. So while Marquette deserves tons of credit for taking care of business so far, I'm sure even Buzz Williams is still reminding his team that things are only going to get tougher.

2) Speaking of Marquette’s Big East schedule, while things seem wonderful right now, the conference schedule-makers didn’t do Marquette any favors. With a final five-game stretch made up of all of the aforementioned power teams that Marquette has yet to face, it's a pretty safe bet that the Golden Eagles won't be coasting to the end of the season. Two risks arise with such a rough slate of games down the stretch. First, a losing streak to close out the season could be costly for NCAA tournament seeding purposes, given that human nature is to remember more recent happenings first. Second, regardless of Marquette’s success in their final five games, five straight marquee games followed by the Big East tournament has serious potential to wear the Golden Eagles out (and Marquette isn’t a team with tons of depth to begin with). The next couple weeks don’t lack any importance, but Marquette’s real season begins on February 21. On the bright side, at least this should keep things interesting until the end for us fans.

3) I was somewhat amazed at the number of discussions that I had this past Friday night with people telling me that they were going to stop watching Wisconsin play for awhile. I don’t dispute that Wisconsin has been tough to watch lately, but throwing in the towel that quickly kind of irks me. Most of my conversations took place prior to the Illinois loss, so essentially what people were telling me then is that losing three straight games, two of which went to overtime, is enough to give up on the Badgers. That’s remarkably spoiled, if you ask me. No, I don’t feel good watching the Badgers lose games in uniquely painful ways each time they play. But it’s going to take more than four horrid games to make me give up on the season. Wisconsin’s got some good games left, and I plan on watching them. They can’t all be 30-win seasons.

4) I said at the start of the season that I thought the winner of the Big East and the winner of the Big Ten would each have 4-5 losses at the end of the season, but for very different reasons. The Big East winner should have some losses because roughly half of the Big East is stellar. The Big Ten winner should have some losses because every team (with the exception of Indiana) is at a similar level: good, but far from great. I stand by my prediction of 4-5 losses for each conference champ, though I’ll admit that the records of Louisville, Marquette and Michigan State are making me nervous.

Here's hoping that Wisconsin gets back on track against Purdue tonight. Though if I'm being honest, that's about the last team in the conference that I want to see the Badgers play tonight.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Wisconsin vs. Iowa: So Much For That Northwestern Miracle

Here's the weird thing about last night's Wisconsin-Iowa game--if I wasn't a huge Wisconsin fan and was simply a disinterested party tuning in to watch a random hoops game, I'd have been cheering for Iowa. The Hawkeyes' toughness and hustle were apparent on a night when they needed every ounce of effort. The refs weren't doing them any favors, and Wisconsin certainly didn't let up with its physical play. Iowa had the underdog thing going for it heading into the game, and the way things played out, it became even tougher not to root for them. Because I’m not some disinterested party, I was still screaming my head off with joy when Jordan Taylor hit is wild three-pointer. And if pressed, I'd tell you that neither team played a particularly pretty game, but I gained a lot of respect for Iowa's toughness last night. I had written them off as just a notch above Indiana this year, but who knows--maybe Iowa will squeak out an game or two more than I thought. Last night sure came as a surprise.

As always, a few nots on things that I saw:

1) Kevin Gullikson started the game? This may be the first time that I’ve ever seen Bo Ryan change his starting lineup for non-injury related reasons. Next thing you know, the Badgers are going to be testing out a 1-3-1 zone.

2) I'm not sure which aspect of last night made me feel more sorry for Matt Gatens--the fact that Wayne Larrivee kept jinxing his free throw shooting (a 97% shooter coming in according to Larivee, Gatens missed three of them last night), or the fact that he seemed to be continually getting called for fouling Joe Krabbenhoft by thrusting his face into Krabbenhoft's elbow. The glazed and astounded look on Gatens face every time he hit the deck after a whistle told the story. Here's hoping that after some of the doubt raised during the game, all of his teeth are still in place.

3) In his limited time, I thought Keaton Nankivil looked pretty good offensively, showing some of his solid post moves and impressive shooting range for a big man.

4) Jake Kelly had a nice game, but his shoulder tattoo on his smallish arms is what stood out to me most, as it gave him the physical appearance of one of my favorite silly-looking basketball sights: the scrawny, tattooed division three backup guard who's a lot less bad-ass than he thinks.

5) The announcing crew clearly had their minds on Mike Kelley, the former Badger guard and occasional ESPN regional color commentator last night, referring to both Iowa’s Jake Kelly and sideline reporter Mike Hall as “Mike Kelley” at different times during last night’s broadcast.

6) I’m hoping that this is the first and last time that Jason Bohannon gives the introductions of the team’s starting lineup for the Big Ten Network broadcast. Bohannon is just such an awkward looking guy when you see him up close that’s it’s hard to believe that he’s an athlete. I’m sure that in person he seems much bigger and more athletic (athletes always seem strangely more impressive when you have to stand next to them and confront your own shortcomings), but in isolation or among other athletes, I just find myself thinking that he’s lucky he’s good at basketball, because otherwise I suspect he’d be picked on a lot.

7) I’m not going to blame the broadcast team for giving more camera time to Bohannon’s parents than they did to some of the actual players in the game. Normally I’d be annoyed by this, but I’m willing to concede that the fact that Bohannon’s dad was the quarterback for one of Iowa’s better football teams remains a pretty interesting dynamic.

8) Obviously I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on the fact that Jordan Taylor’s crazy shot to tie the game at the end of regulation and subsequent excellent play in overtime made him the star of the night for Wisconsin. Taylor probably should have been rattled more by the breakaway layup that he had blocked by Aaron Fuller just minutes prior, but he just kept on pushing through. That’s what I’ve loved about Taylor all season long–the fact that he operates at a higher maturity level than any freshman has a right to. It didn’t hurt that he started hitting three-pointers last night, either.

9) Speaking of Aaron Fuller’s block of Jordan Taylor’s layup, that was pretty clearly the turning point in the game, and is one of the things that made me think I’d be cheering for Iowa were I just a disinterested fan who happened upon the game. Taylor’s steal on the perimeter looked like it was going to put Wisconsin up by four points with the clock winding down. This would have been a huge advantage at that juncture in the game. Instead, Fuller refused to give up on the play, made a spectacular (and totally clean) block from behind. Not only did his block prevent Wisconsin from scoring, but it directly led to Bo Ryan drawing a technical foul for complaining about the play (I’m just assuming that’s what the technical was for, but I think it’s a pretty safe assumption). Fuller’s hustle play basically led to a four-point swing, which turned out to be huge down the stretch for the Hawkeyes. I hated to see that play, but still must admit that it was a thing of beauty.

10) Devan Bawinkel may have the most fun name in the entire Big Ten.

11) I’m not as overly concerned about Trevon Hughes taking a seat on the bench during overtime and ceding his minutes to Jordan Taylor. It’s no secret that Hughes is in a bit of a slump, but I’m fully expecting Hughes to come out it at some point. Taylor played excellent basketball last night, and I was glad to see him on the floor. But if March comes around and the Badgers are in overtime again, I’d be pretty shocked if Hughes isn’t out there. Perhaps Taylor will be out there next to him in crunch time by that point...

12) Kudos to the Iowa band for closing out the win by playing "In Heaven There Is No Beer" immediately after the final buzzer went off. Perhaps they close out every victory in this manner, but I’d say that when you’re playing Wisconsin, playing that particular song is a nice, subtle way of twisting the knife in further after your team has beaten them.

So, the Badgers fell in overtime and made last night’s shocking Northwestern win at Michigan State a lot less exciting to Wisconsin fans. Here’s hoping that the Badgers can get back on track against Illinois this weekend. It’s pretty clear that there are no more games that they can take for granted (well, except those against Indiana).

Friday, January 16, 2009

Ouch, and Other Random Thoughts

A few quick thoughts on a bunch of things on this, the day after a soul-crushing Wisconsin loss:

1) There’s not much that I can say after a loss like the Badgers had last night. That was about as hard a loss to take as I can think of. At the four minute time-out I was sitting at a bar with my friend Gus (thankfully, I had abandoned a crazy idea that I had come up with earlier to drive to Madison and try to take advantage of scalpers who wanted to get out of the -40 degree weather) gathering up my coat and thinking about how I wanted to go home and go to sleep as soon as Wisconsin ran the clock out on the Gophers. The next thing I knew, it was 10:20 and Minnesota was capping its comeback at the end of overtime. Unreal, and not in a good way.

2) As for the comeback itself last night, I give a lot of credit to Minnesota. The Gophers executed their pressure defense and hit a bunch of huge shots, not the least of which was the semi-off balance three-pointer by Lawrence Westbrook that sent the game to overtime. If I’m a coach trying to drive home the point that you should never give up, I’m showing my team a tape of the Gophers in the last three minutes of this game. All that said, stellar as Minnesota played at the end, there’s no way they win that game without several miscues by Wisconsin. I’ve never seen the Badgers look totally unprepared before, but that’s exactly how they looked when Minnesota broke out its full-court press near the end of the game. The first three attempts to break the press made the Badgers look flat out silly. And even once Wisconsin did figure out how to break the press, they continued to try to score on quick shots rather than pulling the ball out and trying to slow things down (Actually, Jason Bohannon did slow things down...while shooting a layup that was wide-open before his slowness allowed a Minnesota defender to catch up to him. Ugh.). Again, Minnesota did everything right to steal that game at the end, but they still don’t steal it with some help from Wisconsin.

3) Prior to the Wisconsin game last night, I kicked off the evening by watching Northwestern and Purdue square off. Much like Wisconsin, Northwestern maintained a healthy lead over Purdue for the entire game until the very end (which I missed, due to the changeover of every television at the tavern I was at to the Wisconsin-Minnesota game). I can’t help but contemplate how different things in the Big Ten would be today if both Northwestern and Wisconsin had closed out their games (or for that matter, if Purdue and Minnesota had just given up).

4) Much as Wisconsin’s loss hurt last night, I suppose I can take some consolation in the fact that they didn’t end up losing by 14 points in overtime, like Notre Dame did earlier in the week. That collapse was tough to watch, even if I was rooting for Louisville.

5) Some day I hope to have the patience and discipline to take a count of the total number of ads shown during a Big Ten basketball game that are for something other than the Big Ten or the Big Ten Network. It amazes me how little advertising that channel is able to sell.

6) Color me excited that a) UWM is playing well in the Horizon League and b) James Eayrs is becoming this year’s breakout player for the Panthers. It wasn’t that long ago that I was at the Wisconsin-UWM game lamenting the fact that everyone at the Kohl Center thought that the oversized Eayrs was some sort of joke. While it is novel to have a man of Eayrs size on one’s roster, he’s finally showing that he’s no joke, putting up solid numbers and logging nearly 30 minutes per night these days. How do you not root for a guy that, as my friend T.J. once noted, bears a resemblance to Rudy’s friend Peter on The Cosby Show?

7) I didn’t get the chance to mention my trip to Whitewater last weekend, but the UW-Whitewater vs. UW-Eau Claire game turned out to be better than it had any right to be. Whitewater looked like they were going to run away with things, taking just 15 minutes to build a 26-point lead at the start of the game (when Whitewater’s on, I have a tough time imagining another division 3 team that can stop them). Slowly but surely, though, Eau Claire battled its way back in the second half to put the game in doubt during the final 3-4 minutes. In the end, Whitewater righted its ship and hung on for the win, but it was not without a fight from the Bluegolds. I still think that Whitewater’s admission price of $7 is a tad on the high side, but it’s essentially worth it when a) you see a game this entertaining, and b) you realize that there’s not really anything else that you could be doing in Whitewater.

8) I don’t want to jinx things, but even without a credible big man, Marquette is playing as well as I’ve seen them play since a guy by the name of Dwyane Wade was on the roster (and, of course, a guy by the name of Robert Jackson, who I’m always happy to argue was at least as important as Wade to that team, if not moreso). The Big East is a meat grinder, but the Golden Eagles have done a nice job of piling up early wins against the teams just outside of the top tier (and, of course, lowly Cincinnati).

9) After a week’s layoff, I think someone around the Marquette athletic department had some time on their hands prior to last weekend’s West Virginia game. New wrinkles added to the entertainment experience were a clock counting down the number of seconds before people realize that they’re on the Jumbotron, and a question and answer segment where the MU players answer random, wacky questions (much like the “ask the Badgers” segment done during Wisconsin football games). Despite a few things needing to be refined with each addition, I liked both, and liked even more that the Marquette staff is constantly trying to find ways to make games more entertaining.

10) I haven’t seen a high school game in weeks, and it looks like that’s not going to change tonight, seeing as all of the schools are closed for another day due to the extreme cold temperatures in Wisconsin today. But seeing as the last prep hoops game that I saw took place in the state of New York, I’m itching to take one in, so it’s a good bet that you’ll be able to find me in a high school gym somewhere in the greater Milwaukee area next Tuesday.

11) It’s going to be weird at the end of the year seeing both the Big Ten and Big East champs with 4-5 losses, given that the former will be due to the fact that there are no great teams in the Big Ten this year, and the latter is due to the presence of too many excellent teams in the Big East this year. And I think my view on this topic is probably going to get me into a few fights with several of my friends who, like me, are more Big Ten-oriented.

Enjoy your weekend. I’ll enjoy mine, assuming that my doors don’t freeze and leave me stuck in my home...

Thursday, January 08, 2009

A Night That Did Not Disappoint

Well, the greatest night of televised basketball in my lifetime did not disappoint. Indiana put up a far better effort against Michigan than anyone expected, leading the entire game (well, except for that end part) and taking the Wolverines to overtime. Rutgers, beaten down by the most difficult five-game stretch ever, failed to give up down the stretch against Marquette, even when they had every reason to. Wisconsin, to my delight, pounded Northwestern. Stephen Curry got his points, despite a rough shooting night, but Duke still handled Davidson without much trouble. Louisville...well, I don’t know much about what Louisville did, since I really didn’t see more than 2 minutes of their game. And to end the evening, Gonzaga prevailed in overtime against Tennessee, and scored plenty of points in doing so. Outstanding night all around. (And this doesn’t even take into account that I found the North Carolina-College of Charleston game on a random sports channel. As if I didn’t need more to watch, C of C actually hung around for most of the first half.)

A few random things that I noticed during the evening’s festivities:

1) I have no idea who the color commentator was for the Marquette-Rutgers game, but he was perhaps the most annoying commentator that I’ve ever endured. And that’s saying something, because during the Wisconsin-Penn State game this past weekend, I actually thought Spencer Tollackson had some potential (even though apparently no one told Tollackson that it’s typically a good idea to shave sometime in the three days prior to appearing on TV).

2) Laval Lucas-Perry’s three-pointer for Michigan to tie the game near the end of regulation was one that I found particularly amusing, since it was from the exact same spot that Brian Butch banked one for Wisconsin in for a last-second win at Bloomington last year. Perhaps the Hoosiers should replace that section of the floor to exercise some demons.

3) When Tom Crean called time-out while his team had the ball with the game tied and just over seven seconds to play, I knew the game was going to overtime. Obviously Crean should be commended (wow, that hurt to say) for having his severely undermanned team even in last night’s game. But after years of watching Crean at Marquette, if there’s one thing I know, it’s that Tom Crean’s not the guy you want drawing up a play for a quick score. Usually that just ends with a guard running the clock down too far and losing his handle on the ball at halfcourt as the clock runs out.

4) Last night I got confirmation that channel 41 in Milwaukee transmits the worst picture of any station around. In the middle of the game, I found the Marquette-Rutgers game on MSG and immediately noticed that the picture on the random sports channel that I had found was undeniably more crisp than that of channel 41. That sort of hurt, because I like watching my local stations. But if WMLW’s going to keep things looking blurry, there’s not enough Pat McCurdy promos in the world to keep me tuning in when there’s another alternative. I mean, it was bad enough that this was the only game (other than the surprise UNC game) that wasn’t on in HD last night.

5) Was there an extra crush for press credentials last night at Duke, or have I just never noticed how close to the court photographers are sitting? I think as a rule, if you have your school’s name spelled out on the baseline, no one should be sitting on top of that name. Because it sort of bothered me to see players tripping over the photographers sitting on the top half of the letters in “Duke.”

6) I finally figured out why I irrationally dislike Gonzaga’s Matt Bouldin. I’ve never seen any childish on-court displays from Bouldin, he plays the game hard, and I’ve not read any salacious tales about him. Nonetheless, for reasons that I have never understood, I’ve hated him ever since he first set foot on the court. Then last night, out of nowhere, it hit me–Bouldin looks an awful lot like Jim Breuer. So the way I figure it, for the last three years, I’ve been subconsciously associating Bouldin with unfunny comedy bits like “Goat Boy.” So my apologies to you, Mr. Bouldin. I promise in the next year and a half not to think of bad Saturday Night Live sketches when I see you on TV.

7) Gutty move by Tyler Smith coming back into the game after going down with what appeared to be a knee injury. Also a stupid move. Gonzaga had nearly locked up the game when Smith re-entered late in the overtime period, so Tennessee had little to gain by throwing Smith back out there. Though he scored on a tip-in on his first play back, he sure didn’t look to be moving normally. I hope Smith’s okay, because I was cringing every time he jumped or cut in the closing minute of last night’s game.

8) Finally, in the game I wish had been televised last night, congrats to Harvard for knocking off Boston College. I forget if Harvard eventually backed off of Tommy Amaker’s idea of lowering academic standards, but assuming it didn’t, things seem to be working out nicely (either that or we have to assume what history tells us is not true–that Amaker is some sort of genius). On the flip side, it’s quite the roller coaster week for Boston College, knocking off perhaps the best college basketball team that I’ve ever seen, and then falling to an Ivy League team. Sort of makes you look forward to the NCAA tournament, doesn’t it?

Nothing on the docket tonight, but there’s plenty going on this weekend as I travel to Whitewater for perhaps my only division three game of the year, and get ready for Sunday’s much anticipated Wisconsin-Purdue game. Things are finally getting exciting...

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Greatest Night of Televised Basketball Ever

I’m not sure if I’ve ever encountered a night like tonight in terms of the volume of televised basketball that I want to watch being played. There are no less than five games on tonight that I would normally plan my night around, and a sixth that I would seriously consider watching on an average night. My viewing habits are obviously biased toward watching the teams of my home state (tonight that would be Marquette and Wisconsin, as UWM thankfully takes a break), and I have a few pet teams that I tend to watch more than others (Duke, Louisville, Gonzaga, Tennessee). Almost all seem to have converged on this one night. I clearly won’t be able to watch all 12 hours of basketball during the five waking hours that I’m at home tonight. But here’s what I’ll be switching between during possibly the greatest non-tournament night ever:

Michigan vs. Indiana (5:30pm, Big Ten Network): On a normal night, I might check this one out for a bit. Tonight? Very little chance that I’ll watch any of it, and that’s a shame, because I loved it when Tom Crean and John Beilein met when they were in the Big East, and I suspect that it would be even more fun for me to watch now that Crean has virtually no talent on his roster. I know that Indiana getting constantly pummeled is expected and necessary this year, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still enjoy it.

Duke vs. Davidson (6pm, ESPN): In the most obvious storyline of the night, Davidson’s Stephen Curry gets to show if he can keep scoring points and dishing out assists at record pace against one of college basketball’s most well-known teams. It should be a great show, assuming that Coach K doesn't go all Loyola on us and concede the game so that he can hold Curry scoreless with a triangle-and-two.

Louisville vs. South Florida (6pm, ESPN2): I tune into Louisville games a lot because I like watching former Wisconsin high school players, and Jerry Smith gets plenty of playing time for the Cardinals. But every time I watch Louisville, I find myself loving other players, with Earl Clark being the guy that usually catches my eye. So the Cardinals are one of my pet teams this year. On any normal night, I’d be blocking out two hours to watch them.

Marquette vs. Rutgers (6:30pm, WMLW): Watching the local teams is always a top priority, and it’s always more fun when they’re playing well. I was sitting in the stands as Marquette took a 40-point lead over Cincinnati on Sunday and I think it’s safe to say that things are pretty fun to watch these days. Rutgers, on the other hand, is looking to get back on track after losing three straight to North Carolina, Pittsburgh, and UConn, arguably the three toughest teams in the country. So the Scarlet Knights should be pretty excited that they “only” have to play the 15th ranked team in the country, even if that team is red hot right now.

Wisconsin vs. Northwestern (7:30pm, Big Ten Network): My favorite team plays host to the team that always seems to give them trouble no matter where they are in the standings. Much as I hate Northwestern, I’m always guaranteed to shriek with delight at least 3 times during any given Wildcat game after seeing outstanding back-door passes. Not that Northwestern’s play really matters in luring me to watch the game–there are few non-biological necessities that take priority over a Wisconsin basketball game for me. I would even consider heading to Madison for this game, if not for the ridiculous slate of additional games on TV to tonight.

Gonzaga vs. Tennessee (8pm, ESPN2): A rematch of the finals of the Old Spice Classic back in late November, this one features two of the most intriguing teams in the country. Gonzaga has lost four of its last five, but is said by many to have their most talented team ever. Tennessee never ceases to be entertaining with their up-tempo style, which allows them to beat teams that they have no business beating, and occasionally lose to teams that they have no business losing to. Gonzaga prevailed the last time these two teams met, but who knows how it will go this time. Either way, there’s a good chance one team will score 90 points, and that will be good enough to keep me glued to the screen.

Hope you enjoy the evening as much as I do. And apologies to ESPNU on leaving you out of things, but after seeing Cincinnati this weekend, I’m going to be staying far, far away from the Cincy-Providence game.

(Finally, apologies on not writing much lately. I blame 15% of it on holiday stress, and 85% of it on general laziness.)

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