Thursday, December 03, 2009

Wisconsin vs. Duke: Better Than Expected

Despite my love of Wisconsin basketball and my closet Duke fandom, I wasn’t going to go to last night’s Wisconsin-Duke game. I thought it would be too expensive, that the game would be too late, and that things would look just fine on an HDTV screen at home, or perhaps at a bar with friends. And while I expected the game to be close, I can't say that I necessarily expected a Wisconsin win. But it’s a rare day when someone contacts me to go to a game and I don’t rethink the idea of watching it at home. So, when my friend Nikki, a Wisconsin basketball fan of the highest order, indicated that seeing a Coach K-coached team in person was on her to-do list of things in life, it didn’t exactly take much arm-twisting to get me to join her. Turns out, it was a very good thing that I went to this one, as I’d have been kicking myself for years if I hadn’t. Wisconsin played its best game of the year so far, beat the #5 team in the country, essentially clinched the first ever Big Ten win in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, and became the first team to defeat Duke in the history of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. And to think–just an hour before the game I was wondering if killing time having a pre-game gyro at the Parthenon, one of my favorite State Street stops during my student days, would be the highlight of my evening. Safe to say, it was not. I’m not sure that the adrenaline from this one will wear off for another week or so. Full thoughts below:

1) I’ve been lucky enough to see a few games at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and that place is truly intimidating to an opponent. What I didn’t realize, having never seen Duke on the road before, is how intimidating a visitor Duke is. Looking down at the bench, you see a row of coaches decked out in dark suits flanked by players wearing all-black warm-ups. It’s incredibly bad-ass, and immediately sends the message that Duke knows exactly who they are, and what they’re there to take care of. It didn't negate what was, indeed, a hostile atmosphere at the Kohl Center, but it did throw some of the hostility right back at Wisconsin.

2) I didn’t expect to see Mason Plumlee back for Duke last night after he spent the early part of the season recovering from a wrist injury, but he made his return in limited minutes last night. When I saw Duke’s season-opening event, it was evident that Mason Plumlee was slightly more athletic and older brother Miles (a superb athlete in his own right), and showed amazing confidence, as well. I don’t know if Mason Plumlee would have been a difference maker if he was fully back to form last night (I actually suspect he might have been), but I’m certainly glad that Wisconsin caught Duke while he was a bit rusty. (Quick editors note--I tried repeatedly to get my Plumlees straight here, and still got their names mixed up upon my first posting of this. I'm screwed if their brother heads to Duke, too. Thanks for setting me straight, T.J.)

3) I would have been worth the price of admission just to see the stars of the game, Trevon Hughes from the home team, and Kyle Singler for Duke. Singler was amazing, particularly in the first half, scoring repeatedly on runners while he had a hand in his face. It seemed early on that he was incapable of missing, no matter how goofy a shot he took. As for Hughes, he continued his brilliance at getting into the lane and making things happen, but managed to buttress that with an uncanny ability to make absurd three-pointers last night. Both Singler and Hughes made a number of shots that had no business going in last night. I’m just glad that Hughes managed to make more. And he picked a good spot, as I suspect that ESPN talking heads will be throwing out his name quite a bit in the coming week after taking in this game.

4) Very rough game for Duke’s Brian Zoubek last night. Three years ago, while trying to describe J.P. Gavinski to someone, I referred to him as a poor man’s Brian Zoubek. At the time, I sincerely thought I was being complimentary to both. Today, it simply looks like a comment that I threw out to get cheap laughs.

5) During games of this magnitude, I often receive a lot of texts from random friends (side note–in game texting is one of two acceptable uses for text messages, and if you’re going to text me, please use proper grammar). Best text of last night’s game came from a number that wasn’t in my phone (I later deduced that it was likely my friend Rick, whose number, assuming it’s right, I have finally saved). It read simply “When will the whiteout be in this game?” It never happened, but you’re never going to get closer than in a Wisconsin-Duke game.

6) Last night I ran into my good friends Josh and Chris, the biggest Wisconsin fans that I know, and they were with the one person that I was actually jealous of last night–their son Gabriel. Gabriel, at roughly three weeks old, was at his first Badger basketball game. Chris explained that she knew she needed to be at last night’s game, and that there wasn’t really a good way for her to be away from Gabriel for an extended period of time, given his extremely young age. So he came along to the game. Sure, being only a few weeks old, he undoubtedly saw none of the game, and was only vaguely aware that loud noises were going on around him, but the story of his first game will be a good one someday.

7) The one thing that I was most looking forward to last evening was watching Keaton Nankivil and Jon Leuer go up against Duke’s forwards. The frontcourt of Kyle Singler, the Plumlee brothers, Lance Thomas, and to a lesser extent, Brian Zoubek is intimidating. But the way that Nankivil and Leuer had been playing of late, combined with their general athletic ability, had me thinking that Wisconsin stood as good a chance as anyone of keeping up with Duke’s forwards. Both continued their strong start to the season, with Nankivil hauling in a handful of tough rebounds, and Leuer showing that while his athleticism is perhaps a notch below that of Miles Plumlee, he’s currently the more polished player. With Kyle Singler’s versatility and two bigger teammates taking pressure off of him, no one truly matches up well with Duke’s frontcourt, but Leuer, Nankivil and Ryan Evans did quite the job of keeping up with the Blue Devils last evening.

8) I loved some of the new scoreboard bits featuring players pumping up the crowd last night. Marquette has been doing this for years, and I’ve always thought it was a fun thing. I particularly enjoyed last night’s clip of Wquinton Smith and Brett Valentyn leading the crowd in starting a slow clap. Who better to call upon when you need some good clapping than the walk-ons, who undoubtedly know more about clapping than anyone.

9) As my friend Nikki pointed out, Jared Berggren may have only gotten around 5 minutes of playing time, but somewhere his parents were going nuts when he tossed down a dunk off of a Trevon Hughes assist during his few minutes on the floor.

10) As if the game wasn’t enough, last night’s halftime show was the always-amazing Red Panda Acrobat, which consists of a woman on a roughly 7-foot tall unicycle flipping bowls onto her head. I’d be impressed by anyone who could ride a 7-foot tall unicycle, but when you add bowl-flipping into the equation, you’ve got pure gold. There aren’t a lot of halftime shows that would make me suggest you wait to take your bathroom break until after the intermission. You’ve got the F-M Acro Team (North Dakota’s Goodwill Ambassadors!), the Jesse White Tumbling Team, the Zooperstars, and arguably Quick Change. But Red Panda has to be on that list as well. It’s just classic halftime fare.

11) I will admit to being somewhat frightened seeing Ryan Evans on the floor during the late minutes of last night’s game. At the very end, it all made sense when Bo Ryan started swapping Tim Jarmusz on offense with Evans on defense. Kyle Singler was much less likely to fake Evans out of his shoes, and Jarmusz, as a classic solid but unspectacular guy was going to be strong with the ball. But prior to that, I was a bit apprehensive to see a talented, but fearless freshmen who wasn’t necessarily used to big games yet on the floor while Keaton Nankivil and Jarmusz sat on the bench. Evans, of course, worked out magnificently, which is why Bo Ryan is coaching Wisconsin and I’m sitting here writing about the halftime show the next day.

12) Always good to see students rushing the court. There will undoubtedly be a lot of pointless internet arguments today about when, if ever, it’s appropriate for students to rush the court. I’ve never been much for judging when and how students should have fun. That said, I can’t think of too many situations that set up better for a rushing of the court than last night’s game. Wisconsin is unranked, Duke is #5 in the country, Duke is, well, Duke, and Wisconsin all but clinched the first ever Big Ten victory in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Aside from making the wishes of a dying child in a hospital bed come true, this one had everything you’d want to validate the court rushing.

13) Where does this rank in terms of Wisconsin games that I’ve seen in person? I’m putting it third. First is the obvious game that I heard numerous people reference last night–the win over Illinois to win the conference championship a few years ago, when Devin Harris won the game on the foul line and I was nearly crushed in a mid-court mini crowd avalanche as the student section ran onto the court. Second is a less obvious win against in the 1996-97 season, my freshman year in college, where in the final seconds Ty Calderwood and Mike Koselcharoen stole a game that Iowa had basically won. The old Fieldhouse was rocking so hard that night that I was actually mildly worried that the floor beneath my second deck seats was going to collapse (being 18, I continued to jump up and down, anyway). And then there was last night, which was awesome, and did not even feature the element of possible physical harm to me that was present in the previous two. (FYI–last night just edges out Wisconsin’s 1997 win over #1-ranked Minnesota to all but seal a trip to the NCAA tournament, another underrated favorite game of mine.)

Awesome night, awesome win, and awesome drive home in the first snow flurries of the year. I think Duke will improve as the year goes on, particularly with the addition of Miles Plumlee, and this win will look even better in hindsight as time goes on. Although, I must admit, it seems tough to imagine things feeling any better than they do right now. Isn’t it great to have two surprisingly good teams in the state of Wisconsin?


At 2:30 PM, Anonymous Ed said...

Can I just say I love reading this simply because as I read, it's your voice in my head telling me the story...and that makes it even better than it already is...

I told Chris beforehand that Duke vs WI as a first game is a blessed way to be baptized into the fold. Now, I'm starting to think the little guy might be the messiah of badgerdom.

At 11:05 AM, Anonymous frye said...

1. The only sad part about Red Panda was it took her 3 tries to successfully complete the final 5 bowls. But bravo to her for showing perserverence, and continuing until she did it. I thought a hook was going to come out and drag her off the floor if she kept going.

2. I'd rank that 97 UW-Minn game above the Duke game. I also was a freshman with season tix that year and prior to that I wasn't sure a UW team would ever go back to the NCAA tourney with their talent. The only thing to knock that game would be that Minn already had their #1 seed essentially clinched.


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