Thursday, October 21, 2010

Starting Things Up Again: Things I'm Excited About This Season

It’s time to fire up for another season of hoops, and it’s time for my annual attempt to document my thoughts about all of those things. Unlike in years past, I’ve actually prepared a bit ahead of time this year, and have organized my thoughts into seven different postings that I’ll unleash in the weeks leading up to the season. After that, there should be enough going on that I’ll have new topics to talk about (no guarantees that I won't completely crap out like I did last year, but I'm much more of a writing mood than I have been in several years). The first of those is today, when I’ll share four things that I’m excited about headed into the season. Seeing as things are new, I figured that I’d start things out on a positive note. After today, here are the topics that I'll look to tackle over the course of the next two weeks.

Things That I Am Decidedly Not Excited About This Season

Observations From the New WIAA Tournament Brackets

The Economics of Being a Basketball Fan, Part 1: An Analysis of the 2009-2010 Season

The Economics of Being a Basketball Fan, Part 2: Choosing a Television Provider

Thoughts on the 2010-2011 Wisconsin Badgers

Thoughts on the 2010-2011 Marquette Golden Eagles

After that, hopefully I’ll settle into a bit of a routine. As for today, I might as well jump right into the things that I'm really looking forward to this year:

Marquette vs. UWM at the MECCA

This is the year when Marquette finally plays UWM on the Panthers’ home court. The frosty relationship between the two schools seems to have warmed a bit since the departures of former head coaches Tom Crean and Bruce Pearl. Their successors, Buzz Williams, a particularly affable fellow, and Rob Jeter, a man who spent some time at Marquette prior to his gig at UWM and who seems to be one of the most likeable people on the planet, appear to lack the animosity towards one another that their predecessors had. So while the fun is still there, the bitterness is gone.

Would this game have been infinitely better five years ago when the inability to come to terms and play a game led Marquette and UWM to seemingly hate one another, and when UWM was one of the hottest mid-majors in the country? Certainly. But that doesn’t mean that this game won’t still be fun. While the Marquette and UWM athletic departments may be getting along better, it doesn’t mean that fans aren’t hanging on to the old bitterness. My friends that are UWM fans are still charged up to have the opportunity to beat the big local program that didn’t give them a chance when they felt that they deserved it. My friends that are Marquette fans are all excited to give a massive beat down to a team that they view as whiners who only wanted a game when they were good enough to compete. Fans, you see, don't forgive and forget like the people involved do.

Why is this game any different than the games that have been played between the two teams over the last two years? Quite simply, it’s the fact that the game is being played at the U.S. Cellular Arena. The location is significant for two reasons. First, it’s the Panthers’ home court. Marquette has had the joy of beating UWM badly at the Bradley Center already, but it’s an entirely different level of humiliation to beat a team down on their home court. On the other side of the coin, UWM undoubtedly knows that strange things can happen when our state’s mid-majors host the big boys. UWM’s last second loss to Wisconsin at the Klotche Center in 2002 and UW-Green Bay’s win over Wisconsin last season are two memorable examples. These games don't happen often, but when they do, we tend to remember them. The second significant factor about the location of the game is that U.S. Cellular Arena is Marquette’s old home arena. While much of the MU fan base these days is now too young to remember the days when Marquette called the building home (indeed, I was 10 years old when MU moved to the Bradley Center and can admit that I only barely remember the days in the old MECCA), playing in the old arena will stir up memories for many longtime Marquette fans.

Sadly, I realized earlier this week that I won’t be able to make it to the game on November 27 due to a prior commitment, but you can bet I’ll be feverishly checking for scores all day. Whether I’ll be wearing my Marquette jersey or my UWM sweatshirt at the time is something still to be decided.

The New Bradley Center Scoreboard

I recently had the opportunity to attend the home opener for the Milwaukee Admirals, the local minor league hockey team that shares the Bradley Center with the Milwaukee Bucks and Marquette. I learned virtually nothing about hockey (a sport that I know little about anyway) that night, but what I did learn upon walking into the Bradley Center is that the new scoreboard there is nothing short of spectacular. As hockey goons punched each other in the head, I spent much of the game staring at the huge HD screens with my mouth agape, thinking about how great this new technology will be at basketball games. My Marquette five-game pack tickets are sure to place me far away from the court for all games, and after seeing the scoreboard, I’m seriously questioning how much time, if any, I’ll spend looking at the actual court when I have a giant screen above giving me a much closer look at the action. If I had second level seats behind one of the baskets, I’m fairly confident that I would never even glance at the arena floor–there would be no reason to. I’ve never particularly loved the Bradley Center, but this scoreboard is a huge upgrade and will clearly and significantly improve the game experience. And I say that as a guy who tends not to get excited about big flashy signs in arenas. Kudos to the Bradley Center for making what looks to me to be a phenomenal investment.

Vander Blue vs. Wisconsin

The story of Vander Blue’s college recruitment is one filled with drama. As a relatively unknown high school sophomore at Madison Memorial, Blue gave a verbal commitment to play for his hometown school, Wisconsin. A year later, he turned in a dominant state tournament performance and began to make a name for himself on the national circuit. Then, in his senior year, Blue backed off of his verbal commitment to Wisconsin, only to sign with the Badgers’ big local rival, Marquette.

Now that Blue’s in college, the real fun begins as he gets to face Wisconsin once a year during his time at Marquette. Luckily for Blue, he gets to ease into things this year in front of a supportive home crowd, rather than being thrown to the wolves in Madison. Unfairly or not, Blue is going to be the man that everyone has eyes on for the next four meetings between Marquette and Wisconsin. Wisconsin fans are going to hate Blue and roundly boo him whenever they have the chance, out of anger over his changing his mind about becoming a Badger. Marquette fans are going to celebrate every one of Blue’s successes, reminding Wisconsin fans that not only did they beat the Badgers out for one of the most outstanding state high school players in recent memory, they did so even after Blue had originally decided that he wanted to play for Wisconsin. If you need any point of reference for how heated things should get, consider how loudly fellow former Madison Memorial standout Wesley Matthews was always booed during his appearances at the Kohl Center after spurning the Badgers’ offers out of high school. Matthews’ recruitment had none of the twists and turns of Blue’s and ended with him giving a straightforward, polite “no thanks” to Wisconsin before he took his services to Milwaukee. So one can only imagine how polarizing Blue’s career will be given the added drama of his decision process. In years to come when Blue becomes a key player for MU we'll start to see the real fun, but as Blue begins his freshman year in a reserve role, we can start watching things develop with his first crack at the Badgers.

(As an aside, I’ve likely noted this before, but as primarily a Badger fan, I don’t harbor the same type of anger towards Blue that many of my fellow Badger fans do. While I’d have loved to have had him wearing red and white, the fact remains that Blue’s college options changed so significantly from his sophomore year to his senior year that I find it hard to argue with him backing off to examine those options. From everything that I’ve read, it appears that Blue has a strong family influence behind him and did not make a hasty final decision. In short, he seems like a good guy that got himself in over his head when he made a premature decision at age 15. That notwithstanding, I’m still looking forward to booing him when he steps onto the Kohl Center floor next year. Having a logical reason not to hate someone is nothing that should stand in the way of a good rivalry...)

The Return of Tone Boyle to UWM

I’m as excited to see Tone Boyle suiting up for UWM this year as I was disappointed to not see him playing last year. Boyle was the team’s top returning guard last year, and an 2nd team all-Horizon performer in the 2008-9 season. And he was fun to watch, too. Back in November 2008, here’s what I said about Boyle (who was previously unknown to me at the time) after watching him play against Marquette’s stellar trio of senior guards, Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Dominic James:

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.

Last season should have seen Boyle using his talents to team with fellow seniors James Eayrs and Ricky Franklin in challenging for a Horizon League title. Instead, nagging back problems that struck Boyle before the season started never went away and he ended up redshirting.

Last season’s loss is this season’s gain, though. And UWM is luck to have Boyle back, because with the losses of Eayrs and Franklin to graduation, the Panthers need someone compelling to watch on their roster. Earys, with his 6'7", 310 pound frame and sweet touch from behind the three-point arc was always reason enough to tune into a Panther game. But this year’s roster generally lacks interesting players or well-known local players. I’m somewhat intrigued by seeing if Anthony Hill can build off of his outstanding play near the end of last year and keeping tabs to see if I’m right about the vast potential that Lonnie Boga seems to have, but I will admit that it would be a stretch for those things to keep me interested in the Panthers. Boyle immediately ups my interest level and should do the same to yours. He’s a talented, entertaining player with a good comeback story. And I can guarantee that I’ll have fun watching him this season. And, of course, there's something inexplicably awesome about a team that has a guy named Tone (Boyle), a guy named Tony (Meier) and a guy named Anthony (Hill).

UWM’s Occasional Use of the Klotsche Center

I was excited back when I heard that UWM is playing their exhibition games and one non-conference game at the Klotsche Center this year. I suspect that many people feel that playing at the tiny Klotsche Center is a big step back for a program just a few years ago found itself in the Sweet Sixteen. Truth be told, it probably is. However, the UWM basketball program isn't exactly generating the same buzz that it was during the Bruce Pearl glory years, and there's something to be said for stepping backwards in a smart manner.

Just over a decade ago UWM had fallen on some lean years and made a similar move for its program, shifting games from what had become a largely vacant MECCA for their games to a more tightly-packed Klotsche Center. While a huge arena has some advantages, the atmosphere and intimidation factor of a small gym cannot be overlooked. I was at the Klotsche Center on the night in 2002 when the Panthers nearly upended a very good Wisconsin team, and I honestly believe that the venue played a role in the Badgers almost falling to their in-state foes to the east. It has become clear in the last few years that UWM selling out, or even half filling the MECCA on a regular basis is not something that's going to happen anytime soon. So why not generate some excitement by packing a more size-appropriate venue and moving the action back on campus to give students easy access?

The Expanded NCAA Tournament

I have deleted some earlier thoughts about my love of the newly expanded NCAA tournament because they were based on a false premise. I was intensely excited about the newly expanded tournament's "First Four" games until it was pointed out to me below in the comments section by the Phil Mitten, formerly of Hoops Marinara fame, and currently an outstanding writer for Bucky's 5th Quarter, that I had completely misread the format of the "First Four" games involving the last four qualifying at-large teams and the lowest-ranking automatic qualifiers. As it turns out, my belief that the at-large teams and automatic qualifiers would be squaring off against one another was totally wrong. The at-large teams are playing against one another for the final two at-large spots and the automatic qualifiers are playing for the final pair of sixteen seeds. This alters my view of things, and makes me feel essentially neutral about the change. While two very interesting games between at-large teams will now take place, one more automatic qualifier gets marginalized in the process. I'm still trying to figure out if that's progress or not.

Because my feelings about the expanded television package have not been affected by the fact that, you know, I've finally figured out how the tournament is really going to work, I'm leaving that part of my excited ramblings below. You may resume your normal reading...

The second benefit to the expanded NCAA tournament is the new television deal which accompanies the expansion. Now all games will be televised live nationally on one of four channels. That’s amazing access. As a man who has spent big money on tournament television packages and exerted far too much energy on tinkering with media options to see games, this feels like a major victory. With one touch of the remote on tournament weekend, I’ll be able to switch to any tournament game that I want to see. I’m almost weeping with joy over this development. It may be the most spectacular thing that the NCAA has ever done. I’m this close to driving to Indianapolis to try and hug NCAA president Mark Emmert (the fact that the date of his appointment implies that he had nothing to do with this deal, notwithstanding).

So those are the big things that I'm excited about this year. As you can see, 2010-11 brings a lot to be excited about. Of course, not all new developments are good, and next week I'll detail the pair of things that leave me less than excited as we head into the new season.


At 10:14 AM, Blogger Phil Mitten said...

Welcome back Chris!

I think you've got the layout of the "First Round" games mixed up though. I'm pretty sure the last four at-large teams play each other for two spots (as 12/13-seeds), and then four AQ face-off for two spots (as 16-seeds).

At 11:38 AM, Blogger Chris said...

Thanks for setting me straight on that point, Phil--I've updated my post to reflect your correction. I'm a bit embarrassed that I didn't take the time to understand that fairly important detail.

At 8:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

More importantly, the fashion issue. Can't you just wear your Marquette jersey under your UWM sweatshirt and change at will?


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