Monday, February 28, 2011

What I've Been Up To Lately...

Sometimes life gets the best of you, and as I should have learned 2-3 years ago, my life doesn’t allow me the time to blog like I used to. Nonetheless, I’ve failed to share some excellent moments of basketball watching over the last month and a half. So here, in abbreviated form, is a brief account of every game that I have attended in person in the last month and a half. I've been sitting on most of them for a bit, so some of the observations are a bit dated at this point, but I assure you that they were amusing at the time. Good luck on getting through all of this entry.

Wauwatosa East vs. Menomonee Falls (1/14/2011)

Tosa East won the game 69-66, but as with any Menomonee Falls game that I see, most of the questions that I got from friends after this one centered about how star forward J.P. Tokoto played. Tokoto should pay me not to watch his games, because on virtually every occasion that I’ve gone to see Menomonee Falls during the past two years, he has gotten into early foul trouble and been relegated to the bench. This most recent occasion was no different, as Tokoto picked up a couple of quick fouls, drew the anger of his coach, and was relegated to the bench for nearly the entire second quarter. Largely because of this, Tokoto finished the first half without a field goal, before putting up a respectable second half.

My general thoughts on Tokoto based on the few times that I’ve seen him play? Hopefully you’re not looking for anything groundbreaking, because nothing I think is all that different from the volumes that have been written on him. He’s a ridiculous athlete who occasionally makes questionable decisions when dribbling and needs work on his outside shot (though this latter issue has probably been overstated a bit by people who feel a need to pick apart Tokoto’s game). Clearly he’s going to be an asset for whatever college ends up enticing him to campus, but I’m not so sure that he’ll be the immediate game-changer that lots of people are expecting. I like guys with very little downside, though, and Tokoto’s superior athletic ability combined with his purported level headed demeanor and strong work ethic clearly put him in the “low downside” category. So while I’d be absolutely thrilled if either Wisconsin or Marquette acquired his services, I’m fairly certain I’m less worked up about his recruitment than most people are.

On a secondary note, I’m not sure if I specifically made note of it at the start of the season, but you can color me unsurprised that Menomonee Falls has struggled a bit this year. While the current Indian roster is talented, it was readily apparent while watching them last year that their senior class of John Cording, Jonathan Phillips, Adam Rubatt and Conor Cassidy was special. Not one of them was off the charts in terms of basketball ability, but all of them were successful at hoops, and most of them had significant accomplishments in other sports as well (I believe it’s no coincidence that Falls reached the state finals in football last season prior to fielding a stellar basketball team). Simply put, it was a group of winners–and one of the best three such groups that I’ve ever seen, I might add. And while the current Falls players may have just as much (if not more) talent than the departed seniors, they lack those difficult-to-define things that left when their teammates graduated last spring. You just don’t replace a foursome like that.

Marquette vs. DePaul (1/18/11)

I won’t waste a lot of time on this one, as going to it wasted enough of my time. If this game was representative, this year’s DePaul squad may be the worst Big East team that I’ve ever had the displeasure of watching. The Blue Demons actually kept the game close up until 5-minutes were left in the first half. At that point, Marquette went on a short run, and DePaul appeared to basically quit. The 30-point margin of victory for the Golden Eagles doesn’t begin to show how lopsided this game was, which is particularly notable, given that the game was all but tied until late in the first half. It’s rare that I leave a game early, but I did so on that night. DePaul’s effort was simply disgraceful.

Cedar Grove-Belgium vs. Sheboygan Lutheran (1/21/11)

Aside from being required to be out of my house for several hours on this particular Friday night, my reason for making my pathetic hour long drive to Cedar Grove-Belgium High School with my buddy Gus in frigid weather was to get a glimpse at Wisconsin Badger recruit Sam Dekker. My thoughts on Dekker? In many ways he reminds me of Kevin Durant. He’s rail thin (though I would assume that this will change, as it always seems to, when he gets on a college weight program), has a soft touch from the outside, and has a good, but somewhat playful, handle. It’s sort of jarring to see a 6'7" guy on a division 5 team playing primarily on the perimeter (mark this down as the only time I’ve seen a guy who’s four inches taller than anyone else on the floor playing at the top of a zone defense), but Dekker would be miscast playing on the blocks, so his position is appropriate. And of course, from time to time he likes to try and make a spectacular pass, which undoubtedly is what prompts the allusions to Pete Maravich that you’ve undoubtedly read if you’ve followed Dekker’s recruitment (for the record, I find the Maravich references to be a bit over-the-top).

Will Dekker be remarkably successful at Wisconsin? I couldn’t tell you. His height and perimeter skills would seem to make him a perfect fit for the Badgers, but I’m notoriously bad at judging how high school players will turn out. Several years ago, I told anyone who would listen that while Devin Harris was one of the three best high school players I had ever seen, his slight frame would make it advisable for him to redshirt before thinking of trying to play in the Big Ten. Last year I managed to get to a game to see stellar Badger freshman Josh Gasser and came away about as unexcited as I’ve ever been about an incoming recruit. And I’m also the guy that saw some real potential in J.P. Gavinski back when he was at Wisconsin Dells High School. The fact that Dekker plays his high school ball against small schools that rarely have other players anywhere near his skill level makes his game even harder to judge. So while there’s a lot to like about Dekker’s game, you shouldn’t trust any excitement that I currently have, as even I find it impossible to trust myself.

And while I was clearly at this game for little reason other than to see Dekker, I feel it’s only fair to note that his teammate, 6'1" low post player Zac Jensema had roughly 400 rebounds during the game. Okay, that might be a bit of hyperbole, but I honestly wouldn’t be shocked if you told me that Jensema had 20 boards on the night in question. Very refreshing to go to a game and be wowed by someone other than the expected star.

Brookfield East vs. Wauwatosa East (1/28/11)

I always enjoy this match-up for two reasons: 1) Brookfield East is well coached, and while the Spartans may not always have a great record, they always give perennial power Tosa East a tough game, and 2) my buddy Dez is a Brookfield East alum, so we can usually talk one another into going to the game and dredging up our high school memories from our competing alma maters.

There was a third big draw this time around, though, as this game would present me my first chance to see the new Brookfield East fieldhouse. Due to my less-frenzied game watching schedule of late, I had somehow not managed to check out the brand new fieldhouses that opened last season at Brookfield East and their crosstown rival, Brookfield Central. I’ve still yet to see Central’s new facility, but assuming that it’s similar to the one at East, it’s safe to say that everyone in Brookfield should be very happy. The Brookfield East fieldhouse got everything right. The stands are well-built, the area outside of the actual gym is large and well put together, and it’s obvious that there’s abundant room for practices when you picture the fieldhouse devoid of fans (I can readily recall what a pain it was to schedule practice for six teams in my school’s moderate sized gymnasium way back when I was in school). Suffice to say, it’s a good time to be an athletic teenager in Brookfield these days.

As to the game itself, things went almost exactly as I expected, with the disciplined squads from both schools keeping the score low in a hard-fought battle to the end. Tosa East converted a go-ahead layup with 2.5 seconds left on the clock and stole a win from their foes from Brookfield. I walked out of the gym marveling at both the game and the huge flat screen TVs on the concourse outside the new fieldhouse. Both on and off the court, Brookfield East does things right.

Wisconsin vs. Purdue (2/1/11)

This would mark the first time that I’ve actually risked my life to go see a game. As you may recall, Wisconsin hosted Purdue on the night of what people were calling the “storm of the century.” My friend Samip had invited me to the game a week earlier, and I had been excited to go. However, with the forecast calling for 20 inches of snow overnight, I began playing phone tag with Samip early on the day of the game, checking to see if he wanted to cancel our trip from Milwaukee to Madison for the game. Honestly, I was sort of hoping that he would be willing to call things off, as the weather report seemed to indicate that we would be making the worst decision possible if we were to drive to Madison. But Samip was steadfast in his desire to head to the game. Even when he picked me up, I wanted to try and talk him out of going, but in the end, I knew that if I vetoed the trip it would forever make him a more dedicated fan than I am. So rather than allowing him to hold that over me for the rest of eternity, I shut up and to Madison. As expected, our trip to Madison was not particularly noteworthy–the real snow was starting later in the night.

Our game viewing experience was interesting, not simply because of the fact that it was a great game and a huge Badger win, but because Samip, despite being a decade out of college, had managed to acquire his game tickets on Craigslist from a student (I suspect this is mostly because Samip much prefers to stand and yell during games than to sit and clap). So we were among the kids. Normally, this would just make me feel like an old guy (and indeed, it did), but on that night things got a bit more interesting, as the students were chanting at Chancellor Biddy Martin about their desire for a snow day the next day. Just prior to their introductions, the students’ wishes were granted, as cell phones in the section began lighting up and the students around us all began high-fiving. Samip and I could only stand and chuckle as the students’ chant of “Let’s get wasted!” began. Twenty year olds have an odd way of expressing excitement. Meanwhile, I think we were both wishing that we really were still students, facing only a short walk to our old apartments just around the corner from the Kohl Center, rather than two allegedly intelligent adults who somehow had to find a way back to Milwaukee that night.

As you can tell, good as the game was, it was not the key point of the evening, so I’ll jump ahead to the drive home. Simply put, it was treacherous. The roads themselves were not terrible until near the end of the trip, but visibility was awful. Were it not for a long stretch of positioning ourselves behind a large semi truck whose tail lights we could clearly see, I’m not sure if we would have made it back (we saw a healthy smattering of motorists who had ended up in ditches on the side of the road. I’m also fairly certain that if it had been me rather than Samip driving, we’d have been staying in Madison for the next day and a half (if we’d made the trip at all–I’m a remarkably cautious man). As it was, our trip took longer than any of the many that I’ve taken between Madison and Milwaukee over the years, and it’s safe to say that the portion of the trip from Oconomowoc to my home was equal to the amount of time that it usually takes to drive the whole stretch. But Samip had guided us home safely, and I was thankful for that.

As Samip dropped me off and I prepared to trudge through the thigh-high snow in my front yard in order to get to my door, I thanked him for his hard work that night and said something that I think he wholeheartedly agreed with at that point:

“Let’s never do anything like that again.”

Wisconsin vs. Michigan State (2/6/11)

For the first time that I can remember after a Wisconsin-Michigan State game, there simply wasn’t much to be said. Wisconsin dominated the Spartans 82-56. Part of the reason for the Badgers’ dominance on this particular day was the fact that they shot incredibly well, but frankly, the bigger issue was that Michigan State just completely fell apart. It was, oddly, sort of disheartening. As those of you who’ve followed me in prior seasons may recall, though I love seeing Wisconsin beat Michigan State more than any other opponent, part of my reason for feeling this way is that I have greater respect for Tom Izzo than perhaps any other coach in the nation. His teams are consistently tough, and you can be virtually certain that you’re going to get a well-played game when the Spartans take the court. So to see Michigan State fall so mightily in this game (and for much of this season) was sort of sad. You like to beat your most hated enemy, but you really don’t want to beat them so badly that you start feeling sorry for them. Fortunately, I suspect that the Spartans struggles this season are an aberration and that they will be back with a vengeance next year. And when they do return to prominence, I’m hoping for a pair of hard fought, single digit Badger wins. Really, it’s just more fun that way.

The most amusing moment of the drive home (which needed to happen quickly, as you may also remember that this game occurred on the same day as the Super Bowl, which as a Wisconsin resident, I was legally obligated to watch) was the telephone call from the friend from whom I had obtained my tickets for the day. My friend in question is the holder of some excellent seats in the Kohl Center, and was excited at the start of the season to offer me the Michigan State game, as it looked to be the most compelling game on the schedule. I laughed after the game when he called to apologize for really setting me up with seats for a 26-point blowout. The sentiment from him was genuine, but even if it wasn’t the hard fought contest that I’d prefer, I’ll always take good seats to a win over Michigan State.

Wisconsin vs. Ohio State(2/12/11)

Unlike the Michigan State game, where I was sitting in the best seats in the house, I returned to my rightful place in society for the Ohio State game and headed up to the last row in a corner of the Kohl Center with my pal Ferd. I’m okay with that, though, because a) being anywhere in the arena for that game would have been awesome and b) one of the amazing things about the Kohl Center is that I’m pretty sure I’ve never sat in a truly bad seat there.

Ferd and I actually came into these tickets sort of by accident when we bought a four-pack of Wisconsin tickets at the start of the year. Before the season when we were looking to pick our ticket package it quickly became apparent that neither of us had a strong preference for any of the four different packages of games offered by the Wisconsin Athletic Department. Ultimately, I argued that I was fine with any of the Big Ten games (all packages had two conference games and two non-conference), but thought that the UW-Milwaukee game would be the non-conference game of the greatest interest with me. So we bought that package, never thinking that Ohio State would come into the building undefeated and ranked #1 in the country. It’s nice when my love for an in-state team pays off for illogical reasons.

So up to our nosebleed seats we trudged. I won’t recount the game–we all know that watching any team, let along a methodical Wisconsin team, recover from a 15-point second half deficit was pretty amazing. But watching it from the top of the building was a unique experience. As I stated, there truly are no terrible seats in the Kohl Center. From the last row I had an awesome bird’s eye view, I could stand whenever I felt necessary without impeding anyone’s view (as a moderately tall man, this is a constant concern of mine at events), and we were safely far away from the craziness that ensued on the floor immediately after the game (getting caught in a very short and mild crowd avalanche while rushing the court during my student days was one of the more terrifying moments of my life).

As to the post-game furor over the alleged Jared Sullinger spitting incident, I can’t say that I saw how Sullinger made it off the floor, so I can’t speak intelligently about that. What I can say is that while watching the rushing of the court I felt very concerned for Buckeye guard Jon Diebler, who was at mid-court when the Wisconsin students quickly enveloped the entire floor. It took Diebler at least a solid minute to wade his way through the exuberant students to the sideline, and Sullinger’s disturbing allegations notwithstanding, I was pleased to eventually see Diebler make it out of the crowd seemingly unharmed. Heaven knows that was not the safest place on earth to be for an opposing player.

Marquette vs. St. John’s (2/15/11)

There’s just been something very frustrating about watching Marquette all season, and this game encapsulated that feeling very well. St. John’s is a decent team that was playing very well coming into this game. And Marquette, a decent team in its own right, kept things even with the Red Storm throughout most of the game, but wilted at the end. It’s the same type of thing that’s been going on all year–the Golden Eagles simply can’t play 40 minutes of basketball against teams of similar strength to their own. I walked out of this game thinking that something is off about this year’s Marquette team. It’s not a squad that’s short on talent or desire, but I’m left wondering if departed seniors David Cubillan and Lazar Hayward were bigger factors in team chemistry than anyone ever knew. Whatever the story, I’ve watched too many Marquette games this year that, despite the athleticism on the court, left me feeling uninspired (it’s a bad sign when the most notable moment of the game for me was realizing that “Cotton Eye Joe” was no longer being played during the “Dance Cam” segment on the scoreboard). Hopefully the victory on the road over Connecticut not long after this one brought some fire back to the Golden Eagles.

Wauwatosa East vs. Menomonee Falls (2/18/11)

One moment sticks out for me in this game. I saw the most violent collision that I've ever seen in a high school game. A Tosa East fastbreak caused Menomonee Falls' Steve Ross to get tangled up with a backpedaling teammate as both were trying to defend the hoop. This ultimately caused both Falls players to fall into Tosa East's Anthony Carroll, who was streaking down the court at full speed. The game stopped for several minutes as Ross and Carroll, who both received the worst of it, stayed on the ground getting evaluated by the trainer. Fortunately, both eventually returned to the game and neither appeared to have suffered a major injury, but it was a scary few moments.

On a side note, both crowds displayed some of the poorest reactions to injury that I've ever seen. I was appalled at the Tosa East student section booing Ross as he eventually found his way back to his feet and ambled off the floor. That was totally unacceptable. However, I sort of thought that the outrage over the students' behavior displayed by a couple of overzealous fans seated near me in the Falls adult section was a bit ironic, since the duo in question spent the first minute of the injury stoppage yelling at the refs that their foul call on Ross during the play was a terrible call. The call was unquestionably a good one (and not a tough one to make, in my estimation), but that’s obviously not the point. Much like the general rule that you should never boo an injured player, I'd say that if ever there was a time to stop worrying about the game and complaining to the refs about a call, it's when two high school players are writing in pain on the ground and the severity of their injuries is not yet known. I can tell you quite honestly that after the collision that I saw, fouls and possessions were the last thing on my mind in the ensuing five minutes. Simply put, there were a lot of fans in the gym on that night that I felt truly embarrassed for.

Turning to another interesting tidbit from the game, while I won't say why exactly, my experiences at the game that night left me fairly confident that Menomonee Falls’ star player, J.P. Tokoto is going to be heading to Chapel Hill next year. That’s certainly not a guarantee, as I don’t have any inside information, but something that I stumbled upon that night pretty much convinced me how this one is going to end. I suppose we’ll know for certain soon enough, as Tokoto is reportedly planning to announce his decision at the end of this week. And just to be clear, I'd love to be wrong about this one.

As to the game itself, Falls pulled away for the win, extending a bit of a winning streak that they’ve put together. It appears that things may be coming together for the Indians at the right time for them to be a tough out in the tournament, which kicks off this week. As I noted in my earlier game notes from their prior game against Wauwatosa East, Falls is definitely not short on talent.

And with that, you’re now aware of what I’ve been up to for the past month and a half. I’ll try to be back with one or two updates before the end of the year. However as you know by now, it’s probably best not to expect too much from me these days...

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