Thursday, March 15, 2012

Things I Meant To Talk About This Year

What? Just because I haven't written at all this year, you thought that I haven't been attending basketball games and generally obsessing over basketball-related minutia? Well, I have been. And with that in mind, as Tourney Day is upon us, I'd like to share with you five things that I wished I'd taken the time to discuss on the blog this year. Apologies for the length--when you keep things pent up for an entire year, a lot tends to come out at once. Here are those five things, though:

Dekker’s Big Game: In a random stroke of luck, I happened to be in the stands for Sam Dekker’s 58-point game a few weeks back. I had wanted to see Dekker play all year, but a hectic schedule had prevented me from getting to too many random high school games this year. So it was sheer luck that my schedule freed up on Tuesday night when Wisconsin’s top incoming recruit happened to put on a show for the ages at Random Lake. Even aside from Dekker’s scoring barrage, this would have been a great game for a write-up were I actually documenting my game-viewing as in prior years. From the public address announcer playing the Russian National Anthem (something I’m pretty sure I haven’t heard since listening to Nikolai Volkov sing it at a 1980s Wrestlemania) for Random Lake’s Russian foreign exchange student on senior night, to a chat with a local from Random Lake confirming for me there is, indeed, nowhere I’d find a decent post-game meal in Random Lake, there were plenty of amusing things going on.

Dekker’s performance, however, overshadowed everything. He got three-point shots off at will, was a perfect 14-14 on 2-point shots (including two dunks and one of the finest spin-moves I’ve ever seen), and did tons of damage from the foul line. Basically, he was unstoppable wherever he was on the floor. And Sheboygan Lutheran needed their star to be as near-perfect as he was, since Random Lake had about as hot a shooting night as I’ve seen all year. But despite Random Lake’s surprising size (lots more 6-4 guys than I expected from a school of 300 or so) and outstanding effort, Dekker and his teammates (who stepped up to help out quite a bit in the second half) walked away with the win. I’ve watched a lot of basketball, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen anything like that before. Nor do I expect to see anything quite like it ever again.

Ryan Evans: Ryan Evans’ transformation during his time in Madison is perhaps best described by an exchange that I had with a friend while watching a mid-season Badger game. As Evans hoisted a 15-foot jumper, my friend groaned, and expressed dismay Evans was shooting that particular shot. As the shot predictably dropped through the hoop, I turned to look at my friend and noted “You haven’t watched much of Ryan Evans this year, have you? He’s borderline automatic from that distance.”

Indeed, Evans as a junior is markedly improved over the younger versions of himself. There are two primary things that I remember from Evans’ freshman season. First, he had possibly the most awkward looking and inaccurate jump shot in all of division one basketball. Had this been two years ago, I’d have reacted just like my friend above did. Second, during nearly every interview that I heard with Bo Ryan that season, Ryan went out of his way (sometimes WAY out of his way) to talk about what a joy it was to coach Evans. As a sophomore, he made modest improvements to his game, but his limitations were illustrated by how he was used at the end of tight games. When the Badgers’ needed a strong defender, Evans was inserted into the game. If taking care of the ball was a bigger priority on any given play, though, teammate Tim Jarmusz was subbing in for Evans.

This season? Evans has been a model of consistency. His defensive prowess remains, his formerly awkward jump-shot has developed into the most reliable thing on a wildly inconsistent team, and he has significantly cut down on boneheaded turnovers and other mental lapses. Aside from not quite having three-point range, Evans has developed into a classic Bo Ryan player, who may not be spectacular at any single thing, but is very good at nearly everything.

Perhaps most the astounding thing about Evans’ transformation into a classic Wisconsin solid-but-unspectacular player is that he’s about the last guy who should have developed into such a smart, consistent threat. From what I recall of Evans’ recruitment, he was a lightly recruited player in high school and likely would not have ended up on Wisconsin’s radar if not for a relative of Evans with ties to the university tipping off the coaching staff. Evans’ experience with organized basketball was limited and Wisconsin was taking a flyer on him in large part due to his athleticism. Guys recruited as athletes are usually fun to have around for a big dunk, but they seldom develop into consistent, reliable players. Evans has not been one to rely on his God-given ability alone, though, and luckily for Wisconsin, the only trait more prominent than his athleticism is his willingness to learn and be coached.

So, Ryan Evans is my favorite guy on Wisconsin’s roster. Steady, reliable, and always looking to get better. I’m pretty sure he won’t be an all-American next year, but I’m also pretty sure I don’t care, so long as he continues to be the one guy that is guaranteed to show up for the Badgers every night.

Buzz Williams Dance: After a hard fought win at West Virginia a few weeks back, Buzz Williams took some heat from West Virginia fans for doing a dance at half-court after the game, en route to an interview. Some have criticized Williams for being disrespectful to West Virginia, while other have praised him for making the game fun.

I come down somewhere in the middle on this one. I think Williams’ dance was disrespectful. It should be obvious to any college basketball coach that dancing at mid-court after a win at an opponent’s home court is not going to endear him to the opponents or their fans. That said, I would bet my life that Buzz Williams failed to give one second of thought to the situation prior to busting out his dance moves. It’s classic Buzz Williams to talk or act first, and then be forced to recognize the implications of his actions later. I suspect that Williams meant no ill will to the WVU team or its fans, and I further suspect that he was genuinely embarrassed by what he had done once he realized how it was received.

In short, I think it’s unfair to paint Williams as a poor sport. At worst, he’s a guy that doesn’t always think situations through. That’s not a great trait, and it certainly led him to do something dumb at West Virginia.. But it’s not nearly as bad as being a person that consciously rubs his opponents’ noses in things. And frankly, having a guy who slips up from time to time due to emotion is a bit refreshing, given that Williams’ predecessor was a man who was constantly over-prepared for every situation imaginable.

Germantown: I wrote an essay which I never posted at the start of the season which had as its basic premise that Germantown was the high school basketball version of the 2008 New England Patriots. The summary version of it is this–Germantown, like the 2008 Patriots, had almost all of the obvious things in its favor: arguably the best collection of talent in the state, a team with more varsity and big-game experience than anyone else in the state, and a collection of players who had been learning each other’s tendencies since grade school. But there’s one extra part of the recipe that both the 2011-2012 Germantown Warhawks and the 2008 New England Patriots both have: they play angry. The Patriots refused to ever take their foot off the pedal against opponents after it was suggested that their success was due in part to illegally spying on other teams’ practices via video. Germantown, which returned the bulk of its prior year’s roster, entered the season undoubtedly upset by losing to Appleton East, due in part to a controversial call in last year’s sectional finals. They’ve been on a mission ever since, and have spent the year crushing all opponents. Germantown is not simply undefeated. Consider the following factiods about the Warhawks:

1) Aside from an 8-point margin of victory over Homestead in early February, Germantown has won all other games this season by double-digits.

2) The Warhawks handed 2011 state runner-up and #4 ranked DePere its only two losses of this season.

3) Germantown’s opening round game of this year’s WIAA tournament by a margin of 62 points.

4) Much of Germantown’s success this season was achieved without 6'9" Indiana recruit Luke Fischer, who spent a significant portion of the season out of the lineup without an injury. Fischer returned about a month ago, and should be in perfect game shape by now.

Germantown still has two tough games left to go (against perennial power Madison Memorial, and presumably against Milwaukee King, another frequent state tournament attendee). And as we saw with the football team that I’ve compared the Warhawks to above, there’s no guarantee that the undefeated juggernaut will win the championship. But if I had to guess, I’d still say that any angry Germantown team will finally be smiling and taking home a gold ball on Saturday night.

WIAA Tournament Potentially Moving to Green Bay: Obviously there has been much talk about the WIAA’s proposed move from Madison to Green Bay for the state boys and girls basketball tournaments. When the possibility of moving the state tournament to Green Bay first came about, there was some pretty clear logic to it. Based on the starting proposal, a deal did not seem workable for either side. On January 12, the UW Athletic Department put out this press release, ostensibly to put pressure on the WIAA by showing the public the inherent reasonableness of its offer. Instead, my reading of the press release gave me a better understanding of why the WIAA would consider moving the state basketball tournament from the city that it has been in since 1920. In short, the UW Athletic Department was giving the WIAA a pretty crappy offer.

The major issue at hand was the availability of the Kohl Center. Key to this availability issue is the formation of a hockey league by the Big Ten Conference, and the league’s plans to have member schools host playoff games at times that would conflict with the WIAA tournament schedule. In order to deal with this conflict, the UW Athletic Department offered essentially two options: 1) The WIAA could have the Kohl Center during years when UW was not hosting hockey tournament games and the Fieldhouse in years when UW was not hosting hockey, or 2) The WIAA could have the Kohl Center free and clear for a Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday tournament format, instead of the traditional Thursday-Friday-Saturday tournament.

One can easily see why the WIAA would reject such a proposal, as the options that it had been presented with were not great ones. Option #1 would leave in question the venue of the tournament until a week or two beforehand, creating uncertainty. It would also open up the possibility of playing games at the outdated Fieldhouse, a major step down from the Kohl Center (I love the Fieldhouse as much as anyone, but we’re past the point where it should be hosting the state’s marquee high school basketball event). Option #2 would ridiculously move the tournament to midweek, leaving students to miss more school and making it more difficult for potential spectators to take off of work. With options like those, I can’t particularly fault the WIAA for looking towards Green Bay, which was making a major push to host the tournament and could offer a newer facility (the Resch Center) on the exact dates desired.

Once can similarly see why the UW Athletic Department would make such an objectively terrible offer. While the university and the city as a whole benefits greatly from having the tournament on campus, the Kohl Center is a UW facility, and UW teams should receive top priority for its use. If UW Athletic Director Barry Alvarez went to men’s hockey coach Mike Eaves and told him that he was moving any Big Ten playoff games that UW would be hosting to the Alliant Energy Center, Eaves would be rightfully pissed off (or at least he should be–Eaves has publically been very accommodating and flexible throughout this whole process). UW has to put its own teams first, which in this case, unfortunately, led it to not be able to make a particularly attractive offer to the WIAA.

All of this changed, obviously, when Barry Alvarez initiated his successful attempt to change the format of the Big Ten hockey tournament, primarily in an attempt to free up the Kohl Center for the WIAA in future years. This move gave the WIAA most of the dates that they were looking for. It also showed that the UW Athletic Department, by affecting a significant change in the structure of how hockey will work in the Big Ten, valued the WIAA. This compromise was a big move by the UW Athletic Department, and one that it should be commended for.

However, based news a few weeks back that the WIAA Board of Control recommended moving its boys and girls basketball tournaments to Green Bay starting potentially as early as next year, it appears this was not enough of an accommodation for the WIAA’s taste. From the articles that I’ve read on this matter, it appears that there are two sticking points: 1) The fact that the UW, while freeing up the desired Kohl Center dates in 2015-2018, did nothing to alleviate conflicts existing in 2013 and 2014, and 2) The fact that, according to the WIAA, the offer on the table from UW contains language that would allow the WIAA tournament to be moved in the event of a conflict with a UW regular season event.

At first glance, it appears that the WIAA is being bull-headed and unwilling to compromise. However, looking a bit deeper, once can see that the WIAA is not averse to compromise. In fact, while the WIAA doesn’t seem to be offering an compromises going forward, it has compromised quite a bit over the past decade. For the past two seasons, the WIAA girls’ tournament has been shifted two weeks earlier so that it may be held at the Kohl Center. Prior to that, there were five years that the girls’ tournament was held at the Alliant Energy Center. And having spoken with a few people that attended the girls’ tournament in those years when it was away from the Kohl Center, the general opinion that I have heard is that the Alliant Energy Center is a vastly sub-par facility for basketball (not to mention that there are few, if any, entertainment options within walking distance). So really, in seven of the past eight years, the WIAA has either shifted venues or dates of the girls’ tournament due to issues with Kohl Center conflicts.

Currently, it appears that UW is sincere in its attempts to free up dates in 2015 and beyond for the WIAA. It is understandable that UW would want an out clause for regular season events, given that it is impossible to know what forces may dictate future season schedules. However it is also understandable, given recent history, that the WIAA would balk at committing to an entity that has displaced the tournament in the past, and can’t give a written commitment not to do so going forward. And that’s before you factor in the reality that the currently proposed deal would require two more years of compromise in 2013 and 2014 before the no-conflict era supposedly starts.

In the end, I believe that this is a sad situation for all involved. Having the WIAA tournaments in Madison is of benefit to everyone involved. UW benefits by bringing tourism money into its community, and having the opportunity to showcase itself for legions of high school students and their parents that pass through the campus. The WIAA benefits by getting to use one of the state’s two marquee arenas for one of its marquee events. I doubt that either one wants to lose the other, but at this point, it seems likely that they will.

As to what I see happening, I think that the tournament will move to Green Bay. And while a great tradition will be lost and some Madison businesses will lose out on some tourism money, life will go on. Green Bay will likely do an outstanding job of hosting the tournament at the Resch Center, and student athletes winning state championships will be no less excited about doing so than they were before. And finally, five years from now, when the WIAA’s contract with Green Bay is up, the tournament will move back to Madison after all of the parties involved truly come to recognize what they lost when the tournament moved.

Enjoy March Madness, and I'll see you again when the feeling moves me...

Listed on BlogShares