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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Backcourt Depth

The loss of Michael Flowers, however temporary it may be, brings to light the issue Wisconsin has in recent years with players (primarily guards) leaving the program. It is a problem that every school faces from time to time, but one which had not bit the team in the butt yet. Until now.

Currently the team has one (!) active scholarship upperclassman capable of playing guard: Joe Krabbenhoft. Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon are good, but only sophomores slight of stature. Tim Jarmusz is fresh out of high school. Mo Cain and Tanner Bronson are former walk-ons. Even with Flowers, the Badgers aren't exactly deep here.

Yet I hesitate to throw up the white flag this early because time and time again, Bo Ryan has led Wisconsin to heights it has never seen before even after losing a scholarship athlete. In the recent past, this situation occurred three years in a row. I have wondered how the departures have truly impacted the current make-up of the program, so I took a closer look at each situation to refresh my memory.

In doing so, two lines of questioning surfaced. The first goes like this: (1) Was there a problem with the program that pushed unhappy players away? Does it still exist? Did this atmosphere and the decisions of the troubled players derail one season already and endanger the potential of this year's team? Then, the contrarian in me thought maybe (2) these recruits couldn't hack it -- either on the court, in the classroom or at home in their personal life. How did they wind up on campus to begin with? Did the staff just have a run of bad luck or simply whiff on guys in the recruiting game several years in a row?

Case #1 :: 2004-05
As a freshman, Boo Wade played in every game for arguably Bo's most talented team, which won the Big Ten title outright in 2002-03. Wade averaged 20 min/g the following year but missed two games due to legal and personal troubles that would cause him to take a leave of absence before leaving the university for good in January '05. His value as a defender and even a 3-point threat was undeniable.

Was Wade worth the six points that separated Wisconsin from North Carolina in their Elite Eight match-up that year? Possibly. He could have slowed down Ray Felton. With Sharif Chambliss, Clayton Hanson and Kammron Taylor at guard, though, the problem that game was stopping Sean May down low. That season that wound up wildly successful in most people's eyes anyway. Wade would have been a senior two season ago on a team that also lost Landry and Stiemsma midseason to academic and psychological issues. So while Wade would have been very valuable, again, his absence was not the biggest factor that derailed the Badgers' season.

You can play the what-if game for a long time on this one, but Wade was a good player and his loss a big blow to the program. Wisconsin survived.

Case #2 :: 2005-06
The DeAaron Williams story is not as tragic, but just as sad. He was not a proven commodity on the court for the Badgers, having redshirted in his only full year on campus. Personally, I thought he looked improved to start the ensuing year; decent enough in 8 min/g against mostly subpar opposition.

One newspaper famously labeled him the "10th man in a nine-man rotation." Leapfrogged for minutes by freshman Krabbenhoft and stuck behind veterans at guard, Williams lost his patience. When the hammer came down on Landry and Stiemsma, the Williams defection hurt a bit more. Though the team made the tournament without those three players, it was easily Bo's worst season as head coach.

In retrospect, Williams appeared to be a kid who came to play ball, had to wait around to get started and in the meantime, had no interest in being a student. After leaving UW, he played well for a JUCO back home, but bounced around because of his academic standing.

Wisconsin didn't seem to miss Williams last year en route to a number one ranking and a school-record 30 victories. You never know what could have happened had Williams chosen to stick it out. He was a slashing scorer and a former state high school dunk champ -- I don't see anyone close to that on UW's current roster. Provided he remained eligible, he could have filled a role for the Badgers this year. Unless ...

Case #3 :: 2006-07
Williams would have had to endure another season behind Tucker last year and beat out a new recruit, Phillip "Mickey" Perry.

If Williams was more level-headed, perhaps he would not have viewed the signing of Perry as being "recruited over." Perry took a redshirt in his first season, but was a better shooter than Williams and may indeed have gotten more PT. It would be interesting to know what kind of relationship Williams and Perry had in their short time together, and if the attitude of the former had an influence on the latter.

Like Williams, Perry had his own issues with academics. It's common knowledge that Perry was ineligible the second semester of his redshirt season in '05-'06. And like Williams, he absolutely could have helped this year's team at guard in the absence of Flowers. But it's not fun sitting behind freshmen when you know you can play. Keep an eye on Perry starting in January.

So while I think Bo simply faced a little bad luck (Wade) and even worse luck (Latrell Fleming), the fact that the coaching staff whiffed on Williams and Perry consecutively and hasn't missed a beat yet points more toward the progress the program has made in terms of national respect and perception than Wisconsin having problems that push players out the door.

Last year's two talented freshmen guards and the team's overall success turned Perry's departure into little more than an afterthought. Wisconsin's basketball program has grown into a national power that is capable of attracting more talented players than it did even two or three years ago when Bo's boys were winning Big Ten titles. That kind of sustained excellence gets most recruits excited, but others simply value playing time more than winning.

These days, when UW is off the mark with a recruit, there is an even better player anxious to take his place. A good season, with or without Flowers, will prove it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Still In The Dark

No official updates on Michael Flowers, but it has not even been a week since the announcement. Perhaps we'll hear something before the weekend. Flowers was spotted at the red/white scrimmage for the team photo.

The bogus rumor that Mike wants to join brother Jonte at Winona State has resurfaced, but no one's buying it since it makes no sense whatsoever. The word on the street is that this situation is more similar to Stiemsma's depression issues from a few seasons ago. Take all the time you need, Mike. Get right.

Although I have a good feeling about his return, losing Flowers for an extended period of time would be devastating. Last year, I felt his success drove the Badgers to another level. He was successful when he was getting in the lane, forcing teams to get out of their comfort zone on defense, playing on emotion and creating turnovers. Obviously I feel the same will be true this year on a team that lacks clear leadership.

Even if/when Flowers does rejoin the team, Trevon Hughes is the key to this year. Hughes has as much potential as any player on the team and his development is vital to the program. The local papers hit the issue hard last week, so it's safe to say the pressure is on the sophomore to produce.

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Wishing the team wasn't in such a predicament led to thinking about the reasons why Wisconsin is lacking quality guard depth. It took research to refresh my memory, but I came to some conclusions that I hope to have posted later this week. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

A Glimpse Into The Present

There's nothing like a sloppy Red/White scrimmage to derail the confidence you have in your favorite team. As far as scrimmages go, it was not even that sloppy. I was just hoping to see something, well ... more, something better.

What I saw was a team that at this point still doesn't know its identity. Minus last year's top two go-to guys and leaders, you wanted to see Marcus Landry step up and dominate. Minus Michael Flowers, who I hope can still be this year's emotional leader, you didn't see enough players making you get excited just by virtue of their energy.

That being said, there were plenty of bright spots. One was definitely seeing Joe Krabbenhoft leading his team in scoring. He had about 18 points. Technically, the Red vs. White scrimmage was a tie, thanks to some creative score keeping at the five minute-mark and again under a minute. The Red team (Hughes, Krabbenhoft, Gavinski, Keaton Nankivil, Gullikson, Valentyn, Cain) appeared to be a decided underdog, having only two players from last year's rotation, yet they led by around 20 points for over half of the game. I attribute most of that to the fact that Hughes controls the tempo, especially in a looser setting. His team got much easier baskets. Yet when the score was "reset" to 71-71 with five minutes left, the White team (Butch, Bohannon, Landry, Bronson, Stiemsma, Leuer, Jarmusz) took control. The fact that the experienced players came alive when it mattered eased some of my discomfort, but the fact that Hughes & Co. folded with several turnovers was a little worrisome.

The Badgers are also sporting new jerseys this year again. Not bad. Thankfully, nothing crazy, nor resembling women's jerseys. The closest comparison is the Houston Rockets. Not sure what you can glean from the pics.

I am operating under the assumption that the scrimmage provides at least some value in anticipating what how the team will function this season. Get on board with me. Here's the rest of what I saw, player-by-player:

#1 :: Marcus Landry
Very disappointing in my opinion. It took about 15 minutes of play to realize that he was even in the game. To me, this is a bad sign, even in scrimmage. It's not a sign that he's a bad player or even not a leader. I feel it does indicate he's not ready to make The Leap this year like we all had hoped. Landry brought the ball up court several times, but he still seems more comfortable down low on offense. To fill Tucker's vacated role, Landry will have get better penetration, which will only come as he gets more experience handling the ball. He picked up four fouls early and seemed frustrated with the play of Leuer on a couple occasions.
HIGHLIGHTS: Landry posted one alley-oop dunk and a fantastic pass in the paint for an assist.

#3 :: Trevon "Pop" Hughes
Best player on the floor. A couple of shots didn't bounce his way on some nice moves to the hole, but did hit several jumpers. Overall he looked ready to lead the team, although I would have liked to see him draw some fouls. Still gets caught in the air a few times without a real plan, but he got bailed out each time.
HIGHLIGHTS: Pop rebounds very well as a lead guard, which is great because the transition to the other end of the floor is then instantaneous. It's just fun to watch him run end-to-end with the ball.

#12 :: Jason Bohannon
Not much to write about. I wish he would have put up a few more shots, but I really wish he could have played along side Hughes to see what kind of open shots he'd get. J-Bo seemed content to distribute the rock.
HIGHLIGHTS: A deep step-back two with his foot on the 3-point arc.

#14 :: Tanner Bronson
Went to the bench when the five minutes of "serious" play began. 'Nuff said.
HIGHLIGHTS: He did manage one bucket.

#15 :: Brett Valentyn
I doubt this guy will be an In-Game Asset (IGA) for Wisconsin. Wisely used his redshirt last season and has some height at 6'4".
HIGHLIGHTS: Took advantage of a size mismatch to score in the post on Bronson and drew a foul down there on a separate occasion.

#21 :: Morris "Sugar" Cain
I predict Cain will see significant minutes this season. He seems to make open shots, is a fairly good athlete and plays guard. I think that will be enough this year, given Flowers' status. But he will have to fight Jarmusz for those minutes, judging by Bo's comments.
HIGHLIGHTS: Blocked a Butch layup from behind, off the glass. Sunk the first basket of the game, a baseline J from about 10 feet. Truly a lost art.

#22 :: Michael Flowers
Did not see him in attendance. I suspect he was supposed to suit up for the red team originally.

#24 :: Tim Jarmusz
Did not play. No explanation for why he relaxed on the bench the whole time, although some fans claimed to see him holding his ankle.

#30 :: Jon Leuer
Struggled with turnovers and decision-making. Not uncommon for a freshman, but unless Flowers does not return, I think a redshirt year would benefit Jon. He got whistled for a five-second call and his turnovers get the White squad out from putting a few runs together. I don't see how he would get minutes down low and he won't be helping on the wing much until his ball-handling improves. I know he was recruited more as a small forward than anything, despite the fact that he's 6'10". The White team threw three near 7-footers out in their front court for stretches when Leuer joined Butch and Stiemsma. That's fun.
HIGHLIGHTS: The nifty pass from Landry went to Leuer, who used a great, if unnecessary reverse to lay the ball in. Rest assured, Leuer can convert when given the ball near the basket. He scored in double figures.

#32 :: Brian Butch, "The Polar Bear"
Butch will be the 2007-08 team's leading scorer. If he did not still have the knack for pivoting with the ball directly into the double-team on the block, he'd be a great offensive player. Along with Hughes, Butch stood out (as he should) as a clearly superior player. He has to be Wisconsin's go-to guy and I think he's finally ready in his fifth season. As reported, he is in the best shape of his career.
HIGHLIGHTS: In the five-minute drill, Butch attacked. And scored. And got to the foul line. I want to see this all year in meaningful games. People realized how valuable Butch was when he got injured last season, so it's time to truly enjoy him. He also had a couple of Shaq-like dunks where he pulls his knees way up and hangs on the rim a bit in addition to an "and-one" dunk over Gullikson (or Gavinkski, I can't remember).

#34 :: Greg Stiemsma
The Steamboat impressed me quite a bit. He showed a nice touch around the basket and relatively good footwork. I don't think he gets credit for being the good athlete that he is, no longer awkward at all in his huge frame. And he is having a lot of fun while he's at it.
HIGHLIGHTS: Swatted two consecutive shots in the same possession near the beginning of the game.

#43 :: Kevin Gullikson
Hard to believe he's "only" 6'7" -- he truly looks like he belongs on Bret Bielema's defensive line. At this point, you know what you're getting out of this guy: hard work and a banger to body up on bigger foes.
HIGHLIGHTS: Nothing stands out.

#44 :: J.P. Gavinski
Looked winded immediately and threw up several airballs from 10-15 feet. Not a good omen. Also got abused on the defensive end. He will get minutes backing up Stiemsma, but mostly by virtue of his height. I would expect Nankivil to get more PT (hopefully). When J.P. does something good, let's just say it's a pleasant surprise.
HIGHLIGHTS: As the game wore on, he actually showed a few decent post moves and a softer touch from within five feet.

#45 :: Joe Krabbenhoft
Krabby is one of those players I don't expect too much from. People go overboard criticizing his lack of offense and others go overboard defending his all-around game. The fact is he is always around the ball and he hit nearly every shot he took this afternoon. Now, come the regular season, do you really care whether that's a spinning pull-up jumper or another garbage five-footer because he got himself in good position? Me neither.
HIGHLIGHTS: I was extremely pleased watching Krabbenhoft. He crashed the board for a sky-high one-handed rebound at one point and sank a couple of pretty, close range bank shots -- reminiscent of Big Fundamental himself. A bit more willing to shoot, but we'll see how that translates to real game action. I have my fingers crossed optimistically.

#52 :: Keaton Nankivil
True player. I've said it a million times, but this guy is going to be a workhorse for the Badgers. There is reason the ACC was after this kid. He is fundamentally sound, with good range, athleticism and a Big Ten body. He looks like he belongs.
HIGHLIGHTS: Executed a sweet three-part up and under move on Butch that got a big cheer out of the crowd. Nailed an open trey early in the game while others were still finding their rhythm. Keaton can match up against the trees on either end because he can front the post well already, which Bo will absolutely love.

Wisconsin could be hard to handle down low this season. There is a lot of experience at the post positions, but Nankivil will crack the rotation. Butch and Stiemsma will be a nice duo and if there was ever a year to employ some zone defense, this is it. Imagine Hughes, Flowers and Krabbenhoft hounding the perimeter and Nankivil and Stiemsma in the paint. The offense will struggle at times, but I can't wait to see which guys emerge to help Butch out.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Flowers Takes Leave of Absence from Team

Senior guard Michael Flowers will be taking a break from the UW men's basketball team for unspecified medical reasons. It is unclear from the statement released by the university Thursday whether the cause is something affecting Flowers himself physically or if it might be a family medical issue. It's too early to speculate.

I hope for the best for Mike and whatever issue he is facing. Have faith that he will be on the court again this season for the Badgers as the absence has been officially termed "temporary" for now.

If Flowers should miss any significant portion of the season, the backcourt rotation becomes very thin with possibly both sophomore guards starting and Krabbenhoft rotating in at shooting guard. Bo Ryan has heaped some praise on how ready his freshman class is currently and it's a good thing because now it looks like Tim Jarmusz will be expected to also contribute in the backcourt right away.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Night of the Grateful Red

You remember the Hambone, right? Well, you only had to wait until right after the player introductions to see why Bo Ryan is still one of the best in the business. And by business I mean the "old man dancing a young man's dance"-business.

A highlight of tonight's "Night of the Grateful Red" at the Kohl Center was the video scoreboard showing Bo doing the Soulja Boy dance. He does these routines well enough to avoid embarrassment, but just well enough to be hilarious. The Big Ten Network has free coverage of the event, along with four other basketball tip-off events across the conference, on their website (IE only) if you need the visual fix. Bo blew everybody not named Howard Moore out of the water.

Of course, you can't tell much from a night of drills and contests, but you can pick up a few impressions:

- Keaton Nankivil is all limbs, even more so than I remember from his high school days. If he's not done growing, he might have a 10-foot wingspan by the end of the year.
- I'm not sure what J.P. Gavinski did during his redshirt season. He is still big and slow. By comparison, Greg Stiemsma looked like Kevin Garnett in warmups.

- According to his bio, Mike Flowers has worked on his endurance the most this off-season. I must say he did look thinner and faster to me. He is the unquestioned leader of the team.
- Following in his mentor's footsteps, Marcus Landry seems to be one of the kindest and most likable athletes on campus. He went waaaay out of his way multiple times to get to the kids in attendance to slap high-fives.
- I realize there is no way to say this without sounding racist, but ... seeing this team together for the first time on the floor instead of just on paper makes you say, "Wow, they have a very white team." The only reason this could possible matter would relate to recruiting, where frankly, this type of thing does matter to players. A kid is going to go play basketball where he feels most at home among other things.
Landry and Cain are from Milwaukee, Pop Hughes is originally from NYC and Flowers is home grown. That's it for diversity on this basketball team. It's a known fact that despite its progressive attitude, the UW-Madison campus struggles to maintain a significant African-American population among its students. The composition of the basketball team reflects that. One of the reasons why Chicago phenoms aren't knocking down Bucky's door is because when they come to hang, they run into a bunch of kids from up north that love ice fishing. Thankfully having Coach Moore on staff probably alleviates some of that disconnect. Besides, racial makeup has nothing to do with how well the team plays basketball.

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Question: Why does the three-point shooting contest stand the test of time and the slam dunk competition does not anymore?

It's an accepted premise even at the pro level. You get the same thing every time in the shooting competition, yet the minute someone gets on a hot streak, you're glued. On the other hand, unless you see someone dunk the ball in a way you've never seen before (almost never these days), the thing never lives up to the hype.

I was a bit off on my predictions. The highlight of the three-point shooting portion was Butch draining the whole fourth rack of balls ... and still missing out on the finals. Frosh Tim Jarmusz looked legit in topping Bohannon in the finals. The foursome in the dunk contest each had their moments, including a nice leaning one-hander by Flowers. However, the Landry-Flowers showdown left something to be desired.

The official Badger men's basketball blog on features a moment-by-moment breakdown of the evening. Look out for those 1940-41 throwbacks on Dec. 3 ...

Scratch That: Another Chicken Stays in the Coop

Word came out yesterday that Sterling, Ill. junior Joseph Bertrand has verbally committed to Illinois, swiping one of Wisconsin's prime '09 recruiting targets right off the table. Bertrand is capable of playing either guard spot and will probably wind up playing point guard for the Illini even though he's said to be still growing.

The commitment completes a very nice recruiting class for Bruce Weber, one he sorely needed if you ask those who live and bleed orange. All three players are well-regarded backcourt talents, which could lead to a hellish flashback for opponents in a few years. You cannot blame Weber for trying to recreate the Dee Brown/Deron Williams/Luther Head magic. Combine his 2009 class with a top-notch freshman guard (Demetri McCamey, from Isaiah Thomas' alma mater) and an early commitment from 5-star stud Jereme Richmond for 2010 and you just wonder why it took so long.

While it is sad to remove an excellent player's name from UW's list of potential signees, the completion of Illinois' class means that the Badgers have playing time and open arms to offer Bertrand's capable AAU teammate Diamond Taylor.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Midevening Madness

Wisconsin's first public appearance of the season comes this Friday at "Night of the Grateful Red" which is UW's version of the now-diluted Midnight Madness concept. The sneak peak at a Badger practice starts at 7 p.m. and will feature a slam dunk and three-point shooting contest.

Former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell gets credit for starting the madness back in 1971 when he tried to get a leg up on the competition with the earliest possible practice. Hundreds of fans found out and showed up despite the late hour. A year later when the practice turned into a scrimmage, thousands of rabid basketball fans attended and a phenomenon was born.

Basketball hotbeds like Kentucky can sell thousands of tickets to Big Blue Madness and actually make money off of the first practice of the year. Thankfully for hoop heads, Wisconsin is still a football school and lets fans in for free. Ever since 2005, when the NCAA allowed schools to move the practice up to about 7 p.m., you would be hard-pressed to find a campus without such an event, each branded with its own variation of the "Madness" name.

Now, if I were a betting man -- and I am -- I'd say that either Marcus Landry or Trevon Hughes would win a Badger dunk contest. Hughes has the "wow"-factor advantage because of his small stature, while Landry is simply the most athletic player. But it's much more fun to just declare that Morris "Sugar" Cain will take home the honors.

As for the long-distance shootout, another pair of front runners jump to mind: Brian Butch and Jason Bohannon. I recall Butch taking home some sharp-shooting hardware at the McDonald's All-American festivities, but J-Bo is the clear favorite. Frankly, if Bohannon doesn't win this contest, I will be worried. For all the hype and hope Badger fans have heaped on the sophomore's shooting prowess, it ought to be in the bag. Considering the scoring void left by Tucker and Taylor, Wisconsin needs J-Bo to be a confident, dagger-tossing killer behind the arc. Every waking minute.

If you're more in the mood for an intra-squad scrimmage, the Badgers have one of those too, on Sunday, Oct. 21. I hope to personally take in a bit of each event and then report back on what haircut Greg Stiemsma will be sporting this year, which freshman needs to redshirt, and whether or not Joe Krabbenhoft is still frightened by open 16-footers.

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The Bucks beat the Bulls in LaCrosse in their exhibition opener last night. Now that the international Yi incident has been put to bed, the Chairman should concentrate on staying on the floor with better defense. Yi fouled out in 15 minutes of play. [See video here]

Don't worry Yi, you're not the only one.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Note to Self

Full calendar months passed without posting: 1

New players signed to Wisconsin men's basketball program: 0
Internet-reported offers extended to high school superstars: 6

Days until Wisconsin opens the new season vs. IUPU-Fort Wayne: 40
Changes to the official tip-off time to accomodate Packers fans: 1

Weeks until Wisconsin visits Duke: 8
Weeks until the Badgers beat the Blue Devils: 8

Do you like the NCAA tournament's new 8-team "first-round" format?

What should Wisconsin do with the newly vacated scholarship?

Poll: Who will win the Big Ten?

Poll: Who was Wisconsin's first-half MVP (thru 16 games)?

Poll: How Many Regular Season games will wisconsin win in 2009-10?