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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Second Annual Border Battle

Verona hosted the second annual Border Battle on Saturday between assorted boys basketball teams from Wisconsin and Minnesota, five from each state. Considering the close proximity to Madison, I made the trip. I was looking forward to seeing Wisconsin recruit Jared Berggren from Princeton (MN) in person for the first time and then observing the high-ranking clash that followed between Madison Memorial and Minnetonka.

Unfortunately, I arrived late enough to watch only from the latter part of the second quarter on. Princeton only scored a handful of buckets from that point forward as the Waupun Warriors rained 3s down on the Tigers. Berggren scored all of his points in the first half. Needless to say, I wasn't impressed with Berggren's supporting cast, who couldn't get him the ball in the right spot at all in the second half.

The big guy was looking extremely frustrated as the third quarter wore on and he sat out the fourth period entirely. Waupun was collapsing down on the 6'10" senior with two or three players at all times and no one relieved the pressure with accurate shooting. Sadly, this viewing experience was a letdown for me.

Conversely, Jeronne Maymon and his Madison Memorial teammates were quite impressive in getting their revenge on Minnetonka. The Skippers, a large Class 4A power in Minnesota, dispatched the Spartans in last year's inaugural Border Battle and were fresh off a 14-point win over Jordan Taylor and Benilde-St. Margaret's. Minnetonka features two Division I players of its own, but could not keep up with the frantic pace and pressure applied by Memorial.

Wisconsin is thought to be lukewarm on Maymon, a 6'6" junior, due to issues like academics, attitude, etc. But the kid can flat out ball. Maymon dominated Minnetonka, like a man among boys, posting 30 points and grabbing a "shload" of rebounds. I have seen Maymon play numerous times in the past three years and he reminds of LeBron James in a few ways. He is built muscularly beyond his years and at the same time, unbelievably quick to the hole in his execution. Put those together and you have the most devastating spin move in the state.

The athleticism puts him on another level at the high school level and I wish for the best if he cannot grab a scholarship from big-time college program. After watching him on Saturday, I admit part of me wanted his future to be with the Badgers. One Skipper's father, who will remain anonymous, was sitting next to me and embarrassing himself all game long by complaining to the referees. Even he admitted, "That (number) 40, he's eating our lunch."

With an absence of height on Memorial's roster this year, Maymon is playing inside more than ever. While that's not ideal for developing a college-level perimeter game, Maymon is getting his first stab at being a leader and go-to weapon.

Minnetonka's Anthony Tucker had about 19 points if I remember correctly (if you count a meaningless last second dunk). I was not too impressed with Tucker, but I guess he's good enough for Iowa. He displayed a great shooting stroke, but perhaps not enough aggressiveness or speed.

Speaking of smooth shooting, sophomore Vander Blue also started the game hot for the Spartans. He has great hops and can get a shot from anywhere on the court. After struggling in the middle quarters, Blue stopped fading away on his jumpers and finished with 16 points. He is already receiving plenty of attention from D-I coaches himself, as a 6'3"guard in a program famous for generating college basketball talent.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

It Sucks To Be Right

With the way Wisconsin had been playing recently, I was not surprised that Purdue handed the Badgers their first conference loss today. I was not the only who basically predicted a loss to the Boilermakers.

What I was hoping for was a close game and that is what we saw. Even after playing a below average game, UW was right there in position for a win at the end. Unfortunately, the final chance for Wisconsin was short-circuited by a missed foul by the referees on Michael Flowers on the potentially game-tying final drive.

Watching the game with the sound off, the endless loop of replays proved that Purdue's Robbie Hummel indeed fouled Flowers with the body and slapped nothing but wrist (no ball) on the "shot block." That all makes ESPN's recap headline laughable. But if E'Twaun Moore's wide-open runner didn't inexplicably spin out of the hoop on the other end, UW would not have even been in a position to tie. Plus, the game was at Mackey Arena. End of story.

It was interesting, however, that at the end of the game, I was not sure who I wanted to take the last shot. That's kind of team Wisconsin has, which is kind of a cool problem. I mean, without an MJ, Kobe or Agent Zero on the team, nothing is for certain anyway. So my thought process went like this:

"Well, J-Bo obviously ... wait, he's proved he is not a reliable marksmen, how about Hughes? ... nope, I've seen him force too many shots. He needs to create the open look. So who gets the ball? Butch? He's money ... mmm, suuum-times. It would be too obvious and I don't want this game to end on a traveling violation or a ball rolling off an ankle ... Flowers has done it before, why not again? Or Landry, he's proved he can hit clutch shots. I'm not feeling it today, not two games in a row for Goggles ... I give up, give it to Butch, he needs a game-winner for his resume."
Everyone on the floor a legitimate threat; not comfortable with anyone. If you cannot enter that conversation (ahem, Dakota Joe), you are not the team's most valuable player. Ideally I'd want Hughes driving to create a dump off to Landry or an open look for Bohannon or Flowers. I was fine with Flowers taking it and he had the step. It just wasn't his day.

Other thoughts:
-Butch was a beast again today, notching 20 points and 13 rebounds to lead the team in both categories. [box score]

-Flowers and Landry had very rough days offensively, but it was Hughes who disappeared with only two points in the second half. I'll say it one more time: as the backcourt of Hughes and Flowers goes, so goes this team.

-Two assists Pop? Really? It's unreal that this guy is not averaging 5 dimes per game, with his talent, quickness and passing ability. Unacceptable really. I know, I know ... patience ...

-Greg Stiemsma had it rougher than anyone. Off a solid performance versus Michigan, the Steamboat left me with nothing but a gluttony of missed opportunities.

-Finally, Purdue is young. Yada, yada, yada ... they can shoot and they'll be in the upper crust of the league for years to come. Get used to it. With the win, Purdue tied Wisconsin for second place in the Big Ten at 6-1. I will be attending the rematch at the Herb Garden on Feb. 9, making noise in the student section.

-Losses are a little more bearable with Bo Ryan as your coach. I just had to add Bo's post-quote in reference to the Purdue fans rushing the court after beating Wisconsin:
"We've lost four (Big Ten) games in two years and they stormed the court all four times. I thought people threw some loose money out on the court. I was looking for some fives. I wasn't going to dive into the students for 1s. I was looking for fives and 10s.''

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

On the Stove Top: Links Edition (1/22)

- We know Wisconsin's schedule has been incredibly easy to start Big Ten play, but you take what you are given. Starting 5-0 (likely 6-0 after tonight's game) has given the Badgers an average projected tournament seed of three, according to the Bracket Matrix.

- As UW continues to look at adding a wing player to its 2008 recruiting class, the Capital Times shoots us an update on Isiah Nunn, a late-bloomer from Moline, IL that the Badgers are very interested in.

The lack of a player like Nunn on the current roster makes it easy to get excited about him donning the red and white. However, spending a fifth scholarship on an '08 freshman has me worried about what kind of talent Wisconsin might let slip away in 2009, when plenty of kids within a few hours drive from Madison have Top 100 talent (see recruiting sidebar).

That complaint has been voiced a million times over on message boards, but this one silver lining is usually glossed over: in a program where Bo Ryan values senior leadership and four years of development on and off the court, think about what he could do with a talented five-man class. The years of 2010-2012 could be national championship-caliber with Taylor, Wilson, Berggren, Markolf and an athlete like Nunn in the same class.

- Back to starting 5-0 ... upon further review, it is not so unheard of to have five different players lead the team with 20 or more points in consecutive games. In fact, in the Big East, Providence and Seton Hall both have done it this year. As Rob Schultz notes at the end of his piece about Nunn, though, neither of those teams accomplished the feat during the conference portion of their schedule.

- Can Jason Bohannon or Joe Krabbenhoft pull a Leuer to continue the trend tonight at home against Michigan? The Wolverines may not be at full strength.

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Cyber Shout Out

Over the last few days, you may have noticed the addition of a new website under the Links section along the right side. I don't know how I missed this site before, but Basketball State has really impressed me in the little I have been able to enjoy without becoming a subscriber. It's only a matter of time, truthfully.

Basketball State is an offspring of the Kyle Whelliston phenomenom and I don't mind sounding like fan of his because I am. However, the website's look, feel and content speak for itself. The front page is simple and attractive in blue and gray. Right away, you -- the NCAA basketball nutcase -- have access to information that you have to dig through a monster site like in order to get.

The most prominent features are:
- a trademarked up-to-the-minute ranking system that gives more weight to RPI, performance in recent games, efficiency and playing well at home
- a nightly college hoops scoreboard utilizing Google map technology
- national statistical leaders
- graphs and tempo free box scores for each team
- a revolving door of other goodies that includes anything you ever wanted to know about each NCAA Tournament to information on your most despised enemies -- the officials.

And you can get some of the content for free on your iPhone!

Peruse the site a bit if you can before being bombarded by the SIGN UP NOW! screens. Before long you might find yourself considering a membership like me, an admitted cheapskate.

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Yeah, so Wisconsin does indeed host a Big Ten contest on Saturday. Forgive me for not getting too revved up that Northwestern is coming to town. It's true that sophomore Kevin Coble, a former three-time prep Player of the Year in Arizona, returned to the team in time for the start of the conference season. However, despite Coble exploding for 34 points against Michigan, the Wildcats have lost all four of their Big Ten games by at least 10 points. It is going to be an apathetic crowd at the Kohl Center tomorrow night.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Gatekeepers

Penn State had plenty to prove Tuesday night. The Nittany Lions needed to prove they could bounce back from a devastating meltdown against Minnesota, that they could hang with the Big Ten's elite and that they would be worthy of an NCAA bid come tournament time.

None of that happened. Wisconsin went into Happy Valley as gatekeepers and shut the door on Penn State early with stifling defense and uncharacteristicly hot 3-point shooting. The home team managed only one basket in the first eight minutes of play, by which time UW held an 18-2 lead. When PSU star Geary Claxton was lost to a knee injury near the midway point of the first half, this game was unofficially O-V-E-R. [box score]

Michael Flowers put forth maybe the finest all-around effort of his career, pacing Wisconsin with a career-high 23 points. He added 6 rebs, 5 assts, and one dynamic steal and lay-up. See what happens when you don't get into foul trouble, Mike? Flowers' 5-of-6 shooting on treys led the team to a 10-of-16 performance overall behind the arc. Not surprisingly then with the outside shot falling, neither team went to the free throw line much.

With a sizable lead, it was refreshing to see the Wisconsin players act like they smelled blood. Instead of letting another less talented league foe hang around, the Badgers shot with confidence and made the kill. And of course, they killed the Nittany Lions on the glass as well, led by Brian Butch's 12 boards.

We are witnessing a historic run by Butch, by the way. The former McDonald's All-American is on pace to have 256 rebounds by the end of the season, assuming he remains healthy and the Badgers play at least one game in the Big Ten tournament and one in the NCAA tournament. That is a conservative, but fair, estimate for number of games played and should he keep this pace, Butch could rise as high as 7th on Wisconsin's all-time career rebounding list. He is already halfway toward shattering the single-season UW record for offensive rebounds. The Polar Bear has 51 through the first 16 games; the current record of 86 was set by Alando Tucker in 2003 (as a freshman!).

With second-chance opportunities limited by Butch and Co., the Nittany Lions could not afford to shoot under 37% to Wisconsin's nearly 60%. Penn State's spirit clearly was broken with Claxton out. The Nittany Lions allowed the Badgers to throw a 19-0 run on them toward the end of the game that turned 12-point lead into an enormous 31-point lead. Now that it appears Claxton is out for the season, the Penn State postseason drive may have already been derailed ... yet again.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin's balance continues to be a major strength. A different player has led the team in scoring in each of the last four games. Flowers did nothing to nothing to kick me out of the driver's seat of his bandwagon -- I've always said when he is at his best, Wisconsin is nearly unbeatable.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Around the Brackets

Wisconsin's extended break from competition will come to an end tomorrow when they play at Penn State. Add Michigan State's horrific loss to Iowa to the recent St. Louis debacle and UW's own nightmare against Duke looks slightly more acceptable. Not to mention Wisconsin's entire Dick Bennett Era. How has Roy Williams managed to contain himself?

Indiana and Wisconsin are now the final two teams still undefeated in Big Ten play. Over at, Joe Lunardi has moved the Badgers into a #3 seed in this week's Bracketology. Wisconsin joins Indiana and Marquette on the 3-Line, with Texas A&M. I eagerly anticipate next week's update of the Lockbox at The Bracket Board (love the lime green!), where there Badgers were a #4 seed 10 days ago.

If you are interested in such things, The Bracket Matrix attempts to track all relevant NCAA Tournament projections together in a grid format and reach a consensus. Wisconsin is a #4 here as well.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Harley Is Back On The Mantle

When I was little, my grandparents always had a ceramic horse and buggy on their mantle above the fireplace. Over the years, the horse (named Harley), was knocked over enough times that he had a broken leg, a missing ear and busted pieces on his buggy.

Every once in a while, the pieces would get reattached with super glue so that Harley could maintain his rightful place atop of the mantle in all his majesty. But was the horse and buggy all that attractive or valuable? Not really. What was the purpose of keeping Harley on the mantle?

Wisconsin's game against Illinois last night was all about putting the ornament back on the mantle. Even though the Badgers have clearly taken the Fighting Illini's place in the upper echelon of league powers, the mantle had been missing something in Madison.

Here came Illinois, a mere 8-7 entering Thursday, carrying their own three-game home losing streak. Yet, the very same team was riding a two-game winning streak in Madison. In fact, Illinois is the only Big Ten school to beat Bo Ryan at the Kohl Center!

Some things never change in the Big Ten. Illinois (8-8, 0-3) still gave Wisconsin (13-2, 3-0) a run for its money. With 9:35 left to play, there were the Illini, down only three points. They severely out-rebounded the Badgers (33-24) and shot the lights out from 3-point land (60%). The result? Offensively-challenged Illinois put up 60 points on UW!

But all was not lost ... far from it in fact.

Trevon Hughes finally looked like his pre-injury self, slicing to finish strong at the hoop and being disruptive defensively on the perimeter. Despite the 60 points allowed, Wisconsin was a collective pest on the defensive end. Hughes snagged a career-high six steals out of UW's nine total thefts. Meanwhile, Marcus Landry contested every shot inside, getting credit for two of Wisconsin's five blocked shots. [box score]

Landry should have been credited for even more blocks as well. He had two gems versus Shaun Pruitt alone. On the first, Landry was reading Pruitt all the way as help defense and jumped on a Pruitt shot fake. But he put his fast-twitch muscle fiber to work to immediately stuff Pruitt on his second jump. Then you had the second-half block from behind where Landry's hand pinned the ball between the rim and backboard on Pruitt's dunk attempt.

At the same time, it was painfully evident that Landry is destined to be a post player for life. With just under ten minutes left in the first half, Illinois cranked up the man-to-man pressure two full notches. Give them credit. But the Illini were overplaying so aggressively that Landry's defender left the entire wing and baseline area open for a drive. But Landry just couldn't pull the trigger and the offense continued to stagnate. I hate that feeling, yelling at a player to do something through the television screen.

Luckily, UW now has a workhouse in Brian Butch to mop up rebounds and press the issue inside. He and Landry make a fine duo in the paint. The slimmer Polar Bear is doing everything a fifth-year senior should be doing. And if Hughes continues to play under control, even I might get optimistic for this team. That is saying something.

The team made the necessary adjustments in the turnover department, with only two in the first half and nine in all. And thus, things are now right with Illinois at the Kohl Center. That particular ornament is back in one piece above the fireplace.

After both my grandparents had passed, my dad took the ceramic horse and buggy back to our house, to put on our mantle. That's the funny thing about Harley: even though he's not so pretty, it feels good to see him up on the mantle.

: : :

-Wow. And you thought Bennett-ball was bad.
-Could Kenny George [pic] have tipped in a few of those misses? Watching him play is both painful and amazing, at the same time, as Chris West points out.

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?